1960’s Photo History

Theatre House, 1970, Museum of Modern Art

In the spirit of Marcus Aurelius, i return to this Blog.

We know of the era labeled the Renaissance and also the Enlightenment. What will our time be called? The Photographic Age.  Photography is now everywhere, all the time. Everything that is sold is photographed. Interviews must have photographs. The supermarket check out stand is mostly photography.  Cell cameras, dashboard cameras, security cameras, drone cameras all making pictures. At least 250 million photos are posted each day on Instagram. “There is something happening and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” Bob Dylan

When I started making pictures in the 1960’s,  creative photography was a wild west side show to the main events of music, cars and politics. It attracted unenlightened, unsophisticated, passionate loners. Women could do it just as good as men.  With extra film in your pocket, you could make pictures any place.  You had only to look for that place where Cartier Bresson said “the pulse beat a little closer to the surface.”  You had always to be looking.  When you felt you’d found it, stop, push the button.  Most of the time, there was no picture   But you could only know that after hours in the darkroom.  And if you thought that your new picture would stop traffic, what could you do with it? There were no galleries, no museums, no reviewers, no collectors, no magazines, no rules and no money. The art gallery dealers who sold real art counseled that as long as you had the negative, you could make hundreds of copies, thereby making any one copy worthless.  But more and more students wanted to learn creative photography.  Prior to this wave of interest, photography was taught in trade schools, where students were encouraged to buy expensive cameras and studio lighting equipment.  These new photographers didn’t want to make pictures for clients.  They wanted to make pictures for themselves.  A second hand market popped up.  The photography industry had introduced the 35mm, single lens reflex with interchangeable lens, claiming that it would give you precisely the pictures you wanted. It was a hoax.  These large, heavy, slow, noisy cameras became albatrosses around the necks of tourists everywhere, while the old small, light, quick and quiet range-finder cameras became cheap.  The 1933 Leica lll had a telescoping lens, which got wobbly after repeatedly being pulled out and pushed back in.  By carefully wrapping the barrel of the extended lens with layers of string, the lens could be stabilized.  A great camera cheap.  In the 1950’s the Japanese started making knockoffs of German cameras.  By the 60’s, those cameras trickled down to the student market.  The 35 mm still camera was an offshoot of the 35 mm movie industry.  There was so much of 35 mm movie film that still cameras were designed to take the 35 mm format.  In a movie camera, film moves from top to bottom.  In a still camera, film moves from left to right.  Both have sprocket holes on the edge.  The difference is the light sensitive coating. When the photography boom started, Kodak made 35mm film available in 100 ft. rolls that you had to roll into cassettes yourself.  The cost was a penny a shot. By showing your camera, you could get in pretty much everyplace.  As one of my teachers, John Collier, the FSA photographer, said, “the camera is a passport.  I takes you places.”  People sought these new photographers to do publicity shots or weddings saying that they would be willing to pay for the film and paper and “think of the exposure you’d get”.  Nonsense.  Photographers did it for the challenge to make original pictures in  hackneyed situations.  One of my schoolmates, Annie Leib, figured out how to make original pictures and money at the same time. The rest of us went into our darkrooms and disappeared. I knew a guy who would leave his pictures in the developer for an hour, while he had lunch. Normal development time was 2 minutes. I knew another guy who abhorred black or white in black and white photographs. His pictures were only shades of gray. There was a woman who photographed street people as if they were in a studio. Free from the possibility of success, these new photographers were free to get the shot.  But it wasn’t long before a few curatorial/entrepreneurs realized that money could be made out of this craze.  it just had to be cleaned up, organized, rationalized and throttled.