Category Archives: Photoessays

Americans in Havana

Today’s photo assay is about Americans that have lived in Havana for half a century but are not allowed to leave the country; a Cuban curiosity.

Of course I had been aware of the pre-revolution US cars in Havana. But what came as a surprise were the tens of thousands classic automobiles still in circulation, as collective taxis, rented out for weddings and quinceanera parties (when girls turn 15), or used as tourist transport. The majority of them are Chevrolet and Ford, but also Buick, Dodge, and a variety of vanished brands such as Packard, De Soto, Mercury, Plymouth, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile. With no access to original spare parts, these vehicles are often assemblies of adapted parts from Soviet cars and trucks, and fitted with Hyundai or Mercedes diesel engines.

1952 Dodge Coronet 4-door Sedan

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An Engineer in Havana

Havana has been for long on my bucket list. Havana’s amazing heritage of architecture, the abundance of American cars from the 1950s, used as collective taxis or tourist transport, combined with the tropical sun and the life and character of its inhabitants make Havana one of the visually richest and (still) photo-friendliest places to visit. The rich color palette of the buildings reflecting into the shadows yield an amazing quality of light.

Portraits of the Revolution: Che Guevara, Fidel and Raul Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, La Habana, Cuba

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Ode To A Penguin

O creature which in southern waters roam, To know some more about you I would wish.

Though I have seen you in your limpid home, I don’t think I can rightly call you “fish”.

To taste your body I did not decline, From dainty skinner’s fingers coming fresh,

’Twas like shoe leather steeped in turpentine, But I should hardly like to call it “flesh”.*

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King Penguin Study I, South Georgia Island

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Brutalist Architecture

Cold-hearted, inhuman, monstrous: there is hardly a more controversial architectural style than Brutalism. The term stems from the French word beton brut coined by Swiss architect Le Corbusier to describe his choice of raw concrete for its raw and unpretentious honesty.

Brutalism gained momentum in the 1960s for pre-fabricated, low-cost housing, shopping centres and government buildings, and had a strong position in the architecture of European communist countries. This architectural style, sometimes also referred to as bunker architecture is almost universally considered as ugly. Urban decay due to the poor ageing of steel-reinforced concrete, and the surfaces being prone to graffiti, has not helped in this perception.

And yet, these minimalistic interactions of patterns, light, and form have a potential to lead to powerful images. It’s all about leading lines and details, accentuated by focal lengths in the ranges of 14-18 mm and 130-200 mm.

Habitat 67: Montreal, Canada. Moshe Sadie, 1967

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2015 in Review

Another year has passed far to quickly, in particular for someone who was taught photography on a Kodak Retina IIIc. For me it has been a year without new gear but lots of opportunities to increase my return of investment. So was it successful? Ansel Adams said that if you are able to retain 12 images in a year, then it has been successful one. So let’s see what we can do; my favorite photos and memories from 2015, in captured order.

All the best for the new year. SR

Venice

Venice Cliche 1, Italy

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Bastard Chairs, Beijing

Back from my second time to China (after 10 years) with images quite the opposite of what I had expected and planned for.

The reason is that most of the traditional living quarters in Beijing and Shanghai have been cleared for wide boulevards, and their inhabitants have moved to gated, high-rise apartment complexes.

Chairs 1, Beijing, China

Yet some of the Hutongs (alleys formed by lines of ancient courtyard residences) have been declared protected and are being turned into amusement quarters with boutiques, art galleries, and hotels disguised by faux historic façades.

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CERN Restarts Large Hadron Collider

After more than two years of maintenance and upgrades, proton beams are circulating again since the Easter weekend at the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

What’s the point of this news on a photographic website? I admit that I have not talked much about my professional career, having participated in possibly the largest endeavor in fundamental science, the LHC at CERN in Geneva*. LHC is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, consisting of a 27-kilometre ring of superconducting magnets and a number of accelerating structures to boost the energy of the particles along their way.

Information on CERN and its accelerators can be found here, if you are interested in my scientific work you can follow me on research gate

CMS2

© Copyright CERN 2015

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Portraits of Strangers

I don’t believe in sneaking photographs of people. Street photographers may argue that asking a person to pose for an image is taking them out of their natural routine and, therefore, ruining the decisive moment*. I couldn’t disagree more. My objective for taking portraits is to make contact with people, to establish a two-way connection that reflects their openness toward me and thus, indirectly, toward the viewers of the image themselves. In this way, the portraits speak a thousand words about their subjects and the environment they live in.

*Beware of the legal rules for photographing people, which vary from country to country. In short, if you don’t have a consent release, you cannot use these images for commercial purpose. The models can sue you, because you, or your publisher, are using their image to advertise a product or service to which they may not agree. Yet it’s fine to use an image for editorial purposes, for example, this blog post, because I am not promoting or selling any product.

The shot discipline required to make best use of high pixel counts, aggressively looking DSLRs with long lenses mounted on a tripod or monopod (a setup that probably costs more than some peoples’ homes), and considerations about the light and background excludes the run and gun approach anyway. It takes usually a large number of images to obtain a natural look of the person and a final image that doesn’t look staged.

I have found that most people like to have their picture taken. Think if a photographer from a far away place asked you; would you say no? Being 195 cm tall, I have been approached often by Asian girls. This has somewhat faded, which I believe is due to Asians getting taller, rather than me getting less attractive.

People respond well to respect towards themselves and their culture, knowing the local language is important to interact. Where communication problems are to be expected, it is good to hire a guide through a local agency, mentioning the photographic ambitions. Moreover, guides can help to approach a stranger and ask for permission. But avoid those self-proclaimed guides waiting in front of iconic places; you will for sure end up at the wrong place at the wrong time.

I always offer to send prints, but I am also not offended when the person asks for small change. In particular with street vendors, you can break the ice by buying a little souvenir.

So here are some stories behind the images. More portraits can be found in this post. All images were shot with the Nikon D800e and the 70-200 f/2.8 VR II (at 150 mm and f5.6).

 

Nun smoking cheroot, Myanmar: In Myanmar women are often seen smoking large cigars, called cheroot, made from mixtures of dried, seasoned softwood and crushed tobacco wrapped in a dried leaf of carbia myxa. I met this nun outside the Hpo Win Daung Caves in Monywa, Myanmar and was attracted by her rejoicing in the cigar. Having never smoked I was not able to check these out.

Nun smoking cheroot, Myanmar

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Digital versus Film: A Photoessay

Film shooter: Film slows me down; I shoot less and thus increase my keeper rate. In a world of instant gratification I love to wait for having my film developed. The look of film is more organic and natural. I concentrate on the subject, not on the histogram: just the camera, the subject, and me. The film camera of my grandfather will outlast you and me. It still takes better images than the modern, disposable DSLRs. Film does not require a laptop, extension cord, power strip, Terabyte backup drive, mouse, card reader and all that junk filling my suitcase. Shooting film, I will have the evening free for my wife/ girlfriend/ partner; no downloading, backing-up, RAW processing, and sensor cleaning. Film has better resolution and is future proof because scanners will always improve.

Digital gearhead: Even my 10 year-old, 6 MP Canikon has a better dynamic range and color accuracy than film ever had. My digital file at ISO 409600 shows less noise then Kodak Extar 400. We have long surpassed the state of sufficiency and I have made 6-foot prints from my DSLR that look gorgeous. It’s the guy behind the camera that matters, not the equipment. Street-shooting with my mirrorless I can be very stealthy. Hard drives store billions of images in far less space than binders full of film. With digital it is common for me to shoot a thousand images in an hour-long football match at no cost.

Mandalay-digital

Fig. 1: Mandalay (click to enlarge)

Now with these fanboy statements out of the way, I must admit that after 20 years of shooting large-format film I have become pretty much a digi-convert myself. Yes, the almost total lack of noise on the D800e at base ISO far surpassed that from even the finest grained film. Yes it was much easier to nail correct exposure checking the histogram. And it was easier to remove the few dust spots that might turn up on a digital file, than the lengthy spotting necessary on even the most carefully processed and handled film. But was it the right move?

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The Italian Bike Week 2014

I am not much of a street and event photographer. Back in the film days I shot a wedding when, in the middle of the ceremony, the shutter of my Nikon F3 released instantaneously upon winding the film-advance lever. Fortunately I had brought my large format camera, which then served for the official photos but was obviously useless in the church.

At a second endeavor, I went to capture an open-day event. I had planned for images of masses of people fighting to get into the exhibition areas. But the event was so well organized that the places looked rather sterile. That made me think: photography is a great hobby but a terrible job.

Bike10

However, during a recent trip on the traces of the “Mille Miglia” in Italy, I accidentally dropped into a very photo-friendly event: the Italian Bike Week, supposedly the country’s largest open-air motorbike event, which was held on the shores of the Trasimeno lake in Umbria. I took out the Nikon D800E, mounted the 70-200 f2.8 lens, and put the Nikon Coolpix A into my pocket in case I needed a wide angle of view.

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The 2012 Ice Storm on Lake Geneva

In Feb. 2012, strong Northeasterly winds, know as “bise”, blew down from the Western Swiss plateau to the basin of Lake Geneva. The wind reached force 6 with gusts of up to 80 km/h. Combined with air temperatures of -15 degree Celsius and the lake water close to freezing, the spray of the waves turned instantly into ice, before even hitting the shore or any object close by. Ice-covered cars parked near the waterfront quickly made headlines in the world press.

Ice storm on lake geneva 2014, Switzerland

As the weather pattern persisted for almost 13 days, I was able to revisit the scene in the mornings on my way to work, which coincided with the magic light present just before sunrise. In the first two days, I merely explored the area, taking some images with the point-and-shoot. The winds made it impossible to set up a real camera, which would have transformed quickly into an ice sculpture itself. On the third attempt I was able to find some shelter, but had to go down on my knees to operate the large-format camera.

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