Allen's Blog

Expanding the Walls: A New Generation of Documentarians and Cameras

A couple of weeks ago, in a special section of the New York Times devoted to museums, Corey Kilgannon wrote a great piece about a yearly program called ‘Expanding the Walls’ at the Studio Museum in Harlem. This year, a dozen girls, all of them black or Hispanic and with no prior photographic experience (other than the point-and-shoot picture taking that is a part of everybody’s life), were given professional digital cameras along with the training needed to let them go forth in their communities to document their own lives and those of family, friends, and neighborhoods.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of such programs; in fact, they are probably in place in numerous communities throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world. But two things caught my eye –

Expanding the Walls is based on the way the late James Van Der Zee approached his life’s work of photographing the people of Harlem in the 20th century. Van Der Zee (who died in 1983) came to wide renown only toward the end of his career, and the dignity he conferred on his subjects shows in all his images. So beyond the technical training the girls have received, they have been learning the direct connection between the photographs they are taking now and the pictures of Mr. Van Der Zee and other documentary photographers.

The other thing that drew my eye was the photograph at the top of the story. I looked carefully at the photo (by NYT staff shooter Marilynn K. Yee) and saw that the cameras in the hands of the girls in the photo are both Canon G11s. I have no way of knowing if the G11 is the only camera being used in the program, but it’s a wonderful choice.

My first G-series Canon was the G2 (I still have it and remember that the price back then was more than $800). While recommending the G-series to many friends and colleagues over the years, I didn’t jump back into the G-pool until the G9 (since sold to a colleague) and followed that with the G10 and the G11. Personally, I think the last three versions have been and are superb, and I use them for a full range of assignments where frames-per-second is not an issue.

As with even much more limited point-and-shoots, there is so much technology built into the systems of digital cameras today that I’ll move on to something new before I ever learn all the capabilities of the G11. If anyone at Canon is paying attention, though, here’s one minor complaint: in returning to the flip-out, rotatable screen (a little bit smaller than the G10’s), the controls on the back of the camera have shrunk, and I find myself unintentionally pushing buttons in a way that was never an issue on the G10. (And if Canon is still listening: my dream for the G12–which is surely in development–will have a lens with a focal length of 24-85mm.)

But back to the project in Harlem – I plan to visit the museum this summer, when there will be an exhibition of the girls’ best work. I’ll take some pictures then and share more about Expanding the Walls at that time.

Finally, I went back into my film-era equipment drawers and retrieved one of my two Olympus XAs. Back in the early 1980s, the XA was, like the G-series, a professional-grade point-and-shoot. It was unobtrusive, weighed 8 oz. and measured 2”x4.”  Its lens was a very sharp 35mm f/2.8, with manual focus and aperture control. Erich Hartmann (of Magnum) did a terrific photo essay (I think for Stern, in Germany) that he shot traveling by train in Europe solely with the XA. If you manage to find one at a reasonable price, load it with Tri-X and re-visit the pre-digital era.