#53 The Fifty, and Visual Osmosis

Chicago, 1952 by Harry Callahan

Chicago, 1952 by Harry Callahan


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Transcription

VO:                             This is Everyday Photography every day where you get to listen in on a chat between a photographer. (That's me) and a regular human (that's me) with an eye on making your pictures amazing. No technical stuff. No talk of gear or software, just photography for the love of it. We're sponsored by neomodern.com bringing concierge photo printing and framing to everyone with a smartphone. I'm Suzanne Frtiz Hansen, enthusiastic iPhone picture taker. And I'm Michael Rubin, photographer, founder of Neomodern and grumpy old man. And we're in San Francisco tonight. Welcome.

Rubin:                        Hey Suzanne.

Suzanne:                  Hey Rubin. How are you? I'm good. Um, where are you today? Where in the world is Susan Fritz Hansen? I am in Dallas, Texas. How is it? Just in case there was another Dallas? You know, people in the US. Um, no, I actually don't know that yet. Maybe you do it. I can't think; it's a big state. It's a very good state.

Suzanne:                  Yeah, it is big. Uh, I'm staying at the Adolphus Hotel, which is actually a stunning, beautiful, lovely hotel. So it makes, makes my extended travel, uh, even nicer.

Rubin:                        Well, that's one. That's wonderful. Um, so I'm good. I wanted to, you know, on our show, um, I dunno, like a month ago you first kind of put out there this idea about what were my favorite picture is what inspired me. And then in our, a couple shows ago, we, you really sort of doubled down on that that bad. Maybe I doubled down on the bet, but it was like, could I come up with like the 50 photographs that really influenced me that I feel like, I don't know, taught me everything I know about photography. I'm, I'm not, I don't know. I mean, I was, I grew up with all these pictures and I haven't taken a class in my photography is the way it is.

Suzanne:                  So wait, you've never taken a class?

Rubin:                        No, not really. No. There wasn't one. There was one class kind of in college in printing and clearly I didn't get very good at it, but it was, uh, yeah, but that was sort of the limit of my photography classes.

Rubin:                        Um, but now everyone's got a camera. And, um, so we've distributed that anyone can take pretty good technique pictures technically. And then my thinking was it's really, really the only thing you need to kind of learn to be comfortable or to like your pictures more, is composition because the exposure is and other things at some level work themselves out. You can, you know, learn to get better at that obviously. But I was separating out composition is just a special class of things that would be really useful and people teach composition by all of those rules and I keep contending that there are no rules. You just kind of, I don't know, pick it up. It's like how do you balance something on, on your hand? Like, well, you moved to the left. No, you moved to the right and then you can't do it that way. Does that make sense?

Suzanne:                  Well, without pride, I mean it's practice. I guess

Rubin:                        that was pretty much anywhere it's going to go when you're balancing, right? Isn't it just how it kind of feels in your hand or how old or whatever. So, uh, so I did, I took that challenge and I pulled up what I think are the 50 pictures that inspired me most that I, they're not necessarily the best pictures in history or the most famous or the most valuable, but I really think, you know, maybe I'll tune it a little bit, but I really think this set, if someone just goes through the pictures and looks at them and literally spend some time with it, not just like, oh, that one, that's a pretty picture, but really looks at what's in the frame, what's not in the frame, what's lit, where the subject is, how their eye moves around. I think that you can't help but walk away and see things differently.

Rubin:                        So that's the, and so I posted it. I mean, should we break, should like look at them. They're either on neo modern. Nice. Take a a minute that I have them on the neo modern site. It's called the 50. The W I'll have a link in the show notes. Um, for reasons I can't totally explain. I, my URL is photo school. Um, you know, so it's called the 50, but don't go there, go to what high school did you go to? Go to the bottom land. You'll see the 50 there and the first picture in that set is one of my favorite pictures ever. In fact, I think it is my favorite picture ever. It's hard to say that. Uh, it's by Harry Callahan. It's just these silhouetted trees from Chicago. Uh, 1952 and I will, I'll add, by the way, I don't expect anyone to learn who these photographers are or know the history, know the context. The point is to just look at how this picture was composed.

Suzanne:                  Yeah. All right. Well, and I should say something about today's episode is we are not in the same place obviously as I'm an in Dallas and you are in San Francisco. Yeah. But, um, I am behind my computer, so I'm able to sort of see these live as we are as we're going through them.

Rubin:                        Maybe our listeners could also bring up the 50 and kind of look through them when we're done. I Dunno, maybe they're driving and it would be ill advised.

Suzanne:                  Yeah, maybe don't open your laptop while on the 405.

Rubin:                        Yeah. I'm not going to go. And honestly you don't need a ton of explanation, but I thought maybe a quick run through of what's here and what I started to see. Um, do you, I mean, what do you think of this picture? Does it do anything for you?

Suzanne:                  Uh, I like it. I think it's always interesting the, for like the opening line in a book or the kind of the first of first in a series. So I, I'm really interested to hear why you chose this as your first image. Um, I quite like it. I think the high contrast is, it's very bold just to describe the image for a second. It's like the bottom, maybe the bottom, uh, like I dunno, eighth or something is almost like a white ground of snow. And then you have these kind of fairly solid about six, six trunks that are then piercing that line, that horizontal line into as they're kind of coming out of the earth. And then there's like a gradation kind of from uh, a light gray to an even later grades. You got go up the frame in the background and then the, the branches, there's no trees, there's no leaves on the trees. They are so fine. You see so many details. It almost looks like like pine trees, you know where they have that much, those small little branches that go across a cross each other. It almost looks like algae to me. Beautiful Lung tissue or something, right? Oh yeah.

Rubin:                        Yeah. So one thing I'd say is your thought that it's high contrast that is, you know, the initial impression. But as I look at it, it's actually not, it has a lot of gray scale. In fact, it only works if it was super high contrast. You just have sort of white on the bottom and black trees and you wouldn't see that the greater the line between the snow and the Lake Lake Michigan behind it. So it's actually surprisingly grayscale and not like Highcon black and white. Even though it does. It absolutely feels that way. But I dunno, the horizon is really low and the trees make up the large part at and I guess the cropping of the trees, you know, you get the base, you don't need that. I think of all the ways I might have shot this where you might be back farther so you see the top of the trees or you're, I don't know, you move the horizon in the middle in some way and it's not, people talk about these rules about where the horizon goes and clearly it's not a rule.

Rubin:                        It works here because of the trees that you see this part of the tree. And um, I'm not sure I want to go into this level of detail on all of them cause there's a ton, right? But I think that this is really an amazing picture to me because it holds my interest even though in a sense there's no real action or subject in the sort of a classical sense. It, it feels very abstract. And at the same time it's, it's, you know, it's not like a, a super close up of something. You can't tell what it is. It's abstract. But it's real scene, you know, it's kind of a distant medium shot. Anyway, I love this picture. I put it at the beginning just because it's, I stare at it all the time. I love this picture so much and, and it really did start to change the way I compose stuff.

Suzanne:                  You know, like what did this do?

Rubin:                        Well, there's something about seeing the world. Um, you're kind of at a right angle to your subject. It's like there's a plane through the subject matter and I'm at a right angle through it looking at it. So there's a lot of ways if he turned and looked kind of to the left a little bit more, the the horizon wouldn't be a parallel to the bottom of the frame. The trees would be, you'd have trees getting farther away in a different, um, way, I guess, you know. Um, and you'll see the it a lot in certainly in my work and in some of the pictures here where there's that kind of right angle to the plane of the subjects that sometimes just squares it off. It, it makes the composition feel a little more formal than when you're just kind of shooting at any angle.

Suzanne:                  I would say. I would agree. I feel like this is a very, it feels very formal to me. It's almost like these three couples, you know, where you have these, like it's very, it's very balanced. You have those two that are on the outside that are close even though it's like the ones that are just inside our further out than the ones that are just behind it that are inset. And then you have these two main um, main trees in the center, which again, it's, everything has such a nice spacing. It to me, it almost looks like the trees were dancing. They were doing some formal, a waltz or something and they've been, they've been caught in the winter afternoon.

Rubin:                        Um, that's, that's a very romantic way to look at this. The other thing that is that the, the tree that's there, there is a tree that is sort of the center point to me and it's the sort of the fourth one from the left. It's, it's the most forward. It's kind of the biggest trade, not by a lot, but you'll see as we go through these pictures at even in this composition there is that the mass there that seems to make the balance right. If that was a little bit farther back, I don't think the picture would work as well. Yeah. You know what I mean? If it was an equal equal weight to all of those trees, but it's, it's subtle, but it definitely feels like the front picture. Let's, let's go to the next one. It's, it's a similar kind of picture in a sense because it's a series like the trees. Each of these kids, this is a,

Suzanne:                  this is, I just, I'm laughing because I just realized I'm so used to being on Webex meetings and I was like, oh my slide's not advancing. Just realize it's cause I'm arrowing through on my own. Um, so all of you at home make sure you're going to have to enter your own pictures. Rubin, what do it for you? Um,

Rubin:                        this picture from the late sixties by George Tice, uh, w we have up at neo modern frequently because I like it so much. It's a sweet picture. I've talked about it a lot before, but I think one of the things that's interesting about it in, in the way like the trees is that the subjects, there's a lot of subjects and yet there's still sort of weight towards, I don't know, the kid to the right in not quite all the way to the right. I don't know is he's looking straight at the camera or maybe those two kids together. There's more weight there. Even though there's other activity and each child is almost perfectly positioned in the frame in their own little world. Right? Yeah. So to me, this is an example like the tree picture where in the real world there's a lot of subjects and you still need to kind of create weight.

Rubin:                        Um, each thing is in exactly the right place. It's well composed. It doesn't feel random. Um, Andy's really caught this. There's all kinds of sort of exposure things, lighting things that are about snow and the gray scales that still works. But anyway, think about the trees and then think about these sort of kids in black and they have a kind of feeling that goes together for me and then advanced to the next one, which, um, it's very, it's not a well known picture. It's from the forties. Um, um, stop the civil war stop. It's the war. It's World War Two. Right? Um, and it's from, uh, you know, people on the street in Paris looking at these war posters. But again, look how they're all arranged in the frame. Sort of like the kids sort of like the trees. It's not necessarily about, um, who they are.

Rubin:                        Like they're not facing the camera. It's not a picture of Steve and Susan or whatever. Right? It's, it's, it's about this group of people looking at this thing and you're not sort of featuring the poster either. You're not just like making it so it's easy to read. It's about their relationship to it. Right? They're reading it, but somehow the way they're all arrayed in the frame again reminds me that composition is about arranging objects in the frame. There's no, again, I wouldn't say there's a rule of thirds or leading lines or any of those things. It's about fitting the things in there and telling the story. And uh, I like that they're anonymous. It's not a picture of anyone. The kid picture, you see their faces. It's, it's much more, this could be your children or someone's children, right? They could just, but here there's just strangers and it's okay.

Suzanne:                  What I like about this one is that again, I agree it's a, it's a very formal structure, but if you ever, if you've ever drawn in perspective where you have the grid and then kind of the thing that is closest to the camera or to closest to the kind of the frame of the image, then you have in sort of descending order as you go further back in space, it becomes smaller and it sort of spreads, you know, spreads out. And this is exaggerated, I think by the People's height that the man and the man in the middle of 10 is actually the tallest. But then you sort of have the in, you know, in descending height order as people go further in space. Almost like this really formal

Rubin:                        draw. Do you see how he's kind of like the tree, right? It's a little bit closer, a little bit bigger, and clearly the subject in a way that the energy center, even though they're all important, but there's something about, I, I've found when I've taken pictures of groups of things I could, I could show you some pictures I've taken. I've found that I sort of imitate this composition with the strong thing forward and then these other things drifting off into the distance. So again, these are not just interesting pictures, but they kind of worked together as you're kind of learning these ideas. Compare that too. There's a really sort of beautiful picture by fall Mooka. He, uh, Martin Mu Casi, uh, from Liberia, 1930. So this is a real sort of early modernist picture. It's kind of like both of those pictures before this where the children are silhouetted, so it's not a portrait of them. They each occupy this sort of weight in the frame. Um, there's that front. The kid who's closest to the camera has the most weight. It's like the guy with the umbrella in the Burkhart. It's like the, the tree that's a little bit farther forward.

Suzanne:                  Oh, there are so dark and eight has that same sort of rhythm, almost like notes on a staff that you sort of feel this composition go through, go through the image. But here they're so dark that they almost look like cutouts. Like it's like the reverse of Matisse, where mean see so that cut out these forms and kind of apply them. This is like the image has almost the absence of, um, of these like these silhouettes. This is a beautiful, immensely

Rubin:                        hand on the left. Like, yeah, there's a hundred today, a hundred photographers would have Photoshop that handout. It would have felt like it was a mistake. And I think that it helps like it, it adds more to the story. There's more children than just the three. It's not this sort of perfect thing. It's this caught moment. Um, there definitely is this ton of energy in the picture. They're moving fast and it waves are splashing, they're silhouetted by the ocean, but they're also dark skinned. And so it's, it accentuates that sort of silhouette. We'll come back to this idea where that hand is in the frame like that. It shows up in a few other pictures were, again, I think of these ideas of Wabi Sabi of like not perfect if you, if we retouch or if we try to create this in a studio, it wouldn't have that hand in it. And I think that things are to get to perfect and particularly in this world of digital photography where we can modify anything we, uh, it raises the bar, I think for us to, to imagine you. Your pictures could be that sort of perfect and that they're better for it. I think this is better for having the imperfections of that. Huh?

Suzanne:                  Well, you know, it's real.

Rubin:                        It's really, this also is up in Neomodern right now. I love this picture. It's just a, it's just really cool. How big is that? Um, I think all of these are, you know, most people certainly for the history of photography, most of the sort of "classic pictures" are really like 8x10. You know, the printers are 8x10 or a little bit larger, a little bit smaller. People are not making wall size then. Yeah, yeah. Something like that.

Suzanne:                  I forget I'm on video.

Rubin:                        Yeah, I can see you holding your hands up. No one else can, but that was right. You held it up correctly. That's how big it is. The next picture I part of it, it's by Alfred Eisenstaedt and um, he's a phenomenal photographer also from the 30s. Um, and it's backstage at a, at a ballet, the composition, they're framed by the window. It's got these really cool, um, light, dark areas. And again, I like the silhouette of the one of the dancers and the side lidding lighting of the other one. And maybe this speaks to me more as a lighting story than a composition story, but they're composed beautifully with the light behind them and they're not centered. They're not at a third. There's a bar going across. You see that it doesn't, it doesn't make it a worse picture. You know, if you, again, if you rejected it because, or Photoshop did to get rid of that, I don't think it would be a better photograph. It gives us a sense that we're peering into their private space because there's stuff between us and them I think. And I, and I just loved the lighting there, that sort of Gossamer, uh, dance outfits lit from the side.

Suzanne:                  Yeah. It's also interesting is just how little these outfits have sort of changed over the years.

Rubin:                        Ballet outfits.

Suzanne:                  Yeah. I mean like you look at like Degas and then you look here in the 30s and then you look at now and they still wear these gospel or Tutus and the headbands and the toe shoes. It's just, it's, in a way, it's kind of this, this timeless moment that a lot of young girls have where you're waiting off stage, you know, waiting, waiting to have your moment in the footlights.

Rubin:                        It's lovely, isn't it? The cool thing about ballet that like the outfits are the traditional outfits have valet for the most part. When, when there's modern dance, sometimes it's like getting rid of that old school look of ballet. Right?

Suzanne:                  I mean, I love modern dance, but yes, I think, I think the pew of both is, is, uh, is really lovely. It's, it is, it's like this timelessness, this nostalgia that you can still take part in.

Rubin:                        Yeah. And I feel about this the same as I do a little bit about the Moon Kasi, where we've caught a moment that clearly is something going on. There's a story there. We've, we've, we're sort of privy to it. It's not a silhouette like the Liberia shot, but it's still not like a classic portrait. You know, again, if you pulled your iPhone out to take a picture, I think a lot of people would reject something like this as being sort of too dark or you can't see one of the girls' faces or, or whatever. But I think that it's abuse, it's a, it's just a beautifully framed and, and also wonderfully lit. And that's one of the reasons I like it.

Suzanne:                  I think what I really like is the importance of of light and that you get to see like the back of the, I guess the dancer in the foreground with her back to camera or you sort of see the let the silhouette or the highlight on her left calf and I, it's like it, it really, it's important to see that. Otherwise you'd just kind of disappear into this a solid form, but you get the differentiation, you get like the, the subtlety of our figure, how important it is to actually catch all those elements to, to truly define something or the shape of something.

Rubin:                        Look at the circle, the curves, like they're standing inside this sort of weird round or oval window hurdle. Yeah. Right. So you've got the curve on the bottom with the, on the outside and then you have the window on the inside and the composition gets the top of the window on the inside and the bottom of that arch on the outside. So it's PR, but so it's been thoughtful. So, even though you're, you're kind of cropping the left side of it and it's, it's not even, but it's very thoughtfully composed, right. Each of those pieces are placed in frame nicely. Uh, it's, it's a beautiful, beautiful picture that Iran, okay. So let's move to Elliott Erwitt. Um, my, one of my favorite photographers, he just is, he's so funny and this is just perfect. There's so many things going on here. First of all, it's just comic, right? You're, you're in an art museum with all this art around, and this little crowd is around the frame that has nothing in it or, you know, and,

Suzanne:                  but this is staged, isn't it? I mean, this is something that with the stage,

Rubin:                        I believe that Erwitt did not stage this stuff and he would just, yeah, I'm pretty sure. I mean, um, he's, he's around. I guess he could be asked. I've never heard him talk about that. But he, but he's not a photographer who staged things. He was a journalist for magnum, and I think he probably wanders around museums and saw this moment. Um, you know, you've got, again, if we're gonna talk about Photoshop moments, there's the guard kind of on the right of them down the hall a little bit. Yeah. Uh, and you know, someone might have taken that out is not being part of the subject or not being part of it, but I think that it adds, it adds it to the mass on the right side. And then you have the portrait of the, that um, guy in the frame on the left who's almost watching them.

Suzanne:                  He's a guy. That's why I'm like, this has got, this is it seems posed cause it's like that picture and then the statue in his picture, they're all, they're all looking over at the other thing on the wall. It was the winter. They're fine.

Rubin:                        I mean Erwitt stuff. He's well known for his dog pictures and lots of his photo juxtapositions. But this I think is unusual and I think that it's demonstrating a kind of composition that I like where there's a story going on. It's funny, the juxtapositions are cool. And then the character, the, the painting is a character, you know, just as much as the people in the frame. Think how that's different. There's a, the next picture is Kurt j person and um, it's also in a museum and here you also have the artwork participating in the narrative, like that statue behind them as looking down at them.

Suzanne:                  What are you looking at? What are you looking at and the other statues

Rubin:                        looking at them and they have a relationship. I love how they're peering. I like how for Cartier Bresson he used the darkness. I don't know whether he did it in the dark room and I don't think he did, cause you can see some stuff on the left but it's just dark behind these sculptures as opposed to the Erwitt before it where the, the scene, the room and all that stuff matters to the story. Right. The people and the scene. Whereas this one it's better because it's so dark behind them at highlights the, the beauty in the sculptures and then the funny sort of body positions of the, of the tourists.

Suzanne:                  So I have a question on this photo. Like why would you keep that bit in the left hand corner? Why wouldn't you crop that out?

Rubin:                        You know, it's really interesting. I have two, two sort of answers. One is, my sense is I would have not cropped it out because I don't sort of want a crop, but I would darken it. I would burn it out. So you're, I didn't kind of move out there. Why didn't he do that? And I think the answer, and again I'm guessing is that [inaudible] persona was a big proponent of shoot it composing in frame and not cropping. And I think that he used a file and he carved out his negative carrier so that you could see the edges of the negative to kind of prove that you have the entire negative being printed and he's not manipulating. He actually got it. So in a sense, whether it's on purpose or not, I think he had an ethic that said he's not going to crop it out, but why he didn't burn it out. Not sure what it adds, but it's really there. Like I, I sat and stared at the picture the other day. I took this picture because this isn't, this image is not widely reproduced. It's hard to find this online. And so I basically had to pull the photo out and just shoot it and like that's, that's what it looks like, you know? Huh. Um, I, uh, I don't know if we should go through all 50 of these. Don't you think this is a bit, yeah,

Suzanne:                  I would say 10. Maybe we just do 10 and then, or do you, are there ones that she went to look at? I, I know that we're diving into, uh, diving into them more than you did. Just say starting to sound feel like a class. Right. But I definitely want people to spend some ideas come photo school. Just for the record, it's new [inaudible] dot com slash photo school. It is. I'm, I just,

Rubin:                        I really, you know, feel that you do not need someone like can be explaining this to you. You can have your own experience of these pictures, but I would want someone to spend some time with them to think about this again after staring at this picture. Suddenly when I'm out in the world, I'm seeing like I'm remembering these things, how I'm not imitating it per se, but I'm thinking about, oh, I like it when the background's kind of dark and highlights the things or you know, whatever. I believe that the lessons can be gleaned without you realizing what the lesson is. You just see it and it gives you permission to do things to, to try things.

Suzanne:                  It's like visual Osmosis. Is that a thing? No, I don't know. I mean we could, we could make it another thing. It doesn't closest. That's another shirt. I think it's another shirt. Wait, you're going to have to write it down. You're in the studio. Oh, I got it. Okay. Grab my notepad. Oh, I'll see if I can do that.

Rubin:                        Um, let's, let's kind of wind this down. I don't, I'm not going to go through all of these. I think that we've, I've introduced people to the idea, we can certainly talk about it more, but I don't think, I want to Belabor the point. And the idea is that you don't need someone to explain it. So sitting here and explaining it, it's kind of, you know, misaligned. All right. Yeah. Um, okay.

Suzanne:                  Do you like looking at these pictures? I think that there is a lot to, uh, just a lot to see and a lot to learn. I think if you are studying any, anything you learned from the master as you learn from what's gone before you, whether that's medicine or art or photography in this case, I think that there's a tremendous value in seeing what's come before and how to, how to see things differently to help with your own seeing.

Rubin:                        Yeah. Yeah. Are you taking pictures on your trip?

Suzanne:                  I am. Um, I, uh, I actually was just going through the pictures just before this because I had a feeling you were going to ask me. I am, I think, uh, one of the things that I think it'd be interesting to talk about is taking pictures while you travel. Uh, whether it's travel for work or travel for fun, it's just, it's different. And, um, I sort of

Rubin:                        let's do that. Okay. Okay. So we'll, we'll wind this down and then let us, let's talk more about your travel pictures. We'll do another episode where recover more than 50 of people like these, but I don't think, uh, I think we've introduced the idea and, um, I got to at least talk about the Harry Callahan, which is really all I cared about.

Suzanne:                  We started strong. All right, well I will let you close out the show and uh, we'll, we'll catch up. We'll catch up in a bit. Yeah,

Rubin:                        that sounds good. And I will, um, add like neo modern, we've totally redone our online experience and um, I really want to do something good for the people who listen to the podcast. There's only, I don't know, 500 or something people who are regular listeners. We're about to hit 12,000 downloads and I'm very excited about it. So there are discounts for you on that are available on our website. I'll just leave it at that and we want it, you know, and we want to see what you're doing. And you can upload pictures. We can talk about them. You should get some stuff printed. Anyway, uh, that's my plug for neo modern. Uh, I will wrap it up. Anything else you want to add? Nothing. I'm good. All right. Well our show is her coordinate and produce in San Francisco and sometimes in Dallas. Go to new modern.com/podcast and get show notes and see photos, comments, leave your reviews and ratings on iTunes and please don't forget to subscribe and remember we'd get new listeners from you telling your friends and spreading the word so you are getting something from our show. Let us know. Let your friends know you love it when the audience is growing. Special thanks to Mitchell foreman who is out there making some new music for us and all of you for hanging out with us today. We appreciate your attention and hope it. Give me some things to think about and tell them next time.