Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category
As 65th Anniversary of the Communist Takeover of China approaches, Iconic Photos is looking back at the world it changed.
In April 1944, Heinrich Harrer escaped a British internment camp in India to begin his 20-month journey across the Himalayas. Only in January 1946 — long after the war that forced the British authorities to detain Austria-born mountaineer (and as it later transpired, a member of the Nazi party) Harrer – he walked into the Tibetan capital at Lhasa, like a starving beggar.
Harrer was to spend seven years in Tibet, later recounted as the eponymous book and movie (above); under the Potala Palace, he built a skating rink, which brought him to the attention of the palace’s inhabitant, the 12-year old Dalai Lama. For the priest king, Harrer built a cinema, running the projector off an old Jeep engine. Later, he was Dalai Lama’s tutor in maths, geography, science, and history.
Harrer was an avid photographer too. As Court Photographer, he had taken over 2,000 negatives, of which a selection was published in 1991 in the album Lost Lhasa. His book was an unparalleled and sole account of nomadic, feudal, and monastic life as lived by the Tibetans well into the 1940s and 50s.
This life, including the pilgrims’ circuit of Lhasa he documented, was soon to be wiped out by a series of Chinese invasions. Both factions in the Chinese civil war, the Communists and the Kuomintang, had maintained that Tibet was a part of China. At the end of the civil war, the victorious Communists were ready to incorporate Tibet by force.
Two months after the Communist takeover of China, Mao Zedong ordered his army to march into Tibet. Feudal Tibetan theocracy was ill-prepared for a fight and months of frenetic negotiations failed to deliver results. On 23rd May 1951, the Tibetan representatives were forced to sign an agreement which in exchange for nominal self-governance, Tibet agreed to be part of China.
A decade of localized hostilities against the Communist followed; in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet as the Communists reneged on self-governance promises.
Anticipating the 65th Anniversary of the Communist Takeover of Mainland China, Iconic Photos look back at the world it unleashed.
Under the Japanese rule during the Second World War, Hong Kong’s population sunk below 600,000. This figure was dramatically reversed after the war; as the communist takeover of mainland China began, Hong Kong’s population jumped to 1.6 million. Shanghai, its greatest rival city, was no longer open to foreign capital, and from 1945 to 1949, financiers, merchants and industrialists fled to the British colony from Shanghai, its greatest rival city. Among the escapees was Fan Ho, a photographer who documented the street life in Hong Kong in those tumultuous years following his arrival.
Those were different days. The notorious Dalton-Douthwaite scandal (where two British soldiers murdered a Chinese girl) was just around the corner. Large immigration forced newcomers to be housed in shacks and squatter huts, built on hillsides and in cemeteries. Welfare support was non-existent, and provided only by volunteers and kaifong associations. Drug abuse was rampant; by 1959, there were around 150,000 to 200,000 addicts, an staggering number of a population of 2.8 million. This was the era of Kowloon Walled City and Triads that ruled it, and this was the Hong Kong that stared back at you from Fan Ho’s black-and-white photos. After Fan Ho took a photo, “with a knife in his hand, a pig butcher said he would chop me. He wanted his spirit back.”
Better days too were just around the corner. In 1961 arrived John Cowperthwaite, a Classicist who was to preside over the colony’s finances for the next decade. He kept personal taxes at a maximum of 15 percent, and balanced the budget aggressively. He was an idiosyncratic man, who never released economic statistics because “once the data was published there would be pressure to use them for government intervention in the economy”, but proved an excellent administrator. Under Sir John, a laissez-faire Gladstonian, the colony’s GDP grew at an astonishing average of 13.8 percent in every year — an unprecedented rate in those slower growth days.
(More Photos Here).
This is one of the most fascinating photo-related stories of late.
In 2007, John Maloof, a 26-year-old real estate agent and amateur historian, found 30,000 of photo negatives at a Chicago estate auction. The photos depicted streetscenes in Chicago of the late 1950s and the 1960s, each scene meticulously dated and placed on the back of the photo. The photos had come from a storage unit the photographer had stopped paying rent on.
The photographer was Vivian Maier, a New York girl who moved to Chicago in 1956 to begin working as a nanny for various affluent North Shore families for the next forty years. Her nannying work enabled her to enjoy early morning drives on her moped, along with a Rolleiflex camera.Although Maloof could not locate her, he posted the photos to his blog. A search yielded no results until Maier died in mid 2009, and a brief obituary was printed. She had been in a nursing home.
Retrospectives followed, as did two documentaries: “Finding Vivian Maier” and “The Vivian Maier Mystery”. But a lesson is somewhat lost. Vivian Maier’s photos were lost — and rediscovered fifty years later. They were fascinating — fascinating because they showed a different world and fascinating because they show it in crisp tones of a physical negative.
Currently, nearly everyone — even some of the greatest names in photographic pantheon — takes their photos digitally. They do not last and they will not last.
Firstly, there are hardware issues: I still have photos stored on a Floppy Disk and CDs, but my laptop does not come with drives for them anymore. The time will come when USB drives are not backward compatible anymore (already my external hard drive has issues with an USB 1.0 on work computer). USB itself might be replaced by a superior technology (as Floppies had been). But an uncomfortable truth is that CDs, DVDs, hard drives they all inevitably fail.
Then, there are software issues. Will the computer of 2064 still recognize raw or jpg formats? The Economist had a great article two years ago. Already, I don’t have a program on my computer to read the earlier ebooks (.lit), and .epubs and .mobis will go that way too. Last week, there was a popular post on Reddit that encapsulated the problem tautly, and encouraged people to start printing photos.
When it comes to photography, printing is not really a solution — prints fade and get destroyed too. Vivian Maier survived because her photo negatives survived.
This blog gets frequently linked from reddit, many of whose users think this photo as ‘the worst photo ever’. For this author, that photo was not even the worst photo ever taken on a hapless child dying on the ground.
The photo above, by Jeff Abelin – of whom I found very little — speaks volumes louder. This photo conjures up a world of medieval fairy tales — of Hansel and Gretel — in late twentieth century China; a world where untold millions are sacrificed at the altar of demographic dividend; a world where certain stretches of the Yangtze River are common sites of infanticide by drowning. Life magazine comments on the photo:
“A group of Americans came upon this abandoned boy on a path in Fuyang and took him to a local hospital, where they were told by a staffer, “You should have left it where it was.” A day later, another baby was found [dead] in the same spot, and the day after that, the first child, suffering from pneumonia and a deformed heart, died anonymously.
“This picture and the accompanying story caused an uproar, as human rights activists placed the blame for a plague of abandonment and infanticide squarely on the government’s One Couple, One Child policy. Baby girls were at greater risk than boys, who might one day be of more use in the fields: Some estimates held that more than 1.5 million girls out of the 13 million children born in China each year, were being abandoned. Though the government countered that parents with “feudal ideas” were causing the problem, it eventually relaxed the One Child policy – a little.”
Life was optimistic and included the photo on ‘100 Photographs That Changed The World’. True, draconian forced abortions and imprisonments were replaced by huge fines for violators of One Child policy, but the photo didn’t change much. One Child policy still persists, some seventeen years after the photo was taken in September 1997. Today, China has 25-40 million fewer baby girls due to selective infanticides.
Excepted from The Economist, Nov 9th 2013:
Erwin Blumenfeld arrived in New York in 1941 with a suitcase, little English and no professional training as a photographer. Aged 44 and undaunted, he went on to reinvent both himself and fashion photography. He created over a hundred start-lingly original magazine covers and countless fashion shots for the slick pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. His images mirrored the energy and excitement of Manhattan in the 1940s and 1950s.
For a Vogue cover from January 1950, Blumenfeld used fierce light to erase a model’s features, leaving only an eye, a mouth and a beauty spot. Another cover, this time to raise money for the Red Cross after the second world war, superimposed a translucent red cross over the blurred figure of a model in a turquoise hat. Blumenfeld’s surrealist image of Adolf Hitler, his face distorted by a skull, covered millions of American propaganda leaflets dropped over Germany in 1942.
Often headless, his nudes appear remote and mysterious, owing to Blumenfeld’s use of mirrors, diaphanous fabrics and solarisation (a darkroom technique that inverts the lights and darks of an image). They reveal the influence of avant-garde photographers such as Man Ray, whose work he saw in Paris in the 1930s. Blumenfeld’s 1937 masterpiece, “Nude Under Wet Silk”, earned him some art-world notoriety when it was published in Verve magazine.
Blumenfeld’s inventive images earned him fame as “the best-paid photographer in the world”. Yet he chose only four fashion photographs for his book, “My One Hundred Best Photos”, published in 1981 (he died in 1969). He yearned to be taken seriously as an artist, and began experimenting with the medium during his pre-war years in Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris.
Born in 1897 into a bourgeois Jewish family in Berlin, he got a camera for his tenth birthday. Aged 14, he shot a playful self-portrait dressed as the sad clown Pierrot, holding a mirror to his face to create a double image. “I wanted to be a photographer, pure and simple,” he later wrote. His aspirations turned practical after his father’s death in 1913. Blumenfeld worked first for a Berlin garment manufacturer, then drove an ambulance in the first world war, yet he floundered in any job that did not involve film. After getting married in 1921, he set up a handbag shop in Amsterdam, and struggled to get by. He took advantage of a disused darkroom to experiment with portraits and nudes.
Upon moving to Paris in 1936 he set up a studio with the help of an art dealer, Walter Feilchenfeldt. A magazine cover for Votre Beauté and an exhibition at the Galerie Billiet prompted a studio visit from Cecil Beaton, an English photographer, who swiftly secured Blumenfeld a contract with French Vogue. “His merit as an artist lies in the fact he is incapable of compromise,” Beaton noted. One of Blumenfeld’s best-known black-and-white spreads, published in Vogue in 1939, features a model perched on the edge of the Eiffel Tower, her flimsy dress fluttering in the breeze.
When war broke out in September that year, Blumenfeld was interned in a series of camps, including Le Vernet. He finally escaped with his family to New York two years later. Studios replete with staff and equipment awaited him, along with a contract with Harper’s Bazaar. His New York years were devoted to self-confident glamour of America and he helped define the way America saw itself—a remarkable feat for a man who described himself as “un-American for ever”.
There are some people still alive today who were present at the last public execution in France. Actor Christopher Lee, for instance. In the early morning of 17 June 1939, Eugène Weidmann bowed down before the blade of the guillotine, the last person to do so publicly.
Weidmann was the last person to be executed before a crowd in France. He had been convicted of multiple kidnappings and murders, including that of a young American socialite. His trial was a sensation in that tense summer of 1939; the Frankfurt-born Weidmann was quickly dubbed “Teutonic Vampire” by the tabloids. His execution outside the prison Saint-Pierre in Versailles was a noisy affair.
In the days following the execution, the press was especially indignant at the way the crowd had behaved. Paris-Soir denounced the crowd as“disgusting”, “unruly”, “jostling, clamoring, whistling.” Among the sins the lofty paper found unforgivable was the crowd “devouring sandwiches”. More shockingly for the authorities, the unruly crowd delayed the execution beyond the usual twilight hour of dawn, enabling clear photographs — and one short film! — to be taken. The government regretted that public executions which were intended to have a “moralizing effect” now produced “practically the opposite results.” President LeBrun signed an order to hold executions only behind closed doors.
By this time, France was already an anomaly; the proud tradition of macabre spectacle dating back millennia was fast becoming forbidden in the West. Most German states banned public executions in the 1850s. England carried out her last public execution — that of the Fenian agitator Michael Barrett — in 1868, and most of her dominions followed. From then on, momentum was with ban of public executions. Liberal Denmark banned public executions in 1882, and abolished the death penalty altogether in 1933. In 1936, Kentucky became the last American state to ban public executions.
At the edge of Iroise Sea stands a lighthouse. The waters off the coast of Brittany are among the most dangerous in Europe, and it claimed over thirty ships between 1888 and 1904, when construction began of the lighthouse. It took seven years to finish because of the harsh storms.
On 21st December 1989, Jean Guichard traveled to the lighthouse in a helicopter when such a storm broke out. Guichard was a celebrated photographer of maritime heritage around France and decided to take photos of the lighthouse during the storm. Inside, the lighthouse keeper Théodore Malgorn was waiting to be rescued, and thought Guichard’s helicopter was his rescue helicopter.
He hurried downstairs to open the door — a moment which coincided with a giant wave enveloping the lighthouse. Malgorn rushed back inside and managed to close the door, and Guichard took a series of seven photos that became instantly famous. They sold over one million copies in poster print and earned him the World Press Photo award.
Two years later, automation came to Breton lighthouses; La Jument’s keeper was retired 1991.
Lewis Morley, one half of an iconic spread, is dead, aged 88.
It is often said that the pill and Lady Chatterley’s Love made the permissive society. Alas, the sexual revolution also got its fair share of help from indiscretions of John Profumo, a Tory government minister, for no matter what unflappable judges declared over the previous decade, the Profumo Affair proved otherwise with its steamy reveals about the lives of stiff-upper-lipped establishment types.
While it was a more forgiving age where even the most public of individuals — from Edward VIII to John Kennedy to Labour’s own leader Hugh Gaitskell — could rely on the press to overlook their indiscretions, it was Profumo’s misfortune to become entangled with a call girl named Christine Keeler, who might be also seeing a Russian spy. Revealed alongside were salacious tales of demimondaine brothels, lavish parties, two-way mirrors, and rumors about a naked, masked, and illustrious male “host” whose identity was never revealed. It was a watershed moment for both the British politics and British political reporting.
Ms. Keeler posed famously for Lewis Morley, a famed chronicler of the Swinging Sixties. Morley cleared the studio and turned his back so that Keeler could undress, suggesting she sit astride the chair so the back would shield her. As the 30-minute shoot which burnt up 120 rolls of film was coming to end, Morley turned away, only to notice Keeler “in a perfect position”. The most amours photo was literally the last shot
Morley did not have fond memories of the day. “I never found her sexy,” he said. “She reminded me too much of Vera Lynn!” And as he came to resent its overshadowing of his other work, he called it “that fucking Keeler shot” and parodied it by photographing himself in the same pose with a millstone around his neck. He however signed the chair — a thinly-masked Arne Jacobsen copy — and sold it to the V&A while the National Portrait Gallery bought all original photos.
Past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. From my stuffy desk, no past seems more foreign and different than the one lived by my parents and many of their compatriots: counter-culture of the 1960s, cobblestone-hurling revolts that rocked many Western democracies, hippies hitchhiking from Europe to India, across places like Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan. Alien lands indeed.
In 1968, Dennis Stock made an equally surreal journey. Stock, an esteemed photographer of jazz music scene, travelled across California at the height of hippie culture and free love. The resulting book, knowingly named California Trip, was “an ode to liberty”, and no photo encapsulated this zeitgeist more than the above photo taken at Venice Beach Rock Festival, which graced the cover of Reporters Without Borders’ 25th anniversary book.
In his contact sheets, you can see the spontaneity. When an unknown girl, her hands lilting and writhing, jumped in front of Stock’s lens, he took only four photos, but the moment’s lyrical energy and joie de vivre shine through the negatives. Stock remembers his trip: “I was attracted by the hippie movement, that was defined by two main principles: caring about others, and a taste for adventure. My pictures of hippies are about the search of a better life. I was drawn by what they tried to achieve. The hippy instinct was countercultural, it said ‘Let’s try to go back to basics’. Hippydom, in a sense, is a return of teenage rebellion, a new, stronger rebellion. Each one of us has a period of rebellion at a certain moment of their lives.”
In a later interview, he added: “Every idea that Western man explores in his pursuit of the best of all possible worlds will be searched at the head lab -California. Technological and spiritual quests vibrate throughout the state, intermingling, often creating the ethereal. It is from this freewheeling potpourri of search that the momentary ensembles in space spring, presenting to the photographer his surrealistic image. However, to the Californians it is all so ordinary, almost mundane. The sensibility of these conditioned victims is where it is all at, right, left, up and down. Our future is being determined in the lab out West. There, a recent trip blew my mind across this state of being, as I collected images along the way to remember the transient quality of the Big Trip.”
[Interviews are transcipted from the Independent].
It was one of the more playful spreads in Life magazine. In its December 2, 1957 issue, the magazine featured a one-page story, humorously titled ‘High-paid llama in big city’. The story covered different television animals—from dogs and cats to a kangaroo and a miniature bull—but its highlight was Linda the Llama, as photographed by Inge Morath.
The caption read the llama was enroute to make a television appearance, but Morath recalled differently in her notes: “Linda, the Lama [sic] rides home via Broadway. She is just coming home from a television show in New York’s A.B.C. studios and now takes a relaxed and long-necked look at the lights of one of the world’s most famous streets.” Her contact sheets showed that Morath was already photographing the llama inside the studio, and the Inge Morath Foundation suggests the photographer might have acquainted herself with the llama and the trainer at least a year ahead of their photo-session.
The photo is undoubtedly one of the most famous photos by Inge Morath, one of the greatest photographers of her generation, and a typical one for her too. Her photographs were often surreal – Chinese soldiers climbing a large statue of Buddha, a driver with a poodle on his passenger seat, frantically dancing girls from Iraq to Iberia – a whimsy shaped by her experiences growing up in Austria during and after the Second World War: “Everyone was dead or half dead. I walked by dead horses, women with dead babies in their arms. I can’t photograph war for this reason.”
After the war, she worked for the Picture Post in London and Magnum in Paris, where she was an assistant to ever-demanding Henri Cartier-Bresson. She travelled to Iran for Holiday magazine sporting the traditional chador and traversing the vast country alone most of the time. In 1956 – a year before she took the llama photo – Morath came to New York for the first time, although her arrival did not go smoothly. At the height of the Red Scare, she was detained at the airport for carrying a book published by a leftish bookshop. Later, she settled in America, marrying the playwright Arthur Miller, whom she met on the set of The Misfits, whilst she was covering his first wife, Marilyn Monroe.
In November 1922, almost at the tailend of his expedition sponsored by Lord Carnarvon, Howard Carter finally discovered the tomb which would make him the most famous archeologist outside fiction. Tutankhamum, an insignificant pharaoh who reigned for less than a decade and died young, was buried in a hastily-prepared minor tomb which was largely unrecorded and thus escaped grave-robbers.
After wiring Lord Carnarvon, Carter also engaged the services of Harry Burton. Burton, working for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian department, was widely regarded as the greatest archaeological photographer, and he proved it with this tomb. His photographs of the tomb of Tutankhamum, starting with the intact seal locking his funerary chamber, are both meticulous archaeological surveys and glorious still-lifes.
For the next eight years, Burton devoted his career to carefully cataloguing the riches of Tutankhamum. He was the only photographer authorized to work inside the tomb and took over 1,970 photos, of which 142 were published in February 1923 in The Times, to which Lord Carnarvon had sold the exclusive publishing rights. All of them could be seen on an online gallery at The Griffith Institute, Oxford.
For all its later infamy as a cursed necropolis, the tomb of Tutankhamum did not contain a jinx. Scholars and Egyptologists scoff at the idea, eventhough they themselves were of guilty of spreading these rumors, in order to dissuade the local porters and diggers from pilfering the finds. Lord Carnarvon was the only major member of the expedition to die prematurely. Carter lived for seventeen more years. Carnarvon’s daughter Lady Evelyn who, along with her father and Carter, was among the first to enter the tomb, died only in 1980 at the age of 79.
In 1949, when he was photographing a Shell Oil executive in London, Yousuf Karsh overheard his subject taking a call from Finland. The caller was Jean Sibelius, the reclusive Finnish composer, of whom Karsh had always wanted to take a photo. Karsh was already famous in the English-speaking world, but not well-known on the continent, and he requested the oilman to make arrangements for him to travel to Sibelius’ villa in Lake Tuusula. Karsh remembered their session:
“I arrived at Sibelius’s home “Ainola,” named for his wife Aino, laden with gifts from his admirers – an inscribed manuscript from composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, a warm letter from Olin Downes, the celebrated music critic of the New York Times, a box of his favorite cigars and a bottle of old cognac from the Canadian High Commissioner in London. This last we shared with little Finnish cookies and coffee. His daughter interpreted for the straight-backed patriarch of eighty-four, although there was such a meeting of minds that words became scarcely necessary. The structure of his face reminded me of carved granite, yet with infinite warmth and humanity. This photograph was one of the last taken. He was visibly moved as I told him how the Finnish workers, in their northern Canadian logging camps, doubled their wartime output when his Finlandia was played for them.”
Sibelius had semi-retired from conducting and composing since the late 1920s. He led a lowkey life during the Second World War [during which Britain and Finland became only two democracies in history to ever declare war on each other] and spent his last years quietly obsessing over an eighth symphony he would never get around to composing. By 1949, when he met Karsh, his health was failing. His hands shook, his speech slurred, but the aged composer himself was enthusiastic about session with Karsh. He ran a powerline from the road to his house for Karsh’s floodlights and gave the photographer two whole days for photos. He told Karsh that it was his ‘last chance at a good photograph’.
He was not far wrong. Sibelius died in 1957, at the age of 91.
This post was suggested over Twitter by Sami Haapavaara (@SHaapavaara). I will be crowdsourcing topics of my next few posts via Twitter and comments. My next few posts will be on readers’ suggestions. What I am thinking: some iconic photo-related topic I will have fun researching. Best.