Thursday, December 15, 2011

More Life at the Monroe Gallery: John Loengard UPDATED

What’s Wrong With this Picture?
The bright lights of the Monroe Gallery spilled onto Don Gaspar in Santa Fe the evening of November 11, 2011. It being after dusk, it had to signify another opening of another photographic exhibit.

The gallery’s owners, Michelle and Sidney Monroe are renowned for knowing many famous photographers and seem too have an affinity for those photographers who worked for the Time-Life company.

The Monroes hosted the first one-man show of the dean of Life, Alfred Eisenstaedt in New York. He was one of the first four photographers hired full-time at Life. Eisenstaedt led the Monroes to specialize in presenting photojournalists' work.

They also feature the last remaining Life staff photographer, Joe McNally. He teaches in Santa Fe at the Workshop from time to time and brings his students to view the exhibits. McNally also has spoken at the gallery.
This night was no different from previous openings.
It had all the trappings of a Santa Fe gallery show opening.
John Loengard is the current featured photographer. Much of his work being hung on the walls can be previewed here. He came late to Life; about the time the magazine changed from a weekly to a monthly offering.
So, What’s Wrong With this Picture?

Loengard, right, is as much a historian of photographers, as he is a photographer himself of history. His latest book, Age of Silver: Encounters With Great Photographers, takes an intimate look at those artists who mastered photography; at a time when it was a reaction of silver to light, chemically processed into print or transparent images; not as much of photography is today; which is electronics reacting to light, and processed into digital imagery.

Loengard, where he had the opportunity to photograph the photographers in his book, presents his portraits of them. Where he hadn’t photographed them, he presented the work of those masters, mostly looking at negatives of signature pieces.

He exposed one of my few heroes in my life, W. Eugene Smith, for manipulating a photograph.
While attending the New York Institute of Photography, in 1969, I was invited to participate in a two-month long photojournalism workshop, a couple of nights a week where Smith instructed for a small group of students, above.

Smith was a Magnum photographer, arguably the best, and the firdt master of the photo essay.

He parted ways with Life in a dispute he claimed was over his insistence that his photo essay on Dr. Albert Schweitzer should run in three consecutive issues.

Smith, right, was known for his darkroom magic, having negatives that he claimed were nearly impossible to print, yet through processing techniques, including the use of potassium ferrocyanide as a bleach to lighten areas of his dark prints. He described the process as, almost painting the highlights back into the print.

In his book, Loengard recites a story related to the 1954 Schweitzer photos that Smith took five days and nights to properly get a satisfactory print for the opening photograph. Smith’s claim was there was a “sheet of fog” on the bottom of the negative. After Smith’s death Loengard located the negative and found there was no fog, neither was there a handsaw at the bottom of the image; Smith had added it from another negative.

It is ironic that the book, Let Truth Be the Prejudice: W. Eugene Smith, His Life and Photographs, uses this manipulated, hence untrue, photograph on its cover.
Loengard chats with: Santa Fe New Mexican photographer Jane Phillips, above left, and Michelle Monroe, visitors, and he signed copies of his books for his admirers, including my brother, Guy, below.
This post is presented in black and white in homage to the age of silver, but I didn't get my finger in developer or spend hours in a darkroom. I just chased electrons to and fro in the digital age.
The Loengard exhibit runs through January 29, 2011, at the Monroe Gallery of Photography, 112 Don Gaspar, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Monroe Gallery celebrates its tenth year in Santa Fe, having moved from lower Manhattan after 9/11 and infrastructure problems caused in the terrorists' aftermath. This was after 20-years of gallery experience, including five years with a gallery they opened in1996.

A tenth anniversary celebration will be held Friday, December 23, from 4 - 6 PM.
I did not talk with John Loengard during his book signing at the opening of an exhibition of his work at Santa Fe’s Monroe Gallery of Photography a couple of weeks ago, except to ask him to sign a copy of his book, LIFE Classic Photographs: A Personal Interpretation.
In an email exchange advising Sidney Monroe that my post was up I wrote:
Again, another wonderful exhibit. 
Monroe responded:
Thank you very much for the post - we are flattered!
I wrote:
I post about you and your wonderful gallery because I believe you provide an invaluable service, not replicated anywhere else.

I suspect from some of the visitors to the opening, that I am not alone in appreciating not only what you hang on the wall but bringing in the photographers/artists.

With the exception of Neal Leifer, you may have noticed I don't engage them. I savor their work and listen to what they respond to from others who have questions. I derive answers by what's on the walls; your walls.
Maybe I should have asked for an interview with Loengard, right with Sidney Monroe, after the show, but didn’t.
He wrote me and Monroe Gallery of Photography this email.
Dec 16, 2011
Dear M. G. Bralley
I appreciate your comments on Age of Silver. I may even be even a greater admirer of Gene Smith that you are.

Gene tore up his contract with LIFE in 1954 because his story on Dr. Albert Schweitzer was changed at the last minute to fit the available space in an issue. He subsequently associated himself with Magnum for a brief period. His ties with LIFE, however, remained strong for the rest of his life (it is where his essay on Minamata was published).

The story he wanted to run in three consecutive issues of LIFE was, I suspect, the one he did on Pittsburgh while at Magnum. Smith’s friend Gjon Mili quoted Gene saying he wanted 35 pages in order to top the unheard of 22 pages of color photographs of New York City that ran in two issues of LIFE a few years earlier, taken by his Magnum colleague Ernst Haas. LIFE tried to make shorter layouts that would satisfy Smith. So did Look. Popular Photography finally offered Gene the space he wanted, but the layout Smith made for himself there was not effective.

The Pittsburgh story may be Smith’s finest work, but it was never published properly as an essay.

There are myths surrounding Gene. It takes only a few minutes (as you know) to expose a print and a few minutes more to develop it. Smith’s prints, of course, were in a class by themselves, but even allowing for a number of tries to get a perfect print, his claim that he spent 5 days and nights making one of them was over the top. Apparently he could not admit the print was a composite of two or three different negatives, a tricky thing to accomplish seamlessly before Photoshop. His misleading suggestion of enormous effort being routinely required to make a good print, discouraged many young photojournalists from even trying to print their own photos. That led me to believe that you can be a genius and do harm, which I fear he did, if you lead your acolytes astray. Of course, all this is a tiny footnote of no importance, compared to Gene’s pictures.

I was the only LIFE photographer allowed to print in the LIFE darkroom. I started working for LIFE as a photographer in 1956 and joined the staff in 1961, so I worked at the weekly LIFE for the last 16 of its 36 years. I was the picture editor of the monthly LIFE for another 8.

All best wishes,
John Loengard

20 West 86th Street #9B
New York, NY 10024

Loengard’s comments add to my recollection of Smith’s statements of over 40 years ago.

The nuances of Smith’s character now have a dimension, unknown to me at the time, added by a perspective of someone who interacted with him as a peer.

I appreciate that Loengard expounds on the Smith story; taking it further from a myth to its reality,

But to stay with the myth for a few moments:

Smith apparently was known to drink scotch. He complained to the class that he drank milk and drank a lot more of it than he did scotch; but was dismayed that in an article the writer only wrote about the whiskey. My unasked question was, did he drink the scotch in milk?
The other myth he told my group was why he had such underexposed negatives. It was because: he did not have a steady enough hand, and he had to use a higher shutter speed to compensate for his shaking, and that he had to close the lens’ aperture to gain depth of field (the distance over which a subject appears to be in focus) because through his stupor he couldn’t accurately focus.

Great story, better if true, as attributed to an unknown editor allegedly from the City News Bureau of Chicago, I didn’t then and don’t now buy Smith’s self-deprecating hyperbole.

As Loengard’s picture in Age of Silver, of Smith’s negatives and accompanying contact sheet show, they look at most slightly underexposed.
Personal Note
I wish my negatives were only that slightly underexposed and I didn’t drink.
Though I state my disappointment in Smith’s manipulation, I agree with Loengard’s assessment, “all this is a tiny footnote of no importance, compared to Gene’s pictures.”

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