Karl Petzke

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Karl Petzke

by Karl Petzke (USA)

This new work finds its subjects showing their vulnerability in subtle mannerisms and their relationship between the environment and the observer.

Karl Petzke lives and works from his studio in San Francisco, California. He received the James Beard Foundation award for his Haute Cuisine photography in 2007. Drawing from a chosen color pallet and a need to place imagery into a visual narrative context, new images today are related to past and present experiences. Realizing that vision has become a new passion in his work.


Portfolio from the The Sensitive Eye workshop with Claudine Doury, March 2016.

Written review by CORINE HAMEL,
Photo editor at Marie Claire, France

Hi, Karl,

Thank you for your invitation to comment those pictures which were realized during Claudine Doury’s workshop.
First, I really wanted to pay tribute to your approach such as you explain it in your introducing video. Your approach, after 20 years of experience in the field of commercial photography, consists in questioning yourself again and again, in taking part to workshops and testing your practical experience in order to determine your personal choices. This is interesting and reveals how intact your curiosity still remains.

This is important when talking of the photographer’s trade.
I just had a look to your personal website to assess your « day to day » way of doing things. It seems actually very far from the portfolio published on the Net, even if, on both cases, you can feel a great technical skill and expertise.
The portfolio that you exhibit on your website shows that you took full advantage of those four days with Claudine Doury.

You decided to show us a production which presents a strong formal unity, mainly resulting from your work on light, the choice of the setting (materials), the choice of the subject, a number of portraits of lonesome women closely framed for the most of them. The quality of your lights, with for example a nice work on half-light, hot tones, the deliberate harmony of the colors, the unity of chromes, all this arises no question at all.

On the technical point of view, your work is properly achieved and the atmosphere, with a visible reference to the Flemish portraits, is well rendered.
This analysis being accepted, it is interesting to understand why some of your images are really stronger than some others.

Why do certain pictures work well and attract our attention, provide us an emotion, while other ones leave us on the doorstep?

To me, picture #1 is one of the most accomplished of the series.
At the representation level, the choice of the frame which lets see a stripe of light on the right side gives a transparency to the image. You get in it via a reading line starting at the lower side, left, and vanishing on the upper right corner.
The structure of the image, defined as described hereupon, starts inside the framework and extends into the outside world. Just to try, I reset the framework to suppress the ray of light through the half- open door, on the right side, and the story is completely different.
When looking at the picture such as you decided to show it, you are attracted by the eyes of this young girl of which are clearly focused only her and her face. All other parts fade, another technical choice which contributes to the success of the picture by concentrating our attention on these eyes.
And last, the selected point of view is very relevant, close by the model, facing her, and reinforces this filling of hanging up time.
With these formal decisions regarding the choice of the point of view, of the framework, of the instant and of the focus setting, you are driven into the intimacy of this young lady. And it works well.

The second picture that I selected in this series is image #5, since it tells the same story in giving to see an instant of flimsiness and of doubt in this young girl.
On this picture, it is the eyes, looking at the outside of the frame, which drives us in the private universe of the person.

The choice of the material of the armchair, the dress style based upon a blouse and waistcoat, the pose and, of course, the light which shines on the face and the hand, the only ‘skinny’ elements of the image, all this contributes to the storytelling. All these elements which constitute the photo – choices in the field of photographic technique or elements of style – contribute to this impression of fragility emanating from the portrait.

Picture #3
I really understand the intent of tone-upon-tone technique playing with the color of the skin of the young girl. On this point of view, this is again very successful.
However, the selected framing of a person located almost exactly at the center of the picture, with an environment slashed in two parts by the difference of density doesn’t work.
I feel that the image would have had more strength with a person at the very left side of the framework, on this dark background melting with the gown and leaving on the right side a clearer brown semi- darkness.
By this means, the eyes of the girl would have acquired their full meaning.

Pictures # 7, 8 and 11 represent the same girl.
In my opinion, none of them does work properly. These three images show the same defect: our eye stops on the foreground and cannot penetrate inside the image. The pictures are opaque.
It could be deliberate, but, given the nature of the subject, a portrait, and given the choice of the lights, it doesn’t work.
In image #7, the depth of field dis too small, we have no correspondence of the planes between the different elements of the image. As a consequence, the armchairs and the young girl appear to be sticked on the background, as though they were pushed back by the lens.
The addition of a second armchair on the right, in the same plan as the young girl, doesn’t solve this problem.
As a result of this problem of planes relationship, the picture doesn’t achieve its rhythm.
And however, the choice of the armchair, its material, its color, is interesting.
The attitude of the model, which looks very natural, is interesting as well. The leg tucked on the seat, the hand laid upon the leg break the mass of the trousers, which is too dark.

Image #8 shows the same defect in its composition as image #3.
The figure is at the center of the frame, with a background cut in two parts at the center as well. Consequently, the right side of the face and of the body are lost in the shadow.
This matters specifically for the face, you cannot see the eye, even if a very faint triangle of light accentuates the cheek, but far from enough.
You request a « camera eyes », without enhancing it. And the image loses its meaning. Moreover, the pose of the girl seems to be uncomfortable and shows a lack of naturalness.

Regarding picture #11, you should have lifted up the necklaces on the neck and on the neckline. In doing so, you should have avoid this shadow projected from the face onto the throat, which separates the head from the trunk and splits the body in two parts.
Still lives in images #2 and #10 are perfectly made. In a certain way, they implement the background. According to this interpretation, image #2 works well. On the other hand, view #1 does not succeed in finding its own way inside the story.

A wider view of an armchair, the young lady’s necklace laid on the seat, for instance, would have appealed at our imagination and we could have told to ourselves the story of this young girl.
In your series, the very material of the velvet, even if well rendered, brings no real meaning.
As a conclusion and as a complement to my introduction, I suggest that you carry on with workshops, since you obviously draw benefit from them to question yourself and find your own proper way.

I hope to see you soon for a new series.

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