Monday, January 31, 2011

Iconic Monday: Ham, Space Chimp

On Friday we took note of the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  Today, another space icon needs to be mentioned: Ham, the chimpanzee who rode a Mercury space capsule atop a Redstone rocket into space for some 16 minutes on January 31, 1961--50 years ago today. He was the first hominid to go into space--Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin became the first human to go into space the following April; Alan Shepard became the second human, and the first American, ride into space in May, 1961.

Ham in an iconic NASA PHOTO
But today is all about Ham, and a couple of heroic pictures. It may be hard for anyone who wasn't a kid at that moment to realize how glamorous this animal was in his tin-foil space suit--he made the cover of Life, for goodness sake, which shows you how badly America need space heroes. Scientists, and the rest of us who knew about space from 1950s sci-fi movies, were kind of unsure about what was up there, really, and whether an elevated organism like a chimp or human would be able to perform tasks or survive the mysteriousness of weightlessness and crushing loneliness of the black unknown. We were in a Outer Space PR battle with the Russians and we didn't want to be the first country to kill a man in space, so we trained a chimp and launched him first, just in case. (The Soviets had alread sent a dog and a monkey.) When the Soviets and we started blasting men into space a few months later, Ham became old news pretty quickly. But he has rightfully regained his place in history in movies and books. One of those movies, Space Chimp, spawned a video game of the same title.

There were two pictures that cemented Ham in the nation's memory. One was that cover shot for Life, showing Ham with his arms forthrightly crossed and an expression that implied a disregard for danger. (Who had more swagger...Ham or John Glenn?) Then there was a famous shot of Ham sitting in his chimp chair, wearing a NASA hard hat, sneering, sort of, at fear (above). Tom Wolfe included Ham in The Right Stuff as an ironic foil to the gritty courage of America's original astronauts. Here's some dialog from the movie version:
Deke Slayton: What Gus is saying is that we're missing the point. What Gus is saying is that we all heard the rumors that they want to send a monkey up first. Well, none of us wants to think that they're gonna send a monkey up to do a man's work. But what Gus is saying is that what they're trying to do to us is send a man up to do a monkey's work. Us, a bunch of college-trained chimpanzees! 
By the way, Ham fans can find a very nice collection of images, many made by the great photographer Ralph Morse, at

Ham by Life's great Ralph Morse
 In Wolfe's version of space travel, the Mercury astronauts see Ham as a threat to their sense of themselves--a symbol of a future in which technology would sublimate man's spirit of adventure. But maybe the "monkey" had the right stuff too. That's the conclusion that evidence of the photos seems to support.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Sight of Challenger, 25 Years Later

It looked plainly malevolent, the white trails of the two booster rockets streaking to the left and to the right, minds of there own, out of man's control, above the explosion. The image of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, which occurred 25 years ago today, is locked into American history now. You remember where you where when you saw it happen, if you were alive and near a TV on that day in 1986. Because of the image, most of us remember the shock of watching it happen live, but memories--especially memories abetted by strong imagery, are often faulty. I recently found a story listing seven myths about the Challenger disaster, and the first myth was that lots of people saw it happen live on television. In fact, relatively few people saw it live--many people were at work, of course, but even those with access to a TV probably didn't see the explosion as it happened. It was a different world then: three broadcast news networks, all of which had cut away from the launch before the disaster, and a new cable news service called CNN which did television everything that happened, live. No Internet, of course. Most of us heard about it later, when ours phones started ringing.

Another myth: The astronauts died instantly in the fireball 73 seconds after launch. They were alive when the shuttle hit the water at two minutes and 45 seconds after breakup. One of those things that's interesting to know.

I also found the following description of the event, from Don DeLillo's novel Underworld:

Space burial. He thought of the contrails on that blue day out over the the boosters sail apart and hung the terrible letter Y in the still air. The vapor stayed intact for some time, the astronauts fallen to the sea but also still up there, graved in frozen smoke, and he lay awake in the night and saw that deep Atlantic sky and though this death was soaring and clean, an exalted thing, a passing of the troubled body into vapor and flame, out above the world, monogrammed, the Y of dying young.

He wasn't sure people wanted to see this. Willing to see the systems failure and the human sufferng. But the beauty, the high faith of space, how could such qualities be linked to death? Seven men and women. Their beauty and ours, revealed a in failed mission as we haven't seen it in a hundred triumphs. ..

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Annie Leibovitz's Spidey Sense


 Glenn Beck lovvvved it.

That is enough to keep me away from "Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark," the bruising Broadway musical. Does that make me one of the elitists Beck and his FOX News brethren despise? No doubt. Whatever. If I don't go, it's just one more seat available for the nice lady from Terre Haute.

The $65-million musical, directed by Julie Taymor with music by Bono and The Edge blah blah it going to be Broadway's biggest disaster? Will any more actors fall from the ceiling? I don't care, because I can't afford Broadway and I forswore and refudiated seeing any more Broadway musicals after sitting through the excruciating musical version of "The Addams Family" last year, which featured a desperate-looking Nathan Lane and miserable-looking Bebe Neuwirth. Glenn Beck probably laughed and cried through it.

Which brings me, unbelievably, to the February issue of Vogue, which features a big, expensive fashion story based on "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark". Shot by Annie Leibovitz, no less. It's all way over the top, which of course is the spirit of most Broadway shows.  And during these lean, mean days, it's wonderful to see such a gaudy visual blowout--a miracle of art direction and post-production mixing actual models and actors into a comic-book illustration. The magazine certainly had the whole thing set up, shot, and produced way back before the show became a Letterman joke, and I'm sure there are some Conde Nast bean counters tsk-tsking about the lack of editorial foresight, but there are always suits who do that, because that's what they do. Which makes me like it even more. Here are some of the pictures. What do you think?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Iconic Monday: Karsh and Churchill

My new leaf for the new year is to focus on photographic legacy, so Monday's will now become Iconic Mondays--each week another famous picture. (By the way, if you'd like icons more than just once a week, go here. One of the best photo blogs going, I think. Also excuse me if I crib a little bit. That's what the Internet is for, yes?) For this week's edition, I thought we'd go with an an icon among icons--perhaps, even, the single most memorable photographic portrait ever made: Yousef Karsh's portrait of Winston Churchill.

Lots of people know, or at least have a vague idea of the story behind the picture...but it's always worth retelling. Because that's what icons are all about.

Canadian photographer Karsh--a.k.a. Karsh of Ottowa--made this portrait of the British Prime Minister on December 30, 1941, just following Churchill's rousing speech to the Canadian House of Commons--the speech famed for this Churchillian turn:
When I warned [the French] that Britain would fight on alone, whatever they did, their generals told their prime minister and his divided cabinet: "In three weeks, England will have her neck wrung like a chicken."
Some chicken. Some neck.
Karsh had been hired by the Canadian government to take the picture to commemorate the speech, and Churchill was delivered to the photographer directly after finishing. As the story has been told, Churchill was unfortunately not told he was gong to be posing for a photo, and he was not happy; he told Karsh he had exactly two minutes to work. Karsh himself later described what happened next:
...chewing vigorously on his cigar...He reluctantly followed me to where my lights and camera were set up. I offered him an ash tray for his cigar but he pointedly ignored it, his eyes boring into mine. At the camera, I made sure everything was in focus, closed the lens and stood up, my hand ready to squeeze the shutter release, when something made me hesitate.Then suddenly, with a strange boldness, almost as if it were an unconscious act, I stepped forward and said, "Forgive me, sir." Without premeditation, I reached up and removed the cigar from his mouth.

...At this [his] scowl deepened, the head was thrust forward belligerently, and the hand placed on the hip in an attitude of anger...I clicked the shutter. Then he relaxed. "All right," he grunted as he assumed a more benign attitude, "you may take another."
The photo below is the second take.

It was the scowling shot, of course, that came to symbolize Churchill's fierce, lonely, three-year-long resistance to the Nazi war machine. If he smiles broadly in the second shot, he has reason enough: The U.S. had just joined the war after Japan's December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. Churchill's North American tour was something of a victory lap, though victory was still another three years away.

If you look around, you'll find the Karsh story told with minor variations, but the essential facts seem to be in place. I sometimes wonder whether Karsh's bold act of cigar removal was as "unconscious," as he described, but most likely it was, more or less. And I think it's the instinctual nature of the act that endears the anecdote to photographers: It speaks of the artistic nature of photography, especially portraiture. Great pictures, Karsh tells us, don't simply result from turning knobs on cameras and opening shutters. It's often a matter of pushing other buttons.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Week in Watching

A few random pictures and thoughts from the visual week that was:

1. More Rock and Roll

Kirshner, Al Nevins, Little Eva, Gerry Goffin, and Carole King, by PopSie Randolph
In my last post I went on about how the art of rock-and-roll photography had become the delight of many photo historians and museum curators. Then while I was reading the newspapers I saw that Don Kirshner, rock impresario, had died at age 77. A very successful music publisher, he is best known--to people my age, that is--for his syndicated TV show "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert," which went on the air in 1973. (The show sort of marked a mid-way point between American Bandstand and MTV.) The article about him in the New York Times included a great photo--taken in 1962 to promote one of the most superb pop songs ever, "Loco-Motion," which was written by that hit-writing team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King and performed by the great Little Eva. The picture was taken by one William PopSie Randolph, a photographer I unfortunately had never heard of, so I looked up his archive online. Randolph, a.k.a. "The Legend of Broadway, died in 1978, leaving behind some 100,000 negatives and prints, according to the website, with images of everyone from Sinatra to Eddie Fisher to the Rolling Stones. I probably should have known about him before this, but I'm very glad to find his work. Historians and curators take note--and please let me know what you think...

2. The Environmental Portrait

Jospeph N. DiVincenzo, and Bird, by Richard Perry for the New York Times
The Times also had an article on Wednesday about Joseph N. DiVincenzo, the executive of Essex County in New Jersey, who is a Democrat but likes to make deals with Republicans, such as Governor Chris Christie, who has yet to start losing weight for a possible White House run in 2012. Yes, this piece was in the regional section. At any rate, I was stopped dead by the accompanying picture of DiVincenzo, taken by Times photographer Richard Perry. This is a little master class in how to describe an individual who probably isn't very photogenic in one single, dynamic photo. First, it completely illustrates the point of the article, because the guy is on the phone, eyes shuttered with what might nicely be described as a shrewd squint...let's see, could he be making a deal? (Did Monty Hall have a pocket full of Benjamins?) But it's the surrounding environment that does the real work in this know exactly what kind of character you're dealing with when you see that stuffed bald eagle--I'm thinking and hoping it's paper mache and not a real bald eagle, but I could be wrong. The eagle  perches over DiVincenzo's head like a thought balloon--a outward representation of the man's self-image? I can only imagine that Perry's eyes bugged out when he saw the bird, knowing that he had the perfect prop for a terrific environmental portrait.

3. All the Girls Fit to Print

Kidman by Lubomirski for Harper's Bazaar--subscription cover
 My favorite magazine cover of the month, so far, is this portrait of Kidman by Alexi Lubomirski for the February issue of Harper's Bazaar. (Note: I'm assuming this cover went to subscribers, and that the cover below is the one you'll find on newsstands. Subscribers do much better.) I just think it's a beautiful picture of Kidman. You?

 In other media news we have model Brooklyn Decker on the February edition of Esquire. I know, we've all seen this same cover (substitute different hot chicks) about a billion times...but so what. Decker's name makes a good cover line. Photo by Yu Tsai.

And then in advertising we have Scarlett Johansson starring in a pretty fabulous new campaign for Moet & Chandon. The campaign was shot by British photographer Tim Walker.

Here's another, better, shot from the campaign:

Does anyone else think the shot above references Ed Feingersh's famous shot of Marilyn with her Chanel bottle?

A few years ago, Nicole Kidman became the face of Chanel for a while. Which brings us full circle. Enough watching for one week.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hail, Hail Rock and Rock Photography

Elvis by Alfred Wertheimer
 One of the unexpected benefits that came out of the opening of the Rock and Rolling Hall of Fame in 1995 was a flurry of research on--and growing appreciation of--rock-and-roll photographers. The new museum began creating a collection of images, many of which were featured in a special 1996 issue of the photo magazine I used to edit. Since then, galleries and museums have continued unearthing and celebrating the genre. The Govinda Gallery in Washington, D.C. has been at the center of many rock-photo exhibitions, including a new show at the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. It's called "Elvis at 21," and it features 56 images of The King before he was the The King, all taken by Alfred Werthheimer, most of them now iconic. There is also a new book out from Steidl called A Star Is Born: Photography and Rock that is a fairly comprehensive survey of the photographers who documented the world of rock over the past half century or so. This all follows up on the 2009 exhibition called "Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955-Present" at the Brooklyn Museum, which curated by one of my favorite photo historians, Gail Buckland. (There was an accompanying book from Random House.)

Access in Everything: Elvis by Wertheimer
Not coincidentally, the Rock and Roll Museum came about just as baby boomers started to get old enough to get some perspective on their misspent youth and the music that provided its soundtrack. As for rock photography, it was only a matter of time before savvy curators and publishers focused on photographers like Annie Leibovitz, Mark Seliger, Jim Marshall, Daniel Kramer, and, of course, Wertheimer. Elvis remains the most compelling figure in rock, at least to me, and Wertheimer's images continuing to be endlessly intriguing. He was hired in 1956 by RCA Victor records to shoot promotional pictures of the up-and-coming performer and was smart enough to see that the kid was kind of magnetic and might have a future. So he tagged along with Elvis on tour and produced deeply intimate, introspective images.

 Amy Winehouse by Max Vadukul, 2007 from "Who Shot Rock"
The full access Wertheimer had with Elvis really set the stage for much of the great rock photography that would follow. In 1977, Leibovitz went on tour with the Rolling Stones and produced images every bit as intimate--some painfully so. But that was about when it all ended: By the 1980s, labels and performers stopped granting that kind of access, and the art of rock photography changed as photographers like Leibovitz, Seliger, and Albert Watson perfected a refined and high-concept style of rock portraiture that elevated turned performers into icons. 

LL Cool J by Albert Watson, 1992

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Art of Bullfighting

 If you're going to talk about bullfighting and art, I suppose you'd better start with Hemingway, right? All that Death in the Afternoon stuff equating writing with bullfighting. "All stories, if continued far enough, end in death," he said. More to the point: "Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honor."

Now that we've have that out of the way, we can go on to James Hill's pictures of bullfighting, which were highlighted last week on the New York Times's Lens blog. I met James several years ago at a photography workshop, and really liked him right off the bat. He did a brilliant job covering the American invasion and takeover of Iraq in 2003 for the Times, and since has become the newspaper's contract photographer for Europe, based at one time and another in Moscow and Rome. Last year he made a series of images of bullfighting, and, like Hemingway, he addresses the sport of ritualized death as an artistic endeavor.

 Unlike Hemingway, Hill also approaches the subject with an honest degree of humor: "Bullfighting is very obviously from another era," he says to writer James Estrin. "If someone said to you today, 'Why don’t we start a contest where we put a bull and a man in a ring, and we give the man some colored capes and a sword, and maybe some other men on horses can come and help him, and the man should be dressed up in pink tights and a funny sort of colored suit with gold bits on?'—you would think the idea was mad."

 You have the sense in his pictures that he himself is working through an internal debate over the moral complexities represented by bullfighting. His pictures seem to flit through different thoughts--the colors, the pageantry, and the blood—as a photographic experiment. His pictures, like most pictures, invite a moral debate, with a clear understanding that morality is, like bullfighting, a risky business. Or as Hemingway put it: "Decadence is a difficult word to use since it has become little more than a term of abuse applied by critics to anything they do not yet understand or which seems to differ from their moral concepts."