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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.

Also posted in Art, Blog, Cameras, commentary, Erotica, Fashion, Fetish, Film, Glamour, lifestyle, Models, Nudes, Photography, Popular Culture, Portraiture, women

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.

Also posted in Art, Blog, Documentary, lifestyle, Photography, Popular Culture, Portraiture, Travel

Dominic Mercier: Fleeing Opression, Finding Creative Freedom

Milt Ward. Circa 1960’s

 

Text by Dominic Mercier, Copyright 2020

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Fleeing Oppression, Finding Creative Freedom

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When Milt Ward arrived in Philadelphia in the late 1930s, he was fleeing the oppressive and segregated south. But what he found in his new home was a welcoming, creative community that would bolster his artistic skills and shape his distinguished career as a graphic artist.

Born and raised in Savannah, Ward, as a teenager, was captivated by the hand-lettered signage and point-of-purchase displays that local merchants used in their shops. He set himself to hours and hours of practice in pursuit of perfecting the art of hand lettering, which would later become the hallmark of his career, and found a way to support himself and his family by selling his services to local business owners.

When he arrived in Philadelphia in search of freedom and opportunities with his mother, Eva, and younger brother, Bennie, Ward sought to further his artistic training by enrolling in drawing classes at the Graphic Sketch Club, now better known as Fleisher. It was in the club’s studios, his son, Tony, says, that he connected with members of Philadelphia’s Jewish community and, quite possibly, our founder, Samuel S. Fleisher. Ward’s relationship with members of that community, built on a shared understanding of the perils of persecution and oppression, opened the door to his fruitful career.

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Milt Ward at work. Philadelphia 1950’s.

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“A lot of Jewish merchants at the time were looking out for Black folks. Throughout his entire career he worked almost exclusively for Jewish-owned businesses,” Tony Ward says. “There’s no question that they looked out for my dad. But it wasn’t just because he was African American. He had real talent and they weren’t prejudiced.”

For much of his career, Ward worked for the Roxborough-based Diversified Marketing Group, led by Stanley Ginsberg, with whom Ward shared both a collegial and professional relationship for much of his life. He also was one of the first Black members of the Philadelphia Art Directors Club, a venue in which he formed a lasting friendships with other like-minded artists. From his home office, Ward churned out work for freelance clients, chief among them the Mel Richman Advertising Group, and, after retiring at the age of 65, a significant number of paintings. His talent and dedication allowed him to establish himself firmly in the middle class, Tony says, a rarity for a Black artist at the time.

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“I knew being an artist would be an interesting career, because my dad worked days shifts and then at night on his freelance projects. That’s a sign that someone loves what they’re doing.” – Tony Ward

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While Tony says his father never really spoke of his youth, he did share with him his love of the arts. Tony is a widely-recognized photographer and visiting professor of fine arts at Haverford College and his work, which often explores the intersection of fashion and erotic photography, has been exhibited widely in Philadelphia and in galleries across the world. As a young man, Tony recalls spending hours sitting with his father, learning how to draw and letter. When she was younger, Tony enrolled his own daughter, Chanel, in Fleisher’s Saturday Young Artists Program. Chanel is now an educator and guides Fleisher’s programs as a member of the Programs Impact Committee.

“When I got to college, I realized I wasn’t going to be a hand-lettering specialist like him, I didn’t have the eye. But I pivoted to photography, which was really the right move for me,” Tony says. “I knew being an artist would be an interesting career, because my dad worked days shifts and then at night on his freelance projects. That’s a sign that someone loves what they’re doing.”

AV. From the Alphabet Series. Milt Ward. Copyright 1989

 

Today, Tony keeps his father’s legacy alive online. His website contains a gallery of paintings Ward produced between 1989 and 1993. Called the Alphabet Series, the bold paintings combine Ward’s two loves: painting and bold lettering. Tony’s home houses much of his father’s artwork, as well as a number of his brushes and the drawing table where his father honed his craft.

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About The Author: Dominic Mercier is the Communications Director at the Fleisher Art Memorial. To access the Fleisher web site, click here: https://fleisher.org

 

Also posted in Art, Blog, commentary, Documentary, lifestyle, Men, Popular Culture, Portraiture, Travel

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.

 

Also posted in Art, Blog, commentary, Documentary, interview, lifestyle, Men, Photography, Popular Culture, Portraiture, Travel

Bob Shell: Civil War?

Civil War

 

Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2020

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Civil War?

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I decided to write about a touchy topic this time, the American “Civil War.”. Why do I put that in quotation marks? Because there never was a civil war within the United States. A civil war is, by definition, a war between different factions within one sovereign nation.

Let me point out some uncomfortable facts.

First, Virginia, my home, when she joined the United States, reserved the right to leave it at any time, that was in writing. Choosing to leave the Union was Virginia’s right. This was no different than Britain’s current decision to leave the European Union. You don’t see the European Union threatening to attack and invade Britain, do you? And if they did, would it be a civil war? Hardly.

Virginia chose to sever her ties to the United States of America and, instead, join the Confederate States of America. That was her right, and in doing so she broke no law or treaty.

The CSA was recognized by many countries, European and elsewhere, and had a binding peace treaty with the USA. Although not well known, one of the CSA’s allies was Russia, which sent warships to break the USA’s blockade of crucial ports, and deliver supplies.

But northern business interests wanted to prohibit the CSA from buying cheaper goods from elsewhere, so they started their blockade, and ultimately strangled the CSA. Before the separation they had been charging Southerners ridiculous prices for their goods while buying southern goods, primarily cotton, at very low prices that they dictated. High tariffs discouraged importation of goods from Europe, Russia, and others.

You’re probably asking, what about slavery? Wasn’t that the reason for the war? Not really. Slaves were expensive to buy, house, feed. The great majority of southerners could not afford them. My own ancestors were poor farmers and couldn’t have afforded slaves, even if they’d wanted them. And if southern states hadn’t left the Union, slavery probably would have continued, simply to hold down the cost of southern cotton and other agricultural goods. But the big plantations with hundreds of slaves were not the norm for the average southern tenant farmer, who was little more than a slave himself to the land owners. At the surrender, General Lee asked for only one concession, that his men be allowed to keep their mules. They were all poor farmers and without their mules they could not plow their land. Lee kept his men’s welfare ahead of all else.

Lincoln’s vaunted Emancipation Proclamation did not free all slaves, only those in. the southern states. Slaves in northern states remained in bondage. That’s a fact.

Lincoln was not much concerned with the slaves. He was concerned with preserving the Union. He famously said that if he could save the Union by freeing all of the slaves he would do that, but if he could preserve it by freeing only some of the slaves he would do that, and if he could preserve the Union by freeing none of the slaves he would do that. He didn’t care about the slaves, only his precious Union.

Certainly slavery is a despicable evil, and I’m not defending it in any way, but it was not the cause of the war. The 13th Amendment to our Constitution outlawed slavery, right? Wrong! The Amendment contains an exception. Slavery is allowed as punishment for crime. So, slavery is alive and well in America today. I know; I’m legally a slave.

The formation of the CSA allowed southerners to ship their goods overseas where they got better prices, and to import cheaper manufactured goods. And that was the problem. Northern industrialists wanted to keep the South captive to supply them raw materials cheaply and buy their manufactured goods at higher prices than a global free market would have allowed.

People who don’t know history don’t know that my namesake and distant cousin, Robert E. Lee, was offered command of the Union army by Lincoln. After some soul searching, he turned it down. His loyalty was to Virginia, he said. He could not betray his Commonwealth.

After the war Mark Twain approached Lee with a publisher’s high offer to co-author Lee’s memoirs. Lee turned down the offer, saying it would not be right to make money from the blood of his men. Twain then went to Grant, who accepted the offer. That shows the difference between the two men.

It was Lee who brought black men to worship with him in his church in Lexington, Virginia, where he settled after the war to head up Washington College; which is now Washington and Lee University, where he lies entombed in Lee Chapel.

My several times great grandfather, Hugh McCracken, joined the Virginia army and fought under Lee. He survived the war and went home to his farm, where he raised his family. I’ve read his war diary, and it is pretty graphic. He speaks of having to get water from a stream with dead men and horses upstream because it was the only water to be had. Amazingly, he was never wounded or contracted disease, even though he saw action in several major battles.

So I am proud of my simple southern farmer heritage, and refuse to be intimidated by the PC fools who besmirch the memory of good men who fought to save their country from an invading foreign army.

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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://tonyward.com/wuhan-virus/

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.

Also posted in Blog, commentary, Documentary, Men, Politics, Popular Culture