Book Signing Basel

On December 14 I had a wonderful trip to Basel to attend the book signing at Orell Füssli by my dear friend Johannes Czwalina and his fellow author Dan Shambicco. I am looking forward to reading their book ‘Draussen spielt ein Leben’ at Christmas.

It was also a nice opportunity to stroll through Basel whilst taking pictures with my LumixGX80, in combination with my latest acquisition: a Lumix 20mm 1.7 pancake lens. Everything that has been written about this well-known lens turned out to be true. It is extremely sharp, compact, performs very well in low light…but the autofocus is extremely slow compared to all other MFT lenses I have.

On my way back in the train I managed to successfully upload the pictures from my camera directly to Facebook on my smartphone, without editing them in Lightroom first. I have high hopes of shortening my workflow in the future!


LumixGX80 camera | Lumix 20mm 1.7 lens


Back to Holland, back to Harry Mülisch

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While spending the Christmas holidays in the Netherlands I had the opportunity to catch up on my reading. I took the opportunity to also read a couple Dutch books, two of them were about Harry Mülisch.

Harry Mülisch (1927 – 2010) was a well-known Dutch author. Together with Gerard Reve and W.F. Hermans, he belonged to the ‘big three’. The big three were the most prominent of Dutch writers after World War II (although Harry Mülisch preferred to call himself ‘the big one’). Mülisch was not just well-known for his books, but perhaps even more for his massive ego, self-promoting behavior and outward appearance (he was an iconic pipe smoker and wearer of cravats). Carly Simon never disclosed the subject of her song ‘You’re so vain’; it is quite possible for Dutch people to imagine that the subject of her song is actually Harry Mülisch.

‘Zijn eigen land’ (‘His own country’) is a book about Harry Mülisch written by Robbert Ammerlaan, his publisher. The title ‘Zijn eigen land’ refers to the study room of Mülisch in his Amsterdam home where he wrote his books. After Harry Mülisch passed away, Robbert Ammerlaan obtained free access to the notes and archives in this room. On the basis of this material he wrote a book around a couple of important themes in the life of Harry Mülisch.

These themes include the complex relationship between his parents (including their divorce when he was still a child), the second World War (his Austrian father collaborated with the Germans, partly to protect his mother who was Jewish), the relation with his fellow-authors, and the process preceding the writing of some of his most important books.

Harry Mülisch started his career as a writer in 1952 with the novel ‘Archibald Strohalm’. Famous other books are ‘The Stone Bridal Bed’ (a novel about the bombing of Dresden by the Allies in World War II), ‘Criminal case 40/61’ (a report of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961) and ‘The assault’ (a novel which deals with the assault of on a quisling and its aftermath).

The life of Harry Mülisch as a public figure went through three stages. In the first part of his life he was a self-centered narcissist. When socialism became en vogue in the 1960’s he became a socialist and in the last stage of his life he became a hedonist.

He was a true socialite, he had close friends who were influential in the Dutch world of politics, broadcasting and the arts. He established ‘de Herenclub’ (the Gentleman’s Club), a closed society with members he handpicked and described as belonging to the ‘dignified left’. This (men only) club met on a weekly basis in ‘Le Garage’ , a fashionable restaurant in Amsterdam. Despite his left wing affiliation, he was also extremely proud of his relationship with the Dutch Royal Family. Robbert Ammerlaan’s book contains a detailed description of a private dinner with Prince Claus (including the fact that he was served by a valet and lobster was part of the menu), as well as an encounter with Queen Beatrix, of which Mülisch proudly remarks that she invited him to sit next to her.

Besides ‘armchair socialism’, Harry Mülisch had at least three other things in common with the famous French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: writing, smoking a pipe and promiscuous behavior. Mülisch’s reputation of a Don Juan was even mentioned in an article by the International Herald Tribune. Reading about his relationship with women, one gets the impression that women were for him more appliances, than human beings that needed to be treated with respect. Sjoerdje Woudenberg, his first wife, told Robbert Ammerlaan: ‘Harry wanted a 19th century woman […] He was incapable to have a real loving relationship on the basis of of equality’.

All in all, this begs the question why, despite his arrogance, elitist behavior and views on women, he became and remained the darling of the left elite in the Netherlands.

I never really was a fan of Harry Mülisch’s books myself. I liked ‘The Assault’, but did not think too much of ‘Two women’ or ‘The last call’. I found the ‘The stone bridal bed’ boring and the language unnecessary coarse. I also need to confess that I only read two pages so far in my copy of ‘The discovery of heaven’ .

I do however highly recommend ‘Zijn eigen land’ by Robbert Ammerlaan. It is a beautiful hardcover edition and a must have for people who are interested in Dutch literature. It includes unique photos of Mülisch, his family and friends, as well as pictures of his notes (facsimiles) and other objects in his study.

mp_herenclub3dedrukThis brings me to the second book about Harry Mülisch, namely ‘De Herenclub’ (the Gentleman’s Club) by Max Pam (1946), a Dutch journalist, chess player and author. The book is a roman à clef about Mülisch’s Gentleman’s Club, with hilarious descriptions of the (pretentious) behavior of the members of this club. Dutch readers will have no trouble deciphering the pseudonyms of the politicians, authors and other authors that are mentioned in this book (writer Horus Mirmir is for instance a personification of Harry Mülisch). It is a wonderful portrait about the life and times of the ‘dignified left’ elite in the Netherland in the 1980’s. I highly recommend reading this book to anyone interested in the Dutch cultural society around that time.

 

Note: All Mülisch’s books where no Dutch titles are mentioned in this blog post, have been translated in the English language.

 

 

 

Buwalda brings humor back

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In order to familiarize myself with a number of Dutch authors I had not read before, I decided to lend a couple of books from the fantastic pubic library in the center of the Hague during the Christmas holidays. The first book I borrowed was ‘Het grote baggerboek’ (‘The great dredging book’) by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer. I had to put this book down after reading three pages and scanning the remaining ones. The book came across more as a carpet-bombing exercise in vulgar language, than as a literary, or even readable, text.

The second book I borrowed was ‘Armin’ by Gustaaf Peek. Dutch literary critics loved it, I did not. Instead I found it incredibly boring and fell asleep two times, before I made it to page 20 and decided to give up.

This is where the third book, by Peter Buwalda (1971), comes in. Since his best known book ‘Bonita Avenue’ was not available, I made do with ‘Van mij valt niets te leren’ (‘You cannot learn anything from me’), a collection of short stories published in 2015. While I was reading it I kept laughing out loud, what a great sense of humor!

The topics Buwalda deals with include, amongst others, events in his daily life, a lost and found Rolling Stones documentary, a biography of Miles Davis, his experiences as an aspiring newspaper journalist and his compulsive drive to buy (series) of books. The latter include an extensive four-volume (and growing) biography of Lyndon B. Johnson and the collected musical essays of Simon Vestdijk (10 volumes). Due to the speed at which he acquires books, his collection grows on average 2,2 centimeters per day.

200-200-crop-5017ada802213_peterbuwaldaHis writing appeals to me because he combines honesty and humor.First of all, Peter Buwalda comes across as an ‘honest intellectual’. Honest in the sense that he is not ashamed of the fact that he likes the music of Gustav Mahler and Miles Davis, but does not boast about this nor dwells on it. He manages to maintain a healthy degree of self-mockery, without making himself ridiculous or treating his subjets in a derogatory way. His sense of humor reminded me of the character of Nathan Zuckerman in the work of Philip Roth.

Finally, a number of Dutch authors prefer to use profanities extensively in their work, a trend that was set by the likes of Jan Wolkers and Gerard Reve. Unfortunately Peter Buwalda does not always seem to be able to completely ignore this trend. However, for a Dutch book the profanity level is only ‘low-moderate’.

I am looking forward to reading ‘Bonita Avenue’, his best known book so far, soon. This is also his only book that is translated in the English language.

 

 

 

Robert Capa: When two books go to war…

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Without the shadow of a doubt, Robert Capa is the most famous war photographer of all times.
Born as a jew in Hungary in 1913, Capa left his home country in 1931 for Berlin to escape the oppressive right-wing and antisemitic dictatorship that reigned Hungary during that time. It was in Berlin that he learned photography. He moved to Paris in 1933 due to the rise of Nazism in Germany and it was here that he changed his name for commercial reasons from André Friedmann to Robert Capa. In Paris  his  career as a photographer took off with his pictures of the Civil War in Spain. In 1939 he fled to the US and would operate out of this country until the end of World War II.
During his working life he covered five wars: the Spanish Civil War, the war between Japan and China, World War II, the first Arab-Israeli War and the early days of the War in Indochina. He was a true socialite and was well acquainted with a number of famous artists, including writers like Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote and John Steinbeck, film directors Joris Ivens (with whom he travelled through China) and John Huston, as well as actors like Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman (with whom he was romantically involved).
In 1947, Capa took the inititative to found Magnum Photos in Paris, the famous and first cooperative photo agency, which exists until this day. In 1954 he died when he stepped up a land mine in Vietnam.

Robert Capa’s biography reads like an itinerary

Capa - Blood and ChampagneAll in all Capa’s life seems to offer enough ingredients to create a great story, which is unfortunately exactly what Alex Kershaw fails to do in his biography of Capa titled ‘Blood and Champagne’. There are three reasons for this.
First all the biggest issue is that the book fails to bring Capa alive as a human being. Readers are told exactly where Capa was, when and with whom during his life, but does  not bring these events to live. In that sense the book looks more like an  itinerary than a biography.
Capa as a person is depicted as a charming dare-devil, gambler, womanizer and liar. The problem is that the book fails to explain the why, except hinting at the fact that Capa might have inherited these traits from his father.
Secondly the book covers Capa’s life until the end of WWII in a very detailed manner, but pays less attention to his life after World War II until his death in 1954. This is a pity because this is the period where he founded Magnum and travelled with Steinbeck through the USSR. Although both events are covered, they do not come to live. It is also the period where took pictures of the Dutch Royal family, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, William Faulkner and Truman Capote. These must have been memorable occasions, but the book either does not mention these events at all, or does not share any interesting details about them.
Finally the author does not pay attention to Capa as a photographer. The book mentions multiple times that Capa mainly used Leica cameras, but does not pay attention to his technique, style or choice of subjects. The only memorable quote from Capa related to photography in the book is Capa’s well-know statement ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough’.

Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection is a definitive ‘must have’

Robert Capa - The definitive collectionThe book I really recommend is “Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection” by Richard
Whelan. This book contains 937 photos taken by Robert Capa and provides a condensed biography of Robert Capa’s life
The photos are selected by Richard Whelan and Cornell Capa, Robert Capa’s brother (who interestingly enough also adopted Capa as a last name). The book provides a great overview of Capa’s work and does not only include pictures of all the wars he covered, but also pictures he took on film sets with Ingrid Bergman, pictures of the rich and famous (including the Dutch royal family, John Huston, William Faulkner, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote) and series of pictures he took of the trip he undertook with John Steinbeck through the USSR in 1947 and of Jewish immigrants in Israel in 1948 and 1949.
Due to the fact that this book does not only cover his war photography, it enables readers to assess Capa’s skills as a photographer in “non-combat” situations. This distinction is important because photography in combat situation obviously offers little or no opportunity to properly focus and frame pictures.
His work depicting the political unrest in Europe during the Interbellum, with pictures of its political rallies, demonstrations and strikes, provides great documentary material and really manages to bring this era to live. The playfulness of Capa’s street photography will remind viewers of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson (one of the people he co-founded Magnum with). The only disappointing part of his body of work are his portraits. Although they are technically good, there is nothing special about them, especially if you compare them with the work of famous portrait photographers like Irvin Penn or Richard Avedon.
His “non-combat” pictures confirm that Capa was a technically competent photographer . The lightning, focus and depth of filed choices of all his pictures is immaculate. More importantly however is that his “non-combat” pictures are wonderful recordings of hope and optimism. In that sense they are a true testimony of the resilience of the human race.

“Street Photography Now” is a great book which desperately needs an update

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Street photography has always been a popular genre in the world of photography. It takes a prominent position in the body of work of famous photographers like Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus.

Why street photography matters

Street photography is also important for our view on history. We have an idea what the US looked like in the 1950s thanks to “The Americans” of Robert Frank; we know what Amsterdam looked like in the 1960s thanks to the work of Ed van der Elsken, and what New York looked liked in the 1980s thanks to Richard Sandler. A couple of years ago, Vladimir Sychyov published his beautiful pictures of Moscow during the 1970s. These pictures provide us with a completely new impression of this city in that decade. The reason for this is that our previous impression was shaped by official propaganda pictures, or pictures taken by tourists that were only permitted limited access to Moscow. You could argue that street photography is a form of “slow journalism”, closely related to the “fast journalism” of press photography.

A great book

“Street Photography Now” is a great introduction to the world of Street photography at the beginning of the 21th century. The book contains work of and information about street photographers from around the globe.

The information about the individual photographers is interesting and tends to focus on the philosophy behind their work and their way of working. Whilst reading this book, it becomes clear that some street photographers take themselves and their work very, very seriously. Take Wolfgang Zurborn for instance: “My aim is to express the loss of orientation in the impenetrable thicket of our consumption- and media-fixated society”.

The book is beautifully illustrated and clearly geared towards the artistic side of street photography. It can serve as a source of energy and fountain of inspiration for everyone interested to develop himself in this area.

However, it does not cover technical aspects of street photography (cameras, lenses, post-production software, etc.). Also, the book does not deal with “the how” of street photography (e.g. if and how subjects need to be engaged) nor does it treat legal topics like release contracts, etc.

…in need of an update

It would be great if the publisher would decide to issue a new edition which would cover the massive impact Instagram has on street photography. The book stems from 2010 and does deal with Flickr, but not Instagram. This is a pity, because Instagram is the single most important development in the area of street photography since the Internet was founded.

The integration of smartphones and social media is having such a profound impact on street photography, that in due course we will distinguish between street photography before and after the introduction of Instagram.

In my opinion, our image of the second half of the 2010s will be informed not by famous photographers like those mentioned earlier, but by the multitude of people who post high-quality street photographs on a daily basis. The evidence? Type in #streetphotography in Instagram. At the exact moment I wrote this post there were 15.859.579 photos on Instagram with this tag…

 

 

Review “Street Photography Now” by by Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren
Thames and Hudson Ltd; Reprint edition (13 Jun. 2011)
ISBN-10: 0500289077
ISBN-13: 978-0500289075