Published on March 20th, 2015 | by Robert Barry Francos


Why I Shoot: Musings About Photography

Our man Robert Barry Francos was there in 77’ with his camera, snapping New York’s punk movement. He writes about what photography means to him.

I have always taken pictures. As with most, it started with family photos. For me, it was an Instamatic 126mm camera, where the film has to be loaded from a roll on a spindle, and needed to be done in a relatively dark place (mostly in shadows, rather than complete darkness). The flash was a cube with four chances, if they actually worked.

When I started writing in 1977, I knew I needed a real camera. I was seeing so many bands play that I was losing track of those I was seeing, and wanted one to take pictures to help remember. On my birthday, in May of 1977, my dad gave me a 35mm Mamiya/Sekor camera. It didn’t have a light meter, the flash pod broke off very shortly, and certainly was all manual settings. The first show I took it to was The Ramones, at CBGB. Many rolls of film followed.

Over the years, the camera became my friend, and was joined by two others, a Pentax and a Minolta, both of which I bought used for $100 each (at different times). And I broke down and bought a flash in the 1980s, about 10 years after I got the first camera.

One day, at a friend’s birthday party at Lucky Chen’s in the mid-1990s, I ran into Mariah Aguire (RIP). For those unfamiliar, she became kind of infamous for having her tiger-print clothes ripped off by Stiv Bators on stage during a Dead Boys show at CBs. I was in the audience. She was also taking pictures along the same timeline as me, and she told me that one day she realized that she not only had the photographs, but in actuality had a body of work. A flash went off in my brain as I had the epiphany that it was true for myself, as well.

All this is leading up to my finding the book Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War, by Deborah Copaken Kogan (Random House, NY: 2002 edition). Among the great, fun, and terrifying stories of her work as an international photojournalist, she also made some philosophical points about photography that expressed how I felt about the process.

She touched on the sheer physicality of photography, something I’d not read anywhere before. People have written about photography in the ‘after,’ such as saying, “What an amazing photograph,” but I had not had anyone breathe life into the actual touchstone of taking the photograph (other than “squeeze the shutter, don’t just click it”). Kogan states, “I loved to go out and shoot in strange places…I loved the heft of the black metal in my hands, the way it felt like a weapon. I loved to press the shutter, to freeze time, to turn little slices of life into rectangles rife with metaphor. I loved to collect the rectangles, like so many souvenir trinkets, to gaze at them, study them, find the one that best summarized a particular lived moment.”

Another case is her positing on the difference between reporting and reportage, or as she explains it, what “the French called photo montee, a phrase derived from the verb monter, which has about twenty-three various definitions, ranging from ‘to mount’ to ‘to edit,’ but which in this formulation means ‘to stage’…I thought photo montee was bullshit. It was advertising, not photojournalism, and it rankled my purist sensibilities.”

Likewise, I prefer the moment, a split second. I like the transitory or temporal, which is why I enjoy photographing bands performing so much. Even taking their gear out of its containers, there is something human in the moment. Posed shots tend to be uninteresting to me. If one were to look through my collection of photographs, one would be hard pressed (though they are there occasionally) to find shots of people looking directly at the camera and smiling. Can anything be more staged, more phony, or boring? That is reportage, not reporting. It is photo montee. Cheesy smiles are not real life, which is what I aim to capture.

I worked with someone who stopped talking to me one day, and I was disturbed at what I had done to offend her. At some point, I managed to find out: seems she thought my taking candid (people talking, grabbing food, etc.) photos at company functions was creepy, even though the people knew I was standing there. The photos we took were put up on the company intranet, and I saw that nearly all the ones she had personally taken were of people standing still with big toothy grins across their faces. To me, my photos felt like they had more life and were natural. When I found out the reason for the silent treatment, I felt better, because it wasn’t something I had actually done to her, but rather her interpretation of my actions.

Kogan puts my feelings quite accurately: “I’ve realized I don’t love doing portraiture. I can’t be Annie Leibovitz, with her truck full of lighting equipment and industrial fans, her stylists, hair and makeup people all fluttering about her, fulfilling her festooned visions of famous faces. I can’t be Richard Avedon, with his stark white backgrounds and his large-format eight-by-ten Deardorff camera, collecting human torsos in a vacuum. I appreciate their work, but I’m starting to understand that what I love most about photography are the contextual accidents, the ‘decisive moments,’ as Cartier-Bresson called them — images with irony, with narrative juxtaposition, with stories to tell.”

To sum it up, I myself am also more interested in breathing life into a photograph, than capturing still life.

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About the Author

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has lived in Saskatoon for over a decade, having spent most of his life in New York City. Part of the New York punk scene from nearly its inception, he has been known to hang out with musicians, artists and theatrical types. His fanzine, FFanzeen, was published from 1977 through 1988, giving him opportunity to see now famous bands in their early stages. Media, writing and photography have been a core interest for most of his life, leading to a Masters in Media Ecology from New York University. This has led to travel to Mexico, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Israel and Egypt, and recently he taught a university class in media theory in China.

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