The performance of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in Chicago’s Civic Opera House on the night of November 17th 1955 was an unscheduled one. After two rapturous performances, the great soprano Maria Callas was asked to give one final show, and it was a triumph. But the real drama came only when the opera was over. U.S. Marshal Stanley Pringle (foreground in photo above) and Deputy Sheriff Dan Smith burst into Callas’s dressing room and served her with court summons for a breach of contract. Callas, still in titular Cio-Cio-San’s kimono, was furious; she proclaimed, “I will not be sued! I have the voice of an angel! No man can sue me.”
The moment was immortalized in an iconic photo of Callas, her black eyes aflare with hatred, her mouth curled up with fury. The press dubbed her “The Tigress” from that day onward. She vowed never to return to Chicago. This was just one of many melodramatic episodes for La Callas, who lived an operatic life both on- and off-stage. Born to Greek immigrant parents in New York City, Callas possessed a vocal range that made possible the revival of 19th-century bel canto works, and changed the operatic repertoire for generations to come.
But frequently ill (probably due to her earlier rapid weightloss), Callas had disputes and lawsuits with many a grand operatic stage. On the opening night of Rome season in 1958, she famously walked off after the first act of Bellini’s Norma; the temperamental diva had no understudy and left the President of Italy and most of Rome’s high society in attendance shocked and outraged, for which she was savaged in the Italian press. *
Her career was slowly declining by then; her imperial stature meant that she was still enthusiastically welcomed by the audience, but she herself knew her voice was faltering. After a less-than-adequate season in 1964, she abandoned her signature role of Norma. The next year, she gave up a more relaxing role in Tosca for good. Her last tour after a long retirement in 1973 was not critically well-received. Afterwards, holed up in her Paris apartment, she would spend many a sleepless night with her old recordings, listening to the Voice that had now left her, and died a loner four years later, unable to forgive the world that had forgotten her. She was 53.
* Typo corrected. I got more emails and DM tweets for this than any other grammar mistake or malapropism I used on this blog in last three years.
Addison Beecher Colvin Whipple, writer and censorship fighter, died on March 17, aged 94.
“Words are never enough,” wrote Life magazine in an editorial when it finally got the approval to reproduce the pictures of dead American soldiers in September 1943 (more). That permission, which came all the way from the president, would have been all but impossible if not for the tenacious efforts of Cal Whipple, Life’s Washington correspondent.
Rules then prohibited the publication of photos of the American dead, lest they damage morale on the home front. In his own words, Mr. Whipple, “went from army captain to major to colonel to general until [he] wound up in the office of an Assistant Secretary of the Air Corps.” to argue that these photos were what the home front needed. The Secretary decided to forward the photos to the White House, where President Roosevelt agreed that the American public has grown complacent about the war and its horrific toll, and cleared their publication.
As the consequence, war bond sales boomed, and although the censorship rule regarding the home front morale was abolished, the censorship itself would prove to be enduring. Censorship and self-censorship continued with the pictures from Dresden, Hiroshima, and even Auschwitz. The rule not to show faces of the American dead existed until the Korean War, which saw bans on photos showing the aftermaths by US bombings in North Korea, and of political prisoners.
It all changed in Vietnam, which would come to be known as the “first war to take place in America’s living rooms.” It was a conflict whose course unfolded in iconic photos, from the beginning to the end. After Vietnam, the military would never again allow journalists to have free rein in covering a war. The golden age of war photography, which nurtured such figures as Larry Burrows or Francoise Demulder, ended as abruptly as it began. In modern wars, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan but also in smaller conflicts in Grenada and Panama, reporters would be corralled into press pools or embeds and frequently threatened with revocation of credentials if they strayed from guidelines.
With various newspapers looking back on Iraq War on this 10th Anniversary of its beginning with grand pictorial sideshows, it is sometimes very easy to forget what we see is more often than not authorized, sanitized, bowdlerized.But it is also comforting to remember that for images hidden away from us, there is always someone like Cal Whipple fighting for their inclusion into the recorded memory.
When the North Vietnamese tank No. 843 broke down the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon on April 30 1975 — just hours after the last American helicopters had left — it signaled the end of an era, and that of a long and bitter war. Most Western journalists had been evacuated from South Vietnam at this point, but that defining moment was captured on video and on camera film by two who stayed behind.
The first was made by Neil Davis, an unflappable Australian who waltzed back into his Saigon tailor’s to collect a Safari suit he had ordered before as the North Vietnamese were bearing down on the city. His video of the tank breaking through the gates was first broadcast on an NBC News Special Report: Communist Saigon, only nearly a month later on 26 May 1975. Davis died covering a coup in Thailand, his still-running camera recording his own death.
The photographic record of the moment was made by an equally intrepid figure – Francoise Demulder, who would later become the first woman to win the World Press Photo Award. A student of philosophy (and a model), Ms. Demulder travelled to South Vietnam with her boyfriend in the early 1970s. To cover their travelling expenses, the couple quickly became embedded with the U.S. military, she who had no formal training in photography taking war photos and her boyfriend driving her around, covering the fighting, and dropping off their photos at the AP office. She stayed behind to take the now-famous photo above.
Thus ended the two-decade long conflict in Vietnam; five million tonnes of bombs and 1.7 million tonnes of Agent Orange were dropped over both Vietnams. Alas, peace did not return to the region. Two weeks later, the Khmer Rouge took control in the neighboring Cambodia; by November, Laos too was in the hands of the communists. As for the long suffering Vietnamese (three million of whom perished during the war), there was little respite as their government would soon be involved in two other fratricidal conflicts with China and Cambodia.
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.]
Over the last two months, I haven’t been able to post any new articles onto Iconic Photos. I have been travelling across India during that time — an initial trip of 3 weeks which ballooned and lengthened into a three-month journey, for which I hadn’t prepared the blog for.
Alas, it was an engaging trip — I shook hands with a god incarnate, trekked up a Himalayan pass, and nearly got recruited to (what I was pretty sure) a cult. All this fun and precarious living came with its dangers though — I was robbed at knife point, me losing my camera, laptop, and worse horror of it all, my harddisk drive.
What does that mean? That means I don’t really have an huge archive of photographs and pre-written posts to fall back on anymore, apart from some scraps and pieces are stored via cloud here and there. The blog’s output will suffer, but I ask you all to bear with me for a few months. As Virgil would say, haec olim meminisse ituvabit.
A. S. H.
In 1978, as violence and revolution gripped Nicaragua, Susan Meiselas traveled there to document the fall of the stifling Somoza regime there. She took many powerful images of the Sandinistas revolt, including the photo later came to be known as ‘The Molotov Man’. Unlike her other photos from Nicaragua, the photo above was not published anywhere at the time, but only reproduced in her book, emphatically named, “Nicaragua: June, 1978-July, 1979″, which is considered to be one of the best photojournalistic works.
The photo was taken on July 16, 1979, the day before Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the last of the Somozas who had ruled Nicaragua since 1936; a Sandinistas rebel — later revealed to be a man named Pablo Arauz) was throwing a bomb at a Somoza national guard garrison — an image made all the more ironic by the pepsi-cola bottle he had appropriated to hurl at the nepotist regime long-supported by the United States. In the end, the Somoza-Sandinistas conflict left 40,000 people dead (1.5 percent of the population); 40,000 children orphaned; and over 200,000 families (one fifth of the population) homeless. Another hauntingly beautiful Meiselas photo show the smoke rising from the city of Esteli as a Somaza bomber departs the scene like some silhouetted cormorant.
As for The Molotov Man, it would later play a crucial role in a copyrights debate. In 2004, Joy Garnett, an appropriation artist based one of her paintings on the photo. Meiselas issued a cease and desist letter and demanded rights to the painting. Viral internet outrage followed; and two years later, two artists reached a compromise, appearing jointly at a fair-use symposium and penning together an article on the whole controversy in Harper’s (pdf).
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.