Monday, August 15, 2011

Reimagining a Jewish Past That Never Was

08 15 11 For immediate release:

RA Friedman doesn’t mind being known around town as “the man with the old camera” or “the vintage photography guy.” Since the early 90’s he has been shooting with older instruments and exploring the unique look of the antique lens, He often creates time-traveling portraits at events using a seventy-year-old Graflex camera. Recently, a project funded via Kickstarter, that will happen in the coming months, led him to partner with EgoPo, a cutting-edge theatre group in Philadelphia, in a pairing that seemed destined to be. Friedman has evolved a startling set of publicity images for EgoPo’s 2011/2012 season, that on first blush look like they date from the 1920’s or 30’s but were taken barely over two weeks ago.

EgoPo has in the works a trio of Jewish-themed plays: The Diary of Anne Frank, The Golem, and The Dybbuk. Friedman’s background includes working with the photo collections at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and, since 2003, filling the role of audio technician and archivist at The Freedman Jewish Sound Archive at Penn. “Of course, many people know Frank’s diary, but working around Yiddish folklore and having developed an affinity and osmotic knowledge of the beauty of the Yiddish language, its literature and poetry, I was also familiar with The Dybbuk and The Golem. So all at once I was more connected to the material than most photographers, but also anxious about creating images that were worthy of the subject matter’s weighty legacy.”

The library, auditorium and gasolier-appointed grand stairway of The German Society, an elegant Victorian style building, made a perfect backdrop for photos that needed to have an early 20th century look. “The photography was really kind of ‘crash and grab,’ we only had a bit more than an hour to create five tableaux and right at the outset, all my lamps failed! I was literally trembling but luckily a kind of emergency autopilot kicked in. That the company members were incredibly cooperative and skillful helped beyond words. They even held their breaths so as to prevent blurriness in the long exposures!” “The image post-processing took over a week of dedicated mornings (and a few evenings) as I tweaked and printed each image. I used overlays taken from scans graciously provided by Library Company of Philadelphia to add to the war-torn look of the images. This was fast, I’ve been known to take a month to make a print that suits me!”

RA Friedman recently completed a giant zoetrope (primitive mechanical movie device) that centered on the history of the Seventh Street neighborhood in South Philadelphia as part of a Mural Arts project entitled Journeys South. Two of his recent works are scheduled for a show in September at The Merchant’s House Museum, Manhattan along with photographers that include Sally Mann. Additionally, he heads up Tsirkus Fotografika, a vintage portrait project that kicked off in 2008 and now has an archive of over 700 images: More info: and

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Vintage Digital Field Test

I'm generally neurotic about being prepared for shoots, so when the technology is completely new and untested, I'm doubly so. I schlepped the rig with the 210 Schneider lens, the Majestic tripod head, and the rig that trains the digital camera on the focusing screen of a 1950's Crown Graphic to Fitler Square, a nearby park. Being that there were no volunteers swarming to be photographed, I used auto-time.

There is still some flaring at the center of the image, but with the 210, it's greatly reduced. I used what I called "split development" in what is a knock-off of Lightroom that came with my camera. I underexposed at capture and then created two .tif files: one dark (to reign in the flare) and one normal for the rest of the image. I then layered and masked them in Photoshop and pretty much just freely hit the image mask with various grays in that I let blend. I think the overall effect was pretty decent. It kind of looks like a cross between Autochrome and old Kodachrome. I think it will work.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Taking the Leap (With a Bit of Help)

So you’ve been dreaming of launching a creative career? Or, maybe you are already a working artist who has been aching to do that BIG project and doesn’t quite know how to get it rolling? You may want to investigate This site is becoming increasingly popular with creative projects ranging from big theatre companies using it for fundraising, to individual artists creating things like hand-printed comic books. What sets Kickstarter apart from sites like Fractured Atlas where people can donate money is that it is interactive. It keeps you in touch with your backers, and also gets your project in front of people who are looking to connect with interesting artists and purchase merchandize directly from the creators.

One important thing you should know about Kickstarter funding is that it is all or nothing. If the project does not make its funding goal, it simply expires without the creator or backers exchanging money or goods. There is plenty of information on the Kickstarter site, which I’m not going to rehash here. This is by no means meant to be the definitive guide or a prescription for success, simply my own perspective and experiences from a project called Stand in the Light, a pinhole photography idea that involves creating images of multiple nude models in grand architectural spaces.

My goal was bare bones: $1200, just enough to do the first of what I hope will be a series of shoots in various cities. Since this was the first time doing anything like this. I had no idea if I’d make it, but after adding up everything I thought I’d need, it seemed reasonable—a reach, but not unreachable. I don’t know a ton a people, but I’m not a hermit either. I had seen a number of Kickstarter projects by others fail by setting goals that were too high, often because they incorporated living and travel expenses into the target number. I didn’t want what I was doing to look like a glorified vacation. I tried to imagine myself as an outsider looking in. Would this excite me enough to part with my hard-earned money?

I decided the best tack was to just be myself. I made the video for the funding page simply by talking to the camera as if I were discussing my work with someone I had just met. (It took about eighteen takes to get it right!) Every request for funding I sent over Facebook was an individually written missive. Each time someone pledged I sent a short “Thank you” email telling them perhaps a little bit about recent goings on.

Prior to launch, I spent much time looking around on the Kickstarter site, seeing what worked for me, what didn’t, trying to find comparable projects, and keeping an eye on their progress. I’d often pledge small amounts of five dollars or less if I found something unusually compelling. I quickly became a bit addicted to perusing what other people were doing and found that it was a great way to get a sense of the current creative scene. Additionally, I set a minimum goal of 500 fans for my photography page on Facebook. Pleas to friends and colleagues to spread the word and get people to “Like” my page helped out a lot.

Also, before going on Kickstarter, I created a catalog of eleven test images which took me about ten months to do. I wanted to be sure that the rather technically unusual process I planned to use was viable. The test run allowed me to estimate how much it would cost to do works on a larger scale, and it also let me decide if this was what I really wanted to work on over the long term. (It was!) The tests served as the premiums rather than having people pledge towards future work. This allowed backers to get their goodies shortly after the funding cycle ended and took some of the pressure off me so I could proceed at my usual tortoise-like pace. Most importantly, I believe, it telegraphed that I was serious and was willing to go the distance by doing my homework.

I did just one mass email, sent a number of individual emails, posted on Facebook, and over the 45 days the project was up I came close to individually messaging about 175 friends and contacts I then had on Facebook. I also posted on Craigslist (no hard evidence that it helped in any way). I should have tracked the hours, but they were considerable. On a per-hour basis it would have been more lucrative to have just gone to my part time job and put in some extra time. Still, much came of the project, which can’t be gauged in money.

Surprisingly, individuals, some who I had not been in close contact with, or didn’t even know, pledged generously. Perhaps not surprisingly, I discovered that it’s very easy for people to hit the “Like” button on Facebook but that doesn’t mean they really understand what you do or are engaged enough to want to fund your efforts. The most common response to emails and messaging was simply: none.

The least fun part of Kickstarter was fulfillment of the art people were to receive for backing me. I was lucky that most of it was catalogs and small photos. I dealt with it by doing the bulk of it in one fell swoop, taking a day to make prints, go to Staples for packaging materials, and stuffing envelopes. On the next go-round I will definitely be thinking of ways to sidestep having to do things like cutting cardboard and making little custom stiffeners. I will surely be standardizing both the items and the packaging.

Despite sometimes feeling like I was howling at the moon, and one day of grunt work, doing this campaign was very exciting. I got a little shiver up my spine every time someone new pledged. Going through this process has given me a model for future fundraising that I need to do when I take the project to its next stage. Much like writing a grant, it brought things into focus. I believe it created a sense of urgency and legitimacy in the public eye, but unlike a grant, it was up to me and my support base to determine if I got to move ahead. Of the 700 or so people I was aware of having been informed about the project, about eight percent came through with pledges, most for less than $30. The $10 level (a hand-printed postcard) was the most popular. I also received a number of off-line contributions either by check or Paypal from people who did not want to deal with either Kickstarter or Amazon, the entity that takes the cash. Although I continually encouraged people to kick-in at the $1 or $2 level, few did. I’m not completely sure why. It may be that, despite my assurances, they were embarrassed to do so, just as nearly no one said they were simply broke and could not contribute.

Another very positive aspect of doing Kickstarter was it put my work in peoples’ hands. Before the campaign I could easily name all the collectors who had my prints. Now more than thirty people have a photo or catalog as part of their collection, with some of the work going as far as the UK. Two larger pledges were from persons I didn’t know that it turns out live in my immediate neighborhood! The project was featured as “Popular this Week” on the Kickstarter site for a number of weeks, so my surmise is a lot of people I don’t know about saw my work as well.

At this juncture I’m putting down the groundwork for the actual shoot to happen in Philadelphia. I will be planning a second Kickstarter campaign when the first one or two major works are complete so that Stand in the Light can move on to another large US city and work with another group of people willing to go nude for art.

The test images are on YouTube as a video which is jump-linked to (Caution: NSFW!) I welcome questions, comments, and suggestions and of course, inquiries concerning purchasing work and/or backing future projects.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Romance, Reality and The Digital Dark Side

This year, I have likely done more shooting just wandering the streets of Philadelphia than I have since the late 90's. What has motivated it, is not completely clear to me but I think a lot of it has to do with the Stand in the Light pinhole photographs, the pilot series having been recently completed. The post processing took hundreds of hours spread out over many months. I kind of just needed a break, an excuse to bum around the streets, simply me, my thoughts, and the camera; to do more or less straight photography and satisfy my hunger for reality, but also to connect with something vital, alive and ever-shifting.

I've become addicted to the extremely long walks and the meditation it takes to use a public space as my studio, especially as I've become more interested in the idea of simply letting things to come to me, rather than trying to force my own vision on the world. In a sense, I have been testing myself, allowing my mind to just take things in and also to let the distraction flow through me. Of course, flexing one's visual imagination in an open-air setting is just as varied and unreliable as hitting a more traditional work space. I've had days where everything seemed to be magic, where my inner state was Zen-like, others where I couldn't make it fly. But something else has become patently clear: the best currently available tool for these jaunts in the urban landscape is a digital camera.

For years I resisted. I carried a multitude of film jobs, many considered collector's pieces. I would use a digital occasionally and without much seriousness or care, using point-n-shoots, often of low mega pixel-age. It was always film that was for The Work. In fact, I even wrote a missive for The Broad Street Review on why I was shooting film and had side-stepped the digital revolution.

My attitude towards working digitally has changed recently, in fact, it's the only kind of camera I feel motivated to use for shooting pretty much anything outside of a studio type environment. As an irrational human, where my sentiments lead is often at variance with rationality. I try to make a conscious choice as to which is allowed the upper hand. In the creative end of art, what has often been called a waking dream, I'm happy to lead to let sentiment romp all over the mental playground, but when it comes to setting the stage and making the tool and logistical choices, I do my best to be as pragmatic as possible.

All the photos I've done for the recent Digital Landscape series have been done using a 6mp Canon Powershot point-n-shoot. In 2007 its list price was about $700. They are now going on e-Bay for about $40. This speaks more for the rapid advances in technology and depreciation in a market ever hungry for the latest thing rather than this camera's ability to make great photos. The freedom to experiment without concern for film or developing costs, to quickly zoom and reframe shots, and to be able to come home after after being out for many hours and closely look at what I captured and then be able to edit and share the images online, makes the cold, plastic-y, and unromantic silver box the clear winner.

I think Cartier-Bresson once said that one's first ten thousand photographs were the worst. With film, only the most steadfast photographers ever reached that mysterious tipping point. The limitations and lessons I learned from film have not only allowed me to start to really appreciate electronic photography but in many ways are informing what I'm doing with it. Shooting film for years taught me to slow down even though today's digital cameras are fast and nimble and encourage a fast and loose shooting style. Film photography really required the photographer to pre-visualize the final print. Though digital does give you an instant preview of the shot, it still is a far cry from the finished image, so little has really changed. I'm still having to get in tune with how the camera sees.

I guess there was and still is a certain romance to shooting with film, some of the biggest arguments being simplicity and the kind of concentration and near-ceremony using a film camera brings to the whole chain of creating photos. It's tactile and physical too. Part of the attachment for me was I brought up on film. Some of my fondest memories are working in the darkroom whether it was a bathroom, or later a small outbuilding my dad and I built.

The romance ramped up in graduate school when I started getting into antique cameras as real users. I had collected old film cameras as a kid, scouring the junk and estate shops of the Upper West Side in Manhattan for old Kodaks that I bought for a few bucks, but it was in graduate school that I bought my first usable antiques and fell in love with them. While I was at LSU in the early 90's I started simply roaming around with them. I bought a Zeiss Super Ikonta C, a German camera from the fateful year of 1933. Then, not content with one, I bought another. I bought a few 35mm Kodak Retinas from George Mrus, who was then alive and selling nice overhauled items.

The mania for finding the perfect outside/street camera continued into my years in Philadelphia, offering a poor substitute for really going out and making a lot of images. The film cameras kept on multiplying as I tried out different tools. The insanity finally peaked this year when I started looking at Leicas and Voigtlander Bessas as my possible next acquisition. Somehow reason stepped in and though I will likely upgrade soon, it's going to be to a Panasonic Lumix G2, a fairly modest mirror-less digital which is even less sexy than the Canon, but it's compact, has some excellent optics available and will suit my needs. I will still use my Graflex beasts and Crown Graphics for Tsirkus Fotografika and for pinhole work. Vintage folder anyone?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

In Search of Alchemy

I know I've been talking about the BIG project that Tsirkus is launching in April for quite some time. Since I've seen over and again, the results of poor planning and lack of doing one's homework, I really wanted to get at least ten strong test images made before the launch. Well I've hit that.

It has been a real struggle to not throw the photos up online as they got made. I didn't do it because the 72dpi screen really kills the experience of seeing them. I've been test printing the images as I've worked along and the final output is a real print you can hold in your hand, not a screen shot. Still, at some point, one has to give it up to technology and to the patient people who have so lovingly supported the emergence of the project, often from afar, and post the semi-real deal. So, Voila!

Tech details? They weary me. My sage advice is don't try this at home, but if you must know, they were done via multiple pinhole exposures on high-speed instant film. I combined and manipulated the positives and negatives in Photoshop. I don't even want to know how many hundreds of hours have gone into making the full ten. Lots of getting up early and working, and reworking, experimenting, and test printing. Are they ever done? Probably not. I know I will hang them in a gallery and immediately see something I could have done better.

I'd much rather talk about the volumes of notes and thoughts that working on these have generated. It's been like a kind of plummeting into the roots of what feels like everything. If I could say anything in sum, it's been the feeling like somehow all this was waiting for me. OK, not a bad pay-off for over 25 years of banging one's head against the proverbial and living on macaroni and cheese.

I want to thank the very patient and extraordinary models who worked with me and for taking the leap of faith. Let me also say, the other nine images are not work-safe. The photographic rendering celebrates the forms of the human body, so I won't be posting them on Facebook. The plan is create a small catalog and most likely a .pdf file that project supporters can buy and download for a very nominal feel. This will be part of a Kickstarter project that will also be launched in April where people can buy-in to the project by purchasing items from a the aforementioned file to postcards to a large, archival print.

So now, on to the nuts and bolts of things, like making slides, getting press releases out, going on Lulu and making the catalog and the hundred other things needed to get things in gear. More details to follow about how this technique will dovetail with public shoots.

Photo Title: Hide and Seek
Photographer: RA Friedman, c. 2011

Monday, January 17, 2011

Clothing Optional

OK, I will come clean; the germ of this blog was a Craigslist missive from a novice photographer asking for professional advice on how to get started photographing women nude. I usually resist the temptation to answer such things, primarily because it’s usually just wasted words. Most of the time, I don’t even get a “thank you” for responding. Too, the vast number of people who post queries like this are somehow engaged in a kind of magical thinking; that is, they think that if they just throw their issue out in the world and wish hard enough, someone will provide the easy, pat answer, and all will be well. They don’t want to hear the real truths, which involve uncertainty, a bit of luck and most of all, hard work.

But I had a moment of indiscretion, and every so often I feel expansive with the desire to pass on what little wisdom I may have accumulated related to things that most people don’t care about. Additionally, I’m curious about whether my ideas are received and the dialogue that ensues. I love to teach, I just loathe formal educational environments. The possibility of winning over a young heart and mind to the path of creative anarchy is like putting a sardine in front of a starved alley cat-- I pounced. I sent this person the “five minute version” (no answer as of this post date) and have expanded my ideas below.

First, if you are not the type who takes a self-inventory every now and then and you’re determined to add galleries of flesh to your portfolio, my best advice is: Stop reading now! What I’ve written below will not change your mind and will simply annoy you.

As subject matter, the nude is creatively dangerous. For one, we still live in a country where the human body is seen as something from which people must shield their eyes and thoughts. You are likely to be plagued by questions concerning your own reasons for photographing raw human anatomy and will need to unravel what on earth you are doing, given the glut of nudes, especially of women as photographed by men. Nude photography requires dealing with one’s own complex motivations plus those of a living self-determining and ever-shifting subject who has invested a lot of trust in both you and your creative abilities. By peeling away the physical barrier of clothing, a social and cultural boundary is removed, putting both the subject and the photographer in a new psychological space that can be disquieting. Even after years of drawing and painting from the figure as well as making many photographic images, I still find working with a live model challenging and even a bit nerve wracking. There are occasional moments in the studio where I avert my eyes, feeling my gaze is too intimate and that I’ve transgressed an unspoken boundary. Add to all this the thorny process of attempting to make really excellent photographs, and you can see why things can get difficult and messy.

The art historian Kenneth Clarke wrote: “No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even if it be only the faintest shadow - and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals.” If you believe this, there is no playing it “safe.” I find so called “figure studies” that just show the beauty of the human body, to be pretty uninteresting since they take a human being, something alive, chaotic and unpredictable and turn it into still life.

There are more practical problems as well. For every potential subject you invite to be photographed, be he or she professional model or amateur, you are automatically suspect until proven otherwise. At worst you are a potential rapist who buries people in the basement, but more likely you will be potentially looked at as being something much more prosaic. With the advent of digital photography, there has been an explosion of “GWC’s” or “Guys With Cameras”—men whose interest in photography doesn’t go much further than whether their pricey new equipment will get a woman to take her clothes off. These poseurs waste the model’s time snapping photos that are mediocre and are often last seen during the shoot on the camera’s lcd screen.

The best solution to the above is to be professional, even formal in how you present yourself, what your project is and what you want to do. These days most modeling gigs are worked out online. What you write in your posts and emails are often all someone responding to your subject search has to go on. Be forthright about the state of your experience, circumstances and budget. Have a project or better yet, specific shots in mind that you want to execute. Explain your purpose and intended use of the images. If the model wants to bring a friend or significant other to the shoot, let them. If a model wants to meet you ahead of time to make sure you are OK, go have a cup of coffee and bring some prints. Having a face-to-face meeting before the shoot helps the work go better in my experience. You have a sense of the person ahead of time.

Minimally, have a page on Model Mayhem or One Model Place where people you’ve worked with can “tag” you and write about their positive experiences working with you. Pay your models, if at all possible, even if it’s just a modest show-up fee. Secure a good space to work in, even if you have to rent an hourly studio. Prepare.

More important than covering the professional bases, as I alluded to previously, consider the model’s perspective. In fact, I’d go as far as to suggest you take a stab at modeling nude to get a feel for the kind of vulnerability it engenders and how difficult it really is. I had the full and somewhat mortifying experience in college. Being very broke, I was a figure model for a weekend drawing group attended by a rather sleazy-looking man who invited me to do a “private session” at his house. Yes, guys get harassed too!

My experience is people model, regardless of whether they are clothed or not, because they are interested in being in collaborations with creative people. They enjoy the process of evolving tableaux for the camera and the surprises that happen when an image reflects them in a totally new and interesting way. As a photographer, you are in a sense, helping them explore who they are. It’s really a give and take and the more the photographer invests in making a great image, the more something primary from the subject comes through in the photos. If I can be a bit lofty for a moment, this is really what the photographer is “returning” to the model and the world. On a more grounded note, make sure you deliver the files and prints you promise. If you do this, my guess is you will have no shortage of people who will want to create the kind of images you envision.

So how to start? Contrary to what all the photography and art schools would like you to believe, nobody really “studies” photography; you just jump in. The first nudes I did, I put an ad on Craigslist looking for volunteers and I found a few as well! The shots were not stellar, but I learned a lot and I got over a lot of the anxiety I had about working with nude subjects one-on-one. From there I made more and just continued on doing them and a lot of other studio work. The operative word being “work.”