Wrapped Reichstag

It began with a postcard and it ended with one too. In 1961, “Christo and Jeanne-Claude”, the flamboyant and symbiotic artist duo received a card from a Berlin art historian to wrap the Reichstag in response to their prior 1961 “Project for Wrapping a Public Building”. Christo and Jeanne-Claude worked for 24 years to seek permission from the German parliament. With the support of the President of the Parliament, Rita Süssmuth, Christo and Jeanne-Claude worked to convince the elected Members of Parliament, going from office to office, writing explanatory letters to each of the 662 delegates and innumerable telephone calls and negotiations.

The members were afraid that it would send a wrong signal to East Germany during the Cold War, the parliament being so close to the wall. Only on 25 February 1995 after a 70 minute debate at the Parliament and a Roll Call vote, the Bundestag allowed the project to go ahead. More than 100,000 sq m of fireproof polypropylene fabric, covered by an aluminum layer, and 15 km of rope were used in the wrapping that took five days. From 24 June to 7th July 1995, it was seen by five million visitors, but notably absent was Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who consistently opposed the idea and left Berlin for the two-week duration.

The photocontroversy began three years later when the duo sued a postcard company for distributing the pictures of the Wrapped Reichstag without their permission. The official photos of the event, like the one above, were taken by the duo’s close friend Wolfgang Volz. In a highly controversial trial between what is public domain and what isn’t, the judge ruled in the favor of the duo, noting that although the event was open-air, it was a special exhibition of limited duration.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude met in Paris, France in November, 1958, sharing the same date of birth and have worked together for 51 years creating temporary works of art. Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon born in Casablanca, Morocco died in New York last month on 18th November 2009. She will be missed.

The Case of Anna Anderson

In February 1920, two years after the execution of the Russian Imperial family by the Bolsheviks, a young woman attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge in Berlin. She was rescued, and sent her to an insane asylum where in one of the bizarre episodes in modern history, she was recognized as the tsar’s daughter, Grand Duchess Tatiana, by a fellow mental patient. She denied that she was Tatiana, but overtime she told them that she was actually his other daughter, Anastasia.

She assumed the name Anna Anderson. In attitude, Anderson certainly royal–demanding, arrogant, and prone to outbursts, she also spoke excellent English, French and German, and could fully understand Russian although she refused to speak it. She had scars on her body that matched her execution claims. However, no one in the intimate imperial circle accepted her as Grand Duchess Anastasia, including her two ‘aunts’ Olga and Irene (Princess Henri of Prussia) and notorious Felix Yusoupov, the slainer of Rasputin. Eventually, her ‘uncle’, Ernst, Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt, hired some detectives who revealed that Anna Anderson was Franziska Schanzkowska, a result proven years later by DNA testing.

The first photographic tests were done by Pierre Gilliard and his colleague Professor Marc Bischoff in February 1927 (ab0ve). Gilliard, Swiss tutor to the Romanov children photographed the Imperial Family in Tsarkoye Selo in 1916-17. The photo on the left superimposes the picture of Grand Duchess onto Anna Anderson’s face, and the right one, vice versa. The photos were clearly of two different people. Both Gilliard and Bischoff denied any similarities, but they were accused by Anderson supporters to have accepted her, then denied her because Gilliard was paid off by Ernst of Hesse. Gilliard, indeed was shortly duped, and throughout his long life, he became one of her fiercest denouncers, writing his book “La Fausse Anastasia.” (The family of another surviving employee, court doctor Eugene Botkin, on the other hand was utterly convinced of Anderson’s true royal lineage).

Grief and Sorrow in Haktong

Rarely did such an emotional photo emerge from a war. It was taken in the Haktong-ni area of South Korea by career combat news photographer Al Chung on August 28th 1950; the photo showed a grief-stricken American infantryman being comforted by a comrade. The details about his grief were a matter of debate. Some said he just learnt his best friend had been killed, while some say it can be attributed to a more banal reason–he just learnt that his replacement as a radio operator had been killed.

The photo was also a study in contrasts: in the background, it also showed a corpsman sifting through casualty information and filling in the name of the newly fallen, ignoring the emotional outburst besides him as if he was giving his comrades a moment of privacy. The photo was featured in Edward Steichen’s celebrated “Family of Man” photography exhibit in 1955 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and subsequently been reproduced in many newspapers, magazines, books and museums.

Hawaiian Albert Chang covered three wars; as a dockworker in Honolulu, he saw the attack on Pearl Harbor and afterwards served in the Pacific and went on to photograph the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri. In Korea, he cemented his reputation as one of the Army’s finest photographers. In Vietnam, he received the Purple Heart after a Viet Cong bullet hit his left eye. Chang’s famous images included a Vietnamese family driven by oxen cart on a road leaving Saigon that is filled with bustling US tanks and a group of Saigon residents detaining and beating a suspect in a parade bombing who was thought to have belonged to the Viet Cong. But not all of his images were serious: a notable one from Korea showed three soldiers sharing canned poi and dried squid as a ukulele nestles in the lap of one man.


Alone among the Ruins

“Here are faces that I have found memorable. If they are not all as happy as kings, it is because in this imperfect world and these hazardous times, the camera’s eye, like the eye of a child, often sees true,” wrote Toni Frissell. Those two eyes met in the above photo, one of the most heartbreaking photos to come out of the London Blitz.

Maybe the photos of the Luftwaffe planes bombing London, or of St. Paul Cathedral betwixt smoke and fire or downed planes on London streets were more historic, but it was Frissell’s photo that revealed the element of human suffering. The abandoned boy holding a stuffed toy animal lost his London home, along with his parents and brother in the bombing.

Toni Frissell was one of the most famous fashion photographers of the day, working with both Cecil Beaton and Edward Steichen. During the WWII, Frissell volunteered for the American Red Cross, later becoming the official photographer of the Women’s Army Corps. She traveled to the European front twice, and spent time in London documenting the horrors of war above and below the ground.

The Execution of Masha Bruskina

In October 1941, at Minsk, Belorussia (then occupied by the Nazis), a 17-year-old Soviet Jewish partisan Masha Bruskina was arrested. Her crime? Along with two others, she was accused of killing a German soldier. Before being hanged, she was paraded through the streets with a plaque around her neck which read (in both German and Russian): “We are partisans and have shot at German troops”.

On October 26, 1941, she and her two comrades were hanged by the Nazis. In order to frighten the people into submission, the commander of the 707th Infantry Division, decided to hold a public hanging adjacent to a yeast factory. Every step of this grueling experience by documented by an unknown Lithuanian collaborating with the Nazis in seven infamous pictures.

After the war, the photos were made public — Masha’s two companions were immediately identified, but “the unknown girl” in the photo was not identified until 1968. Soviet authorities, however, refused to recognize her or to award her a posthumous medal. This snub was caused by the prevailing sense of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. In addition, her execution was two months before that of the renowned Soviet resistance fighter Zoya Kosmodemianskya — who was the symbol of Russian women’s resistance to the Nazi occupation.

See the works of Lev Arkadiev and Ada Dikhtiar, who popularized Masha’s cause.

The Gummers eat Beef

At the height of the scare for the Mad Cow disease (BSE) in the Great Britain in 1990, the-then Tory agriculture minister John Gummer famously attempted to allay fears about BSE by publicly feeding a burger to his four-year-old daughter, Cordelia. On May 6th, 1990, the press photographed Mr Gummer and his little girl at a boat show in Suffolk eating hamburgers. Although photographs of the event were staged and the burgers–presumably eaten by the duo–were in fact bitten into by a civil servant, Gummer subsequently become the most reviled politician to come out of the entire fiasco.

The first animal to fall ill with the BSE was in 1984 but it was only in November 1986 that the Ministry of Agriculture acknowledged that it was a new strain. In July 1989, the Europeans banned the British beef, but Gummer delayed a ban on beef domestically. These altercations between the Europeans and the Brits reached its height in 1996 when the European Commission announced the worldwide export ban on all British beef and the UK countered it with a policy of non co-operation with EU partners until ban is lifted.

Gummer remained defiant–the inquiry into the BSE crisis later asked him whether he had changed his eating habits during or after the crisis. Gummer replied that if anything he ate more beef because it was cheaper that it used to be.


David Paradine Frost was somewhat of a precursor to Jon Stewart. A TV phenom in Britain during the 1960s, Frost had an entertaining weekly show of satire towards the Establishment called That Was the Week That Was. In 1975, Frost, then a successful businessman whose television stardom itself had faded, embarked on a journalistic adventure of a lifetime, to interview Richard Nixon.

Disgraced and debt-ridden, Nixon did not want any of the well-known U.S. journalists as Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley to interview him. Frost made Nixon an offer ($500,000 for four shows), and the president agreed. “Nixon can, of course, refuse to answer questions,” Frost mused, “But then I am able to film his refusing to answer.” The tapings were done north of San Clemente, California from 23rd March to 20th April 1977 in the home of a Nixon friend and ran over 12 days, and 28 hours of tapes.

For both parties, the interviews were a success. It covered a full range of topics from Nixon’s presidency, and although after the interviews, 72% of those who watched still believed Nixon was guilty of Watergate, the ex-president redeemed himself as a great statesman who accomplished many diplomatic achievements. As for Frost, it gave him international exposure, and hefty profits.

After the Nixon interview, Frost went on to interview seven more American presidents and six British prime ministers. He was knighted in December 1992, and currently hosts the Al Jazeera English program, Frost Over the World. In 2006, a play about the interviews – titled Frost/ Nixon – premiered; it was written by Peter Morgan.

Obama at the Great Wall

The Great Wall was a photo-opportunity for every visiting leader; the symbol of the way China was–xenophobic, closed and mysterious–the wall kept ‘foreign devils’ and their ‘disruptive’ influences at bay for centuries.

Obama’s press corps had spinned the president’s latest visit as a lone pilgrimage. That is why it was amazing to see this negative opinion from a Chinese writer in the New York Times: “A lone man walking up the steep slope of the Great Wall. The picture is in stark contrast to those of other U.S. presidents who had their photographs taken at the Great Wall surrounded by flag-waving children or admiring citizens. … Mr. Obama could have waited until the next visit, when he could bring the first lady and the children. Instead, he went ahead by himself to pay tribute to China’s ancient culture. In return, the Chinese offered nothing, no popular receptions, not even the companionship of a senior Chinese leader.”

The president’s visit was far from a lonely pilgrimage–Chinese police officers guard the sentry tower and CIA agents are scattered throughout the crowd. His entourage and press corps were kept deliberately apart throughout the visit by some 300 highly trained Secret Service bodyguards who escorted Mr Obama throughout the week-long visit to Asia. One senior Pentagon officer who carried a black leather briefcase however stayed within 100ft of the President at all times par the protocol. (Inside the briefcase, if you are wondering is the Football, a metallic Zero Halliburton briefcase that contains the codes needed to launch a nuclear attack).

The first major visit by a Western leader to the Great Wall came in 1972 when Richard Nixon visited it and said: “This is a Great Wall, and only a great people with a great past could have a great wall, and such a great people with such a great wall will surely have a great future.” He was to be soon followed by Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Carter, Queen of England, Ronald Reagan, the Bushes and Clinton in a series of high-profile visits.

Lincoln at Gettysburg

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here,” worded Lincoln, ironically enough at the dedication ceremony for the Fallen at the Gettysburg. The line and the entire Gettysburg Address, indeed passed unnoticed on that November day 1863.

The main speaker of the day was not Lincoln but the orator Edward Everett, who droned on for two hours in a 1,500-sentence speech full of what Bill Bryson called, “literary allusions, Ciceronian pomp and obscure historical references that bore only the scantest significance to the occasion”.  Abraham Lincoln was the second speaker and his speech contained only 268 words, two thirds of them of only one syllable, in ten short sentences. He barely took his eyes of his written speech–which didn’t mentioned Gettysburg or slavery or the Union. His talk of a little over 2 minutes was too short for the official photographer to take the president delivering the iconic speech.

Abraham Lincoln photos are rare — from the day of the Gettysburg Address, only one verified photo exist the one above. One is currently being verified here.

The photos were even rarer than the manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address. Of five known copies, the Library of Congress has two (those of Lincoln’s private secretaries), and other three copies of the Address were written by Lincoln for charitable purposes. (Everett, to whom Lincoln confided that he thought the speech was a failure, got a copy).

Angus McBean’s Beauties

In the 30s and 40s, Angus McBean was arguably the best portrait photographer of his era. His photographs revealed a reverence and admiration for the subject and were the homages to Shakespearean and later the Hollywood ideals of glamour and beauty.

His portraits are elaborately staged, requiring full sets, to put Peggy Ahscroft, as Portia, into a surreal landscape, Vivien Leigh, in cod-Classical goddess garb, through cotton-wool clouds, Flora Robson bursting through the dry earth, or above, Diana Churchill’s head, seemingly misplaced by the leg of a kitchen chair. He asked Vivien Leigh to have a tooth removed to reduce a tiny muscle that made her top lip minutely asymmetrical. She complied.

Deemed ‘surreal’ by the popular press, he was denounced by the British Journal of Photography as a ‘charlatan’. McBean retorted with the portrait of Dorothy Dickson, whose head appeared among the lily pads by an overgrown bank. In February 1940, Picture Post covered his shoot with Diana Churchill, titled “How to Photograph a Beauty.” The picture of her disembodied head caused so much dismay that many called for psychiatric investigation of his photographer. That McBean was a homosexual was discovered and he was sentenced to prison for four years for buggery.

It being the wartime, the Nazi Germany used this as a propaganda against the British ‘freedom of press’, creating deliberate confusion to imply that he was imprisoned for lampooning the Prime Minister’s daughter (the actress bore no relations to Winston Churchill, although the latter’s daughter was also named Diana).

A Colonial Harem

Last week, I wrote about the controversial picture of Cherid Barkaoun. Someone emailed me with another episode in the Algerian history that was intertwined with photography and here it is:

In 1987, Malek Alloula, an Algerian poet who lives in France published a book called, The Colonial Harem. The book was a collection of postcards that displayed an Africa that never was–an Africa of European imagination, an Africa of exotic dancers and nubile odalisques.

Alloula arranged the postcards in an increasing order of explicitness, ending his book with an ”anthology of breasts”: women, naked to the waist, accompanied by captions like ”Want to party, honey?” or ”Oh! Is it ever hot!” or ”The Cracked Jug.” Many postcards supposedly displaying Algeria of that time composed of women in elaborately draped trousers, embroidered vests, exorbitant beads and jewelled turbans. They posed on divans and carpets with cigarettes in their hands, shackles on their feet.

For 30 years at the beginning of this century, these cards were brought onto the European market by photographers like the Swiss Jean Geyser. They transmitted back a message of superiority, and of exotic details of the African interior to Europe. They served as surrogates for the need for political and military conquest and for further investments in the French colonial ventures in Africa. Alloula does not focus on the biographies of the models (most of them were nameless anyway) or their reasons for posing, but instead on the oppression, violence and degradation the former colonial masters brought about in Africa.

Sewell Avery thrown out

For a lengthy period, the $300 million mail-order house, Montgomery Ward & Company was beset by disputes between labor and management. The economy of the entire Midwest was affected by these disputes and this being the wartime, a presidential decree was issued for the government take over of Montgomery Ward.

On April 26th 1944, Sewell L. Avery, the company’s chairman, was notified. Avery was a prominent figure in right-wing, anti-New Deal efforts and was a scion of a powerful lumber family, and thus he refused to move out and went to work the next day as usual. The U.S. Army was prepared to enforced the Department of Commence’s seizure of the plant–they lifted Avery bodily and carried him down on the elevator.

Many photographers–William Pauer of Chicago Times, Ed Geisse of Chicago Tribune–were there to capture the moment, but the photo of the day was made by Harry Hall for AP. For more than anything, Hall had to thank the AP for his photo becoming the photo du jour: the AP was the first to transmit the paper, and it was a major news ‘beat’. It caused a sensation in all the newspapers it appeared.

Hall remembered the day when Avery made a courageous and defiant stand: “I had my Speed Graphic ready and was just waiting around, when all of a sudden the front door opened and two soldiers came out carrying Sewell Avery. I made a long shot and then several others, following the three men down the street. They stopped in front of Avery’s chauffeur-driven car, and let him down. He was smiling as he jumped into the auto and I made some more photos”.