Thursday, August 26, 2010

Discovering Prokudin-Gorskii's Lost Empire

I'd never heard of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii until I encountered his photographs recently on The Big Picture, which is one of my favorite photo sites. (It really does have big pictures.) It goes to show that 1) my photo education has huge gaps to fill, and 2) surprises are always welcome in life. Now this photographer, who documented the vast Russian Empire between 1909 and 1912 ( and later in 1915), has jumped up toward the the top of my interest list.

When Prokudin-Gorskii convinced Tsar Nicholas II to sponsor a photographic survey of the Russian Empire, he (like the Tsar) probably assumed he was documenting a Great Power at its peak. From a modern perspective, the photographs paint  a portrait of a lost world. The empire was already crumbling; the old regime would fall completely in 1917, and the Tsar and his family would die at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1918.

The intrepid photographer travelled in a special railway car and documented 11 regions of the empire, according to this source. His work might be compared to the photographic surveys of the American west by William Henry Jackson, or the ethnographic studies of native Americans by Edward Curtis, who worked in roughly the same era. Prokudin-Gorskii, however, produced color images, ingeniously. He shot in black and white, and made three exposures of each image in rapid succession, each one with a red, green, or blue filter. The three different exposures would then be sandwiched together and projected with filtered lanterns to create his wondrous color images.  This site has a nice collection of his images, and this one tells of their restoration. If anyone could recommend other good sources of information for me to look into, that would be just great.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Katy Perry's Three Lessons About People Magazine

I went ahead and downloaded the new People magazine app and spent $3.99 for the August 30th issue—the first available for my iPad. I thought it would be interesting to review it here, and to compare it to the print version. (The similarities, or dissimilarities, between the two is a big issue in the photo business these days. See below.)

I liked reading the magazine on my iPad, very much, indeed. I thought it was one of the better looking, easy-to-navigate magazine apps I've experienced so far. The magazine's pastel  backgrounds and celebrity pictures looked dynamic—more so than in print, where they achieve a different, trashier charm.  There is a photo of Jennifer Aniston in the "Star Tracks" section (by Paul Buck, credited to the European Press Agency) that is modestly spectacular. It's a red-carpet photo taken at the Hollywood premier for Aniston's movie The Switch, and I usually find no interest in red-carpet photos. (They are the celebrity-photography equivalent of reality TV—a real moment, but not really real, because the celebrities are performing.)
Aniston by Buck: It's better on an iPad
You can't tell from the image as you see it here, but on my iPad, the Aniston photo has dimensional depth and the compositional interest of a very good studio picture, so it really stands out. I'm afraid my iPad made many of the photos in the issue look more interesting than they really are.

The iPad may be a perfect place for a magazine like People, with short articles that don't require much acuity on the part of the reader. (Didn't someone say that iPad mag apps were going to save long-form journalism? TBD.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Five Top Marilyn Look-Alikes

Marilyn by Eve Arnold
Eve Arnold, who famously photographed Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits and in other settings, wrote something about the platinum blond that has always stuck with me:

...she knew she was superlative at creating still pictures and she loved doing it. She didn't have to learn lines as she did for her movies, she could let her imagination range freely....It was always her party and often there would be champagne and music, but always total attention. It was she who in essence was saying, 'Let's make Marilyn.'

When I was the editor of a photo magazine, it was pointed out to me many times that I indulged my fascination with Marilyn perhaps a bit too much. I plead guilty and continued on with special Marilyn issues and whatnot. There were two reasons for that:
          1) I never got tired of looking at pictures of Marilyn and trying to figure out what qualities made them so compelling, and
          2) The readers of the magazine also found her fascinating. She always sold well. 

She was so compelling, in fact, that long after her death young actresses continue to establish their own claim to commercial and cultural immortality by being photographed as Marilyn. Being Marilyn is a coded message that, when decoded by viewers, says "I'm a star"—a sort of Hollywood rite of passage. The faux-Marilyns have appeared on magazine covers, in ads for perfumes, and in music videos, all of which used the imagery as coded messages that, when decoded by potential shoppers, say, "This is glamour." I assume that in all these instances the products sold well.

 I mention this because the Huffington Post included a poll last week inviting readers to vote for "Who Makes the Best Marilyn." (Apparently there are rumors that a Marilyn biopic is in the works, and the lead role has yet to be cast.) The last time I looked, these were the top five choices.

Angelina Jolie as Marilyn
Scarlett Johansson as Marilyn

Drew Barrymore as Marilyn

Madonna as Marilyn
Christina Aguilera as Marilyn
I started to vote for my favorite, then stopped, because I remembered what Eve Arnold said. It was Marilyn who knew how to make Marilyn. I still can't tell you how she did it. But if you have a few hours and ever want to grab a drink somewhere in New York, I'd be glad to discuss it at length.

By the way, here's a trivia question you can ask people: What was the first magazine cover the real Marilyn appeared on? According to my wonderful former colleague Carol Squiers, now a curator at the International Center of Photography, the future sex goddess appeared on the April 26th 1946 issue of that heartland favorite, Family Circle.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Gimme Rewrite, Sweetheart...

My friend the Pulitzer-Prize winning photojournalist David Kennerly shared  a recent news story in a Facebook comment today:

COLUMBIA STATION, Ohio (Aug. 20) -- A bear fatally mauled its caretaker during a feeding on property holding dozens of other exotic pets owned by a man who drew the wrath of activists—and lost his license to exhibit —after offering people the chance to wrestle bears at a Cleveland expo. 

Is it the worst news story lead ever written? It's in the running, for sure. David (left) himself suggested that the writer "bear-ied" the lead. But seriously: As an editor, what do you do with a lead that wanders over so much ground? You can write too tight, for goodness sake.  I read it and felt like I was on the most perplexing freeway on-ramp in Los Angeles.

How would a great newspaperman rewrite that lead? The journalist Joe Galloway kindly offered an alternative lead as a comment to Kennerly's post...and remember, this comes from a man who covered the Vietnam War and later wrote the book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young, about the1965 battle of Ia Drang in the central highlands (it was turned into a Mel Gibson movie, when Mel Gibson movies were still pretty good).  Galloway also covered the India-Pakistan war of 1971 and  became a correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, so he knows what he's doing. Here's his version of the bear story:

 Some days you eat the bear. Some days the bear eats you. Friday it was the bear's turn...

 All you journalists and writers out there...Galloway has just given you a short master class.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

485 More Words on Herman Leonard

Courtesy Fahey/Klein Gallery
 When I learned that photographer Herman Leonard died on August 12, I contacted a friend of mine, David Fahey, of the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles. Leonard resettled in LA after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his New Orleans home, along with some 8,000 of his prints. David knew Leonard well, which I unfortunately did not, and admired his work, which I do as well. His gallery also represented Leonard's work. I asked David to tell me what Leonard was like, and to describe his place in photography. Here's what he said:

 Like his close friend, Quincy Jones, Herman Leonard’s persona was the definition of “cool.” At 87 years old he was more hip than most 25-year-olds.  His photographs defined the era when jazz blossomed in America and became a true, original art form in our collective consciousness. Herman’s photographs are a record in the history of this genre of music. The photographs were honest, forthright, and expressive, like jazz music. Often when I hear the music, I think of Herman’s photographs. Like our best documentary photographers, he effectively captured the spirit and soul of his subject matter. In vivid detail, his pictures show us a compelling story of the characters, the places, and the time. He was particularly adept at capturing the drama of performers on stage—whether it be his subject's strength, or vulnerability. Herman’s photographs are exceptionally rich and detailed, and they faithfully describe the atmosphere of the moment. His photographic style—where the light, density, and texture of his photographs are profound and striking—is instantly recognizable.  His photographs are a poetic mingling of expression, emotion, and atmosphere.  Early on, Herman knew how to create myth-making photographs that will continue to endure.

One of the things I found most interesting about David's words was the linking of Leonard to the tradition of documentary photography. Leonard's work also springs from a background in portraiture—he apprenticed for Yousuf Karsh, no less, and later found his own subject.

Courtesy Fahey/Klein Gallery
Courtesy Fahey/Klein Galler
As David notes, he also understood that his work had a function or power that went beyond reportage. So we have these images of musicians working on several levels at once: as history, as iconography, and, as David says, as "story." Jazz being an American art form, we probably wouldn't be too far wrong in saying that Leonard was exploring and explaining American mythology, and, not least, expanding it to include these musicians. The black ones as well as the white ones.

Leonard wasn't the only photographer to do so. Life magazine's Gjon Mili made a little masterpiece of a film called Jammin' the Blues that also captures jazz artists in expressionistic black and white.

But Leonard did it without the advantage of movement and sound, maybe that's why his still images are so wonderful. He caught a sense of peak moment. The drama of the light, the frozen movement of cigarette smoke or gesture...all this tells us that we are seeing something real, and that we are seeing it in an instant of perfection.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bobby Thompson 1923-2010

The Shot Heard 'Round the World
 Last half of the 9th it's a 4-2 ballgame...but the Giants have the tying run on second base...Bobby Thomson, up there swingin'...Branca throws... There's a long drive... it's gonna be, I believe...the Giants win the pennant...the Giants win the pennant...the Giants win the pennant...the Giants win the pennant...Bobby Thompson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands...the Giants win the pennant and they're growing crazy....
                                                            —Russ Hodges, New York Giants Announcer 

On Sunday mornings in New York, there is a weekly radio show about baseball on WFAN hosted by Ed Randall, who says in his standard introduction that baseball is "the only game you can see on the radio." Do you agree? Very often, I think, great news moments are immortalized visually—especially in still pictures. Photographs sum up experiences instantly and etch them deeply into memories in a way that other media don't. But of course there are moments we know best from other media, and Russ Hodges's call of Bobby Thompson's "Shot Heard Round the World" is one of them. Still photos of the moment, like the one above (which unfortunately isn't credited...can anybody help with that?), credited to Associated Press, have become well known, but they don't capture the narrative that makes the moment compelling: Hodges, on the other hand, delivers a three-act play in a matter of seconds—Branca throws, Thompson hits, the Giants win the pennant. Film footage of the event stands up today only as a historical curiosity. (Try watching this clip with Hodges's voice muted: Not much there, except for the insert shots of ecstatic Giants fans.)
     Maybe this is all a matter of technology—radio was fully formed in 1951, while photography was a still few years away from the 35mm cameras and motor drives that would revolutionize sports photography and make a magazine like Sports Illustrated must-reading for fans. As for television, it would be several decades before high-quality images, instant replays, and 24/7 highlight clips became standard viewing expectations.
     But I think I agree more with Ed Randall: Baseball, spread out over a vast area, complex in the implications of every play, was and is still best seen on the radio, where skilled announcers paint the images in our minds. Boxing is a photographic sport; the punch is never as compelling as the aftermath of the action. Football is a television sport, with bodies and movement seen in a rolling, roiling storyline. Hockey...well, you have to be there. (I take that back, considering this clip, the only call that might rival Hodges's in the annals of sport. Here, the picture and the words belong together.) Baseball belongs on the radio.
      What do you think? Here's another question: What do you think the best sports call ever was?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Herman Leonard 1923-2010

Dexter Gordon, Date Unknown

The great photographer of jazz artists was 87. My favorite quote about Leonard came from Quincy Jones: "I used to tell the cats that Leonard did with him camera what we did with our instruments....Herman's camera tells the truth and makes it swing." Everything you need to know about Leonard as a portraitist can be found in his famous image of Dexter Gordon: Mood, expression, detail, and smoke...lots of smoke.

Monday, August 16, 2010

4 Reasons to Love Chuck Close

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Chuck Close
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionFox News

Last week, artist Chuck Close appeared on The Colbert Report, and he killed. Stephen Colbert took the comic lead, and Close backed it up with perfect deadpan timing. But the interview also prompted a few late-night musings about art and artists. I now have 4 new reasons to love Close.

1. Size Matters
As Colbert notes, Close is known for his giant portraits: "Do you have enormous friends? Why do you choose this scale?" Funny, but Close's answer is better: "I used to say, the bigger they are, the longer they take to walk by, and therefore the harder they are to ignore." That is about as sensible a reason as I've heard for the super-sized art that has proliferated so since Close began making his paintings. (Could we say, in fact, that Close helped create the trend with his work?) I've always thought that the popularity of big art has something to do with the amount of visual distraction we face in our multi-media, broadband world. Maybe, after all,  it's simply that it takes longer to walk by. Close's forthright answer is bracing, which leads me to my second reason for loving Chuck Close....

 2. Inspiration Follows Strategy...
Rightly, we honor artists because they see things and do things and take chances that most of us can't, don't, and won't. Colbert falls into that way of thinking (listen to his voice take on a slight affect, as though he's talking to someone whose first language isn't English, as if artists are alien-like) when he asks Close why he started doing representational portraits back in the day when abstraction was king. "Did that put you on the outs with the elites?" he asks. Close's answer: "Well, painting was dead, and representational paintings was even deader, and portraits were beyond the pale--nobody wanted to do it. So I thought, well, this was a good area to go into so I won't have much competition." Close was almost certainly being a bit disingenuous--charmingly so--but there has always been an aspect of marketing in art (being charming and disingenuous on a TV show is probably a powerful marketing tool). And there are more ways for creative people to market themselves now than ever before. We get so caught up in the awe of creativity that we forget that it's also a product.

3. ...Or Vice Versa
Having joked about his "hit 'em where they ain't" art strategy, Close gets to talk with Colbert about method and inspiration, which, it becomes clear, is indeed the motivating force behind the art (whew!). He takes "pleasure" in the intricacy of the work. Colbert asks Close if the buyers of his work are simply rewarding his OCD...and actually that's a pretty good question, for any artist. I already knew that in 1988 Close suffered a seizure that left him paralyzed from the neck down. (After rehabilitation, he learned to work in new ways. Filmmaker Marion Cajori focused on the method and the impact of Close's work in a 1998 short called  Chuck Close: A Portrait in Progress.)

I didn't know until the Colbert interview that Close also suffers from prosopagnosia--a disability that renders him unable to recognize other humans by their faces. He didn't become a portraitist despite the condition, but because of it.

4. Humor Helps, As Long As It's the Truth
We want our artists to suffer, sort of like football fans want NFL players to hit hard. It's part of the purity of the game. Jokingly, Close told Colbert that he suffers because his portrait of President Clinton hangs in the National Portrait Gallery between portraits of President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush.
Or maybe he wasn't actually joking, but revealing something true. And that's the artist's prerogative.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Inside Rush Limbaugh's Wedding, and other Photo Blog News

Rush Limbaugh, fist-pumping groom, and, oh yeah, the bride
Sleek onservatism is A-OK
A military color guard for a veteran broadcaster
Rush ignites controversy
 It may well be that Donna Newman is the finest wedding photographer in the country...perhaps the world. I say this because she managed to make Rush Limbaugh look pretty good at his recent wedding. Thanks to Michael Shaw at Bag News Notes for collecting a few of Newman's photos from the ceremony...and pointing out that at this particular wedding it was the groom, not the bride, who seemed to shine brightest. It's quite a visual change-up, since most of the time we're used to seeing Rush puffing on a cigar on a golf course or looking like a gas bag that's about to explode. (Aside from these wedding photos, I can't think of all that many attractive pictures of Rush. What's up with that?) At any rate, as Shaw points out, not that many people have military honor guards at their weddings....

At the New York Observer, John Gorenfeld adds a bit of interesting info to the ongoing controversy about Time magazine's cover image of the 18-year-old Afghan girl whose nose and ears were cut off by her husband as punishment for fleeing his home. The image was an important and powerful editorial choice--all of a sudden a newsweekly cover mattered again, the way they used to every week--because it offered an instant rationale for the US to stay in Afghanistan: What will happen to women like Aisha if we pull out? The image caused a lot of worried talk, presumably because it was shocking, but probably because it raised difficult questions for opponents of the war. The photo itself was visually acceptable to most viewers, I think, in part because it immediately calls to mind one of the icons of magazine photojournalism: Steve McCurry's shot of a young Afghan girl at a refugee camp in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. (It's interesting to compare and contrast the effects of the two photographs and the issues they illustrate.) Gorenfeld points out that Time failed to disclose that the writer of its cover story, Aryn Baker, is married to an Afghan man tied to businesses that might profit from a US military presence in Afghanistan.

Finally, the Huffington Post asks its readers to vote on whether they think this new print ad from Proenza Schouler has been retouched to eliminate the model's waist. (My vote: maybe a little, but not necessarily at all. The optical illusion of tiny waists is something that good photographers can create with light, pose, and clothes.) Anyway, as the piece points out, top models do come with tiny waists.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Photos of the Day

The Rat Pack Gathered at the Sands for Bob Willoughby

Sinatra and Martin at a recording session in 1958, photo b Allan Grant

Sinatra takes a steam and a shave for John Dominis
 You know it was a swingin' shoot when the Rat Pack got in front of the lenses of Life magazine photographers in 1960. It was 50 years ago that Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and various other members of the Pack got together to make a movie called Ocean's 11. To promote the opening of the film on August 10, 1960, Life ran a story filled with images made by its own pack of entertainment photographers, including Bob Willoughby, Allan Grant, and John Dominis. Most of the piece was shot at the very the epicenter of ring-a-ding-ding coolness: Las Vegas. put up a number of the images a couple of days ago, on the anniversary of the film's opening, but I didn't see them until today....sorry about that. Better late than never: The pictures, some of which says have never been published before, are examples of a kind of entertainment journalism that simply no longer exists: Candid, behind-the-scenes, full-access photojournalism. They capture and express the late nights, the cigarette smoke, the desperate laughter...the whole booze-and-broads thing. These tight black-and-white images assure us that there was a reality behind the show-biz make-believe of the Rat Pack aura, so everyone came out a winner: The magazine and its readers caught a glimpse of big stars in quiet moments, and the stars themselves became more human and intriguing to their fans. I wish today's celebrities would get that through their heads: Show us more than what dress you're wearing on the red carpet. But it's a different world than it was then: Today celebrities would never let a media entity take control of their public image and profit from it. The stars want a cut of the deal.

Question: Which current celebrity would you like to see photographed the "old-fashioned" way?

By the way, Dominis also shot a big story on Sinatra on the occasion of the star's 50th birthday. He initially shot Sinatra performing in Florida, but ended up spending three months with him...the results were, as it says in The Great Life Photographers (Bulfinch), "unrivaled." Dominis later published a book titled Sinatra: An Intimate Portrait of a Very Good Year.

Bob Willoughby, who died late last year, was one of the finest entertainment photographers of his time. Go here to see more of his work. His favorite subject, it says here, was Audrey Hepburn.

Allan Grant, who died in 2008, was one of those quintessential Life photographers who could do about everything: He got the last studio photo session of Marilyn Monroe before her death in 1962; he photographed A-bomb tests in Nevada; and he was there to record Howard Hughes's memorable but short flight aboard the "Spruce Goose."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

5 Reasons to Love Lord Snowdon

Lord Snowdon
It's a good thing for photographers, and writers, to occasionally circle back on themselves and reexamine old prejudices. Usually most of us are just too lazy to do that, don't you think? And then sometimes, when confronted by some kind of evidence contrary to our former presumptions, it just happens.

That's what occurred to me last night when I got my copy of this week's New Yorker and turned to page 83 to read Joan Acocella's very nice piece about Agatha Christie and the art of the detective novel. As one of the millions of people who have at one time or another over the past 80 years become avid Christie readers--she's the best-selling novelist in history--I was eager to contemplate her particular contributions to the who-done-it. But ultimately I was less intrigued by Acocella's article than I was by the portrait used to open the piece. Here was the Queen of Crime, at her home in Devon in 1974, two years prior to her death at age 85, dressed immaculately in a blue dress set off by a tasteful necklace, comfortably sitting in the center of her place in the world, looking back at me with eyes that seemed to understand all the entertaining possibilities of evil that might exist in my mind. The photograph was by Lord Snowdon (credited to Camera Press/Retna).

Over my years as a photo editor, I must confess, I never exactly "got" Lord Snowdon's pictures. I understood that he is considered one of the important portraitists of 20th century. I knew he was born Anthony Armstrong-Jones, that he married Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth II,  after which he was awarded the title of 1st Earl of Snowdon, that their marriage became a miserable battleground inhabited by two philanderers until its ultimate collapse in 1978. During those years he also became a sort-of court photographer of the English race--from the peers and  the privileged to the mere culturally iconic.

His work was alway much more than competent, in my eyes, but I never thought of his portraiture as a brilliantly revealing force or as a willful act of artistry (as Richard Avedon's certain were). In place of edge, I felt I was getting only access. After seeing the Christie portrait, I started rethinking my attitudes about the requirements of great portraiture and about the imagery of Lord Snowdon in particular. So I've put together five reasons for admiring the photographs he's made.

1. Agatha Christie, 19 74
If portraits can be said to ever reveal the essence or soul of a subject, they do it in quiet, subtle ways. An image gives us a super-detailed view of a surface, and our minds need to do make the connections and draw the conclusions about what a person is like inside. (Luckily, evolution has made our minds very good at that kind of thing.)  All this is  not to say that photographers don't help us along, in all kinds of ways. Every creative choice made--set design, clothes, camera and lens--is a way for a photographer to make his or her case to the viewer about a particular subject. (Ironically, in this profile Snowdon says he likes to make his subjects ill at ease in order to achieve a certain intensity in the final image.) Here is a quaint old lady who could sit at a desk and imagine people doing in each other with poison, knives, guns, clubs, and other weapons. I was so seduced by the color and elegance that I missed the mayhem in her eyes until my second or third viewing of the picture. I like portraits that explode like little time bombs.

2. Princess Margaret, 1967
This is one of Snowdon's best known images, and I suppose we must conclude from it that his relationship with Princess Margaret was a roller-coaster of attraction and loathing. Here, the camera captures the attraction, and Snowdon's understanding of what it means to be a princess--a real one, not the Disney kind. Recent biographies have made it clear that both partners in the marriage cheated, that Snowdon once left a note for Margaret to find that listed the things he hated about her, that the Princess once referenced his non-royal background by pointing out that he used to word "material" to describe cloth--while upper class voices, or "U-speakers" as Nancy Mitford termed them, would call it "stuff." And yet here all the camera sees is loveliness. How many photographers can make a portrait that exists as both history and illusion?

 3. Helen Mirren, 1995
I'm thinking that one of the reasons I never found Snowdon's work particularly interesting before was because of it Englishmess--by and large it was all about people who didn't quite exist on my radar. But actresses like Helen Mirren don't have cultural borders. Except that she is entirely English and, some years after this picture was taken, played the role of Snowdon's former mother-in-law. What I find interesting here, besides Mirren's famous bust, is how absolutely different this picture is from the two that preceded it in this list. What I took for a lack of style was, in all probability, a purposeful lack of singular style...which is in itself a singular achievement.

4. Diana
Long after his marriage to Margaret ended, Snowdon remained a trusted photographer of England's royal family. I can't imagine a photographer with a greater understanding of the late princess....and what I like about this portrait is the sense of sympathy he brought to it. Question: Do all great portraits need to be sympathetic? I imagine so; otherwise, all we'd need are the paparazzi.

5. Vogue, 1957
I just noticed that all the reasons I have listed here to love Lord Snowdon's photography show women...may we assume he had a special affinity for them? I include this image because it is not a portrait, because as a fashion photo it is particularly joyous, and because the woman in it is elegant but not  fastidiousness. It's like Snowdon saw princesses wherever he looked. Snowdon not only existed within a particular universe, he inhabited it and kept filling it out, adding detail to it. Though he may never have wanted to create an identifiable visual style of technique, he did created a realm of imagination that is his own. I find that reassuring but still invigorating, though I am not now nor will I ever be a U-speaker.

Photo of the Day

The painterly aspects of this photograph of an Afghan man at a public bath in Kabul are undeniable, yes? The photo, by Rodrigo Abd for the Associated Press, was featured on the New York Times's Lens blog. (You have to look for it: Go to the "Photos of the Day" section and starting thumbing through the story about the recent landslides in China...that's where I found it. Maybe I'm missing something, but I can't figure out why it was filed there.)

At any rate, a little further research revealed that the image was part of a series that Abd has done on daily life in Afghanistan.  With its startling beauty, based on chiaroscuro lighting, the picture is a wonderful example of how sophisticated news/feature photography has become. I love the old, bold black-and-white news photos that were taken with Speed Graphics, Tri-X film, and sizzling flashbulbs; their stark frankness held an exploitative thrill, akin to the grim romance of film noir. It's probable that Abd's photo was made with a new digital camera that greatly extends the range of what photographers can capture in low-light situations; that technology allowed him to reference renaissance painting... and painting necessarily leads our minds in certain least it leads mine in directions that more traditional news photos might not. 

Images like this lead me away from the framework of reporting and into the framework of symbolism. I took just enough art history in school to quickly acknowledge the act of bathing with all that is carries: especially the washing away of sin. I recognize also the sensual nature of humanity--and that grace note of the man's body, poised and feminine in its delicacy.

What is the message we are invited to take away after our few seconds of looking? Who's guilt is in need of being cleansed, the bather's or the viewer's? Is the idea of beauty enough here? Do the references to art amplify or obscure the power of the image as reportage?