Our Sunday Best: {Truth Makes Contact} The weight of light





Matthew Brady, first known war photographer, looking stern in self-portrait contact sheet.

Whatever the photographers brought into a place was carried on their backs, and sometimes in their minds. There were the cameras and the film and the light meters and the lens brushes. There were the tripods and the black bags for the exposed film. Their bodies were crisscrossed in straps that held the cameras easily at hand when they traveled on foot, and the straps dug into their flesh, mapping and marking them, so that when they removed their clothes at night, they would look down in wonder at this accidental cartography. Another day, another arrangement of straps, and bruises like the heels of mountains would begin to rise on the photographers’ bodies wherever their cameras swayed and hit. Sometimes the photographers shot pictures.

The photographers found themselves welcomed wherever they arrived, except for those places where they weren’t welcome at all. In those unwelcome places, they hid their cameras and changed their names and took pictures from behind the broken bones of buildings where the bombs had stripped away architectural flesh. In the places where they were welcomed, the local people examined them and asked them questions if they shared a language or two, and if no language bridged the barrier of photographer to man, they relied on other ways of speaking to one another: pantomime being a common favorite, but even that was known to fail. Sometimes the man in charge just looked the photographer in the eye to see if he was a good man or if he could be made use of in some way. It was up to the photographer to understand how this might go.


Some of the photographers were honest in their intentions, as much as a photographer can be honest about what they haven’t seen yet. Really, it is never in the best interest of any subject in the field to have their picture taken because the subject cannot control the variables—the light in the sky and the temperament of the photographer could make some unhappy results. A strong photograph or four or six can topple an empire—everyone came to understand that pretty quickly. And some of the photographers were liars—their job, as they saw it, was to expose historical events, but what those photographers wanted was to be at the center of history, so the pictures they took skewed the story and shifted the outcome of what would have been to what these photographers decided it must be.

But worse still were the earnest photographers in the field that functioned like sensitive eyes. These photographers had the unhappiest luck of all—they often found themselves in the unenviable position of having to decide whether to try to save a single person from tragedy or to take a horrifying picture that might rescue an entire country. Sometimes there was no time. Sometimes there was no real choice. No one could cost out the expense of a single person’s life and yet those photographers would spend the rest of their nights and their days trying to sort out the ghoulish mathematics of what they did and what they saw.


When all was done, the photographers packed up their rucksacks and tore down their tripods and left little behind to remind anyone of who they actually were. And they trekked back through the dark and the light places of this earth to wherever it was that would welcome them home, but they never came home as heroes. The city men and city women called the photographers witnesses and observers to their faces, but these same citizens felt uneasy around the photographers and their cameras. For what do you call an instrument that can topple a king and a mountain and a regime with the simple release of a trigger? And what do you call the person who carries this deadly instrument?

And the photographers were afraid of the city men and the city women. The photographer’s faces said, You asked us to bear witness for you and we have done it. Now you cannot meet our eyes? It was too much to take. The photographers began to pack. They picked up their bags and their cameras with the straps that crisscrossed their bruised torsos. They hoisted the tripods and checked their pockets for extra film and lens cloths. Some of the photographers wanted to weep—they were tired of loud noises and strange meetings with powerful men—but they did not weep. They would go. And some of the citizens felt guilty but said nothing as the photographers walked out of sight of the city.


Soon the distant photographs would come, and with them the stories, and the city men and the city women would sit in cafés at night and argue the merits of these stories and pictures, when all the while the photographers were out there with the journalists, names forgotten, good deeds unknown. At night in these faraway places, the photographers went into tents and into rented rooms, removed their shirts or blouses and lay down on beds and bedrolls to consider solitary thoughts. Sometimes their tired fingers traced lazy streets into the places where the straps of their cameras had worn thin crisscrossed scars over the years. Sometimes, when the photographers slept, they did not dream of home.




NOTES

 

The weight of light is part of Courtenay Bluebird’s ongoing history of modern photography, which has been featured on Bluebird Blvd.’s wholly original long-running celebrated weekly feature story series, OUR SUNDAY BEST. (This particular piece is based on a composite of various biographies I’ve read about famous and not-so-famous war correspondents who spent extensive time in the field/in country.)

To read more selections from this chapter, please go to Our Sunday Best {Truth Makes Contact}. Some of those stories are serious doozies, y’all. Wait until you hear about our man, W. Eugene Smith. He’s a wild one!

The image featured today is a contact sheet of some self-portraits shot by Matthew Brady, considered to be one of the first—if not the first—war photographer. What war did he photograph? The Civil War! Brady’s intrepidness changed our understanding of current events. We are deeply in his debt. Speaking of which, much thanks to the women and men who undertake the difficult task of photographing conflict all over the world. You are our eyes, our ears, and our hearts. Thank goodness for photojournalists.


Our Sunday Best {Truth Makes Contact} Focus, Gene. Focus.




A poor reproduction of W. Eugene Smith's "The Walk to Paradise Garden."



He wakes; he sleeps; he dreams.


He is a hospital in Guam writing letters to his mother and his wife. The paper on the lap desk slides away from his fingers. A breath, and—

He is in a hospital stateside, a man keeps clapping him on the shoulder, over-enunciating his vowels. “Are you awake, Gene? Your family is here to see you.” He shrugs the man off, and—

He turns to find himself in his own bed. At home. At home?


He is still sliding between the waking and the dreaming world; he senses that he’s laying on top of the nerve-damaged fingers of his left hand— the ones that can’t feel anything, with a grunt he turns over and pulls his hand from under his hip. A shadow leans over him: Who is it? He tenses.

There now. There now, says a woman’s voice. Then, to another shape in the room, the voice says: Is it time for his morphine yet? Tell the children to keep quiet—


He dreams of fire and light and there’s a noise inside his ear that aches so badly he wants to slap it away. A hand clamps down on his shoulder. His mother’s hand. There have been few silences between them over the years, but here’s one: Smith pulls his right hand from underneath the sheet and places it firmly over his mother’s hand, and he squeezes.

Someone is crying.  Is it him? No, it can’t be him.

But his face is laced with tears. How can this be?


Gene. Are you awake? Are you awake, Gene?

Please wake up.


And suddenly W. Eugene Smith is awake. It is nearly two years to the day that Smith’s hand and jaw and head and life were ripped apart by shrapnel. He sits pensively on the edge of the bed, listening to his wife Carmen Smith back the family car out of the driveway. He’s finally convinced her to take his mother and his eldest daughter out for the afternoon so he can spend time with his two youngest children— or that’s what he told them. He is listening for the sound of the car pulling away from the curb and wheeling down the street;  he is listening to music on the record player and he is listening— through the open bedroom doori—to his small children, Pat and Juanita, who are playing quietly on the carpet.

Smith stands and takes a moment to steady himself. He has to move quickly now. But there’s so much he has to consider just on standing up. The wounds in his head are still suppurating, despite all of those surgeries. Vile fluids from those interior head injuries drain down Smith’s throat, slide under his tongue, and slip past the dental plate covering the hole at the bottom of his mouth that the doctors could not close. The fresh fluids dribble meanly onto his clean, pressed shirt. He can’t think about it: Smith wipes his front with his handkerchief, shakes his head. He’s talking to himself: Focus, Gene, focus. He exhales through his teeth with a hiss. The once great photographer forces himself to reach with both his arms, the good and the bad, back into the bedroom closet where his camera sat for the last two years in its case on a side shelf.

The pain in his left hand is so terrific he wants to bellow like a wounded animal— but he does not and would not yell— Smith doesn’t want to frighten his childrenii.

Focus, Gene. Just focus.


Somehow he manages to get the film into the camera despite his still weak left hand. With a little bit of luck, he gets the camera strap around his neck, and ushers Pat and Juanita into the unfenced backyard.iii

Smith is sweating; his head wounds keep draining into the interior of his mouth and down the outside of his cheek, splashing on the lens. Smith forces himself to hold the focusing mechanism of the camera in his left hand. The photographer in him knows what to do. He watches his children at play, running back and forth at the edge of the forest behind the house, grabbing one another’s hand, speaking to one another in the pidgin language of small children.

The man is in so much pain he can hardly stand it. And he’s so afraid that he’ll never take another truly great picture again, and he’s put a lot on this first photograph— too much on this first photograph— and he’s alone for the first time in two years with his children on a day so still it could be a first day or a last day or any day in-between.


Smith forces himself to be present. He raises his camera— away from his head, away from his suppurating wounds, away from the war that Smith signed on to shoot, a war that swept him right into the center of the vortex. Behind his eyes, old images crackle and burn in the good light. His mind will never have the same focus as it once did before— the war will always own some real estate in there, throwing pictures on the wall that nobody wants to see, least of all Smith. But while that movie plays out, this one unfurls too— Smith watches his children run forward into the golden light of a late afternoon in spring. He does not call after them. He does not direct them. He hangs back; he tracks their movement with his instinct and his lens.


The children move toward a break in the grove of trees where the light spills through like the light busting through the lean, crooked heart of a cracked bell. He pushes down his pain and readies the camera at his eye because he knows what his children will do next. His finger depresses the trigger slightly— Hold it, hold it.  Focus, Gene, focus.  And then—

His son grabs his little sister’s hand. Together they walk through the warm darkness of the trees toward the light and the unseen moment on the other side.


Click. Smith gets his shot. He turns his head so the children won’t see him— and he cries, silently, from pain, from fear, from relief, from sadness, from gratitude, from the ache of loss—for just a second. He pulls himself up and walks purposely toward the grove and the light that rests on the other side. W. Eugene Smith can hear his children laughing. He keeps moving toward the sound and the light.




Photograph: The Walk to Paradise Garden. W. Eugene Smith. 1946.iv








The whole series was written just for you:

Bluebird’s Modern Photography



ALWAYS, WITH THE FACTS: The facts of this particular story come from W. Eugene Smith’s own account of that day in an essay he wrote for this book, which is currently out-of-print: Art & Artist. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956. Print.

However, the author has read numerous accounts of the same events, as written by biographers, contemporaries, and one particularly poignant summary penned by current-day editors of Life magazine (who, as you’ll see in the endnotes, originally turned down “The Walk to Paradise Garden”).

The ideas expressed here, unless otherwise noted, are the author’s own.


Endnotes

 

i THIS IS AN EDUCATED GUESS: I am still unsure of the layout of the Smith’s suburban home. Smith just says the children are playing in “an adjoining room.” I’ve decided to make a guess here based on my own experiences of living in mid-century and older homes and carriage houses nearly all of my life. In my world, an adjoining room means a room next door with a door or a screen that slides right open between the two rooms, sometimes to make one space.

Let’s just say I’m hoping Smith had the door open or the screen pulled back because these children are sma-aaaalllll kids, not old enough to be left alone even for half a moment. (My current mid-century bedroom is divided by a large wooden accordion screen— real wood and quite heavy—into two spaces.)

Given Smith’s description in his own essay, my guess is that it’s just an open bedroom door that adjoins either the den or one of the children’s rooms.

 

ii THIS IS A POORLY-SUPPORTED OPINION, AT BEST: Almost all of the writings on W. Eugene Smith lean heavily on his aptitude for selfishness. My first impression as I read through these snippets of letters and the essay Smith himself crafted to explain this extraordinary photograph of his children, is that Smith wasn’t selfish in the sense that we understand selfishness: He’s not a person who doesn’t know how to share or how to empathize. I’m beginning to think Smith’s problem is much more complicated than that.

Listen, I’ve professionally interviewed quite a few talented and famous artists in the last twenty years, and Smith sings that one round note all great artists sing: I’m obsessed, I’m obsessed, I’m obsessed.

The drive to make great art has traditionally destroyed artists, body and soul. I’m not talking about the romantic notion of the tortured artist in a garret, suffering for his/her art— I don’t give a good damn about all that La Bohème crap about moneyed children playing at making art by playing at being poor. (I despise that opera and all variations on that opera because I see the plot as a classist piece of… you get the idea.)

Professional artists like Smith know that art takes everything.

What I mean when I say art takes everything is this: The hours are long. The work demands all of your mind and your heart—and your stamina. The equipment is expensive. The pay can be awful, or it can be great. And there is nothing healthy or spiritually invigorating about making art. Any good you have in you goes to the art first, then to you. Then, there’s the boredom involved with making art— there’s lots going on in the process that artists don’t really like, but it’s what they have to do in order to make the kind of work that appears flawless. That’s how it works with the obsessed set, who have, and I want you to take this almost literally, devoted their lives to their art. And that’s what we’re dealing with when we look at W. Eugene Smith— he’s always working and he never looks well-rested or settled, and there’s a reason for that: the man makes art.

I’ve said my piece for the moment. I may come back months later after reading more of his personal letters and sing a whole different tune, but what I’m sharing here are first impressions based on what I’ve read to date and what I know from personal and professional experience. Art takes everything.

 

iii THIS IS ANOTHER EDUCATED GUESS, WITH BETTER SUPPORTS: Again, more research about the actual house where the Smiths live. Smith’s own description in his essay about this photograph makes it sound as though the backyard is either large or unfenced, so I’m really taking a guess here and saying it’s unfenced. As these pieces are part of longer drafts of a manuscript I’m writing, there are places like this one where I’m stretching out in swaths based on 30 hours or more of research, but, as you can see— there are still missing pieces. If you know anything about W. Eugene Smith’s backyard in 1946, give me a holler, okay?

HOWEVER, my guess about the open backyard is supported somewhat anecdotally by a story from National Geographic Editor Chris Johns’ discussion of his own backyard in childhood and Smith’s photograph, The Walk to Paradise Garden.

Note also the rich detail of this high resolution version of Smith’s photograph. I haven’t seen anything else digitally even in the same league as National Geographic’s reproduction. There’s such great light to it that you don’t see in lesser reproductions of the same. (A side note: If you want your heart broken right in two, read the comments just below Johns’ letter.)

 

iv THIS IS 30 HOURS OF RESEARCH* (THIS WEEK) TALKING: On to the after party! Let’s talk about what happened after Smith shot “The Walk to Paradise Garden” for a moment, okay? According to one-time biographer Ben Maddow, the following story was Smith’s anecdote about how “The Walk to Paradise Garden” was first published. (Maddow did not trust Smith to relate anything off the cuff, so this is definitely an “according to Smith” moment.) (I still think Maddow was hot and cold for Smith. See my other footnotes about this issue, in Our Sunday Best: {Truth Makes Contact} Gene’s Profanity Prayers.)

According to Smith, “The Walk to Paradise Garden” was first offered to Smith’s employer, Life, who didn’t want it at all because the children were walking away from the viewer, not towards the viewer, and therefore would not be an acceptable cover. Smith turned around and offered it to the U.S. Camera Annual, who didn’t just buy limited rights to the image, but decided to make it the lead photo in the following year’s annual publication.

This photo later was chosen as the very last photo in The Family of Man exhibit and exhibition book created by Edward Steichen during his long years as the first Director of Photography for New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It’s perfect. It’s glorious. And it totally works.

The show was, in the annoying parlance of today, a game-changer, both in content and in style. Here’s the bit that’s germane to today’s story: The Family of Man exhibition was created and designed to show man’s relationship to man, using photographs taken by photographers from all over the world. It was, in so many words, tailor-made for a photographer like Smith, who personally wanted to use photography to help people find a more compassionate way of living with each other.

Purportedly, photographers don’t like this photograph because it can come across as risking sentimentality too much. As for me, I think this image is a masterstroke for Smith— it’s a beautiful, nearly classical composition with a great deal of tonal depth that you cannot see in lesser copies. Again, you have to see that National Geographic digital “print” of “The Walk to Paradise Garden” — it’s merely stunning.

I think, also, for people who were coming off of the war experience, seeing a hardcore LIFE photographer like Smith take this gentle, hopeful, forward-looking image featuring his children, front and center, must have been a shock and a boost.


*And another 15 hours in writing and editing this piece alone. But, really— who’s counting? You’re totally worth it.




AND NOW FOR A PSA…


SOMEBODY NEEDS TO SAY IT: People, you have got to stop stealing photographs, cropping them or painting on them or doing weird crap to them, and slapping them onto your blogs and websites for who knows what reason.  It’s not cute and it’s not okay, and it’s really starting to set me off.

I saw so many really damaged versions of W. Eugene Smith’s The Walk to Paradise Garden on Google as I was working on this story that it broke my heart. You need to see for yourself what the average person thinks is okay to do to any original photograph: A Messed Up Walk To Google Gardens

Unless your goal is to get sued by Smith’s family and Magnum Photos, you have got to stop using other people’s photographs so wantonly— because if I can find you on Google, so can they.

 

Do you have any idea how much you can get fined for a copyright infringement? (It’s like this: if you have to ask how big the fine might be, you can’t afford it.)

 

Frankly, I think the Smiths should get litigious over offenses like the ones I found. I don’t come into your house, draw childish things on your furniture with permanent marker and cut family photographs out of their frames and paint on them, do I? You’d totally call the cops!  You’d feel so violated!  That’s stealing and vandalism, right?

Well, stealing is also taking photographs on the internet that do not belong to you. Vandalism is also cropping stolen digital photographs or changing them—in any way— and using them for some other purpose than the extremely narrow American copyright clause called Fair Use.

 

People have a bad habit of slinging around the phrase Fair Use without understanding what it means.

Fair Use means one of two things:

    1) Education: Yo! What we’re doing right here is education! We are talking about W. Eugene Smith exclusively in this story. We are specifically discussing Smith’s “Walk to Paradise Garden.” Hence, the featured (crummy, but complete, yet low-resolution-on-purpose) copy of the famous photo can absolutely be featured in this story. But, as you’ve read above and will read again at the bottom, I want you to see a really good copy of this image— not merely a mediocre one, so I’m sending you off to National Geographic.

    2) Sales: A case of a pure Fair Use sales moment would be you shooting your own photograph of a cover of a video game that you use online solely to review that game. If you steal someone else’s photo of that game, then… you’re just stealing again, which is really dumb. Take your own damn photo!

 

When you steal someone’s photograph to use on your blog or Facebook or whatever, that photographer feels angry and violated and is completely in the right to pursue you under international law.

 

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care, this should get your attention: Google is cracking down on content thieves like you and shutting thieves out of Google results forever for stealing art, photography, writing, ideas, and design from other legitimate creators. I’m not talking low ranking from Google for copyright infringement— I’m talking no ranking, meaning your site gets banned from Google searches for life.

 

For the rest of you who didn’t know that using other people’s photographs was illegal, do yourself a favor right now, and go read up on Creative Commons law. If blogging is your thing and you love it, you need to know what the laws are that protect what you do and by which you are bound to protect others. Additionally, learn what the legit resources for actual free…ish photos and art happen to be. Here’s a starter plate for you: Wikimedia Commons. It’s huge and it’s got everything you need.

 

But to use Wikimedia Commons or any other Creative Commons image site the legal way, you need to be able to read the Creative Commons licenses used there. Go back to square one— read up on Creative Commons law. It’s written so simply even I can recite it backwards and forwards. (Bluebird Blvd. is run under a very strict set of Creative Commons licenses, plural, which you can see here.)

 

The bottom line is:

Stealing photographs from anyone is rude. It is reallyreallyreally illegal. And it makes you look like a boob.

You’re better than that, right? Of course you are. That’s why we think the world of you around here.




NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST (—which I swear on a stack of Cheesy Poofs will actually run on Sunday—): Let’s ALL GO HANG OUT at CHAOS MANOR— everybody is going to be there! EVERYBODY! GET READY for PART FOUR of our FIVE-PART STORY on the ONE, THE ONLY, THE AMAZING… W. EUGENE SMITH! Let’s get our HARD BOP ON!


A NOTE ABOUT THIS PHOTOGRAPH: This photograph of W. Eugene Smith’s “The Walk to Paradise Garden” appears on Bluebird Blvd. solely for the purposes of this story. I tried to find the best complete photograph that wasn’t too great, if you know what I mean. (Some of the asinine crop jobs I saw on Google nearly made me lose it. I can’t believe anyone would actually mutilate or color on this photograph. Stupid. (Grumble! Gripe!)

Again, the reason I picked a good-enough, but not great version of the famed photo is that I desperately want you to go and see the real online reproduction of W. Eugene Smith’s “The Walk to Paradise Garden”. Man, I have chills just telling you about it. Go see! Go see! Then come back and tell me what you think. I can’t wait to hear your take!

Our Sunday Best: {Truth Makes Contact} Gene’s Profanity Prayers




Terry Moore crouches under shell attack.



And you wait at the light and watch
for a sign that you’re breathing.
‘Cos you can’t just live on air
and float to the ceiling
Who’s gonna answer profanity prayers?
Who’s gonna answer profanity prayers?

—[amazon text=Profanity Prayers&asin=B001NBM378], Beck

 

 

Most of the facts of this particular segment

have been weighed against Ben Maddow’s

[amazon text=Let Truth Be the Prejudice&asin=0893811793]

[amazon text=W. Eugene Smith: His Life and Photographs&asin=0893811793]






Hush, I say to you— though you’ve said nothing at all.

Look, I say to you, but you already see what I see: A sky made of fire and ash and war.

Beware, I say to you, for you and I wait near a ridge in the city of Okinawa where W. Eugene Smith stands with his camera to his eye. He is in the sh** now.

After all our long journeys, we have arrived to the Pacific Theater of WWII as it moves close and closer to its violent and absolute conclusion.

Watch, I say to you. This is where the end begins.


It is May 22, 1945i. PFC Terry Moore of F Company is curled up in a ball on the ground next to the standing Smith. Heavy artillery booms in every discernible direction.

The ground shudders and bucks from each assault to its surface. Still, Smith stands up to get his shot: “I wanted to show Terry under close mortar hits, it was part of his day. The trouble with taking photographs when the air is full of lead is that you have to stand up when anyone else is lying down and trying to disappear into the earth. I got to my feet….ii

W. Eugene Smith’s luck is running out. Watch those numbers spin out of control.

Hush. Here it comes.

Incoming. Three. Two—

But you haven’t said a word.  Not a word.

One.

(The screen goes black.)




Smith is a boy again. His father, a grain broker and well-liked businessman, is depressed, moody, even, somewhat distant, but sweet to his two boys. The busy but sad S. J. Smith is in and out of the frame of his mother’s and Smith’s photographs, which mother and son develop in his mother’s homemade darkroomiii. The house itself is run by domestic workers. This small army of household employees aren’t allowed to sit down anywhere inside the Smith homeiv. Nettie Lee Smith (née Caplinger of the Virginia Caplingers) is a woman of strong feeling about many things (including race and religion, apparently.) Her strongest and kindest opinions are reserved for her sons.

Everyone can see that Nettie Lee Smith keeps a heavy-handed grip on those children of hers. The older child was sick with polio as a toddler and will be so indulged and pushed around that he will doubt every decision he makes in adulthood. The younger one, Gene, the baby, her wonder and delight, is the child apt to seek his own advantage in all ways. What she doesn’t see is that his will is as strong as hers, maybe even stronger. (History has already dog-eared Smith’s page: She knows his kind.)


Enough about Smith’s mother— it’s the father that will break your heart. When the elder Smith’s grain dealings bankrupt his business during the Great Depression, Smith writes a note to his youngest son and then he commits suicide. One version of the story places the teenage Smith at the city morgue at the time on an assignment with the local paper. (He actually did some sports assignments for that paper in his teens.) In this folktale, Smith is on assignment when his father is wheeled in under a covered sheet so the morgue can identify him. Curious to see a dead body, Smith turns back the white sheet and sees his father stretched out on the gurney.

Another version: The elder Smith driving into the parking lot of a local hospital, where he parks the car in a space, and shoots himself with his son Gene’s rifle. The father is found alive, but the man has lost a great deal of blood. His family reaches the hospital in time to see him. Because Gene and his father share a blood type, his beloved son gives his father blood at the exact moment his father slips away from this life to the next one.




Close your eyes. Take a breath.

Smith is now at Northwestern on a photography scholarship, but he doesn’t want to be in college at all. He writes his mother, pestering her to let him go to New York to become a photographer. He’s hungry, he says. He’s bored, he says. He’s going to go whether she likes it or not— can he go? Will she send him some money? He’s so hungry all the time. He needs a heavy sweater from home, will she send it?

He writes: I’m not a college man. Some people aren’t. I want to go to New York. Can I go? Please?

He writes: I’m quitting school on Monday, Mother. It’s not working out.

He writes: In New York, Mother. Enrolled at the New York School of Photography. Please send money right away.

He writes: Mother, sell the furniture and come up to New York. I think you would like the school. At any rate, I want you to work with me.


W. Eugene Smith is 18 years old. The effects of the Great Depression linger on everything like a cheap perfume. The job market is still stalled. Even so, Smith submitted his portfolio to Newsweek a few weeks ago and has been offered a salaried staff position, which he takes. He’s got his eye on an even bigger prize: Life magazine. Through his work at Newsweek, he’s already made friendly contact with the photo editor at Life. He writes: Everything is falling into place. I want you to come, Mother. What’s taking you so long?

He writes: Mother, now that your father has died you can come up to New York. I would like father’s hat and his suits, for I have nothing to wear. Stop listening to those fearful people and hurry up and get herev.




Nettie Lee Smith cannot resist her way-seeking boy. So just like that, his middle-aged mother moves to New York City. Surprisingly, Smith’s boasts in his letters home are pretty much the truth: Everything is falling into place. He’s made arrangements with the Zeiss camera companyiv for a discount on camera equipment in exchange for a discount on his photographs.

In a situation right out of a drawing-room comedy, Smith meets his future wife, Carmen Martinez, when she’s enlisted by a mutual friend to translate into Spanish his (rather mild) love letters to a flamenco dancer on a world tour. He works his way farther up the ladder with all of the big publications— Life, Colliers and Look publish his photographs in those first hungry years. He’s even placed on retainer at Life; the next step is staff work. He marries the beautiful Carmen. Right away they are expecting their first child.


World War II has started in earnest throughout Europe. Two of the great European photographers roll onto the map, and are shuttled to places of vital conflict— Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson cover the war with sadness, strength, elegance. The phenomenal American photographer, Margaret Bourke-Whitevii is an early entrant from the U.S. side— she’s amazing and intuitive and lighting-quick, and she’s got pull in places like Russia, where she’d been sent on assignment during more peaceful years, creating work that pleased the [amazon text=Russian Government&asin=0404009395] and Life magazine in the 1930s.

Smith wants in on the war stuff, and he can’t seem to find a way in. He knocks on a lot of doors and tries some pretty stupid stunts before he finally gets approval in 1943 to go out in the field. Of course, he’s a smash success. He’s fearless. Actually, he’s sort of crazy. Editors love that quality in a war photographer.




The Battle of Okinawa. 1945. The men are crouched beneath the ridge near a Japanese encampment when the mortar bombs begin to fall. Smith stands to take a picture of PFC Terry Moore of F Company curled up in a ball as heavy artillery drops right and left and center—

So I say to you: Don’t watch. You don’t want to see this.

But you don’t close your eyes. You never did listen to me.

A mortar shell detonates right next to Smith, flinging tiny, razor sharp bits of metal at his unprotected body. His camera explodes from the impact. Shrapnel blows through his left hand, slices his jaw and punctures his palate. Shrapnel studs the curve of his tender spine. He takes a breath—

And he’s down.


PFC Terry Moore of F Company yells, Medic! Medic!

W. Eugene Smith is carried away by a wave of pain. He’s lost a great deal of blood.

There’s a moment where he opens his eyes, and Smith, he sees us standing on the other side of the ridge.

There are three of us: You and me and a third figure who walked up as our eyes were turned. History is wearing her red lipstick today. She raises her hand in greeting to W. Eugene Smith. His eyes go wild in his head. Is it pain? Is it desire? Does he know why she’s here? She’s marked him now as her own— there’s no turning back for any of us.

The only way out is through.






 

ENDNOTES:

 

 

i Date and details from the Gale Encyclopedia of Biography, Entry: W. Eugene Smith.


ii W. Eugene Smith quote courtesy of online bookshop Slightly Out Of Focus, which specializes in rare pictorial periodicals. They’re currently selling the Life Magazine that features Smith’s last Life essay of WWII, W. Eugene Smith: Americans Battle for Okinawa for a mere £40.


iii Book deets: Maddow, Ben, and W. Eugene Smith. [amazon text=Let Truth Be the Prejudice&asin=0893811793]. Aperture, 1998. Print.

 

A few words about this book and photographers and photography books, in general: Like all Aperture books, the photographs are amazing— you really can’t understand Smith’s photographs—or any photographer’s—if you haven’t seen the best quality versions of the prints as agreed upon by the photographer. An actual photograph is best, a good quality photography book written and arranged by that photographer on heavy stock paper would be second best. Third in line would be a monograph that goes along with a big show— the Maddow book is one of those. “Let Truth Be the Prejudice” was first sold during the touring posthumous retrospective of W. Eugene Smith’s work. Unauthorized reproductions of famous photographs are below the bottom of the bottom because those images have a tendency to turn up all fangled and massively adulterated and cropped to hell by any boob with a rudimentary photo-editing program.

Also, while we’re on the subject of adulterated stories— I get the feeling that biographer Ben Maddow wasn’t too crazy about ol’ W. Eugene Smith, but I don’t know why yet. Maddow has got quite the history himself. He was a screenwriter, poet, and biographer who worked under several pen names after he was blacklisted during the McCarthy Communist witch hunt years. In order to get working again, he purportedly “named names.” Later, Hollywood snubbed him for his choice. It was ruin or be ruined, people. The McCarthy period was an awful and shameful moment in our history. Oh, and Maddow’s poem “The City” inspired Allan Ginsburg to write “Howl.”

Let’s get back to W. Eugene Smith.


iv This little tidbit also comes from Ben Maddow, by the way. The “domestic servants” of the Smith household happen to be black, and they are not allowed, according to Nettie Lee Smith, to sit down inside if they are tired. They must go outdoors, onto the veranda, which is all good and well if you don’t think too closely about those long winters in Wichita, Kansas.

Here’s my take: Tuck away his mother’s attitude towards the people who graciously run her homebecause it will come up later when we discuss Smith’s sense of human dignity and its appearance in his photographs.


v You know I’m not directly quoting Smith’s letters, right? I’m paraphrasing here because, good gravy, his letters do go on a mile. You’d be reading for a week if I didn’t clean it up a little. I am beginning to see how Smith might exhaust people. He’s a lotta person, that Smith!


vi Carl Zeiss AD makes the best lenses in the world, no fooling. In the 19th century, optician-entrepreneur Carl Zeiss and his partner, physicist Ernst Abbe managed to figure out the mathematical formula for creating the ideal microscope lens(known now as he Abbe sine condition.) But there was a catch— at the time there was no glass strong enough to test their theories, until they teamed up with glass chemist Otto Schott. Read this Wikipedia entry to get the whole story: Carl Zeiss.

I own an Leica R Series, an SLR with a Zeiss lens. I bought that camera secondhand with a fee I made from creating and executing a rather complicated advertising campaign for a local boutique. I learned everything I know about photography on that Leica. There are a few cameras with Zeiss lenses in my family. Jeez, they’re amazing. Zeiss lenses make everything so crisp.


vii Margaret Bourke-White photographed the Czechoslovakian power brokers a few weeks before the country fell to Nazi Germany (1938). White shot photos of the short-lived Syrian republic right before it was invaded by Vichy French troops (1940). Honey, she was in Moscow at the exact hour Russia broke its non-aggression pact with Hitler (1939).

This should piss you off: It took me three hours to find exact years—not dates, years— of these maaaaaajor events as photographed by Margaret Bourke-White for Life magazine. Bourke-White is just as famous as Capa, Cartier-Bresson and Smith— all photographers working in the same period, covering the same war. You’ve seen her work more times than you know.

Go and try to look up actual data on Margaret Bourke-White, and prepare yourself to be burned. Boo! to that nonsense! #&%ing hegemonical digital age!




NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST! W. Eugene Smith’s ADULT LOVE AFFAIR with POPULAR MUSIC! How do you DOMESTICATE a WAR photographer?!? JAZZ, JAZZ, JAZZ! OBSESSION, OBSESSION, OBSESSION! ALL WILL BE REVEALED about the FASCINATING, FRUSTRATING world of W. EUGENE SMITH! SAME TIME, SAME PLACE! See you therrrrrrrre!




Wait… YOU HAVEN’T READ ALL of the PHOTOGRAPHY OUR SUNDAY BESTS, SO FAR?

 

WHET YER WHISTLE with {Truth Makes Contact} from BLUEBIRD’S MODERN PHOTOGRAPHY series!

OUR SUNDAY BEST: {Truth Makes Contact}—

  • 1. The Crossing (A Prologue)
  •  

  • 2. And Then You Wake, Not Knowing How You Arrived to This Place
  •  

  • 3. Light ‘Em Up, Gene! — The War Photography of W. Eugene Smith


  •  

    WHAT?!? YOU WANT MORE STORIES?!? YOU’RE TOTALLY INSATIABLE!

    (PSST! Go HERE, DARLIN’!) A Smörgåsboard of Posts




    A LEEETLE LEGAL NOTE ABOUT THE SMITH PHOTOGRAPH FEATURED IN THIS STORY: Gee, Courtenay, why aren’t there more photographs for “Gene’s Profanity Prayers”? Well, lovely reader, W. Eugene Smith’s photographs are not public images. The copyright for this image is retained by the family of W. Eugene Smith. To purchase this image, please go to Getty Images or to Magnum Photos. Out of respect for the W. Eugene Smith copyright, I am limiting the photographs to one per story.

    JUST SO YOU KNOW: W. Eugene Smith’s “Terry Moore crouches under shell attack.” appears in this Bluebird Blvd. story truly in good faith under the subset of U.S. copyright law known as Fair Use (17 U.S.C. § 107). In other words, this photograph is here, legally.

    HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE, Courtenay? Well, lovely readers, this photograph illustrates the heavily researched story I just told you, a story which was written for the purposes of scholarship and entertainment. Unlike some of the other photographers we’ve covered, Smith never worked for the US Farm Securities Administration, which became the Office of War Information and so on. Those FSA/OWI photographs belong to the American public. Smith’s photographs do not. But we’re respectful around here— and that’s why we’re only using the one Fair Use photograph we absolutely need to tell the story.

    Questions? Comments? See the Contact button on the top of the page? Click that button to drop me a private line.




    A BONUS MINI-ESSAY ON THE FEATURED PHOTOGRAPH in THIS STORY (X-TRA JUICY EDITION!): This image is supposedly the last photograph that W. Eugene Smith shot right before he was downed by shrapnel. Someone in the field salvaged his film out of that blasted camera after he was injured, can you believe it? Even more wild: The minute Smith came out of his first surgeries in Guam, he sent a telegram of apology to Life to say he was sorry for getting injured in the field. He was hoping they got the film he heard was recovered, and so on. (See, I told you! Wild stuff!)

    Since Smith was in recovery for two years after his run-in with a mortar shell, this photo represents his last statement about the war, too. (Can you tell W. Eugene Smith didn’t like war? He didn’t shoot any glamorous photographs in the Pacific, did he?)

    One thing you’ll note about W. Eugene Smith’s photographs is that the tonal range of his prints are really dark. I like a photograph with what I think of as “true blacks”— where the blackest part of the photograph is really black and the whitest part of the photograph is really white, and there’s lots of graduated layers and tones in between, giving a photographic print huge amounts of visual depth. See how the grass in this photograph looks almost carved onto the page? See how the folds of Moore’s uniform look complex and round? That’s the mark of a photograph with “true blacks.” (His subject matter tends toward the dark end of the thematic range too, but he’ll lighten up considerably on that subject when he’s no longer in the middle of a war.) (Well, sort of.)

    Don’t be fooled be reproductions, even good ones like prints in most Aperture books— A real photograph, like a real painting, often has dimensions and textures you can’t see even in a really good giclée print. (A giclée print is just a schmancy photocopier with all these extra colors and layers— like an inkjet printer with a pedigree.) My point? Go forth and see real photography! Get out of the house, you! Wander over to a gallery or a museum or an auction house where actual prints pulled by real photographers are put on display. You are going to be blown away, I promise!

    Also, I checked up on this photo— I don’t think it’s been cropped. (Don’t crop fine photography! It’s like shaving down the sides of the Mona Lisa so you can cram her face in your family’s Xmas newsletter to make it look “artistic.” What nerve!)

    Oh, I read something somewhere that said W. Eugene Smith printed his images darker and darker in the latter part of his career. I even read part of a letter where he was talking about having to “burn in” the details and the faces because he was printing everything even darker. I love his attention to detail. He was fantatical about detail. (More on that next week!)




    Now for a short PSA…

     

    This is a list of books and media materials I could really use for my research that aren’t readily available at the library or, in other cases, would be helpful to own. I don’t need new versions of these books (or media), especially if unmarked/unhighlighted secondhand versions are available. Either way, I could definitely use any and all help you can offer.

    If you donate a book or media item to my project, in addition to thanking you profusely by email for helping me out because your donation means—no joke—the world to me, I will also mention you in a thank you page that will be linked to every single modern photography-related Our Sunday Best from its beginning to its conclusion. (The conclusion of this project should be approximately 24 months from now, but the thank you page will be up for, basically, eternity.)

    You can donate a book or media item anonymously and I will thank you so profusely in my heart that you’ll actually feel it.

    Or you don’t have to donate anything at all. Just keep reading, lovely reader, and I’ll still dig you truly.

    In any which case, thank you so very much for being you. You make my day better just by being in the world. (Seriously!)


    Our Sunday Best: {Truth Makes Contact} Light ‘Em Up, Gene! — The War Photography of W. Eugene Smith



    Weary American PFC T.E. Underwood drinking from canteen in Saipan



    WARNING: Any link you click in this story may lead to graphic images from the Pacific Theater of World War II.




    … each time I pressed the shutter release
    it was a shouted condemnation hurled with the hope that the pictures might
    survive through the years, with the hope that they might echo through the minds
    of men in the future-causing them caution and remembrance and realization.”

    W. Eugene Smith, talking about his extraordinary
    photographs from the Pacific Theater in World War II

     

     

    I’ve never made any picture, good or bad,
    without paying for it in emotional turmoil.”

    W. Eugene Smithi

     




    The men crawled up the beach hours agoii, firing into the dense thickets of foliage that edge the beach. It will be hours before nightfall and the men crouch behind a dune and dig out foxholes with their helmets near a thicket of tall, dry beach grasses where they will be safe for a moment. Nothing is truly safe here.

    Confusion from the landing left some of the men fumbling for their riflesiii, some of them shouting orders at the others, some already fallen to the ground from the endless barrage of small artillery coming out of the jungle and the mountains beyond the jungle. The tak-tak-TAK! of Japanese machine gun fire and the kettle drum boom of explosives pierces any coherent thought that the men have, so they don’t think. They listen for the reassuring whine of heavy American naval artillery coming up from the rear and they do their damnedest to keep moving forward.


    There’s a photographer with ’em from Life in fatigues and a helmet with thick glasses on. He looks like one of the men, but he doesn’t act like one of them. First of all, instead of a rifle, he’s got 35mm camera strapped around his neck. Second of all, that photographer keeps bolting up from behind the dunes to photograph soldiers taking incoming artillery fire. The second lieutenant shouts at him twice until he realizes this photographer is insane. “It’s your funeral,” says the second lieutenant. The photographer mouths the words “thank you,” and proceeds to stand up from behind the dune again. The lieutenant has already forgotten about the photographer— he’s trying to shout over the percussion of the artillery at the footsloggers with the Zippos to push forward to the tree line and—

    Light ’em up!


    The men with the flamethrowers drop low and slog their way to the treeline. They swing their wands from behind their backs and ignite the torches which flicker awake. The fire spouting from the flamethrowers wraps its fingers around the palm trees and starts to smoke, smolder, catch and finally burn and blacken.

    A cheer goes up from behind the dunes. And then Japanese artillery drops on them again so they’re back to returning fire and now one of the footsloggers with the torches is dead. Somebody should get that flamethrower off his back.


    And there’s that Life photographer— moving forward, digging in, holding his camera up to his eye. How the hell is he doing it? Doesn’t he know there’s a war on?

    Photographer W. Eugene Smith of Life Magazine plants his foot on the side of the dune, leans out, puts his camera up to his eye. He lines up his next shot. One of the men moves up behind him and fires just over his left ear at a sniper in a palm tree. The sniper might have had a bullet with Smith’s name on it. But today is not that day.


    In a gust of wind, heaven and hell rain down on the American marines bunkered down on the beachhead of Saipan, the crucial turning point in the Pacific Theater of WWII. Take Saipan and Japan is within striking distance. The U.S. Marines know it. Smith knows it. The Imperial Military stationed on Saipan know it, and that’s why each side is attempting to pull the sky down today.

    The lieutenant is shouting again for the footsloggers and their torches.


    Smith’s ears are ringing, but he has his camera at his eye again. His viewfinder is trained on a young soldier with a cigarette hanging out of his mouthiv. Behind this boy is a dune and some beach grasses and the ocean and a little bit of peace between artillery barrages. Smith cocks the advance lever, tilts the depth of field and releases the shutter. The exhausted soldier even manages a half smile.

    But the lieutenant is still shouting. The footsloggers can’t move fast enough for him.

    Light ’em up, you bast—ds!

    Light ’em up!






    NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST: The Saipan campaign drags on! W. Eugene Smith takes beautiful photographs of the local citizens trying to survive the fight between two superpowers! Is Smith a cranky person or is he a pioneer of photography who isn’t going to put up with any editor’s shiiiiiifty behavior? THIS and SO MUCH MORE, same time, same place, on OUR SUNDAY BEST!



    ENDNOTES

     

    i From “W. Eugene’s Pacific”, Military History. November 2013, Vol. 30 Issue 4, p46-53. 8p. (Photographs originally printed in various stories for LIFE magazine during WW II.)


    ii The details of how the Marines secured this portion of the Saipan beach on June 15, 1944 relies on this account for specifics: “Breaching the Marianas: The Battle for Saipan,” Captain John C. Chapin, USMCR (Ret). Also necessary reading: The thorough “Campaign in the Marianas,” Philip A. Crowl. (1993 ed.)


    iii In this case, we’re going to assume Smith was photographing either the 2nd or 4th Marine Infantry Unit that day. Any time after that, he might have also been with the Army’s finest— the 27th Infantry Division. During the Battle of Saipan (June 13 – July 4, 1944), he took photographs from planes, from anti-aircraft carriers, in small watercraft and on foot of the activities of Marines, Navy, Army, Air Force, the Imperial Japanese Military as well as the 25,000 civilians and natives on the island. It was as if there were six of him on this particular mission.


    iv WARNING. GRAPHIC CONTENT. Here are W. Eugene Smith’s Magnum Agency photographs of World War II, the Pacific Theater 1944. Yes, I know the dates are all screwy, and Magnum stripped out the original captions because those belong to TIME/LIFE, so… we’ll figure it out, won’t we? Meanwhile, here are some of W. Eugene Smith’s photographs in context in a story about W. Eugene Smith and the Pacific Theater in the UK edition of the London Daily Mail.




    ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPH IN THIS STORY: The photograph for this story appears here truly in good faith under the subset of U.S. copyright law known as Fair Use (17 U.S.C. § 107), specifically in this case, the use of items under copyright for the purposes of scholarship. (Unlike some of the other photographers we’ve covered, Smith never worked for the US Farm Securities Administration, which became the Office of War Information and so on, hence: Fair Use.)  This image is from the middle part of the Saipan Campaign, and the Time/Life Caption reads, “Weary American Marine, PFC T. E. Underwood, drinking from canteen while still under fire during the fierce battle for Saipan.” The copyright for this image is retained by the family of W. Eugene Smith. To purchase this image, please go to Getty Images or to Magnum Photos.

     

    A SHORT NOTE ABOUT THE MILITARY DETAILS IN THIS STORY: I am an idiot when it comes to all militaria. I’ve researched this portion of the story thoroughly, and I’ve stuffed my brain with military facts, but there will be mistakes here, I am sure of it. Should you see that I’ve misused a military term or should you notice I’ve missed a crucial historical detail about the Battle of Saipan, truly one of the most important events of the Pacific Theater of WWII, just click on the Contact Bluebird Blvd. link on the top-right-hand of any page of Bluebird Blvd. to drop me a note with a correction in it and I will thank you for your trouble. Goodness knows I am going to need the help.

     

     

    Would you like to help me work on the book I’m trying to write about the history of modern photography?

     

    This is a list of books and media materials I could really use for my research that aren’t readily available at the library or, in other cases, would be helpful to own. I don’t need new versions of these books (or media), especially if unmarked/unhighlighted secondhand versions are available. Either way, I could definitely use any and all help you can offer.

    If you donate a book or media item to my project, in addition to thanking you profusely by email for helping me out because your donation means—no joke—the world to me, I will also mention you in a thank you page that will be linked to every single modern photography-related Our Sunday Best from its beginning to its conclusion. (The conclusion of this project should be approximately 24 months from now, but the thank you page will be up for, basically, eternity.)

    You can donate a book or media item anonymously and I will thank you so profusely in my heart that you’ll actually feel it.

    Or you don’t have to donate anything at all. Just keep reading, lovely reader, and I’ll still dig you truly.

    In any which case, thank you so very much for being you. You make my day better just by being in the world. (Seriously!)




    READY TO READ ON? HERE’S PART FOUR! Our Sunday Best: {Truth Makes Contact} Gene’s Profanity Prayers


    Our Sunday Best: {Truth Makes Contact} And Then You Wake, Not Knowing How You Arrived to This Place

     
     
     
    Robert Doisneau
     
     
     

      I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
      I do not think that they will sing to me.
      I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
      Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
      When the wind blows the water white and black.
        T.S. Eliot

     
     

      This ain’t a movie, dog.* Jay-Z

     

    Wake up. I’m shaking your shoulder.

    How long has it been, you say. It’s a statement, not a question.

    A month, maybe more, I reply. It’s an answer, abstracted.

    Wake up. It’s time to reconsider our position. It’s time to seek the horizon on the rocking intercontinental waters. It’s time to define the parameters of what a documentary photograph is, and is not— before we begin.

    The problem is, we’ve already begun. We dropped the needle on the record and it’s skipping against a single phrase again and again. What is a documentary photograph? What is it? (What is it? What is it? What is it?)

    The problem is, we’re in the thick of this thing. There are men out and about in the field with their cameras, their ideals, and their secrets strapped securely to their back. And each tool they carry is needed in a time of war.

     
     

    ***

     
     

      …Now before I finish, let me just say
      I did not come here to show out, did not come here to impress you.

     

    Wake up. Listen to me. What we thought documentary photograph was in the 1930s through the 1960s is not what we think now. (More correctly, it’s not what we’re supposed to think when we see a photograph, but we do, we still do.)

    The idea of a documentary photographer used to be that the photographer steps into an event and takes a photograph as the event unfurls in front of him. He leaves no fingerprints; he does not intercede in what happens while he is present. The documentary photographer is there primarily to bear witness for us all.

    Is it ever possible to be in the middle of an intersection of people and not change the outcome of an event? Is it ever possible to truly forget that the camera is there?

    Can you? Forget?

    Be honest with yourself.

     
     

    ***

     
     

      I’m ten years removed, still the vibe is in my veins
      I got a hustler spirit—

     

    Setting aside the problem of the photographer’s presence at an event: Is it possible for any photographer to not alter what he sees just by stepping to one side or the other, by focusing on one person and excluding another, by changing the shutter speed…. What you think is untouched has messy fingerprints all over it.

    Wake up, I say. You can’t lay in bed all day, can you?

    Let me tell you, every photographer worth her salt is a hustler.

    She walks into a room, into an event, into a life, and she takes a picture.

    She takes.

    A picture.

    What did you get? You’ve got a memory of someone taking your picture. Taking your picture.

    You’ve got nothing you can hold in your hand, and she’s got your image, or her idea of your image. Infinitely reproducible. Certainly biased.

    You think that’s nothing? Go and look at five hundred different photographs of Marilyn Monroe. Each photographer dressed her in his own ideas. Each photographer sought to explain who Marilyn Monroe was, and by seeking an absolute truth of a human being, each photographer managed only reveal his own ideas and fears and understanding of women, of blondes, of current events, of the way light can crease a feminine eyebrow.

    And that’s one woman. One subject.

    Now take a leap and imagine what happens when a photographer goes to a war.

    Are you awake yet? Please wake up.

     
     
     

    ***

     
     
     

    Leica_X21
     
     
     

    ***

     
     
     

      No matter where you go, you are what you are, player
      And you can try to change but that’s just the top layer

     

    There was a day when we believed that we— that is to say we journalists, we documentary photographers— could remove or suppress or stuff down our multitudinous biases and see what is really there, really in front of us.

    You can’t do it, though. You can’t even look at a dozen apples in a wooden bowl and not think of a dozen-dozen associations for “apples” and “bowl” in a single involuntary blink of an eye.

    If you are not aware that your brain is making connections, links, patterns, paragraphs out of a simple bowl of apples— trust me— your brain does what it does because it wants you to survive. It’s called adaptive learning, and that’s what keeps you from sticking your hand into a fire twice. Adaptive learning is also what helps you create stories and patterns.

    These patterns, these connections within connections, are context. And context is bias. Because your wooden bowl of apples and my wooden bowl of apples are not the same bowl of apples when we walk away with our “unbiased” reading of what we’ve seen.

    Sometimes there is no bowl of apples in the room to start with. But you witnessed it and I witnessed it. And between us both we created this historicised, documented moment where a wooden bowl met a dozen crisp apples—

    —when really what was in front of us was a plain white plate crowded with winter pears.

    Realize that you and I would swear up and down we saw apples and wood. We’d swear it to our death.

     
     

    ***

     
     

      Man, you was who you was ‘fore you got here
      Only God can judge me, so I’m gone
      Either love me, or leave me alone

     

    Stop pulling the covers over your head. Everybody gets a little seasick when the waves kick and heel against the hull of an ocean liner.

    Wake up. You’ve got to wake up.

    We’ve got many knots and kilometers and miles to go in our search for a truth. An idea of the truth. The truth of five men* who each tried to take photographs that represented real life.

    It’s not the story you will expect to hear. There will be heroism in it, yes. But there will also be a shattering of a mythos of the impartial documentary photographer. We’re going to smash at it and smash at it, so what is really there can emerge into the light.

    And that’s okay. For it’s time for us to examine what the real history of the documentary photograph is— as long as we put quotes around the word “real” and “history” and “documentary.”

    Wake up.

    Can you feel it? The ocean’s becalmed. Comb your hair and put on some clean clothes. Steady now—

    It’s time to emerge and assess the light.




    Cartier-Bresson with Leica



    *All of the quotes in this essay are from Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement.”

    **Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Robert Haas, and W. Eugene Smith.

     
     

    ***

     
     

    NEW TO THIS SERIES? Read the introduction to this part of the larger Our Sunday Best Modern Photography series here: Our Sunday Best: Truth Makes Contact {Prologue}. For a list of every single modern photography Our Sunday Best in order go to A Smörgåsboard of Posts.






    Our Sunday Best: {Truth Makes Contact} The Crossing (A Prologue)

     
     
     
    Cartier-Bresson's_first_Leica
     
     
     

    We meet on a transatlantic ship. A designated place, a predetermined time. We will be crossing eras together, and continents, one-by-one. Our goal is to chase down the first photographers to be faithless to the idea of the absolute truth in an image.

    These are the strange ones, the hard ones, the ones bitten at the edges by their own pure desires.
     
     
     

    You and I stand side-by-side on the deck. We are in our dinner clothes. I’ve altered these past months, and so have you. I am leaner and hungrier, laced with that umbra of a person who wants a thing, and what I want is a story, and the truth.

    And you’ve changed too: You stand taller now. What you want is to see it with your own eyes.

    That’s why we’re here. Tonight, we’re beyond words on this deck of a pleasant ship cutting through calm waters.
     
     
     

    But the white page is never beyond words. Language elbows her way into the margins; footnotes of extraordinary length will be implied in every image we see— especially the photographs due to us on this rough trip. I am your guide.

    It’s up to me to pare away the words that calcify on history, those set thoughts always endangering history’s ability to breathe freely.

    It’s up to you to remember. To cast us back, to connect history to me and to you.
     
     
     

    In silence, you put your elbows on the beautifully turned railing.

    I say, I didn’t know if you would actually come this time.

    You don’t even turn to look. You know I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to her.

    History pushes her curled hair away from her face. She lands a heavy hand on my shoulder.

    I shudder from the weight of her touch.

    She says, You know what I want.

    But I don’t. I never do.
     
     
     

    The moon is our witness. We’ve created a pact, it seems.

    We’re out to find the truth, you and me. We’re out to find the people who released that truth back into the world, a reflection of a reflection, music sung in a different key, an all-new way of sussing out what’s real, and what never was.

    History has left the promenade. She’ll be back. She always comes back to take her due.

     
     
     
    USA. California. San Francisco. Ernst Haas. 1955.
     
     
     

    THE PHOTOGRAPHS The photograph above features Henri Cartier-Bresson’s first camera, courtesy of Christie’s Fine Art Auction House and Wikipedia. The photograph below is Ernst Haas looking through some sort of viewfinder (?). We’ll be talking about both of them before this series is through.
     
    TO CATCH UP: Try visiting A Smörgåsboard of Posts, which has the entire “modern photography” series in full for you to peruse. I’d love to talk to you in the comments about each of these stories, so don’t be shy!
     
    NEXT WEEK: The first, and wildest, of this wild bunch of photojournalists. W. Eugene Smith! Oh, you and I are going to have a LOT to talk about in one week!
     

    READY TO READ ON? HERE’S PART TWO! Our Sunday Best: {Truth Makes Contact} And Then You Wake, Not Knowing How You Arrived to This Place


    Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {Dusk Draws a Veil Across All Easy Answers}

     
     
     

    Edward Steichen:  Isadora Duncan Dancer

     
     
     


    At the little house that overlooks the sea, dusk begins to osmose all hard edges, even our own.

    The waves blur, and the trees fade to smoke, and the ghost lights from passing automobiles dip in reverence like pairs of swans.
     
     

    ***

     
     

    You and I came back to the sea in order to watch nighttime emerge, to consider the fading light, to turn over and over in our hands these stories of three men who became photographers in a time when two world wars marred the landscape.

    Two of them were naturalized citizens who had crossed oceans and ideas to get here.

    One of them nearly faded into obscurity.

    But all three— Edward Steichen, Weegee, and Richard Avedon— taught us that photography is not one idea, but many ideas that overlap and crash like errant waves in the night sea in front of us.
     
     

    ***

     
     

    Because the night has arrived, we stand now in the dark on the porch of the little house by the sea. I do not look at you as I ask this question:

    Where do you want to go next?

    Here is what I do not say: Because I can take you anywhere in the world. Because we can leapfrog the years and the hours. Because it is time for us to depart again to find out how we got here, how you and I learned to hold a camera and consider a thousand-thousand options for a single photographic image.

    I am smiling in the dark.

    I am listening to the sea speak, but really— I am standing here, patiently, waiting for your reply.
     
     
     
     
     
     

    ***

     
     
    TO READ THE ENTIRE “GOLDEN HOUR” SERIES: go to A Smörgåsbord of Posts.
     
     

    [My photography, and all of my writing on photography, is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. This work-in-progress is dedicated to him.]
     
     

    NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST: Where would you like to go? Europe during the second World War? Mexico during its cultural revolution in the 1930s?

    Our Sunday Best |  The Golden Hour (Steichen’s Shadblow Tree)

     

    Tonal print of lush roses by Edward Steichen

     

    Dusk is coming again with its revelation of light.

    But it is not here yet.

    It is the late afternoon.  I take your hand.

    Watch, I say.

    You watch.

    The light seeps into the cracks of the dark places, wraps its warm arms lightly across the sharpest angles.  Everything softens.  Everything radiates at once.

    Watch.

     

    ***

     

    A man emerges from a walking path between the trees.  He is wearing a beret pulled down to the tops of his ears.  He carries a 35 mm camera in one hand, and a cigar between two of his fingers of his left hand[i].

    You squint. You cannot see who it is because the light creates a transitory penumbra around his person.  He’s in eclipse.

    And then the light moves again, rapid, quicksilver, fugitive, and the man is revealed in full:

    It is Edward Steichen.  He has finally arrived.

     

    ***

     

    And Stiechen cannot see us.  We are here in the same place, but we are not here at the same time.  It is a cold day in 1962.   Steichen is here to photograph his shadblow tree[ii].   In the next millennium, we wait and watch in the modern cold as this man goes about his private hours.

    A documentary filmmaker and his crew are coming tomorrow morning to do some more filming of Steichen amongst his prizewinning Delphiniums.

    Joanna T. Steichen[iii] is inside, fixing a light supper.

     

    ***

     

    Steichen’s wife is a shy creature in an Irish sweater and stovepipe trousers.  We know her.  We’ve met her in passing in a fog.

    Joanna Steichen will be the beautiful Cerberus that guards the treasure when Steichen dies.  She is also the one who will bequeath the entire Steichen legacy to the George Eastman House in two installments:  Five thousand film negatives went to this photographic museum in 1979[iv], and the remaining 8,000 prints and negatives followed suit in 2001.

     

    ***

     

    In the meantime, Edward Steichen is outside considering “the little girl” — his Shadblow tree.

    In the meantime, Joanna Steichen, who is 53 years his junior, is singing folk songs with her characteristic mezzo-soprano quiver while she assembles sandwiches.

    In the meantime, the wind stirs the trees.  Steichen carefully raises his camera to his eye, with his cigar held aloft.

    In the meantime, you and I hold hands in the gloaming.

    Watch.

     

    ***

     

    The wind lifts, rises.  Between one breath and the next we fall back into 1951, four years prior to the opening of The Family of Man exhibit at the Modern Museum of Art (MOMA)[v].

    It is hours before dawn.  Steichen is lying in bed next to his second wife, Dana Desboro Glover[vi].   He cannot sleep.    Steichen is thinking about war.  Specifically, Steichen is thinking about his own experiences in WWI[vii] and WWII.[viii]

    Steichen turns on his back in bed to stare at the ceiling.  After WWII, he has tried—repeatedly—to mount shows of his own work that showed war in a negative light.   Viewers were visibly moved while visiting his exhibitions.

    Once removed from the gallery into the open air on the street, those viewers forgot everything Steichen transmuted about war.   Why?

    That’s what’s keeping him awake at two a.m.  Why didn’t it work? 

    Negative.  He thinks.  The message is too negative.   What am I trying to say?  That in fundamental ways we have an essential oneness[ix].    But how…?

    The first light of dawn clears the windowsill.  He drifts back to sleep.  How?

     

    ***

     

    Time shudders.  We blink and find ourselves in 1953, two years before the opening of The Family of Man.  Steichen, in his role of Photography Curator for MOMA, sits at his desk looking at a three-dimensional diorama of the MOMA exhibition space for the show.  His head swims.    Steichen lights a cigar and stares up into nothingness.

    For the exhibition, his team examined and whittled down entries to ten thousand photographs.  Now, Steichen and his team need to edit these remaining photographs to a number of images that will fit within the themes Steichen envisions, as well as what will fit on the moveable walls of the MOMA exhibition space allocated for this show.

    In other words, there are limits.

     

    ***

     

    Steichen puts down his cigar in a saucer, and stares for so long at the moveable walls inside the diorama that his vision blurs the boundaries.

    An idea is coming to him.

    Wires.  Air.  Space.

    Layers.

    He knows what he has to do now.

    He has to take some of these photographs off of the walls and hang them in the air.  He has to take other photographs and put them on the floor.

    A third set will be layered three-dimensionally on the moveable walls.  Big, small, enormous.  Like an idea you can walk through.

    No one has ever styled a show like this— most artistic mediums don’t often lend this sort of flexibility in the way they are displayed[x].

    It has started to occur to Steichen that this exhibition[xi] may be his most important show to date.

    He picks up his cigar and draws a thoughtful mouthful of smoke.

    Steichen exhales.  Time begins to move again.

     

     

    This is a story.

    Watch.

    There was once a man named Edward Steichen who created at least one aspect of every kind of photography that we use now.

    He helped us become modern when we needed to become modern.  He taught us how to make photography a commercial art without flattening the essential qualities that make a photograph its own medium.

    He photographed war to teach us peace.

    And when we didn’t understand, he devised an exhibition for MOMA in 1955, consisting of 503 photographs from 68 countries[xii] to teach us the simple fact that we are, in the most fundamental and meaningful ways, a family.

     

    ***

     

    Don’t look for Edward Steichen in all the familiar places.  He is everywhere except for the places he ought to be.

    The fact is, he’s standing right behind you.

    The fact is, he’s holding a stubby cigar between two fingers of his right hand.

    The fact is, he is watching the light draw and seep across the pond next to his glass house on Umpawaug Farm.

    And he lifts his camera to his eye in a single, unbroken gesture.

    Watch. Just watch.

     

    EdwardSteichenSelfPortrait

     

     

    END NOTES

     

    [i] Image derived from the 1964 documentary, Masters of Photography: Edward Steichen, which is embedded in this story.  Details surrounding the filming of the documentary have been wholly imagined based on ideas in the documentary itself.

     

    [ii] Edward Weston’s called his house and surrounding lands Umpawaug Farm. Here’s a Weston Redding Easton, CT Patch feature story about what Umpawaug Farm looks like now.

     

    [iii] Obituary of Joanna T. Steichen (née Traub), writer, psychotherapist, gatekeeper of the Steichen Legacy.

     

    [iv] Also derived from Joanna Steichen’s obituary.

    In the obituary, she goes on to say that she bequeathed them to Eastman House instead of the Modern Museum of Art (MOMA) because Eastman House’s collection was entirely dedicated to photography, whereas MOMA—where Steichen was the photography curator for fifteen years—was not a photography specific museum.

    MOMA has a decent Steichen collection, donated by Steichen himself.

     

    [v] Steichen donated the whole of this exhibit to the Commune (a term for a specific region of local government) of Clervaux Luxembourg.  Luxembourg created The Family of Man Museum in the Grand Duchy of  Luxembourg, his birthplace.  The complete Family of Man show will reopen in Summer 2013.   Details are available at the official website for Clervaux Luxembourg’s Family of Man Museum

     

    [vi] In 1957, Steichen’s second wife died of leukemia.

     

    [vii]  WWI:  Steichen served as the Commander of The Photographic Division of the American Expeditionary Forces.

     

    [viii]  WWII:  Steichen served as the Director of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit.

     

    [ix] Quote taken directly from Edward Steichen’s introduction to the “Family of Man” exhibition book.  He goes on to describe all the ways in which humanity is the same, everywhere.

     

    [x] Except for artist/sculptor/ thinker Alexander Calder, whose work was all about creating the illusion of three-dimensional space.  I wonder how much Steichen was inspired by the huge three-dimensional works of Alexander Calder?

     

    [xi] A few MOMA photographs of The Family of Man exhibit itself are available in the MOMA digital archives.

    Steichen had made a similar attempt with a prior exhibition: Power in the Pacific.

     

    [xii] Statistics taken from Edward Steichen’s introduction of the “Family of Man” exhibition book, which you can find in any online bookstore.

     

    END NOTES

     

    A NOTE ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS: All images are by Edward Steichen. TOP: “Heavy Roses.” MIDDLE: A photograph of Martha Graham, probably for Condé Nast. BOTTOM: An early self-portrait of Edward Steichen.

     

    MORE, MORE, MORE! You may want to catch up or refresh yourself on the two movements of this larger series on the history of modern photography. I would LOVE for you to VISIT the newly created GUIDE, A Smörgåsboard of Posts.
     

    Or you may want to read just the last five installments:

    *Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {At Dusk We Sit and Watch the Sea}

    *Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {Steichen in the Fog},

    *Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {Weegee Drives at Night}.

    *Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour: {At Dawn, We Watch the Birth of Light— A Reflective Intermission}

    *Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {The Constant Revelations of Richard Avedon}

    ***

     

    A NOTE: My photography, and all of my writing on photography, is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. This work-in-progress is dedicated to him.

    Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {The Constant Revelations of Richard Avedon}

     
     
     

     
     
     

      Portraiture is performance, and like any performance, in the balance of its effects it is good or bad, not natural or unnatural. I can understand being troubled by this idea-that all portraits are performances-because it seems to imply some kind of artifice that conceals the truth about the sitter. But that’s not it at all.  Richard Avedon.[i]

     
     

    An unknown photographer stands in the closet of a fashion magazine, where a fashion editor is fitting a wedding dress on a model with soft shoulders.   The fashion editor jabs the model with a pin on accident.  The model screams.  Everyone in the room jumps.

    Rolling a lachrymose brown eye back at the photographer, the fashion editor says, “Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Doesn’t it make you want to cry?”[ii]

    She meant the beautiful wedding dress, not the now-terrified model.

    It did make him want to cry.

    But not for the reasons the fashion editor intended.[iii]

    His second thought:  My name isn’t Aberdeen.

    His third thought:  I cannot work for this woman.

    But there’s more passing through young Avedon’s head:

    Avedon endured the humiliation of 14 cancelled interviews.[iv] 

    The fifteenth and only actual interview with Harper’s art director Aleksey Brodovich[v].

    Regardless of the numbers, Avedon is on the verge of quitting in his first week.

    Richard Avedon slips out of the fashion closet of Harper’s Bazaar magazine, planning to stump down the hall to editor-in-chief Carmel Snow’s office.

    He’s going to tell Snow that he cannot work for Diana Vreeland.

    Before he gets to the door, History walks up to him, click-click-clicking on this year’s high heel shoe.

    She is a slip of a shadow.  She leans her red-painted mouth close to Avedon’s ear, and says:  Oh, you will work for this woman.   Get ready, Aberdeen.

    Avedon raises his hand to knock on the door of Harper’s Bazaar Editor-in-Chief Carmel Snow’s office.

    He hesitates.

    He takes a breath, and—
     
     

    ***

     
     

      My father, Jacob Israel Avedon, was a teacher before he was a businessman. It was my father who taught me the physics of photography. When I was a boy he explained to me the power of light in the making of a photograph. 

      Richard Avedon.

     
     

    Most short biographies want to make Avedon appear out of nowhere.   In these magical tales, Avedon picked up a camera on Monday and found a job at a fashion magazine on Tuesday afternoon.   

    American culture likes it when artists are discovered sweeping a factory floor in a painterly fashion, and we like it when our photographers appear from a mist with nothing in their hands but glowing hope and a hungry eye.

    Does it ever happen quite like this?

    No.

    Nothing comes from nowhere.

    Every photograph tells a story.

    Or, more elegantly:  an object in motion remains in motion.

    In fact, Avedon and his camera were in motion years before he stood in that fashion closet one strange morning watching Diana Vreeland accidentally stab a model with a pin.
     
     
     

     
     
     

    When Richard Avedon was thirteen, his father gave him a camera.    The story goes that Avedon was shy, so he investigated his world behind the safety of the viewfinder. 

    No one as complex as Avedon can be reduced to a simple two-part equation.    

    Here are the real facts:  Avedon’s father, Jacob Israel Avedon (known in the business world as “Jack” Avedon[vi]), was an avid photographer, eager to teach his son this language of light, camera, subject.

    Was Avedon shy?

    Oh yes. Oh my, yes. By his own admission. All his life, he had attacks of shyness.

    Both of these stories and neither one of these stories is the truth.

    Avedon would be pleased.
     
     

    ***

     
     

      My photographs don’t go below the surface. They don’t go below anything. They’re readings of the surface. I have great faith in surfaces. A good one is full of clues. But whenever I become absorbed in the beauty of a face, in the excellence of a single feature, I feel I’ve lost what’s really there…been seduced by someone else’s standard of beauty or by the sitter’s own idea of the best in him. That’s not usually the best. So each sitting becomes a contest.

      Richard Avedon.

     
     

    What did the young Avedon see through his lens?

    He saw Brooklyn’s new trees sprout a leaf canopy year after year.

    He saw his hardworking father, whose face was written with loss (his father was abandoned as a child to an orphanage), radiate like a lantern as he explained photography to his young son.

    He saw his mother, a businesswoman from a successful dress manufacturing family, sculpting him, her son, with her would-be sculptor’s eye.[vii]

    He saw the clean windows of the successful dress shop his parents owned together.

    A few years later, Avedon saw James Baldwin in the offices of “The Magpie,” the DeWitt-Clinton High School literary magazine they co-edited for three years.[viii]

    In his senior year of high school, Avedon saw the posters recruiting young men for the war effort.

    Finally, Avedon joined the Merchant Marines as a staff photographer, where he saw the stern faces of men his age about to ship off to war.

    Nothing comes from nowhere.

    Every photograph tells a story.

    An object in motion stays in motion.

    This is how Avedon spent the war:  two years photographing men for I.D. badges stateside.  And then Avedon was cycled out.  What next?  What next?
     
     

    ***

     
     

      So I took my own models out to the beach. I photographed them barefoot, without gloves, running along the beach on stilts, playing leapfrog. When the pictures came in, Brodovitch laid them out on the table and the fashion editor said, ‘these can’t be published. These girls are barefoot.’ Brodovitch printed them.  Richard Avedon.[ix]

     

    Avedon brought two new ideas to photography that shifted the medium into the future that is now. 

    First, he put fashion models in motion.  No longer did they stand like mannequins in the well-lit studios of photographers for women’s magazines.

    With Avedon coaxing them, the porcelain-cheeked models played on the beach and in the streets in the 1940s.

    By 1950s, Avedon’s wasp-waisted models slipped into cars on Parisian streets, tamed French elephants, and peered around plinths backstage at the famed Moulin Rouge.

    In the 1960s, he went back to his studio, turned up the lights and the music, and the new leggy young models danced on air, in trapeze dresses, far, far away from their parents ideals.

    Second, in the 1970s, when he had seen it all and photographed it twice, he came to the crossroads in his career that we know best.  Avedon tired of fashion photography.  He had allowed fashion to reveal meaning and context and a visual historicity. 

    Now, he wanted to focus on photographing people, mostly famous people[x], a group of folks who already had meaning and context.  The complexity of portraiture for all photographers of portraits is best summarized in Avedon’s own monograph, “Henry Kissinger’s Portrait.”
     
     

      A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he’s being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he’s wearing or how he looks. He’s implicated in what’s happening, and he has a certain real power over the result. The way someone who’s being photographed presents himself to the camera and the effect of the photographer’s response on that presence is what the making of a portrait is about.

     
     

    Avedon admits freely that for many years he tried to photograph people with whom he identified[xi] and understood:  the tastemakers, the talents, and the beautiful people.    

    But he refuses to photograph them in the ordinary way. 

    There are no backgrounds for context, or color film to amuse us.   In black and white prints, we see their pores and wrinkles and fears and desires.  We watch their legacy stripped to naked humanity, and we, gawkers all, lean in to look. 

    But wait!  There’s a glimmer too— an essence of who they are and who they were and who they will be.   And in them is Avedon himself— wrenched by a need to see it all and show it all.
     
     
     
     
     
     

    In many ways, Avedon found it easier to photograph the famous personages of the time. He counted on the famous and the infamous to forget him entirely after he finished photographing them. Everyday people would remember his face, his name, or so he felt.

    And there was also that pesky feeling of inadequacy that was part of Avedon’s photography process.

    To converse with ordinary Americans through the camera lens, Avedon had to rid himself of the feeling that he must understand the person whom he is trying to photograph.  He didn’t feel equal to depicting the plight of poverty because he himself had not experienced that particular type of suffering. 

    This photographer was more head shy about photographing the Civil Rights Movement because he himself had not experienced the plight of marginalization (and worse) that the African-American communities faced (and face still).  (His friend from high school, famed writer James Baldwin, talked him into a fruitful collaboration that became the out-of-print book, “Nothing Personal.”)

    And he went on and on, changing our ideals about who we were:  close up, far away, crisply lit, moving, standing still.  And when shyness overtook him as it sometimes did, he put away his camera, thanked his subject, and walked away.
     
     

    ***

     
     

      I never felt that anything I ever did was good enough and frankly, a large part of me still thinks exactly that way about everything I do — it is not good enough — nothing is ever even near good enough. But that’s not a regret. I just feel that I know more than I can put into my work.[xii] Richard Avedon.

     
     

    Richard Avedon knocks on Editor Carmel Snow’s door.

    Snow invites him into her office.

    He says, “I cannot work with that woman.  She keeps calling me ‘Aberdeen.’[xiii]

    Carmel Snow has just finished drinking her daily three martini lunch. 

    She doesn’t sway an ounce when responding to Avedon’s ultimatum:

    “You’re going to work with her.”

    Avedon blanches.  He was going to have to work for that horrible woman.  Self-doubt creeps a color into his cheeks.

    “Fine.”

    And he did.  For nearly forty years.

    Diana Vreeland was a force of nature.

    Richard Avedon was an object in motion.

    Carmel Snow was a stable catalyst.

    And History?

    History is a pretty trickster.  I love her so.
     
     
     
     

    ***

     
     


    [i] Unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this essay are from Richard Avedon’s monograph, “Borrowed Dogs, ” published in his 2002 book, Portraits.  You can download an official PDF of this monograph at the link.

    [ii] From Avedon’s eulogy for Diana Vreeland.  Discussed beautifully in Harper’s Bazaar.

    [iii] What were Diana Vreeland’s reasons for this strange Scottish reference?  This writer’s opinion is that there were moments where Vreeland was a mystery to herself.  This, I believe, is one of those moments.  I love, love, love Diana Vreeland, but she could be a bit much. In fact, I’ve written about her twice this year: In Your Image, Jolie Laide (A List) and Mash Note Dept.: Diana Vreeland.

    [iv] Avedon was determined to work for Harper’s Bazaar, but Vreeland nearly undid him on his first day.

    [v] In 1944, Avedon began studies under Brodovich in the Design Laboratory of the New School for Social Research  after his two-year tour with the Merchant Marines, which was one year before his fruitful interview with Brodovich at Harper’s Bazaar.  Avedon continued to study with Brodovich at the New School while on staff at Harper’s Bazaar all the way up through 1950.  Confused?  Go check out Richard Avedon’s official chronology.

    [vi] “Jack” Avedon was the subject of one of his son Richard’s most beautiful series of portraits.  Avedon senior was not so pleased with the results.  The photographs don’t show his father as he preferred to be depicted: as the glamorous businessman.  His son wrote him a heartfelt letter explaining his intentions, all good, all real.

    [vii] Richard Avedon’s mother is discussed clearly and frankly in his “Egoiste” interview.  You’ll find that there is a great deal of myth making that surrounds Avedon’s childhood.

    [viii]  As I said before, he chronological portion of the Richard Avedon Foundation website should help to either sweep away or confirm most of the apocryphal stories about Avedon.

    [ix] From the official collection of quotes available for free download on the Richard Avedon Foundation website. All monographs and quotes by Richard Avedon available for free download from the Richard Avedon Foundation: 

    [x] Avedon had always shot portraits, but now he wanted to make them the focus of his work.   He never did stop shooting fashion photography, which was a financial boon for his entire career.  Avedon’s interests had evolved.

    [xi] Avedon discussed his portrait photography in the interview, “Egoiste,” available for download on the Richard Avedon Foundation website. (See endnote 7 for the link.)

    [xii] Once again, the “Egoiste” interview is helpful here. (Endnote 7 for the link.)

    [xiii] This part of the Richard Avedon/Harper’s Bazaar story is almost word-for-word what Avedon recalls from that day with Diana Vreeland.

     
     

    ***

     
     
     
     

    [My photography, and all of my writing on photography, is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. This work-in-progress is dedicated to him.]

     
     

    ***

     
     

    A NOTE ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS: Each photograph in this story is from the Smithsonian Archives of Richard Avedon’s work. From the top: TOP: Poet Ezra Pound; MIDDLE: Prizefighter Joe Louis’s fist; BOTTOM: Gabrielle Chanel.
     
     

    ***

     
     

    What I’m reading right now:The Changing Face of Portrait Photography: From Duegerrotype to Digital” by Shannon Perich.
     
     

    ***

     
     
    NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST: EDWARD STEICHEN finally demystified! AND! The world-changing FAMILY OF MAN exhibit. (I’ve been working towards this story for months, folks. I am so psyched! Or as Lenny Kravitz says in “Zoolander”: “These ain’t no slashies folks. These are the pure breeds!” Hip-hip HOORAY! for a week from today!)
     
     

    ***

     
     

    BEFORE NEXT SUNDAY, you may want to catch up or refresh yourself on the two movements of this larger series on the history of modern photography. I would LOVE for you to VISIT the newly created GUIDE, A Smörgåsboard of Posts.
     
     

    Or you may want to read just the last four installments:
     

    *Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {At Dusk We Sit and Watch the Sea}

    *Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {Steichen in the Fog},

    *Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {Weegee Drives at Night}.

    *Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour: {At Dawn, We Watch the Birth of Light— A Reflective Intermission}

     

    Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour: {At Dawn, We Watch the Birth of Light— A Reflective Intermission}

     
     
     

     
     
     

      The negative is the score, the print is the performance.

      Ansel Adams[i]

     
     
     

    We sit on the porch of a little house near the sea.   It is moments before dawn, and the silence of the morning has crept between us like the warm body of a sleeping, dreaming dog.

    You and I drink coffee.  We stare down the hill through the darkness, trying to make out the place where land converges conversationally with water.

    The horizon glows blue; the stars dim.  I watch your face as the day begins to enhalo the land, the people, the houses, your face, mine, this porch, the world, the word, the ideas, the birds.

    The golden hour is dawn.  The golden hour is dusk.  Twice a day, the light transilluminates what we love most, and that is where you find the photographers we’ve adored and adore still.   They will be there waiting for the light to soften the world into its greatest intrinsic beauty.

    The Golden Hour speaks all languages.

    The Golden Hour is an answer to a question that founders in darkness.

    The Golden Hour will arrive soon.
     
     
     

     
     
     

    From this moment together on the porch, we will pick up speed.  There are so many places we need to go and people we need to meet.    From this point, we will start to unhook from time a little and a little.   One day, we will be in Paris just after World War II.  On another day, we shall wake in Mexico City during the Mexican National social revolution of the 1930s.

    First, two men will open the doors of the future for us. They are both American, both continental, both geniuses.  We are going to stop in to visit Richard Avedon just after the war.  What a beautiful man!  What a long and well-documented career! His eye spans all continents with élan vital.

    Afterward we will take a tour through the latter half of Edward Steichen’s career.  The first part of his life may be momentarily hidden from us, but Steichen does something so unbelievably revolutionary in 1950s Cold War America that it will forever turn our eyes and cameras lenses to the world.
     
     
     


     
     
     

    Photography was the first medium to give us back to ourselves in a way that felt real.   Our faces, our streets, our lives, could be frozen on beautiful paper that everyone could see and share.

    But there’s more.  For photographers, the process of taking and making a photograph is the act of photography— the photograph is the delicate vessel of an idea; a moment snatched back from time’s forward trajectory; a conversation with something much, much larger that oneself.

    Or maybe that’s just my experience of it.
     
     

    ***

     
     

    The first time you make a photograph from your own negative, you know you are witnessing some of the greatest human magic.  Processing a print is its own golden hour and we, the creators of it, stand in awe of our creation.  To do this act, to process a photograph, is deeply meditative and terribly real.

    In a darkroom, in the developing solution, a story emerges from paper designed to react to a sudden burst of light through a film negative.

    That negative comes from a contract between me and the coincidentia oppositorum[ii] that makes up the material world.
     
     

    ***

     
     

    When I pick up a camera, my mind’s constant conversation with itself stutters to a stop.

    I never knew true silence before the day I held a Leica in my hand, its strap looped around my neck.

    On that day, nearly sixteen years ago, I stood on a city street with Donald Ewers standing nearby.  I lifted the camera to my eye, and my mind ceased its intermediary gibbering translation of the world.

    That’s how I found out that silence is a Golden Hour that you carry with you.
     
     

    ***

     
     

    Ah, here comes the dawn.

    Without a word, both of us stand to witness the start of The Golden Hour.  I take your hand for a moment and squeeze. 

    Once you know this hour exists, twice a day, in many parts of the world, at different times, you always know it is there.

    There is beauty in constancy.
     
     

    ***

     
     

    This is the light.  And this is a camera.

    And this is my hand cradling the lens.

    Oh, look.  Just look:

    How beautiful we are.

    The Golden Hour makes us whole.
     
     
     


     

     
     

    ***

     
     

    [i] Quotnik verified quotes on photography.

     

    [ii] A neoplatonic term that covers the relationship of opposites in matter that represent a larger archetypal relationship of humanity’s rituals and myths, according to philosopher Mircea Eliade.  Another definition stresses the oneness and unity of ideas previously thought to be polarized that one realizes have absolute non-duality.  See more in this last paragraph of Wikipedia’s discussion of the philosophical Unity of Opposites.   

     
     

     
     

    ***

     
     

    [My photography, and all of my writing on photography, is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. This work-in-progress is dedicated to him.]

     
     

    ***

     
     
    A NOTE ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS: Each photograph in this story reflects a different story I wrote on the history of photography. Here are the photographers, with links to my original stories, from the top: Alfred Stieglitz, Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange, and Edward Steichen. As three of these images are portraits of famous photographers, I am sad to say that the original photographers are not listed in the public records. (Give me time— I may find them, yet.) The first photograph is of Stieglitz when he was the defining voice of American photograph. The second image is Gordon Parks at one of the first Civil Rights demonstrations in Washington D.C. The third shot is Dorothea Lange in the field during her time with the FSA, one of the happiest periods of her life. The last one, of course, is an Edward Steichen’s portrait during the height of his early pictorial period.
     
     

    NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST: Richard Avedon! An unforgettable man whose photographic eye developed the lexicon of photographic portraiture we love today.
     
     

    BEFORE NEXT SUNDAY, you may want to catch up or refresh yourself on the two movements of this larger series on the history of modern photography. I would LOVE for you to VISIT the newly created GUIDE, A Smörgåsboard of Posts.

    Or you may want to read the last three installments:

    *Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {At Dusk We Sit and Watch the Sea}

    *Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {Steichen in the Fog},

    *Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {Weegee Drives at Night}.
     
     

    BEFORE I FORGET: You know that The Soon-To-Be Semi-Annual Bluebird Blvd. Readers’ Poll! is going on until November 7th right? You have opinions, and I want to hear them! (The poll itself takes all of ten seconds. You can write in any additional ideas, rants, raves, or suggestions in the comments, though!)

     
     

    Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {Weegee Drives at Night}

     
     
     


     

    Weegee took numerous self-portraits.  Note the darkness, the car, and the Speed Graphic camera in this photograph.


     
     
     

      My name is Weegee. I’m the world’s greatest photographer…. Weegee [i]

     
     
     

    Weegee drives at night.  His 4×5 Speed Graphic sits in a special spot, ready to go, ready to arrive, ready to be a weapon, a tool, a foist.

    Weegee drives at night.  He’s not aimless about it.   Better not to say where he’s headed, just that he’s chewing a cigar and making left after left down the increasingly darker streets of New York City.

    He gets there before the cops.  That’s the point.  The cops’ll goof a picture with their “due process” and their “rules” and whatever.   They’ll ruin the composition without realizing it— they’ve done it before.

    Weegee parks his car in an alley.  He grabs his Speed Graphic with the infrared flash, and flies through the open door of the apartment building where the pajama-dressed neighbors gather in a worried knot.

    Before people can think, Weegee asks for the number.  A woman with curlers and hairnet and a nice housecoat—good shape, real curvy—tells him which apartment.  He turns his eyes upward and counts.  He figures he’s got about three minutes before the cops turn up. 

    The cops know him.  They let him get away with a lot, and he appreciates their kindness.   But Weegee likes a fresh body— the dead are easy to photograph; they don’t talk back.[ii]

    Weegee is running.  Don’t get in front of him when he’s in a hurry.  He’ll dodge around you.  He’ll “accidentally” nudge you out of his way.  He’ll sweet talk you into letting him pass.

    One minute.

    Watch him bolt down the hallway holding his camera against his chest.  Watch him scramble around the corner.  Watch him go bug-eyed at the open door of a dark apartment.

    Two minutes.

    Weegee has sixty seconds to take a picture of the man on the floor before the cops show up.  It’s more than enough time.

    He smiles to himself, gripping his cigar in his teeth.  He smiles at the body in front of him, face down in the dark.

    From a corner of the living room by the drapes, History is smiling back at him with white teeth.  Weegee doesn’t see it.   He’s getting ready to take the picture.

    Fifty-three seconds.

    Weegee hears the sirens.  It’s time.
     
     
     


     
     
     

    Who is Weegee?

    He’s the most famous enigma photography has produced so far.

    There are two things people say regularly about Weegee, man about town: 

    The first thing they say is, “That disgusting man!” and the second thing they say is, “Where’d he come from so fast?”
     
     
     

    Where did he come from?   Weegee came from himself.   He was his own creation.

    But before Weegee, there was Ascher Fellig, a child born in Złoczów, Ukraine, near the Halychyna region, which has been stamped over by every titan with a weapon since the fall of the Roman Empire. 

    Złoczów and Ascher Fellig share one trait: They both kept having their names changed by other people.

    His Jewish Lithuanian parents immigrated to New York.   His parents examined their ten-year-old son with gravity.  You are Arthur now, said his father.  And this is America.

    His old name slipped off his shoulders like a homespun coat. 

    It was so easy to lose a name in this country that Arthur lost his name one more time.
     
     
     

     
     
     
     
     

    Was Arthur Fellig disgusting?

    No. Not really. He was a product of a time, a place and a culture that craved a larger-than-life story. Fellig merely happened to be better at it than most.

    And it was all because of love, you see.

    In his youth, short, solid Arthur Fellig walked the streets of New York at the turn of the century, memorizing the brownstone buildings and the boys on the corner and the women of the neighborhood with their clothes from the old country patched over with flour sack fabric from the new one.

    Similarly, Fellig found his history patched over with new ideas until the old fabric of his childhood could not be seen at all. Fellig became an American when he set foot on U.S. soil, but more pointedly he became a New Yorker, layer upon layer, every time he walked the streets.

    So it is not surprising at all that Fellig fell in love with the city of New York through his eyes.  He memorized her luscious long-legged streets.  He watched her don a clean crisp dress for the day, and watched her put on street lamp jewels at night.

    Here’s the strange part:  New York loved him back.  She offered so much of herself to him that he came to think of the city as his own.   And New York was his, for a time.  All his. 

    And Weegee was hers, for life.
     
     
     

    All the time, the teenage Fellig hustled. New York taught him that.  He was an assistant to a commercial photographer.  Next, he blossomed into a darkroom technician for United Press International[iii].   New York taught him to be on the make for the next thing and the next.

    And New York gave him something else besides her love:  a craving to make his mark hard enough where people could see it.  So he got out of the darkroom and became a photographer.

    Fellig saved up his paycheck, got himself a police scanner[iv] for his one-room apartment on the Lower East Side.  He hustled enough work to buy a sturdy secondhand car with a trunk large enough to set up his darkroom equipment.

    The trunk-darkroom made it easy for him to process and present his work to his would-be editors before the on-call staff photographers had rolled out of bed and stumbled out into the night to the same crime scene.
     
     
     


     

    Many of Weegee's crime portraits maintain a feeling of immediacy eighty, ninety years later.


     
     
     
    Weegee is an anomaly, an enigma, the short, firm line that marks one phase of photography from another.

    His photographs are unmistakable. High-contrast black and white images, shot at night with an infrared flash that he called his “Rembrandt lighting[v].”  He photographed murders and deaths, gore muted by his high-contrast style; sweet children asleep on fire escapes on a hot night; society women looking ghastly in his brusque flash; gangsters with hat-in-hand, tenement houses crackling with fire as families wept on the sidewalk.

    In short, he photographed everything, and everyone.  He went farther than anyone.  He spoke the visual language of the interloper so well that it becomes his stylistic trick, his stock-in-trade.

    Bold in style, bold in content. Weegee’s work shook off the old pictorialist style with bravado. Really, he changed everything about the way we approached photography. And he knew it.
     
     
     


     

    Weegee self-portrait in apartment, listening to police scanner.


     
     
     

    But, look, see?  There was another man beneath that man, a creature so sentimental that you can see his telltale bathos even in the most distressing shots of the weeping, the drunken, and the young.  He loved New York, her people, her quirks, her dirt, her secrets.

    He wanted all of her to himself.  And he had New York, for a time[vi].

    Somehow people still slide past his sentimentality, his finesse.  Famous critics have been known to say that Weegee doesn’t bother with composition or technique, that he is self-taught. (We know he wasn’t.) They think the man was crude, so his methods must be equally crude.   They didn’t listen to him talk about the editors who turned down work that was too sentimental.  Editors wanted an up close shot of a burning building; Weegee said one burning building looked much like another.  The human element, he explained to these editors, and to us later, is what’s important[vii].
     
     
     


     

    Girls Watching a Movie, Palace Theater, New York City, 1943.  The sharp infrared contrast in this shot is caused by shooting in darkness.


     
     
     

    You wouldn’t know it from the way certain critics talk that his work was by the early 1940s by the photographic establishment of the day.  The Modern Museum of Art (MOMA) bought five of his photographs in 1943[viii]

    By 1943 or ’44, Edward Steichen includes him in his 50 Photographs by 50 Photographers show at the MOMA.  (Steichen, as Director of the Department of Photography at MOMA, will be most likely behind the original purchase of the initial Weegee photographs.)  Later, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (who started out as a talented photographer himself) paid homage to Weegee’s high-contrast style in Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned to Love the Bomb). And Peter Sellers himself used Weegee’s unusual voice as a model for Dr. Strangelove’s unplaceable accent.

    Weegee will get his fame. But is it the kind of fame he wants? Maybe, maybe not. It’s more infamy than glory.
     
     
     


     
     

    Weegee explains his own work in this rare recording.  WARNING: There are images of violence in the slideshow that accompanies this video.


     
     
     

    We arrive back at the now.

    Weegee drives at night. He arranges the streets of the city in his mind like a luminous map of stars; the crackle of his private police band radio[iv] sings lullabies in his ears.

    No photographer of the same period divides people’s opinions so decisively as Weegee.   What he wants was fame, money, legitimacy.  Divisive won’t hurt his chances, in fact it might get him there quicker.  As he says himself,  “You couldn’t be a nice Nelly and do photography.”

    And no photographer goes to greater lengths to be the x-marks-the-spot guy.  Right place, right time.  That disgusting man!  Where’d he come from so fast?

    That’s how he earned his name, you know.  He got to crime scenes and fires so fast, the cops and the editors joked that he was like a Ouija board.  Hey, Ouija, what disaster you gonna predict next?

    The young photographer laughed, stuck out his jaw.  Ouija?  Yeah, I’ll take that, he thought to himself.

    He had a stamp made up to go on the back of his photographs: Credit photo by the famous WEEGEE.

    That’s the stamp he’ll be using tonight after he photographs the next disaster.
     
     
     


     
     
     

    The cops turn off the sirens. The woman who was crying is now weeping.  Such a nice man, she’s saying.  How’d that happen to such a nice man?  The cops clench their teeth to keep from grinning.  They know who he was.  And he was not a nice man.  He was a medium-ranked mobster with a reputation for violence.

    Forty seconds.

    The cops go through the lobby door, taking their time.  They know Weegee is with the body.  The lead detective spotted his car on the side of the building.   They make a little noise in case Weegee doesn’t know they are there.

    Twenty-five seconds.

    While the cops were pulling up to the door, Weegee was checking his equipment using the hall light.  When the cops stopped to talk to the woman in the crowd of people outside, he nudged the dead man’s foot a little closer to his waist so it will fit inside the frame of the image.  When the uniformed men opened the lobby doors talking loudly so Weegee would hear them, he adjusted the lens.

    Ten seconds.

    The elevator door dings down the hall.

    Weegee takes the shot.  Snap! Goes the lens.  Pop! Goes the infrared flash.

    Two seconds.  One.  Now.

    The cops walk in, turning on all the lights.

    Weegee blinks like a man woken from a deep sleep.

    Hey, where you guys been?  I been standing around here twenty minutes, two hours, summat like that.   This guy.  He points with his pinky.  He’s dead.

    The cops look at each other, snort through their noses.  Weegee, you’re a laugh riot.

    What are you talking about?  He fights to keep his face straight.  Gotta go.

    Well, see ya, says the lead detective.  Hopefully not too soon.

    With a half wave, the self-titled Famous WEEGEE is walking down the carpeted hallway, still gripping his press camera in his big paw.

    Such is his distraction, he does not hear history slipping up behind him.

    Hey Weegee, History whispers.  You want fame?  You’re going to get it.  Tell your gal, New York that I’m coming for you.  You hear me, Weegee?

    He strolls out into the night.  He throws his old cigar to the gutter.

    It is three a.m. on an anonymous night in 1938.  Weegee whistles a tuneless tune walking all the way back to his car.
     
     
     


     
     
     

     
     

    ***

     
     

    [i] From the site Photography Quotations. The quote comes from “Weegee’s New York”, Harvey V. Fondiller, “The Best of Popular Photography” by Harvey V. Fondiller.

     

    [ii] This idea is taken from the slideshow and monologue by Weegee in the video “This Is How.” (Available above.)

     

    [iii] UPI was called Acme Newspictures back in those days.

     

    [iv] Weegee was the only private citizen in New York to ever have a city license for a police band
    radio.

     

    [v] Read this resource for a discussion of Weegee’s Rembrandt lighting. Please note that his birthplace is incorrectly identified as Austria here.

     

    [vi] He had a brief fling with Hollywood.  It didn’t work out.  He got some great pictures anyway. Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles. I own a copy of Weegee’s original book, which is out of print: Naked Hollywood. I also own the beautifully edited Weegee’s World.

     

    [vii] This idea is also taken from the slideshow and monologue by Weegee in the video “This Is How.” (Available above.)

     

    [viii] Reference from Wikipedia, which has brief overview of Weegee’s life and work.

     

     
     
     

     
     
     

    ***

     
     
    A NOTE ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS: In this story there are a few unidentified photographs and images. Top to bottom: Max Is Rushing in the Bagels to a Restaurant on Second Avenue for the Morning Trade, c. 1940; Weegee’s original stamp looked like this image; Self-portrait of Weegee working in his trunk-darkroom; Summer on the Lower East Side, 1937. Just above: Self portrait of Weegee photographing in the dark.
     
     

    ***

     
     

    [My photography, and all of my writing on photography, is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. This work-in-progress is dedicated to him.]
     
     

    ***

     
     

    NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST: Another mystery man! We will round back to Steichen’s solo story three weeks from now! In the meantime, I have one MORE super juicy pre- and post-WWII photographer coming around next week! Want to make a guess as to who it is? If you’re right, I’ll ‘fess up!
     
     

    BEFORE NEXT SUNDAY, you may want to catch up or refresh yourself on the two movements of this larger series on the history of modern photography. I would love for you to VISIT the newly created GUIDE, A Smörgåsboard of Posts.

    Or you may want to read the last two installments: Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {At Dusk We Sit and Watch the Sea} and Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {Steichen in the Fog}.
     
     

    Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {Steichen in the Fog}

     
     
     


     
     
     

      Well, [William Ivins] was a very tall, slatternly kind of man; he didn’t quite shamble like the two halves of two camels the way [Edward] Steichen does, but he walked a little like that.   —A. Hyatt Mayor, art historian and print curator, MOMA.[i]

     
     

    It is dawn.   A brand new unbroken day.  You and I stand outside in the morning fog, wearing coats.  I look one way, you look another— we are searching for Edward Steichen.

    He is nowhere to be found, but his pictures are everywhere.  You look at me; I look at you.  Should we call out his name?

    STEICHEN!
     
     
     

    We stuff our hands in our pockets.  The fog trembles around our knees, then rises east and west, north and south, in banks of grey ghost clouds.

    I hate to break it to you, I say.  I don’t think he’s coming.

    Your eyebrow shoots up to your crooked hairline.   Your incredulous face shames me.

    I’ve been looking all week, I say.  He’s not around.
     
     
     

    Listen.   Let me tell you what isn’t here.  No, let me tell you first why you cannot find anything here.  His third wife was an excellent steward until her death in 2010.  As she was 50 years younger than Steichen when they met, she had a long, long time to consider the importance of his legacy.

    Even though she is gone, this official statement is stamped at the bottom of all of the primary research archives that contain Steichen’s… anything at all: 
     

    Please contact Joanna Steichen for permissions   

      to read/use

      this unavailable to everyone/ obviously mysterious

      interview with/letter from/letter to/note about

      Edward Steichen.

     
     
     

     
     
     
    Yes, Joanna Steichen kept her husband’s story crisply ironed for nearly forty years after his death in 1973.  There are no rumors, no strange stories, no queries, no arguments to be had about what Steichen did or didn’t do behind closed doors.

    But, there is also no Steichen.  At all.  No Steichen talking about his technique.  No Steichen explaining his history.  No Steichen laying out his philosophy of the arts.  His discoveries.  His stories.   No Steichen— anywhere. Not a stitch.

    The unintentional byproduct of Joanna Steichen’s strict stewardship is that she erased one of the earliest major figures in modern photography from the public eye.  A prolific, diverse, groundbreaking photographer’s history has now been distilled and filtered though so many voices that there is no Steichen there.
     
     
     

    My hands are up in front of my face, an old gesture I cannot shake, this kabuki movement signifying my embarrassment. I wish I had more to say. More to tell you.

    Look, I say for the second time this morning.  And a third— Look.  I do know one or two things I can tell you about Steichen’s early career.

    You stop and wait expectantly.
     
     
     

    Steichen was born in Luxembourg.  He came to the United States in 1881 when he was two, or thereabouts, on the hip of his mother.   His father emigrated two years prior and established himself before bringing his family.

    My voice comes faster and louder—

    At the lanky age of fifteen, Steichen studies lithography, a form of printing that uses intricate chemical processes to create an image.    Lithography leads to an interest in painting, and painting naturally led to photography.

    While Steichen is on his way to Paris to study painting and a little photography he stops over in New York.  And he went to meet Stieglitz, which is a rite of artistic passage for the young talents of photography and art in the early 1900s.

    And when he meets Alfred Stieglitz who is, as usual, a force of nature whose voice is all over the place, all the time, leaving no room for false ideas or interpretations about his life, his work, anything he loves or feels or despises.[ii]
     
     
     

    Very little is out there about Steichen’s first stay in Paris. We know he meets Paul Rodin because he takes these beautiful pictures of that beautiful bull of a man.  We know he comes back to America, and to New York, because Stieglitz tells us all about it.  Steichen sets up a studio to do portraiture for a living. 

    It turns out that Steichen has a knack for uncovering people’s real faces.  It’s quite a trick.  Few photographers can do it well.  It has to do with a way of seeing without guile, of pushing oneself out of the portrait.  Because you are not the story— the subject is the story.  You are only an eye at the lens and a hand in the gears.

     
     
     

     
     
     

    Steichen and Stieglitz open the Little Gallery of the Photo-Secession.   Stieglitz sends out a blustery, big letter of inquiry to certain American photographers who had joined the Photo-Secession— a movement created by Stieglitz to mark the place where photography will become an art form in its own right.[iii]  And if it doesn’t hurry up, Stieglitz will make it so by sheer physical force of his personality.

    The Little Gallery of the Photo-Secession thrives from 1905 to 1908.  Two things ignite change at the end of that four year cycle:  The landlord decides to raise the rent on the gallery space, and Steichen resolves to take his family back to Paris, where he will study painting again. Stieglitz opens 291 Gallery next door to the original Little Gallery.

    In Paris, Steichen lands Stieglitz solid contacts with major painters and sculptors in Europe whose work looks like a brand new world.  Their first American shows will be for Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery.  Picasso, Rodin, Matisse and more.[iv]   In fact, when Steichen comes back from Paris with a portfolio of new photographs he’s created, he’s also carrying across vast oceans original drawings by Henri Matisse, an artist no one has heard of in America, in 1908.
     
     
     

    You pause my monologue by placing your hand upon my shoulder.  I haven’t been paying attention to our surroundings.  The fog banks have building up.  We can hardly see one another.

    But what about Steichen? You ask, your voice bright through the dreary murk.  

    What you mean is: Enough about the contacts for Stieglitz.  What did Steichen want?

    I am looking at you through that fine mist of history and time and ideas.  And the fog.  Oh, the fog.

    Well, I say.  I know he wanted to make money.
     
     
     
    I go farther:  And in the art world then, as in now, one’s peers frowned openly at anything commercial.  You had your own inherited or married-into money, or patrons to keep you making art.  Even in the early years, Edward Steichen knew how to rebel well and often enough to sharpen his already sharp eyes.   And that’s what he’s going to do— he will rebel.

    The fog will burn off as the sun rises.  For now, we find ourselves walking on clouds.   You and I wander down the street, listening for cars approaching in the haze.   My hands are in my pockets.  Your eyes are on the fog.  We are going somewhere, but we cannot see it, not yet.  Not this morning.
     
     
     

     
     
     

    ***

     
     
    A NOTE: The two unlabeled photographs are self-portraits of Edward Steichen. I found more than five. They are bold, unusual compositions for the time period. And I love them.
     
     

    ***

     
     

    [i] http://www.aaa.si.edu/files/publications/Speaking-of-Art_Selections-from-the-Archives-of-American-Art-Oral-History-Collection.pdf

     

    [ii] Whatever it is about Stieglitz that made Stieglitz who he was, we know about it because Stieglitz’s archives are open, everywhere.

     

    [iii] Just so you know, the Photo-Secessionists say they believe in that soft Pictorialist style Steichen and Stieglitz adore at the time, but making a photograph with soul is what everybody is after. Style be damned. (Much like Group f/64, that definition is quite mutable underneath a most dogmatic banner.)

     

    [iv] These European artists and photographers and sculptors don’t know yet, so don’t you tell them.

     
     

    ***

     
     

    [My photography, and all of my writing on photography, is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. This work-in-progress is dedicated to him.]
     
     

    NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST: The mystery man cometh! We will round back to Steichen’s solo story three weeks from now! In the meantime, I have two super juicy post WWII photographers for you to consider.
     
     

    BEFORE NEXT SUNDAY, you may want to catch up or refresh yourself on the two movements of this larger series on the history of modern photography. I would love for you to VISIT the newly created GUIDE, A Smörgåsboard of Posts.

    Or you may just want to read the installment before this one: Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {At Dusk We Sit and Watch the Sea}.
     
     

    ON MONDAY: A surprise! And have you filled out quick questions on the reader’s poll? Inquiring Bluebirdian minds really do want to know what you think!