The 'It' Perspective
Photographer Fritz Henle seen through the lens of Austin area image-maker Matthew Fuller
BY ROBERT FAIRES, FRI., JUNE 12, 2009
In "Fritz Henle: In Search of Beauty," the Harry Ransom Center has shone a spotlight on a photographer whose work straddled the creative and commercial worlds, who was as likely to be found shooting Texas high school students for Life magazine, Louisiana oil refineries for Cities Service Oil Co., or a swimsuit spread in the Caribbean for Vogue as abstracted urban landscapes or arty nudes. So in looking at the exhibition, which includes 125 images from the photographer's storied 60-year career, it seemed fitting to draw on the expertise of a kindred spirit to Henle. Austin photographer Matthew Fuller has produced images for everything from burger joint ads to museum annual reports, shot it all from architectural interiors to rock star portraits. He's also a respected fine art photographer who has shown locally at Davis Gallery and Flatbed Gallery and in Houston; Santa Fe, N.M.; and Jackson, Miss. Given that he knows intimately what's involved in the composition of a shot, the capturing of a moment in time, the play of light and shadow, the "search for beauty" even in the confines of a commercial assignment, the Chronicle thought Fuller might provide a valuable perspective on the work of this career photographer and the art and business of taking pictures. What follows are excerpts from our hourlong stroll through this expansive and visually sumptuous exhibition.
Austin Chronicle: Did you know Henle's work?
Matthew Fuller: Not really. But there are so many great unsung photographers out there. What I've found in 20 years of photography and 10 years of exhibiting is that the dealers have a pretty tight grip on who gets sold and who gets acknowledged. Mainly because they own a lot of that material, so they're promoting their own material. That's why you hear these names over and over and over, and of course, it's Cartier-Bresson and Avedon and these people, and everybody else gets left out. There's probably 50 names, and there are thousands of great photographers that you never hear of. Sometimes you're familiar with the image and not the person. This image [Nieves, Mexico, 1943] is classic and is on the cover of a 20th century photography collection by the German publisher Taschen.
AC: Do you like seeing other photographers' work?
MF: I love it. In fact, one thing I recommend to people starting out is to see what's out there. It's extremely important to see: Am I reinventing the wheel? Has this been done 50 million times? Seeing stylistic approaches and getting ideas is really important for people starting out. And the [photography] archive here [at the Ransom Center] is one of the best in the world.
MF: Every photographer has tried certain things: foreign city locations, urban landscapes, landscapes, nudes, reportage.
AC: Everyone cuts their teeth on them to some extent.
MF: There are certain subjects that just overwhelm the medium, and the Grand Canyon is certainly one of them. Cowboys and boats are classics. You can shoot 'em any way, and they still have that similarity.
AC: There's that inherent drama that's going to play itself out. At some point, that boat is going to tilt, and that water is going to rush up; the wind will fill the sails. And if you've got horses, horses are gonna run.
MF: [Looking at Cowboys and Oil Derrick, Texas, 1949] And the cowboys' hats and everything, the costume.
AC: And the derricks. You have this nice horizon low in the frame, and the derricks just stick up from the flat land and poke into that big sky.
AC: When you see an image for the first time, is there one thing that jumps out at you?
MF: Composition more than anything, then I see content.
AC: Is this [Policeman in the Rain, Odeons-Platz, Munich, Germany, 1930] an image that would have jumped out at you?
MF: Absolutely. The simplicity of it. It has a really wide range of light and shadow. The form. The line. The lone character in the center. The perspective of the photographer is interesting, too. It's not at street level; it's from a building, from a balcony or something. And it looks like just after a major downpour, and everyone had fled, and this one guy came back out. The light reminds me of that as well. The light from the clearing sky is reflecting on the dark clouds and presenting this reflection onto the wet surface.
AC: If you take the elevated perspective away ...
MF: It's a totally different image. One thing I tell people is that there are a billion ways to approach [creating an image like this]. It could be from the tiny texture of the fabric of his clothes. It could be from underground, in the sewer, looking up. You could move a couple of feet [to the left or right], and it would be a totally different image. So part of the great joy of creating photography is discovering the "it" perspective, the one that works the best. I achieve that by going around and viewing perspectives, seizing on one of interest, and then I look in the viewfinder, and it either tells me that it's right or it's not. I usually don't shoot a bunch of frames of one perspective myself, and I doubt if Henle did either, from looking at this work.
AC: The exhibition text says that Henle usually carried two cameras with him: one with color and one with black-and-white film. Can you see a shot and filter out the color in your mind to see what it will look like as a black and white?
MF: Pretty much. And more than that, when you're using the square-format cameras, everything is backwards, and when you're using large-format cameras, everything is upside-down, so you're composing upside-down. Your mind just adjusts to it. I don't look at contact sheets when I'm judging an image. I look at negatives. Because you're looking at tonal values. Like this image [Fashion Model With Flower Vendor at the Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico, 1945] would have been much more interesting in black and white, because the tonal values are gray and white. Of course, it's for a fashion magazine and they're trying to bring out the sand colors in her outfit, so it had to be in color for purely commercial reasons. But this [On the Beach, Fredericksted, St. Croix, Virgin Islands, 1948] looks fantastic in black and white.
AC: Do you see in his fashion work some of the same characteristics from his art photography?
MF: Absolutely. Especially in the compositions and scale.
AC: The exhibition shows Henle working through so many styles, areas in which a lot of different photographers specialize. He has a versatility that's kind of astounding to me.
MF: I think in those days it was essential. I don't think photographers specialized much. You were the photographer. You shoot whatever is there. Creative photographers did fashion and reportage for their business and then created images on their own for their personal pleasure. There wasn't a big art dealer scene at that time. So a lot of this kind of material they did when they were on location and had a day off from a shoot or something like that.
MF: This [Coal Miner of the Ruhr Valley, Germany, 1967] stands out. So amazing. Fantastic print. Great subject matter.
AC: There's so much going on there. The white chest hair against the darkened skin. And that incredible balance of the beauty of the image, as it's composed and through the tone and shifts of light to shadow, and the reportage and portraiture. We feel we know everything there is to know about this guy. We know what his life is like.
MF: The glint in this eye and the squint in that one. "It's a tough world, but I'm making it." That's just a hero. A workingman's hero.