Does quality matter? - the case of Jacob Holdt

Discussion in 'Street and Documentary' started by kezia, May 16, 2010.

  1. I just wondered if there are some on this forum for whom the message is paramount, and the medium, or artistic considerations, of little importance. Should we regret that no one offered to buy Holdt a decent camera before he spent so much of his life documenting the plight of these people? Or would it weaken his message if he had produced a set of beautifully composed, high resolution images?
  2. One of the things that people sometimes say about Salgado is how he can create stunningly beautiful photographs of human suffering. There are some that argue his prints are more about art then about the social issues he is trying to address with them. Whatever the case, I think all photographers eventually arrive at a method of working that feels right for them. This includes choice of camera, film or digital (or both) and all the other considerations that one thinks about regarding photography. When looking at other peoples work, content trumps technique for me.
    On a slightly related topic, when I decided to start using a 6x7 camera in the street, part of my reasoning was that if I decided someone was special enough for me to photograph them, then they deserved the very best I could produce even if they never see the picture. Last year at a Veterans Day parade I ran into a co-worker with her boyfriend who I had never met before. She asked of I would take a picture of them so I did and made them each a print. Later she told me that he mentioned he felt important having his picture taken by someone with such a camera.
  3. >>> On a slightly related topic, when I decided to start using a 6x7 camera in the street, part of my reasoning was that if I
    decided someone was special enough for me to photograph them, then they deserved the very best I could produce even if
    they never see the picture.

    Interesting thought and makes sense. Also related, that's my reasoning on not doing hip-shot candids. That is, if you
    see an opportunity unfolding in front of you with great/interesting subjects, you're not upholding your end of the transaction
    and doing your subjects (and yourself) a disservice not making the best possible image taking the trouble to bring the
    camera to your eye. Even though usually they'll never see the end result.
  4. It's hard to imagine how there could be an absolute answer here. Each artist forms their own intention and goals and derives meaning from that. You might as well tell a painter they have to use a #2 brush, or tell a chainsaw carver he should use a whittling knife, right?
    Art is an individually conceived process of expression. Too many rules turns art in craft. There's nothing wrong with craft, but there's a reason we have different words for different processes.
  5. Well not every image must be high resolution and beautifully composed (sometimes there might be artistic reasons for not doing so). That said, I agree with the previous posts. Anything worth doing is worth doing right. And IMO if you are serious about photography, and want be be recognized as such, you really should purchase quality equipment.
  6. I just wondered if there are some on this forum for whom the message is paramount, and the medium, or artistic considerations, of little importance.​
    I'm not getting it. Please clarify "message", "medium" and "artistic considerations"
  7. Jacob Holdt is probably a very special case. He has ever since his long stay in the US in the beginning of the seventies traveled throughout the world presenting and speaking about his experiences and his photos. We are many that got our first understanding of poverty, social inequality and racism in the US in that period, through his work.Few photographers manage like him to complement the messages of photos by words bringing a new dimension to his pictures. His work with CARE later on showed that he could also shoot stand alone scenes and images of great quality.
    Believing that Jakob Holdt would have produced images of better quality if he had had a more sophisticated and more expensive camera shows to me a lack of understanding of the quality of his work. Knowing Jakob Holdt right, and the situation he found himself in, in the US at that time, he would say that a more expensive camera would have been stolen immediately, leaving us the viewers with nothing to look at and nothing for him to show.
  8. Holdt's work has a certain verite' that is his own. Should we regret that so many gearheads with a pro-quality 25+ mp camera have spent so much of their lives producing the same vapid, oversaturated, meaningless pictures of exotic places instead of documenting the plight of people suffering in a moving manner? Or would it weaken your message if you had produced essays of this magnitude instead of soporific, meaningless, beautifully composed, high resolution images?
    Holdt is, by any measure, one of the great documentarians of our time.
    Ricochetrider and mikemorrell like this.
  9. Louis, you almost got me there. Luckily, I'm still below 25+ mp and plan to stay like that for some time.
    Jochen likes this.
  10. I think Holdt's photos do exactly what he wants them to do in the context of what he is/was doing. Having family in Natchez around the time of many of these photos - the photos bring back the reality of the time. They don't need to be any different.
    And the work he did is very different than the work presented on this and/or similar sites. I am sure some individual photos in his work would be critiqued to death here and elsewhere - and rightfully so if the purpose of those sites to help people achieve "national geographic" standards or the like.
    Honestly, his photos don't inspire me as a photographer because I am trying to give a much different message from my photos - but his work does inspire me to deal with my racism - and would inspire me if I took up documenting oppression. But the key to that is not the photos, but emersing oneself in the situation - without that, no photo from any camera will have real meaning.
  11. I think what Holdt himself says, needs no further explanation:
    QUOTE:I have never been interested in photography as art so very few of my pictures can stand alone. They have all been taken for a cinematic narrative on racism with simple, quickly grasped motives, and are therefore also on the Internet best viewed in an educational context. UNQUOTE.
  12. Anyone who has, or is till living in the kind of conditions he is documenting will probably tell you that extreme poverty is best represented by his style of photography. Bleak, dark and devoid of any vibrancy.
    The "message" is not paramount to me, but there has to be an interesting Scene, situation, or story to even think about pulling my camera out of its' holster, if that makes any sense. I am captivated by light, and composition (and gear) as much as anyone else, but that aspect is purely reactionary, and meaningless to me if the I'm not comfortable, or if I'm just uninspired. Same with any other artform. Woody Guthrie YES. JohnDenver NO.
  13. I work with people with developmental disabilities and keep my camera with me at all times. Since Sept 2008 the camera has been a Nikon D300 w/grip and usually a 17-55 f/2.8 with lens hood. Prior to that, my camera was a Nikon FE with 50/1.4. In documenting the lives of folks with DD I believe the message is paramount. The medium comes second, but to me it is a factor.
    The day after my D300 and 17-55 arrived we had an annual event called County Cup. This is sort of like a mini Olympics where folks enrolled in our program get to try different 'challenges' for lack of a better word.
    If I was a good and fast sketch artist I probably could have done say 10 - 15 sketches an hour. With my film camera, paying someone else to develop and print, I probably would have shot 1 or 2 rolls of 36 an hour. With digital, I doubled the quantity of pictures taken. With a larger selection of pics to choose from I believe I was able to better convey my message.
  14. Ricardo: You seem to be saying that Holdt's choice of camera, flash etc. was a conscious stylistic choice that he felt best suited the subject-matter. You may be right, but I don't think that is what he claims, though I haven't read enough of his writings to be sure.
    I am sure that Holdt didn't tell these people that he was going to take pictures with the worst camera he could find, bad lenses, harsh shadows that would make them look older and emphasizes their tiredness. If someone was a guest in a more advantaged household and started to take photos of the occupents in their kitchens while the dirty dishes were still in the sink I would not be surprised to hear them protest loudly and insist on tidying up and brushing their hair first, particularly if they suspected that the photos were to be distributed publicly. Holdt's methods may be justified in order to get his message out, but surely his choice of style is not competely accidental.
  15. Kezia: I say "style' for lack of a better word. It could be that the cameras discreet size, or odd configuration, or simply the fact that it didn't look like a pro set up, bigger camera, lenses, etc., had more to do with it. While most of the guys I work with and photograph are used to seeing me with a camera in my hand, or over my shoulder, the difference in how they reacted to me with a smaller SLR and set up in the past, and how they react to a much bigger DSLR and set up, has totally changed the way I aproach any situation. Discreet, candid shot are not as easy to take anymore, and as I said before, if I'm not comfortable, it doesn't even come out of the holster. It could be that Holdt didn't want to intimidate anyone with a better set up, and have to be identified simply as a photographer, or journalist, or maybe it's just not wise to bring spendy gear into those kind of situations. Or maybe he himself was poor at the time.
    His photos remind me more of the type of cheap cameras my mom used when I was a growing up. We lived in conditions similar to the ones Holdt has documented, and some of my memories of that time can be as bleak and harsh as he's presented in his work, so that's where I get those impressions from.
    My father is more of an events and wedding type of photographer would probably have harsher judgements of Holdts' choice of equipment and technique, and would have more of that type of criticism, I believe. After not seeing him for almost 20 years, I shared my work with him, so he could see what kind of situations I am involved in, and he had more to say about resolution and color, and seemed almost oblivious to the story I was trying to capture with my "outdated" camera. So thats his perspective. But I understand that his presence and presentation as a professional is more important to him and his clients, than the content and substance in a lot of those situations. The same holds true for a lot of other "gig" oriented photographers. At one point, while driving around the mountain roads in Puerto Rico, he pointed to laborers on the side of the road, and farms, emphasized the need to upgrade my equipment and presentation so as to not become "one of them". Them were fightin' words in my head, so my retort was something along the lines of pointing out that I'd rather be there where the interesting characters and stories were, rather than endure another boring wedding or event. Probably a little harsh, and I can understand where he would need to believe this, as it is his primary form of income, but some people need to understand that there are also photographers who either care about, or are too involved with the subject matter being presented to care if any one acknowledges their prescence as a photographer. In some cases, such as Holdts, it may even diminish his abilities as a story teller, and perhaps, as far as his subject is concerned, as a human being.
    It would also be a different matter if he just took the photos and left them on their own to speak for themselves. He actually had strong ideals and emotions tied into his projects, and writes pretty extensively on his views, so there's plenty of conversation to draw from that as well. I know there's a lot of hipster photographers who actually prefer to buy cheaper older cameras merely for their "vintage" or "lo-fi" (yes, someone actually called it lo-fi) "effect", but I don't think Holdts' case can be compared to those. Not even close. Considering how much he's written, I imagine the photos served more as a way to keep notes, without having to pull out a pen and paper, and write as he interacted. Just take the shot, write about it later. Usually how I approach it, anyway.
  16. I think those photographs are fine and support that type of documentary.
    However I think his descriptions of Americans is classic Euro-Socialist drivvel, and has little base in truth. He wrongfully victimizes the poor and he seems to blame society. There is some societal blame there, but I find it troubling that he holds none of the poor responsible for most of their own plight. I don't appreciate the jabs he makes, the generalizations, and his too broad a "paint brush".
    Perhaps he can sell this piece to NPR or MS-NBC....I'm not buying it. Still, the photographs are not bad. His presentation would work better for me without much of his commentary.
    jc1305us likes this.
  17. The fact is that none of these pictures are particularly sharp, and there are a lot of cheap automated cameras that can deliver the goods. There is a lot to be said for just sticking with a standard camera and not toting around a lot of gear, but he could have done a lot better.
  18. Yes pictures are not sharp. Really we could have done better job with normal cameras too
  19. I miss you, Luis. :)
    mikemorrell likes this.
  20. good conversation...

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