PHOTOGRAPHY, STILLS & GNASH: The Power of Photography

BY Chris Niedenthal

Why is it that photographs, even bad ones, can be so vital, so strong, so illustrative, and so wanted by everyone?

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Notes from a trip to the Leipzig Book Fair – but without the books.

I’m on a train from Berlin to Leipzig: a German man sitting near me is handed an ice-cold beer by a stewardess. She places it on a small table in front of him. He gazes fondly at it, a self-satisfied look on his face. Before taking a sip though, he takes out his cellphone and snaps a picture of the tall glass full of the cold, golden liquid, with the rolling countryside seen through the panoramic window in the background. He still doesn’t bring the glass to his lips. Instead, pressing a few buttons, he sends the photo off somewhere: to a wife, mother, lover? Look what I’m doing right now, darling. Wish you were here. Ha ha.

In front of me, on my own little table lies a copy of that day’s Süddeutsche Zeitung as well as a German tabloid newspaper. Splashed all over these papers are photographs showing the recent, natural disaster in Japan, the earthquake and tsunami that caused unimaginable destruction. The photographs are large, their contents graphic. Mortifying, shocking.

I open the Süddeutsche Zeitung and am pleasantly surprised to see a photograph of mine that I took a quarter of a century ago, showing young Warsaw kids preening themselves for a photographer who is about to take their First Holy Communion group shot. There is a reason for that photo to be there, but it is irrelevant to this story.  What is more important is that these kids look so young, carefree, happy. I shot the photograph in an era when we had to wait hours, days perhaps, before we could see our work. That fact did not, of course, detract from their photographic value, though my shot cannot really be compared with the dramatic news photos I have just seen that were shot barely a few hours ago, half a world away.

The next day I take a look at a copy of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

There, on the front page, placed squarely in the very middle, is a very mediocre photograph. A greyish blue, rather unsharp image of a large helicopter with a water container slung below it. It is overprinted with Japanese characters. It’s obviously a still taken off a television monitor, and it relates to the possible nuclear disaster that is happening just then after the earthquake and tsunami. The helicopter is being used in a desperate effort to try to cool down a damaged nuclear reactor. The front page photo is bad, it’s a „nothing” photo. And yet it’s so powerful., so strong there on the front page, with the pretty Japanese characters splashed all over it.

In Leipzig, I sit in the Kaffeehaus Riquet, a famous haunt in a pretty building. It’s cold outside. Winter coats huddle around their owners, hoping to catch some of their warmth. Three such coats with cold tourists inside notice the interesting building the cafe is housed in. One winter coat stands back, camera in hand, and orders the two other coats to stand together. Just here. No, sorry, a bit to the left. A little crouch to get the whole building in the background – and the deed is done. A photograph for posterity. As a bonus, they have me in the cafe window, sitting watching the world of winter coats go by. And wondering why people take such photographs.

Why, then, is it that photographs, even bad ones, can be so vital, so strong, so illustrative, and so wanted by everyone? I wish I knew the answer to that one. Maybe it’s because photography is an „easy art”. Supposedly, of course. A photograph is easy to take, and easy to view. In its most primitive form it can be read in a flash, a second, a moment. It doesn’t need that much digestion, the brain doesn’t have to work all that hard to realise what a photograph shows. What it means, of course, is a different matter; the brain has to shift to a higher gear for that one.

The photographs I mention here – though all completely different - have one common denominator. Simply said, each and every one of them is important - in its own little way, of course. A smooth, quick train ride from one city to another, with the anticipation of drinking a cold, relaxing beer along the way. The moment must be savoured, so why not take a photograph of it, to share the moment with your nearest and dearest? On the other hand there is the unimaginable destructive power of a tsunami – this has to be recorded and shown to the world. The problems caused by an explosion and power failure in a swamped, aging nuclear power station can quite adequately be illustrated by the helicopter about to drop water onto the smoking – but oh so dangerous - ruins of the power plant. After all, there is no access to photographers anywhere near the site. There is, after all, a sense of urgency in such poor photographs. Perhaps that is why cellphone camera images are shown more and more often in newscasts and daily newspapers. The Holy Communion kids in Warsaw? Such a photograph would have been just as important 25 years ago as it is today when a hint of nostalgia for one’s younger days has crept in. It illustrates faith and religion as well as a group of happy children. It shows how people dressed in those days and, on a different level, somewhere deep inside it illustrates the power of the Church in the dark days of communism. The tourists in front of a pretty building? Well, that is certainly an important souvenir to show around a coffee table. Luckily though, only for those in the photograph.

The fact is that everyone involved in photography knows they have a powerful tool in their hands. The power to inform, to illustrate, to reminisce, to remember. And sometimes with any luck, to make you smile.

Beside the Point

Nostalgia at its keenest. A rather ridiculous photograph of a bearded man dressed - quite successfully really - as a woman. The point is hidden, we cannot quite understand what is going on. It is a photograph I took as a teenager in central Warsaw. Me as a teenager means this photo was shot in the late 1960s, a long time ago, when most people thought this city looked drab and grey. Not so! My old colour slides show colourfully dressed girls and women parading around town. True, the men were more of a problem, they were in fact dressed drably and unimaginatively. Except for this weirdo. He used to parade around Warsaw during the summer months, dressed to the nines. Oddly enough though, of all the (older) people I have asked about this interesting character, nobody seems to remember him. In this context then, this photo is not beside the point. It shows, quite simply, the power of photography.