The first, most striking thing about David Katzenstein’s Brownie work is the provocative way in which the out-of-focus image dominates the pictorial space. Many of these photographs—produced between 1979 and 1989—highlight an obscure object, a soft foreground entity, which boldly breaks more than one of the cardinal rules of the medium. “This work is pretty much a revolt against clarity,” Katzenstein says. “Clarity can’t be the only way to take pictures.”
Much of Katzenstein’s Brownie series upends our expectations of photography and—more specifically—travel photography. But Katzenstein doesn’t merely break rules for their own sake. Although his photographs work on several levels—and sit provocatively on several different fault lines—he is primarily drawn to painterly concepts of color, shape and space. He often invokes artists such as Diebenkorn, Matisse and Bonnard. (“These are the painters that come to mind when I look at the work now—in terms of impressionism, abstraction…and the human element”).
Traveling extensively from Mexico to Haiti to Peru, Katzenstein uses “the palette of each culture” to create photographs that capture the dynamic relations between colors, as well as accenting shifts in scale and an evocative sense of depth. “In the early 80s,” he says, “I noticed that most photographs you saw from ‘foreign places’ were very descriptive. There was not enough being done that pushed the impression of being in a different place. It seemed it was enough just to be there. I was drawn to the idea of going to places that were already one step removed from what most Americans were used to anyway—and then abstracting that.”
From the first, Katzenstein found a camera that synched perfectly with his vision. He works with an old Brownie—the beloved box camera of the fifties, of which he owns more than a dozen. “What I love about the Brownie is the square format,” he says. “It seems more painterly to me to have the square.”
The Brownie also appealed to him because it offered a certain freedom from the technical demands of other professional cameras. Although he is technically proficient—always traveling with several cameras including a Leica—he loves the fact that the Brownie has only one setting. “It’s fixed focus,” he points out, “no aperture adjustment. All I know is that at ten feet, the image starts to be in focus.” The Brownie’s lack of crystal clarity (“Whatever clarity you perceive in these images is relative,” he points out) and rendering of pastel colors also imbue the pictures with the quality of memory.
In choosing to travel for these particular pictures, Katzenstein was drawn to a world lived largely outdoors and to the often luminous quality of those places. While searching out these photographs, he wasn’t necessarily drawn to capturing exotic narratives (although the closer you look at his pictures, suggestions of narrative do emerge). Essentially, he wants to create a more pictorial, timeless impression.
Yet Katzenstein is well aware that there’s a certain conflict between his painterly concerns and his photographic medium. “When people look at photographs, they usually want to know exactly what they are seeing, much more than they would if it were a painting. A photograph is always ‘of something,’ taken from the world.” In many ways, it’s this tension between the formal and the descriptive—along with Katzenstein’s soft-focus bravura—that accounts for the continued freshness of this work.
– Lawrence Frascella
© David Katzenstein / Dashbe