Saturday, July 23, 2011

Change of Address: Please Check Out My New and Improved Blog--"The Big Picture"

I'd like to invite everyone to check out my new blog--a new journal of the visual culture and the way we see the world in pictures. Here's the new address:

We'll be looking at news pictures and magazine photography, advertising imagery, the art market, going behind the camera with photographers, looking at new art books and emerging photographers, and making some big new announcements about a new project in the very, very near future. So join me and join up, because I think it will be interesting...and fun.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Books: George Platt Lynes and the Male Nude

George Platt Lynes: The Male Nudes
Edited by Steven Haas
Foreword by George Platt Lynes II
Afterword by Allen Ellenzweig
256 pages/10” x 12”
Rizzoli, $12

There have been a number of books about the photographer George Platt Lynes, whose work in the 1930s and 1940s helped set the stage for much of what we see in the visual culture today. This newest volume, which was release in May, is one of the best. It is the most comprehensive collection of Platt Lynes’s male nudes in print, according to the book’s publisher, Rizzoli. This was work that the photographer pursued privately and obsessively during the time he became one of America’s best-known celebrity portraitists. Until now, much of the work had never been seen; after Platt Lynes’s death in 19TK, the images were stashed away in the archives of the Kinsey Institute, hidden from view, just as they were during the photographer’s life.

Platt Lynes’s work was never forgotten, however. It influenced a generation of photographers who created the visual culture we live in today, in which the eroticized male is seen and accepted as both art and commerce.

“People like Robert  Mappelthorpe, Bruce Weber, and Herb Ritts all investigated the history of male imagery,” said art and photography critic Allen Ellensweig, author of the The Homoerotic Photograph, when I spoke with him recently. “In their work, the male body is rediscovered for its plastic, sculptural quality. Platt Lynes pointed the way in that direction.”

In an afterword to the new book, Ellenzweig adeptly puts Platt Lynes’s male nudes into a cultural and historic framework—the work is, he says, “sui generis, a project so unalterably his own, with so little promise of any serious recompense, that it is significant he pursued it with such passion. But that, of course, was the point. He was a passionate lover of beautiful young men—a category more various that those three words imply.”

Charles "Tex" Smutney and Charles "Buddy" Stanley, 1941
Carlos McClendon, 1947
 It was in the late 1940s that Alfred Kinsey became acquainted with Platt Lynes and his male nude. The pioneering sex researcher became attached to Platt Lynes’s social circle, which included the novelist Glenway Westcott and Monroe Wheeler, who for many years headed the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibitions and publications department. Wheeler was Platt Lynes’s lover, and Wescott had been Wheeler’s lover before that. 

“The three had been a ménage a trois fromm the late 1920s through the early 1940s,” said Ellensweig. “Kinsey entered their circle through Westcott. He was fascinated with the work he discovered. Platt Lynes had been doing for years on the male nude. The work was consonant with his growing understanding of homosexuality in the United States—its prevalence and its diversity—and he was keenly interested in erotic art for his own scientific purposes.” A decade later, as Platt Lynes approached death, he decided the work should reside at the Kinsey Institute. “He clearly was concerned that this work, which he considered his greatest achievement as a photographer, should not be dispersed or destroyed,” Ellensweig said. “We have to remember the time period we’re talking about—America during the post-war Red Scare..

He added, “In fact, during the McCarthy era, it’s quite possible that more people lost their jobs because they were accused of being queers or perverts than those accused of being commies. The Red Scare was also a Pink Scare.”

A Complicated Life

The book’s centerpiece biographical sketch, written by Steven Haas, director of the George Platt Lynes Foundation, does a sturdy and often detailed tracing of the photographer’s life. It begins with Platt Lynes attending the Berkshire School in Massachusetts, where the English master once commented that his “work, in composition, is showing less of the utterly weird element which so dominated last term.” It was no surprise, then, when he was shipped off to Paris on the RMS Mauretania as a preparation for college.

Gordon Hanson, 1954
In Paris, his life changed when he became associated with Gertrude Stein and her ex-pat circle, which included Westcott. He eventually gave up the idea of a literary career and took up photography. By 1932 the art dealer Julian Levy was exhibiting his work in New York. Platt Lynes opened a studio and began shooting for the big fashion magazines, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. He later became the unofficial photographer of George Balanchine’s new American Ballet company.

In the 1940s, disillusioned with New York, he moved to Hollywood, where he photographed movie stars and others. Haas tells the story of Platt Lynes’s heterosexual affair with Laurie Douglas, known as Dougie, who eventually married producer William Harbach. At the time of their affair, Platt Lynes was also involved with Jonathan Tichenor. Once, when Jonathan also began flirting with Dougie, Platt Lynes became angry. Haas quotes Dougie as saying, “He didn’t want his boyfriend making passes at his girlfriend.” It was a complicated life.

The Homoerotic Aesthetic

Through his career, Platt Lynes pursued the personal work that compelled him—the male nudes. “The depth and commitment he had in photographing the male nude, from the start of his career to the end, was astonishing,” said Ellensweig. “There was absolutely no commercial impulse involved—he couldn’t exhibit it, he couldn’t publish it.”

Charles Boyton,1930
As Ellensweig noted, homoeroticism in photography had not always been underground—but it had been disguised, as in the images of early photographers like Wilhelm von Gloeden and F. Holland Day. “Working in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, they were under the prevailing ideas and understanding of homosexuality, and the model for homosexuality at that tme was ancient Greece,” said Ellensweig. “It was a model and a rational, in which you could see yourself as a homosexual person as part of a glorious tradition that reached back to antique times. It also gave you a kind of imprimatur and permission within the larger society. In visual terms, it meant you would pose your subject next to a classical column, or some of the better-known statues of the golden Athnian era. They certified the male nude as honorable, not obscene, without necessarily evoking homosexuality itself, which would have been impermissible.”

By the time Platt Lynes was working, there was, says Ellensweig, “a totally different understanding of same-sex love.” More people were aware of homosexuality—a term that barely existed in the time of Von Gloeden and Day—yet (or perhaps as a consequence) there was more fear of it. In was in this context that Platt Lynes created his work—filled with theatrical studio lighting that sculpted bodies, which were often juxtaposed with odd objects in surrealistic compositions.

“He investigated the male body as an object worthy of investigation—in the way that the female body had been investigated since the beginning of photography,” said Ellensweig. While Platt Lynes didn’t need an excuse to portray the male body, his work nonetheless feels closeted—trapped indoors, secluded, utterly private, set in what Ellensweig calls “a twilight eroticism.” 

It would be the photographer that Platt Lynes inspired, particularly Weber and Ritts, who would bring that eroticism outdoors and into the light of day.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Photos of the Week: The Visual Verdict on Casey Anthony and DSK

My weekly review of media photography in La Lettre de la Photographie is on hiatus now, and will return in September. Meanwhile, I'll be doing some of that here on Fridays. This week, we focus on two high-profile criminal prosecutions.

1. Not Guilty, Part 1

The week before Casey Anthony was found not guilty of killing her daughter, People magazine prepared trial watchers with a what can be seen as a prediction or a judgement. The photo of Anthony--the irksome yet ambigious--was a piece of masterful photo editing.

2. Not Guilty, Part 2
 Photo by Red Huber/AP

When the verdict actually was delivered, Red Huber captured the most of relief. Were we hoping to see proof that Casey Anthony was human after all? It's there in the touching of hands.

3. Not Guilty, Part 3
Photo from Press Pool

On Thursday, Anthony was back in court, where she was sentenced to four years jail time for lying to police. (Because of time served, she will be set free a week from Sunday.) The press was not done delivering its own sentence, however: The New York Post put a press pool photo on its Friday front page, noting Anthony's apres-verdict makeup and her hair style, which it termed the "jailhouse version of the Snooki poof."

4. Not Guilty, Part 4
Photo by Mario Tama, Getty Images

The Manhattan's DA's office saw its high-profile case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn crumble when its own investigators turned up inconsistencies and lies in the story of it chief witness--the hotel maid who had accused DSK of rape. The rush to indict Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, was followed by a rush to drop the charges against him, according to lawyers for the maid. In this photo--a kind of inverted perp walk--Strauss-Kahn and his wife are seen leaving a hearing in which he was released on own recognizance.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

From Photo to TV to Film: An Interview with the formidable Indrani

Indrani and Klinko
Earlier this week I got to catch up with the formidable Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri, better known as Indrani of the photographic duo MarkusKlinko & Indrani, the stars of the Bravo reality show Double Exposure. I’ve known Markus and Indrani for a number of years—I frankly was endeared to them when for some reason they ran afoul of a magazine publisher I once worked with; the steamed publisher vowed to me (literally, I kid you not) that the pair “would never work in this town again.” I immediately set up an appointment to meet them to see how I might feature them in my magazine.

Suffice it to say the publisher did not end their photo careers. Their dazzling images—Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, Kate Winslet, work for Lancome, Shiseido, Nike, etc.—led to the TV show, which featured the pair in their natural state, which is to say often battling each other over creative choices. (Go here to see a scene featuring Lady Gaga and Klinko telling Indrani that she is driving him crazy.) The big news from Indrani is that she is now branching out on her own at a filmmaker, though she assured me that she and Klinko are still a photographic team. “Marcus is the producer on my shoots, and a lot of the time we’re actually shooting stills and video at the same time,” she said. 

From the Keep A Child Alive campaign
The pair teamed in that way to create the controversial Keepa Child Alive ad campaign featuring celebrities (Serena Williams, Alicia Keys, Kim Kardashian) lying in coffins. Last month the campaign won a couple of big awards for the TBWA agency at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity. Indrani also shot a video project with singer/actress Mandy Moore in the Central African Republic for PSI, an organization the combats malaria.

"It was life changing in many ways. It was really challenging, shooting this wonderful star, Mandy Moore, in this intense situation where lives are at risk, and to see the tangible benefits of distributing nets. And then to create to both videos and still was rewarding."

Here is a clip from that project:

Crisis in Central Africa with Mandy Moore from Indrani on Vimeo.

Another project featured fashion icon Daphne Guinness. “For that we shot stills for Barney’s New York and at the same time shot video, so the two have gone hand in hand in a unique way that really I don’t think we could do if we didn’t have that strong partnership that Marcus and I have built over the years,” Indrani said.

Here is a clip from that project:

The new extended collaboration has in fact made the duo’s working relationship less contentious. “People who saw our show on Bravo will know that in the past we’ve had quite a few arguments and disputes, and the film work has actually helped provide a  resolution to that,” said Indrani. “We’ve become so occupied that we don’t have time to fuss over ourselves and rethink the strategy all the time. In the past we’d both have good ideas, and it was which one are we going to do. Now there is so much more room for me to play creatively.”

Indrani, who was born in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India, began a modeling career at age 14, and that work helped her put herself through Princeton, where she took a few film courses while majoring in anthropology. “I suppose that makes a certain amount of sense with what I do now,” she said. “Anthropology is about human behavior and cultural choices, and that’s what fashion is all about--how we display who we are in some kind of artistic culturally coded way.”

Indrani remains active in an organization she founded with her father called Shakti Empowerment Education. They converted a 300-year-old family home a few hours outside of Kolkata into a school and support center for about 300 students—many of them from Bangladeshi refugee families. “These are people who have not been a part of the big changes in India,” she said. “We’ve piggybacked vocational training onto the literacy sections to provide students with practical skills or to enable them to sell handicraft. We’ve also used microfinancing to jump-start women’s village collectives so they can impliment their skills. So they’re able to create small projects and perhaps give employment to their neighbors.”

It’s what I meant when I said formidable.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Tuesday Dispatch: How to Make Film Developer Out of Coffee and Vitamin C

After an Independence Day weekend infused with both ribs and burgers, I was filled with can-do American spirit and spent a few hours on the website of Make magazine. There I learned that a dedicated group of photographers who still shoot film actually make their own developer out of coffee, vitamin C, and some other household items. It sounds geeky, and it is--but it's also cool. Here's a video explaining it all:

Making home-brew developer isn't for everyone, obviously. But why not? What else are you going to do with that box of Arm & Hammer soda ash (washing soda) you have lying around? Once upon a time a large part of the thrill of photography--for many dedicated amateurs and professionals--was the hands-on nature of the process, the quiet, creative time spent in darkrooms, inhaling the heady chemical aromas of developers and fixers. There may be a crying human need to recreate that quality experience--if you look through the Make magazine site you'll see that there is almost no digital gizmo that can't be amended into something satisfyingly analog in nature. (Example: "Learn to construct a basic long necktie with stripes to represent your favorite value of resistor – fashion inspired by the electronics bench!")

At the very least, this Steampump version of photography shows how arcane the idea of film photography has actually become.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Photos of the Week: Beyonce kills (maybe)...Serena Returns (definately)...and more

My weekly review of media imagery is back in its usual Friday slot at La Lettre de la Photographie. Here is the excerpt:

1. Other Voices, Other Rooms
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images 

President Obama’s decision to begin withdrawing American troops from the war in Afghanistan absorbed the attention of the 24-hour news cycle and then, for the most part, disappeared from view, eclipsed by the stalled budget negotiations, the debate over same-sex marriage, and other issues closer to home. In Chip Somodevilla’s shot, the president is seen live on monitors in a deserted White House press briefing room on May 22, announcing his plan to bring home 10.000 troops this year and 20,000 by the end of next summer.
2. American Express
Photo from EPA 

Migrants from Central America are seen traveling north atop a train near Veracruz, Mexico. The transit is perilous—and not just because of the seating arrangements. Last week at least 80 migrants were allegedly pulled from the train near Veracruz and kidnapped by masked gunmen.

3. Serena's Return
Photo by Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Carl de Souza caught the distinctive handiwork of Serena Williams as she prepared to serve during a match against Simona Halep of Romania at this week’s Wimbledon tennis tournament. The tournament marked Williams’s return to the sport after a long absence caused by health issues. She beat Halep but was eliminated in the fourth round by Marion Bartoli.

4. Devotion
Photo by Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

In the remote village of Bibiclat, north of Manila, hundreds of people covered in mud and dried leaves took part in a Mass to celebrate the Feast of John the Baptist. In Romeo Ranoco’s beautiful photograph, the hands of one celebrant become a sculptural tribute to devotion.

5. Showstopper
Photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

From all reports, Beyonce’s show at the Glastonbury music festival on June 26 was killer. “Following this performance,” read one review, “she'll be in the dreams of thousands of British music fans for a long time to come.” Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but authorities did find a British man—identified as a close friend of British Prime Minister David Cameron—dead in one of the festival’s portable toilets on the day that Beyonce performed. In this shot, photographer Adrian Dennis shows us what all the commotion was about.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wednesday Dispatch: Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, Rolling Stone's Summer Doubles

It's apparently becoming a trend--or enough of one for me to mention, anyway. Every time Rolling Stone does a Summer Double Issue, the cover girl's breasts are turned into a sight gag. Last year, Lady Gaga sported machine gun jumblies, and this year Katy Perry's famous chest become candy kisses. Whom do we have to thank for that transition? The photographer was Terry Richardson, but Perry gives credit where credit is due inside the magazine, with this shot:

I could see Michelle Bachmann in that top. You?