Between October 17, 2014 and January 4, 2015 the Leica Gallery at Wetzlar has held the exhibition 100 Photographers-100 Portraits, a truly historical event encompassing a vast assortment of pictures made by the American photographer Claire Yaffa throughout a span of approximately 40 years (she started this long term project in 1974 when she made her first portrait of Eugene Smith, one of her teachers at the time along with Philippe Halsman) to a number of the most world-renowned photographers of the XX Century who defined its visual language and culture as well as having created a lot of the most iconic images ever, it all with the added bonus of further portraits made by the New York based photojournalist to other talented photographers who have developed their careers within XXI Century.
This amazing exhibition (whose opening ceremony in Am Leitz Park of Wetzlar on October 17, 2014 had the attendance of Claire Yaffa herself who came from United States and Karin Rehn-Kaufmann, Managing Director of Leica Galleries International) has been a relish for any enthusiast of photography and its history, and something really unforgettable, particularly for the many thousands of visitors from all over the world who arrived in Wetzlar during three months to watch Claire Yaffa 100 Photographers-100 Portraits live, in what has probably been the most complete array of portraits of legendary photographers ever assembled, including a high percentage of the pros who were the main characters of the Photojournalism Halcyon Days.
It isn´t less true that Leica M lineup of highly luminous prime lenses featuring very small size and weight is the best in the world in terms of resolving power, sharpness and mechanical thoroughness and that the rangefinder of an M camera is a wonder of handcrafted precision, without forgetting the crystal-clear amazing viewfinder enabling the photographer to watch what is happening at every moment, even outside the frame of each focal length.
But if you are a bad photographer you will not get good pictures, irrespective of the photographic camera brand or lenses you can have.
A good photographer will be able to make good photographs with any camera, and the pros appearing in this 100 Photographers - 100 Portraits historical exhibition could have made good pictures with cameras and lenses from every brand.
If most of them chose 24 x 36 mm format mirrorless rangefinder Leicas it was simply because they were the most suitable photographic tools to fulfill their assignments, particularly within the scope of photojournalistic activity, in which discretion, lowest feasible noise of shutter release, optimization for handheld shooting with available light even at 1/8 sec without trepidation, shortest shutter lag in existence, second to none highly luminous lenses and to approach as much as possible to the subject trying to get unnoticed are essential to get the picture.
A wise choosing of photographic gear will of course depend on the kind of photographic task to attain.
That´s why Yousuf Karsh used a large format Calumet camera with 8 x 10 plates (contacts of 20 x 25 cm) to do his extraordinary portraits, David Douglas Duncan used a Minox 8 x 11 mm getting pictures in 1954 inside a Saigon casino risking his life and putting the shutter speeds and diaphragms without looking at the camera while pretended to be interested in the gambling, Alfred Eisenstaedt used a Rolleiflex 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 medium format camera to do his stunning reportage of the farewell by girlfriends and wives to servicemen going to war within the Pennsylvania Train Station in New York in 1943 with a high percentage of his pictures made from an exceedingly short distance, taking advantage of the great discretion provided by the waist level finder of this MF camera, René Burri (a mostly Leica rangefinder photographer) used a Pentax Spotmatic 35 mm camera with Takumar 135 mm f/2.5 lens in 1959 in Cyprus to capture three war widows, Harold Feinstein used Olympus Pen 18 x 24 mm half-frame format camera during sixties to get maximum depth of field in the specific street photography he was doing then (while in 1952 he had made with a 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 Rolleiflex Automat Model 3 medium format camera his great essay on bidding farewells in Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, to American soldiers going to Korea War), David Burnett used a large format Speed Graphic 4 x 5 with Aero-Ektar 178 mm f/2.5 to get pictures with really shallow depth of field and the remarkable aesthetics of image inherent to LF bokeh in photographs like the Ford Mustang half-buried by a house in Lakeview (belonging to his series Aftermath of Katrina 2006) or a perpendicular shot of the athlete Marion Jones during the 2004 USA Olympic Preview in Los Angeles, Daido Moriyama used a 8,6 x 8,3 cm format Polga (a hybrid Holga with Polaroid instant film back) toy camera to make his fabulous black and white book T-82 with images of Japan boasting unique image aesthetics and stunning layers of diffused grays in synergy with the abundant vignetting featured by its 60 mm f/8 lens of Japan in 2006, sports photographer Bob Martin used a Canon New F-1 camera and Canon FD 400 mm f/2.8 L superteleobjectives to photograph Edwin Moses during the 1987 World Championships in Rome and a Nikon D4 with 80-400 mm and 200-400 mm lenses with 0.1 second latency robotics setup to get pictures from amazing angles during Wimbledon 2013, John Loengard (one of the most influential photojournalists in the history of Life magazine, of which he was picture editor) and a great master of Leica rangefinder cameras uses currently a 10 megapixel Canon G12 camera for his personal photographs, sports photographer Pascal Rondeau used a Nikon F3 with motordrive and Ai-S Nikkor 600 mm f/4 IF ED super tele photo lens with monopod during the Monaco Grand Prix 1989 to capture the very low profile Formula 1 Brabham BT58 cars after prefocusing and intentionally underexposing 1 diaphragm for the sparks to show up better, Terry Fincher used a homemade 9 x 12 cm glass plate folding camera during fifties to get maximum sharpness and stability (avoiding any shrinking or deform during the development) in his handheld press photography of stars, Sheila Metzner used a 35 mm camera and old lenses to achieve her wonderful images featuring a pictorial soft-focus dreamlike approach fostered by the gorgeous Fresson color printing method (unbeatable in terms of control during the development) as a way of expressing her artistic feeling and vision and providing rich and textural chromatic nuances with a golden glaze flawlessly matching the romantic sensuality of her photographs rendering a signature ethereal mood which merges ancient myth and tradition with contemporary sophistication, Annie Leibovitz used a black Konica Hexar AF with its top-notch 35 mm f/2 lens ( optimized for full aperture but automatically correcting the shift focus on selecting small f stops) to do the kind of street photography she wished in Paris in 1997, Douglas Kirkland used a Nikon F with Non-Ai Nikkor-UD 20 mm f/3.5 UD Auto shooting from a a very low angle to get his 1967 portrait of Maurice Chevalier with the Eiffel Tower behind him and a Hasselblad 500 C/M and 250 mm lens for his portrait of Kelly McGillis on the beach of San Diego in 1985 (in both pictures with some fill-in flash to give punch), Diane Arbus used a 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 Rolleiwide with Zeiss Distagon 55 mm f/4 in 1962 to do the extraordinary picture Boy With a Toy Hand Grenade, adding tremendous levels of tension and impact, bringing the observer closer than with a Rolleiflex with standard 75 mm lens and going with this very powerful image far beyond than with her customary excelling at revealing the character of her subjects, .......
Detail of the main façade of Am Leitz Park building, made with very special concrete and glass. It is an architectural wonder oozing class and elegance to spare. Created by the architects Martin Gruber and Helmut Kleine-Kraneburg, it is the first thing the visitors see before entering the Leica Gallery Wetzlar, whose wide and very well devised inner spaces enable an exceedingly comfortable and quiet viewing of the photographing exhibitions.
The 100 Photographers-100 Portraits exhibiton at the Leica Gallery Wetzlar has meant a thrilling travel in time through the history of photography and its golden days when the most legendary photojournalists ever published their pictures inside the pages of top class illustrated magazines like Life, Camera, Du, Look, Colliers, Paris Match and others which sold in the millions, the most prolific period of photojournalism between roughly early thirties and mid seventies, without forgetting the significant role performed by great agencies like Magnum, AP, Keystone Press, Contact Press, etc, which have kept on developing their photographic activity hitherto and some other specialists of different scopes (like Yousuf Karsh in portraiture, Neil Leifer in sports, Amedeo M. Turello and Saga Sig in fashion), the display being completed with the portraits of younger gifted photographers likewise creators of great images and a hope for the future of the trade within XXI Century, now in full digital era.
Claire Yaffa, an acclaimed photojournalist featuring 47 years experience publishing photographs in many important illustrated magazines, also extensively working for The New York Times and Associated Press and having held a number of exhibitions worldwide, has photographed them all throughout four decades, with remarkable sensitivity, effort, travels to different countries and above all great respect for these masters of photography from whom she learnt very much and who were instrumental in her development as a professional photographer, in which her turning point was her essay on the last months of life of The Little Tracy.
This unique exhibition is to all intents and purposes a homage and sincere testimony of gratitude, respect and admiration to all the great photographers who allowed her to photograph them and also have them often as a source of inspiration, since their immense legacy of defining images is a real and everlasting trove for future generations.
© Text and Photos: José Manuel Serrano Esparza