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Heinrich Harrer’s Tibet

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As 65th Anniversary of the Communist Takeover of China approaches, Iconic Photos is looking back at the world it changed.

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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.

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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.

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(More photos here and here).

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 12, 2014 at 6:26 am

Turning Points

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A couple of weeks ago, this blog passed a quiet milestone. I really enjoyed past five years but I don’t know what to make of this. It has taken five years, and this is the big one. There are no other milestones to  hit.

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A hundred years ago today, two archducal lives were cut shot in a remote barbarous corner of the world. A month later, the world was engulfed in a conflagration it could neither have imagined or comprehend. It was the last war of the pre-industrial age, and the first war of the age of assembly lines.

The war claimed sixteen million lives, maimed twenty million more. It was deadlier still when taken into account the pandoran tragedies it unleashed, from rise of the Soviet Union to economic depression to Hitler’s Third Reich. We covered that pivotal moment of June 28, 1914 back in 2009.

The black and white photo above does not to much justice to awe and terror the German advance portrayed in the photo might have caused in France and Britain. Within a month since the declaration of war, the German were almost to Paris; they wore uniforms of faint gray — a color almost impossible to identify in snipers and binoculars. (This camouflage was especially effective at the time when the French were wearing conspicuous hussar colors of dark blue and red pants). And they loudly sang “Fatherland, My Fatherland” in absolute rhythm and beat as they advanced across Belgium.

At Mons in August, the British fought their first battle in Europe since the Crimea War. It was a moral victory where an outnumbered British coups managed to withstand the German advance for 48 hours, but a strategic retreat. British propagandists swiftly compared it to Agincourt. But it would take another disastrous battle, at Marne, in September to stop the advancing Germans.

Soon winter set in. Defying financiers and economists who predicted that the war would have to be stopped when gold reserves run out, and disappointing their footsoldiers who expected to be home by Christmas, the generals and politicians dug in — literally — into four years of trench warfare.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 28, 2014 at 2:29 am

Posted in Politics

Tagged with

Assassination of Malcolm X.

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Life delivered a clear summary of the events in New York: “Most shocking of all to the residents of Harlem was the fact that Malcolm X had been killed not by “Whitey” but by members of his own race. The country’s Negro community was suddenly faced with the possibility of a fratricidal war”.

On the very next page was an essay in words and photos by Gordon Parks — credited as “a close observer of the career of Malcolm X” – who gained unprecedented access to the black Muslim community for a photo-essay two years prior. Back then, Malcolm X was a preacher with a black-nationalist religious movement Nation of Islam, which he had a falling out in 1964. From his former movement, he received numerous death threats and finally an assassin on February 21, 1965. The assassin, one Thomas Hagan, was paroled only in 2010, serving 44 years of a life imprisonment.

Last month, a link with that frantic America which prospered Malcolm X and his firebrand philosophies was lost when Yuri Kochiyama died, aged 93. Ms Kochiyama, a long-time political activist, famously appeared in the photo above, cradling the dying Malcolm X’s head. The photo was taken by Earl Grant, a close associate of the slain preacher.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 13, 2014 at 3:04 pm

The Vivian Maier Lesson

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Undated, New York, NY

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.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 5, 2014 at 4:20 am

Tiananmen

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Twenty-five years after the Tiananmen Massacre, the nasty brutish affair resonates on …. but only outside China. 

I have remembered June 5th in various ways over the last five years. With a contact sheet in 2013, with an interview with Charlie Cole, the photographer who took one of the iconic Tank Man photos in 2012. The year before, I remarked upon the Zeligian appearance of a former Chinese prime minister in one of the photos taken on the square. In 2009, I covered various versions of the Tank Man photos. In between, we saw the defacing of the Mao portrait during the protests and a defiant Ai Wei Wei. A profound irony is they cannot access WordPress from China, so I remain, as always, preaching to the choir.

I hate to keep banging on this drum but as a blogger of history, attempts to change history offends me to no end; and because of its economic power, China has gotten away with it too, aided by the biggest companies, latest being LinkedIn. In an anticipation of the 25th Anniversary, a stellar book is out: People’s Republic of Amnesia which every student of history and totalitarian regimes should read.

In a memorable passage, the author showed students at leading Beijing universities the photo above. The Chinese youngstars use many means to bypass the Great Firewall, but the black-out surrounding the history has been so effective,  so total that only 15 out of 100 of the students polled correctly identified the picture!!!

So dogs may bark, but caravans have moved on. Charade continues. I will keep on blogging about this photo and the Communist Party will keep censoring it.

We will meet again in next June.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 5, 2014 at 3:28 am

Posted in Politics

Tagged with ,

American Gothic | Gordon Parks

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American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942

In 1942, Gordon Parks went to work for the Farm Security Administration in Washington, DC. The American capital back then was a cesspool of bigotry. Parks had to enter restaurants and theatres through the back door. Even the federal government participated; the new war office then being built on the other side of the Potomac had separate eating and lavatorial arrangements for blacks and whites.

On his first day, Park took the photo of Ella Watson was a black charwoman who mopped floors in the FSA building. Park recounted how she was paid $1,080 annually (around $15,000 today), how one of the offices she cleaned was that of a white woman who had started work at the same time and with very similar qualifications, how she was raising three grandchildren and an adopted daughter on her meagre salary.

Parks remembered: “She had struggled alone after her mother had died and her father had been killed by a lynch mob. She had gone through high school, married and become pregnant. Her husband was accidentally shot to death two days before their daughter was born. By the time the daughter was eighteen, she (the daughter) had given birth to two illegitimate children, dying two weeks after the second child’s birth. What’s more, the first child had been striken with paralysis a year before its mother died.”

He took the photo to his boss at the FSA (legendary Roy Stryker, who oversaw a stellar team of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Carl Mydans and many more at the FSA). Stryker “told me I’d gotten the right idea but was going to get all the FSA photogs fired, that my image of Ella was ‘an indictment of America.’ I thought the image had been killed but one day there it was, on the front page of The Washington Post.”

Soon, the photo came to be known as American Gothic, after the iconic 1930 painting by Grant Wood. Parks had the painting in mind when he carefully posed Watson in front of a flag-draped office, with mop and broom in hand. It was one of the first photos he took on his way to becoming the Jackie Robinson of photography.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

May 8, 2014 at 3:16 am

Abandoned Baby | China

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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.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 24, 2014 at 2:49 am

On the Great Depression (?)

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The Great Depression looms large in the modern imagination — especially in the light of the most recent financial crises.  But its scale is hard to fathom now. A crisis equivalent today would be the combination of the 1994 Mexican peso crises, the 1997-98 Asian & Russian crises, the 2000 dot com bubble, the 2007-8 financial crisis, according to the economist Liaquat Ahamed. And all these — a halt in capital flows, a collapse of market confidence, a frenzied bubble, and fall of major financial houses unfurled over a period of four years between 1929 and 1932 taking down 25% of global GDP, 25% of employment, and 40% of global bank credit.

The photo above by Margaret Bourke-White was surrounded by myths too; there are a few things it is not. It was not shot during 1929-32 crisis. It did not depict a breadline of workers laid off by the depression. The oft-repeated belief that this photo prompted Henry Luce — Life magazine’s patriarch and Bourke-White’s employer — to decide that his photographers deserved a byline was probably apocryphal too.  But the photo’s absurd slogan “World’s Highest Standard of Living” — absurdly jarring when the white ur-American family with their dog was juxtaposed with the queuing black people below — propelled it to become the Great Depression photo in recent years.

The people depicted were flood victims. Bourke-White took the photo in Louisville, Kentucky during her assignment to over the Ohio River flood of 1937. The floods claimed nearly 400 lives and left roughly one million people homeless across five states in the winter of that terrible year. The flood marked a catastrophic decade in America which began with the Mississippi Floods of 1927, the Great Depression, and the Dust Flood, straining Federal and local resources. A leviathan American state was born to tackle these series of calamities.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 11, 2014 at 4:03 am

Look Back in Anger — Nazism in 1930s

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This year marks the 75th Anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War. Iconic Photos look back at how it all began — and how we covered it. 

Hitler’s first appearance in Iconic Photos date from 1914, when a figure allegedly identified as Adolf Hitler was seen outside Field Marshals’ Hall listening to the announcement of the First World War. After the war, his rise in a defeated and dejected Germany was meteoric. In 1926, he became the Führer of the National Socialists; the then-37-year old was also already a millionaire, thanks to his book Mein Kampf.

His party won the plurality in the elections of 1933. On January 30th 1933 when President Paul von Hindenburg, hero of a World War, called upon Hitler, villain of another, to be German Chancellor. Less than a month later, the Reichstag burnt down in a pivotal event which paved the way for the rise of Nazi consolidation. Hitler fingered Communist agitators as arsonists; civil liberties were suspended, and countless politicians and journalists were locked up, and the communist party was outlawed. When Hitler visited Tanneberg — the site of a famous battle in which East Prussia was liberated from the Russians during the First World War by Hindenburg — later that year, the ceremony was uncomfortably patriotic and militarist. Germany rearmament began on those blood-soaked fields.

A strong re-emerging Germany was on display in pomp and splendor of Berlin Olympics in 1936. There were a few hitches for the Nazis, like  Jesse Owens winning 100 m sprint and smashing Hitler’s theories of racial superiority, but the Olympics were a great success for Germany. The next year, the Fuhrer welcomed the Duke of Windsor, the ci-devant Edward VIII, to his Obersalzberg retreat.

Hitler’s plans for a Greater Germany were sown years ahead. Already in 1934, he has orchestrated the murder of Austrian dictator Engelbert Dollfuss, who was vehemently against Nazism, and set Austria on the course that would eventually led to its capitulation to his Third Reich in the Anschluss of 1938.  A few months later, British Prime Minister was in Munich to sign the Anglo-German Non-Aggression Declaration. Sudetenland was transferred from Czechoslovakia to Germany in an attempt to satisfy Hitler’s desire for Lebensraum.

A little over a year later, emboldened German troops were in Warsaw, having divided Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, and the world was in a cataclysmic world war yet again.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 14, 2014 at 5:12 am

Posted in Politics, War

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Leaders of Britain, 1944

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I am long fascinated by a photographer’s take on power, such as Platon’s photos of world leaders at the UN or Avedon’s study of America on the bicentennial year. Flipping casually through a Life magazine from 1944, I stumbled upon a photoessay called ‘Leaders of Britain’ by the great Yousef Karsh.

After the success of his photograph of Churchill, Karsh crossed the Atlantic in 1943 onboard a Norwegian freighter carrying a cargo of explosives from Canada to Britain. He stayed in London to photograph wartime leaders and intellectuals, whose portraits were published in the Illustrated London News to raise the nation’s morale. Of this selection, it is interesting to note what Life (and Karsh) decided to publish in 1944.

In the photo-essay at least, Britain of 1944 was a martial society; the King appeared in uniform, alongside Sir Charles Portal, the head of the Bomber Command; Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff; Admiral Cunningham, who was already secretly supervising the preparations for the D-Day landings, and submariner Max Kennedy Horton.

And then there were a smattering of politicians who would re-shape post-war Britain. Two future prime ministers were there (Attlee and Eden) but other faces proved to be more influential in the coming years. Plans of Lord Woolton, firstly as Minister for Food and then as Minister for Reconstruction, were more immediately felt, but Bevin as the Minister for Labour would enshrine an industrial settlement that remained in place mid-1980s. Cripps as the supremo for both economy and finance, was at the Exchequery  for three years in the post-war cabinet, and would preside over a devaluation, rationings and nationalisation of coal and steel industries. Even Lord Mountbatten — photographed as Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command but later Viceroy of India — left behind a bitter legacy in the subcontinent.

Intellectuals photographed ranged from George Bernard Shaw on the cover to writer H. G. Wells to cartoonist David Low. Others photographed by Karsh during his sojourn in England [but not published by Life] included the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Halifax, Field Marshalls John Dill and Jan Smuts, and actor Noel Coward. Life opened the essay which the person the magazine deemed most powerful in Britain — the newspaper proprietor  Lord Beaverbrook, the master of assembly line, who was the minister of supply in the war cabinet.

Notably missing from the essay was the photo that started it all — Churchill’s growling portrait from 1941.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 7, 2014 at 6:20 am

Posted in Politics, War

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Mao’s Last Photo

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The year 1976 was not a happy year for Communist China. It began in January with the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, the urbane party grandee who held back the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. A few months later, in July, a severe earthquake hit the industrial city of Tangshan, killing 250,000 people, according to government estimates (the real figure was probably much higher).

That the year was the Dragon Year — a watershed moment according to the Chinese astrology — could not have been far from anyone’s mind, let alone that of the old man succumbing to Lou Gehrig’s disease behind the walls of the Forbidden City. Chairman Mao was 81 and he had been the leader of the Chinese Communist Party since 1943; now he had been reduced by his ailment to communicating by means of cryptic scrawls on notepads. (The only person who could decipher them was his nurse).

Mao made his last public appearance on May 27, 1976, when he met the visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto was a great admirer of Mao, emulating Chinese Communism with his own Islamic Socialism and Mao’s Little Red Books with a similar red book called “Bhutto speaks” and it was suspected that it was during this last meeting that Mao agreed to transfer 50 kg of uranium to Pakistan — an act that allowed Pakistan to develop its first nuclear weapons in the 1980s.

The photos from the meeting were last photos of Chairman Mao — and they made abundantly clear to everyone, including Mao, that he would not be alive much longer. Seeing them, Mao decided to end his public audiences altogether. By September, he was dead.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

February 28, 2014 at 9:05 am

Posted in Politics

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Corpsman In Anguish | Cathy LeRoy

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Vietnam was to be a photographer’s conflict. A familiar tread for many struggling artist, photographer, or bohemian was the offices of the Associated Press in Saigon, where the legendary photo editor Horst Faas held court. Among many who came to Faas in 1966 was a petite 21-year old French girl named Cathy LeRoy. Defying her factory-manager father, she worked 18 hours a day as an interviewer in a Paris employment agency to save for a one-way ticket to Saigon. She only carried $200 and a Leica M2. Faas gave her three rolls of black and white film and assurances to give her $15 for each picture used. 

The U.S. Army was skeptical of LeRoy at first. She didn’t speak English (apart from four-letter words she would soon pick up from the Marines); she was 5ft, 85-pounds, comically carried cameras and equipment close to her bodyweight, and trundled around with size-6 combat boots too big for her size-4 feet. She was also soon be banned from the frontline for six months for cussing a senior officer. But she spent more time at the front — three weeks a month — than any other woman journalist in Vietnam, and a year later, she became the first accredited journalist to participate in a combat parachute jump, joining the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Her pictures from Vietnam were stunning. Her photos from Battle of Hill 881 evoked “ghosts of Iwo Jima and Pork Chop Hill,” Time magazine wrote in May 1967.  Her photos of corpsman Vernon Wike during the battle was a triptych of an all-too-familiar scene: in the first, Wike has two hands on his friend’s chest, trying to staunch the wound; in the second, he tries to find a heartbeat; in the third frame, “Corpsman In Anguish”, he realized the man is dead. 

LeRoy herself came very close to death two weeks later. Her Nikon barely stopped a piece of mortar shrapnel that ripped open her chest. She said that she thought the last words she would ever hear were, “I think she’s dead, sarge.” During the Tet offensive in 1968, LeRoy was briefly captured by the North Vietnamese during the battle for Hue. LeRoy’s photos of her captivity later made the cover of Life, ‘A Remarkable Day in Hue: the Enemy Lets Me Take His Picture‘. She was the first person to take photos of North Vietnamese Army Regulars behind their lines.

In 1972, Leroy shot and directed Operation Last Patrol, a film about Ron Kovic and the anti-war Vietnam veterans. She was in Beirut during the Israeli siege of the city in 1982. Her pictures there were equally poignant. LeRoy died in 2006.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 13, 2014 at 8:58 am

Posted in Politics, War

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