Housekeeping Notes

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.

Three Years, Nine Hundred Posts

This is another of those tl;dr self-deprecating, self-congratulating posts.

Back in 2009 when I started this blog, I would have laughed if you told me I would still be updating this 3 years later. But not only that day has arrived, but another milestone — 900th post mark — is also just around the corner.

1. I am still single; some of my readers still racist; and I still receive ads for some mail-order Slavic brides, but a few things has changed since the last time I posted a sappy self-serving post. Now I tweet (although I have always called been a twat) and my email is posted on this site which leads to….

2. Some quite interesting emails. I have been invited to some photo galleries and conferences, asked to talk at a few, and offered a book-deal. I work full-time (65h+) so I am mostly unable to go, and as for the book-deal, I cannot imagine any profits after copyrights.

3. Last time I ranted about people inquiring to buy poster-sized photos off IP. They still inquire, but worse are other emails — including one from a lawyer of a wealthy collector — which ask me to hunt down who own whose copyrights. As romantic as the image of me wearing a homburg and a trench coat might be, I am not running a detective agency out of IP. But creme de la creme was that one where a high-school student asks me to do (not help with, but do) his school project.

4. In these three years, I have become more introspective, and consequently I have asked myself a few times that why I blog — especially in those dreary rainy days. Perhaps it was because collective wisdom of internet was often dubious. Initially it was because no one site has thorough analysis I wanted in an age where you can find anything scattered about online. Since then, many magazines have made great effort towards archiving photojournalism, making my retiring easier when that comes. Especially throughout last year, I seriously considered giving Iconic Photos up finally, although a famous photographer’s death would always draw me back in — partly because of some incompetence and penny-pinching refusal to re-publish the deadman’s photos by most media these days. Blogging is like me trying to give up smoking — not so easy to quit, easy to relapse.

5. History today is visual, and careless use of photos is all the more lamentable because of that. I see mislabeled, misattributed photos in textbooks and magazines all the time. Copyeditors are fired when there are many factual and typographic errors but with photos, editors don’t know better, and the reading public doesn’t know better either. That makes me sad, and makes lives of photomanipulators and propagandists so much easier.

6. Another attack towards sanity comes from armchair history books such as Collapse and Why Nations Fail — the latter being the flavor du jour of the faux intelligentsia. I’m fine with people reading such simplified versions of history, and of making equally tenuous assertions and bending the long arc of history to suit my own hypotheses, this blog is oft guilty, but when Harvard or MIT professors start doing that, it spells trouble.

7. Tweeting often makes me first to respond to many photography stories, but the proudest I was was when I published a year in photography review a day ahead of TIME magazine. Take that.

8. On copyrights, that perennial thorn, I just want to say this: when this site was smaller, no one cared, but now, I have to (a little). Now, I am doubly careful when I post about living-photographers, but I am not going to change my postings because of it. While I can’t say I approve of all hacktivism going around, and I will be the last person to support incoherent psuedo-intellectual justifications for either side of the copyrights issue, I embrace the fact that internet remains an anarchic place. And, I  don’t know whether this will come out as arrogant or not but I believe IP does some photographers service by introducing their work to people who would not otherwise know about them.

9. Like all great stories, this one is perhaps apocryphal: an English literature professor getting fired because he admitted that he had never read Hamlet. I had a moment like that a few weeks ago when I admitted that I have never heard of Robert Frank until six months into this blog. People were mildly surprised, and some asked what my qualifications are for blogging here when I haven’t heard of Frank before. Snobbery much? I recognize certain photos, without knowing their photographers — a condition I believe shared by a lot of people here.

10. I have said before that the best thing about this blog is the looks I got from friends (at times some girl I am trying to impress) when I say in a understated tone that a few thousand people read it everyday. In these three years, blogging has gone from nerdy to kinda passé, kinda cool (they: you are still doing what?). But the story I want to share was about a brag backfired spectacularly only last month — a hipster I was trying to impress took one look at the blog, and became quite unimpressed with the blog (presumably realizing that Iconic Photos are not made for Instragram or Pinterest generation) and with me by extension. I literally  heard her thighs snapping shut.

Finally, I will leave you with these words of wisdom from Time magazine:

We hear it sometimes that photographs are losing their power. In a world where every other cell phone has a built in camera and and all the people you know just posted their summer vacations, their snow angels, and their tonsillectomies online, there are just too many pictures out there. Plus, those picures are so easily manipulated and photoshopped, how do you know when to trust them anymore? And anyway, we’ve seen it all before. You can almost believe all that, right up until that moment you come across one picture that speaks to you, the one that takes your imperfectly formed feelings and judgements and snaps everything, if you’ll excuse the expression, into focus.

Abel St. Clair-St. Clair (1940 – 2012)

Hugh Abel St. Clair-St. Clair, fig mental photojournalist who held up a satirical mirror to many of last century’s tyrants, has died, aged 72. 

Ceauşescu and Kim Il-Sung waltzed for Abel's lens

Access and charm come naturally to Abel St. Clair-St. Clair, the heir to the Barony of Grenoble. He perfected a “missing lens” gambit, whereby he would go back into press conference rooms ostensibly searching for it, but in truth hoping to spot the rich and the powerful in compromising poses. Indeed, he captured Nikita Khrushchev adjusting his socks, Charles de Gaulle grooming his mustache, and patrons of the Metropolitan Opera House trust picking their noses.

He was ingenious, daring, and sometimes absurd: he rang up the mafia dons in Chicago asking for access to their next meeting, and when that was denied, requested that they at least leave the window blinds open. As the Duvaliers’ rule crumbled in Haiti, he went to there with two Las Vegas showgirls to gain an audience with Baby Doc. He even promised to smuggle a microfilm for the PLO secretly with his negatives in exchange for access.

The Duvalier finally fled Haiti very prosaically

Along the way, St.Clair punctured the inflated egos of ambassadors, presidents and potentates. Once he hosted an uncomfortable dinner to which trade union leaders and government ministers were invited (unbeknownst to one another’s invites). While traveling across Africa with a British trade delegation, he saw poolside parties hosted by Haile Selassie, Bokassa and Idi Amin, where he snapped the self-proclaimed emperors and kings with literally no clothes. He took a rare and ironic photo of Pol Pot wearing glasses.

His antics proved too much for Castro, from whose mouth he tried to remove the cigar, a la Karsh with Churchill. He was jailed in Cuba for 8 months and some of his negatives destroyed. Equally unamused was the Vatican when he disguised as a prelate to infiltrate the 1978 Conclave. They threatened him with an excommunication.

Idi Amin and his son in the Presidential Pool

Yet, he pressed on. In his unapologetic memoir Abel’s Fools, he admitted that while he was intrusive, he never was a paparazzo. During the First Gulf War, he volunteered as a “human shield” for Saddam in one of his palaces only to annoy the Iraqi dictator with his cameras. He was quickly deported back. Although he retired soon afterwards, he returned in 2002 to capture sons of Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi partying together with Western businessmen for a Vanity Fair report on the new generation of globally mobile scions of dictatorships and oligarchies that was never published. That was his last assignment.

“We live in fear of a massacre”

Yesterday, Marie Colvin asked her friends and colleagues to break her newspaper’s firewall and post her last report from the besieged Syrian enclave of Baba Amr, where she was the only British journalist. Today, she is gone, a victim of the government attack on the makeshift shelter for the foreign press. As per her wishes, here is her heartrending final report from Homs: 

They call it the widows’ basement. Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment.

Among the 300 huddling in this wood factory cellar in the besieged district of Baba Amr is 20-year-old Noor, who lost her husband and her home to the shells and rockets.

“Our house was hit by a rocket so 17 of us were staying in one room,” she recalls as Mimi, her three-year-old daughter, and Mohamed, her five-year-old son, cling to her abaya.

“We had had nothing but sugar and water for two days and my husband went to try to find food.” It was the last time she saw Maziad, 30, who had worked in a mobile phone repair shop. “He was torn to pieces by a mortar shell.”

For Noor, it was a double tragedy. Adnan, her 27-year-old brother, was killed at Maziad’s side.

Everyone in the cellar has a similar story of hardship or death. The refuge was chosen because it is one of the few basements in Baba Amr. Foam mattresses are piled against the walls and the children have not seen the light of day since the siege began on February 4. Most families fled their homes with only the clothes on their backs.

The city is running perilously short of supplies and the only food here is rice, tea and some tins of tuna delivered by a local sheikh who looted them from a bombed-out supermarket.

A baby born in the basement last week looked as shellshocked as her mother, Fatima, 19, who fled there when her family’s single-storey house was obliterated. “We survived by a miracle,” she whispers. Fatima is so traumatised that she cannot breastfeed, so the baby has been fed only sugar and water; there is no formula milk.

Fatima may or may not be a widow. Her husband, a shepherd, was in the countryside when the siege started with a ferocious barrage and she has heard no word of him since.

The widows’ basement reflects the ordeal of 28,000 men, women and children clinging to existence in Baba Amr, a district of low concrete-block homes surrounded on all sides by Syrian forces. The army is launching Katyusha rockets, mortar shells and tank rounds at random.

Snipers on the rooftops of al-Ba’ath University and other high buildings surrounding Baba Amr shoot any civilian who comes into their sights. Residents were felled in droves in the first days of the siege but have now learnt where the snipers are and run across junctions where they know they can be seen. Few cars are left on the streets.

Almost every building is pock-marked after tank rounds punched through concrete walls or rockets blasted gaping holes in upper floors. The building I was staying in lost its upper floor to a rocket last Wednesday. On some streets whole buildings have collapsed — all there is to see are shredded clothes, broken pots and the shattered furniture of families destroyed.

It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours. Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food.

Fearing the snipers’ merciless eyes, families resorted last week to throwing bread across rooftops, or breaking through communal walls to pass unseen.

The Syrians have dug a huge trench around most of the district, and let virtually nobody in or out. The army is pursuing a brutal campaign to quell the resistance of Homs, Hama and other cities that have risen up against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, whose family has been in power for 42 years.

In Baba Amr, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the armed face of opposition to Assad, has virtually unanimous support from civilians who see them as their defenders. It is an unequal battle: the tanks and heavy weaponry of Assad’s troops against the Kalashnikovs of the FSA.

About 5,000 Syrian soldiers are believed to be on the outskirts of Baba Amr, and the FSA received reports yesterday that they were preparing a ground assault. The residents dread the outcome.

“We live in fear the FSA will leave the city,” said Hamida, 43, hiding with her children and her sister’s family in an empty ground-floor apartment after their house was bombed. “There will be a massacre.”

On the lips of everyone was the question: “Why have we been abandoned by the world?”

Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, said last week: “We see neighbourhoods shelled indiscriminately, hospitals used as torture centres, children as young as 10 years old killed and abused. We see almost certainly crimes against humanity.” Yet the international community has not come to the aid of the innocent caught in this hell.

Abdel Majid, 20, who was helping to rescue the wounded from bombed buildings, made a simple plea. “Please tell the world they must help us,” he said, shaking, with haunted eyes. “Just stop the bombing. Please, just stop the shelling.”

The journey across the countryside from the Lebanese border to Homs would be idyllic in better times. The villages are nondescript clusters of concrete buildings on dirt tracks but the lanes are lined with cypresses and poplar trees and wind through orchards of apricot and apple trees.

These days, however, there is an edge of fear on any journey through this area. Most of this land is essentially what its residents call “Syria hurra”, or free Syria, patrolled by the FSA.

Nevertheless, Assad’s army has checkpoints on the main roads and troops stationed in schools, hospitals and factories. They are heavily armed and backed by tanks and artillery.

So a drive to Homs is a bone-rattling struggle down dirt roads, criss-crossing fields. Men cluster by fires at unofficial FSA checkpoints, eyeing any vehicle suspiciously. As night falls, flashlights waved by unseen figures signal that the way ahead is clear.

Each travelling FSA car has a local shepherd or farmer aboard to help navigate the countryside; the Syrian army may have the power, but the locals know every track of their fields.

I entered Homs on a smugglers’ route, which I promised not to reveal, climbing over walls in the dark and slipping into muddy trenches. Arriving in the darkened city in the early hours, I was met by a welcoming party keen for foreign journalists to reveal the city’s plight to the world. So desperate were they that they bundled me into an open truck and drove at speed with the headlights on, everyone standing in the back shouting “Allahu akbar” — God is the greatest. Inevitably, the Syrian army opened fire.

When everyone had calmed down I was driven in a small car, its lights off, along dark empty streets, the danger palpable. As we passed an open stretch of road, a Syrian army unit fired on the car again with machineguns and launched a rocket-propelled grenade. We sped into a row of abandoned buildings for cover.

The scale of human tragedy in the city is immense. The inhabitants are living in terror. Almost every family seems to have suffered the death or injury of a loved one.

Khaled Abu Salah, an activist who took part in the first demonstrations against Assad in Homs last March, sat on the floor of an office, his hand broken and bandages covering shrapnel wounds to his leg and shoulder.

A 25-year-old university student, who risked his life filming videos of the slaughter of Baba Amr residents, he narrowly escaped when he tried to get two men wounded by mortar fire to a makeshift clinic.

He and three friends had just taken the wounded to the clinic, which was staffed by a doctor and a dentist, and stepped away from the door when “a shell landed right at the entrance”, he recalled last week.

“My three friends died immediately.” The two men they had helped were also killed.

Abu Ammar, 48, a taxi driver, went out to look for bread at 8am one day last week. He, his wife and their adopted daughter had taken refuge with two elderly sisters after their home was hit by shells.

“When I returned the house was obliterated,” he said, looking at all that remained of the one-storey building. Only a few pieces of wall still stood. In the ruins a woman’s red blouse was visible; bottles of home-made pickled vegetables were somehow unscathed. “Dr Ali”, a dentist working as a doctor, said one of the women from the house had arrived at the clinic alive, but both legs had been amputated and she died.

The clinic is merely a first-floor apartment donated by the kindly owner. It still has out-of-place domestic touches: plasma pouches hang from a wooden coat hanger and above the patients a colourful children’s mobile hangs from the ceiling.

The shelling last Friday was the most intense yet and the wounded were rushed to the clinic in the backs of cars by family members.

Ali the dentist was cutting the clothes off 24-year-old Ahmed al-Irini on one of the clinic’s two operating tables. Shrapnel had gashed huge bloody chunks out of Irini’s thighs. Blood poured out as Ali used tweezers to draw a piece of metal from beneath his left eye.

Irini’s legs spasmed and he died on the table. His brother-in-law, who had brought him in, began weeping. “We were playing cards when a missile hit our house,” he said through his tears. Irini was taken out to the makeshift mortuary in a former back bedroom, naked but for a black plastic bag covering his genitals.

There was no let-up. Khaled Abu Kamali died before the doctor could get his clothes off. He had been hit by shrapnel in the chest while at home.

Salah, 26, was peppered with shrapnel in his chest and the left of his back. There was no anaesthetic, but he talked as Ali inserted a metal pipe into his back to release the pressure of the blood building up in his chest.

Helping tend the wounded was Um Ammar, a 45-year-old mother of seven, who had offered to be a nurse after a neighbour’s house was shelled. She wore filthy plastic gloves and was crying. “I’m obliged to endure this, because all children brought here are my children,” she said. “But it is so hard.”

Akhmed Mohammed, a military doctor who defected from Assad’s army, shouted: “Where are the human rights? Do we have none? Where are the United Nations?”

There were only two beds in the clinic for convalescing. One was taken by Akhmed Khaled, who had been injured, he said, when a shell hit a mosque as he was about to leave prayers. His right testicle had had to be removed with only paracetamol to dull the pain.

He denounced the Assad regime’s claim that the rebels were Islamic extremists and said: “We ask all people who believe in God — Christians, Jews, Muslims to help us!”

If the injured try to flee Baba Amr, they first have to be carried on foot. Then they are transferred to motorbikes and the lucky ones are smuggled to safety. The worst injured do not make it.

Though Syrian officials prohibit anyone from leaving, some escapees manage to bribe their way out. I met refugees in villages around Homs. Newlywed Miriam, 32, said she and her husband had decided to leave when they heard that three families had been killed and the women raped by the Shabiha militia, a brutal force led by Assad’s younger brother, Maher.

“We were practically walking on body parts as we walked under shelling overhead,” she said. Somehow they made it unscathed. She had given an official her wedding ring in order to be smuggled out to safety.

Abdul Majid, a computer science student at university, was still shaking hours after arriving in a village outside Homs. He had stayed behind alone in Baba Amr. “I had to help the old people because only the young can get out,” said Majid, 20, wearing a leather jacket and jeans. He left when his entire street fled after every house was hit.

“I went to an army checkpoint that I was told was not too bad. I gave them a packet of cigarettes, two bags of tea and 500 Syrian pounds. They told me to run.”

Blasts of Kalashnikov fire rang out above his head until he reached the tree line. He said the soldiers were only pretending to try to shoot him to protect themselves, but his haunted eyes showed he was not entirely sure.

If the Syrian military rolls into Baba Amr, the FSA will have little chance against its tanks, superior weaponry and numbers. They will, however, fight ferociously to defend their families because they know a massacre is likely to follow any failure, if the past actions of the Assad regime are anything to go by.

The FSA partly relies on defections from Assad’s army because it does not accept civilians into its ranks, though they perform roles such as monitoring troop movements and transporting supplies. But it has become harder for soldiers to defect in the past month.

Abu Sayeed, 46, a major- general who defected six months ago, said every Syrian military unit was now assigned a member of the Mukhabarat, the feared intelligence service, who have orders to execute any soldier refusing an order to shoot or who tries to defect.

The army, like the country, may well be about to divide along sectarian lines. Most of the officers are members of the Alawite sect, the minority Shi’ite clan to which the Assad family belongs, while foot soldiers are Sunni.

The coming test for the army will be if its ranks hold if ordered to kill increasing numbers of their brethren.

The swathe of the country that stretches east from the Lebanon border and includes Homs is Sunni; in the villages there they say that officers ordering attacks are Alawites fighting for the Assad family, not their country.

The morale of Assad’s army, despite its superiority, is said to be low as it is poorly paid and supplied, although this information comes mostly from defectors. “The first thing we did when we attacked the house was race to the refrigerator,” said a defector.

Thousands of soldiers would be needed to retake the southern countryside. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and former president, crushed his problems with Islamic fundamentalists in 1982 by shelling the city of Hama into ruins and killing at least 10,000 men, women and children. So far his son appears to have calculated that a similar act would be a step too far for his remaining allies of Russia, China and Iran.

For now it is a violent and deadly standoff. The FSA is not about to win and its supplies of ammunition are dwindling.

The only real hope of success for Assad’s opponents is if the international community comes to their aid, as Nato did against Muammar Gadaffi in Libya. So far this seems unlikely to happen in Syria.

Observers see a negotiated solution as perhaps a long shot, but the best way out of this impasse. Though neither side appears ready to negotiate, there are serious efforts behind the scenes to persuade Russia to pull Assad into talks.

As international diplomats dither, the desperation in Baba Amr grows. The despair was expressed by Hamida, 30, hiding in a downstairs flat with her sister and their 13 children after two missiles hit their home. Three little girls, aged 16 months to six years, sleep on one thin, torn mattress on the floor; three others share a second. Ahmed, 16, her sister’s eldest child, was killed by a missile when he went to try to find bread.

“The kids are screaming all the time,” Hamida said. “I feel so helpless.” She began weeping. “We feel so abandoned. They’ve given Bashar al-Assad the green light to kill us.”

Loyalties of ‘desert rose’ tested

Asma, the British-born wife of President Bashar al-Assad, may well be feeling a sense of divided loyalty as the violence continues in the Syrian city of Homs. Her family are from the area, which has been a focal point for many of the recent protests against her husband’s regime and the Syrian army’s brutal response.

Despite growing up in Acton, west London, Asma visited her family’s home in Homs every year throughout her childhood. She is also a Sunni Muslim, unlike her husband, who comes from the country’s minority Shi’ite community.

Asma, 36, has been criticised for displaying an “ostrich attitude”, keeping a low profile as the conflict has intensified. She has refused to comment on the way her husband’s regime has used tanks and other lethal means to crush protesters. In an email sent earlier this month, her office merely said: “The first lady’s very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with as well as rural development and supporting the President as needed.”

The daughter of a consultant cardiologist and a retired diplomat, Asma was born in London. She attended a Church of England state school in Acton and gained a BSc in computer science and a diploma in French literature from King’s College London.

She went on to work for Deutsche Bank and married Assad in Syria in 2000. Now a mother of three, she was once described by Vogue as a “rose in the desert”. In Homs, the beleaguered people may now take a different view.

The Year of Contact Sheets

They are things of beauty: grids of small photos that show you exactly what’s on a roll of developed film. Intimate and revealing of the innerworkings of a photographer’s mind though they are, contact sheets were never regarded as an art form. Henri Cartier-Bresson believed they are a mess of erasures, and compared them to kitchen refuse left behind after he had prepared a great meal. But in recent years, disillusion with the click click click of the digital revolution grew — and with it nostalgia for the dark elegance of the contact sheets.

Last few years saw the publication of two monumental works: The Contact Sheet and Magnum Contact Sheets. But long before Magnum editors decided to raid their attics, William Klein — best known for his groundbreaking book New York, 1954-1955 — had the same idea. Starting in the 1980s, he asked his fellow photographers to talk about their contact sheets in a series of short vignettes made for the French television. (Klein also published a book Contacts, where he went back to his contact sheets and has re-versioned some of his original images by painting on them in bold, primary acrylics, reminiscent of a photographer’s standard chinagraph pencil.)

Those who narrated their works for Klein includes such illustrious names as Elliot Erwitt, Josef Koudelka, Sebastiao Salgado and even Mr. Cartier-Bresson himself. In all, thirty-six episodes were made, and most of them were collected in three DVDs (divided into Great Masters, Contemporary and Conceptual Photographers).


YouTube has most of the episodes; you can search for “Contacts + [name]” for any of these 36 photographers:  William Klein; Raymond Depardon; Josef Koudelka; Marc Riboud; Leonard Freed; Edouard Boubat; Henri Cartier-Bresson; Don McCullin; Duane Michals; Mario Giacomelli; Eugene Richards; Nobuyoshi Araki; Thomas Ruff; Bernd and Hilla Becher; Alain Fleischer; John Hilliard; Georges Rousse; Roni Horn; Sebastiao Salgado; Robert Doisneau; Elliott Erwitt; Helmut Newton; Sarah Moon; Sophie Calle; Nan Goldin; Andreas Gursky; Lewis Baltz; Jean-Marc Bustamante; Jeff Wall; Hiroshi Sugimoto; Thomas Struth; Christian Boltanski; John Baldessari; Martin Parr; Wolfgang Tillmans; and Rineke Dijkstra. 

(or alternately, you can search for these users: vgrunvald; heratus007; commonspaces).  

Photography — In Novels

Falques' Face of Defeat

Unlike film photographers I profiled earlier, print photographers are a curious mixture of lovers, killers, cynics and sleuths. In Ronit Matalon’s Bliss, an Israeli photographer pursues a doomed affair with a Palestinian man. The protagonist of Douglas Kennedy’s The Big Picture kills his wife’s lover and assumes the latter’s identity as a lensman. Julie Hecht’s unnamed narrator, she of many short stories and the novel The Unprofessionals, explores the mundane and tawdry periphery of modern existence with her idiosyncratic photo-essays (flowers in decline, reproductive surgeons and their dogs). There is a sleuth in Kay Farrow (The Magician’s Tale by David Hunt), an achromat — someone who is completely color blind rather than the much more usual red-green variety — who is kept from the blinding daylight by her condition, and who explores the underbelly of San Francisco night life in gritty black-and-white photos.

Schemes, entanglements and women who kept getting into his bed thwart Nicholas Almaza’s bildung in The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata. Another Germanic affliction, this time that of weltschmerz, plagues glamor photographer and inveterate womanizer Carter Cox in Keith Kachtick’s Hungry Ghost. In Afterimage by Helen Humpherys, a Victorian girl (modeled on photography pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron) dreams about a creative career as a photographer.

Often a generational gap is bridged via photographic memories in novels. In Peter Henisch’s Negatives of My Father, the rocky relationship between the narrator and his well-known photographer father were explored via the photos his father took as a leading photojournalist for the Wehrmacht on the Eastern front. Conor Lyons searches for his rootless photographer father across four countries and two continents via negative fragments in Collum McCann’s Songdongs. In Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hands, two self-destructive photographers, Cass Neary, who documents punk’s most squalid moments and Aphrodite Kamestos, the photographer of the ’60s counterculture fringe, find a common bond in their morbid nihilistic visions of the infamous, the damned, and the dead.

It’s the photography that got small for larger-than-life Maude Coffin Pratt, the heroine of Paul Theroux’s Picture Palace, who witnessed the history of photography unfolds itself before her lens. Pratt began her career taking photos of her brother (with whom she was incestuously obsessed) and ended up capturing the century’s greatest literary minds from e e cummings to Hemingway. In between, she also photographed black servants, blind people and a pathetic “Pig Dinner” at which circus acrobats perform in the nude (which made her famous).

While it is a study of trials, traumas and tribulations of a war photographer’s life, The Painter of Battles by Arturo Pérez-Reverte was mainly about the fallout from an iconic photo. On one side, there is Andrés Faulques, the retired combat photographer haunted by the battles he photographed and by the girlfriend he lost. On the other side is Ivan Markovic, a young Croatian soldier whose face came to symbolize defeat after Faulques immortalized the Croatian Army’s retreat from the Serbian onslaught at Vukovar.

Another Manichean clash was at the center of Del Corso’s Gallery: the friction between the titular photographer who insouciantly photographed mangled corpses and his former mentor P. X. Dunlop who won Pulitzer for his artful portraits of dignity and sacrifice on the battlefields of Beirut and Vietnam.  In the background enfolded a larger picture of photographers’ divorce from reality and atrocities by a thin layer of glass — a theme often explored in novels about war photography, such as The Lotus Eaters, of which this blog had waxed lyrical before.

Did I miss somebody fictional from either a book or a movie? Let me know here or tweet at me.

Photography — In Movies

Funny Face (advised by Avedon) practically rewrote fashion photography manuals.

For all the exciting lives they live, photographers seldom are swashbuckling heroes in films. I have always wondered why that is; after all, on Planet Hollywood, writers, professors, and lawyers — people who are so boring in real life – got thrown into a global conspiracy every week, and even archeologists lead exciting lives.

Mike Kovac, an ex-war photographer indeed led an exciting life in New York City; Kovac, played by Charles Bronson in TV series Man with a Camera, specialized in getting the photographs that others could not.

That Cursed Photo

The closest a photographer had ever come to conspiracy was in the short-lived TV series Nowhere Man. Thomas Veil took a photograph of a private military group dressed as US army soldiers secretly executing four young rebels deep in the jungles of Chile. After the photo, titled “Hidden Agenda” (left) became famous, Veil finds that his life has been erased. His wife, his dog, his mother and his friends don’t recognize him. His keys and ATM cards don’t work and there is no record that he, an award-winning photographer, has ever existed.

Robert Kincaid, also, never existed but that didn’t stop hundreds of people writing to National Geographic demanding more info about the photographer whose story on covered bridges in Iowa graced the cover of the magazine in May 1966. Kincaid was the subject of the book and the movie “The Bridges of Madison County“. The magazine was a mock up; the real edition that month had the Golden Gate Bridge on its cover.

War photographers enjoyed a brief vogue in the 1980s. Photographers in The Killing Fields, Apocalypse Now, Salvador, and Under Fire were partially based upon many real-life photographers who covered those tumultuous years in Cambodia, Vietnam, El Salvador and Nicaragua respectively. (Watchmen parodied this with fictional Alan Guillon). Linda Hunt won an Oscar for playing Billy Kwan, a Chinese-Australian dwarf photographer in The Year of Living Dangerously, setting against the background of a failed coup against President Sukarno of Indonesia in 1965.

Often parodied, never bested

But two most exciting films about photographers are unexpectedly centered on fashion photographers. Blowup by Michelangelo Antonioni begins with what is probably the sexiest scene sans nudity in film history, and follows Thomas Hemmings (an amalgam of the swinging London’s top photonames) as he accidentally captures a murder in one of his photos. Or did he?

Thomas’s female counterpart is, no doubt, the titular character in Eyes of Laura Mars. Mars, a glamor fashion photographer, whose images are often criticized for glorifying violence and demeaning women, was thrust into the middle of a police investigation when a series of unsolved murders closely mirror her fashion shoots.

On film, camera often is treated as a priapic instrument and photographers as fatalists and voyeurs. Nowhere is this encapsulated better than in Robert Capa-inspired L.B. Jefferies, the hero(?) of the film considered as the ultimate camera-movie, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. In Midnight Meat Train, Femme Fatale, Closer, and even in that quirky comedy Pecker, this is proven to be true.

Laura Mars’ eyes have indeed seen everything
Javier Bardem plays homage of the Master

Tomorrow, I will look into Photography and Photographers in Novels. Stay tuned in also to my twitter as aalholmes.

To Boldly Go ….

A Texan neighborhood gathers around Columbia's debris in 2002.

Editorial: You can just look at the photo above and skip this post if you want.

I have been receiving many messages — mostly negative, obviously, because only people who are seriously pissed about something bother to write complaints, although i appreciate the polite tone of most, if not all, of emails — regarding my criticism of “NASA”.

Unless you have been living under a rock, or doing something more productive than reading a blog (which is more likely), you would have noticed that I have been posting space photos lately. My commentaries accompanying most of them tend to point out shortcomings of the space shuttle program.

May be I wasn’t really clear; may be people just skim, but the readers miss the point. My criticism was solely targeted towards the space shuttle (and yesterday, the ISS), not against NASA and other spacefaring programs in general. I think Hubble was great (btw, it could have been delivered without space shuttles). I think Mars Rovers performed admirably. I don’t think NASA’s budget is bloated, but time, effort and money it devoted to space shuttle was unnecessary and unwise.

Unlike Apollo, Saturn or Gemini, the shuttles failed to deliver. Everywhere else, projects of such scale would be accompanied by failure standards; but the shuttle didn’t appear to have any, for if it had, it would have broken many of them (see the first post). As much as I hate to type this, I must admit the failure of space shuttle is the failure of capitalism and politics. Aerospace contractors loved that the shuttle launches cost so much. Boeing and Lockheed Martin which control the shuttle business through an Orwellian sounding consortium called the United Space Alliance, consistently lobbied against unmanned rockets as cheaper shuttle replacements. They were also helped by congressional delegations from Texas, Ohio, Florida and Alabama, where shuttle-flight-centers are based.

There are two additional issues I would like to discuss here; many point out that military budget far outpaces NASA’s. That’s true and I am no fan of huge defense budgets either (it’s another area where Orwellian consortia thrive) but this is a straw man argument. Secondly, many point out sidebenefits of space programs. Assuming that the same amount of budget that went to NASA had gone to other science projects, we can delve into hypotheticals. But I am not going to. This article which discusses myths and realities surrounding those sidebenefits will do a better job than I would.


Twitter and all that …

Twitter also has become a place where iconic photos are shared.

So I decided to join Twitter. Again.

A few years ago, I tried to experiment with Twitter. That amounted to nothing – and I soon gave up. But now, I have substantial following on IP, I think I should try again.

So here it is: aalholmes – that’s me on twitter. Hurray.

What I post in the next few days – and weeks and months to come, if all goes according to plan – will not be solely limited to photography and photojournalism (although they may play a huge role). It will be just a general interest feed to share what I read, what I thought, and what I liked.

Another reason for twitter is so that I can interact with online readers. Be free to do so.

In the past, I got political, and subsequently polemical, when I blogged. The 140-characters should temper that. (Or so I hope).

So here we go again…

The Boring Post

I started this blog in April 2009, and since then have posted nearly 800 entries — and what a weird and wonderful 24 months it had been! And I have some regrets, apologies, and non-apologies for what had happened over the last two years.

(1) In October I promised that I will Vanity Fair’s Shooting Past 80 portfolio immediately. “Immediately” finally turns out to mean four months. Only today, I have posted it. I can partially blame WordPress’s slow uploading speed, but the fault, as it often does, lies with me and my laziness only. I have also posted a bookshelf — my picking of interesting photography coffee table books for that special day in your significant other’s life.

(2) I also need to atone for the significant drop in the number of posts. They have come down from 100+ in May ’09, to 33 a year later, to mere eight in January ’11. What does that mean? Mathematically, it means the posts will cease to exist in six months’ time. Actually, it is again my laziness that is to blame; but posts have gone longer and more informative (I think) so I guess it is a good trade-off.

(3) A bigger apology is due for my abysmal communication rate. The Question Inbox I setup was soon quickly discarded and the link remains broken. Here is an alternate way to contact me now:, although I am pretty sure my reply rate will still be bad.

(4) During the last month, the most commented post have been that of Emmett Till’s murder, a gruesome and inhumane racial crime committed in the American South during the waning days of segregation. I deeply regret that some comments are spiteful and heinous, and their rhetoric do not belong in polite and proper discourse. Internet, at last, remains a forum where anonymity breeds incivility.

(5) In this 24 months, I absolutely refuse to use the term “photog” in the blog. I hate the term as much as I hate pronunciation of nuclear as “nucular”. My English is not perfect, and I am in no position to be pedantic about the language of Shakespeare, but “photog” clearly is substandard usage.

(6) I have scheduled some posts for a holiday that I will be taking starting next week. I will not be back until second week of April, and will mostly be skiing and hiking in the Alps. I will be in Zurich/St. Moritz, Como and Trieste. Send me an email if you are in the area.

(7) Another atonement is for my abject failure to make the older posts more popular or to circulate the older posts. This creates an aura of stagnancy around the blog frontpage, and I hate this, but there is no alternative short of republishing the older posts, which screws up timestamps and makes everything more confusing.

(8) My obituary of Gaddafi two weeks ago, now seems ridiculous. Since it wasn’t very serious when I wrote it, and since many reputable papers seem to do this, I don’t have much to apologize for here. (A funny story here: I had been to the obituary desk of a notable publication, and in it, along with those of older people like Thatcher, Mandela and Mugabe, are obituary forms for Dmitri Medvedev and Kevin Rudd!)

(9) Lastly, a personal regret. In this 24 months, I blogged about so many photographers and so many photos, but that didn’t lead me towards being a better photographer. So my advice to all those aspiring photographers out there: reading books about swimming will not help you become a swimmer.

(10) Enjoy!

An Update…

On reading my latest issue of Vanity Fair, in a Post Script, I realized that the January 2001 issue of Vanity Fair included a feature called “Shooting Past 80: Photography’s Grand Masters. It profiled several photographers who are 80 years or older (Helmut Newton, 80; Phil Stern, 81; Arnold Newman, 82; Henri Cartier Bresson, 92; Yousuf Karsh, 91, Eve Arnold, 87), who were still alive back in 2000. They even got Henri Cartier Bresson to shoot some of the portraits of his peers (Newton, Arnold, Willy Ronis, 90) in HCB’s first major assignment in 29 years. Ever an artist, he shot Newton next to the statues of Chopin and his muse; when asked about these shots, Cartier Bresson insisted, “There is no need to play cello on a little tune that I just whistled. La vanite n’est pas une bonne affaire.”

Although Vanity Fair asked its readers to go online and read more about the story, the story was not on its website. I managed to find the article, sans photos, online and it is republished on Iconic Photos here. I have been tremendously busy in the past few weeks, but this weekend, I am flying back to my mother’s place (partly to see her, partly to search for a certain January issue of Vanity Fair). I might scan and upload those spreads when I have time. I might also do some profiles on the photographers.

A. S. H. London, 27th October 2010.

The Inevitable Random Post

I was a little bored today, so went into my wordpress dashboard and looked at searchterms. They were quite humorous:

On the left are google search terms that led to my site. On the right are number of times that term had been searched. It is perplexing that five Brooke Shields related terms (from ‘Gary Gross’ to ‘Pretty Baby Brooke Shields’) are next to each other. Are there approx. 700 x 5 people or just 700 people trying to look for naked pictures of now 45-year old former actress? Anyhow, I find it funny that although Brooke Shields beats ‘iconic images’, it was beaten by the generic term ‘girl’. And I am pretty sure if you type ‘girl’ to google image search, my site is not on the first 20 pages, so there must be a lot of people searching for ‘girl’ on google images.

These are today’s search engine terms. ‘And fun was had by all lynching’? Seriously?

Speaking of inappropriate things, ‘naked photos 12 yo boy’? Totally uncool, guys. (But wait a sec, why does such a search lead to this site?)