Magnum photographer Constantine Manos has taken epic images that have long trascended in the minds of those who love photography. Deep-seated are his Greek roots, taking him around this country to unravel his ancestors’ past and history, as well as other trips around the European continent. Deliberately a scotch fan (a story which we’ll explore further below), Manos is once again at the center of a great step for Bostonian photography and its community. The Leica Store and Gallery will be opening in the Boston Park Plaza on September 15th. Costa’s exhibition (as he is usually referred to) recalls pictures in color from the American way of life. Dubbed “Looking Back”, here are a few of his thoughts regarding his photography and the opening of this new Leica Store and Gallery.
The work you share is comprised of images from American Color 1 and 2. This work definitely stands out, not only because of the fact that it was your first color book, but also because of the circumstances of the people in your photographs. What was your approach and incentive for doing these two books?
American Color 1 and 2, initially, was going to be only one book. But I had such a good time with it, I decided to continue doing this. I had a mid-life crisis right after I did a big project with Boston about a Bostonian exhibition. I didn’t know what to do next. I couldn’t do more black and white photography. So, I started with a Leica and Kodachrome film, and shot some color. I worked for some weeks trying to figure out what I was looking for.
And I finally found that I was kind of looking for an unusual kind of picture of working class americans at different situations, like at the park, parades, a fair, what I call the “public domain”, anything can happen in public.
Where were these images taken, what part of the country?
It was a very loose kind of project. I gave myself a lot of space to work with and I called the project American Color. It was very simple, I could go anywhere in the US, special events, like 5 weeks in Daytona, parades, 4th of July, and just try to take pictures of Americans under unusual circumstances. I went to several places around the country. The color had to be good, so I took a film Leica camera, with film Kodachrome 64, very simple concept. I went travelling, I was working doing commercial work, gardening books, etc.
I had the big kit with a Leica Reflex, all the lenses from 21mm to 180mm. I called that the money bag. I also had a little bag with a Leica M6, a 28mm, 35mm and a 50 mm lens. I had two of those kits. I called this “my personal bag”. I would go to Venice beach, where there was activity and people, a lot of color. I would leave my second bag in the car, just in case something happened with the first bag.
So I took many pictures and started to identify what I was looking for. Pictures of middle-class americans. And after several years, I enjoyed it so much! And then, I started shooting again and out of this, came American Color 2. My objective was to take pictures for myself. They weren’t being done for money or a magazine. They were created just for me.
Whenever I had a free week, or weekend, I would take off by myself, stay in a motel, and just go out and make photographs. They were taken all over the country.
You mention Henri Cartier-Bresson as one of the most influential figures in your craft. Can you share a bit more about his influence in your work and how it has evolved over time?
I grew up in a small city in South Carolina, I joined the school camera club at the age of 13 and had a wonderful teacher. We had a dark room where I learned how to develop my own film. It was really fine quality. By 15, I was taking pictures for the Sunday magazine section of the newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina. I was already working professionally at this age.
When I was older, I got thinking about what I was going to do. I started to know about New York, etc. And one day I was reading in popular photography magazines about Henri Cartier-Bresson. This changed my life. This was what I was looking for. This approach. The moment being very important, no cropping. I saw the camera he used. He used the Leica. He used Ilford film. So I went out and saved my money and bought my first Leica. I went to the local camera store which had a huge Kodak sign and asked for film. They ordered it for me and I purchased it. Then I decided to search for what I wanted to do.
I discovered there was a small island, named Daufuskie Island off the coast of South Carolina. This island was inhabited by African American people who made their living by gathering oysters, shrimp, etc. I read about it some place so I decided I wanted to go. I was still a college student so I went there over the weekends, leaving school a few times to take some pictures. Those were my first serious pictures.
You’ve shared in other interviews how Cartier-Bresson was your long-distance mentor, and the story of when you first encountered Magnum photos with Cornell Capa, sharing a drink of scotch. Can you share this story and also, point out how you’ve been a mentor to up-and coming photographers?
I read then about New York, about Magnum, about the great world of photography. So I decided that some day I wanted to be part of Magnum. The pictures I took while in that process are still beautiful negatives. I developed them in 1952. As soon as I could, I printed those pictures, took a Greyhound bus in South Carolina and went to New York. I went to Magnum and showed them my pictures.
They were very nice to me and most of them said it was good work. I told them I was 18 years old, and they told me, “We’re interested; when you’re ready after the army, etc. come back.” Then I met Cornell Capa. He told me, “well, you’re still young, so come back when you’re ready.” He continued, “come, join me for a drink”. I’ve never had a drink before in my life or been in a bar before! We went to a bar down the street, and then he asked, “what are you having?” I said, “whatever you’re having”. He ordered a scotch. I’ve been a scotch drinker ever since. Years later I would join Magnum. But that was my first contact.
Comparing the time you shot solely in black and white and then shooting in color, how do you perceive this change? What’s your preference and why?
As I mentioned before, right after I had my mid-life crisis, I knew I needed to change what I was doing. I wasn’t really enjoying doing black and white pictures anymore.
Today, it’s hard to decide a preference. I’m flip-flopping between the two. After shooting many years, sometimes I have a yearning to shoot black and white again and then I see a great color event happening, so then I take a color picture. I haven’t done much in the last couple of years. I’ve been busy editing my old archives.
What are your thoughts in shooting film versus shooting digital? Do you find pros and cons in one or the other?
I have switched to digital and I believe that if you really know what you want and know what you’re doing with the computer, you can make a print made from film and have a great outcome. Absolutely sometimes it can make a better print by using digital processing. So, I think people who are still trying to shoot with film unless they are looking for a certain kind of look, maybe haven’t fully explored the possibilities with digital processing. I’ve even made my contact sheets digital. That means I can cut a digital contact sheet in the computer and project it into a large monitor and take these little squares and move them around, make them bigger, edit them, etc. Digital contact sheets are fantastic compared to the old paper contact sheets that we had from film.
Before arriving in Boston, you came from Columbia, South Carolina, a place that witnessed segregation first-hand. What was it like being amidst this social and political turmoil; what kept you wanting to document it all?
I was in the university around 1953. I wrote the first anti-segregation editorials for the University of South Carolina Student Newspaper. I wrote three editorials against segregation and it caused some trouble for my family as you can imagine. Something I did was photograph the Ku Klux Klan, burning a cross and wearing their robes. I was a bit early when all the civil rights movement occurred. By then, I had left South Carolina. I did go to Montgomery, Alabama to document the bus boycott, but those negatives vanished from Magnum.
Now that the new Leica Store and Gallery is opening and being an almost native Bostonian, what impact do you think this will have on the photographer community?
I’ve lived in Boston for over 40 years in an old Victorian house. These houses were built around 1865, old town houses. When we moved everything was sterile, almost falling apart. I live at walking distance of where the Leica story will open soon. I’ve been involved with Boston events, documenting for instance the Boston Orchestra, and doing a multimedia project where I was taking photographs of Bostonians, charming pictures that would depict the concept of living in Boston.
1976 was the bicentennial year, the 200th anniversary of the independence from England. I shot for 6 months about 534 rolls of TriX film on the Leica. We chose 152 pictures that were enlarged from the negatives, embedded in plexiglass and wrapped around the pavilion. Inside was a multimedia color slideshow and a display of Boston objects. “Where’s Boston” was the name of the project, and lasted for three years. My other Boston story was when I was 19 years old. I applied to be the assistant to the photographer in a music festival with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Then I received a letter from them, saying “Dear Mr. Manos, we’re interested in interviewing you for the job you’re applying to. Enclosed are $75 dollars. Please come to New York for an interview”. I got on a Greyhound bus, went to NY, met the man in charge for publicity for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And after reviewing my portfolio, he said “you’re hired”. As it turned out, I was hired to be the Chief Photographer, not just the assistant! They loved me because I was the first photographer to shoot without flash.
I was also in love with classical music, so I was constantly back stage with a set of wonderful and skilful musicians. So because of that connection, when I was living in NY, around 1960, I went to Boston, and worked in Symphony Hall and ended up doing a book about this: Portrait of Symphony.
Thank you Costa!
To know more about Constantine Manos’ work, please visit his official website. To know more about the new Leica Store and Gallery in Boston, please check back frequently this website. Mr. Manos’ exhibition will be available at the Leica Store and Gallery until November 1st.