Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tony Curtis, 1925-2010

Curtis at home in Los Angeles, 1960, by Dennis Stock
 Movie stars are remembered for their film work, but also, in some case primarily, through still photos. Curtis is memorable for both. The Magnum Photo blog has a nice collection of stills taken by the agency's photographers, including the 1960 shot above by Dennis Stock. And then there is one of my favorite celebrity portraits, a shot by Annie Leibovitz that reunited the cross-dressing male leads of "Some Like It Hot."

Curtis and Jack Lemmon, by Annie Leibovitz, 1995
As for the films, Curtis happened to appear in two (at least...suggestions of others?) that were filled with the wittiest and venomous dialog...ever? Most the obits about Curtis today mention "Some Like It Hot" first, and of course it's final line is movie legend. But my favorite Curtis film is "Sweet Smell of Success," in which he used his native New York accent to create Sydney Falco, a demeaned and demeaning press agent looking for lunch at the lower end of the show-business food chain in New York. He is, as Burt Lancaster's brutish newspaper columnist J.J. Hunseker says, "a man of forty faces, not one, and none too pretty." Sometimes a photo is enough, but when Hunseker turns to Falco and says, "Match me, Sydney," it's all about the words.

Prize-Winning Photos of Devil Rays, Pit Vipers...and the Urge to Preserve

Florian Schultz's photo of devil rays in the Sea or Cortez
 Until today, the only devil ray I'd ever seen was at Yankee Stadium a few years back, when the MLB team from Tampa Bay came to town. You can't see that sight anymore, because they're just the Rays now, and, as it turns out, you'd have a very hard time seeing an actual devil ray—the kind that swim in the ocean—because they are "near threatened," according to the International Union for Conservation. (The devil rays are apparently vulnerable to gill-net fishing.) So the photo above, taken by German photographer Florian Schultz in the Sea of Cortez near Baja California, is a wonder. It was also the overall winner of the Environmental Photographer of the Year contest sponsored by the London-based Chartered Institution of Water and Environment Management. 

There are so many photography contests sponsored by environmental groups, and they remain vital and popular. I can say from experience that landscape and nature are the most popular subjects for amateur photographers, probably because nature is relatively accessible, and because there is a fundamental link between the urge to take a picture and the instincts of conservation. Both are meant to preserve something.

Photographs, which communicate instantly and across the boundaries of language, are also awesomely effective tools. It has been so since the Sierra Club started producing its famous calendars back in the 1970s.

Here two other highlights from the contest:

Gray Seal in the Baltic Sea, by Kaido Haagen
 The shot above, of a gray seal poking its head through underwater plant life, was taken by an Estonian photographer, Kaido Haagen, near the Estonian island of Vilsandi. The photo below, showing a hummingbird facing off with a green pit viper, was taken by Hungarian photographer Bruce Mate.

Hummingbird, say hello to green pit viper

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Bloody Truth Behind the "True Blood" Cover of Rolling Stone

High Concept: Naked bloody vampire sex
Let's do some role-playing: You're the photo editor of a big entertainment magazine that comes out a couple times a month, and your biggest job is to make sure that each of those issues has a spectacular cover.  You line up the right celebrities, the right photographers, and the right ideas, and you hope pray that you'll end up with an image that will A) Sell; B) Sell; C) Sell; D) Not totally offend a large number of people; and E) be kind of great. If possible.

Now let's say you've got the stars of "True Blood", an HBO TV series about vampires, blood, and naked-bloody vampire-sex, in a Los Angeles studio with photographer Matthew Rolston. What do you want them all to do? What are the words you could use to describe your intentions? Here's a hint: Say you want something "high-concept, but simple, and attention-grabbing." Really, I've done it. Works every time.

"I heard that, and I thought right away, 'Oh, "True Blood"...naked, and covered in blood," says Rolston, who did indeed shoot the recent cover of Rolling Stone that featured undead "True Blood" stars Alexander Skarsgard, Anna Paquin, and Stephen Moyer undressed and covered in stage blood.

High-concept? Check. Simple? Check. Attention Getting? You're the big-time photo editor...what do you think?

Avid "True Blood" bloggers went crazy for Rolston's gory vampire sandwich. For fangirls of the series, Christmas came early. Yes, declared the image NSFW but that only meant people across America would be staging work stoppages to look at the photo. said the cover had taken the show's famed raciness to a new level.The AtlanticWire maintained its decorum by calling the picture "rather erotic." Ryan Seacrest just didn't like it at all.

When I talked with Rolston (look for him to make an appearance on "America's Next Top Model" tonight), he was understandably thrilled by the attention. One of legends of Hollywood photography, he has been shooting for Rolling Stone for 30 years, and he showed that he can still pull a shocker out of his bag of visual tricks. But he said the cover almost didn't happen, because when editors and art directors say "high-concept, simple, and attention-grabbing," they usually don't have naked bloody vampires in mind.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

New York, by Anonymous, for the Anonymous

The Main Concourse of Grand Central Station, by Anonymous
 After getting a preview of the new Taschen book New York: Portrait of a City, I decided I'd finally figured out who the greatest photographer of all time was. That photographer is named Anonymous.

Many, many, many of the images in the book were made by said photographer, including the 1929 photograph of Grand Central Station above. I found that fact fitting, even comforting. The picture, which the book credits to the New York Mass Transit Museum, captures the sublime isolation New Yorkers surround themselves with every day, even in crowds. Especially in crowds. (E.B. White put it this way: "New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation.")

The book is a big (560 pages), tumbling mix of history, archival imagery, and photography by photographers who are anything but anonymous: Alfred Stieglitz; Alvin Langdon Coburn, Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott, Carl Mydans, Paul Himmel, Louis Faurer, Saul Leiter, Joel Meyerowitz, Bruce Davidson, Cornell Capa, Dennis Stock, Sylvia Plachy, Ernst Haas, Elliott get the idea. Many cities are photographed; New York, along with Paris, has long been one of the centers of photography. It has been well documented, shall we  say. In that sense, the history of New York and the history of photography go hand in hand.

Nonetheless, it was the images attributed to anonymous photographers that attracted my gaze most, perhaps because I didn't know them as well. The photographs also reminded me that it's in the anonymity of daily life that New Yorkers create and recreate the city. By and large photographs of New York are photographs of people. (Yes, skyscrapers...but those merely as symbols for what people build.) Here's another one the images the book attributes to anonymous:

Mulberry Street, 1900, by Anonymous
When I look at this, I wonder at all those anonymous lives, and I wonder who all those people were looking at, and how that anonymous photographer got them to hold still.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Reconciling Ernest Withers, and Other Flawed Heroes

Withers's famous 1968 photo of Memphis sanitation workers
 For the past week or so I've been following the news stories about Ernest C. Withers, the photographer famed for intimately documenting the segregated South and the civil rights movement. His "I Am A Man" photograph, showing a demonstration by Memphis sanitation workers in 1968, stands as a landmark in documentary photography.
    As we know now, because of a two-year investigation by the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Withers was also an FBI informant.
    How do we reconcile those two Ernest Withers: The intimate of Dr. Martin Luther King and the FBI confidential informant coded as ME 338-R?
    What do we think now when we see his pictures? Do the facts of a journalist or artist's life change what we have come to understand as the intent of his or her work?
    Huge, huge questions. I'm puzzled and will be for a long, long time. You?
    The New York Times poked around the issue in the essay on artistic intent that it ran yesterday. Focusing on the Withers issue, it went to a few curators and historians for opinions and neatly set out some opposing views. The Times article quoted Deborah Willis, chair of the photography and imaging department at New York University, who knew and was mentored by Withers. She said "the photographs, I believe, will prevail; it doesn't change the images."  Brett Abbott, curator of an exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles called "Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties," said however that the news about Withers's work for the FBI "might prompt some scholars to sift back through...Withers's work to re-evaluate it...."
     Actually I'm wondering whether the question about Withers's photographic legacy is as important as the question about Withers the secret agent. How can you evaluate the one without understanding the other?
    A couple of generations of photographers came of age with the deepest regard for Withers—a regard that went beyond professional admiration, beyond his work. I found this lovely memoir by the thoughtful and talented Eric Meola, and after reading it I found myself wondering if we are nurtured by the work our heroes do or the lives they lead, and the struggle we inevitably feel when heroes betray.
    After I read the Times article yesterday, I looked up the obit the paper ran in 2007 when Withers died. Was there some fact there that would help explain why he chose to lead a double life? Was it interesting that Withers worked for three years as one of the first nine Afrian-American police officers in Memphis? Who can connect the dots of a man's life? Perhaps a historian; more likely a novelist—someone like John le Carre, a specialist in matters of men who live double lives. Things often end badly in his books.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Visual Week in Review: The Jets punt, Pinhole "Moonrise," Lost Laughton; and More...

Before the NFL games get started today and I shut down the blogging department for a few hours, let's look back fondly at some of the good, bad, and ugly visual news of the past week.

And why not start with football, since the New York Jets dominated not only the back but also the front pages of New York City's tabloids...again.

This time it was because the team's star wide-receiver Braylon Edwards was charged with a DUI after being stopped in his car in Manhattan early Tuesday morning and blowing a .16, which is twice the legal blood-alcohol limit in our fair state. The tabloids did what they had to do, which was to deliver the message the Jets put out. The organization was red-faced, with large head coach Rex Ryan fuming (now there's a mental image). But Edwards will be dressed for today's big game against division rival Miami Dolphins. His punishment? He won't start. Some commentators attacked the decision; the Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum said the team couldn't do anything to Edwards since he is innocent until proven guilty, which conveniently won't happen until after the season ends. Sports has officially become as cynical as New York state politics, which also made the front page  of the Daily News. What a nice juxtaposition.

Like New York state politics, the art world is also filled with believe-it-or-not stories. Have you heard the one, for instance, about the Polaroid employee who used a mural-sized print of Ansel Adams's famous image "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" as a dartboard?

"Moonrise," with moon but without darts
This amazing tidbit comes from the most recent edition of "The Photograph Collector" newsletter, which has a fulsome story about the auction of the vaunted Polaroid Collection of photography last June in New York. Editor and writer Stephen Perloff rightly calls the auction, which brought in $12,467,638, an "unmitigated triumph" for Sotheby's, and for the creditors of the old Polaroid Corporation, a one-time enlightened example of American capitalism that became as obsolete as New York's moderate Republicans.
    One of the lots offered was the "Moonrise" mural, which had hung in the Polaroid HQ cafeteria. Back in the 1960s, long before most people dreamed that there might one day be an art market for photography, a Polaroid employee used the mural as a dartboard ("presumably," writes Perloff, "aiming at the moon as the bull's eye." Alas for said employee, the moon was never hit, though numerous holes were made in the darkened sky around it.)
    Later Polaroid had conservator Robert Lyons repair the damage. At the auction, an anonymous bidder picked it up for $518,500, just above the mural's estimate of $300,000-$500,000.

The New York Times's amazing "Lens" blog this week highlighted portaits made at the newspaper's own photo studio back in the 1920s and 1930s, when, "if you wanted your picture in The New York Times—and almost anyone promoting a Broadway play or a charitable ball or an Antarctic expedition wanted to be pictured in The New York Times—you wouldn’t wait for us to come to you. You’d come to us."
     Among the images featured was this 1932 photo of actor Charles Laughton, who was opening in the play "The Fatal Alibi" at the Booth Theater.

Charles Laughton as Hercule Poirot. Or Gomez Addams?
 The play was based on Agatha Christie's novel "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd," and Laughton was portraying her famous detective Hercule Poirot. (Without changing clothes he could have stepped into the role of Gomez in the current production of "The Addams Family," and, you know what, that would have been brilliant, except that the play is soooo bad.) Sadly, the blog doesn't identify the photographer. But it did include a photo of the paper's old studio. What a place!

The gone but not forgotten Times photo studio

Back to New York state politics. You know how bad it has gotten here? I realized last night, when I saw Governor David Patterson on Saturday Night Live, that we're gonna miss him when he's gone. That's how bad it's gotten. Patterson killed when he joined Seth Meyers and Fred Armisen, who does that  so-evil-why-am-I-laughing? impression of our blind governor. Here's a still that is just funny all by itself:

Meyers, Armisen, and Patterson. Or is that Meyers, Patterson and Armisen?
Patterson scolded SNL for its wicked lampooning of his disability: "You have poked so much fun of me for being blind that I forgot I was black!"
    Now we're going to have to choose between charisma-challenged Democrat Andrew Cuomo and darkhorse-crackpot Tea Party/Republican Carl Paladino. As Armisen/Patterson put it on SNL: "It's like dinner at Olive Garden. No matter what you get, it's gonna be a greasy mess."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Crewdson's Latest at Gagosian: No Drama, and Brilliant

One of Crewdson's views of the Cinecetta studio in Rome
 Usually when a critic says photographs lack drama it's a bad thing. But in the case of Gregory Crewdson's new images, on view at the Gagosian Gallery in New York now, it's a brilliant thing, and I think a beautiful thing.

The photographs were made at the Cinecitta film studio in Rome, a legendary place where legends were transformed into film reality. Ben Hur's chariot race took place there. Martin Scorsese turned it into the infamous Five Points area of Manhattan for "Gangs of New York." The BBC and HBO turned it into Julius Caesar's hometown for its series "Rome."

Why create artifice when artifice is the subject?
 Crewdson says that he saw the studio while in Rome with a traveling show of his previous work and understood immediately how and why he would photograph it.

"It was one of those moments when I saw the entire project in my mind,” he says. “Black and white, small format, emptied-out sets. I wanted to make a connection back to the tradition of landscape photography."

Artifacts from our film dreams
 He notes that he wanted to "drain the drama" from the images, a goal that might simply be seen as a reaction to his past work: Large-scale, color images that looked like movies, suggesting narratives with lush, highly stylized, highly detailed set design and lighting.

A sample of Crewdson's previous work
 Approaching a setting where actual movies were made, where every detail suggests fragments of narratives known from films, Crewdson eased away from sensationalism. The crash of reality and fantasy was in the place itself and did not have to be elaborately manufactured.

Do you like this new direction from one of contemporary photography's biggest names? If nothing else, the new work may imply that the highly-charged "made-up reality" that has captivated fine-art photography over the past decade—a trend that Crewdson nourished while teaching at Yale—is coming to an end.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Best Photoshop Fails

The shadow knows...and so do we
For all of you who work the long hours on post production, who flirt with OCD in order to render final art that is as near perfection as a human and computer can do, I offer this hilarious roundup of awful Photoshop fails. It seems to be the hands that lead to trouble most often, though arms also present problems, as these two images show. Thoughts? What is, in fact, the hardest thing to get right, or, to put it another way, what's the easiest thing to get wrong on Photoshop?

Men at arms...a few too many arms

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In Memoriam: Jay Colton

Jay Colton ©Claudio Edinger
The well known photographer and photo editor, and friend to many in the photography world, passed away from an illness on Sunday night while at a photo festival in Brazil. (Story here.)

My Facebook news feed has been filling up with remembrances. Here's one from Brazilian photographer Claudio Edinger:
One of my best friends and brother, Jay Colton, passed away yesterday. he was a light on this planet, always helping hundreds of photographers, including me, with his unbelievable knowledge and generosity. he loved photography so much, he loved life, he loved very much his son Christopher and wife Moira and we are devastated by this loss. may he rest in peace. though i am sure we will meet again, our bond of love is just too strong, i am just too sad.

The photo of Jay above was made by Edinger.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Best TV Promo Art of All Time

Every year at this time I tell myself that I will not start watching new television shows. I don't have the time, I reason. And they're not that good.

Then I start watching anyway. You know what does me in? First and foremost, it's the promo art for the shows that I see in magazines and at the commuter train station I use, as well as on the sides of city buses and cabs. The ads I see on TV don't move me the way the print ads do. TV ads make shows look fun, or scary, maybe funny, but they don't make them look epic.

Today I was looking at the very good blog of the Stockland Martel photo rep firm, which had a post about photographer Art Streiber and his creation of the promo art for the upcoming Conan O'Brien late-night show on TBS (above). There is also a video of the shoot, which apparently has gone viral.

Streiber gives some juicy behind-the-scenes details that many commercial photographers will probably find interesting. And when I say juicy, I mean it: The owl, named Twilight, pooped down the back of Conan's jacket during the shoot. It also refused to look at the camera, despite the efforts of its trainer, except for one instant.

Anyway, I like TV show promos and I think they're a bit under-appreciated, compared with movie posters, which are treasured by collectors, both as objects and as examples of great design. So let's contemplate the TV promo ad.... 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Photos of the Day: Telling the Story with Hands

Talk to the hands: Sarkozy and Basescu feel each other out
I confess that as an editor (and sometime photo contest judge) I had a bit of a prejudice against hands. I saw so many portraits that focused on hands that I just got tired of them. Beautiful hands. Gnarled hands. Worried hands. Sweaty hands. Hands covering eyes. Hands covering mouths. Hands over hearts. I understand that many young photojournalists are taught to work with hands, and that hands can indeed reveal a character. But anything can be overdone, and I feel that hands are overdone. Where others see character, I see cliche.

Sometimes, though, hands cannot be avoided. That would certainly seem to have been the case at the recent European Union Summit in Brussels. Hands were all over the place, and they all apparently had something to say.

The photo above, for instance, shows a confrontation between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Romanian President Traian Basescu over France's plan to remove Roma (gypsy) migrants. (The photo was made by Yves Loggha for Associated Press, and it was featured on the New York Times's Lens blog.) I love the way Basescu's hands highlight Sarkozy's closed visage: It's almost as if the Romanian is feeling for a force field around the French president.

Now look at these other images, which I found on the Corbis website, and see how the story changes in subtle's a lesson in the dynamics of photographic story-telling.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Five Reasons to Love Bettina Rheims

The exhibition of photographs by celebrated French photographer Bettina Rheims that opened last night at the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York is notable not because there is anything that is particularly new—much of the work will be familiar to those who know Rheims's work. It is worth noting, however, because it highlights a photographer who, despite having had some editorial success in the U.S. in the 1990s, has never gained the renown here as she has in Europe. Galleries on this side of the Atlantic have never given Rheims the kind of sustained attention that would have made her a bigger presence in the art world here. It was wonderful to see her work at Houk and to know that she has found a home at a preeminent gallery.

Why she hasn't become more of a star here is an interesting question...

I think it's probably because her work is almost impossible to fit into discrete slots. Usually when we look at photographs it is with an immediate understanding of the tradition the work comes from and the intent with which the image-maker is working. (Same with movies, which have always been genre-based.) It's a kind of contract between creator and viewer that makes the act of communication much less taxing for both parties. Rheims hasn't signed off on that contract, and her images are filled with what can seem to be contradictions. When I look at her photographs I am frankly often confounded by my own expectations of celebrity, fashion, eroticism, feminism, and truth vs. fiction. Rheims doesn't deliver any of these things in ways I'm used to.

I think some cultures are more comfortable with contradiction than others, or, to put it another way, some cultures simply don't see contradictions where others might. Perhaps in France, where artists are given forbearance in a way not  understood in the U.S., Rheims doesn't present as many contradictions.

That's pure speculation on my part, of course, and I'd love to hear any opinions pro and con on the topic. Are the French different from you and I?

At any rate, the show at Houk offered a good summation of Rheims's career. The collection might have been a bit weighted toward her celebrity portraiture, but nonetheless it showcased the photographer's consistently surprising ideas about women and they way they are portrayed in pictures.

Here are five reasons (all from Houk) to love Rheims:

1. Monica Bellucci, Paris, 1995

 As Rheims, a one-time model herself, notes in this video, "I photograph women because I know them so well..." Her subjects, famous and beautiful,  have confidence in Rheims, and it shows.

2. Madonna, New York, 1994

In an interview I did with Rheims a couple of years ago, she said, "I have always believed that whether the work is my idea or a commission, it is personal work....In the end, as my old master Helmut Newton used to say, there are only two kinds of pictures: the good ones and the bad ones."

3. Marion Cotillard, 2002

Catherine Denueve once described Rheims's work as "masculine and feminine at the same time." Perhaps there is a contradiction there, and perhaps not.

4. Anne Pedersen, Paris, 1996

Often, it's not the big questions that prompt the creative spark, but smaller ones. "In a way, all my projects start with skin," Rheims once told me. "My first question—even before I start to think about black and white or color or camera format—is, "What kind of skin do I want to represent?"

5. Karen Muldar, 1996

Rheim's once told an interviewer that subjects often come to her studio "to scare themselves a little." Here she turns what might have been a merely scintillating shot of a tiny Chanel bra into an entire story. She may have started with skin.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Photos of the Day: California Fire and Ice

The Milky Way, shot from the White Mountains in California by Tom Lowe
 Above: Tom Lowe's photo of the Milky Way seen through a Bristlecone Pine recently won top prize in the Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest held by the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. Lowe, who  specializes in timelapse photography, said the idea of juxtaposing the ancient trees and the timeless night sky was a natural: "Seasons and weather would barely register as events over the lifetime of several thousands years," he said in a statement.

Below: National Geographic put together a set of images of the blaze set off by a gas leak in San Bruno, California on September 9. I didn't fully comprehend the hell of the scene until I saw these.

Photo by Paul Sakuma, AP

Photo by Peter DeSilva, EPA/Corbis

Photo by Jeff Chiu/AP
Fire has and I suspect always will be a staple of photojournalism, because fire is a primal fear. Here's an apt quotation I found's credited to Horace:

                      "Your own property is concerned when your neighbor's house is on fire."

Monday, September 13, 2010

Five Reasons to Love Invasion of the Body Snatchers

I like to watch movies,  and of all the movies I have ever liked to watch, the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers ranks in my personal top five. (The list changes daily, but Invasion invariably stays up at the top.) Today we got the news that Kevin McCarthy, the handsome actor who starred in the film as Dr. Miles Bennel, died at age 96. It was Bennel who, in the movie's famous final scene, gave America some sound advice about communists, right-wing demagogues, sub-prime mortgages, bed bugs, Internet porn stars, and Sarah Palin's family:

Here are five reasons to love this movie:

The malevolent monsters in this monster movie came from something growing in the back yard. How scary is that? The pods hatched zombie recreations of nice locals (not that Mrs. Grimalldi's son seemed very worried that his mom was acting even weirder than usual), were hard to kill, and had astonishing  reproductive capacities (like the Palins!). Poor Miles pitchforks one in a greenhouse, only to find more growing in the trunk of his car. Frighteningly, they emerge from native American soil. Let Alice Waters explain that!

I grew this myself!

Is it just me, or does anyone else think that American men in 1950s movies and TV shows spent a lot of time padding around the house in pajamas and robes. I suppose that after sleeping in tents and trenches through World War II and Korea they simply wanted a bit of comfort during the evening hours. But this film warns us that we should not be asleep to the dangers all around us, including the attic.

Now where did I put the Christmas tree lights...doh!

They're great to have around...until they aren't. In this movie, which came out during a period of U.S. history when trust in government (and authority figures in general) was fulsome and widespread, we learn that even kindly police chieftains can be corrupt. Of course we already knew that from older Westerns, in which local sheriffs are very often on the payroll of rich cattlemen. But at least in those movies we could secretly admire the rapacious cattlemen for their tough individualism: They knew what they wanted—as much land, money, and political power as possible—and did whatever was necessary to get it. A cop fronting for pod-zombies has no excuse for himself whatsoever.

Keep a lookout for headless bodies in the desert!

Science fiction movies exist to scare us, but the best make us worry, too. And Invasion was the best of the best. There is very little violence. There are no giant ants crunching unlucky citizens with their mandibles. In fact, no one really dies in the film...they just change. And change is scary. Ultimately, it is normalcy itself that is done in by the pod people.

Crystal Bowersox didn't win? It's rigged!
Every real film critic worth his or her salt has had a go at Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Was it a Cold War film about the dangers communism seeping into American society? Or was it a warning about the conformity of American society during the McCarthy era? It always works, this plot, no matter what frightens us, which is why filmmakers keep remaking it, with varying success. (Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake, which takes places in Me-Decade San Francisco, is the best of these.)

We never stop fearing that we may be replaced on our own land by aliens of one kind or another. How else to explain the pungency of Arizona Senator John McCain's claim that illegal aliens are known to intentionally cause car accidents. (I'm still unclear about why they would do this, since many illegals work very hard to stay under law-enforcement radar, and most people simply dislike being in auto accidents, but undoubted it made perfect sense to McCain at the time he said it. )

Likewise, the governor of Arizona famously declared on FOX News in July that headless bodies were turning up in the desert because of rising violence related to illegal immigration. Actually, the pod people were sort of headless, in a way.

Of course, we all feel the paranoia we deserve. I felt a twinge this morning, because shortly after reading about Kevin McCarthy's death I got a Tweet from Texas journalist Evan Smith, who reported that 31 percent of Texans now identify themselves as Tea Partiers. I'm sure they look just like normal Texas voters used to look, but I know they're different. Listen to me, please, you have to listen:

You're in danger! Can't you see? They're after you! They're after all of us...they're here already!



Sunday, September 12, 2010

What I Was Trying to Say

Alyson Low by Suzanne CeChillo
Two days ago I spent a good deal of time trying to carefully render, in the space of a blog post, what I feared I would see during the 9/11 anniversary events, and what I thought the anniversary should be all about. As usual, I was too elliptical in my verbiage and utterly failed to nail my point. The woman in this picture, however, makes the point perfectly.

This photograph, taken by Suzanne DeChillo for the New York Times, shows Alyson Low, whose sister, Sarah Low, was a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11.

Sunday, 9/12/10: NFL Season Begins

The New York Times Magazine kicks off the 2010-2011 season with a story featuring the New York Jets and their larger-than-life head coach, Rex Ryan. The piece's exciting photographs, by Levon Biss, create a heroic fiction—the only kind of story telling that true NFL fans will submit to. Biss is an expert at this kind of photography. (See his website.)

I'm guessing Biss was using HDR (high dynamic range) photography, which digitally combines several separate exposures to capture a greater range of tonal detail than a single exposure could. Since we started seeing HDR a few years ago it has gone from awesome to way overused. But if ever there were subjects worthy of HDR, it would be Jet linebackers David Harris and Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard.

High-dynamic defense men Harris, Scott, and Leonhard
Or am I mistaken? What do you think the effect is here? And do you think it works? At any rate, let's try to enjoy the season, because the sports-talk media is full of chatter about a lockout next year as owners try to bust the NFL players' union.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Did Photos Transform 9/11 From Fact Into Symbol?

9/11 by Steve McCurry
This morning, 9/10, I was looking at photographer Steve McCurry's wonderful blog, where he posted a number of the pictures he shot in downtown New York on September 11, 2001. Accompanying the shot above, Steve wrote, "I had just returned from Tibet the night before. I had not unpacked my luggage or camera bag. Shortly after nine o'clock when I heard of the attack, I went up on the roof of my apartment building and watched both towers billowing smoke."

I looked at Steve's photos with a sense of uneasiness—not because of the memories they activated, but because I knew I was going to be seeing quite a lot of 9/11 over the next couple of days. The ninth anniversary will bring with it plenty of archival imagery, and I'm fairly certain much of it will be used as symbol, not history.

I'd be interested in hearing from people whether they are eager (or not eager) to review the imagery of 9/11 now, and why.

Here why I'm wary: A few weeks ago I saw a FOX News story about the controversy over the proposed mosque "at Ground Zero," as the anchorperson intoned with aggrievement. Behind her big hair was a cartoon graphic illustrating the crumbled facade of the twin towers--the smoking structure that looked so much like a cathedral. (James Nachtwey's memorable photo below captured the actual facade shortly after the buildings collapsed.)

Twin Towers by James Nachtwey
The choice of emblems by FOX framed the debate without much subtlety: This is Holy Land. Decisions as to what should reside in its general vicinity should be made accordingly.

On 9/11—the real one, not the one in infographics—it wasn't a holy place at all. It was a horror. It was something that New Yorkers lived (and died) with--the ultimate live news story. And it was a local story, that morning. You could watch on TV, or you could look out your window and see the smoke blowing toward Brooklyn. You tried to phone your family, and you tried to get home.

Very quickly, it all changed. The local New York story became the local story in every city and town in the U.S. People said, "We are all New Yorkers today," and they meant it. Residents of Missouri and Montana claimed a heartfelt citizenship of the big city, each taking ownership of a piece of the 9/11 story. They sent money, they sent help. And today, not surprisingly, they want a say in what 9/11 meant.

It was pictures that brought that sudden change: pictures by McCurry and Nachtwey, Richard Drew, Angel Franco, David Handschuh, and many others who weren't watching it on TV but up close. In the weeks after 9/11, the photo magazine I worked for joined with Dirck Halsted and the Digital Journalist to put together an oral history of that day, as remembered by those photographers. We called the piece "The Facts on the Ground," because that is what we felt those journalists were capturing.

Pictures are not just facts, however. They don't work that way. People everywhere took emotional ownership of the images, as they had the city. By the time Thomas Franklin's photo of three firemen raising an American flag on the Ground Zero rubble appeared on the cover of Newsweek—an image compared repeatedly to Joe Rosenthal's picture of the flag raising on Iwo Jima—the facts were becoming legend. So print the legend.

Evoking Religion and WWII
 As others have noted, New Yorkers seemed to move on from 9/11 in a way that people in other parts of the country did not. Some said it was because New Yorkers are tough survivors. But I think it was because 9/11 was a fact for New Yorkers, not pictures in magazines and on TV. It was part of daily life that clear blue morning when we walked to work and looked down the street and saw the smoke.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How Mad Men Rewrote Sports Photo History This Week

Lots of people told me the Mad Men episode that aired last Sunday was one of the best of the entire series. I missed it because I was traveling, but got around to watching it on DVR late last night. Yes, absolutely, it was one of the best, an emotional saga condensed into the events of one long day's journey into night....and morning. (Or should I say mourning?) The night in question was May 25, 1965, which boxing fans will recognize immediately as the date that  Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in the first round of a much-heralded rematch in Lewiston, Maine. The episode revolves around that fight and ends with  a wonderful payoff—one of those tasty pieces of set design that Mad Men is famous for: It shows the front page of the New York Daily News from the following day, next to a sketch of an ad campaign for Samsonite luggage as conceived by main character Don Draper after an excruciating binge of alcohol and suffering. Here it is (shot by me from my TV screen):

The visual  distills the episode's train-wreck of emotions into a kind of comprehensible equation about  knock-out blows and perseverance, loss and redemption. (See this fulsome Mad Men analysis.)  And I think it works so well, in part, because of the iconic photograph seen on the Daily News: The shot of of Ali standing over Liston, arm raised in a taunt, is at once distant and familiar, like the world of Mad Men itself.

In fact, the photograph seen on Mad Men is probably not the icon that many viewers thought it was. There were two great pictures of that indelible moment, one of which has become a cultural touchstone, the other more or less overlooked except by photo and sports aficionados. The difference between the two? A couple of feet, color film, and the relative elegance of magazine paper over newsprint.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Corinne Day, 1945-2010

Last week I was traveling through a remote part of California where it was damned difficult to use a cell phone, and you could just forget about the Internet. So I missed the news that photographer Corinne Day died on August 27th, quietly, after a very long fight against cancer. 

Day is known as the photographer who discovered Kate Moss and ushered in "grunge" fashion photography—a too-easy label, probably. This, from a piece about her in the Guardian:
"Corinne had a very ambivalent relationship with what she had achieved," says photography curator and writer Charlotte Cotton, "Nothing was straightforward for her, not the fashion world or the art world that she tentatively moved into the 90s. She saw the inherent ridiculousness of both and instinctively reacted against it."
(Note: the Guardian article says Day died at age 48, but Day's official website gives her birth year as 1965.)

Day herself noted that that her ideas about what photography could be were shaped by Nan Goldin, whose Ballad of Sexual Dependency opened up new possibilities for photographers who felt like opening up a vein or two and letting the hurt flow. What I was stunned at, when Day's work began to appear in The Face in the early 1990s, is how quickly and thoroughly her type of imagery replaced the neo-Hollywood glamour photography of the late 80s.

The change came as a reaction to the past, the way fashion upheavals do. But the consequences were important and long lasting. Day's images were not only anti-fashion and anti-celebrity, but also opposed to the tradition of photography as iconography. The shimmering idolatry of  "Hollywood photographers" like Herb Ritts, Matthew Rolston, and Greg Gorman was not meant to be real, but quite the opposite, and it was meant to last for the ages. ("We didn't have dialog," says the faded silent-screen star Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. "We had faces.")

The people in Corinne Day's  pictures were meant to be real, and being real they were entirely tenuous.

Her fashion images didn't capture people, as photography had always done; Day's subjects seemed merely to move past her camera, to be remembered or forgotten, as the viewer wished. In the Guardian article, Juergen Teller, another photographer who emerged in the early 1990s, describes Day's early pictures of Kate Moss as having an "end-of-summer feeling." Now summer is over.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The End of Summer

The Gators
 A championship team, from some few summers in the past. The Gators were their name. There have been champions since, and there are champions yet to be born. In this picture, a personal memento gladly shared, the Gators are still celebrating, flowing cups freshly rememb'red.