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Overheard at MOMA about HCB: "why were so many of his shots out of focus?"
Old 05-04-2010   #1
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Overheard at MOMA about HCB: "why were so many of his shots out of focus?"

While enjoying the Cartier-Bresson exhibit at MOMA in NYC last weekend, a man next to me asked, "Why are so many of his shots out of focus?" To which I answered with a question, "Why does it matter?"

The show is a must-not-miss and the catalog is very well done, too.
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Old 05-04-2010   #2
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Two words: Luigi's Bike.
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Old 05-04-2010   #3
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Indeed, a favorite of mine.

I thought my retort might encourage this guy to talk less and perhaps think and look more. Probably to little avail, as I suspect he left the museum convinced the man he was speaking to (me) is nuts and that poor old HCB didn't know how to focus.

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Originally Posted by Gabriel M.A. View Post
Two words: Luigi's Bike.
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Old 05-04-2010   #4
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Why are so many of his shots out of focus?"
B/c he didnt have a auto-everything digital camera that a cat could operate
Looking forward to the show coming here to SFMOMA later this year
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Old 05-04-2010   #5
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"Why does it matter?"

It matters to me for a few reasons:
1. It was a mistake. HC-B didn't do it on purpose, to make any particular statement.
2. It's a distraction and a detraction from what the image was supposed to be/represent.
3. If any of us tried to pass off the same image, we wouldn't be cut the same slack as HC-B, who's granted 'leniency' because of his name and the period in which he worked.

Sorry to be argumentative. I actually still plan to see the show. These are, though, some of the reasons why i'm not a fan. I've only seen 'in focus' prints in person, but the OOF stuff in the books really cheeses me.
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Old 05-04-2010   #6
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Sharp focus is such a bourgeois concept...
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Old 05-04-2010   #7
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i enjoy it when focus is used as a creative photographic tool and not the most important aspect of an image. i also enjoy it when IMO an out of focus image creates a stronger photograph than if sharp critical focus had been employed on the subject/focus of that image (pun 50% intended), whether on purpose or not.

personal preference, no opinion is more right than the other.
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Old 05-04-2010   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by fotomeow View Post
Why are so many of his shots out of focus?"
B/c he didnt have a auto-everything digital camera that a cat could operate
I dunno about that. A lot of RFF members use the same gear. A lot of people have Auto Everything gear, but use those cameras in manual mode. Or, they take the time to meter and focus, rather than guestimate and set it and forget it/scale focus. The difference is in the EDIT.

I don't give HCB 'extra credit' for setting his camera at 4 meters and HOPING. That, to me, is lazier than using AF. HCB would have used AF if it were an option during his time. [Didn't he use a Minilux?] And Sunny 16 or whatever variant he might have practiced just isn't appropriate for a photographer who has to satisfy an art director, or a client. HCB had the luxury of shooting long-term, semi-journalistic projects. If he came back with a contact sheet of unusable negs, no one would ever know, and his legacy would be untouched. He could spend three months in Central America and we would only see one image from that experience.

I'm going to stop now, lest i be attacked as an HCB "basher." I don't hate the guy. I have four books. I like some of his work. I just don't understand how he came to be the Clapton-like God. He, himself, admits to being disconnected from his subject matter. I don't get anything from his images because of it. Seems he's more interested in the geometry of the compositional task than he is in the people in the images. I always feel like there should be 'more.' When you have access to people like Marilyn Monroe, and come away with only a few amateurish snapshots...i just don't get it.

Anyone have a link to "Luigi's Bike?" Help me understand, please.
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Old 05-04-2010   #9
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and then there is ansel adams, very sharp photos, most of which i find incredibly boring.

it's a lot about individual tastes and preferences.
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Old 05-04-2010   #10
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I have no particular opinion on this topic in this context. For me, the HCB images that work best have me thinking about anything but focus. If I had concerns about what was in-focus and out-of-focus in his work, I probably wouldn't enjoy it the way I do.

As to my own work, that's different story. If I draw attention to nothing or to the wrong thing, that's an issue, but that's because I knew what I wanted in my mind's eye and couldn't execute it with gear.

I also asked this gent if he was bothered by the ones he felt were out of focus; he said he wasn't sure.

I'm afraid fotomeow has a good point. When our cameras allow us to stop thinking, acting and learning on our own and when any idiot believes he or she can replicate anything they see in museum, a certain meaningless begins to take over.

CK Dexter Haven (I loved you in Philadelphia Story), I understand where you're coming from in your comments above, but I'm afraid I won't be joining this debate. However, I'm sure others will share their two cents.

My OP was intended as reporting on a conversation I had. I haven't much comment about it. I found it amusing and that's about all. I did figure, however, that posting here would stir up some debate.
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Old 05-04-2010   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by cnphoto View Post
i enjoy it when focus is used as a creative photographic tool and not the most important aspect of an image. i also enjoy it when IMO an out of focus image creates a stronger photograph than if sharp critical focus had been employed on the subject/focus of that image (pun 50% intended), whether on purpose or not.

personal preference, no opinion is more right than the other.
Thanks.

I agree with 90% of this. There's a series of photographs of city lights, entirely out of focus. Bokeh, essentially. I can't find a link or remember a name. I really like those images. I, myself, have been a 'bokeh freak' for a number of years. I won't use lenses that don't do OOF well. I have a Canon 85/1.2L for goodness sake. I LOVE out of focus bits in photographs. But, if i take a photograph and what i intended to be in focus is not in focus, and or the image is simply 'soft' because i 'missed' focus, i regard it as a technical failure. If i can't rehabilitate the image somehow, i discard it.

To me, the purpose or intent IS important. Certainly, someone could call a mistake an intent and no one is the wiser. But, when the viewer perceives it as a mistake, i believe it's a failed image. Of course, not everyone will agree with that assessment, and that's the nature of art. My problem, though, is when something is called art, or deemed acceptable or valuable simply because it has a name attached to it. It's sort of a projected narcissism. Maybe it's not even projected - after all, the photographer decided to exhibit the image.

I'm sure that most of my attitude in this regard comes from my photographic education and then my work as a graphic designer/art director. For the latter, there are certain conditions that must be met, and technical proficiency is chief among them.

This is now a thread less about HC-B than about something akin to 'standards' and i apologize for hijacking it.

I have to ask, though: if focus is so overrated, why do we bother? Why do we spend thousands of dollars on lenses, scanners, printing?
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Old 05-04-2010   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CK Dexter Haven View Post
Anyone have a link to "Luigi's Bike?" Help me understand, please.
I think the poster may have been referring to "Mario's Bike". It was an HCB photo someone surreptitiously submitted to the "deleteme" flickr critique group. The comments are quite hilarious:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/andrerabelo/70458366
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Old 05-04-2010   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by robklurfield View Post

My OP was intended as reporting on a conversation I had. I haven't much comment about it. I found it amusing and that's about all. I did figure, however, that posting here would stir up some debate.
It was an interesting comment, and i probably would have made the same response to the question. I wonder if there's something in the original question (by the other museum visitor) that makes it seem as if it's coming from a point of 'ignorance?'

Thanks for starting the discussion. And, also for the reminder about the show. I had marked it on my calendar, but subsequently forgot. I'll try to get up there this week.
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Old 05-04-2010   #14
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don't miss the show.

also, catch the Marina Abramovic exhibit if you can, as it contains some very arresting performance art pieces (and film/videos and stills from earlier performance installations). you'll love it or hate or both, but it too will provoke plenty of conversation.
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Old 05-04-2010   #15
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I bought the book that MOMA published on the exhibit at Borders with a 40% off coupon. Recommeded. I didn't notice a focus problem in the book, but then I was not expecting macro/micro photography. I'm looking forward to see the mounted photos in NYC. HCB didn't use a view camera or a tripod. That's not what his photogaphy was all about. The person who said that probably has no idea that HCP helped create a whole new type of documentary and street photogaphy with a new little camera and 35mm B&W film. His printers did not have access to sharpening in the camera or on photo shop. In that context and at that time they are amazingly sharp photos.
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Old 05-04-2010   #16
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I also cannot resist saying that I saw a Salgado exhibit at the International Photography Center in NYC a few years ago. Very large, beautiful B&W prints produced by Kodak for the show. I could just see someone walking up close and saying, "What horrible grain! Not sharp at all. What kind of camera did he use anyway?"
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Old 05-04-2010   #17
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Quote:
Originally Posted by antiquark View Post
I think the poster may have been referring to "Mario's Bike". It was an HCB photo someone surreptitiously submitted to the "deleteme" flickr critique group. The comments are quite hilarious:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/andrerabelo/70458366
Just read through the comments on this one, hilarious reading indeed!
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Old 05-04-2010   #18
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I have a few disjointed comments on HCB's out of focus images:

- HCB was taking pictures for magazines and newspapers. Due to printing limitations, and a smaller format, out of focus images were more tolerable.

- HCB sometimes took pictures quickly without time to focus. Check out his pic of the Joliot-Curies:
http://sheilanewbery.wordpress.com/2...ocus-portrait/
HCB said that, when he opened the door to visit them, they were standing there in that position and he quickly brought up the camera and grabbed a shot.

- Often, amateurs mistake a natural depth of field for things being out of focus. For example, the birds in this Matisse picture:
http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Henr...entennial.html
are out of focus, but Matisse himself is in focus. Some people might expect everything in the image to be in sharp focus. (Which is usually impossible).

- People might also be mistaking motion blur with missed focus, which is a problem with action shots.

- It's possible that art galleries are blowing up some pics to 2' x 3', which will amplify any focusing defects.

- When HCB was taking pics, autofocus was not yet invented.

That's all I can think of for now. I'm not really trying to argue with anybody, just pointing out reasons why HCBs stuff could be out of focus, or simply perceived to be out of focus.
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Old 05-04-2010   #19
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among my favorite comments from that flickr "Mario's Bike"thread is this one: "Cartier Bresson is the guy on the bike ?! " Yes, it was all done with mirrors.

I also love the suggestion that the image would be improved by photoshopping the bike out of the picture.

Quote:
Originally Posted by KarlG View Post
Just read through the comments on this one, hilarious reading indeed!
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Old 05-04-2010   #20
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B/c he didnt have a auto-everything digital camera that a cat could operate

And you wonder why the digital shooters get a little uppity at times!

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Old 05-04-2010   #21
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What other interesting commentary have any of you overheard in museums???
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Old 05-04-2010   #22
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Quote:
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- People might also be mistaking motion blur with missed focus, which is a problem with action shots.
Bingo. It's amazing how many people conflate OOF and motion-blur. Never mind bringing up depth of field/depth of focus.


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Old 05-04-2010   #23
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And you wonder why the digital shooters get a little uppity at times!

Their cats have taken their cameras?
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Old 05-04-2010   #24
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Their cats have taken their cameras?
That might explain some of the stuff I come across online...


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Old 05-04-2010   #25
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When I saw the large exhibit of HCB's work in Paris, all the prints were about 11x14, and in identical frames. It took up three floors of the Europeen Maison de Photographie.

When viewed at a normal viewing distance, the prints were something you want to see, really wonderful stuff.

Were they tack sharp through out every image, no.

Was the subject, composition, moment and rendition superb, yes.

Percentage of shots which I would have liked to see on a regular basis, more than 90%.

Impressive to see so much good work at one time.

If you are not impressed by such work in your presence, it is not the fault of the photographs I am afraid.

I do not think of a higher percentage of work I have seen at any exhibition that was as impressive.

Perhaps I just caught the good ones. ;-)


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Old 05-04-2010   #26
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My personal conclusion... When you take an out of focus photo, you throw it. When HCB did the same : it's called ART.

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Old 05-04-2010   #27
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That might explain some of the stuff I come across online...
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Old 05-04-2010   #28
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check out this one, out of focus and camera shake. These guyz sucked, eh?
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Old 05-04-2010   #29
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gliderbee: Ah, you misunderstand me...relative to their owners, I think a few of those felines have true potential!


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Old 05-04-2010   #30
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You gotta love digital cameras...

Because of them, all of a sudden you have all these people who never took an interest in art, who never went to a museum or a gallery or bought an art book, confronted with a whole new world that they dont understand... but they are determined to be a part of it, because now they have a DSLR and that makes them an artist, right? So they go ahead and read on the internet about this new photography thingo (still no intention of going to a museum or a gallery- too hard, internet is easier) and they come across the magic marketing term:

IMAGE QUALITY! Ahhhhh yes! Now it all makes sense! You spend the $$$, you get gooood camera, you get lotsa image quality, and good image quality = good photo! right? And then they discover bokeh, woohoo! Add a healthy dose of bokeh for good measure and you have a winner, right? Gallery stuff!

Nope

Sorry. Its kinda hard to explain that technical issues may or may not matter, depending on the artist's intention. There are however other things that definitely matter, things like (caution: artspeak follows) context, emotion, content, mood, concept, aesthetic, cohesiveness and of course more pedestrian stuff that are particular to photography and painting, things like light, composition, timing, tonality and colour if applicable. When HCB's photos score so high on everything that matters, who cares about sharpness? And, to make things even more complicated for the guy who has now discovered this peculiar new art world, it is a world which is not always logical, or fair, or entirely free of trends and fashions. And if that is not enough, photography is the most complicated of all media to explain why it can be art, because of that misguided notion of "easy to make" that has been haunting from the start.

So when people ask me how come some guy's prints sell for $3,000 at XYZ gallery (no sharpness? no bokeh? *** ), I just tell them that he probably had a really good lens
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Old 05-04-2010   #31
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Just to stirr up the debate a bit :

I like a lot of the pictures of HCB (not all of them, but more then of my own ), but in a certain way, I can understand the comment of the visitor, mentioned in the first post.

Both a photographer and a painter have the choice to depict something (if that's what they are aiming at) in a sharp way or out of focus.

For a painter, it's obvious that it is done delibaratly ((e.g. the Flemish Primitives versus the Impressionists) , or out of necessity (e.g. I'm told that a human hand is one of the most difficult things to paint, so painting it a bit "blurry" might help hiding a lack of proficiency)
... but it's not so obvious for a photographer.

I fully agree that a picture does not necessarily have to be in focus to be a good picture, on the contrary; the picture shown earlier, taken by Robert Capa, wouldn't be as impressive if it were in focus: that would have attracted the attention too much on the person of the individual soldier (a bit like "and here's our Johnny swimming ashore, and here's our Johnny eating breakfast, and ... (you know the kind)).
By being out of focus, the figure can stand as a symbol for every soldier in a comparable situation. Same goes for the person on the bicycle in the picture of HCB.

But was this picture intended that way by the photographer ? IOW, was the OOF delibarate ?
I doubt it.
But then, does it matter if it was delibarate or not ?
Is it "more art" if it was delibarate OOF, and "less art" if it was not delibarate OOF ?
Does the qualification of "art" depends on the intention of the maker, or of the impression it makes on the viewer ? Or both ?
Can "accidents" be art ?

So, back to the beginning: maybe the question of the visitor: "why are so many of his pictures out of focus" was not so bad after all, depending on your point of view ?

Stefan.
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Old 05-04-2010   #32
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Originally Posted by Tracnac View Post
My personal conclusion... When you take an out of focus photo, you throw it. When HCB did the same : it's called ART.

Yvan.
This is part reason I don't delete anything images I've taken, oof, tack sharp, mistakes, keep it all. I believe the current fad of ultra sharp "surgical" 1:1 viewing of images is just that... a fad.

Someday, hopefully sooner than later, the pictures of cats next to your keyboard, and shots of newspaper print from twenty paces, on a tri pod, mirror lock up, remote shutter release, micro adjusting lenses, sending in lenses and bodies four times for calibration will cease. The subject of images will once again the priority, not the technical data.

Sometimes a OOF shot, accident or on purpose, is better than a sharp one.

..having said that, I do believe HCB and other masters are granted some leniency on their less than stellar images.

John
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Old 05-05-2010   #33
Nigel Meaby
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The Robert Capa photograph above was not fuzzy and out of focus. It was produced by a freak processing accident. The films were processed with understandably some urgency but the guy who put the negs in the drying cabinet "cooked" the negs by having the temperature too high. Most of Capa's negs from the d-day landings were ruined but a few salvageable frames such as this one some could argue were actually enhanced by this accident making a far more evocative image of the d-day landings. This really does open up a whole new debate as the resulting image was created by a freak accident.
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Old 05-05-2010   #34
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Didn't he say they were shaky and out of focus, mostly because he was scared out of his wits and shaking like crazy?
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Old 05-05-2010   #35
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bingley View Post
Sharp focus is such a bourgeois concept...
Cartier-Bresson was about as bourgeois as it gets.
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Old 05-05-2010   #36
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Gary Sandhu View Post
check out this one, out of focus and camera shake. These guyz sucked, eh?
He probably should have used a tripod.
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Old 05-05-2010   #37
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Nigel, you're right: I knew it but completely forgot about that; nevertheless, it doesn't prove the shot was in focus, but that's a moot point; let's give RC the benefit of the doubt that it indeed was (or maybe he would have preferred it not being in focus ??

If I was to take pictures in that situation, it would be pure luck that any picture would be in focus

Stefan.
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Old 05-05-2010   #38
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"Capa was squeezing off photographs as he headed for a disabled American tank. He remembered feeling "a new kind of fear shaking my body from toe to hair, and twisting my face." With great difficulty his trembling hands reloaded his camera. All the while he repeated a sentence that he had picked up during the Spanish Civil War: "Es una cosa muy seria" ("This is a very serious business")."



"A darkroom technician was almost as anxious to see the invasion images as Capa himself. In his haste, the technician dried the film too quickly. The excess heat melted the emulsion on all but 10 of the frames. Those that remained were blurred, surreal shots, which succinctly conveyed the chaos and confusion of the day."
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Old 05-05-2010   #39
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Nigel Meaby View Post
The Robert Capa photograph above was not fuzzy and out of focus. It was produced by a freak processing accident. The films were processed with understandably some urgency but the guy who put the negs in the drying cabinet "cooked" the negs by having the temperature too high. Most of Capa's negs from the d-day landings were ruined but a few salvageable frames such as this one some could argue were actually enhanced by this accident making a far more evocative image of the d-day landings. This really does open up a whole new debate as the resulting image was created by a freak accident.
Yes and no.

Yes, the negatives were cooked in the drying cabinet, which obviously contributes to them looking the way they do.

But if you examine the other 10 D-Day shots you will notice that while they are full of motion blur, they are mostly in focus.

Capa was no gearhead, but in technical terms he was a very competent shooter. If you browse the Magnum archive you will noticed that the vast majority of his shots are in focus and properly exposed, even when people were shooting at him...

I think it's more an shutter speed problem in this case. The landings took place very early in the morning. It was overcast and maybe even raining. Capa took two Contax bodies to the beach and by the looks of his photos he was using a 50mm. He probably was shooting 100asa, which was just about the fastest film available in those days.

We are having a gloomy rainy day here today and metering on the balcony I get 1/30th @ f4 with the meter set to 100asa.

Even without the Wehrmacht shooting at you, you're going to end up with blurry pictures, if you're taking action shots with those settings.

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Old 05-05-2010   #40
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CK Dexter Haven View Post
HCB would have used AF if it were an option during his time. [Didn't he use a Minilux?]
I doubt it. AF is great for many things, but not street photography. It's too slow. There are a few rare clips on Youtube of HCB shooting on the streets and there is no AF system on the planet that could work that fast. You'll notice the same if you watch the Winogrand videos. The only option for these guys was scale focusing.


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And Sunny 16 or whatever variant he might have practiced just isn't appropriate for a photographer who has to satisfy an art director, or a client. HCB had the luxury of shooting long-term, semi-journalistic projects. If he came back with a contact sheet of unusable negs, no one would ever know, and his legacy would be untouched. He could spend three months in Central America and we would only see one image from that experience.
I don't know about that... Hundreds or thousands of journalists covered the news for decades without AF, but using Sunny 16. The vast majority of them managed to consistently produce shots that were in focus.

Also Winogrand and many other street shooters produced shots that were mostly in focus and all of them used Sunny 16 instead of AF.

I think the main problem was HCB himself. Brilliant composition, brilliant timing and some of the most sloppy technique ever seen.

Not only was HCB sloppy about his focusing, but also his exposure. I've read on many occasions that his printers cursed him vehemently, because some of his negatives were so poorly exposed that it would take hours to coaxe a useable print from them. This is pretty obvious if you have darkroom experience and look at some of his prints.

I guess it boils down to the fact that he really didn't care. Regardless of the fact that a lot of his work was technically substandard, he was hugely successful and therefore it wasn't an issue. What reason did he have to change his ways? Also can you imagine someone trying to discuss this issue with him? Even a close friend? HCB had an ego the size of the Eifel Tower. He was the epitome of the often lampooned French artist type and I can almost guarantee you that his response would have been vulcanic.

For me personally it isn't an issue. To me he still is one of the all time greats, in focus or not.

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I'm going to stop now, lest i be attacked as an HCB "basher."
Feel free. I love his work, but I've seen kids in high school who were technically more proficient.
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