Talking about 'the decisive moment' yesterday reminded me of a few things.
Mainly, it brought old Charlie Hoff to mind. (This is as close as I can come to showing you what he looked like; sorry.) Charles Hoff was a quintessential old-timer "ƒ/8 and be there" photojournalist who was active from the 1930s to the '60s and died in 1975. He worked for the New York Daily News for many years. He was one of the 22 photographers who were waiting for the Hindenburg when it approached its mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937 and burst into flames. You can bet Charlie Hoff got the shot. (This is as close as I can come to showing it to you; sorry again.)
I mostly know him from an out-of-print book called The Fights, which in my opinion is collectively one of the great virtuoso performances in the history of photography. Photographing with a large-format camera at ringside, he had a preternatural ability to anticipate the action and extract a marvelous moment—I use that adjective advisedly, meaning something to marvel at—from the fast-paced flurry arms, legs, and motion, many times capturing the instant of a heavy blow or a falling fighter just before he hit the canvas.
As photographers know, and can appreciate, a view camera gives you just one chance—just one shot at a time. (Hoff even had permission to set up lights at ringside—most of the conditions under which he worked in his prime were unreproducible in later decades.) Hoff's fight pictures were thus the very antithesis, the diametric opposite, of "spray and pray."
My reference library is in storage (I'm probably going to work all my life and finally be able to afford a proper office at the very end of it) so I can't even refer to the one book I have. But one thing I remember from the book is that Charlie Hoff said he would intently watch the fighters' feet—the set of their feet was the way he could tell they were about to throw a haymaker.
I'd love to see a collection of the best of all his work, not just the boxing photographs, but it doesn't exist. I look forward to the day when the culture of the Internet matures to the point where the work of many photographers will be accessible online in more than a random motley way. But you can Google him and hopefully find a few more examples, at least.
And what Charlie Hoff reminds me of is that, still, today, one of the best tools we photographers have got is to constantly work on the skill of hitting the shutter button at exactly the right time—not a split-second early or a split-second late. I don't think any really good photographer of any kind of moving subject (all the way down to moving clouds) fails to ever be conscious of this. Nor do I think any good photographer ever stops working on it. It was one of the reasons I suggested "the Leica year" as a good learning experience...the old film Ms, with no finder blackout and very little shutter lag and a cost for every shot, were great for learning how to look for that just-exactly-right moment to expose the picture. Even if you're triggering 30 FPS, you still need to know exactly when to do it.
And even with the GH5 or some other variant of the very latest thing, I'll bet old Charlie Hoff could teach us all a thing or two.
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