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What makes a photographer when everyone is taking pictures

January 14, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
When photographer Ken Van Sickle was 23 and living in Paris, he could barely afford rolls of film. One night, hearing that jazz great Chet Baker was playing, he went and took only two pictures, and one was blurry. So what's happened to photography now that everyone has the technology to take as many pictures as they like? Van Sickle offers his Brief But Spectacular take.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now another in our Brief But Spectacular series, where we ask interesting people about their passions.

For six decades, Ken Van Sickle has been quietly producing photographs in his darkroom, located in the center of Manhattan. His photos range from documenting the bohemian life of New York and Paris in the 1950s and ’60s to pushing the limits of the medium itself.

KEN VAN SICKLE, Photographer: If you walk out of the front of the Flatiron Building and you walk straight across the street, you walk right through my door. Then you have to go 91 steps up the stairs, which is really good for me, because it keeps me healthy.

I’m 83 years old now. I moved into this building in 1963. And it’s rent-controlled. And it’s a landmark building, and I’m a senior citizen. So, I don’t pay much rent. That’s the only reason I can live here at all.

I don’t have a favorite place to take photographs or even a favorite subject. I carry a camera. If I go out into the hallway, I carry a camera with me.

When I was in Paris, I was 23, I think, and I wanted to shoot everything I saw, but I didn’t have enough money to buy, like, more than like a roll of film every two weeks. And somebody said that Chet Baker was playing over at the American club. And I went over and I took two pictures, and one of them is out of focus, and the other one is a great photo.

I’m not a concerned photographer. I’m not trying to prove anything in any way politically or otherwise. I’m interested in beauty and sort of the subtle moments of everyday life.

This picture was called “The Regular.” The chairs in the foreground are overlapping, overlapping planes in parallel recession. This picture, I just call it “Washington Square.” Laboratories tend to print it light, but it should be dark like this.

Grand Central Station, I don’t know why there was only one person walking in there. I had just gotten off the train. I call this “Firemen.” The arch had caved in on five firemen. The Metropolitan Museum chose this to be in the permanent collection.

There are a lot of things that make a good photograph. You have to think about texture and gesture and composition, and all the things that painting has in it. Technology doesn’t change the way photography is. It just — it makes it available to more people, which means there’s going to be much, much more really terrible pictures taken or pictures that are totally dependent on subject, which is all, all right.

If you were there when the Hindenburg caught on fire, and you took a picture of it, that’s a great photograph. But you’re not a great photographer, because you can’t repeat that in everyday things.

What a great photographer does is, they are consistently able to make something in a style that’s personal to themselves. My pictures don’t depend on extreme sharpness. They depend on the composition and on the subject and on the way I see it.

My name is Ken Van Sickle. This is my Brief But Spectacular take on sharing what I see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can see more of our Brief But Spectacular series on our Facebook page. Check it out.

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