Monthly Archives: January 2007

Profile of Photographer Alan Chin

Though New York-based photographer Alan Chin gets good-natured ribbing from his friends for being a film camera evangelist, he insists he is not overly avid about classical equipment. Yet he likes manual typewriters. He frequents a flea market in Park Slope. He’s an amateur historian who likes secondhand books. And, oh, he confesses that he has a stereo that uses vacuum tubes.

Over coffee on the Brooklyn waterfront, he shows me a classic Leica. Later at his apartment, he shows me a Nikon F with motor drive. Alan insists he has nothing against digital cameras. He himself uses them when the deadline pressure of an assignment calls for it, but he takes issue when people claim that digital technology is superior to film. He admits a penchant for the traditional look of black & white film. There is a sameness to a lot of digital imagery, he says. A lot of photographers are using the same cameras and digital sensors. Contrast that to the heyday of film when photographers would experiment with different film, chemicals and paper to get very different looks.

Alan grew up in New York’s Chinatown, where his parents worked in the garment industry. His parents came to the United States in part to escape a turbulent China. Alan’s father, Fow Sang Chin, came to the United States in1951. For several years, Fow Sang worked as a “presser,” one of the garment industry’s better paying, but more physically tasking jobs. His mother, brother and sister came to the United States much later. Alan was born in New York. Alan says his father was an avid amateur photographer, and he remembers being spoiled by the type of cameras his father had around the house.

Alan went on a scholarship to the “prestigious” and private Collegiate School For Boys, but much to the disappointment of his parents, he was “too rebellious” to finish. During what would have been his senior year, he traveled around America, hitchhiking for a good part. The work of artists like photographer Robert Frank and writer Jack Kerouac resonated with him.

Going Back to His Roots

Alan’s mother had not been back to Asia for years—and partly to see her own dying mother, partly in the hopes of motivating Alan to get back on track for a more “traditional,” professional job—his parents decided to take Alan back with them to see his maternal grandmother in Malaysia. Though Alan’s family is from Guangdong Province in China, the Asia trip also took them to Beijing, where as fortune would have it, the Tiananmen Protests were occurring. It was June 1989. Over several weeks, Alan covered some of the protests in the square, but he was on the outskirts of Beijing when the soldiers entered Tiananmen to clear it by force. Alan remembers rushing back. He found an abandoned bicycle and used it to get around the city, shooting photographs of that tumultuous time. He ended up selling some of the photos to Reuters.

When Alan got back to the United States, he entered New York University to study photography. After graduating, he went to work for the Bettmann Archive, which he remembers as a place where you were scolded if you were five minutes late getting back from lunch. The Bettmann Archive was acquired by Corbis, the image library founded by Bill Gates. One day Alan was wolfing down a dish of rice and beans so that he could get back to work on time, when he suddenly asked himself, “What am I doing? If I want to be a photojournalist, what am I doing running back to work for a company that is owned by the biggest tycoon of our times?” He says he went back and quit on the spot. With one last paycheck, he turned to freelance photography.

From New York to Global Hotspots

Alan got his break from The New York Times. He had four assignments handed down to him in quick succession in Sarajevo, Bosnia. “I don’t think they knew how young I was,” he says. Soon afterwards, bureau chief Chris Hedges had to fly out of town for a story that was breaking in Israel, and asked if Alan would mind going to London to take a satellite phone to Times correspondent John Burns, whose own satellite phone had been stolen while en route to Afghanistan, where the Taliban had just seized power. Only a few years ago, satellite phones were large, expensive (more than $30,000) and weighed over 25 pounds, Alan recounts.

To his surprise, by the time he got to London, Alan was then asked if he wanted to go to Afghanistan. As he was handed a plane ticket, an editor asked him whether he needed anything else. “Do you need cash?” “Uhm, sure,” he remembers saying. He says the editor handed him an envelope with $5,000 cash (the days when editors were that cavalier about money are long gone, he notes), heady times for a twenty-something-year-old, aspiring photographer. After the Afghan assignment he returned to the former Yugoslavia many times, to cover the war in Kosovo and the breakdown of Serbian society.

When he came back to New York, he still had to go about marketing himself like any other freelance photographer, but he now had some good assignments under his belt that he could show to editors.

In the Balkans, photojournalists had the ability to range freely (a contrast to his later experiences in Iraq, where he says it has become simply unsafe to travel so freely), and Alan roamed the country to cover story ideas. One that resonated with him was the discrimination against the Roma, or gypsies, who were disliked equally by both the Serbs and Kosovar Albanians.

Alan has been to Iraq several times to cover the war. The targeting of photojournalists in Iraq makes it very difficult to go out and interact with the local population, though, he says, adding that an intense debate erupted over whether journalists should arm themselves or work with armed guards.

Back stateside, he was blown away by the devastation to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. [See galleries at Huffington Post and Bag News Notes.] He has made frequent visits back to the city since first covering the storm’s immediate aftermath. He has documented the city’s return of Mardi Gras, the musicians and social life—to see what the locals are doing to bring back a semblance of their old lives. Though folk music has become a niche, festival-oriented music in many places, in New Orleans music is still intertwined with the people and the culture, Alan notes. Among Alan’s photos from Hurricane Katrina is the photo of a woman, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, draped in a soiled blanket that is emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes. She looks exhausted by the storm and the long wait for her government to lend a helping hand in the aftermath. It is iconic. The photo appeared in Newsweek.

Authenticity

Alan does not like to over-manipulate his prints: nothing heavily toned or burned, not too much contrast. He also strongly dislikes images that are set up, which is why Eugene Smith does not rank among his most favorite photojournalists (he explains, when I bring up the name). (Smith touched up the eyes of the peasant women at the funeral in his famed Spanish Village photo essay, because he wanted to change the direction in which the women were looking). Alan does want everyone to question the authenticity of photojournalism. He says people these days are much more skeptical of journalists and their perceived agendas.

“It is interesting that the most iconic photos from the Iraq War so far are the photos out of Abu Ghraib, most which were taken by the perpetrators of the abuses themselves, and the video of Saddam Hussein’s execution, illicitly filmed on a cell phone,” he says. “The scene is poorly lit. You see Saddam falling through a trap door, then the corpse illuminated by a camera flash, presumably from the official photographer on hand, as he starkly lights the aftermath of the execution. The verbal taunts, the cries of ‘Moktada, Moktada, Moktada.’ Who is your favorite film director? Nobody could have lit the scene better, or could have set up the situation more dramatically, in its sinister horror.”

On the other hand, Alan is fascinated by and has been documenting World War II re-enactors. While one of Alan’s friends, Katja Heinemann, plays up the absurdity of the role-playing using color and close-ups to highlight that the re-enactors are usually well beyond the age and shape of true soldiers, Alan takes a different tact. He uses cameras of that vintage and shoots in black & white. With the re-enactors so meticulous about every detail of their uniforms and weapons, Alan’s photos startle in how they throw you back to that era. He openly wonders why there is such an interest in Nazi memorabilia and such a large number of re-enactors who want to play German soldiers.

Alan thinks his late father, before he passed away, ultimately became proud of him and his work—even though his father never directly told him so. He stayed true to tough love form. “If I had a photo on the front page of The New York Times, he’d ask why I didn’t have one on the front page every day. He’d wonder why I was getting beaten out by other photographers,” Alan says with a laugh. Sifting through his father’s old negatives (which he recently rediscovered and began printing), makes him realize how good an amateur photographer his father was.

Apart from Robert Frank, Alan counts Larry Burrows (in particular, he points to his Vietnam helicopter story, “Yankee Papa 13”) and Gilles Peress among his inspirations. He likes the directness of Diane Arbus. “For war photography, Robert Capa, of course.” Alan says that the students graduating from today’s photography schools are well-trained technically and have “a sense of framing” that is beyond where he and his generation of photographers were when they themselves were coming out of school. Young photographers have been weaned on a steady diet of the photographic history that came before them. Yet a lot of the new photography coming out of them so far still lacks soul, empathy and understanding of the subjects photographed. “I’m not sure if that comes from experience or something else,” he says

At age 36, Alan says he is more practical then when he was 25. He wishes photographic programs took more effort to teach students about running a small business (including how to calculate tax deductions), marketing and promotion. He is much more practical about money. Though he does frequent assignments for journalism clients, for instance, he is not above doing weddings, because they pay far better than the magazines, and he can be choosy about the clients. Being pragmatic in this way helps him fund his longer-term projects, such as the hurricane recovery efforts by the citizens of New Orleans.

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Velibor Bozovic Interview, Part II

Brief continuation of the interview with Montreal-based photographer Velibor Bozovic.

Wayne: Can you talk about your work process for the Pronek Guide? For instance, did you identify passages that you wanted to illustrate, or did you take the mood from the novel and work from that vantage instead?

Velibor: No passages were identified before the photographs were taken; there were no pre-set guidelines or targets. All the photographs were taken while we (Aleksandar and myself) were walking around Chicago. We simply stepped into the space that defined Nowhere Man—we lived in that space, and all along I was taking pictures. I know where Nowhere Man comes from, and it is that understanding between us that made it easy to work together. The process didn’t require any “screenplay.” It was a dialogue between the photographs and the book mood, between the photographer and the writer; there was no requirement for the photographs to be descriptive. The passages and photographs were matched together only afterwards. Talking about it now makes me sad that we never got to complete the project, it was suppose to be an interactive guide, requiring the viewer / reader to participate.

Wayne: Can you talk about your photographic influences? Which photographers do you admire? In particular, are there any European photographers that might be unfamiliar to many Americans?

Velibor: There are so many it is really very hard to isolate a few. I admire all photographers for what they are trying to do, for making the art out of everyday reality, for stimulating us to imagine while looking at the ordinary.

But, should I need to mention some names, the first that come to mind is Richard Copeland Miller, who I believe was American. Sadly, he died prematurely, and there is not much trace [of him] anymore. When I was starting I saw his photographs from Passage: Europe, and it opened up a whole new world for me. It’s a coincidence that this work came out as I was starting out, and it really made me believe in photography.

There are so many great photographers in Europe at the moment. One that I’ll mention is Klavdij Sluban [see also the gallery from Sluban’s Aftermath], French, whose work I’m very, very fond of. Also, young Bosnian photographer Zijah Gafic, who created the beautiful story “The Last Bosnian Village”when he was only 20, and went on to photograph all over the world. But then there are hundreds of great photographers, who am I to pick? It is rather subjective. I live in North America too and I know nothing more about European photography today than anybody else interested in photography on this continent.

Hugo Infante Interview

Santiago, Chile-based Hugo Infante specializes in crisis photojournalism. His work has appeared in Newsweek (en Español), Stern, The New York Post, The Los Angeles Times, London Times, and various Chilean magazines and newspapers. He is a contributing photographer at Polaris Images.

Wayne: What in your childhood helped you get started as a photographer? As you point out in your biography, you came of age in Chile during the political, economic and cultural shift from Allende to Pinochet. What memories do you have of that time? How did that transition impact your career choice? The way you see visually?

Hugo: [It] was my father’s old Nikon that introduced me to this world, but it was the demonstrations against the dictatorship that caught me. I realized the world was watching us when I saw a bunch of skinny, long-hair photographers shooting everything, and getting [struck by] the police. They were amazing. In those days, the police were really violent. They had respect for nothing. Being a photojournalist was a dangerous job in the ‘80s.

I was one year old when the military took control of the country. I am part of the so-called “Pinochet Boys.” As many others photographers of my generation, we grew up in a dictatorship. Pinochet and his aides were everywhere.

The influence is important because the most important graphic referents of Chilean photography are pictures from those days. Photographers like Alvaro and Alejandro Hoppe, Juan Carlos Cáceres, Santiago Llanquín and Marcos Ugarte did an amazing job. They started documenting a country in dangerous days with amazing images.
Personally, sometimes I feel that our generation will be remembered as the generation who buried Pinochet. And we did it two weeks ago. But the most important thing that I learned from those guys was looking for unexpected drama, contradictions of reality.

Wayne: How and why did you get started as a crime reporter at La Tercera? What kind of crimes were you covering? How has that work impacted your work as a photographer—for instance, was there a natural segue into covering crises? What, if any kind of resonance, do you see in the work of Weegee, who used to cover the New York crime beat?

Hugo: I started as a writer, but I was always carrying my camera. I usually gave a hand to the photographers shooting the Santiago crime beat. [It] was amazing for me. [I] started shooting with real legends like Mario Riveros, Marco Muga, Carlos Ibarra and Samuel Mena. It was a great learning experience, not only for shooting pics. They taught me journalism—covering murders, dealing with people who don’t want to talk with you, with people who want to harm you, but when they realize that you are [just] doing your job, they open their houses and give you interviews and pictures. We got close to the people. It was a big learning experience. I put all that knowledge later into my work covering crises.

Weegee came to my eyes when I was in college. It was amazing to see how a guy can see an entire world living without the daylight, and how a guy can capture their bizarre reality. It is a photographic work close to my reality. A friend of mine says my work is impacted by Weegee. I don’t think so. I can’t see how. The only thing we have in common is that I was a night shift editor for many years. I saw the bizarre [side of] Santiago.

Wayne: How did you make the decision to go to Iraq for United Press International (UPI)? Why did you decide to stay during the Shia Revolution?

Hugo: After 11 years as news editor in La Tercera (the second largest newspaper in Chile), I decided to grab my camera and start shooting again. It was a hard decision, which I started by doing stringer jobs for UPI in Chile. After getting the “breaking news rhythm” again, I decided to leave my 11-year job with that newspaper. I talked with UPI, and they gave me the stringer position in Baghdad. I grabbed all my savings and jumped in an airplane to Baghdad. My job situation changed from a fancy position in Chile to being another dude with a camera in Baghdad.

That period was really dangerous for all the photographers in Baghdad. I arrived on March 17, 2004. But it wasn’t until April 5th, a day before the killing of the U.S. [military] contractors in Fallujah, when the situation changed for all of us. That came with the Shia Revolution, when the U.S. Army started a man hunt for Muktada Al Sader. The country was exploding everywhere. It was a time when you weren’t able to leave the hotel. Places were surrounded by the U.S. Army and their tanks. It was a really heavy situation. My editor Pat Benic called me to offer me a ticket back to Washington DC. But I decided to stay, as Mitch Prothero (the UPI Bureau Chief) did too. And others like Jason P. Howe (WPN), Eros Hoagland (Redux), Shawn Baldwin and many others, most of them with foreign bureaus. A lot of guys left the country, but others stayed too.

We were waiting weeks for an “embed” in Fallujah. Some got it. Personally, I thought it was a waste of time. [For a] whole week, I could not manage to go out for pictures, so I increased my writing production for the Latin America Services.

Wayne: You note that you teach at a private college. Are you teaching photography? If so, how has your experience in crisis situations impacted the way you teach?

Hugo: I am teaching Crisis Coverage at the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez for senior-year journalism students. As a journalist in Chile, I had assignments covering crisis in the country, and as a editor, I had to lead teams too. Also, the Baghdad experience was important.

I don’t teach photography, but I use all the photography experience and work to teach how to cover a crisis. With the experience of other photographers and myself, I developed a program which includes many highlight moments, such as WWII, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the First Gulf War. I focus all my teaching in photography, but—sounds ironic—I am not teaching photography. The journalism school is reluctant to teach photography. They think that is a job for other guys… bump!

Wayne: Can you talk about your work process? How much and what kind of research do you do before you go to a new part of the world to cover it as a photojournalist? And what do you do differently and similarly to other photojournalists in making contacts, learning about the situation on the ground?

Hugo: If something taught me writing journalism, it was researching. If I have to make an assignment in Bolivia about the Aymaras in the Titikaka Lake, I check all the pictures related with that job. I don’t want to shoot images already taken. Also, I check the crisis situation, internet connections, phones rates, cars rental, taxis, accommodations, [and so on]. I don’t leave anything to my good luck. My idea to get off the plane and start shooting. I won’t waste time looking for hotels, etc. Sometimes, when the assignment gives me the chance, I contact my subjects before I arrive in the country. Second, as your question says, making contacts on the ground is the most important thing. A fixer can be useful, but in some places, like war or crisis zones, or in countries where you don’t speak the language, making contacts on the ground is better. For example, in 2004, I started a job with Peruvian immigrants. I am so close to them that when they have a problem with the Chilean police, they call me. They know me when I go downtown, and they allow me to shoot anything. Other photographers cannot, because it is dangerous. Now, I am in long-term research of drug dealers in a poor neighborhood in Santiago. My approach to them was to drink a few beers with them on the street.

Wayne: What are the similarities and differences between your crisis reportage and your more personal work, such as your rodeo series? What appealed to you about the rodeo?

Hugo: I am gonna be real honest. The crisis reportage costs money. You need tons of money to do that job, especially if the crisis reportage is out of Latin America. It is hard for a Latin American photographer to do freelancing in the Middle East. The incomes here are real low, for everyone. For that, it is really important that somebody hires you for crisis reportage. Reportage [assignments] like [the] rodeo are close to you. It is not necessary to invest tons of money to do it. But when you see the results, you realize that the rodeo becames really important like any other reportage. It is a matter of chances. If I had more chances to do crisis reportages, I would focus my work in that only. But it is only [what] we have. That happens for living in the ass of the world.

Wayne: Who are your favorite photographers and photo influences, and why?

Hugo: Capa and Natchwey for their war coverage. They represent two moments in photo history. Sounds like a cliché, but they are the best of their times. But, you have a lot of monsters of photography around them like [Joe] Rosenthal and Don McCullin. However, I feel more of a sense for McCullin. His composition is so simple and that makes him a genius.

Wayne: Which Chilean and/or Latin American photographers do you feel should be better known internationally? Can you explain why you think they are important?

Hugo: There are two Chilean photographers that should be better known. One is Claudio Almarza. He may be the best nature photographer in Latin America. He is the only guy who knows Patagonia like his hand. He has documented the place for years. His work appeals to things that you don’t see in any other photographers. No one can wait for months for a Puma. He does it.

Carlos Espinoza is the teacher of many young photographers. He is recognized for that. But he has an amazing documentary work about religion in Chile. He has spent the last 10 years doing that. Sooner than later, he will became the main documentary photographer in Chile. If you see Espinoza’s work, you will see [the blending of] commitment and idea.

Publicity

Writer Sue Henderson posts tips from “cool publicist” Lauren Cerand.

Matt Denton Interview

Graphic artist Matt Denton writes and edits Matt’s Classic Camera Collection, one of the best known websites about collecting and using “classic cameras.”

Wayne: What started you on the road to camera collecting? Any idea how many you own? Besides camera accessories, what else do you collect?

Matt: I must have always had a bit of the collecting bug—at one time or another I’ve collected comics, CDs, books, DVDs, tools, musical instruments, and of course cameras. You could probably call my rather full bar a collection! But I think what got me started on the road to camera collecting was my growing interest in photography and the fascination with the multitude of available used equipment, and in turn the quest for good bargain cameras and lenses.

Beyond that, I find that I’m not only interested in cameras as tools, but also as objects of engineering and craftsmanship, and am fascinated by their historical context as well. Along the way I got involved in learning about the history of each camera and the company that made it; that’s just a symptom of my knowledge-hungry brain. As far as the number of cameras I own, I’m sure it’s in excess of 100 cameras. I usually say 100 as a round number as I stopped counting somewhere along the way.

Wayne: Which do you use most heavily, and why? When you last updated the “Additional Notes” section of your web site, you said that you often carry a Lomo, Olympus XA2 or “the Camera of the Day.” What is in your daily carry kit now, and why?

Matt: I still carry the XA2 just about everywhere I go, it lives in my attache along with a host of other things like my iPod and a notepad. It’s just a great little take-it-out-and-shoot camera. Good metering, small and has a great lens. If I have a ‘new’ camera to test or get an urge to pull out an old favorite I take that around in a little SLR bag. My travel kit for our last few out-of-town trips has been either the Minolta XD5 with Rokkor 2.0, 2x extension and 28mm or the Nikon N6006 with 28-80 zoom. Both are relatively lightweight and versatile, and both take excellent photos. I also use the FED-2 a lot on trips, it’s good to have a fully mechanical camera in case you get in a spot where batteries are a problem.

Wayne: When did you first start collecting cameras? Which ones were your first, and why did they catch your eye? How has the market in secondhand cameras changed since you started collecting?

Matt: The first camera I ever bought myself was the Pentax P30t, new, in 1991. It was supposed to be my end-all-be all camera and served me well for years before I added my first secondhand camera, a [Pentax] K1000 in about 1996. I quickly adopted the K1000 as my primary camera. Around that time, after simply dabbling on and off for a while, I really got into photography as I wanted to know as much about taking good pictures as I could before our first child arrived. I took a couple classes on printing and studio lighting, and started shooting a lot more. At some point later, on a whim, I did some research which led me to start what would eventually become a collection, beginning with a Kiev 4 from ebay. It’s a very well-made copy of a Zeiss Ikon classic, and so my first cameras tended to be Zeiss Ikon because of my initial research. I branched out from there but still have a fondness for the German-made classics of the ’30s and ’40s, including the ones made for Kodak by Kodak AG (formerly Nagel Kamerawerk).

Wayne: You have called Ruth Bernhard, one of the former members of f64, one of your favorite photographers. How has she influenced your work in nudes, specifically? Who are some of your other photographic influences? How much of a connection is there between the photographers you admire, the cameras they used, and the cameras you collect?

Matt: Ruth’s photos are like love poems to her subjects and the beauty of the light that falls on them. They are so sensual and have such visual depth while maintaining a focused simplicity. I only wish I could take pictures like that, or could at least see the way she did. Other favorite photographers of mine include Peter Basch, Patrick Demarchalier, [Henri] Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston, Michael Kenna, Cecil Beaton, the list goes on and on. But I can’t limit my influences just to photographers as it’s about the whole picture, not just the craft. I’d also have to include artists such as John J. Muth and Chris Van Allsburg, and directors like [Akira] Kurosawa.

As far as the cameras, I would say there’s very little if any connection between the cameras I’ve collected and the cameras other photographers have used. In fact I don’t know what most of them use or used. Part of the point of my collection in a way is that it’s not the camera itself that makes the picture worth looking at, it’s the person behind the camera and knowing when and how to take the photo. Box cameras can take really nice pictures, depending on your intent! To bring it full circle to the original question I have to say that with many of my own favorite pictures, I feel like I was compelled to take them, as if the subject demanded it, not me. That’s something Ruth always said about her own work. I know I always regret whenever I’ve not listened to that little voice that says ‘click’.

Wayne: How did you go from studying writing to working in the graphic arts?

Matt: Well, there’s no direct line there. As long as I can remember I’ve been writing, drawing, painting, designing and photographing in one capacity or another. When I got to college and had to pick a major, I found that my chosen school lacked a commercial arts program (they have a nice fine arts program, but I didn’t feel it would be marketable). So I chose to concentrate on writing, my other passion at the time, and attempted to parallel my academic studies by pursuing graphic arts as a career, with mixed results. My specialties were logo design and illustration. I have also designed a couple of typefaces, one of which (called A.D. Mono) shows up in Linux distributions and on the occasional website. Design did eventually lead me into computers, and later systems administration, my day (and sometimes night) job. And of course the design experience and classes are reflected in my website design and some of my photographic compositions.