Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bruce Haley: What Was He Thinking?

Bruce Haley is a self-taught photographer based in Big Sur, California. His images have appeared in numerous books, magazines, and exhibitions. In 1991 he was awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal for photography. The following images (selected by me) cover a range of years and locations. 

Happy birthday, Bruce!

This photograph was taken inside of a village granary in Nagorno Karabakh.  It was very dark inside, except for that super-hot light coming from the entrance straight ahead of the camera, and a few small, high windows behind me that let in very slanting shafts of light  -  I'm talking about a Zone 0 to Zone 10 lighting spread.  People were moving constantly, hauling sacks of grain towards the truck, standing them behind the vehicle or handing them up to the guy in the bed  -  lots of multi-directional movement in and out of the picture plane.  Then that wonderful woman, with that amazing coarse-textured suit jacket, walked into the frame from the right  -  and her body, and especially her face, was caught in the slanting light from one of those small windows.  She paused for just a split second, apparently thinking about something, or waiting for the man who had just moved into the frame from the left to pass by before she continued on with her tasks  -  I made one exposure, and then she had moved on into the far shadows of the building. 

This photograph was taken in a very small village in the hinterlands of Nagorno Karabakh, near to the border with Azerbaijan and where some of the heaviest fighting had taken place.  My arrival in the village was something of an event, or at very least a break from the norm, and I was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm and hospitality.  The adults really wanted me to photograph their children, so they gathered them all up, had them fetch some of their toys, and then sat them down on a big pipe that was riddled with shrapnel and bullet holes.  After I did the obligatory straight-on group portrait, with (of course) the kids all stiff as planks and sporting frozen deer-in-the-headlights stares (as photographers we've all been in this situation), I moved to the side and watched as they became living, breathing kids again  -  and then shot a series of images before they all got up and ran off.  While looking through the viewfinder (it was 1994), I felt as if I'd entered some sort of time warp back to the 1940s or 1950s; this was one of those places where certain aspects of time had literally stood still.  To this day I look at the young boy  -  with that accordion and that jacket!  -  and all I can think of is that he somehow snuck in there out of an old Doisneau photograph...!

Most kids seem to search for, or discover, or construct some sort of "fort" or "hideout"  -  a place of escape, of fantasy play, where they can go to be alone, or be with a few close friends, away from adult eyes (I certainly did this, perhaps more so than most).  This image was taken in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh, right after a cease-fire had been put into effect (Armenia and Azerbaijan were fighting over the disputed enclave).  These three boys had found a bombed-out building in their neighborhood, and were using it as just such a "hideout"  -  in the photograph they are drawing on the walls; a few moments prior they had been running through the rooms and the rubble, and climbing the twisted rebar like a war-zone jungle gym; afterwards they warmed up their lunch in a small pot over a fire, with the burning wood laid directly upon the concrete in one of the small rooms.  Their freedom of play was contagious, heady and liberating, made all the more so when you realize what had preceded this:  for a major portion of their young lives they had lived in basements and bomb shelters, and were rarely allowed to be above ground or out in the open.  Their world had now opened immensely.

I can't take much credit for this one  -  the true artist is the sculptor.  This is a beautiful statue in a cemetery in Hungary.  I shot it with TMAX 3200, as I did with all of the statues I photographed for this series, to get that grainy, textured look  -  almost Pictorialist, and akin to a charcoal sketch or something.  Many people who have seen the exhibition prints of these have initially thought them to be non-photographic; in fact, one man became absolutely livid and insisted that they could not possibly be photographs.  He caused something of a scene in the gallery, harassing the owner and demanding my phone number...!

I did a story about the people who live at the Bangkok dump  -  and by that I mean that they literally live directly upon the mountains of garbage.  The Bangkok authorities were dead set against me doing this story, and repeatedly ejected me from the dump area.  Of course that just encouraged me more, and I had to resort to both sneaking in under cover of darkness and working until I was discovered and thrown out again  -  and then finally descending to bribery, and riding in the garbage trucks  -  sometimes in the back, in the garbage itself, in order to get past the checkpoint and reach the areas where I wanted to work.  And while the people were my main focus, I couldn't do justice to this story without photographing the feral dogs that haunted the garbage  -  they were everywhere, running, snarling, growling, snapping, skulking, fighting...  In this image you see dominance and submission, as well as the smaller sidekick who kisses the ass of the dominant dog in order to gain protection and privileges  -  it's all spelled out quite clearly in the body language.  The big, thick piece of foam was the royal throne for the King of the Dump Dogs  -  and woe be it to the lesser usurper who was found upon it when the King returned from his scavenging rounds...!

I did a project on Bolivia's high Altiplano, using TMAX 3200 shot at 6400, wanting a very gritty, harsh, rugged look to the images  -  to match the difficulties of life and survival in the region.  This particular photograph shows a view of La Paz from El Alto ("The Height")  -  La Paz sits in a large bowl or canyon, and the more affluent have built where it is the lowest and thus most protected and warm.  As the city grew, the shantytowns crept up the hillsides, the poorer people forced up higher and higher.  El Alto sits atop the rim of the canyon and spreads out onto the vast frigid plateau of the Altiplano  -  it is a sprawling, poverty-stricken city of mostly Aymara Indians who have escaped the hardships of the countryside in search of something "better."  What is interesting is that this is perhaps one of the few locations where the poor, in vast numbers, physically look down upon the wealthy  -  in direct reversal of most urban development where those with more money live further away from (and often higher than) the city center.  In this image a young boy climbs up the mountainside towards his home in El Alto, with the high-rises and affluent neighborhoods of La Paz far below him.   

This photograph was taken in Burma, during the course of a battle between guerrillas from the Karen National Liberation Army and soldiers of the repressive ruling junta.  It's a rather straightforward battle image, but we can sort of dissect it in an "educational" manner for those who may be interested in working in areas of conflict  -  because with numerous weapons systems you need to be concerned with what comes out of the back as well as with what comes out of the front.  When working around weapons such as the recoilless rifle in this photograph, and even more so the ubiquitous RPG-7, you need to always discern where you are in terms of the back-blast area.  This is easier in situations such as pictured here, where the weapon is on a tripod and the rear is angled toward the ground; it is often different with the RPG-7, which is much more portable and often used in fast-moving, intense and rapidly-changing battle situations, and even indoors in urban settings.  It is not unusual for someone to be running, changing positions, in a chaotic fight scenario and end up being right behind the RPG at the moment it is fired  -  and either the shooter is looking forward at his target and in the heat of battle not checking his back-blast area, or else he had the discipline to check it beforehand, but then someone made the mistake of running through the area a split-second later, at just the wrong moment.  I have seen (and photographed) a young soldier who got his entire head fried in just such a way (he lived, but it was really nasty).  In this photograph you can see the smoke from the front of the barrel, after the projectile has exited  -  it covers the upper third of the barrel and on up into the sky.  But check out the back-blast:  you can see flames coming out of the rear, as well as the smoke, rocks, dirt and dust that have been kicked up.  You don't want to be there.  Another interesting thing is to note the concussive effect of the explosion:  the blast has caused much of the surrounding surface dirt and dust to leap up off of the ground, like a roiling brown river.

++ What I mentioned above is not uncommon  -  here are a few YouTube examples:

This comes from a series that I titled "Walks with my Son."  When my son Brendan was less than a year old, he was already in one of those baby backpacks and going on long hikes with me, including some bouldering and climbing, so that is how he grew up.  We had some acreage in Oregon's Coast Range, in a very rural area, and just walking out our door would lead to tens of thousands of acres of forest.  By the time he was five or six I would take him miles into the woods, and then say "Okay, lead us home."  As I was teaching him the basics of terrain navigation, tracking, etc., I decided to also get him used to slowing down, noticing small details and patterns in nature, and the process of photographing.  I had an old Koni-Omega medium format camera, and that thing was a battle tank  -  when you weren't using it to take pictures, you could pound nails with it.  And the lenses were pretty damn sharp to boot!  So it was perfect for rough hiking and the ever-present Oregon rain...   We looked at the way individual trees grew, the way moss developed on trunks and limbs, the way roots searched for footing and nourishment, the way animals moved through the forest, the way rain runoff made its course into creeks and streams, the patterns of beavers as they gnawed at the larger alder trees or chewed through the saplings and carried them to the water...  All of the photographs were done slowly and on a tripod, as the point was more about the process, and the observation, for my young son's benefit  -  I actually never intended to use these images, and really still haven't (other than having a few on my website).  This particular photograph shows a close-up of "stump sprouting"  -  roots from new growth are working their way down into and through the decaying wood of a large clear-cut stump.        

This photograph was taken in the Batu Caves outside of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, during the annual Thaipusam ritual in 1991.  Due to the darkness of the caves and the fast-moving nature of the event, it is one of the few times that I have ever used flash (I have a strong aversion to introducing artificial light into my images).  Without going into great detail about Thaipusam, which is easily researched, let's just say that mortification of the flesh is a major component, as is trance, and that most of the devotees who are undergoing this ritual have one or more "handlers" to look after them.  I had been photographing for hours with no problems whatsoever  -  until I encountered the gentleman in this image.  And here it was quick and unexpected  -  I always tread lightly when I work, in that I am not brusque and rude and intrusive, but for whatever reason this particular devotee instantly decided to attack me, with no sign or warning whatsoever.  What you see in this photograph is the split-second before he violently knocked my camera equipment out of my hands, and then sliced part of my palm open with one of the vel skewers used for flesh-piercing.  Looking at the image afterwards, it appears that his "handler," to the left, just let him go  -  and maybe that was indeed the case....  I still have a small scar on my palm as a reminder, twenty-two years later.    

1 comment:

Fyodor Dostoevsky said...

After looking at his amazing portfolio I must ask myself; what the hell am I doing with my life? I need to get out and make pictures.