Edward van Herk


I look at a lot of pictures. We all do. Lately, I have found that the images I react to fall into two categories. There are the ones that I like. And there are a few that I like so much, I almost feel like I’m behind the camera taking them. Here’s one of them.

EVH: Travel comes with a bag full of expectations and clichés to some extent. When I got an opportunity to stay in Buenos Aires for a few days, I immediately had to think about Tango music. When visiting a new place, I always search for authenticity. Tourist dance performances, Tango dinner shows and so on didn’t interest me. When I found out the porteños (locals) passionate about music and dance came together at Milongas, I knew right then I wanted to get inside and connect. I bought a newspaper to search for locations. This particular picture was made in a traditional Buenos Aires Milonga salon, where passionate Milongueros come together to escape everyday life. Time seemed to freeze there and it felt really exciting.

GL: What are you most ‘sensitised’ to? Light? Motion? Emotions? Stories?

EVH: Mostly emotions. A Milonga night is filled with passion, drama, beauty, grace, tenderness, love, desire, envy, romance, tension, and of course music. This couple immediately drew me in. The age difference between them simply seemed to fade. Generally a photographer’s first choice is what to photograph. David Hurn once said ‘You don’t become a photographer because you are interested in photography’. He meant that photography is only a tool for expressing a passion in something else. A desire to become famous, to get many likes on the Internet or to fall in love with cameras as desirable objects doesn’t improve your photographs. Mostly it requires practice, getting out there and going to work and not letting failed attempts set you back. Therefore is important to do some research and find an accessible subject and start a project or story. When your subjects become most important, your heart opens up and you will respond and discover and develop your own style. It will allow you to enhance your level of perception and get involved in the world around you. I mostly develop a strong desire to connect to people during my projects. The greatest gift I have received through my work is the connection with my subjects.

GL: How do you see the role of preparation and intuition in your photography?

EVH: Before I go to a location I check my equipment and make sure it is in good working order. When arriving at a location I judge the quality and characteristics of the light. I start to think in frame lines and what I should dismiss. Only position and timing can be controlled. My mindset is that of a painter with limited time. With moving subjects like Milonga, time to find the optimum position is limited. Making a picture like this, combining a peak moment of emotion (content) with intellectual decisions (composition or form, when all formal elements are in harmony), requires training of the eye and understanding of two important concepts in photography, visualization and anticipation.

Visualisation means judging how a subject would look when photographed. Anticipation is the ability to assess the moving elements of a scene and integrate them into an effective photograph in fractions of a second during a moment of peak action involving the subject. Combining the two requires intuition. This is achieved through practice, experience and knowledge. Technical knowledge is important to express yourself freely. Without technical knowledge about the craft of photography it is impossible to comprehend the medium and control it creatively.

GL: What camera did you use for the project? Film? Digital? Why?

EVH: Equipment serves a purpose and is not the goal of photography. However it is important to select an appropriate tool for the task. The Milonga story was made with a 35mm analogue film rangefinder camera (Leica MP). This camera fits my personal style and complements it, allowing me to further my creativity and artistic ambitions. It is small, unobtrusive and most important, allows me to make my own decisions. The viewfinder allows me to look around the frame, which enhances my anticipation. The viewfinder is located on the side of the camera, which allows me to open the other eye when required to see what is going on around me, without it being blocked by the camera. The choice for film is an aesthetic one, in black and white I always work with film, in color I work both with film and digital. I also have a medium format film camera, which I sometimes use for ‘slower’ photography such as portraits in both color and black and white. Digital and film photography both have their benefits.

The digital versus analogue debate is silly in many ways. Digital and film are just different tools, both have benefits and drawbacks. Working with digital gives me a different feeling than film: the aspect of instant gratification can be distracting. I like to focus on my subject, on the connection, on the moment we share. The photographic result is for later. The fortes of digital photography are the convenience and the possibilities.

GL: The series is black and white. But you also do delicate color photos. What is your attitude to color? When do you go for b/w and when for color?

EVH: It has to do with visualization of the subject matter and what I feel I want to express about a subject. For example in my ‘Deep Soweto’ project, the color added to the spirit and vibe of the people. Color and black and white require a different way of seeing.

GL: What about lens choice and your settings?

EVH: Technically this story was challenging. The light was very dim and the subjects were moving. I just had 400 ISO films with me. I was forced to push the film 3 stops (400 to 3200 ISO) in order to be able to work. Pushing film means you underexpose and overdevelop. Pushing 3 stops really approaches the limits of the film; there is hardly any shadow detail and the contrast increases. Although it doesn’t bring out the maximum quality potential of the film, I decided it adds to the feeling of this story. Flash was no option during this event. It would have been too obtrusive, without respect to the people and the intimate atmosphere and setting. I had to work with the lens full open (f/2), and slow shutter speeds (1/4 or 1/8). In order to get sharpness I had to move with the subjects on the dance floor, panning, following their motion, dancing with them. I always come very close, a 35mm lens is my favorite focal length.

GL: How do you set your exposure?

EVH: Normally I use a reflective light meter in the camera. I apply part of the zone system to 35mm photography. This means I can measure the light from any part of a scene and relate it to a specific zone and open or close the lens accordingly, adjusting the measured reading. This works for me as a bridge between expression and technique, a language to translate creative choices into technical procedures.

GL: How do you focus? Manually? AF?

EVH: My cameras do not have autofocus. I am not against automation as long as the photographer stays in charge. Manual focus has advantages. If you know how to use it, it gives you a lot of control.

GL: How do you process your images?

EVH: I print my black and white negatives in the darkroom on traditional fiber paper, my usual format for 35mm is 30×40 cm prints in 40x50cm frames. For display on the web I make smaller prints, which can fit in a flatbed scanner. However photography shouldn’t only be viewed on the web as a small jpeg. I didn’t crop these pictures. Usually visualisation was less effective when cropping is required. Further I like to print my full 35mm negatives with a black border, this is light from my enlarger head that surrounds the negative edges on a slightly larger negative carrier and exposes the paper.

GL: What about lighting? What’s your relationship to daylight and artificial light?

EVH: In some projects the light is more important than in others. Especially in color photography, the temperature of the light has a big influence on the quality of the colors. Similar light helps consistency. Of course I love to work when the light is good. Also in black-and-white photography, good daylight brings out the maximum quality potential of the medium. I hardly ever use flash.

GL: What do the darkroom and printing mean to you? What is the difference for you between making a print and then scanning it or scanning your negative, working on it digitally and then printing it?

EVH: The difference with negative scanning is the shadow and highlight control. With black and white film, exposure controls the shadow detail and development controls the contrast and the highlights. When printing in the darkroom, you get back a lot of highlight detail that is hidden in the silver. This is how the process of film is designed. When digitizing negatives, shadow detail can be enhanced, but it is hard to get back highlight detail, things become muddy quickly. Digital is like slide film, you expose to prevent the clipping of highlights and this is the opposite from black and white film. I do find very good results can be achieved by scanning prints. The highlight detail is already there.

Exposing, developing, printing, toning, drying, matting, framing yourself, is photography from a to z. The end result is a unique print, a handcrafted piece of art with rich tones, grain, depth and maximum density. For me personally, completing the entire image management process myself is very rewarding and enables me to optimize my print statement (my interpretation of a negative). Holding a well-made print in your hands is a wonderful feeling.

GL: Could anything make you give up your Leica?

EVH: Leica is a brand, they provide tools. I will use whatever tool I need, preferably a camera format that compliments my personal style. What is much more important than the equipment, is to decide what you want to photograph. What do you have to say? Photography is special, it provides a way into the lives of others and has enabled me to deeply interact, to go out of my comfort zone, to learn about life. For this discovery I am very grateful.

(To see more of Edward van Herk’s pictures visit his website at edwardvanherk.com. All images © Edward van Herk and are reproduced with the permission of the author. This interview was first published on l1ghtb1tes.com on September 23, 2013.)

György is a cinematographer teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit exposureworks.co.uk