Sunday, April 10, 2011

Walter Chandoha: City Streets
Numbers don’t lie. And the numbers for Walter Chandoha add up to an enviably successful freelance career: Four-plus decades in the business. More than 300 magazine covers. Thousands of advertisements for hundreds of companies. More than 200,000 stock images of animals and gardens, his twin specialties. But Chandoha’s comparatively small number of vintage New York City photographs—about 200 all told—hold the greatest fascination from a fine art perspective. Made without commercial imperatives from the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, they catch the city’s street life with and a graphic elegance and power reminiscent of the famous New York Photo League photographers, although Chandoha was never affiliated with that organization.

Walter Chandoha (photo: Paula Chandoha Amaral)

Let's start at the beginning.
I was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1920.

How did you become interested in photography, and what formal training, if any, did you have?
I was initially self-taught while attending high school by reading books and magazines on photography at the local library. I also got help and advice at the Lens Club of Bayonne from more knowledgeable members and from lectures and demonstrations by visiting experts. One of these lecturers was J. Ghislain Lootens, who was a friend of Leon de Vos, a New York City commercial photographer who was looking for an apprentice with some skills in developing and printing. By this time (I was now out of high school), I was a fairly good printer and some of my pictures were winning camera club competitions. Lootens thought I had promise and suggested that I show some of my work to de Vos in his New York studio. He liked what he saw, and I got the job—at 12 dollars a week! I was ecstatic.

Madison Avenue

Did your environment influence your photographic development in any way?
Not my home environment, although my immigrant Ukrainian parents were supportive of my efforts. They even allowed me to convert our cellar coal bin to a darkroom when they converted to gas heat. However, my work environment influenced my photographic development immensely. I perfected my skills at black-and-white printing under de Vos’ sharp eye. So much so that after six months of working with him I was making carbros. These color prints require very critical black-and-white precision printing to ultimately convert the images to color. And I learned how to light a picture both in the studio and on location. To this day my trademark backlit cat and dog studio pictures and my best garden photographs have their origins way back in Leon’s studio.

Did you know right away what kind of photography you wanted to do?
No. I enjoyed and tried everything—still lifes, portraits, animals, people, scenics and, because I worked there, New York City scenes.

Was it important for you to develop a distinctive personal style?
No. I probably did not have a personal style until many years later as a freelancer; backlighting sort of became my trademark. Initially, I was unaware I was using backlight, but because the pictures looked better with it, I used it more and more. Later, when I was freelancing, I realized most of my published cover pictures were strongly backlit, so I then consciously tried to get it in my pictures whenever the subject warranted it.

3rd Ave. el curve

Although you’re perhaps best known in fine art circles for your New York street photos, I understand that garden and animal photography are closer to your heart.
They are. These have been my co-specialties in all the years I have been freelancing. But let’s go back a bit to my apprenticeship with de Vos. I worked with him for about two years. We shot a wide range of subjects: product still lifes, models, location work in offices and factories. We used strobes, flash bulbs and hot lights (incandescent) for illumination, depending on the assignment. It was a superb learning job, but even after a couple of years, still at learners’ wages. So I made a change. I next worked for a commercial portrait chain headquartered in Newark, New Jersey. I also worked in their Camden and Trenton studios. I did mostly head-and-shoulder portraits, plus location work at high schools and colleges—yearbook-type pictures of sports teams, various clubs, plays and other stage events and architectural exteriors of their buildings.

Then came WW2. I was drafted into the Army. Because of my photography experience I was immediately assigned to The Fort Dix Post as a press photographer. Assignments on this weekly newspaper were the usual flash on camera (Speed Graphic) newspaper stuff: personalities, spot news, cheesecake, picture stories. After about a year on the paper I finally got some basic training in Louisiana and then was shipped out to New Guinea, where I was assigned to a Signal Corps combat photo unit. Then Borneo, Leyte and, later, Luzon in the Phillipines. I flew into Japan with the first units of the 11th Airborne prior to the peace signing on the USS Missouri in August 1945. I continued doing press work in Japan until my discharge from the Army in early 1946.

Boys cooling off

I enrolled in the NYU School of Commerce, thanks to the GI bill, and majored in marketing. Did the four-year degree course in three years by taking extra credits and attending summer sessions. I got married between semesters in January 1949 and got my degree in the fall of that year along with the first of six kids. A brand new degree, a brand new kid, and no job! I panicked. So rather than face starvation I took a job again with a college yearbook outfit, was sent to an Ohio college and hated it, even though the money was good.

But again, let’s go back. While in college I augmented my GI Bill subsistence allowance by shooting weddings and entering photo contests and sometimes winning cash prizes. And during one winter I found a homeless cat in the snow, gave her a home and sometimes used her (and later her kittens) as a model. Most of the winning pictures I entered in contests were of cats and kittens. In addition to entering contests with my cat pictures I made feature picture stories involving cats and sometimes sold them to New York newspapers. These efforts were so successful that once in a while I got requests for cat pictures from magazines and ad agencies. More of my stuff was published, and I was getting a minor reputation as a cat photographer. Then I made my big decision—I quit the job I didn’t enjoy, drove home and started freelancing as a specialist in cat photography. We starved for two years, were happy and although I did not realize it at the time, we were building a stock picture file that is still yielding today, some 50 years later.

Horse cop, Coney Island

Ironically, many of my NYC photographs were made when I was a student at NYU. There was no thought of making the pictures to preserve the present for the future. I just enjoyed creating pictures and parts of New York appealed to me, so I made pictures. Had I realized how much New York would change I would have cut more of my NYU classes and made more pictures.

What do you enjoy most about taking photographs?
Even today with digital images I marvel at the magic of photography. To look at a subject, visualize its potential in your mind, then squeeze out an exposure and capture what you’ve seen to be preserved forever—on film or digitally—is instant gratification.

Does it provide you with emotional or intellectual satisfaction?
Sometimes with both.

5 cent subway

The New York pictures were taken decades ago. Do you still feel a connection to this work?
Very much so. Especially now that many of the images are scanned and minute nuances in the original negatives can be emphasized or subdued.

Have you done similar work since?
Yes. A few years ago while at a garden writers’ symposium in Toronto I made pictures of many of the buildings there in black-and-white 35mm. And rather than make individual prints of each frame I made a 16x20 enlarged contact sheet of each roll. Looks great. Another ongoing project is in Puerto Rico documenting the use of brilliant colors painted on both private homes and public buildings.

What years do your New York photos encompass?
Mostly 1946 to the mid-’50s.

Did you look at the work of other New York street photographers at that time?
All the time.

Did you get to know any of them?
No I didn't know any of them. Living about 60 miles from New York City limited my opportunities to meet them.

Thom McAn

What was your take on the members of the New York Photo League?
I always felt they were far above me. They were big names. They were the movers and shakers in photography. I was an upstart, trying to eke out a living doing my thing with animal photography.

How many street images did you make back then?
My NYC pictures? I’d say 100 to 200. I’m still searching through my negatives for forgotten images.

Did you have any particular challenges in getting the kinds of pictures you wanted?
Mostly waiting for the right light or weather, especially for some of the night shots. Fog is a great picture enhancer.

Did you have an underlying conception for these images?
Mostly deciding whether to include a person or people in the shot, then waiting until they were properly positioned.

El through city canyons

I find this work very incisive and engaged with the rhythms of the city, yet at the same time it feels somewhat emotionally detached. People are often photographed from behind, or at a distance, or even out of focus. Is it fair to say that you utilized the city’s inhabitants primarily from a graphic rather than emotional perspective?
Sometimes, but in some of my New York pictures people are dominant elements.

Put another way, were you more inspired by the physical character of the city rather than its inhabitants? I’m thinking of the picture of the El train dwarfed by the concrete canyons, which really emphasizes the city’s outsized sense of scale.

You don’t focus so much on the hustle bustle nature of the city as on its quieter, more muted moments. Is it fair to say your perspective is more in line with someone like Berenice Abbott, say, than a Sid Grossman?
I have long admired Abbot’s work, but never saw much of Grossman’s.

I also note an emphasis on means of transportation: taxis, buses, trains, ships, even a policeman’s horse. Why this fascination with modes of urban transport?
I was unaware of the transportation angle in these pictures, but now that you brought it to my attention, maybe it can be exploited.

Subway entry at Macy's

What do you think these photographs tell us about New York in the late 40s/early 50s?
Mostly that NYC is constantly changing. I realize that now that I don’t visit the city too often. I see something today that is picture-worthy, make a mental note to bring a camera next time I visit. Next time may be two or three months, and when I go there to make the picture, what I saw has been torn down.

If you were to photograph urban New York today, would you approach it any differently?
I still make NYC pix and I still look for the right light at the right time of the day or the right weather conditions. One of my to-do projects in is to re-shoot my 1940s-’50s pictures from the same vantage point of each shot.

What relationship do these vintage photos have to your other work?
They are entirely different. The NYC pix have never been a major project; they were a “busman’s holiday” sort of a thing. Flashback: When I made the choice in late 1949 to freelance I concentrated on cats using a 4X5 SPEED GRAPHIC and a 21/4 Rolleiflex. Many years later these were replaced with Hasselblads and Super D Graflexes. My “studio” was every room of our three-room apartment in Astoria, a subway ride from Manhattan. A pair of strobes was the extent of my lighting equipment. My late wife was my partner, my assistant, my secretary, my creative director. Without her I could not have succeeded. We struggled in Astoria for a little over a year; our second baby’s arrival prompted a move to larger quarters. We bought a three-bedroom house in Huntington, Long Island, where we lived for 10 years.

Penn Station cabs

At the promptings of some editors I expanded my photography to include dogs, then farm and zoo animals, still mostly in black and white, but toward the end of the 1950s magazines were going to all color, as was my shooting. Initially, one of the bedrooms was used as a proper studio, but the arrival of two more kids required that bedroom, so an even more proper studio was added to the Long Island house where we lived until 1960. The impending birth of our fifth child necessitated still another move. Buy now I was fairly well known for my animal photography—primarily cats and dogs—and getting good assignments from magazines and ad agencies. So we decided we’d move to a farm, which we found in New Jersey. A barn on the property was eventually converted to a proper studio.

Cat and dog photography requires an animal handler; my wife Maria was my handler and assistant. Sadly, she died in 1992. Without her, I had to give up my cat and dog photography in the studio. Flashback: With a bunch of kids and the uncertainty of freelancing income, I grew berries and vegetables to feed my family when nothing was coming in, i.e., no accounts receivables and nothing on the horizon. Even when finances improved I continued to grow edibles organically to feed us. With lots of solid experience in growing stuff I got published with both text and pix in various publications, including many stories in the New York Times. So after Maria died I did more and more garden writing and photography. So much so that now most of my photography is of gardens and to a much lesser degree of animals.

Queen Elizabeth I docking

(My profile of Walter Chandoha appeared in issue 57 of B&W. Be sure to visit his website to compare his personal and professional portfolios:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Seyda Deligonul: Whispers Within
Turkish-born Seyda Deligonul initially started out as a painter, working primarily in an abstract mode for the better part of two decades. But his growing fascination with the passage of time impelled him to eventually set aside his brush and pick up a camera, a machine ideally suited for chronological exploration. A longtime resident of Rochester, New York, Deligonul often focuses his attention on what he describes as nature’s “homeless” —flowers, weeds and shrubbery that are lost, ignored or trampled beneath hikers’ boots. This humble wildlife is for him a kind of prism through which he can give expression to time, memory, motion and beauty.

Seyda Deligonul

You developed a keen visual sensitivity at an early age. Did your parents encourage your artistic development?
Absolutely. When I look back I realize that they were very deliberate in the way they provided an environment for me, with the tools of the craft and the opportunity to enjoy them. I was never “pushed into” pursuing art, but art was in my life, very naturally.

Did you tend to "fix" images in your mind's eye from childhood on?
How did you know? At this age I still play games in business meetings; I look at someone’s face and compose it around an anchor. I try to develop a wholeness, as if I will mentally go back and reconstruct the imagery later. I play similar games even while driving my car. Jokingly, I say I will come as an owl in my next life. Supposedly, owls can turn their heads 360 degrees with a very keen sense of sight. Once I wrote:

i walked away with a face
stolen from a corner of the minute
a contour
raw on my eyes,
in my brain a glimpse
the tilt of a head
pale lipstick
i finished the rest: aletheia.
the unknown

Rolling Hills

You were a painter before becoming a photographer. How long did you paint?
About 20 years.

Why did you transition from painting to photography?
It wasn’t planned. I started about 15 or so years ago. It was an experiment to better understand depth and flatness.

What differences have you noted, if any, in how the mediums communicate?
In photography, we flow in the moment and our perceptions traverse us in the opposite direction. Photography is temporal in nature, in that things present themselves to us and our interpretations of them vary continuously. Even in the studio, where the photographer supposedly has full control, no frame is the same as the previous or subsequent frame. As such, a photographer is given only once chance in that moment. On the other hand, painting is not temporal; its discourse is based on superimposing perceptions. In that sense painting as an art form removes the element of time from the equation. To put it bluntly, photography is a live conversation with a moment, and painting is a series of conversations within our sphere of life.

Was your painting always abstract?
I started in the figurative mode and later turned to abstraction. In one sense, all paintings are abstract. Even a die-hard realist strips the reality from its moment and delivers it with new phrases and language. That is also true for photography.

Letchworth, NY

What attracts you to abstraction? And how do you feel photography as a medium lends itself to it?
Abstract work requires not only expression of content but also producing the building blocks for the architecture, inventing the grammar, and creating the structure. Moreover, none of these can be random; they have to be harmonious and communicable. What a wonderful challenge that is! This challenge is real in any form of abstraction in art, be it painting, photography or something else.

Your work tends to direct attention toward the kaleidoscopic beauty of the organic forms in our environment. What other themes do you try to express?
When I look at a toddler’s block pyramid what I am presented with visually is a triangle from one side and, with the slightest turn, from the top, a square with two diagonal lines, and a perfect square from the bottom-up angle. These renderings, with our wonderful capacity, are interpreted as a whole. That is, we are presented with a square but we construe it as a pyramid. This leap from what is presented to what we interpret involves many things, including time, motion and an entire language. I am fascinated by everything related to time (and I sway into nostalgic renderings in photography, for instance); I am fascinated by motion (and I enjoy the challenge of expressing flow); and I am delighted by conversing beauty with imagery.

Water Mirage

I’m struck by the phrase “whispers within” that you apply to your photographs. You seem to be saying that the natural world has much to teach and inspire us if only we would pay attention. Why do you think we don't?
This is the whole point. Perhaps one reason we feel that the vocabulary and grammar of the natural world is partly intelligible to us is because it’s like a second language, not our mother tongue. Since we are hardly fluent in it, it becomes very convenient for us to silence the nature. It feels hard to use the second language while you have the convenience of your mother tongue.

Is it more important for you to elicit an emotional or intellectual reaction from viewers?
Art is not only about production, but also about consumption. From the two a wonderful conversation emerges. I love to draw out emotional and intellectual reactions from viewers. A monologue is not the best way for art that is innately two-way.

What do you think gives your work its individuality?
I think being simple in phrases, and being sensitive to emotion are typical in my work. I try to adopt a soft and peaceful, almost mystical approach to abstractions. The spontaneity and innocent look are also traits I value. There is some laciness in my photos that some people say makes the imagery very soft, romantic and sensuous.

Spanish Dance

You reference nostalgia, and your work does indeed resonate with that emotion. What is this nostalgia rooted in?
Fascination with time. We are what we are because of an experience in which we flow. Perhaps the time is constant we flow.

What compels you to photograph nature? Do you work with other kinds of subject matter?
When I do nature photography I focus on the “homeless” inhabitants of nature—those things that are lost or ignored, the things that get crushed under the boot of a hiker. My subject matter will hardly make it to a tourist book. Nostalgia, motion and unrecognized beauty comprise my favorite subjects.

Is it more challenging to express complexity (visual/emotional/intellectual) with simple subject matter? Or, as your statement seems to imply, do you feel that complexity is inherent in everything?
“Tristan and Isolde” begins with a wrong chord. Recognizing Wagner’s intention, musicians, I think, call this opener Tristan-chord. After the first chord Wagner proceeds with a beautiful harmony to bring the off-chord intrigue to resolution. In such complexity, I think, the disharmony becomes the genesis for the simple but beautiful consonance. Put bluntly, complexity is the source of simple beauty. In chaos (also in disequilibrium, or broken patterns), there are multiple opportunities to express the beautiful, repeatedly and in the most simplistic ways.

Through the Garden Fence

With regard to visual complexity, there’s something simultaneously intimate and expansive about these images. Do you consciously strive for this effect?
That is the magic I am trying to be part of. The tension between nature’s complexity and the minimalist expression of it fascinates me. That is my playground.

Certain of your images, like “Mendon,” call to mind Cy Twombly drawings, especially his images of curving white lines on a dark background. Do you recognize this affinity?
You are very perceptive. He is very much influenced by Paul Klee and Franz Klein as much as I have been. We have tons of parallels. I have some abstracts from broken window displays with a duct tape holding the pieces; they display a remarkable resemblance to Franz Kline’s black-and-white expressionism. These were shot in run-down neighborhoods in Buffalo, New York with no intention of arriving at parallels with Kline’s work.


Are your images made digitally or traditionally?
They are digital.

It looks like you’re using a telephoto lens to flatten the image plane and push things further toward abstraction. Is this your preferred lens?
That is exactly what I do. I also play with the focus point. First, I create sense of flatness, and then, holding the focus on a particular anchor within the narrow depth of view, I compose. Within the flatness of a composition there are layers. This is the only way I know of to transform the magic of three-dimensional world into flat imagery.

Would it be fair to say that your pictures express a kind of visual tension between what we think we see when we look at a plant or flower or tree and what that plant or flower or tree actually represents?
Expressionism in photography may sound like a misnomer, but it is possible. And I think to a degree, I can identify myself with it. Often, nature presents itself in complexity that in most ways does not look much different than a painter’s extremely fast work on canvas. It reveals feelings and emotions, expressing gesturally, sometimes with large brush strokes, sometimes dappling with dripping paint onto canvas. The end result is characterized by a strong dependence on what appears to be accident and chance. It is up to the photographer to spot and seize the opportunity. As a side note, my work differs, perhaps, from the typical expressionism by its anchor where subject matter firmly establishes itself. There is no effort on my part to escape from the representation of the subject.

Waiting in the Storm

(I profiled Deligonul for B&W magazine's issue #51.)