Category Archive: From the mailbag


Vermeer’s Camera Obscura

My mother recently sent me an interesting article in Vanity Fair magazine about Texas inventor Tim Jenison’s quest to prove that Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer used a camera obscura-based device to make his photorealistic paintings. Jenison’s experiments are the subject of a new documentary called Tim’s Vermeer produced and directed by the magicians Penn and Teller, which is now in limited release.




Tim Jenison, who had a career developing video editing and post-production software and hardware, endeavored to not only reproduce the apparatus he thinks Vermeer used – a camera obscura fitted with a handmade four-inch lens, a parabolic mirror and a smaller mirror to paint from – but to test his theory by painting a replica of The Music Lesson. This required building and sourcing a fully accurate set that mirrors the room in Delft, Netherlands that Vermeer depicted. The construction of the set in his San Antonio studio took over eight months and the painting took over 230 hours of work. It is worth noting that Jenison is an amateur painter, with no training prior to undertaking this project.

Jenison was inspired by earlier research that suggested that Vermeer might have used an optical device to assist in making his most famous paintings. The theories were based on analysis of the accurate depiction in Vermeer’s work of out of focus areas of the scene, the perfect reflections in a mirror and the proper display of the light values falling on the white wall in the painting The Music Lesson. These attributes of the paintings are claimed to not be possible without the assistance of an optical device, suggesting that the details Vermeer included in his work could not have been seen by the human eye alone or with the era’s understanding of the nature of light.

Other critics though are resisting these proposals, at least insomuch as they “oppose drastic devaluations of the role of art”, which Metropolitan Museum of Art curator of European paintings Walter Liedtke is quoted as saying in the Vanity Fair article. We’ll leave it to you to determine if these discoveries about how likely it was that Vermeer used new technology to create his art undermines the artistry and beauty of his work or if it strengthens his reputation as a master of the use of light.

Left, Tim Jenison, with part of the optical apparatus he created above him, at work in his San Antonio studio. Right, Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, the painting Jenison chose to re-create. From Vanity Fair article “Reverse-Engineering a Genius (Has a Vermeer Mystery Been Solved?)”

Nina White’s “Stay”

Nina White’s Stay is a personal story of a woman coming to terms with the realities of aging grandparents with ailing health. It is quiet and simply presented and we wanted to know more about the project and the photographer. Nina White kindly answered a few questions about her work. You can see a larger edit of this work, and other nice projects, on White’s website. “Stay” is also available as a hand-made book and is White’s preferred way of sharing these pictures, she illuminates why in the interview.

Where are you from? How did you come to be a photographer?

I am from Brisbane, Australia. I live in a rural area called Ocean View, on a mountain, which is about an hour away from Brisbane city. My initial interest in photography was actually sparked by my grandparents and some of their close friends. My grandfather always had a camera, which I constantly ‘borrowed’ whenever I got the opportunity. One holiday when I was about 8 years old some of their friends dropped off a huge stash of back issues of National Geographic to keep me out of trouble. It is terribly corny, but Nat Geo was the reason I got my first camera.

Did you grow up nearby to your grandparents?

Yes, my mother and I actually lived in the same house as my grandparents in Brisbane city until I was 6. We moved to the Ocean View property and into our ‘shed’ whilst my grandparents built a house just up the hill, on the same property. My entire life they have never been far away.

One of your other projects, Prodigious, also deals with the idea of family. Is this common in your work? Why?

Yes, I suppose family is a common thread within my work. The concept of a family unit, and the various different forms and functionalities that can be encompassed by the term ‘family’ has always fascinated me. Coming from a non-conventional family myself, I am interested by peoples usually private interactions within familial environments. Prodigious was actually driven by my absolute awe of the Duncan family, who I photographed for the project. I have known them for most of my life and find their lifestyle and bonds extraordinary. More so possibly because they an example of the polar opposite family structure to my personal experience.

When and where did Stay begin?

I began actively making Stay in July 2012. My grandfather was diagnosed with normal pressure hydrocephalus and we had began investigating the possibility of surgery for him. Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus is fluid on the brain – the cerebral fluid doesn’t flow and drain or regulate itself properly and slowly swamps the brain, reducing its overall functionality, it presents symptoms similar to dementia and so is often misdiagnosed in the elderly. Less than a week later my grandmother’s artificial hip broke through her pelvis, and she was hospitalised for emergency surgery. This was the beginning of 8 months of hospitalisation, surgery and rehabilitation for them both. The project really began at home, and ended at home.

Can you tell me more about the title?

It is a selfish plea really, from me to my grandparents.

And can you tell me more about the book you’ve made and why you chose that as your medium for showing the work?

I chose to present this work in a book format for a number of reasons. All my life I have seen books as an ‘escape’. In my experience they have the ability to engage a reader in a very different way to other forms of media. With such a personal work, I felt it was important that it was experienced one on one with the viewer, and was small and tender enough to hold in your hands. Another benefit of book format is the ability to control the narrative and rhythm of the work through the organisation of layouts and design. The book itself was entirely hand made by me and is completely unique. It was hand printed on photo-rag-matte double sided paper and the cover is cotton. The text within the book is all written in my handwriting, scanned and then reprinted. Hand-making the work was important to me, as it was really a labour of love, and I wanted to create a soft, tactile object a viewer could interact with, rather than just observe.

Technique For Photographing Close To Animals

Maybe our own M. Scott Brauer, recently returned from a hunting trip in Montana, can give us some better advice than this guy, who just sort of hung out with an Elk while he was trying to take pictures. The video is awkward and asks a lot of questions.

Scott, did this guy do good? Should he have run away screaming? Or stood up and scared the Elk off? (Which was what I was rooting for). Or. better yet, gone for a close-up? Strange video.

(via Peta Pixel: Photographer Gets in a Tussle with an Elk, Fortunately Escapes Unharmed)

Alan Chin: Another Home 8,000 Miles Away

Alan Chin is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for his new project Toishan, China: Another Home 8,000 Miles Away. Chin’s project will take him back to his family’s home in the Toishan region of China, an area that is undergoing rapid development since his first visit in 1989. The fundraising campaign will run until October 28th but we are happy to report that Chin has already exceeded his initial goal. Congratulations to him, but the project is still worthy of support and we hope that with further fundraising he will have more time and flexibility with the project, something every photographer would dream of.

Chin answered a few of our questions about the new work, and I also encourage you to have a look at Chin’s Kickstarter video below and his fundraising page for more information about his plans for this project.

Tell me something about the region of China that your family comes from? How many times have you visited the area?

Toishan (or Taishan in official Mandarin Pinyin romanization), is about a hundred miles from Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Two-thirds of all Overseas Chinese immigrants to the United States came from the greater Toishan area, until the 1960s. Today, Chinese-Americans hail from diverse regions in China, especially from Fujian, but for a hundred years that was Toishan.

I first visited in 1989, when I was eighteen years old. I was there again in 1997 and then many times in 2008 and 2009.

Do you still have family in Toishan that you are in contact with?

My last close relative was a great-aunt who died in 2009 after I saw her for the last time in 2008; I still have more distant cousins that live in the village.

What is the relationship between this area and Chinese-American communities, particularly in New York? Is immigration from this region still prominent?

Starting in 1965 with LBJ’s immigration reform to reunify families (as important a piece of landmark legislation as Medicare or the Civil Rights laws), the Chinese-American community expanded tremendously. And as the Cold War ended, commercial and diplomatic relations improved between China and the US. Individuals began to travel to-and-fro with much greater ease and frequency. Toishanese continue to emigrate abroad, but now are one of many Chinese clusters rather than the majority. The old part of New York’s Chinatown in Manhattan, dating from the late 19th century, was originally Toishanese and remains predominantly Cantonese. (Toishan is part of Guangdong, the Cantonese province.)

Are you going to be documenting Toishanese communities from both countries with your book?

Yes, but the emphasis is on China, on where we come from.

How do you plan to use your family’s photographs in this project? What are some of your favorite photographs in this collection that will help tell the story?

I will use some of my family photographs to track our specific history, which is typical of so many families. The oldest photograph we have is of my great-uncle, Sing Chin, who emigrated to Cuba in 1927 and then the US in 1935. The photo is a formal studio portrait from his time in Cuba. It shows him in a tropical suit, and he was younger then than I am now. I think it will help show just how transformative the 20th century was in its global impact of revolutionary change.

My favorite photographs? That’s too hard a question to answer!


Click image above to start Chin’s video about the project

Tyler Hicks Photographs the Nairobi Mall Attack

New York Times staff photographer Tyler Hicks was nearby to the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya on Saturday when he heard about gunmen opening fire inside the popular shopping center. He immediately went to the site of the attack and entered the building, photographing as security forces and police attempted to find the gunmen and rescue hostages. He was interviewed by James Estrin of the New York Times’ Lens Blog about what he saw and they published a gallery of the terrific and harrowing photographs that Hicks took inside of the Westgate mall yesterday.

We managed to find an entrance where people who were hiding inside the mall were coming out. We ran into that service entrance and we hooked up with some police who let us stay with them as they did security sweeps clearing different stores — very much like what you see when the military enters a village. Shop to shop and aisle to aisle, looking for the shooters who were still inside. – Tyler Hicks on the New York Times Lens Blog

As of the time of posting the siege at the mall is ongoing and the New York Times is reporting that 59 people have been killed in the attack and more than 175 wounded, including family of the President of Kenya. Foreign Policy Magazine’s Passport blog is also covering the story with analysis about the attackers and the broader situation in Kenya.

Update (9/23): Scott pointed out this gallery of images on Buzzfeed about the attack a few minutes after I published this post. It shows the work of other photographers from inside the Westgate mall and the scene outside. They are also harrowing and gruesome, and also notable for their quality. It is interesting to note that so many professional conflict photographers, like Reuters’ Goran Tomasevic, were present when this breaking news happened. More on that later.

Also worth reading is BagNewsNotes’ analysis of the images in Michael Shaw’s post “Things to be Concerned About in the Mall Attack Photos from Nairobi”, which as usual is thought provoking.

Valentino Bellini’s BIT ROT Project

Valentino Bellini wrote to us recently to share his new project BIT ROT, about the troubling issue of electronic waste worldwide that results from “rampant consumerism” and products that are “designed for the dump”. We really enjoyed the photographs and the story he was revealing to us, so we asked him to answer a few questions about the project. His responses were fascinating and we are happy to share his work.

Bellini is looking for more support to continue his project, and you can donate through the BIT ROT Project’s Support page on the project’s dedicated Tumblr.

Dvafoto: Where are you from? How did you come to photograph this project?

Bellini: I became interested in photography about 4 years ago when I moved from Palermo, my hometown, to Milan, where I attended a course at the annual CFP R. Bauer (a public photography school). Immediately after I graduated I started working at the LINKE. lab which offers various services for photography including fine art printing, post production, mounting and realization of photographic exhibitions.

During the first two years of my stay in Milan, during times when I could go back down in Palermo I started working on a photographic project about the Ghanaian community of Ballarò, a neighborhood in the historic center of the city. I’ve known several young Ghanaians with whom I have a great relationship now, this was probably the main reason that push me to visit Ghana in April 2012. Once in Ghana, among other issues, I had the opportunity to visit and photograph the e-waste dump of Agbobloshie, where I discovered the terrible world regarding the trafficking and disposal of e-waste in developing countries. (Ghana is probably the African country, along with Nigeria, where the flow of electronic waste is the growing fastest).

How are you doing the research for this work? Where are you traveling to to make the photographs?

I’ve got the opportunity to work with some guys from a Ghanaian NGO that works to improve the living conditions of Ghanaian children. After our first visit we jointly launched special projects addressed at all those young boys who work in Agbobloshie e-waste dump. From that experience, from the contact with those people, I felt the need to investigate this issue and to develop the project in other countries and on different levels of investigation. Then I continued in the last months, visiting Pakistan and India.

The project is now at a very important stage. Very soon I will visit China, the country with the highest numbers for import of e-waste from abroad, and also for domestic production (China is second only to the United States for the production of electrical and electronic equipment, and of course, this also increases the amount of electronic waste produced and disposed of). The project will then continue investigating other methods of waste disposal and recycling, including more green and sustainable methods implemented by world leaders industries in developed countries in Europe and the United States (in this series there are already images produced in two facilities of companies that do this kind of work, authorized by the government and in a clearly legal way, in Tamil Nadu, India).

I will focus also on those places that represent the cathedrals of the consumerism world, the places where the “induced” need is generated, the places that are fathers of all the problems mentioned above.

Are you being supported by any grant or other funding to work on this? What is your goal for how to present this work, where will it be seen?

This project was started by a very personal experience, and is currently funded, with many difficulties, all by myself. At the moment I’m in contact with several international magazines trying to get this first part of the work published, in order to collect funds to continue the project.

In parallel with the classical editorial channels, I also launched a website dedicated to the project, through which I have implemented a funding campaign, hoping that this will help to raise funds that will enable me to move forward in production. In addition to thinking about photographic exhibitions in the international photography circuit, one of my primary goals would be to be able to bring the work with some exhibitions, in very rough shape, in the same places where the photos were taken, inside the dumps, in the districts in which the disposal takes place. It would be a way to give back the work to those who are directly protagonist, as well as to try to sensitize the communities themselves who inhabit those places, which, much to my surprise, they are often not even aware of the problems that this kind of processes can create for human health and for the environment. For this I’m working with the guys at Ghanaian NGO and with other realities that slowly I also met in other countries I have visited.

What have you learned about electronic waste and its relationship with the culture of consumers of electronic products?

Concerning the flow of electronic waste and their disposal, it is definitely a very complex phenomenon that is constantly changing and very, very quickly. It is important to emphasize that the issue of waste disposal in some countries in the developing world (see Pakistan or Ghana) has two different aspects. Employment shortage and continuous internal migration stream which can be observed for several years now, especially among the younger population ranges, from rural areas to urban centers, makes an occupation such as the disposal of electronic waste particularly desirable, as it ensure at least the possibility to earn a little amount money, just enough for daily survival, condition, however, still difficult to reach among the poorest segments of the population.

On the other hand, the import, though often illegal, of electrical and electronic waste from Europe and the United States, has contributed in some way to improve access to certain types of technologies by those same poor people. In Pakistan, for instance, until a decade ago, for the vast majority of the population was almost impossible to buy even a television, let alone a computer. In this sense this illegal flow, it is always good to remember, gave to some people a new access to different forms of culture (like internet) that were not remotely conceivable a few years ago. The production of electronic waste today is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) estimated that in the coming years could grow up to 500%, especially in those countries where the domestic electronics industry (countries like China or India) is experiencing a period of exponential growth.

What is sure is that this issue is caused by a system. The Western system (whose differences with other cultures such as those of Asian or African countries are decreasing) increasingly is dominated by rampant consumerism. A system in which the value is not intrinsic in the object we buy, as in the possibility of being able to display it. This is also reflected in the project guidelines adopted by production houses of electrical and electronic components. The term “designed for the dump” expresses this concept very well. Producers prefer to build products that will have a short life and will be difficult to repair, so as to impose on consumers a continuous supply of these tools, producing huge amounts of waste that regularly end up on the other side of the globe illegally, and which is disposed of in a harmful way. Probably the way to try to break down the problem is to make the producers responsible, forcing them to implement more sustainable production lines (and consider that some electronic components release harmful substances, although in small amounts, throughout their life cycle). For sure we must rethink the legislation, both locally and supranational, to preserve tools like the Basel convention, one of the few mechanisms to control the international movement of toxic waste, including from electronics. For example, these rules are continuously circumvented by exporting second-hand items to developing countries, as a way to reduce the so-called digital divide.

A big job of responsibility will also need to exist in these communities disposing of the waste, to make it clear that this work is destroying human health as well as the surrounding environment.

The New York Photography Portfolio Review: Interview with James Estrin

Yesterday James Estrin, co-Editor of the New York Times Lens Blog and Staff Photographer for the Times, announced that they are inaugurating the first New York Photography Portfolio Review, a two-day event in April 2013. It will bring together 160 photographers, in two one-day sessions, with more than 50 prominent reviewers, including a diverse selection of photo editors, agents, publishers, curators and buyers. The event will include private portfolio reviews, discussions and workshops.

They’ve also announced that the event will be free to attend for invited photographers, a step away from other major portfolio reviews in the US and Europe which can cost hundreds of dollars. The event, on April 13 and 14 at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, is divided in two sessions: on Saturday the 100 invited photographers will all be 21 years or older, and on Sunday all 60 photographers will be aged 18-27. To attend you must submit a portfolio by February 13, and invited photographers will be informed by March 8, 2013.

This is such an interesting event that I wanted to pose a few questions to Estrin, and he agreed to fill us in.

The New York Times Lens Blog.

The New York Times Lens Blog.

Dvafoto: Whose idea was this project, and how does it fit Lens’ and the NYT’s goals?

Estrin: I’ve always thought that the web, and social media were very powerful tools for communication, but significantly different than actual human interaction. Real Analogue interaction can have important and profound consequences.

I came up with the idea for the review with Lens co-editor David Gonzalez.

We have been lucky that our marching orders, from our boss [assistant managing editor for photography for the New York Times] Michele McNally, have always been to make the very best blog we could. Make the best editorial judgements that we could make, be willing to be smart, try to be principaled and don’t worry about traffic or business. So if this event can help the photo community, and create opportunities and discussion, then it fits into our mission. There are many ways to communicate.

Why did you choose to make the event free? This surely bucks the trend of most portfolio reviews and events for photographers these days.

It’s free because we wanted to create as many opportunities for photographers, regardless of background, to share their work.
There are fine portfolio reviews that charge- most of them non profit either by design or execution. I reviewed this year at Review Santa Fe and also at Lens Culture Fotofest in Paris and I think both were very was helpful for many photographers as well as for myself as an editor. At the same time I think we all have a responsibility to our fellow photographers, particularly the youngest new photographers amongst us.

Many people helped me when I was a young freelance photographer. I wouldn’t be here without them. I always remember how difficult it was to show my work in the pre-digital era, and how alone I often felt. There is an important tradition of experienced photographers helping newer ones.

Why the age categories? Will there be a different curriculum for each session?

The age categories are because I wanted to make sure that we did the utmost we could for up and coming photographers.
All photographers 21 and older can go on Saturday and I think the opportunities will be great. But on Sunday you have to be 18 -27 and there will be many workshops as well as reviews. By the way a very accomplished 21 -27 year old photographer could apply and get in for both days.

Ultimately, we just wanted to do some good, have fun, and help our colleagues in any way that we can. So we asked what would be a meaningful thing to do.

My colleagues from the New York Times, National Geographic, Time, Aperture, Abrams books, PDN, and many museums, magazines, galleries and blogs have generously agreed to share their time. We are adding new reviewers daily.

Thanks to James Estrin for answering some of our questions and for organizing this fantastic opportunity for photographers.

The deadline for submitting your portfolio is February 13, 2013 on the entry page. Good luck to everyone applying!

The Daily Show Investigates Investigative Journalism

The Daily Show’s John Oliver looks at investigative journalism in another classic Daily Show “what the hell is happening around us’ takedown. I think it is an instant classic.

Brad Adgate: “But you don’t have to fly to some remote location to interview someone. You can just sit and use skype and save money that way”.
John Oliver: “But Brad, I don’t know how many child soliders in Sierra Leone use skype.”

Worth a look: Chloé Meunier’s Afro-Carribean London

Chloé Meunier wrote in to share her interesting project about the Afro-Carribean community in London. The work is the product of 3 years of photographing people and events in the community. It’s still a bit raw, but offers fascinating insight into how these people fit into life in the UK. I asked her to explain the project a little, and this is what she had to say below. English isn’t her native language, but the ideas are interesting:

“This reportage is the result of three years spent in London, among African and Caribbean communities, in places such as churches or street parades, but also in other places. Those people were kind enough to share a moment of their life. Nothing was really planned. The result is a portrait Africans and Caribbean natives in the English landscape.

“The fact of mixing them in a reportage could belittle them. Why should I group Afro-Carribean people who may not feel linked together as strongly as some other communities? I suppose this could European heritage from colonialism that mutated to Euro-centrism. In this particular case, I was trying to understand the results of a ‘living together’ between different cultures different backgrounds.

“Everyone mixes cultures in some way. It is an individual process and each person has their own way. What we do, what we don’t do to individualize ourselves… this shows that it is an individual’s relation to his or her environment or its perception. Anyone can see his or her own culture transcendence in relation to other people, and then they will link together.

“More generally, I felt that each person can develop answer or retorts, regarding his or her relation to the environment, but the unhooking bound to the individual time such as the sickness, send us back to our unity which is the peculiarity of the existing.

“So this project is about perception more than concept. I never thought to link the pictures I was taking to one another at the time I was taking them. I was just concentrating on each portrait of people or group or situation, and also on my own question regarding how to represent who or what was in front of me, that is the person and his or her relation to the world and life. At the same time I thought about how society and history can affect or influence each person and my own perception of what was happening in front of me.

“I also talked with the people in my pictures, trying to know a bit more about them. I didn’t do this in order to tell a story afterward, but just to learn about them. I have also been careful not to theorize on what I’ve seen and photographed, and I hope I haven’t done that here.”

Some of these pictures have been published or exhibited, including at the Hackney Central Museum in London and in Fototazo. Be sure to check out Chloé’s website for more pictures and other projects. Also, check out her collective Essenci’Elles, which focuses on photographing the feminine world. There’s some great work there, too.

SEE New Perspectives Masterclass

In 2010, fifteen young South-East European photographers and three masters met in Berlin for the SEE New Perspectives masterclass, organized by World Press Photo and Robert Bosch Stiftung. After the first meeting in Berlin all of the photographers were given a grant to photograph a story within the region but outside of their home country.

The resulting projects are now being exhibited in Belgrade, Serbia (on display until December 14 at the ARTGET gallery on Trg Republike) after debuting in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina in October. The show will soon move to Zagreb, Croatia and Berlin, Germany. The exhibition features an interesting concept of displaying oversized “magazines” each devoted to one photographer’s project, with only one image from each project along with the photographer’s name on the wall.

You can see all of the stories produced in the masterclass on the SEE New Perspectives website as well as more information about the organization of the project.

The photographers are:
Andrei Pungovschi, Romania
Armend Nimani, Kosovo
Bevis Fusha, Albania
Dženat Dreković, Serbia
Eugenia Maximova, Bulgaria
Ferdi Limani, Kosovo
Jasmin Brutus, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Jetmir Idrizi, Kosovo
Marko Risović, Serbia
Nemanja Pančić, Serbia
Octav Ganea, Romania
Petrut Calinescu, Romania
Sanja Jovanović (née Knežević), Serbia
Tomislav Georgiev, Macedonia
Vesselina Nikolaeva, Bulgaria

And the Tutors are:
Regina Anzenberger, Austria, artist, curator, photographer’s agent, gallerist
Silvia Omedes, Spain, president at Photographic Social Vision Foundation
Donald Weber, Canada, photographer VII Agency

I asked my old friend Jasmin Brutus, a Bosnian photographer who was part of the masterclass, to paraphrase the statement he gave at the Sarajevo opening which expresses his feelings about the years-long masterclass project: “We [the participating photographers] all returned with nice small toolbox which our employers will never know how to utilize. So, I think experience in the masterclass is very useful for my personal projects and for my job is almost useless. I gained new skills and my old skills got enhanced. But, for me the most important thing is that I met a group of really great people and great photographers.”

Congratulations to my friends from around the region who were able to take part in this interesting project and many of whom were able to produce terrific photo stories that may otherwise never have seen light or been published. I encourage you to explore the work published on the SEE New Perspectives site or peruse the photographers’ own websites linked above.

The video below features interviews with all of the photographers about their work and experience in the masterclass:

SEE New Perspectives from Balkan Photographers from World Press Photo on Vimeo.