Sunday, 27 April 2014

Villa Lante della Rovere, North of Rome.

This is where the Sony A7 might have been useful. The camera I used at the time was an Olympus E-620, which had a wonderful tone and colour gamut, but only 12 Mpx, and a heavy AA filter. Olympus has since then changed tack, but this Renaissance Villa is impressive just the same, showing formal gardens, and water games that antedated Versailles by 200 years. Worth another visit with more resolution!

You can see the whole series here

Sony A7, or the Lego FF System

When the Sony A7 was introduced it made the effect of a bomb, in sites such as DPR. The dream of all the Planet's geeks had been fulfilled: to fit a 24x 36 sensor in the body of a compact

I was myself surprised and alarmed: had I invested in a system like m4/3 which had no future?

The price of the bodies between $ 1500 and 2000 was indeed very close to the E-M1, $ 1300, while resolution on paper was twice as much.

A massive sales factor is that while the Sony A7 had almost no native lenses (5 to be honest) it could take with adapters the whole Sony Alpha range, the E NEX range, and hear, hear, all the FF legacy beauties of the past, with adapters soon to be made by the Chinese. At their native focal range.

So , if you are familiar with mirrorless cameras, Sony aspired to become a universal digital back, because its short distance to flange allowed them to accommodate any FF35 lens, with no need  to correct the crop factor which other mirrorless systems have (as high as 2x, in the case of m4/3) with a focal reducer.

And although native FE lenses made by Zeiss are mostly expensive, in the specific case of the Zeiss 35mm FE, price and size € 600 are comparable with the Olympus 17mm while resolution allowed is almost the double.

So this is the equation: a win-win. Or is it? Karel Van Wolferen, an outstanding photog. who is testing legacy beauties on the A7r reports that when he went at Yodobashi, the main Tokyo shop, there was no crowds to tear an A7 from his hands.

From early tests it had indeed emerged what was the curse of 35FF mirrorless: most legacy lenses below 35mm, are unusable because of the aberrations due to both the short distance to flange, and big size of the sensor. 

It is not difficult to understand that once you substitute the flat plane of film with 3D electronic wells the extreme angles of light rays hitting them don't fill them and reach their bottom.

 It's a geometric problem, which affects the edges of the frame, with sometime heavy effects:  light falloff, and colour shift at the edges. Leica and Voigtlanders like the 15mm and 12mm became unusable. Some 21mm SLR lenses keep up the fight, but they are rare and in between.

At any rate you can't buy or adapt anything, with eyes closed. That is exactly what Karel Van Wolferen keeps on testing: each and every lens, on a case by case basis, bless him. Indeed early tests show, that below 35mm, very few lenses can be saved. You also need some very precise adapters.

Note meanwhile that the Sony A7 is the first digital FF to have the same size of the Leica M. No mean achievement!

Leica however introduced microlenses on the edges of the sensor to offset the slanted rays of light. It works quite well with Leica lenses, remarkably with Wide Angles. For Sony however the problem is to offset quite a number of unpredictable lenses of all kinds. Hence the approach case by case of Van Wolferen.

By comparison there is no such problem at the edges on m4/3 and APS sensors with short register, because they cut off the bad edges. So the problem becomes: is there a true advantage in adopting FF35 as a general format? Or is it better suited only for very specific genres, like Portrait and Landscape?

For Landscape there is a solution of course, but it is an expensive one. Native Lenses, like the v. expensive Zeiss FE 55mm Touit series, that will set you back by $ 1500. That of course gave me pause for thinking, and that explains the prudence of Japanese customers.

Main features of the different models

All the three A models are issued with the same frame, not taller or wider than a Leica M. The ambition is clearly to be a modern replacement at half the price, although the dSLR shape gives also the hint that this could be a replacement for cropped mirrorless, which have the same shape and slightly smaller size.

Sony has also reused sensors, probably  in order to keep prices down, but they are still the best in the industry anyway. You can find the A7 sensors in the Sony A99 and the A37.

The bodies have the same Tri-Nav wheels of the NEX 7, in addition to the Mode dial. One for EV compensation while the front and rear dials adjust shutter speed and aperture, and you can swap functions between dials.

Luckily they have adopted the menu system of Sony dSLR (A37), instead of the mind-boggling one the NEX. The A7 have their fair share of buttons, with two function ones, and others that are reconfigurable, so the camera can be set to a photographer's needs.

Imaging Resource did a thorough comparison with the  best models of the industry and there is no doubt that Sony's sensors at the top of the resolved detail. Check here the A7 and here the A7r for comparisons with other top cameras.

To summarize: the Sony have more or the same resolution of a Nikon D800 top of line in half the size!

So there is some substance to the claim the A7 to be the New Leica. Same size, best resolution and top German lenses - Zeiss 35/2.8 goes 1320 lines full open!  according to Roger Cicala. of Lensrentals.

Where the Sony A seems to be still lacking, but that could change, is in the AF speed. Only the A has CDAF+PDAF, and thus good tracking, while the Ar has only CDAF and thus is slower than its sibling. 

According to Lensrentals the A7r resolution with the 35/2.8 Zeiss is the top of the industry. 
Cicala however tested it also with adapted Canon lenses and the Sony A7r beats the Canon 5d bodies when mounting their own Canon lenses!

This might be explained by the lack of AA filter, and the rumored offset microlenses in the A7r, as well as the gapless array of its new sensors.

OTH the Sony Ar doesn't have the front curtain electronic shutter of the A, which allows to attenuate the loud plonk of the shutter., and its alleged shutter shock. 

Flash synchro in the A is 1/160 instead than 1/125 in the A7r, and drive mode is faster, about 5 fps instead of 4 fps in the Ar. 

RAW recording times are allegedly slow, and both cameras take their time to wake up.
Another CON for both cameras is the lack of IBIS - in camera stabilization.

My temporary conclusion: to reach full resolution you must be a better photographer than with my Olympus OM-D because of the unwanted blur and loss of resolution that will happen far easier with a larger sensor than with smaller, cropped sensors. 

Simply because a bigger resolution requires a steadier hand, or a tripod, while there is no general stabilization to lean on. 

DOF  also is less forgiving in 24x36. In a portrait if you focus on the eyes, the tip of the nose might be OOF .

courtesy Meicw, flickr

Consider also that the Olympus OM-D have almost twice the operational performance of the Sony. The Jpeg engine of the OM-D is also so good that it's difficult to tell the 16 Mpx resolution  apart from the A's 24 Mpx. You can detect a difference only in the Ar, which at 36Mpx, has more than twice as many pixels as the OM-D.

So is it worth it? If you work with Stock Agencies exacting at least 20 Mpx for landscapes, certainly. For Journalism and Fashion, which rely on content, or even Marriage, I am unconvinced. An OM-D or a Fuji X with their great per pixel resolution might be enough, and operate faster. Stock wise, you can always uprez your pictures.

There's however a question looming. Have the cropped mirrorless reached limits to growth with the 16 Mpx Sony sensor?

Did Sony change format because it  saw that it couldn't break the 16 Mpx limit on a small sensor, without getting less resolution, like it actually happened  with the NEX 7?

So will in the future the difference in resolution between cropped and FF formats tend to accentuate?  That's the investment decision to consider. Which lenses to get should be the main consideration: cropped or FF35? You can't duplicate the investment, with the current prices!

Courtesy Sushicam, flickr. A7.
There is also the A7s, which has chosen a third way. To downgrade to 12 Mpx in order to achieve and even better Dynamic Range, and the extraordinary sensitivity of 504,000 ISO. Technical data being still missing I might review it in a further post.

Finally a last consideration. By the various reviews, especially the one at Imaging-Resource, there is no way that the A7s are going to compete with top dSLR, the latter being too fast in operational speed. So Sports might be a forbidden territory.

However if you check the Imaging-Resources comparison, the Sony sensors are the highest resolving of all, so here is the paradox. A camera for enthusiasts that beats in resolution the Canons and Nikons top of the line, while not being bigger than an Olympus, or a Fuji.

Quite a few things to ponder, before pulling out the wallet. Consider also that coming models and updates will fix the teething problems.

The areas that might be improved by firmware or in future models are AF and operational speed. Getting IBIS (perhaps from Olympus), getting more native lenses ( a lot are coming!) and fixing that loud shutter that introduces vibration, unwanted attention and possibly shutter shock.

So what to do?  Because of its modular nature and very recent introduction the whole system deserves to wait and see how it evolves. 

A7, Flickr.

What I personally find very attractive is the Zeiss 35/2.8 and its splendid performance, at just EU 600.  So I might wait to see If the kit comes down in price and buy adapters for my Zeiss Jena 50, and Jupiter 85/2, and perhaps add an adapted UWA from Samyang. Far from expensive.

Start a new system? Too old for that. For operational speed and Street I'd keep my E-M5.
Other solution might be to wait for Photokina and see if and how Fuji and Olympus go FF.

Check also the review at DPreview. They gave the A7r and the A7 Gold and Silver award respectively, but they also spoke out the Cons.

So could  this be a Leica M substitute of a kind? There are some bugs in the design to fix. AF will certainly evolve for the better, like it did in the Fuji X-T1, the Olympus E-M1, and the Panny GX-7.

However, because of the lesser Mpx to process, smaller sensors like m4/3 will probably always be faster, and better with tele lenses because of the 1,5 or 2x crop factor, so your choice. IBIS with teles also gives a considerable advantage: it's like having an invisible steadycam.

For more deliberate tasks like Portrait and Landscape however the Sony A7 might well become the new Industry standard in mirrorless. It's the equivalent of what in film was called the Medium Format. A very portable Medium Format, indeed.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Ghetto's red window

Teen parricide Beatrice Cenci was beheaded not a hundred yards from this bloody red window! Jews roundup and deportation in 1943 also happened not far from there.

Can historic crimes influence Photography? Read on the next post...

'Nadja', a follow up.

* Warning: Intellectual stuff! jump altogether if you are not into psychology and deconstruction.

My friend Daniel Jouanisson, videographer, sent me this photo update on the squares of Paris in 'Nadja'. Judge yourself how little they have changed in almost one century!

Hotel des Grands Hommes
How important were those squares for the  the story of Nadja? Here is another interpretation by Critic David Bate, from Westminster University in 'Photography and Surrealism' .

Deconstruction technique is interesting here because it allows to get to the bottom of the most indifferent image, and extract its true meanings. Remember: no photograph is innocent!

You can always connect it to a context, to a choice and a photographer's point of view. Here we are told about Nadja's madness, so pychanalysis is suitable, and it might even explain the hidden meaning of those sad squares that populate the book.

In his book, Bate relates Surrealism and Sexuality, giving an explanation to the Enigmatic.

Some images draw us, even if we don't know why. Interpretation can provide the explanation. Finding the culprit is like finding a serial killer by Forensic Science. 
Out of necessity the language is specialized. My comments will try to clarify.

David Bate: "The photographs in 'Nadja' echo this structure of loss through their emptiness. As the reader views the photographs in relation to the text, the pictures are dis turbingly empty, 'lacking' in actual events. Looking into these photographic spaces where any decisive momenthas 'disappeared', we wonder what is the other there. 
Just as Nadja loses her image of identification, so the 
reader of Nadja is deprived of a reflected identification 
in the photographs. Most of the photographs, even the 
portraits, have a mute and mournful look, there is a 
'dinginess' in these pictures, rarely noted by commenta- 
tors as such, through which their 'mood' of emptiness 
invades the book. 
Expecting to find photographs of the events in their captions, the reader finds them lacking and it is in this way that an enigma emerges".

In the book the onset of the Enigma is also marked by the impromptu appearance of a fortune teller:

When Nadja told Breton she saw herself as Helene, Breton was reminded that a clairvoyant had predicted days before their meeting that he would get involved with a Helene. Another unlikely coincidence!
Breton and Nadja are approaching the Unconscious zone, which is timeless. They can meet, but they can also differ, having different unconscious goals.

David Bate: "Towards the end of Nadja, Breton says that he wanted some of the photographic images of the places and people to be taken 'at the special angle from which I 
myself had looked at them'. This proved impossible; 
the places 'resisted' this and thus, for Breton, 'as I see 
it, with some exceptions the illustrated parts of Nadja 
are inadequate'

"Breton mythologizes these places, as having some- 
thing in them which resists representation. This only 
makes those places gain in enigma. There is little or no 
attempt to show things as literally from Breton's point- 
of-view in the photographs. In the photograph of Place 
Dauphine, the view is outside, looking in. One would 
have to be a disembodied voyeur to be able to 'see' what 
cannot be seen in these photographs. Whatever Breton 
says himself in the book, the photographs make crucial 
contributions and their presence gives a distinct feeling 
to the book. Can it be that this is what Breton meant 
when he described the photograph as 'permeated with 
an emotive value'?"

                    The uncanny Place Dauphine, where Breton and Nadja were to have dinner.

What is not said is that most of those somber Paris' squares in fact have been the theatre of acts of blood. In Place Dauphine was executed Jaques de Molay, the Master of the Knights Templar. Nadja perceives it and exclaims: "Et les Morts, les morts!" - she can feel the dead, she registers them. She predicts a black window turning red, and a few instants later a window lights up showing bloody red curtains! 
Another of those squares they meet at is where Marie Antoinette was beheaded. Those are not innocent places. They carry the mark of the public execution of a paternal figure.

"'Sadness', says Julia Kristeva,'is the fundamental mood 
of depression.' Certainly the photographs in Nadja are 
not joyous, they resonate with solitude. The ghosts of 
'whom I haunt' appear through their absence; as in the 
solitude of the child at the primal scene, with the parents 
'away' enjoying themselves. In this paradoxical signifying 
structure the signs are empty but never 'empty', they 
still signify. The enigmatic message of emptiness draws 
us back to those feelings and affects in the story of 
Nadja, where madness and sanity are combined in 
the mood of melancholy sadness. This mood is based 
on an identification with the lost object, where the 
depressing and depressed feelings hide an aggression 
against that object." [The Father Figure, she identifies Breton with]

"Nadja is a story in which Breton nevertheless undoes 
himself a little. He is clearly haunted by Nadja's 'madness' 
and the experience of their encounter — even if, as a 
trained psychiatric nurse, he can still say: 'You are not 
an enigma for me.'

"Meanwhile, the eyes of Nadja,repeated insistently
 in Man Ray's montage of them in Nadja,
 place Breton and the reader under her surveillance 
(an image added by the author in 1964)."

"The book ends famously with the seemingly im- 
promptu and rushed conclusion: 'Beauty will be CON- 
VULSIVE or will not be.'The 'beauty' here for Breton is 
the hysteric in convulsion, but in the end, Breton remains 
on this side of the symbolic order, he is the neurotic 
witness to his own unconscious conflicts, while Nadja 
is given to signify the unconscious and can no longer 
bear witness to her own thoughts. 

"Nadja transgresses the symbolic order and pays the price of incarceration. As Simone de Beauvoir wryly notes: 'She is so wonderfully liberated from regard for appearances that she scorns reason and the laws: she winds up in an asylum.'"

"The paths of the sexual question 'Who am I?' are 
different for the man and the woman in 'Nadja'. The 
different trajectories relate to the different relations to a 
paternal image. If beauty is hysteria, it is in the opening 
up of an identification with the other. In patriarchal 
law, as Lacan points out, the question of 'woman' is of 
an 'identification with the paternal object' through the 
Oedipus complex. It is surely this relation that Breton 
explores in Nadja and is perhaps why the photographs he 
chooses are so emptied of such potential identifications, 
except one photograph: of himself. "

To Nadja the acts of blood make the squares terrifying, the very image of parricide, while for Breton,  they are just depressing, reminding him of his literary forebears. 

"The 'whom do I haunt?' posed by Breton at the beginning of the book is revealed as Breton's melancholic 
trawl of the patchwork of paternal literary figures 
(Rousseau, Nerval, Baudelaire etc.) emerging in Nadja
as the 'primordial' signifiers that make up his Paris.  
Breton buries himself in relations to these signifiers as 
he delves into a bit of Nadja's psychosis. His fleeting 
interest in Nadja is as link to that lost literary history"

See how the same image can bring about different responses? A realist interpretation would never have explained them. Surrealism brings to the images the powerful contribution of the unconscious. Internal feeling is as real as the material reality out there.
'Nadja' is very important for the History of Photography, because it introduces the concept of shifting signifiers - there's not a one-to-one correspondance with what the image apparently depicts.
Realism, the earlier paradigm of photography, is therefore inadequate.

Although Breton died in 1966, Surrealism continued to exercise its influence up to the 1970s, notably in the work of women photographers, such as Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman - who mentions explicitly 'Nadja' among her  influences. 
 With her performances and body art photographs Francesca Woodman  showed  how women can reappropriate their own bodies, by turning upside down the male imaginary.

And now, just to lighten up, another photo from my friend Jouanisson on American Realism:

No Photo is innocent! We will soon discuss what happened to photography at the era of the internet globalization. When everything went to the dogs with a surfeit of special effects, allowed by the advent of digital. And when millions of digital images pushed aside what had been the little world of the paper image.
Stay tuned!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The two brothers

Olympus in-Camera magic: the OM-D series,

(Warning! Contentious content)

Some people are used to give female names to their camera. I don't but if I had  to, i would give it Mélusine, the name of the Queen of Fairies, with the tail of a Siren, so well she supplements the needs of Imagination.

When the E-M5 appeared almost 3 yrs. ago, the mirrorless m4/3 format was still immature: slow AF, mediocre sensor, low sensitivity to light, restricted Dynamic Range. All it had was small size and better image quality than the so called Point & Shoot cameras.

Then suddenly all problems were solved, everything fell into place, and we had a jewel of a camera whose whole was more than the sum of its parts. When Steve Huff made one of his Strange comparisons against the Leica M9 he defied his audience to tell which shot was which.

The E-M3, a black beauty.

To me its is still a recent buy, but from the beginning it has somehow changed the way I shoot. By offering a tolerable EVF of some 1.4 Mpx and a small dSLR form factor it brought me back to my film times. But by giving me separate wheels for aperture and EV controls, plus a manifold of buttons to change the settings it has made for me even more useless Photoshop and PP. DPReview however was the first to notice that Olympus had made the miracle of making a Jpeg processor which had as good Dynamic Range as the best result you could get from RAW processing.

I know that many will cry foul. This is a contentious issue for people who consider Lightroom their holy grail. Much good might it do to them, I consider the time saved in avoiding PP precious for further shooting.

By seeing what the sensor sees I make corrections on the spot, and I am ready to shoot in a few seconds, even with the right Art Filter if I need a special atmosphere, for tone gradation there is even a separate button.

The OM-Ds have also a nice feature called Live Time. When shooting at extra low shutter times, the camera shows you an image emerging from the screen, so that you can stop the exposure any time, when you are satisfied with its brightness. Live Time makes it easy tomake such effects, like light-painting:

courtesy Steve Huff.
On the side of reactiveness,  not only the AF is lightning bast. The back screen, a great bright OLED  is touch sensitive, and has touch shutter: you select the area AF by touch, the camera does it and shoots instantly.

Priceless: when using it from the navel, people never notice you, especially if you have a wide angle pointed in a different direction, but they are still within the frame. OTH you can completely shut down the back screen, and use the EVF instead, as if it were an ordinary dSLR: great in bright Summer days, and great on batteries.

Now about the debate Jpeg vs. RAW. The difference is not in the recording format, but if and when you do a photographer's work. You are not collecting Kellog's Mickey Mouse piccies like kids after all, are you? One must be ready to catch reality, and if that reality is dead, because it is PAST, no exotic processing is going to save your skin.

Reality must be caught while it develops. That is the meaning of HCB apocryphal: 'I am a  hunter, not  a cook'.  We are not Digital cooks. If need be, one can convert an uncompressed  Jpeg into a Tiff, and work losslessly for minor corrections. Don't invent a fake world at the expense of a snap!

With the OM-D Olympus gave the possibility of preparing a perfect image BEFORE the shot, which a photographer should always attempt. Thinking that one will save the image later and correct it is just an illusion - treating photography as if it were  a painting, adding layer upon layer, an additive art, which it isn't. Better choose the right light on the scene, instead of brightening later on the computer. At the worst learn to use a speedlight - you are still using real light! Photography is about Light, not about layers of painting.

A proof? If you have a high number of keepers from the start you won't be interested in spending hours in the digital lab. You'll be more interested in spending that same time on the field in catching the visual opportunities. And this will result in a higher number of keepers.

Now what is a keeper and what is not a keeper? If you are on flickr, you know that others will rate your pics, and  that they almost never rate the camera, or the processing, but content, the decisive instant.

They will be indifferent if it is a Jpeg or a Tiff, and they will certainly not rate a RAW. They will rate if the picture is timely or not. The same will happen in contests.

All this wouldn't have happened if Olympus and Panasonic hadn't introduced the view from the sensor instead of the traditional dSLR view from the lens. EVF allows WYSIWYG and it is the whole difference: like going from a geocentric astronomy to heliocentric. You compose everything  on the LCD. Bye bye, Photoshop!

The E-M1 was the first to sport duplication of functions by WiFi on a  smartphone.

Now back to the Olympus cameras. Later models have refined the concept and added innovative features.
The expensive E-M1 introduced PDAF in addition to CDAF (Phase AF + Contrast AF). This allowed to use over 30 High Quality lenses of the earlier 4/3 system and use them at their native speed, which had been impossible with the E-M5. 
  It added also HDR in camera and Time Lapse Movies. A Color Director - I could also see its uses, next to Tone Control. Again something you don't need Lightroom for anymore

Introduced later this year, like in the E-M1, the economy E-M10 added Wi-Fi, which allows to download, or better upload piccies to your favorite social sites on the fly.
The E-M10 sports a new pancake zoom kit lens

Thus you can see a new concept emerging in photography: not  a work of art or better an overprocessed monster, slowly cooked in PS, but image as instant communication, to be corrected later in Instagram or Snapseed if need be, if you want to add to the fun. Otherwise just plain, stark photography, directly uploaded on line. Communication first, musings later.

Besides WiFi also allows to literally to drive the OM-D on a tripod from the phone: again WYS in the phone is IWYG from the camera. Isn't it neat? You can 'touch' the camera from the phone!

Another feature all those fairy cameras have is strong IBIS, meaning that you have rock steady AF, a thing that only steadycams could provide in the past, with a heavy expense and with a cumbersome equipment. Now it works with a slight buzz, as if by magic. Or the whirr of invisible gyroscopes. In fact Olympus made the sensor levitate!

 That means shooting with a 3-4 stop advantage in low light. You can also shoot movies, which are absolutely steady, including the image of the viewfinder.

This combination of features has resulted in an industry standard that other brands have trouble to follow.  This disruptive  technology has created a cognitive gap with other users, that is why I have trouble explaining why I am not interested in Photoshopping anymore and I have switched instead to  the 'Slow Photography' paradigm.

When I tell DPR forum users the above they can get very angry, but that's the mere truth: disruptive technology can change radically one's habits, and sometimes for the best.

I have been accused of using Olympus' Art filters in place of PS, in a crude way. But the truth is that I like them crude, exactly like B&W is a strong transformation of colour. I like them not for realism, but from distancing from the real in a critical way. For instance to show how hard underprivileged environments can be. I am not into the beautification of marriage photogs. or other commercial shooters.

A tip about the lenses

Strong IBIS and good sensors have much reduced the need of fast lenses - this is another contentious argument. Be against or for, my pleasure. But I will give my opinion:

People have forgotten than in film times there were plenty of 2.8 and even 3.5 great primes optimised for resolution and small size. Last century. Leica 3.5 lenses were not rare, and so Zeisses and other wonders: the best pancakes ever made for rangefinders.

Lenses below 2.0 were rare, big and mostly used for Portrait or Fashion. Now in the consumerist age everybody seems to have learned the worst from Marriage photogs. , but the truth is that fast and sharp exclude often each other. 

Example: the PanaLeica 25mm has half the resolution at 1.4 it has at 2.8, Lensrentals discovered.

So people get lenses that are fast and sharp, but only at smaller apertures, and pay big bucks for the privilege, LOL.

Zeiss knows since it just provided the Sony A7 with a 35/2.8 for small  size and sharpness.

But what do people know? In fact with short distance to flange it is v. risky to make fast lenses, especially in wides, for resolution drops at the edges since they are not telecentric.

Better have a moderate aperture and exploit the sensitivity of the sensor, exactly like Sigma is doing with its Art DN Series, if one wants sharp across the frame. These lenses are resolution champions  for Micro 4/3 and they cost 1/3 than those of other makers. Just check them at Lensrentals.

The Sigma Art Series for m4/3 system, all f/2.8
BTW sharp and high resolution are not the same. Sharp is subjective while resolution is measurable.

Most of my lenses are 2.8, and believe me I don't feel limited at all. In low light Auto ISO can to to 3.200 or even 6400 and IBIS allows me to shoot at 1/10 s perfectly stable at 2.8. What else do I need? That is candlelight.

People object: but you don't get nice bokeh. I reply get close to your subject and you'll have all the bokeh you need at 2.8. 

Besides I, consider bokeh  a dirty trick issued from the beautification drive of Marriage photogs.  - a drive towards fake photography as fake as it might be. Women without pimples or freckles.

Again this has nothing to do with Slow Photography, which is rather on the side of f/64 and the Stieglitz camp. Again YMMV, as they say. But a Camera is first and foremost a perspective machine. Why waste your DOF by blurring everything?

Feel that I have been unfair or unjust towards PP? Feel free to comment. If we are many we might even try to make a poll.

My Black Queen, with gaffer's tape over the Logos.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Nadja, or the Surrealist City.

When Andre' Breton starts to write his illustrated short novel 'Nadja'  in 1928 Paris still looks very much like Eugène Atget had documented it: quite drab and deserted, very far from the dizzy atmosphere of Tolouse Lautrec, and the pageant of the Crazy Horse, and the Belle Epoque.

 WWI and its millions deaths had transformed and emptied the suburbs and the neighborhoods of the poor. Among the opening pictures in Nadja is that of a statue, a military called Eugène Dolet, of which Breton says that it both attracted and repelled him. 

To the reader the authoritarian statue  seems very much in contrast with the poetical style of writing, except that perhaps it establishes some ominous expectation which is in contrast with it.

Breton uses a symbolist style of the earlier generation of poets, Mallarme' and Rimbaud, but the photos are  describing an ordinary stroll in Paris, and the reader/onlooker expects something to develop out of the contrast. The next photo is 'Bois & Charbons' the picture of a ordinary shop of wood and coal, but with a cavernous aspect, as if an ogre dwelt there.

Breton is establishing a net of personal meaningful places that defines both a theatre set for the novel, and an interior landscape where an action is going to take place.
At first it will be the meeting with an actress friend who relates a lurid, Grand-Guignol show Les Detraquées, (The Cranks) based on serial assassinations in a college of young girls, made by the head mistress, with the complicity of her lesbian friend. Again the reader is shown the picture of a real scene.

Here again photography is used to confer reality to what might otherwise seems a series of fantasies. But in so doing the text  establishes the city as a country of imagination, where one can expect both crime and love. 

The surrealist group headed by Breton was soon to use the camera as a mechanical artifact to play with chance and evoke the unconscious. Man Ray used cut ups and 'rayographs'  made directly on sensitive paper in the  darkroom. William Burroughs and Brian Gysin later invented the Dream Machine projecting  hypnotic rays of light. The Camera Obscura saw its uses expanded . Here, however, it is used used in a simple mimetic way, but in an enigmatic way, in relation to the text.

Back to the novel, Breton progresses to a fleamarket where he finds a strange phallus-like white sculpture with coloured lines, which he later understands to be a three dimensional statistic of a city. It's a typical 'objet trouvé',  whose meaning has been displaced by the mind in a perverted way - he says. It is the birth of Détournement, symbolic displacement, which will have a central role in Surrealism, when becoming deliberate.

In fact the poet is establishing his own inner theatre where  a momentous happening is going to take place. In the street he crosses and stops  an attractive blonde with an unfinished make up, and a poor dress, who expresses herself by riddles: Nadja "whose name in Russian means hope, but it only the beginning of it" she says.

By coincidence Breton just a moment earlier was thinking of the Russian revolution, but also noting that ordinary work, that of the people leaving the offices, had very little to do with imagination. 

Nadja, who is looking for work,  nevertheless appears as a  messenger, the Angel of Revolution, coming to drab Paris, as if she had wanted to meet in person the poet, instead of being stopped by him.

It is as if there was a collapse of the inner expectation and outside reality,  between the subjective and the objective, which is brought about by desire.

Of Nadja however we will know little of her external appearance.  Instead we get some riddles  and some extraordinary drawings that she gives to Breton. 

They are the  the  token of her visions, like a flower  with a double set of petal-eyes, a symbol of inner beauty and  Love. "la fleur des amants". 

 Nadja is  a seismograph, telling Breton  she sees him as being drawn to a Bright Star, which is like 'the heart of a flower without a heart'. Breton is very moved.

Later  we learn that Breton, who at the time was married  had at the same time an affair with the actress Blanche Derval who had played in the Grand Guignol piece mentioned earlier in the novel. 

Of her we have a portrait,  which acts like a more material incarnation of Nadja. It is as if a photo, an objective correlative, wouldn't be able to catch Nadja's otherworldly nature. So the  portrait of Blanche must act as a displacement of Nadja. Breton compares the makeup of the two women, mentioning that one is too light for theatre and the other too heavy for the street -  and so makes an equivalence.

Nadja instead is only evoked by her  her 'regard de fougère' her 'fern look' while she meets the author in  ominous places, like the Sphinx Hotel, or the square of the Mazda Light billboard. 

She draws the author as a fierce cat with flaming hair and folded eagle wings along the sides, and herself as Melusine, a water nymph, whose lower body is made by a fish tail. It is clearly a figure of the Unconscious, but also of European legends. Melusine predicts the future and is a fairy queen of the inner world.

We are given  some other drawings of Nadja, : Le bouclier d'Achille, le Reve du chat, le Salut du Diable.
The drawing here at the top of the post, will be used as a cover for the book - it is the portrait of a  a fortune teller, a seer who is perhaps Nadja herself.

 Indeed she is able to interpret correctly some of the most complex paintings by De Chirico or Max Ernst, which hang at Andre's home.

 The drawings of Nadja operate on a different level from realistic photographs. They are 'apparitions', dream-like material of the Unconscious. Photography however documents them as real as the Paris' statues.

Some, like Le Reve du Chat,  a fugitive cat with the tail held by the wick of an invisible oil lamp (The Lamp of Wisdom?) , are cut ups of ordinary appearances  united in a paradoxical way, which suggests a further meaning. Cut ups  were to become typical of Surrealist art, as in Man Ray or Max Ernst.

Ordinary life reclaims  its rights, however.  The way Breton and Nadja separate each other only after a few days of acquaintance is an object of comment by  Katharine Conley's The Automatic Woman. Not only was Breton married, but he also ignored that Nadja was mad. Suddenly we are reminded of the stark facts of life.

Nadja was to return to the province she came from, Lille, presumably to solve her money problems, but was instead hospitalized.. When Breton discovered it he simply mentions that the hospital  probably did her more evil than good, by making a prisoner of her.

She had made him a seer and confirmed him to be an artist with a higher destiny, (The Bright Star)  but he never took the trouble to go and visit  her, preferring to make her the central character of a novel which was an immediate success - Conley comments sardonically. 

In an amazing displacement  of desire, Breton  shows instead of Nadja a portrait of actress Blanche Derval, who differently from Nadja, was resisting  his desire. The reader will never know what the real Nadja looked like.

Curiously Blanche in the Detraquées  abducted  an innocent schoolgirl. But it is as if Breton who performed an Identity Theft by substituting portraits.

Now, what is my relationship to surrealism? Although I am rather Post-avantgarde, and therefore eclectic, Surrealism is part of my culture, especially in the sense of Psychogeography: I am driven both by uncanny and the Sublime, but also the very simple, and the unexplainable.

I met some of the last surrealists, like Arturo Schwarz, the critic and collector of Marcel Duchamp -  I invited to Rome William Burroughs and Bryan Gysin, the writer and artist friends, who invented the Dream Machine. I missed by a hair Francesca Woodman, the photographer, who had sent me an illustrated postcard of her. They all switched a trigger, by alerting me to the imagination gap in Realism, which is the current ideology in photography. Any image is more than what it purports to be.

There is a photograph in 'Nadja' of which I have by coincidence a precise equivalent: Breton says:  'Devant nous fuse un jet d'eau, dont elle parait suivre la courbe'. 'Before us springs a water jet, whose curve she seems to follow'


 What is the attraction they have in common? To me they are both mimetic and enigmatic, although they lack the optical tricks of later Surrealist imagery.

The conclusion of the book is Breton's famous sentence, which seems a sad epitaph to Nadja's madness: 'La beauté' sera convulsive ou ne sera pas' 'Beauty will be convulsive, or will not be at all'.

Strangely the closing photo of  the novel is that of Becque, another authoritarian military bust in a square of Paris,  like the one in the beginning of the book. It is as if the drab postwar reality had reasserted  its role, by closing the doors of Imagination. Hence beauty must be convulsive, to shake off  the smothering  of Repression.

That was a lesson learned by the time of the revolution of May '68, when the walls of hospices crumbled down, and imagination was again 'au pouvoir'.
Sexual liberation met social criticism, as it had done first in the Surrealist Movement.

It took more to liberate women, however.  That is why it will be interesting to dedicate another post in the future to Francesca Woodman, the 'Rimbaud of Photography', who used her own body to create surrealist photography in the 1970s.


 According to the legend Melusine can't be watched  in her private rooms possibly because of her animal  fish tail.  Her noble husband who peeps at her while she begets her three daughters. will be punished by them, and be prevented to reign.
I recently learned with surprise that Melusine was the begetter of the House of Lusignan, kings of Portugal, and of the two kings of Jerusalem, Amalric I and II, of whom I carry the name by mere chance. The  nick had attracted me, for no other reason that it was neither English, nor Latin.
  So it is again a strange coincidence that I was to cross the path of Melusine, such a strong protectress of imagination.
A Melusine  was also Queen of Cyprus, which she defended successfully against  the hordes of Saladdin's sons in the 1400s. She was reputed as a beautiful, cultivated woman.

In the end, despite the efforts at occultation of Breton, a family portrait of Nadja (Leona Delcourt) has finally been unearthed in 2009 by her biographer, HESTER ALBACH.

Here she is:

She was indeed a sweet child, with 'un regard de fougère' - and yet a 'force multiplier' for the Surrealist Movement.The finding of her portrait settles the debt of the first visual novel of Modernism.