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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

Hong Kong | Fan Ho

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Anticipating the 65th Anniversary of the Communist Takeover of Mainland China, Iconic Photos look back at the world it unleashed. 

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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).

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 4, 2014 at 3:46 am

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

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

The Most Expensive Photo Ever

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The title of the most expensive photo ever is a dubious one.  This list provides the reader with the most expensive photos ever bought, not the most expensive photo ever taken.

That latter honor probably belonged to the photo above, where the entire 12,000-strong workforce of Ford Motor plant at Highland Park where photographed in 1913 when the world’s first fully-fledged assembly line was installed at the plant.

Fittingly for a company whose axiom was “Time equals money”, the photo cost thousands of dollars. In 1913, Ford paid $2.34 a day — minimum wage then was $1 — and employed them for nine-hour working day. (The next year, he doubled the pay to $5 a day and reduced the daily work hours to eight). Assuming a working day lost because of the photo, Ford paid out $28,080 daily wages – almost equal to amount of seed money he had to found the company in 1903. To add to that, Ford lost out on making 600 cars (in 1913, Ford produced 250,000 cars annually), each of which cost $600. In total, the cost of the photo was over $9 million in 2013 dollars.

Ford himself was a grumpy, tyrannical figure. His employees were subjected to a Sociological Department, which forced them to change their hygiene, consumption, sexual, and social habits to fit in with Ford’s puritanical and health-obsessed worldview. His wage increases – today portrayed as a revolutionary act of magnanimity – was spurred by high employee turnover (370% in 1913) caused by these restrictions. Ford drove away two talented executives, Knudsen and Couzens; William Knudsen went on to turn around money-losing Chevrolet into an auto powerhouse.

When he died in 1946, Ford left behind a fortune of $ 188.1 billion (in 2008 dollars), which made him top five richest industrialists ever. When his company finally IPO’d in 1956, the company had the market capitalization of $3.2 billion (real US GDP that year was $460 billion) and its initial offering was so large that over two hundred Wall Street firms had to subscribe to it.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 4, 2014 at 3:39 am

Posted in Industries, Society

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Erwin Blumenfeld

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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.

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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”.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 20, 2014 at 4:09 am

Thurston Hopkins

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Jamaican immigrant Kwessi Blankson gives a light to workmate Jack White in 1955

During the mid-20th century, street photography is a term normally strongly associated with Paris; but interesting street photography work was being done in other countries and cities too.

One such work was that of Thurston Hopkins who documented everyday life of post-war Britain. Hopkins worked for Picture Post, now largely-forgotten British equivalent of Life magazine. Hopkins’ obscurity is more total than that of Picture Post. As of February 2014, Hopkins does not even have a wikipedia page.

But to forget someone like  Hopkins is too forget important work he did in post-war Britain; in 1950, Hopkins joined Picture Post after a stint with the RAF photographic unit during the Second World War (allegedly creating a dummy issue of Post using only his photographs and words). For the magazine, he contributed such important photoessays such as Children of the Streets in 1954, A British Colour Conflict in 1955 and Liverpool Slums in 1956. These were portraits of a bygone Britain, a traumatized post-war nation slowly coming to terms with immigration, loss of empire, and shoots of prosperity that the prime minister would dub ‘never-had-it-so-good’ in 1957.

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[Most of the information here is through an article from Guardian when Hopkins turned 100 in 2013. This is the only article on Hopkins online. A slideshow of many Hopkins photos can be found here. The whole Picture Post archive is online, but not searchable behind a paywall at Cengage Learning. :( ]

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

February 24, 2014 at 3:35 am

Posted in Society

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Master Photographers by Pat Booth

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Screenshot (7)On my desk was a fascinating volume, Master Photographers, edited by Pat Booth. Booth, a talented artist who found fame thrice-over as a model, photographer, and writer. She was a Sixties icon who appeared on the covers of Vogue and Harpers & Queen, and posed for photographers such as Norman Parkinson and David Bailey before embarking on her own photography career when her modeling life ended before she was 23.

Her second career was kickstarted when her husband bought her a camera and she toured the Indonesian archipelago and New Guinea, happily snapping away at unclad headhunters. She photographed David Bowie and Bianca Jagger, the Queen Mother, and several other famous men and women of the 70s and the 80s. Perhaps her most exciting assignment was on the Haitian dictator Baby Doc Duvalier, who allowed her access mainly because she was a model, blonde and beautiful. Her photos of Baby Doc were warm and intimate. Her political assessment, however, was never too profound. Having found good rapport with the dictator, she was outraged when the reporter who accompanied her produced a hostile article in The Sunday Times.

Later she later an interviewer of photographers and a prolific writer of romance novels. Master Photographers was her seminal contribution to photography, and for this, she even managed to interview reclusive Eve Arnold who never gave interviews in her later life.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

November 8, 2013 at 10:07 am

Kaiser Bill in Jerusalem

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His spiked helmet glistened in the sun as he crossed Jaffa Gate astride a white stallion. On October 29, 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II became the first German Emperor in 670 years to enter Jerusalem. Escorted by spike helmets, bearded Prussian and Turkish cavalry, and heralded under a large Prussian cross, the Kaiser seemed as if he was heading a new crusading army. He believed he was. The German settlers in the Holy Land greeted the imperial couple as modern Templars and the kaiser visited familiar crusader haunts from Constantinople to Beirut, inaugurated a church, and praised the spirit of the Templars.

The visit was frantically covered by a large contingent of journalists and photographers the kaiser brought along. As he visited the city’s Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities and reviewed the honor guard under a gigantic fireworks in front of the new church he consecrated, it seemed — however briefly — that peaceful religious coexistence in the Holy Land was not beyond reach.  

In fact, he came at the apex of the Ottoman peace, under which a significant degree of religious freedom was granted to non-Islamic faiths.  In 1900, Christians and Jews combined made up 30 percent of the total population of the Ottoman Empire.  Jewish communities thrived, especially in Baghdad (which German companies were trying to link Berlin with in an ambitious rail project. In fact, while the Kaiser’s visit was largely apolitical, he hoped to strengthen diplomatic connections with Constantinople for rail concessions). Wilhelm himself, for all his pompous penchant for Templars, was an Islamophile; he called himself ‘Hajji’ Wilhelm, and claimed he would be the Protector of Islam in a future Germanic Levant. (Punch lampooned him as answering to Saladin’s calls to save Crete from the ‘horrible’ British and French).

That dreamworld was soon to be swept away, first by the First World War and by the Scramble for Middle East that ensued afterwards.  In the early 1900s, Christians made up 20% of the Middle East’s population. In 1970s and 80s, many left; today Christians make up no more than 5% of the population even as continuing conflicts in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon dwindle this percentage even further.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

November 1, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Posted in Politics, Society

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