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Monthly Masters DiscussionMonthly Masters' Discussion - "Ghandi At His Spinning Wheel " by Margaret Bourke White

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minniev
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Monthly Masters' Discussion - "Ghandi At His Spinning Wheel " by Margaret Bourke White

Post by minniev » Sun Mar 04, 2018 12:42 pm

Margaret Bourke-White was a pioneering photojournalist who started her photographic journey as a hobbyist and developed expertise in architectural and industrial imagery that drew the attention of Henry Luce and earned her the position as first staff photographer for Fortune magazine. Her insightful pictures of 1930s Russia, German industry, and the impact of the Depression and drought in the American midwest further established her reputation. She took some of the first photographs inside German concentration camps at Erla and Buchenwald following the end of World War II and captured the last pictures of Mahatma Gandhi, in India.

"Gandhi at his Spinning Wheel," the defining portrait of one of the 20th century’s most influential figures, almost didn’t happen, thanks to the Mahatma’s strict demands. Granted a rare opportunity to photograph India’s leader; Bourke-White, then on staff at Life magazine, was all set to shoot when Gandhi’s secretaries stopped her cold: If she was going to photograph Gandhi at the spinning wheel (a symbol for India’s struggle for independence), she first had to learn to use one herself. But that wasn’t all. The ascetic Mahatma wasn’t to be spoken to (it being his day of silence.) And because he detested bright light, Bourke-White was only allowed to use three flashbulbs. Having cleared all these hurdles, however, there was still one more – the humid Indian weather, which wreaked havoc on her camera equipment. When time finally came to shoot, Bourke-White’s first flashbulb failed. And while the second one worked, she forgot to pull the slide, rendering it blank. She thought it was all over, but luckily, the third attempt was successful. In the end, she came away with an image that became Gandhi’s most enduring representation. It was also among the last portraits of his life; he was assassinated less than two years later.

Read up on Bourke-White and her work with Ghandi in the links below if you’d like, and examine the portrait below. Then share with us your thoughts about this image. Some questions that can guide your thinking:

1. What do you think of the image’s composition? the use of light? Does the image have impact? Why or why not?
3. Does the image create a sense of the person photographed? Why or why not?
4. Does it trouble you that the spinning wheel is not in sharp focus? Is this how you would have shot the scene? If not, what would you have done differently?
5. What do you think of the story about the “steps” Bourke-White had to go through to get the image? What might you have done differently?
6. How much do obstacles, both technical and subject-related, affect your photography? Are there photos you fail to take because of obstacles? Are there photos you managed in spite of obstacles and of which you are proud? If you’d like to share an experience or a photograph, please feel free to do so!

Links for Reference & Study
http://time.com/3639043/gandhi-and-his- ... nic-photo/
http://100photos.time.com/photos/margar ... photograph
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Bourke-White
https://politicsofphotojournalism.weebl ... ning-wheel
https://www.lomography.com/magazine/647 ... urke-white
http://iphf.org/inductees/margaret-bourke/
https://www.slideshare.net/guimera/maha ... ierbresson
Attachments
timegandhi-spinning-wheel-01-1.jpg
fair use [url]http://time.com/3639043/gandhi-and-his-spinning-wheel-the-story-behind-an-iconic-photo/[/url]
"God gave me photography so that I could pray with my eyes" - Dewitt Jones

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Graham Smith
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Post by Graham Smith » Mon Mar 05, 2018 7:37 pm

First, a little nitpick, Gandhi is not "at his spinning wheel" he is reading close by his spinning wheel. (I say this to set the tone for the rest of my ramblings)
While I think this is a great picture (it's a style of photography I pursue and love) Not wishing to detract from the image or photographer in any way, I believe that it's greatness is almost entirely down to the subject and the mystical aura that surrounds him.

The photographer had the reputation and resources of Life magazine to gain access to Gandhi.

Gandhi was never going to be an easy subject, he was well known for his dislike of vacuous questions during interviews by reporters and I'm pretty sure he would not have been tolerant of a photographer fussing around him and popping off flashbulbs. Hence the strict rules laid down by his staff. Solitude and quiet contemplation was Gandhi's thing.

The photograph? I'm going to be a bit of a Devils Advocate here. Let's start with composition.
My thought is that it could only be what it is, a small room with only one suitable place to take the picture from. Gandhi would not have taken kindly to having what little furniture there was moved and he would have, almost certainly, if the photographer had asked him to move brought the session to an abrupt halt. So, as they say, the composition is what it is... but it works.

Does it create a sense of the person? It's a man deeply involved in what he is doing, deep in thought. It shows the simplicity of the man and his life.

I love that the spinning wheel is out of focus, it's a symbolic barrier between the viewer and Gandhi's' thoughts and it accentuates his desire for privacy.

The “steps” Bourke-White had to go through to get the image? She did what she had to do, as we all would. I doubt that I would have done anything much differently. How I see it is that you are taken into the room and exchange any greetings and pleasantries that seem appropriate. At the same time, I would scan the room to look for alternative angles etc.

Having decided that there was only one angle I would drop down to Gandhi's' eye level, as Bourke-White appears to have done, and fired off two, maybe three, quick shots, no more through deference and politeness, and then waited a moment or two to see if there was any reaction that would make a better shot. I would then, to preserve the moment in my mind, take my leave. I would want no more.

Obstacles?... I see no obstacles! I have always been confident about photographing strangers and have had very few problems over the years. Sometimes I have had to back off, the secret is knowing at what point you need to do that... a couple of seconds before I get a black eye has always been my cut off point. Physical obstacles are another matter, the relentless march of time controls that!.

I do have a thought about the lighting, it doesn't seem true to me. Gandhi is sitting in a very bright room that appears to be strongly lit from the R/H of the frame as indicated by the two strong shadows seen on the wall/floor behind the spinning wheel. Also the bright window light is behind Gandhi, his torso is in deep shadow but the wall behind him is brightly lit. So what is lighting that wall? If it is the photographers flash then Gandhi's torso would be equally lit as would the spinning wheel. I very much doubt that there would have been an off camera flash as the comment about three flashbulbs indicates that it was on camera.

Harking back to what I would have done with my modern equipment. I would have desperately tried to avoid using flash, relying on exposure and PP to get a good result. If I had to use flash I would bounce it from a wall behind.
Graham

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Post by LindaShorey » Mon Mar 05, 2018 8:31 pm

I'll have to think further about the questions you posed, Minnie, but right now I want to address Graham's observations about the light. I found several photos online that show the area behind him darker (burned in while printing?!), and then the most interesting is a bright one that includes a shaft of light on the wall! But note that it's not the same photo as the papers in his lap are different, as is the perspective, framing and sharpness.

http://time.com/3881206/gandhi-rare-pho ... obedience/

Regarding exposure and touch-up, if that's what was done, I'm reminded of the Masters topic about Galen Rowell and Minnie's experience with viewing prints done after his death.
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Post by minniev » Tue Mar 06, 2018 1:28 pm

LindaShorey wrote:
Mon Mar 05, 2018 8:31 pm
I'll have to think further about the questions you posed, Minnie, but right now I want to address Graham's observations about the light. I found several photos online that show the area behind him darker (burned in while printing?!), and then the most interesting is a bright one that includes a shaft of light on the wall! But note that it's not the same photo as the papers in his lap are different, as is the perspective, framing and sharpness.

http://time.com/3881206/gandhi-rare-pho ... obedience/

Regarding exposure and touch-up, if that's what was done, I'm reminded of the Masters topic about Galen Rowell and Minnie's experience with viewing prints done after his death.
And indeed it is different, with more overexposed area.

Every time I do a Monthly Masters, I am on a treasure hunt to figure out which version to post, then finding a high enough resolution version of it. The most challenging was the Cartier Bresson image of the child running up the stairs - must've been 100 different versions of that thing, but all from the same original.
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Post by Charles Haacker » Sun Mar 11, 2018 11:48 pm

Boyo. This is a tough one. Not the picture per se; no question in my mind that it is one of the great masterworks. M B-W was/is one of my personal heroes, along with Minor White, Saint Ansel, Yousuf Karsh, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans to mention but a few. I feel I have always known and respected this picture, perhaps slightly more because of who it is than who made it, but I also think it is just a terrific, powerful, deeply intimate portrait of one of the most influential figures of all time. I somewhat agree with Graham’s comment:
Not wishing to detract from the image or photographer in any way, I believe that it's greatness is almost entirely down to the subject and the mystical aura that surrounds him.

Graham has intrigued me mightily with his forensic analysis of the tech. The situation was clearly very constricted and restricted. All of us I am sure have found ourselves, likely more than once, in a situation that was very difficult, too-small room, nearly impossible light, perhaps a somewhat uncooperative subject… been there done that. Like Graham and Linda, I was very interested in the several descriptions of the lighting, and it doesn’t look as described to me either. The descriptions of the light and the actual session seem to imply that M B-W made (or attempted to make) only three exposures with the three flashbulbs she had. The first did not work because the flash did not synchronize. The second she forgot to pull her dark slide (it happens, I know, been there, done that too). The third was the money shot. Yay. But some of the evidence in the Time collection suggest that she got more than just one picture, but Life didn’t use them.

The very first picture in that collection could be the one where the flash failed. Elsewhere M B-W mentions that the light in the room was very difficult, tremendous range, especially with the sun spilling over the Mahatma’s head and shoulders. Such a situation is where any of us might be tempted to use a flash fill.
Ghandi blown.jpg
This first picture I guarantee was made at the same time as the picture we are discussing, but from a slightly higher angle. The light is perfectly awful, but as Graham has pointed out, in the good picture there is no sign of any shadow cast by any flash that might have tamed that horrible light. The light on the bad picture is nearly the same except the corner of the window frame is much brighter and there is also a stripe of sunlight streaking the wall. There is absolutely no way that a flash on camera would have tamed that stripe, therefore the stripe was not there when the good picture was made. I think she waited a bit for the sun to shift. It's also possible that something was interposed. The two pictures were absolutely made in the same session, the light is essentially the same, except one suffers from massive flare and the other does not. There is no sign that I can detect that any flash was fired at all on either picture, and while I don’t mean to question one of my longtime heroes, I agree with Graham: the evidence is that no flash was used anywhere in the room.

Could it have been mitigated in printing? I printed every single B&W picture I ever made personally in my own darkroom, using every trick possible. Life employed the best printers in the business. I believe I could have worked for Life. There is no way that even a master printer could correct that blown shot, therefore the good picture was not blown. Something changed, but I do not believe it was a flash. Not sure what it was, but it wasn't a flash. Every one of these pictures says available light only to me. I don't know why anyone, least of all M B-W, is talking about flash that I think was obviously not used. (N)

In the Time collection there are other pictures I believe were very likely made at the same session, including no. 4 where the Mahatma is actually spinning, although he is seated on a very low stool instead of the floor. The light is the same but the angle is from much further to the right and much closer to Gandhi. There is no mention of this shot in the various texts. Photo no. 14...
Gandhi reading.jpg
shows Gandhi reading, same light, same room (same window), different angle, closer up. This one I would bet the rent was made during the exact same session. I’m only obsessing about this because the text all says pretty exactly that three exposures were attempted and only the last “turned out.” Just sayin’. (?)
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Post by minniev » Mon Mar 12, 2018 2:22 am

Graham Smith wrote:
Mon Mar 05, 2018 7:37 pm
...
I was hoping you'd chime in on this one Graham. It made me think a bit of you, not just because of the India connection but the style. I very much like what you pointed out about the function of the spinning wheel in the image. The lighting is puzzling, though to me effective. And it helps give a visual interpretation of the "aura" of this man who was such a simple but so powerful a figure.

Thanks for sharing these in-depth thoughts, they gave me extra material to ponder on.
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Post by minniev » Mon Mar 12, 2018 2:30 am

Charles Haacker wrote:
Sun Mar 11, 2018 11:48 pm
...
The forensics on the lighting are pretty interesting, especially now that you brought the other images of the set into the discussion. Lacking any knowledge of the use of flash in the "old days" and almost no knowledge of flash in the current days, I defer to your and Graham's knowledge, and I thank you for taking to time to puzzle through some of the evidence. It did cross my mind that adjustments might have been made in the darkroom but an adequate capture would have been necessary to adjust from.

For me the essence of her subject is caught, and that's my favorite part of it. But the technical issues are interesting to consider. Though our technical issues today are different, I feel like I battle them with almost every shot I take.
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Post by Charles Haacker » Mon Mar 12, 2018 1:38 pm

minniev wrote:
Mon Mar 12, 2018 2:30 am
The forensics on the lighting are pretty interesting, especially now that you brought the other images of the set into the discussion. Lacking any knowledge of the use of flash in the "old days" and almost no knowledge of flash in the current days, I defer to your and Graham's knowledge, and I thank you for taking to time to puzzle through some of the evidence. It did cross my mind that adjustments might have been made in the darkroom but an adequate capture would have been necessary to adjust from.

For me the essence of her subject is caught, and that's my favorite part of it. But the technical issues are interesting to consider. Though our technical issues today are different, I feel like I battle them with almost every shot I take.
I got thinking (never advisable) and realized that I veered pretty far off topic! (N) Blame Graham! He started it!

The essence of the subject! That's possibly what makes any masterwork a masterwork! It is far beyond "a good likeness," and I think (to an extent) that it is indefinable until you see it. M B-W caught the Mahatma's essential being, a window into the Great Soul's soul. She made other pictures of him, many in 1946, but the inclusion of the spinning wheel in that one shot was really genius. It is what made the shot. I do wonder, though, how someone might respond who did not know who Gandhi was and what he did? (Just a random thought.)

Regarding the use of flash, I am with Graham on that as well: I avoid it like the plague, not because I don't know how to use it; I just hate the look. The thing that captivated me about digital 10 years ago was its astounding ability to handle available dark, even with a tiny point-and-shoot of 2007 vintage. Coupled with post processing I felt there was pretty much nothing it could not handle, in color, and a major reason I would never look back. But I do occasionally pop up the "peanut flash" on the camera to provide some weak fill in a strongly backlit scene at close range (most of those little flashes have a very short range). No one needs to know guide numbers or do long division in your head anymore; the cameras do a great job of figuring it all out automatically. I do own and once in a blue moon use a small but more powerful shoe mount flash that has a tilt bounce head; once again the through-the-lens automation coupled with the ability to control the flash power makes it a cinch, but it also changes the look of the natural light, and my preference is always to capture the light I see without enhancements. Graham is absolutely correct that with modern digital equipment, making this iconic Gandhi picture would be quite simple using only the existing light and a little skill at proper exposure plus some post processing. But everything is an evolutionary process. We think we have it good now but just wait... :D
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Post by Graham Smith » Mon Mar 12, 2018 3:59 pm

I will add that the image does its job perfectly in depicting Gandhi's nature. It shows him as a simple man, a man of deep thought, a quiet man. I love the softness of the whole picture, no doubt, largely due to the grain. I would rather it this way than "tack" sharp, it gives a gentle mystical aura to the man and the scene.

I'm sure that the final print did have a considerable amount of dodging and burning done on it.

The "full length" picture of Gandhi posted by Chuck does have focus issues, as far as it is possible to tell given that this could be a scan of a scan of goodness only knows how many iterations.

Gandhi is a fascinating man and I would recommend to anyone that they read if you haven't already done so, "M. K.Gandhi, An Autobiography" It might not change your life but it will certainly give you cause for thought.

Also if you've not seen it the film "Gandhi" starring Ben Kingsley is an exceptionally good movie.
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Post by Charles Haacker » Mon Mar 12, 2018 4:22 pm

Graham Smith wrote:
Mon Mar 12, 2018 3:59 pm
I will add that the image does its job perfectly in depicting Gandhi's nature. It shows him as a simple man, a man of deep thought, a quiet man. I love the softness of the whole picture, no doubt, largely due to the grain. I would rather it this way than "tack" sharp, it gives a gentle mystical aura to the man and the scene.

I'm sure that the final print did have a considerable amount of dodging and burning done on it.

The "full length" picture of Gandhi posted by Chuck does have focus issues, as far as it is possible to tell given that this could be a scan of a scan of goodness only knows how many iterations.

Gandhi is a fascinating man and I would recommend to anyone that they read if you haven't already done so, "M. K.Gandhi, An Autobiography" It might not change your life but it will certainly give you cause for thought.

Also if you've not seen it the film "Gandhi" starring Ben Kingsley is an exceptionally good movie.
Agreed, Graham! Incidentally I have seen the film but never read the autobiography, but I think at least some of the screenplay was based on it.

That almost-full-length is fairly smeared. It looks to me to be a combination of camera movement and subject movement. Nothing is sharp. It could be due to rescanning scans, but from the blur of his left hand I think it was a relatively long shutter and could have been hand held. Life never used it but I found it interesting that there was strong implication that it might never have been taken at all, but it might have been a different session since the light in that room would have remained pretty uniform at the same time of day. It carries Bourke-White's credit so presumably she made it. It's just a puzzlement. That's true of so many masterworks of the period; there are multiple, often conflicting stories of their creation, from the photographers themselves, assistants on the scene at the time, family members, printers, so on... It's not exactly controversial, but maybe you have to put it down to memory being a funny, fluid thing.
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