Clocks for Seeing

December 17, 2011

Cindy Sherman by Abe Frajndlich

Portraits of the beguiling Cindy Sherman by Abe Frajndlich. The color photo is the cover shot of Abe’s new book, Penelope’s Hungry Eyes, just published by the acclaimed German publishing house Schirmer/Mosel. The Preface is written by Henry Adams. All of Abe’s photographs are Copyright © 2011 Abe Frajndlich 2011, courtesy of Schirmer/Mosel

It’s next time again.

The holidays are upon us and it is inevitable you will either take or be in some new photographs. The camera, once rare and wonderful, is now everywhere and therefore almost ignored. It has become so much a part of our lives it ironically has become almost invisible. Who gives it a moment’s thought? I’d like to try and give it serious consideration for a while and hope something here might come to mind as you are asked to say “cheese” in the coming weeks.

Canaletto painted this view from a palazzo near Venice's Rialto bridge in Venice around 1722.

Canaletto painted this view from a palazzo near Venice’s Rialto bridge in Venice around 1722.

In Venice, in order to get from here to there you have to cross over the bridges. There are only four over the grand canal and the tops of these are always “photo ops” for visitors. I usually try to wait while people frame their loved ones just so, and not ruin their picture by walking in between them, but I’m sure (like the mystery writer Donna Leon said of her protagonist inspector Brunetti) I must appear as a blurry shadow in countless photographs I tried to avoid. The other day I snapped the photograph below and sent it to my Art History Professor friend with the email title: “Faux Canaletto.” He wrote back a simple question. “I wonder what he (Canaletto) would think if he saw this?” I am pretty sure it would blow his mind into smithereens.

I snapped this photo from the top of the Venice's Rialto bridge with an iPhone 4S. It took all of 15 seconds to take it and then send it to friends around the world.

I snapped this photo from the top of the Venice’s Rialto bridge with an iPhone 4S. It took all of 15 seconds to take it and then send it to friends around the world.

It is almost impossible to imagine the world before photography. Canaletto painted so that others could share his world. He laboriously depicted what he saw. He did this with consummate skill in such carefully painted detail that it must have seemed like high def TV appears to us today. He took liberties, as any great painter should, but in large part he tried to depict the real world. Something we do now in five seconds on our telephones and then we dispatch our snapshots around the world. It would have to be seen by the eighteenth century mind as a toy of the devil.

It is my occupational hazard to adore photography but only rarely do I stop to ponder the miracle of it. One writer who tried to investigate the philosophical meaning of photography is Roland Barthes.

The writer Roland Barthes had a ferocious intellect and his writings about photography are filled with philosophical insight. Reading him changes the way you see.

The writer Roland Barthes had a ferocious intellect and his writings about photography are filled with philosophical insight. Reading him changes the way you see.

His Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography is one of those books I have to read in small doses. I read eight paragraphs three times through and then stop and think about it for a while and then reread and finally I seem to understand part of what he means. He is devastatingly brilliant. He works really hard to define the photographic process. Here is a sample:

I observed that a photograph can be the object of three practices (or of three emotions, or of three intentions): to do, to undergo, to look. The Operator is the Photographer. The Spectator is ourselves, all of us who glance through collections of photographs – in magazines and newspapers, in books, albums, archives … And the person or thing photographed is the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum, any eidolon emitted by the object, which I should like to call the Spectrum of the Photograph, because this word retains, through its root, a relation to ‘spectacle’ and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.

Perky to contemplate for the holiday season isn’t it? But in context, the “death” so fascinating to Barthes is the stoppage of time. His “Spectrum” and eidolon (spirit) is something we all really enjoy about photography. We see loved ones now gone. We see and hold in our hands, or on our screens, that which we cannot see in life anymore. “Taking” a photograph is for some cultures taking part of the person’s soul. When I traveled in India the vocabulary was different. I used to say, “May I pull your picture?” Pulling instead of taking, but if you let me “shoot” you, all these words imply I somehow capture something from you.
Roland Barthes again:

The portrait-photograph is a closed field of forces. Four image-repertoires intersect here, oppose and distort each other. In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.

In other words, a strange action: I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture (comparable to certain nightmares). In terms of image repertoire, the Photograph (the one I intend) represents that very subtle moment when, to tell-the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a specter.

The Photographer knows this very well, and himself fears (if only for commercial reasons) this death in which his gesture will embalm me. . . .  they turn me, ferociously, into an object, they put me at their mercy, at their disposal, classified in a file, ready for the subtlest deceptions.

Against this backdrop I would like for you to imagine how utterly intimidating it must be to photograph a photographer? Someone who viscerally understands all the implications of what Barthes describes above. And, to make it even worse, this photographer whose image you want to “take” is not some friend of yours, he or she is a total stranger.

Abe Frandlich’s portrait of the superb photographer Bill Brandt

Worse than that, what if this unwilling subject was one of your heroes? What if this person was a “god” of photography? How do you even make that call when you know what you are going to hear from behind the curtain is a deep, terrifying voice shouting, “Who goes there? Who are you to even ask that I interrupt my work up here on Mt. Olympus to come down to terra firma and sit for you?”

Self portrait of Abe Frajndlich taken a few years ago but if you meet Abe these days chances are this is pretty much what you are going to see.

Self portrait of Abe Frajndlich taken a few years ago but if you meet Abe these days chances are this is pretty much what you are going to see.

Enter Abe Frajndlich who has a way of ripping past every flimsy curtain put in front of him. With his charm, his ferocious tenacity and his winning smile, Abe has managed to capture practically every great photographer of the twentieth century. These amazing photographs have just been released in a new book you have got to see.

Portrait of legendary LIFE magazine photographer Alfred Eisensdaedt.

Portrait by Abe Frajndlich of legendary LIFE magazine photographer Alfred Eisensdaedt.

Abe began this project thirty years ago. His obsession with photography extends to his heroes behind the lens. When he first moved to Boston I like to think about Abe leafing through the big books of great photographers that he found in his mentor Minor White’s library. (Minor White was one of the founding editors of the superb photography magazine Aperture.)

There is a wonderful opportunity for visual education in such books but most of us don’t see with Abe’s intensity. When Abe looks at a photograph he really goes to school on it and this visual memory has served him well. Most of the portraits in Abe’s new book make a visual connection to the photographic work of his famous subjects. When you look through the book there will be portraits of many photographers you know and some photographers you don’t. Abe’s portraits drop visual clues like bread crumbs. Given the impressive reputations of his sitters, these portraits offer reference points to help you on an investigative journey of the history of photography. Click on the photographer portraits to go to links featuring their works.

Abe Frajndlich's portrait of Robert Frank who is known to play with shadows.

Portrait of Robert Frank who is known to play with shadows.

After reading Barthes, and thinking about his insights, Abe’s pictures have become even more meaningful for me. Look at all the ways he and his subjects have conspired to cheat death. Maybe you think this an overstatement but I think it accounts for the true meaning of the impressive achievement of the entire project. There is an uncomfortable restlessness in many of these pictures. Some of them seem forced, as if they captured an awkward and embarrassing pause in a conversation when both parties suddenly feel self conscious and shy. I think no topic brings up those sorts of pauses than a conversation about mortality.

Portrait of Louise Dahl-Wolfe; a fashion muse.

Abe Frajndlich’s portrait of Louise Dahl-Wolfe; a fashion muse.

Everyone in the room knows there is nothing worse in a photograph than someone who does not look animated and lifelike, who sits dead as a doornail, who looks wooden and too-posed and conveys no energy to the lens. There are all sorts of props and tricks and dances and contrivances to make these photographs come alive. Both Abe and his famous subjects know that compelling photographs must rise above the innate inertia of death and in these portraits both sitter and photographer have conspired to reach for something very elusive – immortality.

Abe Frandlich took this portrait of German photographer Thomas Struth known for his oversize pictures of people in museums.

Photo of German photographer Thomas Struth known for his oversize pictures of people in museums.

To close I quote from Roland Barthes again. This is a thrilling quotation and is the source for the title of this blog. Something for you to think about the next time you hear someone has taken your picture:

For me, the Photographer’s organ is not his eye (which terrifies me) but his finger: what is linked to the trigger of the lens, to the metallic shifting of the plates (when the camera still has such things). I love these mechanical sounds in an almost voluptuous way, as if, in the Photograph, they were the very thing – and the only thing – to which my desire clings, their abrupt click breaking through the mortiferous layer of the Pose.

For me the noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches – and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.

Until next time with much love I remain your,



  • Thomas Lee Randleman says:

    With the wonderful photographers I have just looked at I thought of another who passed away this month. Eve Arnold. Her photographs of people in film and theatre are extraordinay for their “captured moments.” Those in particular which find fascinating are her photographs of Josephine Baker. Her body of work is well worth looking at.

  • thomas, this time since the subject is my book and my work,

    you have left me speechless. how do you do it? molto grazie.

  • martina says:

    Dear Tommaso,

    Your blog is always an amazing invitation to a thousand reflections– which is like metaphysical photography! I have not seen Abe Frajindlich’s book of photographs of photographers, but it sounds very marvelous and I want to see it, now you have invited me to it. I LOVE the way you spoke of “pulling” a photograph from a person. I think the word matters. I love the way Barthes concentrates on the trigger finger, the shutter speed, the “click”– and how one feels captured in a photo– but also with layers on layers of what the single image means; and how a photographer who LOVES you, SEES you, and has the exact moment you are most alive “clicked” the capturing photograph. My dad was a painter, and he took thousands of photos, as well. His way of seeing the world, as he took the photos, and as we watched the slideshow later, is how I learned to see. His critique of his own work through my childhood and youth and early adulthood taught me so much, even subconsciously, non-verbally! He never taught me to check the shutter speed, or any of the technical parts of photography. But every morning when I walk on the beach, and that cloud of misty light is lying on top of the ocean, I wonder again how a great photographer would capture it. I think it would be like Pablo Casals playing the Bach cello concertos, day after day, decade after decade– it is not likely I would ever really be satisfied with the way I caught that light. I remember when you sent me that perfect photo of Venice– breathtaking, and seemingly effortless. How the world conspired to present it to you is a marvel. But also, thousands of people streaming over the bridges of Venice before and after you would not have had the trigger finger on the camera to “pull” that miraculous image from the myriad images around them. So here’s to you, dear friend, and to Abe, and to all the wonderful photographers I have known, who are trying to “pull” the life out of the moments, the most beautiful and alive moments, and keep them for us! Thanks for your constant valentines for the eyes. Thanks for enlarging my world in breathtaking ways. Thanks for “lifting up” my eyes!

  • Dear Tommaso,

    Thank you for your splendid insight about photography! We are approaching Christmas, and I can recall when I was eleven years old that my favorite present was a Kodak Instamatic camera…the square format. I am 53 years old, and photography has come a long way since then. I remember how careful I was before taken a picture. My dad told me that I had to think well before shooting a photo, because developing the film was expensive. I believe that was the moment when I learned how to “see” and choose what to take. Years later in the dark room, I was certainly happy to have taken a few rolls of black and white photos and play for hours. Needless to say, with the advance of technology, everyone has access not only to take hundreds of pictures in a couple of hours, but also to change the images through photo shop. It’s no news that photographs have been altered in the dark room in the past, but one of my favorite stories is when the famous photographer George Pratt Lynnes was taken photos of Gloria Swanson, soon after she had played Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard”. George asked the famous star: “Gloria, what about retouching the pictures?” and she replied “Preserve the illusion darling, but there’s no need to go mad”. I have always enjoyed this comment…especially when I see how many people have gone “mad” erasing the entire personality of people’s faces in Billboards, magazines, and everyone starts looking alike. If it’s done well, then it succeeds to be the work of an artist, nevertheless, if it’s done badly, the artificiality becomes to obvious.

    Thank you Tom for a great blog, happy holidays, and I’ll be remembering you the next time I say cheese!

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