Category Archives: Photography

Bob Shell: The Incredible Shrinking Business

 

Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2021

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The Incredible Shrinking Business

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I didn’t come up with that title. An old friend, veteran of the photography magazine business, used that phrase and it stuck in my mind. When I first got serious about photography in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were many quality 35 mm SLRs to choose from. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, SLR stands for ‘Single Lens Reflex’, the type of camera that uses a flipping mirror to let you see the view from your lens directly, projected onto a viewing screen. Most allow lens interchangeably. Until recently, almost all high end cameras were SLRs. But, recently, a new type of camera has come along, generally referred to as ‘mirrorless’. One disadvantage of the SLR design is that the mirror must flip out of the way during the actual exposure, causing a momentary loss of the image at the moment of exposure, and vibration in some cases. This led to incidences of eyes closed in photos when someone blinked at just the wrong instant, and worse, you never knew it until the film was developed. This is one of the things that mirrorless cameras eliminate. 

Back in ‘those thrilling days of yesteryear,’ when I first delved into photography, we had many brands of SLR cameras to choose from. Some, in no particular order, were Alpa, Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Yashica, Contax, Miranda, Rolleiflex, Ricoh, Cosina, Chinon, Exakta, Edixa, Praktica, Praktina, Olympus, Voigtlander, Pentax, Kiev, Topcon, Kowa, Samsung, Contarex, Contaflex, Icarex, Kodak Retina Reflex, Petri, Mamiya, Vivitar, Konica, and, of course, Leica, although the first Leicaflex SLR was a wildly impractical design. 

All were either Japanese or German, with a few Russian and Ukrainian, and the outliers Samsung, the sole offering from South Korea, and Alpa from Switzerland. I’m sure I missed some, but all were capable of making decent images. 

My first serious SLR camera was a somewhat beat up Nikon F that I bought from a friend when I was living in DC around 1967. It had a 50 mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens, but no light meter, so somewhere I got a Gossen Lunasix hand meter to use with it. Camera and meter were later stolen when I was away from my apartment for a few days. 

I didn’t have much money in those days, so my next camera was a Zenit B Russian-made SLR that I bought from Cambridge Camera Exchange in New York, $ 39.95 mail order, brand new. It produced surprisingly good images, but was clunky design. Later I had more money, so I bought a Mamiya/Sekor 1000 DTL from the camera department at J.C. Penney. In those days every major retailer had a camera department, and price competition was fierce. 

I’ve always been a tinkerer. I have to know how things work. I never owned a 35 mm camera that I didn’t take apart to see how it worked. So, in the early 70s I took the camera repair mail order course from National Camera in Colorado. I had a ball taking cameras apart and putting them back together, usually with no pieces left over! Once I gained some confidence, I began repairing cameras for money. But, in those days camera repairmen were mechanics, electronics hadn’t invaded the insides of cameras much, aside from the simple electronics of built-in light meters. 

All of this is leading up to the electronic invasion of cameras, first starting in the later 70s. I’d be totally out of my depth trying to fix one of today’s digital cameras. 

In many ways, it’s like cars. I was at home when cars had points and plugs to be gapped, and the only electronic item in my tool chest was a timing light. Work on one of today’s cars without a diagnostic computer — forget it! 

Same with cameras, in many cases they require diagnostic equipment only factory service technicians have access to. 

Not long after I got serious about photography and camera repair the first attrition of camera brands began, with brands like Edixa, Praktina, Kowa, Petri, falling by the wayside. In the mid-70s Zeiss-Ikon, the famous German camera maker folded its tent and dropped out of the camera business, their last camera the gorgeous Zeiss-Ikon SL706. They just couldn’t compete with Japanese prices, although the Zeiss-Ikon SL706 was reborn as the Rollei SL35M with cosmetic changes, built at Rollei’s ill-fated manufacturing plant in Singapore. 

I won’t try to list the companies that collapsed over the 70s and 80s and into the 90s, but suffice it to say that they fell like leaves in a forest, the last collapses being those that couldn’t make the transition to digital imaging. Minolta, one of the oldest Japanese brands, went into bankruptcy and was bought by Konica, only to have that iconic brand itself go bankrupt. It’s an open secret that Minolta was acquired by Sony, a company that had avoided the SLR market for years. That’s why Minolta lenses fit the first generations of Sony SLRs before they went mirrorless. Even the Minolta Alpha designation for their SLRs was retained by Sony. 

With the recent announcement that Olympus is shutting down its camera division, a serious photographer has only Canon, Nikon, Sony, Leica, and Pentax to choose from, Pentax being the only one not to go mirrorless and retain the flipping mirror. I wouldn’t invest in Pentax’s long term survival, but I’ve been wrong before, and some photographers prefer the traditional mirrored SLR’s viewfinder. 

Do I expect the photo business to shrink even more? Certainty. Demand for high end cameras is way down, and lower end cameras were killed by cellphones with built-in cameras, some of which produce remarkably good images. I’ve seen full page pictures in several magazines shot with iPhones. But, for those times when the cellphone just won’t do, such as long telephoto shots of nature and sports, the high end camera is still essential.

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About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models.  He is serving the 13th year of his sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Facility, Virginia. To read Bob Shell’s, first essay on civil war, click here: https://tonywardstudio.com/blog/in-praise-of-reality/

Editor’s Note: If you like Bob Shell’s blog posts, you’re sure to like his new book, COSMIC DANCE by Bob Shell (ISBN: 9781799224747, $ 12.95 book, $ 5.99 eBook) available now on Amazon.com . The book, his 26th, is a collection of essays written over the last twelve years in prison, none published anywhere before. It is subtitled, “A biologist’s reflections on space, time, reality, evolution, and the nature of consciousness,” which describes it pretty well. You can read a sample section and reviews on Amazon.com.

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Studio News: Webinar

Two day seminar: four world renowned media professionals of Pop Culture

The School of Popology

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To Register, click herehttp://popologist.com

 

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Bob Shell: Learning to See and Equipment Meditations

Portrait of Kimberly Kane. Photo: Tony Ward, Copyright 2020

 
Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2020
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Learning to See and Equipment Meditations 
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Many people, when they get into photography, become “equipment freaks,”. buying lens after lens in a quest for better photographs. I know, I was one myself. Those people keep the camera companies in business. I didn’t understand that better photography comes from training the eye and mind, not from accumulating more equipment. Yes, you do need some good equipment to make the best photographs, but adding lens after lens won’t make you see better. After going lens crazy early in my career I reached a point of saturation. Then I began to pare down my equipment to just what I needed. For most of my travel I carried a simple outfit of a 24mm lens, a 28-80 zoom, and a 100-300 zoom. Depending on where I was going I might add a 20mm, 100mm macro or a 400mm and 2X tele converter. I found I could handle almost any contingency with that simple outfit. I rarely used the 24mm or the long end of the 100-300 zoom range. My kit fit handily in a medium sized camera bag with room left for a flash unit and a bunch of film. After digital my kit didn’t change much, just a bunch of storage cards instead of film.

One time when I was going to Las Vegas for a week I challenged myself and took only a little Leica point and shoot with a 28mm lens. I came back with a bunch of great shots, and only wished for my regular kit a couple of times. When you only have a lens with one focal length you learn to zoom with your feet. I wrote an article in Shutterbug about that experiment and illustrated it with some of the photos from the trip. The only time the 28mm was a problem was in closeup photos of people, but just stepping back took care of the distortion.

In my studio I found that I could do just about anything with a 28-80 zoom, and rarely attached anything else to my camera. For my outdoor nudes the 28-80 f/2.8-4.0 and 70-200 f/2.8 could handle all my needs. The 24 was in my bag, but rarely came out. I had a 20, but used it so seldom that I sold it. I kept a 16mm Russian fisheye around for those rare times that it made sense.

Try an experiment. Spend a week photographing with only one lens. Instead of changing lenses, change your point of view. Zoom with your feet. Force yourself to think in terms of that one focal length

Many of the world’s great photographers worked with the Rolleiflex twin lens reflex cameras, with their fixed 80mm lenses on 6 X 6 format. Those photographers learned to see in terms of that one lens, and produced some spectacular images.

In the 70s I tried that for a while. I bought a used Rolleicord, the cheaper model of Rollei TLR and worked with it all one summer. I had a lot of fun with that camera, and got some photos I like very much. That camera taught me the benefit of carrying a tripod for the sharpest possible images of non moving subjects, a lesson I’ve never forgotten. When a tripod was just too cumbersome to tote, I’d carry my lightweight Gitzo carbon fiber monopod, which doubled as a walking stick. A monopod is also great for getting shots from high angles by holding it up overhead and using a remote release or self timer to fire the camera.

My favorite tripod/monopod head is the Acratech ball head. Compact, light, and very sturdy. I’ve tried many other ball heads over the years when reviewing them for articles, but always found myself going back to the Acratech for my personal work. I used the version with the Arca-style quick release, which lets me put a camera and lens on and off very quickly and easily. The only time I used a different head is when shooting with a view camera, either my 4 X 5 Toyo monorail or my old Eastman 2D 8 X 10 field camera. For those heavier cameras I have a big ball head made by Schoon in Holland. Obviously, I really prefer ball heads. When using the big, heavy 8 X 10 I use a heavy duty wood tripod. Mine is the Brom Master, made in Germany. It will support damn near anything. But the times I’ve used my view cameras after I started working with digital can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I wouldn’t want to be a view camera salesman today. I even thought of selling my Toyo outfit until I saw the low prices they were going for, and decided just to keep it. Maybe one day the prices for digital backs for them will drop down to my level. There are many things you can only do with a view camera with full swings, tilts, and shifts. Tilt-shift lenses can come close, and are sufficient for many applications. Zorkendorfer in Germany makes adapters to allow tilt and shift on most digital SLR cameras using medium format or enlarger lenses (www.zoerk.com).

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About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models.  He is serving the 13th year of his sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Facility, Virginia. To read more letters from prison by Bob Shell, click here: https://tonywardstudio.com/blog/civil-war/

Editor’s Note: If you like Bob Shell’s blog posts, you’re sure to like his new book, COSMIC DANCE by Bob Shell (ISBN: 9781799224747, $ 12.95 book, $ 5.99 eBook) available now on Amazon.com . The book, his 26th, is a collection of essays written over the last twelve years in prison, none published anywhere before. It is subtitled, “A biologist’s reflections on space, time, reality, evolution, and the nature of consciousness,” which describes it pretty well. You can read a sample section and reviews on Amazon.com.

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Tony Ward: A Sunday Ride to Atlantic City

A Sunday Ride to Atlantic City. Portrait of Howard Lee by Tony Ward, Copyright 2020

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Text by Tony Ward, Copyright 2020

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A Sunday Ride to Atlantic City

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I received a call recently from one of my childhood friends, Howard Lee to take some pictures of a group of motorcycle enthusiast that he put together for a ride to Atlantic City on August 30th..  Howard and I go back to the very beginning of our lives, as toddlers.  We grew up in the same neighborhood.  Our parents were friends.  We even went to the same Catholic elementary school for a brief period.  It wasn’t until we finished high school that we began to loose close contact.  I went on to college.  Howard  entered the  Philadelphia police academy where he served as a Philadelphia police officer until his retirement just a few years ago.

In his retirement years former officer Lee is enjoying being a landlord and an avid motorcycle enthusiast.  So when he called and asked me to photograph a group of his friends assembling for a ride to Atlantic City on a beautiful Sunday morning in August, I couldn’t resist.  I got there a little early to see the fellowship and bond that formed with a group of people from all walks of life.  Many in the group are active police officers, some retired as well as civilians who share a similar passion for riding bikes. 

It was great to share a new memory with an old friend.

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Leif Skoogfors: Interview

 

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LEIF SKOOGFORS INTERVIEW:

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TW: When did you first realize your vocation would be to become a photojournalist? Who or what influences in your life early on led you down this path?

LS:  The weekly arrival of LIFE magazine, in those days a respected and worldly periodical showed me the world. I saved up to buy a 1958 book on LIFE’s photo staff and was fascinated by the adventures the men and women who worked for LIFE were.

Politics and world events were part of my blood; my father, a Swedish engineer, had worked for a time in Germany. He was in Prussia as Hitler tried his Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. After he returned to Sweden, he was consumed by news about the Finish-Soviet Winter War of 1939, and my father, who had worked in the US, decided his family was best raised there. Three months after the German invasion of Poland, he packed us up, and we emigrated to the US, so current events were subject to daily analysis.

My interest in world events and politics was consuming, and photojournalism combined all of this with art. It was the ultimate answer for me.

TW: What impact did studying with Alex Brodovitch have on your approach to photography and photojournalism in particular?

LS: I’m not sure I fully understood Brodovitch at first. He said to the twenty-plus students who met in Richard Avedon’s studio, he would only talk about photographs that were new to him; or were so terrible as to raise his anger. He ignored the mediocre. And most of my work was mediocre. It led to a healthy self-criticism. There is a push to go beyond, even in the most ordinary projects. And that is an invaluable lesson!

TW: As I reviewed the breadth of your work for this interview, it became readily apparent that the themes you addressed in your visual reporting from 40 years ago are very relevant to the types of demonstrations, marches and protests we see currently on the American streets and throughout the world. What are your thoughts about the Trump administration and the propaganda the white house espouses these days?


LS:
I photographed Donal Trump once, at first as other journalists have written about, he pretended to be his own press agent under another name. I arrived at his Atlantic City casino and asked for the press agent by name, John Miller. A tall blond haired man came down the stairs and I said,”Hi John, good to meet you”. The man scowled and said, “I’m Donald Trump.” We didn’t get along well since I didn’t really know who Donald Trump was. An ego jolt?

More eloquent folks have analyzed The Trump White House. It is clear it sucks. And it is incredibly sad that the current demonstrations must go on to force more change. I’m sorry that my current situation won’t allow me to be out there still.

TW: What was the most exciting assignment you worked on where you believe your photographs may have influenced public opinion for the good of mankind?

LS: I’m not sure my photographs influenced people; I know I tried in my book, “The Most Natural Thing in the World,” done a long time ago. I tried to show the situation there, and the poor folks caught in the middle of a bitter war. Recently a journalist said that the essay in the book, text by friends John and Lenore Cooney, was the most accurate depiction” of “The Troubles” he’d ever seen.

 Just two years ago, I had an appointment with a doctor who had emigrated from Bosnia. When I told her of my time there, she was effusive in thanking me. She said that it was the journalists who covered that terrible war, influencing the US and NATO to come in and enforce a Peace. It made me realize how important the work we do is, helping end a war with the highest mass killings of civilians in Europe since WW2 .

TW:  You have spent a significant amount of your time working with the DART Society and the effects of war and its aftermath. How has seeing so much death and destruction impacted your life and well being?

LS: One of the most severe problems facing any journalist covering current events; from a war zone or a local car crash is Post Traumatic Stress. Estimates range from 15 to 30 percent of photographers who face horrific situations will have to deal with these issues. If not treated, the photographer may experience a lifetime of problems.

I suffered from a severe attack years after covering the irregular war, known as “The Troubles,” in Northern Ireland. Fortunately, I’d also attended a workshop on Post Traumatic Stress given by the Dart Center and found treatment.

I’ve volunteered with this and other groups to raise funds for groups helping journalists both to understand PTSD or receive counseling.

TW: What advice can you offer the young photojournalist who has the compassion to document tragedy?

LS: I would advise any young photojournalist always to be prepared to offer compassion or help when covering traumatic events. Often, just letting a subject you know the pain they may be suffering will help. And never be afraid to ask for help yourself.

TW: If you were to start your career over again, what would you do differently if anything?

LS: If I was starting my career over, what fun would that be! I’d wish for the opportunity for an excellent liberal arts education and add another language and some decent art courses. Drawing is a fast way to learn about two-dimensional work, and that’s what a photograph is all about.

TW:  Now that you are retired from the grind of day to day photojournalism, what is a typical day like for you since you had the recent health challenge?

LS: Unfortunately, I’ve suffered some health challenges, not to mention the infuriating limitations of advancing age. But I try to spend as much time going over my archive in anticipation of placing it with the University of Texas. I love finding a beautiful photo I’d overlooked in the past, something that surprises me. I also realize that my work covers history and I’m proud to have worked during the “golden age of journalism.”

TW:  Who is your favorite photographer and why?

LS: Too many, I fear. Among them, Cartier-Bresson for his “Decisive Moment,” Gene Smith for his passion, and Jacques Henri Lartigue for his sense of humor. Ed van der Elsken also influenced me, perhaps with the romanticism of his book “Love on the Left Bank.” I still have the first edition of that work from 1954.

TW:  How would you like to be remembered?

As one of the hardest working photojournalists!

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Portrait of Leif Skoogfors with Special Warfare unit.

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About The Photographer: Leif Skoogfors (born 1940 in Wilmington, Delaware) is a documentary photographer and educator. He was born in Wilmington, Delaware, one month after his family, including brothers Olaf and Eric, fled Sweden as World War II broke out. His family crossed the North Atlantic in December 1939 on a neutral Norwegian ship.

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Editor’s Note: Licensing of photographs available through Getty Images. Leif Skoogfors, Copyright 2020.

 

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