Iconic Photos continues its trek into the world of contact sheets.
A minor mission of a site such as Iconic Photos is to educate its readers; accordingly, we have written about various aspects of photography, from its master practitioners to its use and abuse to lately, a year-long look at contact sheets. Many, including great photographers, believe contact sheets reveal more about a situation than an individual frame.
But, to coin a phrase, everything lies. Even photographs. Even contact sheets.
Look closely at the following contact sheet by René Burri, featuring a famous photo of Che Guevara. At the first glance, it seems to be single sequence but it is, in fact, a composite of different negatives from different cameras using different lenses.
Each week at the Magnum offices in Paris, Henri Cartier-Bresson would review the contact sheets submitted by younger photographers returning from assignments. It was a daunting experience, not least because Cartier-Bresson had a peculiar way of critiquing, where he would rotate the contact sheet slowly, looking at it upside down and from all possible angles, studying the composition and scrutinizing the content.
René Burri realized that with Che’s pictures, the critique would be more incisive than ever (Cartier-Bresson himself was in Cuba for a Life assignment simultaneously with Burri, but was denied closer access to Che). Burri wanted to make sure that he didn’t miss a shot. He went on the assignment with three cameras, and submitted to his mentor a composite contact sheet. It was unclear whether Mr. Cartier-Bresson caught this sleight of hand.
In a Guardian interview from 2010, Mr. Burri remembers visiting Havana:
Laura Bergquist, a star reporter with Look magazine, had met Che Guevara at the UN in October 1962, after the Cuban missile crisis. She bugged him so much that he told her: “If you get permission from the CIA or the Pentagon, you are invited to Cuba, and I will show you what is really going on.” She got the green light from the Americans – and I went with her.
We arrived at Che’s office on the eighth floor of the Hotel Riviera in Havana. At that time he was the number-two man in Cuba – he was the minister for industry, and director of the Banco Nacional. His face was on the two peso note. I saw the blinds were drawn and, after we were introduced, I asked him in French: “Che, can I open the blinds? I need some light.” But he said no. I thought, well, it’s your face, not mine.
Immediately, Bergquist and Che started a furious ideological dogfight. She had to take back a story for the Americans, who were still angry about the revolution, and he was trying to convince her that what happened had to happen. For two and a half hours I could just dance around them with my camera. It was an incredible opportunity to shoot Che in all kinds of situations: smiling, furious, from the back, from the front. I used up eight rolls of film. He didn’t look at me once, he was so engaged with trying to convince her with maps and graphs. She was a chain-smoker, and he occasionally lit up one of his cigars.
We went back to New York, and Look ran a 16- or 20-page story. This picture was only an eighth of a page. It certainly wasn’t a photo essay, like the one Henri Cartier-Bresson did for Life magazine at the same time. He was in town with us, but only got to shoot Che at a press conference.
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.
Iconic Photos look back at the most iconic presidential photos from 1939 – 1974.
You don’t need Iconic Photos to tell you that there is an election campaign going on in the United States, especially if you live in America. Despite all limitations and checks & balances on his power, the President of the United States is often considered to be the Most Powerful Man on the planet, and the Presidency itself a bully pulpit.
Modern American presidency as we know it today began under Franklin Delano Roosevelt; many remember FDR as an avuncular figure from news reels and radio broadcasts, the man who won the Second World War. Meanwhile his crippling polio was largely kept out of the public eye until Time magazine controversially published a photo featuring his wheelchair.
His successor, Harry Truman, was best remembered photographically for a premature headline, calling the 1948 Presidential Election for his opponent. While he was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, Dwight D. Eisenhower had some memorable photos, but as president, he presided over a largely uneventful decade during which American military and economic might was nothing but rapidly ascendent. It was hardly surprising that he left the White House with high approval ratings (only tempered by Sputnik and U2 incident).
Jack Kennedy, too, enjoyed high approval rates; he also enjoyed Eisenhower’s counsel, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco; two presidents walking hunched-shoulder to hunched-shoulder was memorably captured in an award winning photo by Paul Vathis. The Loneliest Job — another image of Kennedy’s unique silhouette – makes, at least to this writer, the definitive portrait of an American presidency.
Lyndon Johnson entered the pantheon of iconic images on the very first day of his presidency as he was haphazardly sworn in on the Air Force One. When he finally left Washington five years later, he had already presided over a disastrous war. Jack E. Kightlinger’s photo of anguished Johnson listening to a tape from Vietnam makes a sombering picture.
While one of Nixon’s most memorable photos was made when he was Eisenhower’s Vice President. His ‘debate’ with the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev solidified his foreign policy credentials. A decade later, he would leave the White House equally memorably.
(To be continued….)
Links for bigger photos: Big Three; FDR in a wheelchair; Truman; Kennedy & Eisenhower; JFK and son; the Loneliest Job; Johnson sworn in; anguished Johnson; the Kitchen Debate; Nixon departs.
Also, I have been asked to pass on this message from a reader. Apparently, there is a social media platform called LiveCitizen/Fix*Us; it lets users weigh in on campaign issues, soliciting solution for pressing problems. A winner will be selected from each category and will receive a $1,000 donation to the charity of their choice. I think it’s an intellectually stimulating challenge. Check it out here. Disclaimer: I don’t get any commission from them.
Japan officially surrendered on September 2nd, 1945. What happened next was an equally interesting story.
General Douglas MacArthur had landed at Atsugi airbase two days before; since the VJ day, he had been asked by President Truman to oversee the occupation of Japan. It was a daunting task. On his drive to Yokohama from Atsugi, tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers greeted him with their bayonets out in one final act of symbolic defiance. Seventy percent of Americans thought Emperor Hirohito should be persecuted; there were protests outside MacArthur’s headquarters by American servicemen and calls in Australian and Russian press to that effect.
However, MacArthur understood that for the transition to be smooth, the imperial rule must persist. Yet, he didn’t make the customary call to the palace; instead, he waited for the emperor to make the first contact. On 27th September, Hirohito finally crossed the palace moat to reach MacArthur’s headquarters at the Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Company – requisitioned for its relative intactness and its proximity to both the palace and the American embassy. In The Man Who Saved Kabuki, Shin Okamoto wrote:
MacArthur greeted the emperor at the entrance to the reception room, shaking his hand and saying, ‘You are very, very welcome sir.’ The emperor kept bowing lower and lower until MacArthur found himself shaking hands with him over the emperor’s head. Only the emperor, MacArthur and Okamura, the interpreter went into the reception room. Then the door to the reception room was opened and Lt. Gaetano Faillace, of the military camera corps, took a now famous photograph of the emperor and MacArthur from outside the room.”
Faillace was given one shot, but he spoke up and asked for three. Faillace also adviced MacArthur against a seated picture on a soft couch. First two photos were less than ideal — their eyes were closed in one, and the Emperor’s mouth was gaping open in the other. But even the perfect, final shot posed its own problems: at this juncture, Hirohito was still akitsumikami or manifest deity (he would not renounce his divinity before the coming New Year’s Day), and everyone was supposed to avert eyes from the veiled imperial portraits in government buildings.
Thus, printing the photo was deemed sacrilegious, not least because of the general’s extremely casual attire and his even more pointed body language. MacArthur’s office itself had to intervene to Japanese censors to have it printed. It ran on 29th September. He had to intervene again when the photo appeared in the New York Times alongside an unprecedented interview with the Emperor — where he criticized his government on failing to declare war on US before Pearl Harbour — and police tried to confiscate the papers.
Outside Japan, too, the general’s informal appearance shocked many. Even Life clutched its pearls and wrote, “MacArthur did not trouble to put on a tie for the occasion”. As for the contents of their 40-minute tete-a-tete, nothing was made public; the two men would meet 10 more times during MacArthur’s sojourn as the American Proconsul. The general never paid a return call to the palace.
I have written about this photo a couple of times before. But to continue my yearlong devotion to contact sheets, here is the assemblage of frames Thomas Hoepker submitted to Magnum. On 9/11, Hoepker crossed from Manhattan into Queens and then Brooklyn to get closer to the scene. In Williamsburg, he captured the above pastoral scene, but decided to hold back the photo for five years feeling that it was “ambiguous and confusing.”