Photographers who inspire - Rolleiflex Camera

You know that I love the comments here and the banter on twitter. I am so lucky to have such charming and fun and smarty-pants readers. One of them, Dave Cooper, made a comment on my blog post about Vivian Maier. And in it he introduced me to ANOTHER street photographer who like Vivian shot for years in obscurity. In fact his photographs weren't discovered until 45 years AFTER he died.

Thanks Dave Cooper (check out his site - he's a professional photographer with a tasty sense of style. And married to Jen of Classic Play).

That longish preamble aside, my POINT is that while I was looking through Vivian Maier's portfolio, I saw a certain type of camera in her self portraits.

Holding it at waist height. What looks like two lenses. Some kind of strange attachment on top. And obviously a film camera too.

Then I looked at the website of the photographer that Dave pointed me to. A New York Times article about Frank Oscar Larson noted the he would go out "...armed with his favourite Rolleiflex camera..." What is this camera?

It's a Rolleiflex. Introduced in Germany in 1929, it's STILL manufactured today. 

The bottom lens produces the picture while the top lens shows you what it will look like. You hold it at waist height and look through the top.

It's a quiet, quick loading film camera. Light weight. Produces superior quality photographs. Perfect for street photography.

The Rolleiflex was Irving Penn's first camera. Richard Avedon and Robert Doisneau used it too in the early and middle parts of his career.

And accessible both technically and financially for amateurs like Vivian Maier and Frank Oscar Larsson.

Have you ever used one? I've never shot with a film camera being so new to this. The man has - when we met it was ALL film. Now I am intrigued. I might JUST have to track one down and give it a whirl.

Photographers who Inspire - Vivian Maier

I've been thinking a lot lately about time. Time to live, time to create. Especially time to create. How to MAKE time to create. How to create in the little time that we do have. You know, because few of us have the luxury of spending all of our waking hours making art. 

There's a photographer who I find inspiring partly because of the quality of her work. Her street photography is stunning - so stunning that her portfolio can hold its own against other famous street photographers. (I've just started a class in street photography - planning to improve my own fledgling skills).

I find her especially inspiring because she did her work in the small moments, the in-between moments, the moments that you grab once you have taken care of your other responsiblities. Once everyone was fed and watered and cared for, that's when she picked up her camera.

Vivian Maier was a nanny. Without any formal training and with no recognition of her portfolio that lay undiscovered in a storage locker until 2007, Vivian Maier took over 100,000 negatives over 5 decades in New York and Chicago. 

Let's take a look at her work. Take note of where your eye goes as you look at this photograph. The bits of drama and life with the kids playing, the conversations in the windows, the women walking, the man observing the street.

Vivian Maier street photography

In 1949 Maier started with a Kodak Brownie that had no shutter speed, no focus control and no aperture dial. She purchased a Rolleiflex in 1952 and starting shooting photos in New York where she worked for a family in Southhampton.

Vivian Maier street photography

It's a challenge to take black and white photos, to take into account the range of greys.

Vivian Maier street photography

Vivian Maier street photography


In 1956 she moved to Chicago to work for the Gensburg family caring for their three boys. She remained close to them for the rest of her life. While in their employ she had her own private bathroom that she also used as a darkroom to develop her black and white film. 

Vivian Maier street photography

Vivian Maier street photography

Vivan Maier street photography

Never married, never had any children, and never really had any close friends. 

She was eccentric, strong, heavily opinionated, highly intellectual, and intensely private. She wore a floppy hat, a long dress, wool coat, and men’s shoes and walked with a powerful stride. With a camera around her neck whenever she left the house, she would obsessively take pictures, but never showed her photos to anyone. An unabashed and unapologetic original.

But she wasn't so private that she didn't take any self portraits.

Vivian Maier street photography

Vivan Maier street photography

By the early 1970's she worked for other families as the Gensburg boys had grown. No longer having a darkroom available nor the funds to pay for processing, she began to amass a huge collection of undeveloped film. Boxes and boxes. Think mini-storage amount of boxes.

By the 1990's she had fallen on hard times and stopped taking photos. Most of her possessions, including her photographic portfolio, ended up in storage. Remember, no one had any idea of the quality and the quantity of her photographs.

She became homeless for a time and the Gensburg family helped out by finding her a studio apartment. She fell on some ice in 2009 and passed away shortly thereafter.

But what about those boxes of undeveloped film and photographs? They were sold off in 2007 to pay for storage rent arrears. A real estate agent and history buff, John Maloof bought Maier's negatives and prints at auction while researching a Chicago neighbourhood. 

By now 90% of her work has been archived and catalogued. 

Think about it - all of this amazing work and no one knew. I mean, they knew that she took photographs. But they had no idea how talented she was and the portfolio that she had amassed. A portfolio amassed in those in-between moments. Not working as a photographer full time. Not professionally trained. Just finding some time here and there to take some photos of whatever captured her imagination.

What you do you create in your in-between moments?

Photographers who Inspire - Anna Webber

I'm a visual person and long before I started learning to take photographs I spent a lot of time looking at them. We've all probably seen thousands of images. But once in a while, one jumps out at me and I NEED to understand it. I keep looking at it. I go back to it. I study it. And I find out who took it and how they did it. 
It's part of my learning so that in some small way I can take another baby step to improving my own work. I can't go to photography school so this is how I learn. And like I do with jazz music, I break it down and figure it out and then try and emulate it. Not copy - but learn and adapt my own style.
Lately I've been fascinated with portraits.
Here's one that grabbed me a week ago. It's the cover for the recently released CD by grammy award winning jazz singer Kurt Elling. It was taken by Anna Webber, my latest photographer who inspires.   
Now I've been listening to Kurt Elling for years now. Travelled to Chicago twice to see him in person at the Green Mill and a third time in a Four Brothers gig with Kevin Mahogany, Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy. Once to NYC when he sang with Nancy King at the Allen Room and another time for a gig at Birdland. Seen him in Toronto and a few times in Vancouver. Even interviewed him about creative collaboration for my masters thesis (he's worked with jazz pianist Laurence Hobgood for 18 years). But it's not just the familiarity that drew me to this new portrait.
It's the weariness - the tired look in his eyes. This is a singer who has has a very stylised persona, a singer who is in control, yet Anna was able to get behind that image. Able to create a sense of spontaneity and freshness in what is obviously not a candid shot.
It's the jewel tones. I KNOW that the washed out, polaroid-y, instagram-y look is in style right now. You see it in food photography and you see it in portraits and landscapes. But I'm still drawn to the moodiness and the darkness in this style. Out of step? Perhaps. I mean me of course.
So who IS Anna Webber?   
She's only 26 (feeling like you've gotten nowhere in YOUR career yet?). A drummer who studied with Walfredo Reyes, Jr., current drummer for Santana, she comes by both talents honestly as her father is both a percussionist AND a cinematographer. Studied under British rock photographer Jill Furmanovsky at 18. In 2006 apprenticed with Baron Wolman, the first photography editor for Rolling Stone.
Let's see more of her work. She does behind the scenes candids, album covers and concert shots.
Don't you feel like you are right there? That you are peeking into a private moment?   
How many times has this composition been used - the musicians lined up in a row - yet it feels new. Backlit late in the day with long shadows. The buildings on the right closer to you the viewer than the ones on the left. An offcenter feel. The brick sidewalk coming from the back right, looping around the front and drawing your eye out to the rear left.
With my beginner's eye I probably would have shrunk the space between them. That's why I'm a beginner. The slight tilt to the left is a bit uncomfortable -  in a good way.    
I like the saxaphonist placed in the middle of the shot.   
A deliberately composed shot. It was taken outdoors and manipulated to achieve this look. More of those jewel tones. And most of all, these are NOT professional models - Webber composed this shot with the band musicians. I have a short video below that shows how this was taken.   
Here's a short video of the shoot:
What does Anna have to say about her work? (Excerpts from her interview on her creative process):
On shooting musicians in a studio:
Musicians by nature are great performers on stage, but they are not models...[I] hand them a guitar or give them something to focus. It helps to get them to concentrate on something else rather than being self conscious or shy with a camera and bright lights in their faces.
On shooting live:
 ...shooting live is a whole different ball game - it's 100% reactive. You're just trying to get interesting shots that are in focus, well-lit, at an interesting angle.
On the limits when shooting commercially rather than freelance:
It's a new riddle to solve when you have parameters. Creatively nailing a shot is part of the rush...Shooting under pressure is fun for me.
I know that I'll be trying out a few things that I've learned.
  • I'll play around with composition - get away from such a strict interpretation of the rule of thirds. Put people in the middle or near the sides. Leave a big space between two people and see how that turns out. 
  • Give myself some parameters and see how well I can work within them. 
  • Challenge myself to do some spontaneous shots.
  • Do some "studio" style portraits and come up with some ideas to help the subject relax.

Which photographers inspire you lately? What new things are you working on?

Addicted to Love

Are you like me? Do you have certain songs or videos that stick with you, no matter how long ago you saw them? For me it's Addicted to Love by Robert Palmer. The original video was one of the MOST iconic of its era, the 1980's. It's the music of course. But just as much for me it's the look of it. 

First the music. It originally was meant to be a duet with Robert Palmer AND Chaka Khan. Now THAT would have been incredible. (I shared my love of funk and a Central Park performance of Rufus and Chaka Khan over here). She couldn't get a release from her record company at the time but still did the vocal arrangements.

Here it is, one of my favourite videos of all time. Take a look and let's discuss, okay?

How about that look? There was NOTHING like it at the time.

The video was directed by legendary British photographer Terence Donovan, part of a trio of photographers who in the early 1960's changed the look of fashion photography. They not only captured swinging London, they helped create it. Terence, along with David Bailey and Brian Duffy set the trend for putting fashion models into gritty, urban environments. They brought their scrappy East End sensibilities to fashion. They were the FIRST celebrity photographers. 

Prior to this, fashion models were posed in very prescribed ways. Compare the image on the left with photographer John Cowan's shots of model Jill Kennington on the right. Models represented married women of an indeterminate age wearing cocktail dresses. An upper class life that we were meant to aspire to - that was fashion in the 1950's. Stuffy establishment. Conservative. You were young and then you got married and were your parents, no matter your real age.

The shift by about 1960 was sudden - the models were young and single and the poses were more relaxed and fresh. Rather than a large format camera studio shot held for a minute, you had photographers in the street using 35 mm cameras.

Think Don Draper stymied by the new music and his wife's bohemian friends. He's suddenly old-fashioned and needs his young employees to translate the new culture for him. And those young employees aren't of the old WASP establishment like fellow partner Roger Sterling, they are working class like copywriters Peggy Olsen and Michael Ginsburg.

East Ender Terence Donovan helped bring this shift about.

What about the look? Inspired by the art of Patrick Nagel, Donovan hired similar looking women dressed identically and with a blown out look to the lighting. Ruby red lips. Hair pulled back. A bored look.


I know it's 26 years old and it DOES look a bit dated but I still love watching it. It still draws me in. What about you? What are your iconic videos?

Photographers who Inspire - Nicky and Max

"Whenever me and Max meet up for one of our brainstorming sessions, we finish with too many ideas and a bit of a headache…(I love them!)".

You KNOW how I love collaborating. I mean, REAL collaborating when you are working together with someone else on a creative project. You meet. You brainstorm. You butt heads. You have ideas. You work through them. Some you discard, others you develop further. Some end there. And some go on to something special.

But it's always different than what you could have done on your own. And, I believe, better.

I have done most of my creative collaboration in music - jazz music that is. Even wrote my master's thesis on creative collaboration. More about that another time. Promise!

Imagine my surprise and delight when I came across the collaboration between photographer Nicky and food stylist Max. 

Let's look at some of their photos before I tell you more about them. They have quite the range in style.

Ever think that anyone's food photography would be inspired by a design movement? Yup - it's Bauhaus tabletop styling. Think Mies van der Rohe and his Barcelona chair and buildings. His philosophy of "less is more". A design movement "adapted to our world of machines, radios and fast cars". A style that would represent modern times in the early 20th century. The antithesis of romanticism and adornment and ornamentation and excess. Streamlined. It lasted until 1933 when it was shut down by the Nazi's.

Nicky and Max bauhaus photography food

First, a vintage Bauhaus poster.

Angular. Modern. Graphic. 

It's from 1923 - it doesn't look that dated. That's almost 100 years ago.





Now Nicky & Max's interpretation of Bauhaus.

Nicky and Max bauhaus food photography

More Bauhaus-inspired. A side-note - Nicky & Max are based in Berlin. The last three years of Bauhaus (1930-1933) were based in - yes, Berlin.

nicky and max food photography

But being Nicky & Max, that's not their only idea. Here's a more romantic styling. Note how you are drawn into the photograph from the bottom left, with your eye curving around to the right and ending on the red pepper. So dark that you can barely see the knife in the foreground.

nicky and max food photography

Everyone has a coffee photo. A shallow depth of field coffee photo. But see how on the left the focus is on the middle of the beans? How it's cropped before the horizon? And then on the right, a shallower angle, almost head on, with the horizon cutting the bottom third of the photo. The focus on the crema with the depth of field so shallow that most of the glass is out of focus. Cool, bluish tones.

Would I have put these two together? Probably not - and that's why I'm not Nicky & Max. It works well.

nicky and max food photograpy

I look at this and imagine it's a present that I have opened - surprise, some asparagus! I like how it's cropped on the left and the bottom. As an amateur I would have chosen a more boring composition with more cropping on the left and less on the bottom. Still, notice that it has the classical 2/3-1/3 proportions with the placement of the asparagus. 

nicky and max food photography

I just enjoy the building blocks of the sandwich on parchment. A clean, fresh grid.

nicky and max food photography

Overhead shot of the tomato sandwich but angled from top left to bottom right. But not exactly overhead with the grater and the wooden cutting board following the lines of the wood grain. Notice the cropping that makes it seem as if it is a moment taken from a panning shot over the table.

nicky and max food photography

Who are Nicky and Max? Nicky's a photographer from London who moved to Berlin in 2011 to live a different kind of life. Max worked in restaurants in France and Germany and returned to Berlin in 2009. He styles food. They met. They collaborated. And luckily for us they started their blog January 2012 to share their projects.

What do you think about their collaboration? Can't you just feel the energy and the excitement? Don't you want to visit Berlin? Have you ever collaborated on a creative project? 

(Want to see other photographers who inspire? Check here).

Photographers who Inspire - Christopher Boffoli

I am inspired by Christopher Boffoli because of his whimsy. They ARE food photographs but not in the way that we usually think of food photography. Boffoli creates miniature figures who interact in creative and sometimes ridiculous ways with food. 

Here's what Christopher says about this series:

"The genesis of my Big Appetites series of fine art photographs was in a lot of the media I was exposed to as a child.  There were so many films and television shows that exploited both the dramatic and comedy potential of a juxtaposition of different scales:  tiny people in a normal-sized world.  It is a surprisingly common cultural theme going back all the way to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels in the 18th century and perhaps earlier."


It's an art to use a whimsical theme and not let it get ridiculous or tired. Or be so bound by it, if it becomes successful, that you cannot move onto something else. I won't name names but there are photographers who use animals anthropomorphically that started out fresh and new but end up stale and tired. Easy for me to say of course as an amateur!

I can't really tell you why I love these but I do. And I'd love to try and recreate a few to learn from them - both the technical aspects of these shots (lighting, composition, etc) and how to lay out the scene with the miniature figures.

Boffoli has a show at the Winston Wachter Fine Art Gallery in NYC from June 21 - August 24, 2012. ALT-NYC attendees, let's go see it!