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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

A Contemporary Storyteller

Josef Koudelka — The Precious Print

First, if you are not familiar with Koudelka's project and book, Gypsies, you are missing one of the greatest photography publications from the mid-20th century. Once upon a time I owned a first edition of this book but later sold it when I needed the cash. I still regret that decision to this day. Fortunately, it's still available in reprints pretty inexpensively.

Born in 1938 in Prague, Koudelka is a photographer who is a product of his birth place and time. He's best known to the world as Magnum photographer and in my mind is kind of the quintessential Magnum photographer even more so then Cartier-Bresson. Koudelka inspires me because he has, apparently, an uncanny ability to gain access to places and cultures that would normally be closed to outsiders. His book Gypsies is the best example of that, but not the only one. The first lesson from Koudelka is that knowledge and understanding precedes photography — or should, anyway. His ability to observe and learn and absorb the essence of a culture shows demonstrably in his photographs. This was such an incredibly valuable lesson in my life as a young photographer that he changed my entire approach to certain kinds of projects. He's not a photographer I would turn to to learn about the landscape, but if you're interested in studying a kind of penetrating documentary and sensitive portrayal of a peoples or a place, you can do know better than to immerse yourself in Koudelka's work. If that's all there was to Koudelka, he's still a worthy role model. But there is an even more unexpected lesson from Koudelka that you won't find in his books.

In 2014, I happened to be in Chicago on business. As I always do when I'm in Chicago, I looked up the current exhibitions at the Art Institute and was thrilled to see that a major exhibition of Koudelka's work was available. I caught a cab, filled with the anticipation of seeing spectacular images — which I did. But the part of the exhibit that was most unexpected and illuminating was the display of his vintage original prints. Now, keep in mind that my primary inspiration about the craft of photography had been the West Coast school landscape photographers like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Wynn Bullock, and Minor White. All of these West Coasters were singularly dedicated to the pristine print and its production for long-term preservation. Looking back on those early days in my photography, I'd estimate that 80% of my time in the darkroom was spent on issues about archival processing and perfection of the artifact. Pragmatically, that implies that only 20% or so of my time was spent on the aesthetics and the content of the images I was working so hard to create. In retrospect, I can't help but lament that this was exactly backwards and that I now wish I had spent 80% of my time making better artwork, not better artifacts. It was in this context that the Koudelka exhibition was such a confirmation.

In 2014, as an aside, I was well into my transition to an all-digital workflow. I'd been doing digital work for 12 years already, but I was still focused on the pristine artifact. I am still to this day, but Koudelka showed me that there may be reasons to set that aside for some projects, for some images, and for some audiences. His vintage prints were — how should I characterize them — let's say very rough. Bent corners, marginal notes, thumbtack holes, crude printing, incomplete washing so some of them were quite stained from residual chemistry — but they were, on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. It appeared that Koudelka had zero consciousness about artifact, but 100% consciousness about image content. I don't think I would be comfortable following in his footsteps with such a cavalier attitude about my prints, but his exhibition was a splash of cold water on my hoity-toity attitudes about my precious, archival prints. His example was the necessary swing of the pendulum to bring my focus back to content, content, content — something that was highly necessary in those early digital years when learning the new craft was consuming so much of my time and energy. Pedro Meyer had started me down this path with his digital publication I Photograph to Remember, but it was Koudelka and his major retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago that gave a sort of stamp of approval to the non-pristine, non-archival, non-precious prints whose content overrode any concerns about the artifact. Ansel Adams famously said, "There is nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy concept." Perhaps I could paraphrase that by suggesting that there is nothing sadder than a pristine, archival photograph that is devoid of image content.

There is, of course, more alternatives that just these two polar opposites. There is a place for the pristine artifact that has heart-moving content. I suspect that's a goal that all of us share. But the inspiration from Koudelka is his unrelenting emphasis on content, content, content. I suppose in the world of compromise in which we live, we might conclude that if we are forced to lean one way or the other, it's better to sacrifice image quality in exchange for better content than it would be to sacrifice content to pristine technology. A pragmatic example of this is that I'd rather use ISO 6400 and suffer a little noise in my image than insist on ISO 100 for its superior rendering, but miss the shot.