By all accounts, he was an old, well-dressed man. On the afternoon of 16th December 1999, 72-year old Dennis Heiner feigned illness and sat on the floor at the Brooklyn Museum. As the guards looked away, he ducked beneath the rope, run behind the plexiglass protecting a painting, squeezed white latex paint from a plastic lotion bottle he smuggled past the security.
The object of his ire was “The Painting Of The Virgin Mary,” by Chris Ofili, the British-born Nigerian artist who had drawn a black Madonna image with pornographic cut-outs and a clump of elephant dung. His juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane was received lukewarmly in London and Berlin before a high-profile denunciation by New York’s mayor Rudy Giuliani propelled it to notoriety, and led to it being placed behind plexiglass. Calling it “sick stuff” and “disgusting”, the mayor had vowed to defund and evict the museum (he subsequently lost the First Amendment court-case).
Heiner, a retired teacher, devout Catholic, and pro-life activist, had intended to deface it on the very first day of the exhibit, but huge crowds thwarted his mission; he returned two months later around the holiday season when the crowds would be sparser. He was charged for misdemeanors because the damage to the painting was valued at less than $1,500. This prosecution outraged many; Roger Homan, a Christian art historian, decried, “The perceived offence is not what the artist does to the Virgin Mary but what Dennis Heiner did to the physical image: the subject has ceased to be sacred but the artwork is protected by law.”
Eventually, the controversy turned to the one who took such a perfect photo of Heiner’s vandalism: none other than Phillip Jones Griffiths, the great Magnum photographer. Both Magnum and the photographer claimed that he was simply there with his daughter while Heiner attacked the painting, and that he took nine photos with his point-and-shoot. Many were skeptical and believed Mr. Jones Griffiths had been informed ahead. The staff who escorted Mr. Jones Griffiths out of the museum immediately claimed they heard the photographer talking on his mobile, “I got it.” Further fuel was added by the New York Daily Post, which having bought the rights to the photos, was attempting to prolong the controversy. Heiner, however, denied tipping anyone off before his attack and noted that he did not even know he was being photographed.
In May 2000, the United States Coast Guards rescued a sinking boat en route to Florida. To their surprise, on the boat, they found two journalists along with 44 Haitians attempting to enter the United States. Mike Finkel, a writer, and Chris Anderson, a photographer, were on assignment for The New York Times Magazine to document the illegal immigration across the 600 miles of treacherous waters that separate the richest country in the Western Hemisphere from its poorest.
In Haiti, Finkel and Anderson were treated with suspicion by smugglers, fearing that they were working undercover for the CIA, but they eventually braved the crossing, recounted with gusto in a later New York Times Magazine article by Finkel. Finkel carried a homing rescue device for emergencies, but both the reporter and the photographer were reluctant to use it, even when the boat was slowly sinking, and the passengers were out of food and water. They had been tricked by the smugglers into believing that the 10-day journey would be a third of its length. In Magnum Contact Sheets, Anderson remembers the slow sinking of that 23-foot homemade boat expectantly named, “Believe in God”:
Up to that point, I had not taken many pictures. Everyone on the boat knew I was a photographer, but it somehow had not felt right. It’s difficult to explain. But as the boat sank, David, the Haitian whom I had followed on this journey, said to me, ‘Chris, you’d better start making pictures. We only have an hour to live.’ And so, without much thought, I began making pictures.
We were saved at the last moment by a US coast guard cutter that happened upon us, but that’s another story. Much later on, back home safe, I reflected on this question: why make pictures that no one will ever see? The only explanation for me was that the act of photographing had more to do with the explaining of the world to myself than explaining something to someone else. The pictures were about communicating something about my experience, not about reporting literal information. This would be the single most transformative moment of my photographic life.
The photo seems innocuous enough. For the Gerald Ford Presidential Library, it is not important enough even to have a larger picture than this contact sheet by Bill Fitz-Patrick, the White House photographer. But a world away, it was big news; on the streets of Pakistan it fueled protests.
It showed Nusrat Bhutto, the wife of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, wearing a sleeveless blouse and dancing with President Ford during a White House state dinner in 1975. On the streets of Lahore and Karachi, the anti-Bhutto demonstrators waved the photocopies of American magazines bearing the photos to prove that the Bhuttos were not “good Muslims”. In Lahore and Karachi, the crowds chanted, “Bhutto is a Hindu, Bhutto is a Jew.”
In the hindsight, a disturbingly volatile country was in the making even then. Amidst the accusations and counter-accusations of vote-rigging were the attempts to incite religious and racial divisions. The women policemen were labelled prostitutes in a series of protests marked by virulent anti-woman propaganda, also targeted towards Zulfikar’s wife and later his daughter Benazir. He was finally deposed in a military coup in 1977 and hanged after a show trial two years later.
On 16 December 1977, when Nusrat showed up to a test match at Lahore’s Gaddafi stadium, her supporters cried: “Long live Bhutto!”. In the ensuing uproar between pro- and anti-Bhutto fractions, the military police severely beat her; her head injuries required tweleve stitches and the photo of her injured face was headlines news again. From this moment on, the military government had kept her under house arrest for the remainder of Zulfikar’s trial, and secretly hanged him hours before the scheduled time, so that Nusrat would not be present at the execution. She lived on to see a Bhutto return to the premiership in the person of her daughter Benazir, but also saw Benazir’s assassination in 2007.
Pakistan is a different place now; the fast-growing country briefly seen in the 60s and the 70s as India and China languished had disappeared under a series of economic mismanagement and military coups. Even Benezir Bhutto seems to reject those urbane days now. In an interview with the Guardian’s Ian Jack, the late politician confidently proclaimed, ”Good Muslim girls don’t dance with foreign men,” and explained that the President had breached the diplomatic protocol, and put her mother in a difficult position by asking for a dance. Her father did not ask Betty Ford’s hand for the dance, she noted.
… And only two hands.
Let’s see: I have started this blog in late April 2009, so four years! If it were Mozart, I would already be taking him around the royal courts of Europe for blindfolded harpsichord recitals, but I guess not everyone’s offspring is that talented or lucrative. Add usual encomiums on making it to four years, pat oneself on back, drink gin, blah, blah, blah…
There are a few updates. You might see IP’s sidebar a little different today: I have put up a clicking ad and a crowd-funding plug there. I do not derive any income from them (yet. Even the ad won’t pay off until someone buys a product — a low probability event). For a longtime, I have been planning to support crowd-funding photography projects on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, and someone just from “From White to Black Sea” project emailed me. They are going to be traveling on a boat across the Soviet era canals from the Arctic to the Black Sea, taking photos and documenting the Russian way of life across 14 provinces. I think it is a promising idea. (Link: (http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/from-white-to-black-sea/)
Onto the second update, and the title of this blog. Four years blogging is a long time. In addition to photography, I find history, art, politics, and architecture fascinating subjects. On this blog, however, I always feel constrained to just talk about these latter things as relevant to a time period that photography has been extant and active. I recently went to Paris — a city I fell in love with so many years ago, a city I later come to detest in a futile anguish. I went to show a couple of American firsttimers around, and found it now to be a treasure trove of stories I want to tell, stories beyond the realms of photography. You might scoff — there are too many books about Paris and France already, you might say. Yes, there are, but there isn’t my version yet.
Okay. TL:DR version: I am going to be doing some long-form writing. The blog output will be a little down. Be patient with me. Thanks for all the support. (above: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ile de la Cite, Paris, 1952.)
A good photo is always a visual feast, but it often takes a great photo to make you hear the music, smell the scents, and live the events. One such photo is featured above. Taken in 1961, Phillip Jones Griffiths’ photo draws you in, inviting you to a place where you can see the immediate future and almost hear one final discordant groan of that destroyed piano as the rock hits it. Jones Griffiths remembers:
This young boy epitomizes our Welsh ambivalent love for both rugby and music. This place, Pant-y-Waen, was once, in the 1930s, voted the most Beautiful Village in South Wales, but it has long since been obliterated by opencast mining. When I asked what he was doing, he replied, “My mother gave it to me to mend”.
Jones Griffiths perhaps saw in this wanton act of destruction a metaphor for what had happened to his Welsh homeland. Born in 1936, in a rural Northern Welsh town of Rhuddan, he was imbued with a deep love for Wales, but grew up in an era of shattered dreams in Wales and abroad; by the time he started taking photos for local weddings, Picture Post was publishing gritty, gloomy photos of post-war, post-depression England, courtesy of Bill Brandt, Bert Hardy, and George Rodger. Jones Griffiths signed up to show a changed Wales. He would eventually make his name in Vietnam, depicting war in an equally gritty and humane way.
[His contact sheets show the playground, the several shots of kids walking towards the piano, and the aftermath.]
To recap: Lee Miller was covering WWII for Vogue, and working alongside David E. Scherman, a Life staffer. Scherman took the above photo of Miller in the bathtub of Adolf Hitler’s house in Munich — the house where Mr. Chamberlain signed away Czechoslovakia six long years earlier. The photo was taken on the night after the duo visited Dachau, on April 30, 1945 — earlier in the day, Hitler had committed suicide in Berlin.
As far as contact sheets are concerned, there isn’t any. There is also a missing shot from this series, which allegedly shows Miller undressing/getting into the tub, and which was burnt in the darkroom. [Anthony Spencer has tried to recreate it in “It cries itself to sleep” (1973)]. Scherman slept in Hitler’s bed; Miller had her picture taken at the Führer’s desk. It is believed that there was also a similar photograph with the roles reversed: Scherman as the subject, and Miller as the photographer.
Now there is a new better Lee Miller online archive. These new unpublished shots at Hitler’s house do not clear any of the mysteries above, but some of these archival images were never before seen. Termed NSBs (Never Seen Befores) on the website, they are all very interesting though. Go and check them out.
This blog has never covered the photos of Ansel Adams before, but as I walked this week in Provence in the shadows of Mount Sainte-Victoire and Pénitents des Mées, I thought long and hard about Ansel’s astonishing career.
His photos, ranging from the Yosemite waterfalls in California and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, sang the ballads of American wilderness. Both via his majestic black and white photos and tireless campaigns, Ansel had revitalized the Sierra Club. Here, his son, Michael, recalls a trip he took with his father — then on an assignment from the Department of the Interior — a trip on which Ansel Adams captured one of his most famous pictures, that of “the expansive heavens stretching above the cemetery of a tiny Western town” in Hernedez, New Mexico:
[It is] probably Ansel’s most famous picture. And I was very fortunate to be there when it was taken. I was seven years old. We were coming back to Santa Fe from north, and Ansel saw this image. He pulled the car off the road very rapidly, got out — got us — there were two of us also with him, and we were trying to get the tripod, and he got the camera on it, and he had made the — looked at the picture and then he wanted his exposure meter, but he couldn’t find it. So, he knew that the luminance of the moon was 250 foot-candles, and from that, he derived the exposure. He took that picture, put the slide back in the film holder, turned the film holder around. Before he could pull the slide to take a second one, all the light in the foreground was gone! …
If you look at the plain image, just the straight image of this, and then you look at this final print, there’s a huge difference, and this was part of Ansel’s magic is what he could do in the darkroom.”
Indeed, the later images had a darker sky than earlier prints. Alas, the photo was so wildly popular that Adams made hundreds of prints of it, and its copies came up for auction so often that dealers and collectors used its prices as an informal benchmark to indicate the strength of the photography prints market in the 1970s. It also inspired a cottage industry among astronomers to determine when exactly the photo was taken (using the moon’s position) for Adams rarely recorded exact dates for his images. Their verdict? : around 5 p.m., one late October/early November day in 1941.
[Footnote: Adams himself had given varying backstories to how he came about to capture the scene in his many photobooks.]