Friday, May 1, 2020

Photographers You Should Know: Fritz Henle; Tools and Techniques

The Art Critic. Washington Square, New York City 1947

Photography is about photographs.

In the preamble to this blog I said that I would talk about the tools, techniques, and philosophy of photography. Today, we're going to talk about tools and techniques, and a bit about the philosophy behind them.

Fritz Henle had a lot to say about the tools and techniques of photography— after all, he was well known as an advocate of a particular kind of tool, and wrote a number of books about how best to use it. But it all was in service to one particular goal: making photographs. He was a master of photographic technique, but he knew to use it, then forget about it. He had a "personal crusade. . . against deadly seriousness in technical matters, which kills the pleasure of photography." His pictures are about content, not technique. The purpose of technique is to enable the photographer to present the subject in accordance with his vision.

“. . . seeing pictures is always tied up with technique. I feel it is important to decide things like sharpness or unsharpness and not let them happen accidentally. It is equally important to command the techniques that get the effects you want.”

Madame Niska, Fortune Teller. Paris, 1938

Unlike digital cameras, which encourage you to blast away in hope of finding something worth keeping when you sort through your files, “The twin-lens encourages you, almost forces you, to think while shooting. . . There is no better eye-training than practicing to see pictures within that little square frame.”

Most photographers would find themselves feeling unbearably limited if confined to one type of camera, with only one lens of one focal length. Yet, that is the way Henle worked, and he covered an astonishing range of subject matter with astonishing results.

However, when the subject or circumstances demanded it, Henle was quite capable of using other tools. For instance, the Brooks-Plaubel Veriwide, about which he said "I have done a lot of work with the . . . Veriwide camera, an instrument that is guaranteed to stretch anyone's vision into wide horizontals." 


His photograph of Stonehenge, made with that camera, is the best I have every seen, perfectly capturing the mood and mystery of the ancient stones.

In 1966, when Rollei introduced their new 6x6cm (the same format as the Rollei TLR) single-lens reflex, the SL66, Henle began using it for much of his work, and began to work much more in color. He made many beautiful photographs with it, however in my opinion the years from the early 1930s, when he first began using the twin-lens reflex, through the mid-60s were the best, most productive years of his career, the years when he made most of his classic photographs.

Now that digital cameras make it easy for even the rankest amateur to produce sharp, well-exposed pictures by the hundreds and thousands, how is that so many of the greatest photographs in the history of the medium were made with cameras that we would consider primitive and discouragingly difficult to use? Could it be that those tools required their users to think about what they wanted to say with their photographs and to choose their techniques wisely to that end?

Pablo Casals, 1972

Perhaps we could learn something from Picasso, who said “Forcing yourself to use restricted means is the sort of restraint that liberates invention. It obliges you to make a kind of progress that you can’t even imagine in advance.” And from Orson Welles, who said “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”

Henle accepted his limitations and used them to make his art.

To see more of Henle's pictures, visit the Henle Gallery. You might also enjoy this Youtube video.

(All photographs copyright the Fritz Henle Estate 2020. Used under the fair use provision of the copyright laws.)

Soli Deo Gloria

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