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Matinee: 'What Makes A Photographer' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

9 September 2017

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 204th in our series of Saturday matinees today: What Makes a Photographer When Everyone Is Taking Pictures.

This three-minute clip in the PBS NewsHour's Brief But Spectacular series phrases a question with no question mark that photographer Ken Van Sickle answers with the exclamation point of passion.

Ah, passion. You know, that thing in your cover letter that explains why you're a rock star while everyone else is a one-stick drummer wearing flip-flops.

He introduces himself by way of his rent-controlled apartment (where this is shot), 91 steps up, where he has lived since 1963. He's 83 now himself, he admits, although he looks about 60. It's those steps that keep him young.

"I don't have a favorite place to take photographs -- or even a favorite subject," he says. But if he just walks into his hallway, he carries a camera.

'Technology doesn't change the way photography is.'

When he was 23 and lived in Paris during the 1950s, he also wanted to shoot anything he saw but then he didn't have enough money to buy film. One roll of film every two weeks was it.

He got a tip that jazz great Chet Baker was playing a gig nearby one night so he went there, taking two photos. One was out of focus and the other was great.

"I'm interested in beauty and sort of the subtle moments of everyday life," he says. As he talks, the clip illustrates that aesthetic with a few of his images.

"Technology doesn't change the way photography is. It makes it available to more people," he adds.

This has led to a lot of terrible images, he continues, and there's nothing wrong with that. But even the good ones rely on the subject matter alone rather than the texture and gesture and composition of the image, all of which a good photographer, like a good painter, uses to create a personal style.

And before you know it, Van Sickle has answered the question.

Anyone can press a button and, with fortune on their shoulder, catch a historic moment like the Hinderburg going down in flames.

But it takes a certain devotion (which we prefer to the overused "passion") to develop a visual lexicon which can articulately share the world you see, as Van Sickle puts it.

Climbing 10 stairs, you might say, won't get you where 91 lead.

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