Friday, November 8, 2013


152 Delancy Street  c1955
(Kodak Brownie Camera snapshot)
Anybody can be a decent photographer today. Buy a hi-res digital camera, read the manual, find an attractive subject, improve it on Photoshop it, mat it, and voila! you’ve got a decent photograph! But, how do you transcend mere competence and create a work of art? For that you need a soul and that can’t be bought in the camera store.

Let’s start by discussing “cropping”, always controversial. Photographers love to argue about cropping. Is it acceptable or not? moral or immoral? Is it true that the “great” photographers, i.e. Cartier Bresson, never cropped but could create masterpieces in the viewfinder?  My feeling is, what difference does it make whether one composes in the camera, or in the darkroom or on a computer screen? I say whatever looks good, is good. There are no “nevers” in art; we learned that long ago.

I am occasionally asked to judge one of the many camera club competitions in the area. I carefully forewarn them that I am not a photographer, that I don’t know an F Stop from a G String. But what I do know is how to compose an image, how to transform something mundane into a work of art. I am usually one of three judges, the other two, professional photographers. Yet it always ends up that I, surprisingly, am called on the most often. Why?

Cropped version 152 Delancy Street
When the image to be critiqued goes up on the screen, the other judges invariably comment about focus or technique: i.e. there’s a speck of dust on the image, aaagh! I, not knowing or caring about technique, concentrate on two things: originality of image and the quality of the design. Unfortunately, you can’t teach originality; it requires an authentic “self” and there aren’t too many authentic selves running around today. But, composition can be taught or at least demonstrated.  I do that mainly by showing the group how to crop. I hold my hands up at the projected photo on the screen, squint at the image and take a little off the top, something off the bottom, and before their eyes, the photograph is transformed. The audience gasps. Instead of an uninteresting cliche, they are now looking at something approaching real quality.

Detail, 152 Delancy Street
Many years ago I came across an envelope of undistinguished Brownie snapshots I had taken of the Lower East Side when I was just out of art school. They were supposed to be reference material, images of buildings and stores I wanted to use as background in some paintings I was doing. I had the 2”x2” negatives developed and the results were truly awful. But then I blew them up and began to crop them, transforming the mundane into something magical. Some I thought (egotistically) were even better than similar work being done by Berenice Abbott at the time. Not technically of course (she used a giant still camera on a tripod), but as works of art. I may be a piss-poor photographer (I haven’t gotten much better over the years) but I’m a great cropper….and apparently, that’s what makes the difference.

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