Thursday, 2 August 2012

Shooting the Hot Spots

The most arresting image in Leif (rhymes with strafe) Skoogfors’ photography retrospective at the Book Trader is a picture he shot in 1968 at a PLO training camp outside Amman, Jordan.

It depicts an eight-year-old brandishing an AK-47, his young face almost hidden by the characteristic Arafat head shawl. The ominousness of the image—the fledgling fighter in the foreground against softer-focus camp activities in the distant background—is heightened by the long, thin shadows cast by Skoogfors and his PLO interpreter.

“The interpreter dubbed the kid ‘le monstre’ and took the precaution of removing the clip from the monster’s submachine gun for fear he might trigger it from nervousness,” recalls Skoogfors. That precocious killer would be 26 years old now, and it tells more about the origins of terrorism in the Middle East than reams of op-ed analyses of the causes and cures of political violence in the region.

For more years than he likes to remember now, shooting such hot spots was how Leif earned his keep: For three stints from 1968 to 1972, he prowled the mean streets of Belfast and Ulster on Newsweek assignment, which led to the publication of his first book, The Most Natural Thing in the World (Harper and Row, 1974), the title an ironic play on the theme of a billboard ad for Guinness ale.

Eleven of the 27 photos on exhibition derive from his Northern Ireland assignments, one especially delectable serendipity being “Political Speech, Belfast, 1972,” a shot of a dog relieving himself against a stone staircase on top of which an orator trumpets his side of hate through a bullhorn.

“Why did you give up the exciting life of shooting the world’s hot spots?” I asked the tall, bewhiskered Elkins Park resident at a wine-and-cheese reception at the second-floor photo gallery.

“Well, I started losing my photographer colleagues—Greg Robinson of the San Francisco Chronicle at Jonestown in 1975, Olivier Rebbot, a French news photographer in El Salvador in 1980 and John Hoagland in El Salvador in 1982. I was beginning to wonder. But my main motive for settling down here in Elkins Park was that I married my painter wife, Anne, in 1983.”

Not that the new métier of shooting the hot shots at local corporations is without its own disciplines. Leif laid on a fancy buffet at the opening, the better to kibbitz with the art directors of business magazines. When you visit the show, be sure not to miss the color slide carousel that fast-fades through a swatch of the kind of photography he’s now shooting in our area. Eighty percent of his business work is in color; 80% of his personal work remains in black and white.

His Swedish draftsman father evacuated the family from a small central Swedish town (Avefta) with a timing that gave Leif U.S. citizenship by birth in 1940. The family returned to Sweden between 1946 and 1949, but the Cold War persuaded them to become more permanent settlers back here. So the man who founded the Moore College photography department is fluent in Swedish and retains an interest in his second “homeland.”

His portraits of his friends and of the gallery owner, Peter Hiler (an idealist who believes strongly in the importance of photography as art), are touchingly direct, a moving complement to the harsh images of Nicaragua, Solidarity Poland, NATO maneuvers and Portuguese revolution. Leif has paid his danger dues and now probes inward.

The Skoogfors show is in a series arranged by Welcomat photography critic Brian Peterson, a 33-year-old teacher (University of Delaware) and freelancer (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Germantown Historical Society). Brian puts together a monthly show at the Book Trader as a barely-over-minimum-wage labor of love. The fiscal position of the photography galleries is a perilous one these days.

“In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there were four full-time galleries in Philly,” Brian reminisced with rue at the Skoogfors opening. “It was the hot new collectible. Even the Wall Street Journal reported on the boom. Why, in the early ‘70s you could pick up a 16 by 20 Ansel Adams print for $150. By the late ‘70s the price hit the roof at $15-$20,000. But the bottom fell out of the market by 1983 because you can print 100 copies from one negative. The same Ansel Adams dropped to $3-$4,000. People got wary, having bought it at the high point. The four photo galleries all closed. That drought period is still prevailing. We maybe sell one or two prints during a month-long exhibit at 20% commission.”

Skoogfors prints range in price from $90 (for a Sandinista flashing a “V” sign) to $350 (for a dual portrait of his friends Denise and Ralph). I’d go for the Sandinista—since Denise and Ralph were at the reception.

“The nice thing about Book Trader’s is the long hours—and Peter’s enthusiasm for the art. We have no way of knowing how many walk-ups come to the second floor for the book browsing or for the photo ogling. But the combination is a healthy draw,” says Brian.

“I try to make a mix of shows—unknown locals one month, national figures the next. And we do tie-ins. In December, when the University of Pennsylvania Press publishes a photo book on the Centralia, Pennsylvania, problems, we’ll show the photos here. Slowly but surely, we’re building an audience for serious photography.”

Leif Skoogfors photos: At the Book Trader, 501 South Street, through October 3. 925-0219.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, October 1, 1986

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