a blog by knut skjærven


Toolbox Off To A Good Start

Workmen’s Wisdom. © Knut Skjærven

I am happy to say that Street Photographer’s Toolbox is off to a good start. You should definitely visit the new blog.

Have a very good day.



Bits & Pieces/Image: Reinvented Reality

Sale Solution. © Knut Skjærven.

Sale Solution. Photography is never pure documentation. If you combine and frame different elements you can get connotations that was never intending. Photography is always a reinvention of reality. This is an open image, since you probably ask yourself where the man with the bike has gone. Into the shop maybe? Copenhagen, January 2012. (21).

Bits & Pieces: Introduction; The SourcesPicturetaking or Photography; The Mission; Additional Movement; Reinvented Reality;

Bits & Pieces/Image: Additional Movement.

Rainy Day. © Knut Skjærven.

Rainy Day. You can install life into a shot by taking it at the right moment. All these people are actually on the move since it was pouring down. You can have additional movement in a shot by separating people, groups of people, objects, space and directions. The basic point here is that you need to foresee what will happen. Not that you have much time to do it in. Berlin, June 2011.

Bits & Pieces: IntroductionThe SourcesPicturetaking or Photography; The Mission; Additional Movement; Reinvented Reality;

Bits & Pieces: The Sources

Rainy Day.© Knut Skjærven.

“Rainy Day” shot in Berlin in June 2011. The image is a crop of a larger frame. It contains static and no static elements. By including both you contrast both. The overall message of “rush” comes out clearer. You have to work with denotations and connotations at the same time. The denotative elements are the physical and easily recognisable elements in the shot: chairs, lorry, people, umbrellas, bicycle, etcetera. The connotative elements are how the denotative elements move or act or interact within the shot. 

Question: What Sources Do You Use?

 What sources do I use? Let me think. It is good to have these questions asked because it brings you into corners that you normally don’t visit.

The major source, I would say, is in general the rest of your  life. In this case, my life. You need to include photography in such a way that photography, and the rest of your life, becomes the same. In that way you can work on a, or any, project all the time without speculating much about it. It is a good way to work and it saves much time.

It works the other way around as well: Things that you pick up in photography gets a potential relevance for the rest of your life. For me this is a good way to arrange things. Nowadays, I don’t speculate much about it all. It just works that way. By itself.

Other sources are art in general and photographic art in particular. Both writing, reading, studying and simply looking. Make sure that you benchmark up against only the best people and the best works of art. For me one of these “best sources” is definitely HCB, but I am impressed by Walker Evans too. And others, but more sporadically. You only need one or two mentors. Make such to you pick the best.

This is a life long learning process and you have to keep at it all the time. For instance by visiting exhibitions, reading and looking in books, visiting museums and more. Is it not something that you do over night. If you don’t enjoy it, you should probably not be in photography at all. If it becomes a burden, just forget it. Do something else in stead. Go play golf.

Most importantly you need to work with you own pictures. You have to study them over and over again. Rework them, re-crop them, remake them from scratch to see if you get different results. You very often do. Work with them till you are satisfied with the result. You know that you are looking at a good picture when you feel good about it. This is not just something I say. This feeling good about something is a sure indicator that you have done something right. It has bearings from many fields besides photography.  I have it from investigations into human innovation, where it seems to be one of the common denominators describing a successful solution. It work for me doing pictures and for that reason I use it.

Take the image above: Rainy Day. That is a crop of a much larger “negative” that I started playing around with. Hey, this feels good, I said to myself at one stage. Then I knew that this photograph was in the box. The composition is not very classical, I know. But that was never the intention either. I tried to create some sort of compositional and thematic strain. I hope it works for others, as well. The good thing with compositional rules is that you can use them in two way: positively and negatively. You can use them, or you can use them not.

The feel good technique does not work all of the time. Often things are done in a hurry with results not as good as they could be. Basically, however, that is your own decision.

These are basically my sources. Kind of an automated melting pot. I fell good about that too :-). Works for me.  Roughly.

Bits & Pieces: IntroductionThe SourcesPicturetaking or Photography; The Mission; Additional Movement; Reinvented Reality;


Bits & Pieces

The Mirror. © Knut Skjærven

Bits and Pieces. It could have been the title of this picture, but it’s not.

In stead it is the title of the next series of posts on this blog.

The story is this: Some time ago I was asked to do an interview by a well know American site for street photography. I was, of course, very honored wondering why they wanted to talk to me. I suggested  I could do a draft, could send it to them and they could basically do with it what they wanted. For instance ask other and extra questions. Or drop the whole thing.

I am not going to reveal all of it here. You will only get bits and pieces.

I have been thinking and I have been writing and I have been searching for images to go with the text as bits and pieces for that interview. On and off. I have to rewrite it a couple of times yet. I am late already.

This morning I go the idea of publishing bits and pieces of the draft. My idea was to end at about 10 pages including 10 pictures – for the interview that is. So far I am on page 21, so there should be some spareware text for a couple a couple of blog posts. If you are interested in reading some of this stuff you are more than welcome. If not, you are welcome too.

Bits and pieces coming up soon as just that: Bits and Pieces. Stay tuned.

Bits & Pieces: IntroductionThe SourcesPicturetaking or Photography; The Mission; Additional Movement; Reinvented Reality;

The Stool Carrier

The Stool Carrier. © Knut Skjærven.

It has been a long time.

Yes, it has.

Why have you suddenly sent me this image? I thought we had a deal, that you should mail me when you were ready to continue the interview?

Yes, so was it, but things change and now I decided to sent you this image in stead? You can ask me questions if you want to. Or have the time. I recon you are pretty busy.

Questions, questions. Yes, I am rather … (thinking, and after a short while). Of course, I’ll be glad to. (More thinking). Well, then: Why have you sent me this image?

Because it is important.

Why do you find this image important. It is rather simple isn’t it?

It is important. Do you find it simple? I don’t find it simple at all. Are we looking at the same picture?

I look at the one you have sent me, the foreigner carrying a chair and then part of a window with two models. It that not you have sent me? Do you have a colour version, as well? By the way the image is unsharp.

Yes, it is, but if that is all your see then you see only a fraction of it. Look at all the things you don’t see. Yes, I have colour, but those are just for me. Unsharp is not important. Maybe it is even better.

How can I? See more?

That is up to you, but you need to learn it because many of my images are about what is not there. What is not in the picture. That is what I take pictures of, yes: What is not there. The image is just the beginning of a story that only you can tell. Maybe another day would be better for you?

Yes, please. Mail me.

I will.


For more posts in the interview series, please go here.

Throw Your Second Best Camera At Them

Facebook Screenshot, July 11, 2011. All right reserved.

Yes, I was surprised. I still am surprised.

Some weeks ago I ran a poll on Facebook group On Every Street. The question was:   Do you think that there is connection with the degree of formal or non formal education and the ability to take good pictures? There were three possible answers to choose from: 1) Yes, definitely; 2) No, not at all and 3) I have no idea.

When you run a poll like this you always have some kind of anticipation of the answers that will come. My anticipation did not come through. That is why I am surpised. I my head there certainly is a connection between formal or non formal education, and what you are able to do as a photographer. I simply went dead wrong here. Or did I?

Today, July 13, 2011 the poll results are: 1) Yes, definitely 3 votes, 2) No, not at all 29 votes, and 3) I have no idea 2 votes. Question 2 leads by a huge, huge margin.

There are many ways to explain this result and why there is such a huge difference between my anticipation and the poll result. One explanation is simply, that I have not been precise enough in my question and the options given for answering. A second explanation is that people have not read the question properly before they made their mark.

A third explanation is, that there simply is a severe divergence here. And now I must learn.

The point is, that I am not willing to learn from this. I do not agree, that there is no positive connection between the level of formal/non formal education and the ability to take good pictures. Show me one picture of high quality, that has been taken by a photographer with a low level of formal education and/or  non formal education. Show me two pictures, show me three pictures. To be on the safe side: show me five pictures. I want to rule out pure accident.

Or even better: Point me to a single excellent photographer that have no formal education and/or no non formal education. I don’t think such a person exists. Please point me to him or her. And I will be willing to pull back these sentences and change my opinion. Slightly.

I am of this opinion: Formal and/or non formal education is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition for the ability to produce good pictures (or for that matter excellent pictures). If you don’t have either of it, is not very likely that you will produce pictures of these kinds. You will never make it as a photographer without either of them. The reason I can say this, is that I frankly don’t believe that such a person exist. That is the good news.

All of us have degrees of formal and non formal education. That is our competences. Up to a certain point of education this will, in my humble opinion, be a benefit in trying to take good pictures.

That said, it is interesting to speculate about this: If formal education/non formal education have no value on quality, then where does quality come from? One road to explaining this is to say that quality comes from inspiration, from genius. It is inherent in the individual photographer and education or non education have nothing to do with it. Give Mr. Wildman a camera and he will instantly start taking good photographs. Not likely is it?

Such an explanation would have been feasible some 30 years ago, but not today. Some very lucky people may have a natural potential for good photography, may have been born with a talent or capacity for it, I certainly do not argue agains that. Brilliant people starts there. However, without recognition of talent, without nursing and feeding it, talent goes nowhere.

The good thing is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. In this case the end of the tunnel is very close to its entrance, so you don’t need to walk that far to find it. Here is my recipe: Get out of your chair, find the nearest mirror, and start looking at yourself. If you see glimpses of talent don’t continue resting on your laurels. Go get to some formal, or non formal education, and move from potential to actual talent. If someone tells you that it cannot be done, throw your second best camera at them, because it is simply not so. It is not true.

Good photography is hard, hard work.

Good luck with it. Love to see your pictures.

Berlin Place2Be

Kurfürstendamm. © Knut Skjærven

Many thanks to Leica for asking me to participate in the series Berlin Place2Be as a promotion for the Leica D-Lux 5. I wrote a short article. I took some pictures.

This is actually one of the first shots I made with the D-Lux 5 after arriving in Berlin April 2, 2011. This couple was standing at the same spot for a looong time. I could walk around them, cross the street and come back and take more pictures. They could have been hit by a truck and still be standing there. Who knows, maybe they still are. Italians I presume.

You  can read the full article here. In the article there is mentioned of a project Berlin Black And White. That project is this blog. I just thought I should mention it.

Good luck with your own photographic project. If you don’t have one, get one.

(Test: Knut Skjærven)

Leica, Or No Leica

How High The Sky?. © Knut Skjærven.

One thing has struck me. Every time I go shooting with a camera I have the feeling that I am executing phenomenology. Why is this? Are there any reasons why I should have such an idea?

I think there is, and I will make a note about it here.

Phenomenology teaches you to study the things themselves. The way you can experience them in the natural attitude doing day to day chores. Beyond that, phenomenology also tells you to wait a second, to freeze the situation, and to study it further. To bring out the heart of the matter.

Phenomenology has special words for these activities. They call it bracketing and phenomenological reduction. Bracketing is the freezing of a situation. Reduction is studying it in detail to bring out the general structures of phenomena. Phenomenology simply means to study, to talk about, or to argue for that which can be experienced. And how it is experienced. As man’s knowledge is confined to that which can be experienced, phenomenology is a basic discipline. A first science.

Doing phenomenology is very similar to what I do with my camera. Bringing my camera with an intention to take a picture, already frames the moment in terms of having that and that intention. When I press the release button, I actually freeze the moment that I intend, or don’t intend, to photograph.

Having done my homework I know what structures a phenomenological reduction brings with it. Every single picture I take is a window to all structures of all experiences. Every time I take a picture I am, in terms of phenomenology, half way there. I do not have to think about bracketing, or freezing, the natural attitude to understand it better. The camera does that for me.

That is what you see reflected in my photographs. That is the type of pictures that I enjoy taking. Take a look at the one above. Every phenomenological dimension you can ever think of, is in there. You only need to unfold them. Here are 425 more photographs you are welcome to look at.

That’s all, ladies and gentlemen. Think about it. Leica, or no Leica.

So high the sky.

The picture is shot with a Leica X1, Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, November 7, 2010.

Decisive Moments: How Many Are There?

Sporting Life. © Knut Skjærven.

From time to time I read in the little, brilliant book by photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Mind’s Eye.

There are many reasons for that. One of them is that it is the only book that holds all the major texts explaining what Cartier-Bresson understood by “decisive moments”. Most important in that respect are his introduction to “The Decisive Moment” from 1952, and his introduction to “Europeans” from 1998. The original French version of the latter being from 1955.

This time, however, I am doing a tandem read. Alongside Cartier-Bresson’s original texts I read the extensive introduction to the photographer and his work by Peter Galassi in his recent book “Henri Cartier-Bresson. The Modern Century”. It was published for the opening of the Cartier-Bresson exhibition at MoMA in New York earlier this year.

Peter Galassi is no doubt one of the people that knows the most about his former friend Henri Cartier-Bresson.  His extensive knowledge of the works and thoughts of Cartier-Bresson shines through in the introduction and are, most certainly, a very enjoyable read.

Here are a couple of things from Galassi’s book that I have made notes of this far:

First note: Peter Galassi makes a distinction between Carties-Bresson’s pre-war and post-war photography. He sais:

“If many of Cartier-Bresson’s early photographs are collages ripped from the fabric of the street, the model of his postwar style is just the opposite: no matter how busy or calm the actual circumstance may have been, the image functions as a nicely proportioned stage on which a few figures have gathered to enact a tableau vivante. Like well-trained actors, they never turn their backs to the audience, and their faces and gestures are models of expressive clarity. The frame, like a proscenium, encloses the action and reveals it to the audience.” (41)

Second note: Peter Galassi operates with two different notions of “decisive moments”.  He sais:

“In such a photograph, there are two quite distinct decisive moments, as Cartier-Bresson suggested in his famous formulation: “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” (45)

The last sentences fall in a context where Galassi is discussing a famous photograph by Cartier-Bresson shot at Dessau concentration camp in Germany just after the liberation in 1945. A woman is about to slam her hand into the face of what might be a former German collaborator. The photograph is shot just in that “decisive moment” when events are to unfold. See the photograph.

Galassi then suggests that there are two decisive moments simultaneously at work here. The first being the decisive moment of the event. The event is in itself significant. It is decisive.

The event, however, is quite separate from being photographed or not. Meaning that the event would unfold even if there were no spectators to it. Much less a photographer present.

Let us just hold on to the distinction at present. One decisive moment, then, is the event itself, the other one is the photographer’s recording of it.

Let’s have a look at the photograph at the top of this post to discuss this a bit further.

What you see in the photograph above is a young couple “sitting” of a bench, embracing. In the background there is a jogger stretching out. All are in somewhat awkward bodily positions captured by the photographer “in a fraction of a second”.

Peter Galassi would probably have it this way: There are two decisive moments at work here. First (decisive moment 1) there is the decisive event that is a decisive moment in itself whether observed, photographer or not. Roughly speaking, this event is the three people present in the photograph in their different bodily positions.

Then (decisive moment 2) there is the decisive moment in the photograph, meaning that a photographer was present during the decisive event, and he managed to take the photograph from a reasonable vantage point – at the right time. Roughly speaking, this is a combination of camera settings, photographers spot when shooting, and his more specific vantage point (high, low, et cetera).

Getting complicated? Yes, I think it is.

I will leave this note here. I need to discuss the continuation of this post with myself for a time before I finish it. The reason is that I am not quite convinced that this distinction is one that you want to do have at all. However, I am not sure about how to handle the argument. So you need to be patient. From a phenomenological point of view, the distinction could be problematic, hmm …

Then again Peter Galassi might be perfectly right in his statements.

Anyway, both books are incredible reads. Galassi’s book contains the best introduction to the world of Henri Cartier-Bresson that I have ever laid hands on. The pictures, and prints, are absolutely beautiful.

A decisive event, that’s what it is :-).

Don’t forget to visit Berlin Black and White and Photos of the Danes and Barebones Communication. There you will find much more of the same.

Have a good day.

Here are the books mentioned in this post. The numbers in brackets are references to pages in Galassi’s book.

Library Thing: Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Mind’s Eye.

Library Thing:  Peter Galassi: Henri Cartier-Bresson.