Jules Aarons: Into
by Jules Aarons
It is difficult for me to define my
photographs of Boston. Are they documentary, the exact instant, streetscapes? All
photographers have to be set in the historical stream or, perhaps, a unique offshoot
diverted from the flow.
Photographers carve a piece of a
physical scene, a landscape, a portrait, or a dramatic situation. The photograph narrows
the field of view and focuses on his interest. My focus is on "people pictures."
The photographs are of people and city streets depicting the everyday life in the streets
of Boston. They do not encompass violent or confrontational situations such as riots or
rallies. They do not encompass the troubled state of the homeless.
Photography leans heavily on the tools
of the camera. The camera has the unique ability to capture a moment of time. There is the
exact instant and the exact space thats enveloped. In a sense all photographs are
historical because they are frozen in time. When people are photographed they are rigidly
frozen against their backgrounds. Photographs are also unique in recording detail. Whether
it is the weather-beaten siding on a house or age-beaten wrinkles on an older mans
face, the details can form the dramatic thrust of a photograph. It is the combination of
freezing time and detail that make photography unique.
But photographs do not represent the
truth. Photographs are never truthful. They can only capture a moment in time and a single
perspective of the event. The exact instant is only an instant; it is not long term truth
about a person or a scene. The printing of the photograph further distorts the truth
because the printing can be done with varying contrasts, highlighting or de-emphasizing
details. Perhaps the printer used high contrast paper with its deep blacks and highly
reflecting whites emphasizing peeling on a wall. Perhaps he blots out details using a soft
gray scale for the area. All this can be done in the developing process without using the
At the minimum an artist can capture his
place and time. At best it can be done with a sense of design and drama. My focus was on
the people and the design of the photograph. I used a camera, a waist level twin lens
reflex, that had rarely been used for "candid" or documentary shots.
Cartier-Bresson and most of the New York photographers used eye level 35mm Leicas. My use
of the twin lens reflex with its 2 1/4" square format for the negative allowed for a
different kind of street photography. It allowed me to face in one direction and turn the
camera at right angles in another direction. The subjects did not always know the
photograph was being taken. The photographer who has to hold his camera at eye level
telegraphs his intentions. In addition the larger negative area of the 2 1/4" square
format was able to capture more detail. The photographer can then deal with detail as an
artist does with portions of his painting, for example, bringing it to the fore in the
case of graffiti in the inner city or losing it when depicting shadow patterns at an
elevated station. He completes his contribution in the printing, pushing some portions of
the photo into prominence and pulling other portions into the background.
Historically many photographers have
worked in the city streets and have photographed people. Although I have tried to develop
an individual style, I have also been influenced by photographers in the mainstream of the
history of photography.
The History of
Photography and My Gleanings:
Plucking admired masters from the stream
of photographers, I go back to the 1860s and the pioneering work by Matthew Brady in the
realm of people pictures. He had as a background the Civil War drama of people and events.
His photographs were formalized and were frozen in time with the subject fully aware of
the photographic focus on their situation. The awareness that photographs were being
taken, combined with the large cameras and cumbersome chemistry of photography of the
period, severely limited photographs of people and places. In spite of this, photographs
of the Brady era captured a combination of time and the human environment.
As a group, French photographers in a
lineage starting with Atget and leading up to Cartier-Bresson pulled together the new
capability to capture people, places, and the exact instant. Roaming in Paris, Atget came
upon configurations of shops and people. He encountered and captured on film individuals
in the street and put them together. His work froze elements of contemporary history. He
did not photograph large scale events such as wars or large assemblies but focused both
his camera and his artistry on people and shops, people and markets, and people and
streets; sometimes just the shops and streets.
Next, a group of photographers came to
the fore, moving along with the technology that enabled them to take active street scenes.
This was an advance over posing individuals against a background such as Atget portrayed.
Ronis, Doisneau, Lisette Model, Boubat-all concentrated on people. The use of the smaller
camera allowed the photographer to pounce on the exact instant. The photographer became
less visible to his subjects than the photographer who set his apparatus on a tripod to
steady the shot. With this timing advantage and with the singling out of people, it was
necessary for photographers to develop a new talent: the ability to configure the final
photograph almost instantaneously.
Before this time, photographers
generally configured the final print when taking the picture. With a large format camera
on a tripod, the photographer could frame and focus the image, figure out the exposure,
even add or remove objects from the field of view, all before exposing the negative. In
the shift to smaller cameras and to "exact instant" photography, there was a new
need to deal with whatever was on the negative. In the printing process, the photographer
has to decide what is to be included and what is to be minimized in the final print. He
has to deal with a specific format of the camera he uses in the taking of the picture but
he can select any part of the negative he wishes when making the print. He must then
choose the contrast.
The design strength introduced by
Cartier-Bresson was the next element of importance that I tried to bring to the finished
photograph. Many of the other photographers in France homed in on people and the
excitement of their backgrounds but few had put together the photograph as a total design
structure. Cartier-Bresson was able to see the totality of his instant photograph. He had
a feeling for design that few others had. His pictures come full blown with drama, with
capturing of an exact instant as well as his genius in organizing the design of the final
photograph, (Cartier-Bresson did not print his photographs but insisted on using the
entire negative). He achieved a total structure where many others failed.
During my college days at the City
College of New York (1938-1942), I randomly took photographs of the city, primarily of
buildings and sites; it introduced me to the technical aspects of the camera. I did not
deal with either darkroom techniques or the history of photography at the time.
Coming out of the military service in
1945, I again became interested in photography, primarily to picture people in the city.
At that time there was a group of photographers, almost exclusively in New York, taking
photographs of life in the city. In a sense they had seen the approach of Brassai,
Cartier-Bresson and Lisette Model and homed in on life in New York. The relative ease of
moving in the city and finding configurations of people and their physical backgrounds
made it exciting. The creative and real-time aspect of this approach was composing the
free movement of people against their background of buildings, cars, streets, etc. There
was action in the neighborhoods where people lived, played and worked. They took their
photographs in working class areas since the rich didnt play out their games and
relationships in the streets. This slanted their work and indeed this group of
photographers related their photography to social improvement. Helen Levitt, Sid Grossman,
Lisette Model, Leon Levinstein among others captured the drama of life in the streets of
the city. Children were prominent in the photographs but they included adults. There was
little propaganda in these photographs. Just people making due and relating to other
Influenced by these New York
photographers, in 1947 I began to take black and white photographs with the aim to
document Boston, its streets and its people, while also developing my own style. I
resolved to capture the day-to-day life experiences of the people, avoiding scenes of
poverty. I had grown up in New York City and seen the extremes. I knew that the dynamics
of people whose social relationships involved their neighbors and the streets could be a
source of creativity. The drama of living is more fully played out in the streets of the
city, particularly areas with apartment houses. Kids and adults interact in the street.
They chat, they admire the babies, they play cards, they stroll, they sit and watch the
drama. Viewing the photographs, one thing that pops out is that there wasnt the
clutter of automobiles that envelop city streets today. The very absence of cars filling
the streets allowed a greater concentration on people. City people used public
transportation. And they frequently used neighborhood stores, groceries, shoe repair
shops, barbers. In the North End they shopped for fruit and vegetables on Saturday in the
pushcart market. All this was available to the photographer.
I began photographing in the West End, a
vital neighborhood with kids and adults playing and living in the streets. At the time I
photographed there, (1947-1953), the West End was an integrated area where people seemed
to get along. The black kids played with the white kids, mindless of color differences.
The West End had very set boundaries and was a vigorously alive residential neighborhood
in the 1940s and the 1950s. Bordered by the Charles River, Beacon Hill, the Financial
District and the North End and included todays Charles River Park and Massachusetts
General Hospital, the area had a history of channeling immigrants into the Boston area.
There were Italian, Jewish, and Black families. There were specialty Jewish stores and
Italian festas. Even the buildings were of interest, many with external decorations.
But the West End was to be a casualty of
urban renewal. In 1953 the City of Boston targeted the neighborhood for redevelopment and
in 1958 the demolition took place. Along with the residential area, Scollay Square,
Bostons Times Square, was "revitalized," bulldozed and renamed Government
Center because to some Scollay Square meant bars, burlesque houses and the homeless.
Although I lost the West End as a
subject, I was also photographing in other neighborhoods in the Boston area like the South
End, South Boston, Chelsea and, especially, the North End.
The North Ends Italian-American
population was more homogenous than the West End, but very dynamic. I photographed the
open air market on Saturdays, people conversing in the streets, the Festas, the politician
Gabriel Piemonte, the boxer Tony De Marco, and religious activities. Over the years I have
spent more time in the North End than in any other section of Boston, photographing there
from 1947 to 1975. I was able to capture the older people, children and parents, teenagers
horsing around, kids playing ball in the streets, families, and men getting together on
street corners on Sunday morning. During the summer, the North End abounds with Feast Days
for the Saints with parades, pushcart food, and a plethora of people. One can wander in
the area with a camera without being noticed since there are many other picture takers.
From 1953 on, I traveled frequently to
Europe. Later I visited South America. When I did research or attended conferences in
areas all over the world, I made time to photograph in the streets.
On my first stay in Paris in 1953 and
1954, I took photographs that the curator of photography of the Bibliotheque Nationale
stated showed Paris in the last stages of the 19th Century, (no cars in the streets for
example). I came frequently to Paris both on vacations and for business purposes, (I was
involved with a NATO group that had its headquarters in Paris). This allowed me to
photograph the street life of Paris until 1975.
In 1981, I stopped taking and printing
photographs. From working in the darkroom my eyes became too sensitive to photographic
chemicals. Because I could no longer control the print making, I decided I had to stop
actively working with the medium. Photographs reproduced or copied do not compare with
photographs viewed directly. In the original photographic print, blacks can be all shades
of black, dull on matte paper or rich on other papers. On different papers whites reflect
vastly differing amounts of light, a function of the surface of the paper. I used a glossy
paper that was not given a high gloss in the drying process. My feeling was that the
subjects had a "romantic" quality (they were human), and this had to be offset
somewhat by a harsh presentation. Without my ability to control this part of the process,
I felt that I should not continue.
Another factor in my giving up
photography was the growing paranoia about photographers. It is not always unwarranted.
The subject of the photograph asks "Is the photographer interested in me particularly
and if so, why? Could the photographer's purpose not be benign?" These are not idle
thoughts. Ive encountered threats in a Paris market and on the streets of the North
End beginning in the 1970s. In recent years a photographer had to sign an agreement with
the community to photograph in the neighborhood.
Although in the United States it has
become more difficult to photograph people in the streets there are still places where
people gather and are still willing to be photographed, places like beaches or the mall.
In many areas of the world people still live in the streets. In these places the
background forms and the juxtaposition of people with their background are waiting to be