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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 Storyteller from the Past

Morrie Camhi — Human Compassion as the Basis for Art

 

It's difficult for me to write about Morrie Camhi because he became one of our dearest friends and I think about him with regularity since his passing in 1999. Morrie was one of the earliest supporters of LensWork contributing his counsel, his talents both as a writer and a photographer, and most importantly his moral support and encouragement for the concept of a photography publication that had very little to do cameras. In the vernacular, Morrie got it, and I'm not sure we've ever had a bigger cheerleader. To say that Morrie has been an inspiration to me would be a tremendous understatement. I could write an entire book with anecdotes and lessons that Morrie taught, sometimes consciously but more often by the sterling example of his character, compassion, sensitivity, and artistic sensibility. He was one of the finest human beings I've ever known.

Morrie was the quintessential "people person." In every aspect of his art life, his understanding of human nature was the driving force to so much of his success. His books —  the best examples perhaps are The Prison Experience and The Jews of Greece — are not simply stories told by Morrie about these people, but he had the uncanny knack of getting them to tell their own stories while he appeared to be an innocent bystander. In fact, it was Morrie's empathy and compassion that so enabled people to open up and share with him, and subsequently with us through his words and photographs, their hearts and minds. Here is one small example of Morrie's understanding of human nature laying the foundation for his photography. It's a passage from a project we did with him to publish some of his images from The Jews of Greece along with stories about his photographic encounters, this one with a tobacconist named Saby Tchimino:

When I was talking with Saby Tchimino before I made the photographs, he was animated just about as animated as a person could be. When I began to make the photographs, he suddenly stood stock-still, petrified before the camera that was raised to my eye. This is something I think most photographers encounter. At the photographic moment, people are reminded of the miracle of photography that it can transmit their visage a hundred years, it can transmit that moment. Saby was petrified, but this was not the Saby I had grown to know just moments before.

 

He had given me a lesson in tobacco, instructing me which of the two tobaccos was really good, and which was inferior. I deliberately confused his instructions, saying how wonderful it was to know that the tobacco on the left was the great tobacco. He said, "No, no! That's the poor tobacco." And I said, "No, it is the great tobacco!" And, the fight was on. Of course, now I had the animated Saby back again and that is the photograph you see.

 

It is a cliché in fine art photographic circles to claim that cameras don't make pictures, people do. This is the example I always use to demonstrate the point. Without Morrie's quick thinking and clever technique, the photograph he wanted would've never been possible.

Another example of Morrie's compassion surfaced in a very early workshop we did about book publishing. Morrie, Christopher Burkett, and I led a workshop in my home in Portland, Oregon to a group of about 20 photographers who were interested in learning about book publishing. Morrie explained that in the business of publishing, every dollar of hard cost for production of a book would manifest seven dollars at retail by the time one factored in markups, distribution expenses, middlemen, retail margins, etc. He explained that when he was negotiating his contract with the publisher for his book The Prison Experience the publisher's proposed contract included two dollars of commission to go to Morrie for every book sold. Morrie declined the commission for the reason that his calculations showed that would add fourteen dollars to the retail price for the book. He asked the workshop attendees a simple question: "If people can't afford to buy your book, then what have you accomplished by producing it?" Morrie's fundamental philosophy of photography was that it is a means to connect people to one another.  Anything that gets in the way of creating that connection was, in his mind, suspect.

Another example can be seen in an experiment he did with his photography students. He took them down to an important gallery in downtown San Francisco where they counted the number of photographs that were on display. They then went outside and gathered data on the people visiting the gallery. With clipboards and stopwatches in hand, they would time how long individuals spent in the gallery from the moment they walked in the door from the moment they walked out. They then calculated the average time the average gallery visitor spent looking at the work per print. The students were astonished to find — but no doubt Morrie was not — that according to the statistical averages, the average gallery visitors spent less than two seconds viewing each photograph. He explained that this was one of his primary motivations for preferring books to gallery exhibitions as a means to show his photographs. He explained that a person would sit down with the book and read it and maybe savor it, possibly reviewing it on multiple occasions. "Don't forget," he advised, "Gallery exhibitions are only available to people in a very small geographic area, usually for a very limited of time. Books have a much greater reach and a much greater impact." I still find his thinking on this to be incredibly persuasive. His comments caused me to rethink the value of original prints and the importance of publication and distribution, a particularly important aspect when the essence of one's photographic work is storytelling rather than artifact-producing. There is a direct line between Morrie's comments about books as his preferred means of distribution of his photographs and my thinking about my PDF publication called, Kokoro.

Of course, the world is rarely so black and white. Morrie understood the value of the fine art photographic print. He was involved in the gallery business and loved producing and collecting fine art photographs. He also understood the inherent and growing elitism in collecting fine art photographs. He had seen firsthand prices escalate as photography became a recognized collectible medium in the 1970s. He understood the danger of that trend for the appreciation of a fine art original print to a larger and larger segment of the population who could no longer afford to own one. Following the footsteps of the Ansel Adams Special Edition Prints, Morrie started a variation of that idea that he called his Popular Editions. These were inexpensive prints, unmatted, signed on the back, priced specifically for students and others not fortunate enough to find themselves in the category of the elite art collector. It was the existence of the Ansel Adams Special Edition Prints and the inspiration of Morrie Camhi's Popular Editions that led me the creation of my own Popular Editions print program that has allowed me to share my original prints with thousands of "regular folks" who might otherwise be denied ownership of a fine print because of the price barrier that exists in the gallery paradigm.