© Okky Offerhaus
During a stay in Jamaica in 1964, the Dutch photographer Okky Offerhaus, who was Elliott Erwitt´s assistant during sixties (travelling with him worldwide while he did his assignments) , is holding her Leica M3 camera and paying a lot of attention to the Magnum photographer, who is striving after getting a portrait of a Chinese little girl who refuses to be photographed at first.
But Elliott Erwitt perseveres, and equipped with a 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 (6 x 6 cm) Bronica S medium format camera attached to a Nikkor-H 50 mm f/3.5 lens featuring 6 elements in 6 groups on a sturdy metallic Gitzo tripod, stares at the girl making faces and honking a little horn, trying to make her smile. which he finally manages to get.
This black and white picture is very interesting for a number of reasons:
a) The timing on pressing the shutter release button of her camera by Okky Offerhaus after a lot of seconds waiting for the best moment to shoot is excellent and she is successful capturing the defining moment, just when the girl is beginning to smile looking at Elliott Erwitt, who though grimaces and honks to get the picture, is entirely focused on the little girl´s face.
b) Simultaneously, Okky Offerhaus creates a picture depicting Elliott Erwitt´s working and displaying his irrepressible sense of humor, love for humanity, a unique gift to find the interesting in the ordinary, an extraordinary sense of perception in symbiosis with a sharp eye and a witty and optimistic personality, aspects that have been the main raison d´être of his work throughout his long career of 65 years as a professional photographer from early fifties hitherto.
51 years later. Okky Offerhaus behind the picture of Elliott Erwitt photographing the little Chinese girl she made in Jamaica in 1964. © José Manuel Serrano Esparza
c) The Dutch photographer has also captured the remarkable expectation raised by the interaction between the little Chinese girl and Elliott Erwitt, particularly conspicuous in the background of the image, where three Jamaicans (a little boy on far left of the frame with a striped short-sleeved shirt and whose left hand is leaned on a table, a standing young man appearing beyond Erwitt´s left shoulder and clad in black trousers along with a clear long-sleeved shirt and a third man wearing black trousers and a white shirt and whose left part of the body has remained outside the limits of the right vertical border of the picture).
All of them are gazing at the scene and have been witnessing the "tussle" between the little Chinese girl and Elliott Erwitt during the previous seconds of impasse.
d) The election of a high angle shot (around 45% more pronounced than the one chosen by Ihei Kimura for his picture Child in Playpen in 1957) by Erwitt enhances the impact of the image even more, begetting a left-right ascending diagonal linking the little girl´s eyes with the photographer´s ones. The chemistry between photographer and subject has at last appeared after many seconds of reluctance by the little girl.
e) From a historical and technical viewpoint, the picture is relevant because Elliott Erwitt is using a 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 (6 x 6 cm) Bronica S medium format camera with a Nikkor-H 50 mm f/3.5 wideangle (equivalent to a 35 mm lens in 24 x 36 mm format) boasting an instant return automatic diaphragm.
Needless to say that the choice of the 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 (6 x 6 cm) format instead of the 24 x 36 mm means in practice to get far superior quality of image in terms of definition, contrast, tonal gradation, bokeh and a noteworthy enlargement ability without any image degradation, thanks to its 350 % bigger surface of emulsion, which enables a much greater versatility on using the original square big negative, both in darkroom with a good medium format enlarger (Beseler 23C, Beseler 23CII, Omega C700, Durst M700, LPL D670, Omega D2, Omega D6, Omega B Autofocus, Omega B-22, Omega D5XL, Beseler 67, Durst M601 and others, with top-notch 6 elements in four groups enlarging lenses like the El-Nikkor 80 mm f/5.6 N, Schneider Componon-S 80 mm f/4, Rodenstock Rodagon 80 mm f/4, Rodenstock Rodagon-WA 80 mm f/4, Fujinon-EP 75 mm f/5.6 and Fujinon-EX 75 mm f/4.5 EBC multicoated, etc ) or digitizing it with a professional drum scanner (being feasible to get up to 460 MB at 4000 dpi 16 bit).
f) Shooting with a medium format camera like the Bronica S on a tripod means an advantage for the photographer, because he can compose the image on the camera´s big screen, so it´s easier to engage the subject in conversation, helping the girl to relax and at the same time to make her keep attention on the photojournalist.
On the other hand, the very large magnifier of the big screen of the 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 (6 x 6 cm) medium format Bronica S enables to augment the eyes of the subject and manually focus on them much more accurately than with a 35 mm camera, by turning the large focusing knob located on the right side of the camera until getting spot-on focus and shooting either pressing the shutter release button of the camera placed on the lower right front area or using the cable release socket located at the base of the camera, very near the depth of field preview button situated on the lower left front area, which is a further pretty useful feature once you have focused, providing a total control of the focused and unfocused zones and working through pressing the DOF button, which will instantly close the diaphragm down to the preselected taking aperture and the image in the screen will show the exact depth of field at that diaphragm, and after stopping pressing the DOF preview button, the diaphragm will instantly spring back to full aperture, providing a clear image on the focusing screen, ready for the next picture,
Besides, the hooded waist level finder of the Bronica S featuring a Fresnel lens and the aforementiones large magnifier makes possible to shoot from the chest or the abdominal area, attaining much higher discretion than with the cameras needing to raise the body and lens up to the eyes, and even to render the subjects much quieter if they have seen the camera and the photographer trying to get the picture.
g) Elliot Erwitt got this picture six years after Zenzaburo Yoshino had launched into market the Zenza Bronica Z single lens reflex with focal plane shutter in 1958, first model of the Japanese brand, clearly inspired by the Hasselblads 1600F and 1000F as to its dimensions and style, but with some significant innovations like the returning of mirror and aperture to the original position after shooting, the sliding down of the mirror ( instead of the usual flipping-up) to keep the optical back of the lens aligned, a very long exposure for the time of up to 10 seconds through self-timer, the wholly automatic loading of the 120 roll without any adjusting of the start mark, the possibility of attaching the 120 film back irrespective of both body/back sequences and a new special film tension system assuring a perfect flatness of the film at the focal plane, removing all of its tension during the winding, in such a way that when the film is in place, tension is automatically applied
The Bronica S model was the standard model, sporting fewer features and functions than the Bronica Type D (De Luxe), the flagship of the brand, and whose mechanism was very complex.
But anyway, the Bronica S, sporting dimensions of 100 mm x 100 mm x 140 mm and made in stainless-steel 18-8 (containing 18% chromium and 8% nickel) with a polished finish, was a great camera, featuring an advanced and reliable mechanics, a vertically operating focal plane shutter and a non-rotating single shutter dial with speeds between 1 s -1/1000 s + B and 1/50 s as a flash sync, built in a handcrafted way, very robust and able to use the top-notch Nikkor medium format lenses sporting small bayonet mount and rendering outstanding image quality, of which the most used were the Nikkor-P 75 mm f/2.8, the Nikkor-H 50 mm f/3.5, the Nikkor-Q 105 mm f/3.5 and the Nikkor-Q 135 mm f/3.5.
But Erwitt doesn´t need the top of the line Bronica model at all, because a good photographer can do great pictures with any camera, the key factors being to be at the right place at the adequate moment, the accuracy on pressing the shutter release button to capture the defining instant, the experience, the empathy and rapport created with the subject, and specifically in this picture if you add a medium format camera like the Bronica S with its large 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 (6 x 6 cm) negative and a first-rate Nippon Kogaku wide angle lens like the Nikkor-H 50 mm f/3.5 things can work like a charm to get very good pictures taking advantage of the special beauty of the square format, very useful for portraits, and the virtues of the 1:1 aspect ratio of the 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 (6 x 6 cm) format, very different to the 1:1.5 aspect ratio of the 24 x 36 mm format
Elliot Erwitt simply finds a workable solution to get the picture he wants, choosing an exceedingly suitable camera and lens for it, leaned on a sturdy tripod to reduce vibration to negligible levels and get both maximum sharpness and the best possible gray scale with a comprehensive range of shades.
Okky Offerhaus´s book EE & OO: " ... but a plastic rose is forever ... " published by Verlag Bibliothek der Provinz (Weitra, Austria). This amazing 444 pages and 24 x 17 cm format book including a vast assortment of pictures, letters and sketches was recently presented at the Zebra Gallery and Centrum for Classic and Modern Photography in Burggasse 46, Viena on February, 2016, and makes up a real treasure for any lover of classical black and white photography and particularly for the enthusiasts of Elliott Erwitt and the golden age of photojournalism, since it contains a comprehensive range of photographs of the great Magnum photographer made by Okky Offerhaus during sixties and a wealth of anecdotes and exceedingly interesting information on different photo stories fulfilled by Erwitt in Brazil, United States, Jamaica, Ireland, France, Spain, Hong Kong, Japan, Kenya, Poland, England, Italy, Hungary, etc. © José Manuel Serrano Esparza
Okky Offerhaus. © José Manuel Serrano Esparza
Regarding Okky Offerhaus biography, in 1947, being fourteen years old, she emigrated with her parents and siblings from Holland to Brazil, where she grew up and developed a career as a model, also working in fashion, and thanks to her fluency in different languages, she became a staff member of a Brazilian airline before becoming an agent for movies and photography.
She also worked in Brazil with a television crew of the NDR and the director Max Rehbein, shooting " City of the Retort ".
From late fifties she became highly interested in photography and she met Elliott Erwitt in Rio do Janeiro in 1961 while the Magnum photographer was doing an assignment on the Carnival, turning into his assistant until mid sixties.
Subsequently, Okky Offerhaus became independent and made her own career as a professional photographer, working for several magazines and newspapers in Brazil and Europe and getting pictures of such celebrities as Johnny Halliday in 1969, Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1970 in Zurich, and even covered the uprising of Prague inhabitants against the Soviet invasion in August of 1968.
She lives currently in Küb (Austria).
© Text and Indicated Photos: José Manuel Serrano Esparza