A Few Updates About the Blog

I write. I don’t usually care about grammar or style–and if someone finds fault in it (and someone always does, be it Mrs. Wendell at my prep or an officious reader), so be it. That didn’t stop me from writing articles, blogs and diary entries, most of which are probably testaments of my innate fascination with Self. (I bet I would mutter myself to death if I were living in the Stone Age).

A year ago, I started writing what would latter become the foundations of this blog, a list of ten supericonic photographs. Among the complaints that I received for the list from my friends were that the photos accompanying them were not big enough, that the list was not informative enough and, most importantly of all, that I didn’t name their favorite photos as being iconic–which, in retrospect, was a sound idea because their top choices perhaps included Nick Nolte’s mug shot, goatse and Marilyn Monroe’s Playboy spread. But their complains helped start this blog.

I have a few apologies . One, the information on this site is not 100% correct. I do my research, but sometimes a few mistakes here and there do slip in. So, be warned–if you are doing your Ph.D. research this is not the place to start. Two, if a newspaper clipping or wikipedia blurb can express my thoughts better and more concisely, I use it. To some it may be plagiarism, but come on, give me a break–This is not an academic project and i use up my freetime on here, and sometimes, it is hard to come by.

To admit, I never felt comfortable about infringing copyright. Yet, I did it and one year on, only one commenter felt he should denounce my “shrine to copyright infringement”. I don’t derive any monetary gain from this blog, and make me lose a few precious hours which I should better devote to smoking, drinking and other activities that shorten my life.

I guess I usually shied away from controversy. There is no Abu Garib, no gory pictures coming from 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq and no pictures that could be seen as pornographic (Mapplethrope’s for one). However, sometimes iconicity and controversy are inseparable–Garry Gross’ Brooke Shields picture for instance. I posted about it months before Tate Modern controversy, which reduced the comment pages of this blog to an online equivalent of a lavatory wall. We still cannot have a discussion online without everyone concerned being reduced to offensive stereotypes and caricatures. I find it funny and sad that people who felt strongly to wage a moral crusade against the people whom they have never met (and will never either) instead of actually doing something about the issues concerned. Maybe it is just the signs of the times.

I don’t know how many of you who read this blog personally knows me, although I do see some commenters compared me to my illustrious father (a totally false comparison–I have neither his fluid writing style, his curmudgeonly jeremiads nor his girth). Thank you all for reading.

I think we have moved far (really, really far) from the title of the blog: Iconic Photos. The photos and events about which I blog recently may be newsworthy but iconic they were not. I have to admit that a year and some 600 posts later, iconicity is in short-supply and my free time also too. For instance, I squandered this week in Denmark working for a climate agreement that will never materialize. And next week, I will head off to Dubai for a business/pleasure trip that hopefully will be more relaxing and fruitful than this one.

Ciao. Happy 2010!

The Meili Affair

In 1997, Christoph Meili was a night guard at the Union Bank of Switzerland in Zurich, Switzerland. There he discovered that UBS was destroying documents about orphaned assets (of the deceased whose heirs could not be located) and documents the German Reichsbank, including stock accounts for companies involved in the holocaust.

He took some of these files and handed them over to a local Jewish organization, which published them. The Swiss authorities filed a case against Meili for the violation of the laws on banking secrecy, a dire offense in Switzerland. Melli was granted an unprecedented political asylum in the United States.

The whistleblowing forced Swiss banks to remunerate to the victims of Nazi looting and to create a fund for the Holocaust victims. The same year, a conference on Nazi Gold was held in London. It also lead to a controversy of photographic sorts–on 13th January 1997, Gisela Blau Guggenheim took the picture of Christoph Meili with two folios he stole from the UBS. The titles of the tomes, “Directions-Protokoll No. XIII” and “Protokoll des Bankdirectoriums” were clearly visible.

The British Broadcasting Corporation used this photo in “Nazi Gold”, a film shown on television in several countries including Switzerland in July 1997. The BBC used the photo without first obtaining permission from Gisela Blau Guggenheim, who subsequently sued the broadcaster. Blau Guggenheim v British Broadcasting Corporation BBC stretched on until 2004 when it was decided in the favor of the photographer.

Muskie Moment

Senator Edmund S. Muskie was the clear frontrunner in the 1972 Democratic presidential primary, when he committed a gaffe now known among politicos simply as the “Muskie moment”. In one of the classic meltdowns in campaign history, Muskie broke down and cried in front of reporters after allegations that his wife drank too much and swore in public.  Muskie tried and failed to convince the voters that they weren’t tears, but melted snowflakes running down his cheeks.

He was responding to a particularly vicious political attack published in the Manchester Union-Leader, accusing the Senator’s wife of using foul language and drinking while on the campaign trail. Publisher William Loeb had been printing editorial attacks on Muskie, including the “Canuck Letter” which accused Muskie of a bias toward Americans of French-Canadian descent. (These were allegedly written by the incumbent president Richard Nixon’s aides). In response, Muskie gave an emotional speech in the New Hampshire snow defending his wife, and several journalists reported that Muskie cried during the speech. As he vehemently defended his wife, Muskie’s speech broke three times as he rubbed his face and tried to regain his composure.

Muskie claimed that he did not cry, and journalists merely saw as melted snow on his face. Previously known as a calm, reasonable candidate, this moment made Muskie appear weak and emotional to voters. While Muskie went on to win the New Hampshire primary, it was not be by nearly as much as expected, and this moment more than any other lead to the nomination of George McGovern by the Democratic Party.

The Pearl Harbour Attacks

Today marks the 68th Anniversary of the Pearl Harbor Attacks. In mid 1941, the United States reacted to Japanese occupation of French Indochina by freezing Japanese assets. In October, the moderate cabinet in Tokyo was replaced by a hardliner government headed by General Tojo. At 7:58 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, the alarm went out: “Air raid, Pearl Harbor. This is not drill!” as many naval personal were at their Sunday masses.

Although the Americans had received warnings (and ignored them), surprise was complete. Despite the fact that within seven minutes after the first attack, nearly all navy shipboard antiaircraft guns were manned and in action, American losses were heavy: USS West Virginia, Tennessee and Arizona, along with the battleships ShawCalifornia, Oklahoma and Nevada sank. However, the aircraft carriers were at sea and escaped much to the disappointment of Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Combined Fleet. He hoped that a quick, surprise attack on the U.S. fleet would make the Americans petition for peace, leaving the Pacific open for the Japanese expansion. He was said to have commented: “we can run wild for six months or a year, but after that I have utterly no confidence.”

On the U.S side, 188 aircraft were destroyed and 155 aircraft damaged as opposed to the Japanese losses of 27. Over two thousand U.S. militarymen were killed, but most of the civilian casualties during the attack came from them being hit by antiaircraft bullets falling back to earth. The loss was humiliating and total. Japan quickly emerged as a major world power–within a year, it had taken over the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, Singapore, Siam, Burma, China, the American Commonwealth of the Philippines, and many South Pacific islands; it already controlled Korea, Manchuria, and Taiwan.

The attacks left many enduring legacies. It ended the era of isolationism in the States; it increased the security measures surrounding the American interests home and abroad. Before the Pearl Harbour, the White House “security perimeter” began at the front doors of the building and citizens wandered around on the grounds of the White House as they did in Jefferson’s days. After Japan’s attack, the perimeter was moved outward to the high cast-iron fence, where they remain to this day. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was repealed when the Kuomintong China became an US ally against Fascist Japan, while xenophobia would lead to the Japanese internment camps.

On the Asian side, one of the greatest anthropological discoveries in history fell prey to the Pearl Harbour. Since the 1920s, a gifted Canadian amateur named Davidson Black was excavating in China at a place, Dragon Bone Hill. Among other things, he discovered there Sinanthropus pekinensis, or more commonly the Peking Man. On the day after the Pearl Harbor, a contingent of U.S. Marines, tried to smuggle the bones out of the country. They were intercepted by the Japanese and imprisoned. Their bone crates were left them at the roadside. It was the last that was ever seen of the Peking Man.

(Above pictures: from U.S. Navy Archives)

When Putin met Reagan

In May 1988, President Ronald Reagan travelled to Moscow for his 4th summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviets prepared a grand welcome; buildings across from the Kremlin were repainted, streets repaved and trees and flowers planted along the boulevards. The president’s schedule included attending the Bolshoi Ballet, speaking to students at Moscow’s State University and visiting Danilov Monastery, while First Lady would tour Leningrad.

The visit was not without its own share of diplomatic incidents. The First Couple took an unscheduled walk through the Arbat, a Moscow shopping pedestrian street, when security police rushed in and roughed up a throng of onlookers, including children. “It’s still a police state,” Reagan was heard to say. When the president’s advance team asked the Russian Orthodox Church to pave the way to the Danilov Monastery so that the president could arrive in the limousine, a clergyman retorted that “One does not ride to see God. One walks either upon his feet or upon his knees.” Because he wore no ID badge, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater was pursued by security personnel on his way to a Kremlin dinner. The president dozed off during the performance at the Bolshoi and Secretary Gorbachev had to wake him with a tap on the shoulder as the curtains were coming down.

The most telling incident was only revealed 20 years later. In the above photo, the man with the camera around his neck standing behind the boy was the current Russian Prime Minister (and former president) Vladimir Putin. He was pretending to be a tourist on his capacity as a KGB agent. On that day, on the Red Square, Gorbachev introduced Reagan to various tourists, who asked the American president pointed questions about subjects such as human rights in the United States. The photographer of this picture, Pete Souza, turned to the Secret Service and commented, “I can’t believe these tourists in the Soviet Union are asking these pointed questions.” The agent replied, “Oh, these are all KGB families.”

Pete Souza is the official chief White House photographer for Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama administrations. The Kremlin, however, had denied that it was Putin.

The Great Chartist Rally

William Kilburn opened his portrait studio on London’s Regent Street in 1846. He was commissioned to make daguerreotype portraits of the Royal Family between 1846 and 1852 as the Royal Photographer, and was awarded a prize medal for his photographs at the 1851 Great Exhibition.

On 10th April 1848, he took some daguerrotypes of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common–these taken from the top of The Horns were the first ever photos of a crowd scene. It was the Springtime of the Nations; the continent was in political and social turmoil. In England, the Chartists who took their name from Magna Carta were the first British national working class movement. The movement touched every aspect of people’s lives and included women’s groups, Catholics, Protestants and Freethinkers. Their meetings had a carnival-like atmosphere and this turned out to be quite problematic at their ‘monster’ rallies for their petition for rights.

After tumults and turmoil on the Continent, the tensions were high on that April morning–there were those who feared that civil strife would break out. Between April 6th and 10th, extra troops were brought to the capital and the authorities enlisted 170,000 special constables, Sir Robert Peel, William Ewart Gladstone. Prince Louis Napoleon (later Napoleon III), about half the House of Lords and an immense number of middle-class volunteers among them. The Queen was evacuated to the Isle of Wight, while the Iron Duke Wellington was brought out from retirement to defend London. The army threatened to intervene if the Chartists attempt cross the Thames towards the Parliament.

However, on 10th, instead of the half million expected, only about twenty to thirty thousand Chartists demonstrated, and there was little violence. Of the two million signatures on the petition, about one-fifth are said to have been bogus—Punch noted that if they had all been genuine, the Chartist procession should have been headed by the Queen and seventeen Dukes of Wellington (Other funny signatures included No Cheese, Pugface and Mr. Punch). A be-garlanded carriage was need to transport the petition with its million signatures to the Parliament. The Parliament duly accepted it and promptly ignored it. (If the petition was ignored, the Chartist plan was to create a rival national assembly and force the Queen to dissolve parliament). Although it failed dismally as a national movement on that April day, five of the six points in the petitions were adopted by 1918.

The Apollo-Soyuz Mission

The above image made from a frame of 16 millimeter motion picture film marked the high point in the Detente. The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was the first time that the US and the USSR cooperated in a manned space mission. Engineering teams from both sides collaborated in the development of a docking module to link the spacecraft, with the Russians being forced to reveal their past failures to NASA.

Apollo commander Thomas P. Stafford (right) and Soyuz-19 commander Aleksei A. Leonov (left) greet each other for the first time in space with a handshake. It was an event broadcast live on global television. This mission was meant to symbolize the end of competition and the beginning of an era of cooperation in space. The crews visited each other’s spacecraft, shared meals, and worked on various tasks during several days together in space. This fulfilled a 1972 agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States to participate in a joint venture in space–messages were relayed from the crews directly to President Ford and Premier Brezhnev.

The two spacecraft remained docked for two days, and undocked and re-docked for practice purposes. This would be the final flight of the Apollo spacecrafts.

From my cold, dead hands!

Hollywood regularly remembered Charlton Heston to play larger-than-life heroes of the past (El Cid, Ben-Hur) or the troubled men of the apocalyptic future (The Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green). He divided the Red Sea as celluloid Moses, but his role in life was to divide America as leader of the National Rifle Association. A civil rights activist, who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Heston saw gun advocacy as a natural extension of civil liberties.

A democrat who later turned Republican, he told President Clinton that: “America doesn’t trust you with our 21-year-old daughters, and we sure, Lord, don’t trust you with our guns.” In 2000, then speaking out against candidate Gore, he wielded a replica of a Revolutionary War musket, and bellowed: “Mr. Gore: ‘From my cold, dead hands!'” Although the phrase didn’t originate with him, Heston etched it into the forefront of gun culture and onto the bumpers of millions of Americans.

He hold the office as the president of the National Rifle Association from 1998 to 2003, during which time he frequently posed for ads holding a rifle. Enfeebled by Alzheimer’s, he appeared in Michael Moore’s anti-gun documentary, “Bowling for Columbine,” in which he was maligned for the above speech. Many in Hollywood came to his defense, a clear display of veneration they had for this aged actor. Heston died at age 84 in 2008.  His wife noted that the first thing they had to do once he expired was to pry the shotgun from his cold, dead hands.

An Intruder in the Elysees

The handover ceremonies between the outgoing and incoming French Presidents are rare–only three times such a ceremony had been enacted during the fifth republic, following the one between Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Francois Mitterrand in 1981, and that between Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac in 1995, and the last one between Chirac and the current president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Behind the closed door meetings, the outgoing presidents hand over the secret launch codes to his successor in this most imperial of the republics. Outside, hundreds of invited guests await the ceremonial departure of the outgoing president. Only then, the head of the Constitutional Council proclaimed the official election results and hand over the insignia of the office to the new president, who then make his first speech as head of state. At least, that is the protocol.

It wasn’t to be so in 1995, when the ailing president Franois Mitterrand was eager to step down. France’s longest serving president was by then weakened by his cancer, the scandal about his past in Vichy Régime, the suicide of his friend François de Grossouvre and the divisions between his own socialist party. The handover ceremony was conducted a week early to coincide with ceremonies commemorating the 40th anniversary of the end of World War; the 80 heads of state gathered to attend.

In the confusion, one serious breach of security occurred — as Chirac and Mitterrand stood side by side for the official portrait of the ceremony, a mysterious uninvited man was seen between two presidents. The press dubbed him Monsieur X. His real name was Claude Khazizian, a retired state betting shop employee who regularly gatecrashed these state affairs. (On this occasion, he mingled with the Armenian delegation and walked right in).

From left, first row: Duke of Edinburgh; Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro; Chirac; Mitterrand; French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur; and German President Roman Herzog. From left, second row: Austrlian Prime Minister Paul Keating; President of Senegal Abdou Diouf; Khazizian; President of Iceland Vigdis Finnbogadottir, President of Cameroon Paul Biya, and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.


The Countess Castiglione

The French court photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson took more than 400 portraits of the Countess Castiglione, considered the most beautiful woman of her time,during a 40-year collaboration. The photographs,commissioned by the countess and created under her supervision,were both self-advertisement and self-expression as well as revolutionary. They covered three distinct periods—her first entry into French society, 1856–57; her return to Parisian life, from 1861 to 1867; and toward the end of her life, from 1893 to 1895.

Virginie Oldoïni who married the Count di Castiglione was notorious for being Napoleon III’s mistress, a scandal that led her separation from her husband. During her two years relationship with the French emperor (1856-1857), she was known for her flamboyant manner and elaborate dresses at the imperial court. In July 1856, a few months after her arrival to Paris, the countess made her first visit to the studio of Mayer & Pierson, one of the most sought-after portrait studios of the Second Empire. Most of the photographs depicted the Countess in her theatrical outfits, including depictions as Beatrix, Salambo, Judith, 18th century marquise, nun, prostitute, Queen of Etruria, Queen of Hearts and Chinese woman. A number of photographs exposed her bare legs or feet–the features that she was most proud of–and were very risque for her time.(In these photos, her head has been cropped out.)

Her affair with Napoleon III ended and bankrupt, she exiled herself to Italy in 1858, where she was involved in the Italian Unification. Three years later, she returned to Paris, once again as an influential fixture and a femme fatale. After the fall of the Second Empire in 1870, she lived an increasingly reclusive and eccentric life in an apartment on the Place Vendôme, venturing out only at night, shrouded in veils–her beauty slowly deteriorating. Senile and bewrinkled Countess again commissioned 70-year old Pierson to take more photos of her, replicating the poses and dresses she modeled thirty years earlier.

“The hair was thin and the teeth were gone, only the costuming was the same. The confident gaze is replaced by a deep sadness. Her Baroque grandeur has decayed into a listless parody of herself. One can almost hear a small still voice reciting, “mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all” — all to no avail…” wrote Max Henry. She dreamed of showing her oeuvre at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in a retrospective titled “The Most Beautiful Woman of the Century.” She died on November 28, 1899, at the age of sixty-two.

The Salahis in the White House

(Samantha Appleton – The White House)

It sounded like cross between a college prank and a story from Christopher Buckley’s satire, White House Mess. Michaele and Tareq Salahi, two beltway socialites crashed into President Obama’s first state dinner, took photos with many of the prestigious guests (including the Vice President Joe Biden) and then whatelse? posted them on facebook of course.

The couple, who were desperately trying to get on a reality television show the Real Housewives of D.C., were in fact, what Maureen Dowd of the New York Times called, “trompe l’oeil Virginia horse-country socialites: a faux Redskins cheerleader and a faux successful businessman.” Although they were not on the invited guestlist, the Secret Service just waved them in, because they were reassured by the couple’s confidant manner and insistence that they were invited as well as the pressure of keeping the lines moving on that fateful rainy evening. They weren’t suspicious of the camera crew the couple tried to bring along.

From this writer at least, the Salahis won kudos for this daring, insulting yet funny episode. If I may be personal and ineloquent for a moment, I worried for his safety last year when Barack Obama was running for election–he was a politician with charisma of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King who aroused polarizing feelings among the public. Then, he was elected and I said, ‘ok, now he is at least under some Secret Service protection’. Then this happened. But it was better that the breach was done by fame-seeking 15-minuters than by some scimitar-weaving Sirhan Sirhan.

The Bhopal Disaster

From 1976, there were harbingers–excess pollution and toxic attacks on workers were occurring on a regular basis at the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India. On the midnight of December 2nd-3rd, 1984–exactly 25 years ago today–gas leaked from the factory and unleashed menthyl-iso-cyanate poison into air and water in an industrial diasater that would eventually kill over 30,000 people and maim hundreds of thousands more.

It was estimated within the first 24 hours, some 3,000 people were killed. Hospitals could barely cope with the survivors. Gravediggers had to work through the night and multiple people were buried to a grave. Twenty-five years on, Bhopal’s population has tripled to 1 million people but scars remained. In the world’s largest democracy, the government is holding most of the money, half a billion dollars paid in compensation is still sitting in the bank. This paternalism and notions that state should take control of industrial activity and its redistributive force worsened the disaster. Not a single person has been held criminally liable for the disaster.*

Following the vehicles that were taking the dead to be cremated and buried, Pablo Bartholomew of Gamma saw the body of a child, with eyes glazed, milky-white and staring up at him. His subsequent image became an icon of grief and greed in the face of industrial disaster, winning the World Press Photo of the Year for 1984.

[*Dow Chemical, the current owner of Union Carbide, refuses to accept any liability for the incident: “it is important to note that Dow never owned or operated the plant, which today is under the control of the Madhya Pradesh state government. Dow acquired the shares of Union Carbide Corporation more than 16 years after the tragedy, and 10 years after the $470 million settlement agreement — paid by Union Carbide Corporation and Union Carbide India, Limited — was approved by the Indian Supreme Court.”]