Archive for the ‘Society’ Category
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.
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.]
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.]
Scene. The devastated street of an Arab capital. Children and residents flee barefoot as their slumtown is burnt down by the government militia. At the first glance, the photo looks no different from a thousand others we have seen before and since, in color and in black-and-white.
But dear reader, would it surprise you if the elderly woman begging for her life was a Palestinian, while her masked attacker with a World War II rifle was a Christian Phalangist? When Francoise Demulder — one of the pioneering female French photographers — took the photo on the morning of January 18th 1976, the Phalangists in the Lebanese capital of Beirut had just massacred 1,000 Palestinians, set alight the Muslim homes in the unfortunately named suburb of La Quarantine, and forever shattered the myths of plucky Maronites defending their homelands in the Levant.
Demulder had couriered her film by a taxi to Damascus where it was loaded to a Paris-bound flight and delivered to Gamma, her photo agency. They remained unpublished until Ms. Demulder returned to France. Their publication was a watershed moment; according to Demulder, ”from then on it was no longer good Christians and wicked Palestinians, and the Phalangists never forgave me”. The photo, now titled “Distress in Lebanon”, would eventually won the World Press Photo award, Demulder becoming the first woman to do so. She later recounted in a TV interview that only the young girl and her child seen the background survived, the militiaman having killed himself in a game of Russian roulette.
For the next three decades, Lebanon too was embroiled what it would seem to many of its denizens a protracted game of Russian roulette. La Quarantine — itself a reprisal for the murder of four Phalangists — was repaid in kind by the PLO with an attack on the Christian community at Damour. Syrian, Israeli, and eventually multinational troops intervened and then interfered, each with differing level of success; Lebanon lurched from crisis to crisis to this very day.
[There will be more on Demulder in my very next post. To be continued.]
The upheavals of 1968, which at its peak sent eleven million Frenchmen and women into the streets began quite mundanely in Nanterre, the dreary Parisian suburb which was slowly evolving into a demimonde of student radicals, drug-sellers, and squatters.
The demonstrations began after an eviction of a squatter and disciplinary measures against a student Daniel Cohn-Bendit that January. The latter had provoked a minister visiting to open a new sports hall by asking why the Education Ministry was doing nothing to address “‘sexual problems” in the universities (his demand was that boys and girls should be able to sleep together). The Minister suggested that if Cohn-Bendit had sexual problems, he should jump into the new swimming pool. ‘That is what the Hitler Youth used to pay’, replied the part-German Cohn-Bendit.
Gradually, with further demonstrations, attacks, and arrests, a movement was formed with Cohn-Bendit among its its leaders. When the Nantrerre campus was finally closed down, the movement shifted to the central Paris, a revolution unfolded through the historic boulevards of Left Bank. Here, in front of the Sorbonne, Dany le Rouge as he became known, more for his flaming hair than for his politics which were more anarchist than communist was photographed confronted the riot police with an elfin grin.
The photo by Gilles Caron (who had just returned from Biafra) was just one among many iconic photos from that May. Enormously telegenic, politically-savvy, and articulate were the student leaders, all conspicuously male. In photos and newsreels, girls could be seen on the shoulders of their boyfriends, but as historian Tony Judt put it, ‘they were at best the auxiliary foot soldiers of the student army’.
For all psychological impact it would later claim, the events of May 1968 were far from pivotal. The movement mimicked the style and the props of revolutions past, but their demands never strayed from their parochial beginnings, and unlike earlier tumults, no senior official of the state nor its institutions were assaulted or denounced. No students were killed, perhaps telling sign in a country where its army mainly composed of provincial lads was all too happy to crack a few heads in such a Club Med affair. The French Communists, which awaited its moment from the sidelines, delivered the movement’s eulogy, “This was a party, not a revolution”.
As for the man who started all this, Daniel Cohn-Bendit was expelled from France that May, and went on to become a respected politician in Frankfurt, and eventually a Green Party representative for the European parliament.
Although her career was eclectic (as we shall see in coming posts), Eve Arnold is now popularly remembered for her close association with two of last century’s greatest actresses: Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe. Although she had been collaborating with the latter for a decade, her best images of Marilyn Monroe came towards its end, at the set of the film The Misfits during the summer of 1960. In what would be her last screen appearance, Monroe gave her best performance playing a vulnerable divorcee juggling the affection of three men, and posed for the most revealing and poignant photos for Arnold as her marriage to playwright behind The Misfits, Arthur Miller was slowly crumbling.
Meanwhile, Nevada acted as the perfect backdrop to this drama. Four years earlier, Miller divorced his first wife in Reno, then on the verge of losing its crown as a divorce and gambling metropolis to Las Vegas. There, he encountered the titular “misfit” cowboys, whom he turned into a short story in Esquire now being filmed by John Huston.
The Misfits was perhaps unique in attracting many great photojournalists to its set. Magnum was given exclusive access to photograph the production, and the prolonged production — plagued by the sizzling Nevadan heat, Monroe’s temperament, Huston’s drink and gambling addictions, and Miller’s constant revisions to the script meant many great names in photojournalism of the last century managed to make it to the desert at one time or another during its four-month shoot.
If you look at photographs taken by such figures as Cornel Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt, Ernst Haas, Erich Hartman, Inge Morath, and Dennis Stock of poker games, slot machines, roulette tables, and showgirls in Las Vegas, Reno, Carson City and its environs, all of them bore that inevitable date, 1961.
The film’s other lead, Clark Gable died of a heart attack just twelve days after shooting his exhausting final scenes being dragged around by a horse. Monroe divorced from Miller even before the film came out; she died less than two years later. Soon afterwards, Miller married Inge Morath whom he met on the set.
In my previous post, I wrote how the Kordofan and the Nuba that Rodger visited is no more. Arabs and Nuba no longer live as happy neighbours. Directly or indirectly, Rodger’s photos played a minor role.
Among many admirers of Rodger’s photos was Leni Riefenstahl, who had already been infamous for two films she made for Hitler when she was still in her early 30s. For a film project she was planning, Riefenstahl had offered Rodger £1,000 to tell her where he had found the Nuba. With the memories of Belsen-Bergen still fresh in his mind, Rodger refused, but she embarked on the project anyway, which left Rodger extremely bitter.
In Farewell to the Nubas he wrote: “The gradual deterioration of the Nuba tribes began with the publication of Leni Riefenstahl’s glossy and misleading books in glaring colour which attracted tourists and travel operators to the area. In their seclusion, the million or so Nuba people might have remained unmolested by the world. But revealed in coffee-table books in their uncircumcised nudity, that was more than the Islamic fundamentalists could accept.”
Nevertheless, a note on the dustjacket of Riefenstahl’s first book, The Last of The Nuba (1973) credits Rodger’s work for inspiring her: “The author was so fascinated by this photograph taken by the famous English photographer George Rodger [he was a Scot] that for years she tried to find the Nuba in order to study the life of these primitive people.” A personal note followed: “Without the influence of your picture . . . this book would be never [sic] printed. Now we both are friends of ‘our’ Nuba People.”
This dedication further enraged Rodger: “There is an awful lot of tongue-in-cheek in that because I did not help her at all. Mind you, I think her pictures were very highly professional. They were certainly good pictures but there was no warmth in them. My pictures were very much part of the family and the people themselves.” This criticism was shared by Susan Sontag. In her 1974 essay Fascinating Fascism, Sontag wrote that the Nuba photos were “continuous with her Nazi work”.
Unhappily, Riefenstahl’s portrayal of Nuba lifestyle certainly opened up Kordofan to anthropologists, photographers, and documentary filmmakers. It also provoked a clampdown by Sudan’s predominantly Muslim authorities, for whom the Nuba way of life was either an embarrassment or an affront to their religious sensibilities. Successive governments in Khartoum have tried to clothe the Nuba and do away with their ‘primitive’ ways. They also accused the Nuba of supporting the southern Sudanese rebels, and supported the Baggara — whose nomadic lifestyle has been battered by years of drought and the growth of mechanised farming which has taken over vast tracts of land — with arms to take over the fertile Nuba villages.
In 1947, the same year he co-founded Magnum, George Rodger off across Africa on an assignment for National Geographic. While travelling in the Kordofan region of the Sudan, Rodger and his wife Cicely learnt of the Nubas, a people who lived as their ancestors had lived millennia before.
Rodger was granted permission by the Sudanese government to document the tribe. Fording rivers, skirting herds of elephants, and crossing a treacherous bush trail, he finally reached the Nuba Mountains in 1949, becoming the first ever Westerner to photograph the Nubas’ rituals and way of life. For six weeks, communicating only with their hands and smiles, the couple lived among the tribesmen.
His contact sheets show how he and Cicely carefully posed the tribesmen and women, but his most remembered photos were of simultaneous athletic events, tribal ceremonies and dances; his iconic image from the assignment was that of a victorious Nuba wrestler, ashen, ghostlike, naked and invincible astride the shoulders of another man. It had been reproduced everywhere from postcards and posters to textbooks. For many years, it was a definitive portrait of Africa.
When the photos first appeared in National Geographic in 1952, they caused a sensation, even after the magazine had order its photo-department to generously airbrush out exposed male genitalia and blood stains from wrestling matches. Three years later, the photos were published in Le Village de Noubas, an instant classic.
For Rodger, who took on the assignment to escape the devastation in Europe he saw at the end of the war, it marked the end of a emotional period. His wife Cicely died not soon afterwards in childbirth. In a melancholic short recollection of that trip, Farewell to the Nubas, Rodger wrote: ‘Although we had already trekked through 20,000 miles of tribal Africa, it was not until Kordofan that we found real peace and tranquillity. It seemed the good nature of the Nubas was contagious . . . it affected also the Baggara Arabs who grazed their herds in the flatlands below the jebels (hills). Nubas and Arabs lived contentedly side-by-side.’
This Kordofan and this comity Rodger saw is no more. But that is the story for another post.
Iconic Photos looks back at one of the most powerful photoessays of the last century.
On June 16th 1961 appeared in Life magazine an eight-page spread entitled, “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty.” The piece was hastily put together after the Secretary of State Dean Rusk denounced Latin American poverty as radicalizing influence towards Communism in a New York Times article the weekend before.
That summer, Life had sent its first African American photographer, Gordon Parks, to South America to cover one part of a five-part series on “Crisis in Latin America.” There Parks met a 12-year-old boy named Flavio da Silva who, with his poverty-stricken parents and their eight other children, lived in Catacumba favela (slum) in the hills outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Parks had put together a powerful essay featuring Flavio’s severe asthma attacks, his large family sleeping in one bed, and other horrendous conditions in the favelas. The story was to be severely truncated (with Parks threatening to resign if the editors do so) when Rusk’s article rescued it.
The photoessay elicited a huge emotional response from the readers; letters poured into the magazine’s offices. Many contained money; others included offers to adopt the boy. The Children’s Asthma Research Institute and Hospital in Denver arranged for Flavio to be brought to its facilities — where he would be treated for free — with President Kennedy himself intervening to expedite the visa process.
So it was an uplifting story of photographs affecting change. Maybe. Iconic Photos is more skeptical. Using its readers’ donations, Life set up a $300,000 fund for Catacumba, but the local resident association only built cement stairs. The rest of the donations simply disappeared. In 1961, there were 205 favelas in Rio, housing a population of at least 700,000 people. Today there are twice as many favelas, and estimates of their population range from 700,000 to 2 million. While many Brazilian magazines took up the cause of poverty after Life, their efforts were short-lived. One, O Cruziero, however, was so outraged by Parks’ coverage that it sent reporters to New York City’s slums; unfamiliar with the city, the reporters ended up in the Wall Street and staged a few shots with a random Puerto Rican family.
(Read here a pdf excerpt from Park’s autobiography about meeting Flavio).
On the cover of American Prospect, Joel Sternfeld’s ode to roadside America, was a ghoulish photo. A fireman shops for a pumpkin as the farmhouse — whose fire presumably brought him to this very acres — burns in the background. Its fiery destruction perfectly complemented the wintry leaves, the spoilt pumpkins, and from the foreground, with his hands tightly clasped upon a prized possession, the orange-clad firefighter: an American Nero.
It was not a staged Leibovitzian spectacle. Joel Sternfeld indeed witnessed the fire while driving his Volkswagen through McLean, Virginia. However, if there is one thing the readers should take from Iconic Photos, it is that photographs lie too. In this case, the fire was a controlled training exercise and the firefighter was on a break.
But this fact wasn’t even clear to the reviewers of his works (here, here). When the photo was published, firstly in Life, and then in many other magazines and exhibitions, it was only with pithiest of captions: “Joel Sternfeld; McLean, Virginia; December 1978″. The photographer himself reveled in this ambiguity; in a 2004 interview where the Guardian called him the chronicler of “the sinister curiousness of modern America”, he confided:
“Photography has always been capable of manipulation. Even more subtle and more invidious is the fact that any time you put a frame to the world, it’s an interpretation. I could get my camera and point it at two people and not point it at the homeless third person to the right of the frame, or not include the murder that’s going on to the left of the frame. You take 35 degrees out of 360 degrees and call it a photo. There’s an infinite number of ways you can do this: photographs have always been authored.”
It was a photograph that shocked a city; it bumped the death of Howard Hughes off the frontpages all over the state. Entire books were written about it. Iconic Photos looks back at its contact sheets.
Stanley Forman was early for his shift at the Herald American on April 5th, 1976 and he decided to head out to an anti-busing demonstration at Boston City Hall that another journalist was already covering. It was already two years into a desegregated school-busing in Massachusetts, but the protests in favor of the old system were still raging.
Forman managed to capture an episode that was especially violent: a black attorney named Theodore Landsmark — a Yale graduate who worked for Michael Dukakis no less — was attacked by a group of white teenagers as he exited the city hall. One of the attackers, Joseph Rakes, charged towards Landsmark using the American flag and its flagpole as a lance.
His camera motor jammed twice before he captured the iconic photo in his last frame — it was a poignant image; two millennia of history flashed past his lens, from Longinus spearing Christ at Golgotha to flag-rising at Iwo Jima. The next day, it appeared on the frontpages of the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and San Francisco Chronicle, among many others, and inside The New York Times.
A particularly violent retaliation took place the next day in Roxbury where a white driver was beaten and left in a coma; and Boston was finally forced to comfort the realities. The busing crises continued on for another decade. Forman won a Pulitzer Prize for his photo, which he submitted under his editor’s suggested title, “The Soiling of Old Glory.” As for Rakes, he was quickly fired from his job and his life fell apart. He admitted that when he first saw the picture, he thought, “Who is that lunatic with the flag? Then I realized it was me.”
This column is merely a short reflection on an extremely agonizing event during a complicated era for the United States. For more information, go to here, here, here, or buy Louis Masur’s authoritative book on the subject.