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Against the Grain

'November Girl'

Grain... It's a subject rarely discussed in digital photography and one that was, for decades, seen as something to be avoided - pretty much at all costs - in film photography.

A grainy image was a 'bad' image.

In the American press, all those 'nasty grainy' 35mm cameras were seen as no substitute for shooting a story with a 4x5 Speed Graphic. U.S. press photographers soldiered on (some, even into the 1970s!) with these hefty old cameras; blitzing their way through the news with their mighty flash bulbs. Only the photographers of picture magazines like LIFE were allowed the use of 'miniature cameras' like the Nikon and Leica.

The same could be said for the world of fashion and portraiture - both in the USA and in the UK and Europe. Nearly all fashion was shot on medium and large format. A grainless, high resolution image was de riguer.

It would take a brave photographer to challenge this strict, unyielding and inflexible world.

And eventually, one came along.

...An 'outsider' of course. And a very uncompromising one. After a career that began in South Africa, Sam Haskins changed the way photographers and art directors saw the world and, along with them, pretty much everybody else involved in the image-making process.

His work would ultimately change the fashion and art photography scene forever.

If you don't know about Haskins, you really should. He went against the status quo and, along with radically shaking up the way fashion photography was directed, he did something that has fascinated photographers ever since his first publication: he made the enhancement of grain a goal in photography; he celebrated it... He made it sensual. He made it a vital part of his process. He worshipped it.

And he made us love it.

The dawn of modern fashion photography in the 1960s was characterised by the 'Black Trinity' of David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy (see my blog- But the story is not complete without Haskins and his ground-breaking techniques. He should be just as well known as that trio-

"...His influence is so broad his specific contribution to the photography community is often overlooked"

Ivan Shaw - Corporate Photography Director, Condé Nast

In the Sixties, Haskins created three groundbreaking photo books -

'Five Girls' (1962) was the first, which liberated the nude from titillation and classical allusions; presenting a new style of photography which still appears strikingly modern.

And Haskins worked as hard on the design of the book as he had on the image-making. It was his total control all the way from conceiving and taking the photographs to designing the layouts and through to final publication that made him such a striking figure.

He drew some inspiration it seems, from the idea of the photo-essay - and his rationale was simple: 'The most significant trends on the creative side of photography seem to be the idea of making a statement with a collection of pictures rather than a single print...' (But) '...The system of handing negatives and prints to picture editors or art directors is a very weak one – something like a musician handing a collection of musical phrases to someone else and asking him to compose a symphony with it.'

Fiercely possessive of his ideas and determined to make his own mark, Haskins exercised total control as he delivered a completely new look. His influence, more than sixty years since the publication of his first book, remains; his use of photo-montage, along with a host of other darkroom techniques make him appear to us now like an amazing analogue version of Photoshop.

...It's hard not to imagine that Haskins must have been an inspiration for Adobe's programmers.

'Cowboy Kate & Other Stories' (1964) followed 'Five Girls' with Haskins working more intensively in the darkroom to consolidate his earlier experiments with film grain - and, with this, he pretty much single-handedly invented a whole new look that remains very much his own. And certainly, in period, quite revolutionary.

The last of his triptych - and certainly my favourite - was the enigmatic and strangely melancholy 'November Girl' (1967). In this book, he carried his idea of a photo essay - or story - through to its purest iteration. The melancholy days of a woman alone with her memories of a lost love.

The influence of these three books cannot be overestimated. Today's photographers owe a great debt to Haskins for freeing the medium by making the very fabric of the photographic image - the grain - an integral part of photographic expression. And this, combined with Haskins' inspirational determination to carry the process through from conception to publication remains a remarkable achievement that has stood the test of time.

Haskins is still much admired by modern photographers such as Nick Knight - 'There’s a joie de vivre, a sexiness and hipness, that designers and photographers are always looking to tap into.'

From 1970 to 2000, Asahi Optical produced 30 calendars, of which Haskins shot and art-directed 15 editions including the millennium calendar. His long association with the famed 6x7 Pentax is the stuff of legend.

We have an excellent example in stock. If you feel like discovering your 'inner Haskins' order it now!

...But, of course, that razor sharp mind of Haskins would be the first to tell you that a camera is only as good as the photographer...

“A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. As he entered the front door, the host said ‘I love your pictures – they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.’ He said nothing until dinner was finished, then: ‘That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific stove.” - Sam Haskins

blog copyright Matthew Whiteman November 2023

camera images copyright 2023 The Latent Image

Haskins images strictly copyright the Haskins estate

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Nov 16, 2023

Great article, I love Haskins' work, I have the books you mention plus his recent 'Fashion Etcetera' which has some of his photos from the other 3 books, plus some other photos from the same period and a lot of his later colour work, although I prefer his earlier B & W. Interestingly the cover of my copy of 'November Girl' is different as it has a pigeon flying over a girl's head on it, perhaps there were different covers on the paperback & US versions?

Nov 17, 2023
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They could have been different covers for different regions or for different editions. Time to get that old bottle of Rodinal out for extra grain!

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