Monday, February 28, 2011

Iconic Monday: Is this the Best Wedding Photo Ever Taken?

 Last week I wrote about the engagement of Charles, the Prince of Wales, and Diana Spencer. To be more precise I wrote about a few pictures that captured that captivating event in 1981. For this Iconic Monday, we'll stay with love, or if not love with marriage. I have a nomination for the best wedding photo ever taken. It was taken on September 12, 1953, by  Life magazine photographer Lisa Larsen, at the wedding of John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier in Newport, Rhode Island.

Undoubted I am drawn to this picture because of the Kennedy glamour. Kennedy weddings are about as close as we Americans come to royal weddings; their nuptials have combined romance and history in varying amounts. This photo seems loaded with both: Though JFK was still nearly seven years away from being elected President of the United States, I believe I can see here, in the sparkling presence of bride and groom, the first glimmerings of Camelot. (Or maybe it's just me; this is what happens when you look at photographs too much: They start speaking to you, and you can't be sure whether they're being entirely trustworthy.)

At any rate, the contact sheet with this frame and Larsen's outtakes. So you can judge for yourself what kind of photographic gifts she brought to the wedding. Feel free to offer up other great wedding photos to compare.

I think I also admire the picture because of the photographer, who packed a little glamour of her own. Larsen was born in Germany and came to New York at age 17 after graduating from college. She was fluent in French, English, German, and had some Danish and Russian. She worked as a photographer for Vogue, Parade, Glamour, Holiday, and other magazines before being hired by Life as a contract photographer in 1950.

She did all kinds of assignments, surviving a trip into the Himalayas, trekking into Outer Mongolia (she was the photographer to do so after a government-enforced ten-year ban). The great photographer and Life historian John Loengard once characterized her to me as the "glamour girl" of photojournalism because she was so adept at endearing herself to people--particularly people who were newsworthy. According to Loengard, the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev  once gave her a bouquet of peonies, and North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh said, "If I were a young man, I'd be in love with you." (Sort of makes you wonder if we might have found a better way to fight the Cold War, doesn't it?) She was fabulous looking, and warm, and she made the people she photographed look that way, too.

Larsen was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1957 and underwent surgery. She came back full of high spirit and ready to resume her career, but in fact she was not well. She died in March, 1959, 52 years ago, at age 34.

President Kennedy would die some four years later, a little more than ten years after Larsen took pictures at his wedding.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Photos of the Week: Fashion, Libya, and Uganda

My weekly roundup of photography from newspapers and magazines is up today at Le Lettre de la Photographie. Here's a sample:

1. Fashion Week

There are lots of ways to shoot fashion. I've found that photojournalists often approach the fashion scene they way they would an exotic culture. In this shot, a patron of New York's Mercedes Fashion Week enters the festivities under the watchful eye of some of fashion's deities. Photo by Timothy A. Clary/ AFP/Getty Images.

 Jeff Mermelstein, a noted New York street photographer, went to Paris to cover Fashion Week there. He underscored the theatrical nature of it all in this shot of model Frida Gustavsson and photographer William Klein at a rehearsal for the Lanvin show.

2. The Arab World

 Revolution spread to Libya this week, shaking the rule of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. This image was obtained by the AP, and it reportedly shows demonstrators in the city of Benghazi, facing into the winds of change.

 In Bahrain, demonstrators used rocks to spell out messages in the city of Manama. The Arabic message at the center reads, "Down with the gangster government." Photo by Hasan Jamali/AP

3. Winter

 Will it ever end? Before it does, let's consider how much fun it can be. Here's another shot from above: Students in Tokyo playing in the snow on February 15. Photo by Kyodo/Reuters

4. Uganda

 New York Times photographer Todd Heisler covered the recent elections in Uganda, and told the story by shooting posters plastered on walls across the country. Everywhere, it seemed, was the face of President Yoweri Museveni, who ended up winning another term with two-thirds of the vote.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Iconic Monday: The Engagement of Charles and Diana, told in Three Pictures

 At this point it seems a fairly safe assumption the one of the big news stories of the summer will be the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. But I tend to look back instead of ahead, which is a curse, but there you go. Thirty years ago this week--Thursday, to be exact--Buckingham Palace announced the engagement of William's parents, Charles, the prince of Wales, and Diana Spencer.

The event, at least for me, can be summed up in three pictures. Two of them are iconic, and they tell a tale of two dresses, of a fairy-tale before and after, though in this case the after was really the middle of a longer story that didn't end happily at all.

Above is the picture that helped catapult Diana to the top of the world-wide celebrity list. I am quite sure that millions of men who really couldn't have cared less about royals or royal wedding suddenly began taking an interest as soon as they saw it. It was taken in the fall of 1980 by one of those enterprising Brit press photographers after rumors began to swirl about Diana and Charles. Diana was working at the time at a nursery school, and, as I recall (from the TV biopic about Diana that I saw many years ago), the pack of photographers staking out the place were delighted to see her walking toward them with the sun at her back. Were these legs going to be royal legs? Ultimately, they were less important in the long run, I think, than the expression, which seems to have been a native instinct of Diana's: head tilted down, eyes looking up. Shy Di, they called her. But the mouth promised something more.

Then she left her flat and roommates and moved into Buckingham Palace and began being tutored on how to be a princess. If I'm not mistaken, the Queen Mother took on the role of teacher. The photo below was taken on February 24, 1981, the day of the official announcement of the engagement.

Let's look at it for one second. It is not iconic, but a historical document. It's one of those family photos that are taken to mark significant moments, and those kinds of photos often end up looking like this. Note the expressions, the body language. the Queen's shoes. Here the promise seems to be of a much colder future.

The other photo I remember from the period was taken during the couple's first public appearance after the announcement. The event was a Royal Opera benefit, and the big news was the dress that Charles's fiance wore. "Lady Di Takes the Plunge," said the Daily Mirror the following day. It was a black taffeta evening gown, strapless and low cut.

It's very wrong to draw too many conclusions from a single still photo, but let's do it anyway. Diana looks happy here--check that, she is glittering. The very picture of a 1980s princess. If there were any doubt, this picture showed once and for all that she was one of those special people who charm the camera. Charles was not blessed with abundant charisma. But he was the future king, and always had been, and I expect he was used to being the main attraction in situations like this. Now there was something new in his life. What do you think he was thinking here?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Photos This Week: Irina Shayk, Oscar Portraits, and that weirdly troublesome iPhone Hipstamatic iPhone app

You can see my entire weekly roundup of photos at Le Lettre, but here are some that, in one way or another, sum up the visual culture of the moment

1. Irina Shayk vs. Depression

  No matter what the score, when the Super Bowl clicks down to the final minute I start wondering which international supermodel will be on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. That's not really true, but you get the idea: After the big finale of the NFL season, there's not much for sports fans to look foward to...until the NCAA's March Madness tournament. That's a whole month of depression...especially for New York Mets fans, who can't really take much joy as the prospect of pitchers and catchers showing up for spring training. So there is the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. And this year the issue has Russian model Irina Shayk on the cover. She was photographed for this year's issue by the very creative Raphael Mazzuco Bjorn Iooss. Now, of course, the annual issue is a multi-media franchise, and you can go online and watch video clips. But now that the imagery is so available, is the cover still the event it used to be? Below is another Shayk shot.

2. Oscar vs. Glamour

 Gone, gone, gone are the days of haute Hollywood glamour. The evidence was laid out plainly in magazines during the February media build-up to the Oscar show on February 27. Once, the Hollywood portrait absolutely demanded dramatic lighting and lavish hair, makeup, and wardrobe styling. But that was back when there were screen idols and audiences willing to suspend their disbelief and accept the idea that there were heroes among us, and that those heroes dressed well and looked perfect. No more. For it's annual "Hollywood Portfolio," Vanity Fair led with a very dressed-down portrait of the three guys who made The Social Network so great: director David Fincher, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, and actor Jesse Eisenberg. What is the message in this vanilla-flavored photo? That blue jeans are inherently more "real" than suits and ties? In classic Hollywood images, if you couldn't achieve glamour, you had to at least go with humor. The neo-classical photos by Herb Ritts also substituted really hot sexiness for glamour. I am not sure that realism is really that interesting.

 Here's another shot from the Vanity Fair portfolio. Here, British photographer Rankin gives actor Colin Firth the glamour treatment--the lighting and clothes and all--but it's a post-modern glamour that we're supposed to laugh at rather than buy into.

And here's a shot of Jesse Eisenberg, by Peter Hapak, from Time magazine. There isn't much interpretation here--just the actor in character in character as Mark Zuckerberg. 

3. Hipstamatic vs. Photojournalism

February is also when the year's major photography awards start getting handed out. One award has already caused a fairly high degree of anxiety: New York Times photographer Damon Winter won third place for feature picture story from Picture of the Year International for images he made while covering the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Did I mention that he made them on his iPhone, with that intriguing Hipstamatic app, which automatically adjusts color and contrast while burning in certain areas within the frame. What does it mean when pro photographers use apps like this? Was it fair that they won an award? Was it right? Does the award mark the end of photojournalism, as one troubled observer put it? (Michael Shaw has a nice discussion about the issue on Bag News Notes.) Winter defended the images on the Time's "Lens" blog, saying the app applied the same kinds of aesthetics that photographers do when they shoot with professional cameras. Your thoughts?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Iconic Tuesday: The Tale of the Lady Spy Who Posed in Prison and Died with Her Gold

Mrs. Greenhow and her daughter, photographed in prison by Alexander Gardner, 1862
She was no Mata Hari.

Rose O'Neal Greenhow used social connections in Washington, D.C,, not sex, to become the Confederacy's most famous spy during the Civil War. Her feats of espionage had already earned her fame when photographer Alexander Gardner took this portrait of her and her daughter in 1862. Gardner's portrait is the plainest kind of document, footnote to history; it is titled simply "Incidents of the War. No. 212, Mrs. Greenhow and Daughter, Imprisoned in the Old Capitol, Washington."

But even the most straight-forward of photographs invite speculation: Who is this person? Why is she there? Is that a smile, and if so what could it mean? As documents, photos often raise more questions than they answer, which is probably why we find them so intriguing. It seems to me that Gardner, who was working for the Mathew Brady studio at the time, captured a woman who was settling into the role of  martyr with not a little satisfaction. But that's just speculation. What we know about this picture is that it has become an icon of conflict that erupted in America almost 150 years ago.

Mrs. Greenhow was born in the South but raised in Washington, and in the 1840s and 1850s the young widow was a bright social fixture in the city, especially among pro-slavery politicians. James Buchanan was a friend of Greenhow, and when he became president she gained social power across the political spectrum. I've seen an account saying that Abraham Lincoln dined with her.

When war broke out her sympathies lay with the Confederacy, and she made little if any attempt to conceal them. One evening in July, 1861, she dined with an army colonel who was about to enlist in the Confederate army at Manassas, Virginia., just south of Washington. The colonel asked her to pass on military intelligence she might overhear and even gave her a code and phony address to do so.

She did just that, providing General P.G.T. Beauregard with the Union army's plans for what would be known as the Battle of Bull Run. It proved helpful: the Union suffered its first major defeat in the fighting there.

Authorities in Washington hired Allan Pinkerton to investigate. He planted spies around her and intercepted messages she was sending to the South. After a period of house arrest she found herself, with her daughter, in the city's Old Capitol Prison.

Four months later she was exiled to Richmond, Virginia, capitol of the Confederacy. She then moved to England, where she wrote a book about her work as a spy, and martyr. Her purpose was to create pro-Confederacy sympathy within Britain, and she gain international celebrity. She also became very rich, and that proved her undoing.

In 1864, she decided to return to Virginia, traveling in a Confederate blockade-runner. The ship ran aground on a sand bar at the mouth of Cape Fear River. Greenhow, worried about being captured by Union soldiers, set off in a lifeboat; the boat swamped and Greenhow, weighed down by a substantial amount of gold she was carrying in a money belt, drowned.

It was an incident of the war.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Photos of the Week: Eqyptians Revolt, Minka Kelly Plays, and the Gipper Laughs Once More

You can find my weekly roundup of pictures from magazines and newspaper at Le Lettre, which as I said before you should be looking at daily if you're interested about what's going on in photography. Here's a peek at a few I included, plus a couple I didn't.

1. The Armored Revolution

The images from the uprising in Egypt continued to stuff this week. I began to notice a recurring visual motif: Tanks. As the anti-Mubarak demonstrators filled Cairo's streets and the Egyptian army rolled in to establish control, the story of the revolt-or at least the story that pictures were telling--focused on the confrontation between people power and armored power. In this really remarkable picture, which ran on the front page of the New York Times, protesters held a candlelight vigil that swirled around a tank. Photo by Emilio Morenatti/AP

An Egyptian soldier is seen sleeping inside an armored personnel carrier parked in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Here we glimpse the hidden humanity that is surrounded by tons of steel. Photo by Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP

And here the situation is reversed: A protester finds a place to rest on the wheels of a tank in Tahrir Square. What if it was the same one the the soldier was sleeping inside? Photo by Emilio Morenatti/AP

Pull back a bit and we learn that protesters have turned the army's armored cordon into a camp for themselves. Photo by Emilio Morenatti/AP

 2. The Super Bowl

Good game, really enjoyable, and congrats to the Pack and MVP Aaron Rogers. It was snowy and icy in Dallas, but Cowboys Stadium has a roof, so the only thing falling after the game was confetti. Packer linebacker Diyral Biggs enjoyed it. I wish I could have found a shot of Cameron Diaz feeding popcorn to A-Rod. Photo by John Biever for Sports Illustrated

 3. Minka vs. Minka

Speaking of A-Rod, his teammate Derek Jeter goes out with actress Minka Kelly, right? And she was named by Esquire magazine as the sexiest woman alive last October, yes? Now she's appearing in GQ. What a magazine rivalry! Okay Esquire got her first (above). Photos by Yu Tsai

But GQ answered strongly, and, for me, better, 'cause she looks more playful. What do you think? Photos by one of the great photographers of playful, sexy women, Ellen Von Unwerth

 4. Why Is This Man Laughing?

Oh, wait, it's not's the Gipper, President Ronald Reagan, who would have turned 100 this past week. Time magazine has a great portfolio on its website with pictures and stories about the Reagan years from legendary White House photographer Diana Walker. Here is what she says about this picture: "After Walter Cronkite's last interview with the President as the anchor the CBS Evening News, there was a little celebration in the room off the Oval Office. White House staffers, including Vice President Bush, enjoyed a good laugh over a joke that hase never become public." Those were the days.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Skateboarder + Camera= Moments of Grace

Todd Jordan, Pro Skateboarder, photo by Ben Cohen

When I saw the words "Nike" and "Jordan," what do you think of? Well, this post isn't about that.

This is about Todd Jordan, the professional skateboarder (Nike sponsored) and professional photographer. It's not the usual two-fer career. I met Jordan a few years ago, when he was with the Zoo York skateboard team. That was also when he was launching his career as a fine-art photographer, sort of. Probably it just seemed "sort-of," because pro skateboards don't do careers the way the a lot of people do. He was a pro skateboarder who traveled all the time and "Oh, yeah, I take some pictures wherever I go." It was a casual endeavor. Or not. I was intrigued, first because I really liked the pictures he made. You meet a skateboarder who is a photographer, and you think, "Okay, I'm going to see a lot of pictures of skinny guys in baggy jeans and white tee-shirts doing endless ollies. But Jordan didn't shoot skateboarding. Essentially his work was a visual diary--places he visited while skateboarding all over the world, people he met, friends he hung out with. My first instinct is to say the pictures appealed to me because of their honesty, or authenticity, but sincerity is may be a better word. They seemed to gracefully accept and appreciate the rewards of youth. Very often they were beautiful, and very often I found them a little heartbreaking.
Warsaw, Poland, 2010
Bathhouse, Karakol, Kazakhstan, 2008

 Last week I caught up again with Jordan, who recently turned 30. "I wasn't even thinking about it. And then you realize you're 30, and it's a little bit of a shock," he said. He still travels all the time, though he admitted to have started thinking about shopping around for a house, given the current buyers' market. "I'm at such a different pace now than when we last met," he said. "I've been to the hospital enough times to have a pretty good understanding of what I'm capable of and what I'm not. There were trips I went on in my early 20s where I spent way too much of my time in the hospital. I'd go to Europe for seven weeks and spend a week of that time in the hospital." 

His photography has evolved too. Recently he has been shooting some ad campaigns for Nike SB, taking creative authenticity taken to another level---a pro skateboarder who endorses their products, and the guy taking the pictures for the ads that sell the products. "Whenever you go on trips for the company, there's always a photographer along to document it," he says. "But there's a difference between being the photographer in the front of the van and being the photographer in the back of the van with the other members of the team." He's also been branching out, shooting for other Nike divisions and some other companies.

Flower sale, Cappadocia, Turkey, 2010

His fine-art work has evolved, too. He studied at the School of Visual Arts, and his hero was (and is) Nan Goldin, who made it okay for a generation of photographers to turn their personal lives into art. Lately he's been doing portraits of people he knows--lots of his former girlfriend--and they impressed me. They're formal but don't suffer from excess artifice. They capture a realness (as opposed to reality, which photographs are not). And almost always a tenderness. "It's all about finding the level of comfort with someone," he said.

Kevin, Cappadocia, Turkey, 2010
Room at Park Plaza, Los Angeles, 2010
 Jordan grew up in Kingston, New York, in the Hudson Valley. He started skateboarding when he was about 10. "It was fairly typical," he said. "All my friends and my brothers were skateboarding. I was just the only one who didn't stop." He had one friend with a good camcorder shot some footage of him, then did a nice editing job. "When I saw that, I thought, 'Hey, I'm pretty good,'" he said. He sent the video to the Zoo York pro team, and they eventually got back to him and offered him a spot on their team. He was in high school at the time. "That's they way every little kid with a skateboard thinks it works...but it almost never does," Jordan said. "But it did for me."

When my own son was in middle school, he was an obsessed skateboarder, and he and his friends spent hours videotaping each other. Here's the move: You go into a kind of crouch on the board and hold the camera down low, near the wheels, shooting up. "Yeah, that's the first thing you figure out when you look at the skateboarding photos in magazines or the videos on YouTube," Jordan told me. "Shooting up from a low angle makes you look huge. That's what the fisheye lens is for." Was it the visual self-referencing of the sport that got Jordan into photography? No, it was the 35mm SLR that his mother owned. "I really coveted that camera," he said. Then it was the photo class in high school. Later he studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where one of his instructors, photo dealer Peter Halpert, encourage him. Later, Halpert became began representing him.

Mateusz, Warsaw, Poland, 2010
And now he is 30. And thinking about book project he might want to do with Nike. And starting to think about a house. And other things. He went to Turkey recently on behalf of Nike and loved it. "Istanbul is a skateboarder's dream," he said. And he was in Miami in December for Art Basel, where there was an exhibition of a project called "Now I Remember," featuring images that he and some friends produced with cell phone cameras. "Yeah," he says, it was really fun."

Monday, February 7, 2011

Iconic Monday: The Story Behind Hansel Mieth's Cranky Monkey

Mieth called the picture "The monkey on my back."
Last week I focused on the iconic photos of the first chimp in space. This Monday I thought I'd stay with man's ancestors and look at one of my favorite iconic Life magazine pictures—Hansel Mieth's portrait of a runaway rhesus monkey in Puerto Rico.

The image became a Life favorite after it's original publication in 1938. Over the years it's been reprinted in books countless times and sold as a poster. Mieth took many fine pictures for Life, but this is the one she became known for—which is she called the photo "the monkey on my back."

The explanation for its lasting impact? Probably the monkey's expression, which has been variously described as heartbreaking, sullen, and just plain P-Oed.  I would go with P-Oed, but for all I know this may be the default expression of rhesus monkeys in repose. Let's agree that the face has left generations of viewers a bit...uneasy. 

According to Mieth, a Life writer took one look at the image and  said, "That's Henry Luce!" When a mean-looking monkey reminds you of your boss, you know it's trouble. Maybe when we look at Mieth's monkey we all simply see a face we're familiar with.

Mieth at work for Life, 1938
The story behind the picture is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as Mieth herself, and that's really why I wanted to write about her monkey today. Her life's story has been told in documentary called Hansel Mieth: Vagabond Photographer, which aired on PBS in 2003. As the title suggests, she was something of an iconoclast, and she never fit easily into the world of middle-class values embraced, extolled, and (in her case) enforced by Life magazine's editors. But as John Loengard, the legendary former director of photography (and foremost historian) of Life has written, the tale of Mieth's life and career was also a love.

She was born Johanna Mieth in Oppelsbohm, Bermany in 1909, but her father nicknamed her Hansel. At age 15 she left home with her teenage lover, Otto Hagel, began rambling through Europe on a romantic jaunt that wold last nearly 60 years.

"We lived with a goup of teenagers under a bridge over the Danube river," she once told Loengard, who interviewed her for his book Life Photograpers: What They Saw. "I had a guitar, and Otto had a violin. In the 1920s you could get along that way in Austria." Once they stayed in a monastery in Yugoslavia for six weeks, Mieth dressed as a boy in short leather pants. They eventually started making a little money taking pictures and writing short articles for newspapers. When Hilter rose to power, Hagel went to America on a boat carrying canaries. She followed later. Eventually they found themselves in Depression-era California, continuing their photographic work by documenting amigrant farm laborers. Mieth started working for the Works Progress Administration.

"We were idealistic liberals," she told Loengard. "And what happens to liberals? Nothing. They lose their shirt."

In 1936, David Hulburd, the head of the Time Inc. office in San Francisco, asked Mieth if she wanted to work for Henry Luce, who was not an idealistic liberal, as a Life stringer. She shot a story on a sheep farm in Red Bluff, California, and one of her pictures made the magazine's cover. In 1937 they offered her a staff job. "I must have been a little hungry or something, because I said OK," she told Loengard. She bcame the magazine's second female staff photographer, the first being Margaret Bourke-White, whom Mieth befriended when she moved (with Hagel) to New York. "Once she admired a black velvet dress with red heart buttons that I was wearing," she recalled. "She came back a little later and handed me a package and said we should be friends together. When I unwrapped it, I found a nice red compact in a heart shape made of good leather, just like the buttons I had on my dress."

Otto Hagel and Hansel Mieth (undated)
Hagel became a well known photographer in his own right. He and Mieth were, as she put it later,  happily "living in sin" when Life editors, who felt they needed to protect the magazine's image, started looking at them with expressions somewhat like that of her rhesus monkey.  To appease the editors, Mieth and Hagel applied for a marriage license. While they were waiting for it, Robert Capa appeared at the magazine's office saying his visa had been cancelled. He had to leave the country...or marry an American citizen. He had a girl willing to do him the favor, and they all got married at the same time in a quickie ceremony.

In 1941, said Mieth, "life in New York was a little too—if not hectic, at least it didn't make a great deal of sense." Mieth and Hagel moved back to California. It was Mieth's idea, and Hagel said, "Where you go, I go." She continued working for Life, while he shot for other magazines. FDR was an admirer of Hagel's documentary work. Once, when Hagel was in Cuba on assignment, Mieth's phone rang. "It was Steve Early, Roosevelt's press secretary. He said the president wants to speak to Otto. I said Otto is not here....Five minutes later, the phone rang again, and it was Roosevelt himself, and he said, 'I want to speak to my boy.'"

"Your boy's not here," Mieth told the president.

In the 1950s, Mieth and Hagel refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee; that helped bring an end to Mieth's prickly relationship with Life. They had a ranch in Santa Rosa, California, where they raised livestock. Hagel died in 1973. Mieth died in 1998.

It was back in 1938 that she went to Puerto Rico to shoot a Life story on a Harvard Medical School project to study freed rhesus monkeys. One day, a boy came running up to her and said that a monkey had gotten away and was in the water nearby. Mieth pursued the animal. "I came down, and that monkey was really going hell-bent for something," Mieth recalled. "I said, 'I better go in and get him,' [and] I threw my Rolleiflex on my back and swam out." The monkey, standing on a corral reef, looked at her. "I don't think he liked me, but he sat on that corral reef there, and I took about a dozen shots," she told Loengard.

Mieth took plenty of pictures on the assignment, but the magazine ran only the one that looked like Henry Luce. Loengard asked Mieth if she thought the monkey looked like Luce, and she replied thoughtfully, "I didn't see Luce that much. He had lots of other things to do rather than talk with photographers. The photographers were a low group of animals then. But I suppose it does in a way. It all depends on what kind of mood you are in. To me it looks like the monkey's depicting the state of the world at the time."

Friday, February 4, 2011

Photos of the Week: Secret Underground Lairs

I'm so glad you could join us, Mr. Bond
 Each week I collect 10 or so images from magazines and newspapers for a column I write for Le Lettre, a photography website. (Go here for my latest dispatch. BTW, if you are in the photo business in any way, or if you are a photo enthusiast of any kind, you should really check out Le can subscribe, too, and it's free. It's a amazing source of news about exhibitions and agencies and much more.) This all brings me to some pictures I ran across in Wired magazine by photographer Christoph Morlinghaus, who, I am ashamed to admit, I'd never heard of. I soon corrected that by going to his website and Skyping him.

Wired sent Morlinghaus around the world to photograph underground facilities. These are the places where Kraft keeps its cheese, where Corbis keeps its photo archive, and where WikiLeaks keeps its secrets. He went to Poland to photograph an underground cathedral where miners worship before they begin their work. He went to Wales to shoot an underground power station. The images he made are incredible--and I mean that literally. You simply cannot believe what you are seeing. It turns out the WikiLeaks's underground lair, which lay under the streets of Stockholm, was in fact designed as a lair: Ernst Stavro Blofeld and and SPECTRE underlings would feel comfortable plotting the destruction of civilization there (above). The Polish cathedral is like a scene from Lord of the Rings, a Middle Earth with a reality all its own. Morlinghaus's photographs remind us of a truth we already know but prefer to ignore: Truth is stranger than fiction.

Morlinghaus is based in New York, but right now he's on "sabbatical" in Colombia, and I guess he needs it. He told me he did the entire Wired shoot in two weeks, which meant he basically lived on airplanes. He was traveling with a large-format camera, but no lighting equipment. "I haven't set up lighting in years," he said. So all the underground images were shot with available light? Yes. How is that done? "It's the beauty of still using film," he said. He set up his camera, composed, and opened the shutter--exposures were typically 10 minutes or so.

If the truth that is out there is indeed stranger than fiction, sometimes it's because the real thing is based on fiction. WikiLeaks, for instance calls its facility the "James Bond Villain Data Center." Kinda makes you wonder what their agenda is, doesn't it? I like the fact that it's built in an abandoned nuclear shelter, so, in theory, after World War III WikiLeaks will be around to disclose the secret diplomatic cables that started it. Here is one of Morlinghaus's outtakes:

Not seen in this photo: the WikiLeak Shark Tank
Morlinghaus, who grew up "in a place in Germany that nobody has ever heard of--so say I'm from Hamburg, because that's the closest city"--said the site that awed him most was the Chapel of St. Kinga in the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Weiliczka, Poland. "It's really big--not as big as St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, but really big," he said. (Wired says that in fact it is 10,400 square feet in size.)

The Chapel of St. Kinga (above and below)
I suppose for people interested in photography, the most interesting site might be the Corbis Film Preservation Facility in an abandoned limestone mine in Pennsylvania. (Apparently this mine is also the place where all the biggies in Washington, D.C. will go in the event of super-volcanos erupting and causing end-of-times quality shiz topside. (At least they'll have stuff from WikiLeaks to read.) The Corbis cavern is now kept at 45 degrees, which is cold enough to help prevent deterioration of film and prints, but still warm enough for the mole-like minion who are busy cataloging the 20 million pictures down there. After they're done--and I guess they will be able to keep at it even after the killer asteroid strike of 2012--the air temp inside the locker will be lowered to minus-4 degrees.

The Corbis photo locker (above and below)

 The Dinorwig Power Station in Gwynedd, Wales features Europe's biggest man-made cavern. That's where the station's turbine sits.

The Dinorwig Power Station (above and below)

 Of all the underground sites that Morlinghaus shot, the most visually prosaic is the Kraft Foods Distribution Center in (or under?) Springfield, Missouri. What you have here are barrels of cheese (or cheez?), so, not much to look at for James Bond fans. For any of the zillions of you who will be watching the Super Bowl on Sunday it''s a very important place, however, and I will explain why:

The Kraft Foods Distribution Center (above and below)

Wired says that nearly every ounce of Kraft cheese (including Velveeta, and you know you're going to be cramming nachos up through the third quarter) spends part of its life in these barrels. It's not aging, oh no. It's just keeping cool--underground refrigerators are cheaper to run operate than above-ground refrigerators. "It was pretty cold," said Morlinghaus.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Photos in the News: The Hands of Protest

I've posted about the importance of hand in news pictures before, but I was reminded again when I looked through some of the astonishing images of uprisings in the Arab world taken over the past week. In one way or another, in each of the photos here, it is hands that draw initial attention. Eyes and faces are like books you have to read; hands reach out to tell their stories instantly (which of course is the goal of a news photo). In protest, we see hands that accuse, hands that shield, hands that threaten, hands that plead, hands that say "Enough."

In Ivory Coast, supporters of incumbant President  Laurent Gbagbo show their allegiance at a rally on January 9. Photo by REBECCA BLACKWELL/AP

 In Tripoli, a supporter of former Prime Minister Saad Harari carves up a poster of the man who will replace him, Hezhollah's Najib Migati on January 26. Photo by JOSEPH EID/GETTY IMAGES

 In Tunis, protesters rallied in front of the offices of Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouch on January 25. Photo by CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/GETTY IMAGES

 In Ivory Coast, a supporter of the opposition candidate, former Prime Minister Konan Bedie demonstrates outside his headquarters on November 4, 2010. Photo by JEROME DELAY/AP

 In Tirana, Albania, mourners paid respect as they passed the spot where three demonstrators were shot and killed during anti-government protests. Photo by ANDREW TESTA FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

 In Cairo, hands were raised in defense and attack as demonstrators clash with police. Photo by GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS

 In Yemen, anti-government protesters marched in the southern province Lahji. REUTERS PHOTO