Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

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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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Needle Park | Bill Eppridge

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Tributes last week remembered him as the photographer who took the last photos of Robert F. Kennedy as the senator lay dying on the floor of a Californian hotel. But Bill Eppridge, who died on October 3rd, was a photographic icon long before that fateful night in 1968. Throughout the 60s, Eppridge documented for Life magazine the fast-changing America — he was there when the Beatles first came to New York; he photographed Barbara Streisand washing her clothes in a tub; he saw an emotional fraught funeral for a Civil Rights leader murdered by the Klan.

But for this author at least his most powerful work was the photoessay on heroin addicts in New York City which appeared in Life magazine in February 1965. Eppridge and James Mills, associate editor at Life who wrote the accompanying article, spent months trailing and living with two addicts who described themselves as “animals in a world no one knows.” That touching photo essay, gritty and raw well before the words became overused in photographic context, won the 1964 Headliner Award. That story later inspired the motion picture, ‘Panic in Needle Park’ starring Al Pacino and Kitty Winn as John and Karen, “two lives lost to heroin,” in LIFE’s powerful words.  [Further photos on Life website].

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Here is Eppridge, remembering the assignment:

The writer, Jim Mills, and I started doing research on the heroin culture that had crossed over from subcultures and was quite seriously affecting the white middle classes. We spent three months learning everything we could about it. It took us that long to find a couple, after contacting every agency we could. When we found them, we had to persuade them to do it for free; we couldn’t have paid them – it would just support their habit. I went and lived with them for three months, and tried to be invisible. I’ve been skinny and gaunt all my life, so I fitted in with that society. It got to the point when they just ignored me and didn’t care whether I was there or not. As a matter of fact, I got stopped by the cops more than they did. They wanted to know where I got the cameras.

Often we would lead a story with a question rather than a statement. There is a statement here, but it asks a question… ‘We are animals in a world no one knows’: What is the world? How are the people like animals, they look like a normal couple, crossing the street? It brings the reader in. In the next spread you see who they are: heroin addicts. We did not show the needle very often; we had to be aware of our readership, so we didn’t want to show a lot of gore.

Karen came from a very fine family, on Long Island, but to make money to support her habit, she wasa prostitute. She was a beautiful woman. The police referred to her as the actress. She could change her looks at a whim, but when she did too many drugs, she started to look bad. John came from a very fine family in New Jersey, but to make money, he stole, boosted from cabs – he was a petty thief. Karen found that she couldn’t support her habit anymore, so she checked herself into a hospital, and was able to cut back to a habit that was affordable. I don’t think that’s possible today. I went in with them and photographed things as they happened. None of this was ever set up, I just lived with them and I waited until things happened.

They were on the street looking for a dealer; I looked over their shoulder and there was a gentleman standing there who looked like he didn’t belong. It was a cop, an undercover narc. He and his buddy came along, they spotted Karen and John were addicts, and they proceeded to search them. John was put in jail. I went to the judge and asked if we could photograph him in jail. I don’t know if it’s possible to have that access today. So, John’s in jail and Karen’s got to go and get drugs. She goes to see a dealer.

I was sitting in the lobby of the hotel, waiting for her to come down, and I got a phone call. It was Karen, she said, “You’d better come up here, we got a problem”. Her dealer had overdosed. The guy could have died. It was a big dilemma; should I call the police or should I photograph it? I asked Karen how she felt about it and she said she could bring him round. So I took her word for it and didn’t call 911. And she brought him around. I constantly faced situations that bordered on illegal. It was hard having to make these kinds of decisions, but I think I made the right ones most of the time.

One of the things we highlighted was that this was not a physical addiction as much as a psychological problem. We also said that it was difficult, if not perhaps impossible, to totally deal with this problem. Those addicts still exist in one form or another.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

October 10, 2013 at 6:46 am

The Whitechapel Murders | Police Files

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It is unclear how many he really killed: as few as five, as many as eleven. His methods were brutal — throats were slashed; organs eviscerated. For almost three years between 1888 and 1891, he terrorized, fascinated, and repulsed the Victorian London and the world beyond, before fading out of history as abruptly as he had entered it. Many a prominent Victorian was accused of being him, but the Whitechapel Murderer was never actually caught, although the abrupt end of his reign of terror suggested that it was interrupted by his death, incarceration, institutionalization, or deportation.

Unlike all other acknowledged victims of Jack the Ripper, Mary Jane Kelly was killed inside, in her apartment at Miller Court. Her face was mutilated — again something not found in four other ‘official’ Ripper victims. For those reasons, whether Mary Jane Kelly was an actual victim of Jack the Ripper has always been a topic of fervent debates.

On photographic front, too, Mary Jane was unique. Ripper murders unfolded just before Victorian innovations in criminology and forensic sciences were to reach their apogee, and missed fingerprint identification techniques by just a decade. However, all of Ripper’s victims were meticulously photographed in mortuary; Mary Jane was the only victim to be photographed in situ, as she was found on her bed, horribly mutilated. A second photo is more violent and not reproduced here. Had the above photo been in color, it would not have been reproduced here.  (The photographer is not known; other mortuary photos found here are allegedly taken by one Joseph Martin.)

Her apartment and most of East End London the killer frequented has been demolished — swept away in the series of slum clearances and reforms ironically spurred by the Ripper killings.

[See all the mortuary photos here. This post is part of a series I am trying out called, I can't belive there is a photo of that!]

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

October 8, 2013 at 7:52 am

Tauza | Drum Magazine

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Photography loves misery, and compelling are the photos of oppression. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement in the United States was evocatively photographed, another struggle across the ocean was similarly being recorded. In South Africa’s long struggle with the Apartheid, photography played a large (if largely-unacknowledged-outside-Africa) role, thanks to a magazine called Drum.

Drum was managed by two Englishmen, both products of public schools. Jim Bailey and Anthony Sampson seemed unassuming and unimposing figures but they achieved what was never impossible: even after many other magazines had been banned for printing anti-apartheid photos, their little magazine survived. Their trick was to publicize Drum as a gossipy rag, while slipping in anti-apartheid news, stories, and photos between general interest pieces on weddings, nightlife, and movie stars. While the magazine was ambitious (and wanted to expand to other English-speaking African states), it was not a profitable enterprise. Its de facto boycott by the South African establishment at the time only made it harder, and Bailey nearly squandered all the money left by his father, the Johannesburg gold magnate Abe Bailey (who was as close as one might get to Flintheart Glomgold without being a cartoon duck).

But Drum‘s assets were in its intrepid journalists and photographers, nearly all of them from all black Jo’burg neighbourhood of Sophiatown. Many of Drum’s star photographers tried to get themselves arrested and took photos inside prisons using . One such photographer, Peter Magubane, was arrested for two years and banned from taking photographs for five years upon his release. Five years later, Magubane defiantly resumed his photojournalistic career.

Perhaps the most famous picture ever published in Drum — some have even called it the most famous picture ever published in Africa — was a photograph of prisoners doing a naked tauza dance. Tauza was a humiliating ritual that the black prisoners had to undergo when they were returning from a court appearance or a work program to ensure that they had nothing hidden in their rectums. Bailey and his reporters had known about the practice and decided that a photo of tauza would be perfect for Henry Nxumalo’s scathing first-hand story on appalling conditions inside South African prisons.

So he sent a white secretary from the office to the notorious Johannesburg prison The Fort. She posed as a photographer while an actual photographer Bob Gosani — Nxumalo’s nephew — and writer Arthur Maimane simply accompanied her as her black servants. The prison authorities paid little attention to the woman photographer from a little rag (many viewed the magazine as a Rand-equivalent of Us Weekly) and much less attention to her companions. As the result, Gosani managed to take the photo above which shocked many when published and led to some, albeit grudging and slow, reform in South African prison system.

That was in 1954 — Apartheid would remain in South Africa for the next four decades. As for Drum the destruction of Sophiatown in later that year (which would also lead a young Nelson Mandela onto the road towards armed resistance) marked an end to its creative reign. Its wonderful staff also disintegrated into fingerpointing and infighting.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 28, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Wayne Miller (1918 – 2013)

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Wayne Miller, the chronicler of a black post-war Chicago, has died, aged 95.

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When Wayne Miller returned to Chicago after serving as a combat photographer for the U.S. Navy, he witnessed how his hometown had changed. The city’s south side had been attracting African-Americans since the “Great Migrations” of the 1910s and the 1920s — so much so that the suburb of Bronzeville was known as the “Black Metropolis” – but Miller arrived back at a city whose industry had grown exponential during the war. Stockyards, mills, and factories were now manned by a new upwardly mobile class of African-Americans who fled the oppression of the south and emigrated to Chicago searching for industrial jobs.

With the help of the great Edward Steichen, whom he befriended during the war (and with whom he would corroborate later), Miller won two concurrent Guggenheim fellowships to fund his ambitious project to document this new social fabric. The two-year effort, collected as “The Way of the Northern Negro”, was an intimate portrait of a bygone Chicago, from church services to tea [marijuana] parties to demimonde of female impersonators.

In his Chicago, midwives delivered babies in dim-lit homes; slaughterhouse workers drank and brawled in the taverns till morning; couples made love with open windows and on balconies. And all human life was there, from celebrities like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington to an ordinary man [photo below] whom Langston Hughes singled out as the perfect image of his famed character “Simple”.

Miller’s assessment was so sympathetic and so full of hope that it was chosen to accompany Richard Wright’s bleaker essay “The Shame of Chicago” in the Ebony Magazine. It was also the first time the magazine broke its own rules to give the photographer a byline.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

May 27, 2013 at 8:59 pm

Brooklyn Museum | Phillip Jones Griffiths

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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.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

May 20, 2013 at 8:45 pm

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