My Favorite Photographers: Ben Shahn

Someone asked me the other night at dinner who my favorite photographers were. The first name out of my mouth was Ben Shahn. Shahn was one of the FSA (Farm Security Administration) photographers, hired by the United States government to go out and document the effects of the Great Depression on the American people. Shahn is not as famous as his colleagues Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange or Gordon Parks but, as far as making great and timeless photographic images, he is my favorite of these great icons and his work should be seen and remembered as representing the best of what the FSA photographers accomplished in their travels around the country.

Like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Shahn was an illustrator and painter as well as a photographer. His work drawing and painting images looked a lot like his photos in the choice of subjects, composition, placement of things within the frame, etc. For me, there’s really nothing like a photographer who sees and captures images with what I think is commonly called a ‘painterly’ approach to framing and composition. Cartier-Bresson was known for this and Ben Shahn’s work is also a great study of the talent and discipline a great visual image maker from these other mediums can bring to the making of a photograph.

For me, these are all things that I place inside the toolbox in my brain. In a way, they are not all that different from having at your disposal the great attributes of a fantastic piece of equipment, like a lens or camera. So I allow myself to wallow in the work of great painters and artists and absorb, as much as I can, what they are so successful at presenting or representing visually. Illustrators or painters aren’t restricted by the realities that photographers face. They imagine and draw from a blank canvas every aspect of the images they create. When it comes to art from across the ages, that which has stood the test of time reveals all the secrets of soft-diagonals and the use of light and shadow, color, placement of subjects within the frame, leading lines and everything else that goes into making an image that can imprint itself onto the mind of the viewer.

But as important as these things are for a photographer to possess and be aware of, they are just tools. We can’t be slaves to any of it. There are photographers who take a Leica f1.4 lens out and make images that are created solely for the purpose of showing off the unique visual perks of owning and shooting such exotic gear. And I have to admit, I love their results. I’m not criticizing anyone for using equipment to make themselves happy and to make beautiful things. But, for me, both the equipment and the mental preparation has always been like the secret agent who gets all these great things to go with him or her on their dangerous missions. Omega watch. Aston-Martin sports car. Leica camera. But then you drop that agent into a living hell and just hope that the tools and the person are up to surviving the tasks at hand. For me, the fly by the seat of your pants challenges of street photography can be like that, but just not as heroic, I’m afraid.

Shootings sports or big events was also like that. I had the best Nikon gear in my bag, gear I would take great pride in in most other situations. But when you’re there to move and work fast and sometimes in a scrum of people and challenging conditions you forget about how good or expensive your lenses are. You just keep shooting and hope that, in the end, you’re going to come away with good images. The truth is, the equipment will be there, and your photographic eye that you’ve developed over time will be there. But, at that point, it’s also mostly about things like placing yourself in the right spot, positioning your body, over and over again, and looking for images until your brain hurts. Those things are the hard work that will only be there if you have the personal commitment to bring that level of effort.

So too with the tools inside our heads. I can’t place too much visual emphasis on the fact that I have in my toolbox a favorite tool. In the end, for me, it’s about what I encounter out in the streets of Los Angeles. Maybe you appreciate surrealistic elements that might occur in street photography. Who doesn’t? Surrealism is a subject unto itself and I’ll give a more complete thought on it in another post. But when I see a street photographer whose entire oeuvre is surrealistic street images, I cringe. As with many things in a medium practiced by so many, even this high-wire act of photographic image making has long ago played out any fascination it once held for me.

It reminds me of film directors in the 80s and 90s. There was a director, now an icon, I’m sure, Brian de Palma, who fashioned a style after his and everyone else’s favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock. But then this style was placed on a loop, first by de Palma himself and then by the scores of lesser directors who would follow in his footsteps. Being too aware of the director’s photography became a real problem in movies of the 80s and 90s. Fortunately the film industry woke up to the importance of story and characters and shooting a motion picture with characteristic over-the-top visual elements became passé.

I’m not blind to the elements that suggest surrealism in a scene I might encounter in my street photography travels. That’s something inside of me, in the image making toolbox in my brain. But my brain is, and I think it should be, a crowded toolbox. As most everyone who loves photography enough to try doing it, I’m always looking at great photographs just as I have been doing since I was very young. But I’m also always looking at the works of great painters and trying to build an awareness of the elements that make up their choices and results.

So, that all said, am I happy posting pictures to this blog that look like they could have been taken by a Cincinnati newspaper photographer? Well, the answer to that is, actually, yes. I’ve always admired good understated newspaper photography. I’m shooting absolutely tons of images of the streets of Los Angeles. There is much ‘news’, I believe, inherent and revealed in these images that I post here on 50lux.com. I’ll take an old school professional standard like that any day in looking at the images I’ve shot and deciding whether I should post them here.

But would I rather they all look like the work of a Ben Shahn or Abbas or so many others I will talk about in the coming months? Of course. But do I want that enough to slow down my output of images, let alone the amount of images I take, and produce work that meets only the loftiest standards of what I might be able to achieve? No way. There’s too much to see and shoot out there in the city. Too much I want to show to the world. John Szarkowski said something about Garry Winnogrand’s later photography, that it represented a creative impulse out of control. I hope my creative impulse is not totally out of control. But maybe a little out of control is a good thing.

I employ as much aesthetic awareness as I have in me and can find in the scenes I encounter and the images that I’ve taken once I look at them on my computer. Always. From the days of shooting sports, and from now almost two decades of this latest round of shooting digital street photography, you learn that the great shots happen in a subdivision of a second. To some extent, really good shots, if I get any, choose me as much as I’m choosing them. You have to be there to see them and then instantly, instinctively, and maybe without much conscious thinking going on but with plenty of hard mental work happening under the hood, make those pictures.

The street moves by quickly. As do scenes, frames, subjects, light, the right timing, everything. I do the best I can. Things moved much slower in Ben Shahn’s day and he made the most of the extra time he had to allow all of the elements of his illustrative genius to represent themselves in his photographs. The results are photographs that display all the elements of great paintings from the dawn of Realism up until today.

Ben Shahn is just the tip of the iceberg for me, of course. I’m going to start turning this blog into much more of a place where I share my thoughts about photography than it has been in the past. That won’t be hard to do as I’ve mostly used 50lux.com as a place to post a daily image or a collage of recent images.

I’ve always wanted to discuss photography and what I think about it but I just never seemed to be able to find a way into the discussion that wasn’t all about what I had to say about photography. You know, you have to have an angle into something. Especially haranguing the world with your awful opinions. So my friend asking who my favorite photographers were presented me with an idea: I can offer up my favorite photographers but also use that as an opportunity to slip in my other thoughts on photography as well.

Anyway,

Thank you for reading.

db

5 comments

    1. Thank YOU, David for reading my piece! This thing lol was in my ‘drafts’ folder just sitting there. I have no idea why I hadn’t published it. When I read it I thought, ‘Hey, this is pretty good!’ Anyway, thanks for visiting and reading it and for the kind words.

      db

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