Boris Kaufmann, photographer

the-pawnbroker       Cinematography is photography. Look at these images from movies and try to see them as still photographs, frozen moments from real life.

They are by Boris Kaufmann, one the most successful cinematographers, who received an Oscar for his first Hollywood film, On the Waterfront, in 1954. He worked with director Elia Kazan on three films and then had a long partnership with Sidney Lumet on such films as The Pawnbroker, The Fugitive Kind and Twelve Angry Men, which you see here.

Kaufmann was a master of black & white, getting a sharp silvery quality onto the screen, and his meticulous lighting created beautiful patterns and textures that brought life to the story. He often shot close on wide-angle lenses to achieve intimacy as though he was following war photographer Robert Capa’s dictum, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”


Before his glittering Hollywood career, Kaufmann had an earlier one as a leading cinematographer of French cinema in the 1920s and 30s. He prospered in the golden age of French cinema, which he helped create, working with such greats as Abel Gance and Jean Vigo.

latalante             Frame still from Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, 1931

Kaufmann had an extraordinary life story. Born in Poland in 1906, his brother was Dziga-Vertov, the legendary Soviet director of Man with a Movie Camera which was voted one of the ten best films ever made in 2012. His oldest brother Mikhail was also a cinematographer and worked on that film. Boris Kaufmann left Soviet Russia in 1927 to avoid the Stalinist repression and moved to Paris with his parents. When World War II approached he escaped the Nazis and moved in Canada. You could say he was a survivor.

When he moved to the US, though, he was stymied by the film industry unions and had to pick up work in shorts and trade documentaries. It took years to regain his position until Elia Kazan gave him the job of shooting On the Waterfront (also on the list of best films).


Unless You Will


Look out for a new conference coming up at RMIT about documentary photography. Called Unless You Will, it will be “a weekend of conversations, inspiration and insights” and will be held on the weekend of February 17 and 18.

Documentary, photojournalism and street photography are currently having a revival round the world, not least in Australia. Printed magazines and institutional reports are the traditional outlet for these genres, but today we also have internet, exhibitions and photo books. It is a growing, confident field.

The speakers at the conference, many from overseas, are seasoned professional photographers and educators so the standard of inquiry and exchange will be high. Click here to see the list, but two of my favourites are Katrin Koenning from Melbourne and Mustafah Abdulaziz from Berlin. There will also be an exhibition, workshop and photo book awards.

To attend the conference you need to register and pay. The cost for the  two-day weekend ticket is extremely low: $99,  or $70 with student/concession. If you’re into documentary photography, you can afford that.

Lord Snowdon dies


The British photographer Lord Snowdon, Antony Armstrong-Jones, has died at age 86. He was one of the most famous and successful commercial photographers in the middle decades of the 20th century.

Already established in London as a fashion and portrait photographer, he married Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s sister, in 1960. It cemented his fame as a jet-setting celebrity and the go-to photographer for the royal and famous. You can and should read about his exhausting life at wikipedia.

A very capable photographer, Snowdon set a high standard of professional gloss in his abundant fashion photography, and in his many memorable portraits. But he never seemed to establish a distinctive visual style, as Cecil Beaton or David Bailey did working in similar fields. His place in the histories of photography is not certain for this reason, he does not make a clearly identifiable package.

The National Portrait Gallery in London has “the most extensive collection of portraits in the world offering a unique insight into the men and women who have and are shaping British history.” It has a large collection of Snowdon’s pictures, and perhaps that institute is where his reputation should stand, not as a distinctive artistic stylist, but as a chronicler of the famous and notable faces of his time. 

snowdon-margaret-1967                           Lord Snowdon, Princess Margaret, 1967

Amongst the Snowdon portraits at the National Portrait Gallery are these excellent photographs of writers, they are almost the definition of the environmental portrait genre. Magazine commissions, they were shot in square format on one of the Hasselblads he was often portrayed with.

snowdon-greer-71                           Lord Snowdon, Germaine Greer, 1971

snowdon-powell-npg                           Lord Snowdon, Anthony Powell, 1978

by Lord Snowdon, vintage bromide print, 25 February 1992                           Lord Snowdon, Doris Lessing, 1992

John Berger dies


John Berger, the English art critic and novelist, has died at age 90. He is most famous for the TV series and book from 1972 called Ways of Seeing. It revolutionized thinking about art, especially about gender representations, and it is still an indispensable text. Both the TV series and the book were extremely innovative in form.

Berger wrote extensively about art and I have in my collection the Penguin book called Understanding a Photograph, a series of short essays. The essay that gives the book its title is interesting as a fragment from another time, 1968, before the market for photographs as works of art developed.

He critiques the medium of photography as an art. Circumstances have changed since 1968 but it’s still worth reading. Here is a collection of quotes that I  underlined when I first read the book.

It now seems fortunate that few museums have had the foresight to open photographic departments, for it means that few photographs have been preserved in sacred isolation.

By their nature, photographs have little or no property value because they have no rarity value. Thus, in twentieth century terms, photographs are records of things seen. Let us consider them no closer to works of art than cardiograms.

It is more useful to categorize art by what has become its social function. It functions as property. Accordingly, photographs are outside of this category.

Photography is the process of rendering observation self-conscious.

The formal arrangements of a photograph explain nothing. The events portrayed are in themselves mysterious or explicable according to the spectator’s knowledge of them prior to his seeing the photograph.

The true content of a photograph is invisible, for it derives from a play, not with form, but with time.

Phrenological heads

phrenological-heads             If you’re a portrait photographer, you might be interested in this. The Science Museum in London is showing this set of heads from 1831. It’s a kit to train practitioners of phrenology.

And what is Phrenology? It was a crank pseudo-science of the early 19th century that taught that the shape of the skull determined personality. Yes, you read that right, the bumps on your head decide what sort of person you are.

Phrenology originated with a German physician, Franz Joseph Gall, in 1796 and it took off all over the world. It became a sort of popular science and parlour game. People believed that different regions and functions of the brain would vary in size according to ability or disability. The shape of the skull adjacent to these regions would be effected and could be interpreted by an expert through feeling the skull. It was a map of identity. Early Daguerreotype photographers would have had this in mind when they took their portraits. Is there a PhD waiting for someone to research this connection?

As you can see, a variety of head-types are included in the kit. For example, head no.54 is a scientific man and head no.8 is an ‘idiot’. One description states that “when the forehead is perfectly perpendicular, from the hair to the eyebrows, it denotes an utter deficiency of understanding.”

Look closely at each head. Do you see yourself there?

Talbot and the scullery maid

ht-mousetraps                                  Henry Fox Talbot’s cameras

When Henry Fox Talbot was inventing photography during the 1830s and       40s he needed some cameras to work with. “Legend has it that the simple little wooden cameras were made by the Lacock village carpenter, Joseph Foden. Talbot’s earliest ones looked like the simple little box on the right, about the size of a good Wiltshire apple.”  (Larry Scharf)

For bigger and better cameras like the one on the left, he turned to London instrument maker Andrew Ross, and when these arrived the bill was up to £7 for each one. This doesn’t sound too much for a small wooden box with a simple lens, but it’s about £650 in today’s money, about AU$1000, quite an expensive toy. Still, Talbot was a wealthy man and it would not have hurt.

When later his daughter Matilda got married he bestowed on her a gift of £5000 – that would certainly have hurt. That sum was almost equal to two years expenditure maintaining the abbey, his family, servants, gardener, carriages, horses, plus taxes, insurance and medical expenses.  It is roughly equal to a million dollars in today’s money so it was a very handsome gift (which of course his daughter did not receive since the law made it the husband’s property).

But now let’s consider this wealth from the opposite end – from the perspective of one of Talbot’s servants. The Talbot household kept nine servants and in the mid-19th century servants with low status would have received £10-20 per year (admittedly with room and board supplied). The lowest in the servant pecking order was the scullery maid, basically a kitchen labourer, who worked on the heaviest jobs in the downstairs kitchen. She would work about 12 hours a day and probably 362 days per year as there was no annual leave.

So his daughter, who never had a job, received £5000, and a servant who worked over 4000 hours in a year received £10. Talbot’s £7 camera would have taken that scullery maid almost till September to pay off and represent 2800 hours of hard and dirty labour.

Lacock Abbey in Autumn

lacock-1bLacock Abbey, where Henry Fox Talbot invented photography, is surrounded by its beautiful grounds – a very English park with orchard and greenhouse, winding paths and grazing sheep. If you’re lucky you can eat apples from his apple trees as I did.

Talbot made outdoor exposures with his new invention – what we call analogue photography – in the 1840s in this very place. It hasn’t changed much in the intervening years and he would have seen more or less what you see here. The photographs were taken on a cool autumn day with the trees in full colour.

lacock-8lacock-3lacock-2lacock-9   lacock-10lacock-4        All photographs by Greg Neville, 2016