Our Sunday Best | 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?

Profanity Prayers, Beck

 

 

Most of the facts of this particular segment

have been weighed against Ben Maddow’s

Let Truth Be the Prejudice

W. Eugene Smith: His Life and Photographs






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 Russian Government 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. Let Truth Be the Prejudice. 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!

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

     
     
     

     
     
     
     

      I knew, of course, that trees and plants had roots, stems, bark, branches and foliage that reached up toward the light. But I was coming to realize that the real magician was light itself.   Edward Steichen.

     
     
     
     

    It is dusk, the time of day when the light forgives us openly.
     

    It is dusk, and you are here with me, sitting on a wall by the sea.
     

    I am gesturing to you, my hands up, up, up in the air like an excitement of sea birds.
     
     
     
     

    And you turn to me and say:
     

    Where do we go now?
     

    — We circle back to the beginning, to Stieglitz and his passion.
     

    But why?
     
     
     
     

    My hands flutter wide.  I examine them as I speak, picking my way through the words, one by one.
     

    — Because that’s where we will pick up Edward Steichen.  He is the bridge between the beginning and the end of modern photography.  Alfred Stieglitz is the godfather of modern photography. Stieglitz loved him as an artist, you know?
     

    —  Stiechen?
     

    — Yes. And Stiechen respected Stieglitz— for a long time.
     
     
     
     

    Waves tap the seawall. The sun casts one final pink-orange haze over us, over the trees, over everything that loves the sea.  I lose myself in a tangled drift of thoughts.  We will meet three very different American photographers after World War II.   All three are men, and all have known war and deprivation and a great deal of rapid change.
     

    I know in my heart that this history is circular, and yet not circular at all. For the next leg of the journey, we will begin with Steichen, and we will end with Steichen. That’s the circularity; history’s wink at looping back and forth, threading these moments together into one fascinating narrative.
     
     
     
     

    This golden hour is coming to a close.  Darkness overtakes the direction of my thoughts, and wraps these ideas about me like a favorite coat.
     

    Should we go? I say to you, the you that is examining the curl of your own thoughts.
     

    You nod, and then you say:
     

    Where will we find Stiechen?
     
     
     
     

    I inhale. I straighten my shoulders.  I stand.  You stand.   
     

    I, like the evening sea before us, move with tides.  Edward Steichen is our first tide.
     

    After a moment’s reflection, I answer you thusly:
     

    —  He will be everywhere we look, my friend.
     
     
     
     

    You take my hand in yours.
     

    We head down the road toward home, wherever that may be.
     

    You and I must pack a new set of ideas for this journey.
     

    For the sake of sweet circularity, let us begin, and end, with Edward Steichen’s own words:
     
     

    Once you really commence to see things, then you really commence to feel things.

     
     
     
     

     
     
     
     
    [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 first part of the LONG and STORIED history of the most versatile (and well-paid!) photographer of his day, EDWARD STEICHEN!
     
     

    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.
     
     

    ON MONDAY: A surprise and a reader’s poll! Inquiring Bluebirdian minds really do want to know what you think!

    Our Sunday Best: A Thrifted Life

     
     
     

     
     
     


    For my birthday this year, my mother took me to a charity sale around the corner from our neighborhood. (And it was a good one, too!)
     

    At this sale, there were outdoor vendors and a small charity thrift shop to peruse. My mother gave me $20 to spend, and the pictures on this page are the story of my adventure. (My total purchase came to fifteen dollars. Neat, right?)
     

    I hoped that for today’s Our Sunday Best, that we could tell a story together about the rules and rituals involved with thrift store/flea market/charity shop/garage sale shopping.

    But, before we do that, here are some links. Oh yes, links!
     
     

    SO MUCH THRIFTY GOODNESS FOR THRIFT STORE WEEK!

    *thrift shop karma

    *What Changes Is the Way We Say It

    *Flea Market Reverie
     

    Big thrifted love stories by my friend Anna Fonté!

    *Thrifty Art

    *Recycling
     

    More thrift love from the artistically-accomplished Mouseblossom!

    Vintage Wednesday— Bluebird Blvd.’s Thrift Store Week
     

    I love to hear your stories— you know that right? But, I rarely ask pointed questions. Today, though, I have a question.
     

    Here’s what I want to know:


    WHAT ARE YOUR RULES FOR SECONDHAND SHOPPING?
     

    Our Sunday Best: Fairy Tales of a Balanced Life

     
     
     

    Manly Harbour pool, 193-

     
     
     


    I have decided that I don’t believe in balance. Rivers run wide, fast and crooked. Birds fly on twisted slipstreams of wind. Human beings torque to and fro across continents with overstuffed luggage. Nature isn’t that regular, and neither is man.
     

    Americans have a special knack, a flair if you will, for the teeth-gritting exercise of over-focusing on maintaining balance. And I, native daughter, exhibit an especial knack for seeking balance where it ought not be sought out.
     
     

    What’s more— the more I consider balance, I’m starting to wonder if I care for balance as an exercise. I like my stories and my clothes embellished with bright threads. I like a single fig on a clean white plate. I like the extremes and the unexpectedness and the wild ragged edges of everyday encounters. There’s no denying my asymmetrical life; that’s how I’ve been as far back as I can remember.
     

    Finally, balance is one of those ideas that gets overdone to the point of parody in magazines and in books and on television. While I think folks like the idea of perfectly unlined skin and rigorously lined up shoes, most people aren’t that simple. Humans have got complicated unbalancing acts of their own going on at home, full of frills and disappointments and joys that make up the short form of an ordinary day.
     
     


     

    THIS COMPLICATED WORLD delights my crooked, well-meaning heart. To that end, please partake from this idiosyncratic and in-no-way-balanced list of four websites that may give you intense pleasure:
     
     
     

    The Husband and I have been following the career of artist Travis Louie for years. Travis Louie brings a subtle maximalism to his detailed portraits of men, women, children, and… things. Once you start looking at his highly detailed work, you won’t be able to stop.
     
     
     

    One of my great pleasures in life is to listen to new music. On deciding to start Bluebird Blvd. and our signature 5-Minute Dance Party, I had to set aside about ten hours a week to listen to new music. Bliss. Try the website Everyone’s Mixtape to get a quick fix of new music mixed with old favorites, or (even better!) join the community and help to make a perfectly odd mix tape with a bunch of new friends.
     
     
     

    Consider me a devotee of Maria Popova’s website, Brain Pickings. Thrice daily, Brain Pickings posts an interesting piece of the internet with additional commentary. Popova posts other new things several times a day on Twitter. Here’s a bit of Brain Pickings genius for you: Did you know that many cities across the world have choirs that sing about local citizens everyday complaints? Brain Pickings explains the Complaints Choir. (Psst! Helsinki is only one of many cities around the world who have a Complaints Choir!)
     
     
     

    In fewer than ten years, Design*Sponge has become one of a handful of sites that focus on design— (interior, exterior and more)— in a way that feels absolutely useful and brand new. But! My favorite feature by Design*Sponge is “Living In,” which imagines what items you could assemble (or purchase) to give you the feel of living in your favorite movie. It’s a genius idea right?
     
     
     

    The truth is, I never could get the hang of doing more than three or four things, and seeing as I am starting to close out the accounts on my the end of my third decade of this life, I don’t imagine I am ever going to become balanced.

    Last night, I sat in a steakhouse designed like an Ace Reid cartoon with my family, celebrating my latest birthday. And while we shouted over the general din of restaurant dining on a Saturday night, I thought to myself, “It’s loud. It’s crowded. It’s confusion. It’s unbalanced. It’s perfect.”

    Life is messy, y’all— and I love every minute of it.
     
     
     

    Tipping horse for Manly Harbour pool built at Kurraba Point, 193-

     
     
     


     

    FOR MUCHO MAS OUR SUNDAY BEST:

    * Our Sunday Best: Disguises and Surprises

    * Our Sunday Best: Who Is Driving This Story, Anyway? POV in Writing

    * Our Sunday Best: The Lariat ‘Round My Heart

     
     

    Our Sunday Best: Playing Back (A Brief Compendium)

     
     
     
    Fiddlin' Bill Hensley, mountain fiddler, Asheville, North Carolina (LOC)
     
     
     


    It is a hot night in July.  I am laying across the bed in the dark with the sheet across my torso, and my hands behind my head.  A shadow breaks, blooms across the wall from a car driving down the street.   I drift alongside the shadow with my eyes only; I am dreaming of stories again.
     
     
     

    One of my favorite writer-artists of all time is Lynda Barry (who I have gabbed about repeatedly on Bluebird Blvd.).  She believes that when we were children and we played, there was something there, something real that played back.[i]  Barry juxtaposes this idea against its natural adult opposite— writer’s block (something else I’ve written about quite a bit, here) because writer’s block is that moment when nothing, nothing is playing back.
     
     
     

    How do you keep writer’s block, or any lack of play, from happening in your life?  I don’t have any great or smug answers for you.  I do know that when you stop asking “What if” and you start saying “No, because,” you’ve set yourself up to run into walls.  I do know that when you are not intrigued by the world, a little something inside of you begins to suffocate.  I do know that when you are nourished by beauty and kindness that you bloom and grow, and that when you are hampered by sadness and cruelty, even your own cruelty to yourself, you will cease to reach for certain suns.
     
     
     

    So, here we are— the two of us, you and me, sitting in a booth at our favorite restaurant.  You say you want to be delighted.  I say you know how to create your own delight.  Dream, my friend.  Dream big and wide and in the light and in the dark, on the page and everywhere, and then give your dreams outward to the next person and the next, ever outwards, ever upwards, ever dreaming.  Just.  Like.  This.

     
     
     

    Soda jerker flipping ice cream into malted milk shakes. Corpus Christi, Texas (LOC)
     
     


     
     
     

    A SHORT COMPENDIUM OF OUR SUNDAY BEST

     
    We’ve really been overdue for a brief “best of” Our Sunday Best

    Did you know that I’ve written twenty-eight stories in this vein for this Bluebird Blvd. signature weekly feature to date?

    Today’s compendium is number twenty-nine! Yippee!
     

    Here are a few specific Our Sunday Bests (with updated notations!) that I think will hit your sweet spot:

     

    *Our Sunday Best: Gorgeous Failure — When I first started the “Our Sunday Best” feature, I thought I would merely be doing a “best of the best of the ‘net” per week, but with a specific theme and a little bit of prose, right? This particular Our Sunday Best came right after I had been Freshly Pressed, but was written while I was on vacation in New Orleans (right before I was Freshly Pressed!), and was conceived with that “best of the best” idea in mind.
     
     
     

    *Our Sunday Best: Most Have Their Norgays — But, of course, because I am me, I started to expand on this idea and treat it like a survey of a single cool idea with cool bits and pieces from online sources and offline sources, requiring a lot more research and fine-tuned writing on my part. In this case, I was talking about writing dialogue. This Our Sunday Best (OSB) is written in the model I use more as of late.
     
     
     

    *Our Sunday Best: Do I Dare Disturb the Universe? Yes, Yes I Do— What’s notable about this OSB is that it was the first time that I talked about bloggers that I read, at length— I loved writing this piece because a bunch of bloggers I had met, who had not met one another, got to chat for the first time. Plus, this quote from Eliot means a great deal to me.
     
     
     

    *Our Sunday Best: Where the Light Captures Us— This is the OSB where I started to go off the rails. I hadn’t written about photography yet on Bluebird Blvd., and photography is a large part of my professional and personal life. So, I started to write a brief history of photography that became a popular on-again, off-again series over several months. It’s now being developed into a full manuscript. (There will be more OSBs in this vein starting in the fall.)
     
     
     

    *Our Sunday Best: Disguises and Surprises — Here’s yet another playful OSB that allowed readers to find new and delightful toys and ideas all over the internetses. I love finding cool, silly, uplifting things and sharing them with y’all, almost as much as I love to write original cool, silly uplifting stories right here on Bluebird Blvd.

     
     
     


    [i] “I believe a kid who is playing is not alone.  There is something brought alive during play, and this something, when played with, seems to play back.  [What It Is, Lynda Barry]

     
     
    *This photograph is by Ben Shahn of “Fiddlin’ Bill Hensley”, another one of the FSA artists we discussed last month in Our Sunday Best. Gorgeous, isn’t it? Shahn is famous as a painter and lecturer. Most people don’t know that he worked for the FSA.

    The second photograph (added today, Sunday, on a whim) is by Russell Lee, another FSA photographer we touched on but did not discuss at length. This photograph was shot in South Texas.
     
     
     
     

    *FUN NEWS! Starting on Wednesday, August 1st, Buried Words and Bushwa and Bluebird Blvd. will be hosting the first ever Show Us Your Weather! Blog Carnival. Click the link (also located in the menu at the top of Bluebird Blvd.) for details!

     

    Our Sunday Best: The Mancala Hour

     
     
     

     
     
     

    The heat in South Texas ascends in hurtful notches starting in late July.

    As the numbers tip up and up, you descend down and down into humidity. Your thoughts culminate into a single damp internal hum (I’m hooooooooot!) decorated with the shurr-shurr of the air conditioner and the chirrup of cicadas.

    August will explode into light and silence.  

    That’s when I will institute an introspective pace to my day. I call it “The Mancala Hour,” after a scene in one of my favorite philosophical comedies I Heart Huckabees[i].
     
     


     
     

    Mancala[ii] is one of the oldest known board games, with roots out of West Africa.

      

    It’s a “seed sowing” game involving pebbles or glass beads and a board with divots.  The game involves accumulating as many glass beads as you can in the shortest amount of rounds.

    After seeing I Heart Huckabees, I picked up my own version of the board game at a discount store for five dollars, but you can make your own with nothing more than an egg carton and a bunch of pebbles. 

    The pleasure of the game is that it requires a certain amount of thought and skill, but leaves the players enough free mental space to sit and have a leisurely conversation.

    If you don’t feel like playing Mancala specifically, let me point you to some playful places on the internet that will give you that same feel of leisure and slow repast.

    Many of the pieces I am about to feature come from using StumbleUpon, a user-generated search engine that I am loving more and more for its great finds.  (If you’d like to visit my StumbleUpon page, please go here.)
     
     

    Otherwise, would you like a little Mancala Hour moment of your own?

    Sure you would!
     
     


     
     

    YOUR OWN MANCALA HOUR

     

    To start, let us stop at The Quiet Place Project.  This project is an experiential 90 second event that exemplifies The Mancala Hour experience.  Explaining it will ruin the surprise. Please do go on over and enjoy, then come back.

    Refreshed? Good!
     


     

    Oh, you didn’t go? You must be especially stressed!

    If you’re especially stressed, you may want to try out The Quiet Place Project’s The Thoughts Room.  or you may want to go to designer Mathieu Radimon’s LAB and play with his half-dozen online toys— each with a slightly different theme.
     


     

    Do you have writer’s block?  Or writer’s blarg?  Wander over to Written, Kitten!, an interactive website that will reward you every one hundred written words with the picture of a kitten.  (I tested it.  You do get a kitten reward!) 

    Playing with iSnoop’s magnetic word game is another fun way to get your wordage flowing. Remember when everyone had those poetry magnets on their refrigerator? This site is a web-version of that poetry magnet fun!
     


     

    My favorite slow-paced thing that captivated me through StumbleUpon so far has been Seaquence, an online music organic music generating program.  The main page explains the program like this: “Seaquence is an experiment in musical composition. Adopting a biological metaphor, you can create and combine musical lifeforms resulting in an organic, dynamic composition.”

    You make creatures that make music. How Mancala Hour is that, folks? (Very Mancala Hour!)
     


     
     

    MANCALA HOUR MOMENTS CLOSE TO MY HEART

     

    Here are a few Mancala Hour moments that are close to my heart: 
     

    My friend Kate is now experimenting with interactive writing on her blog, and she’s provided a great prompt for writers based on the “Litany of Fear” in  Frank Herbert’s Dune—  Litany Against Your Bad Habit.   (I’m going to be taking the challenge today!)   
     


     

    Also, my friend Meeka had a rude encounter an unwanted nocturnal guest recently — with hilarious results— and it left her singing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” 
     


     

    Meanwhile, our mutual friend Metan wrote this gloriously fun story (with video) about the major car manufacturer in Australia— Holden.
     


     

    Finally, it wouldn’t be a true Mancala Hour without a stop at Dan4Kent for his thoughtful weekly essay on some aspect of human nature.  This week, Dan talks about pop music as part of an extended metaphor on identity, autonomy, and authenticity in “Let it Be.”
     


     

    I think I am going to take Dan’s advice and recognize my authentic self.

    My authentic self overheats easily and wants to be closer to an air conditioning vent right now. Later, when it gets dark, I will be playing Mancala with The Husband and drinking cucumber water with a lot of ice.

    And tomorrow will begin a new hot day where the light is best for making this slice of the world a brighter (and warmer!) place for all creatures. I’m already craving The Mancala Hour.
     
     


     

    [i] I Heart Huckabees is incidental to this story, so let me point you to Rotten Tomatoes’ excellent page covering all aspects this favorite comedy of mine.

    [ii] Want to learn how to play Mancala? Thanks, Wikipedia!

     
     
    The title photograph of today’s Our Sunday Best was made available by professional international photographer Patrick André Perron.

     

    Our Sunday Best: The Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: Show Your Cards; Throw Your Doubt Upon The Table (A Small Epilogue)

     
     
     

    Jim Norris and wife

     
     
     

    We look up.

    Somehow, we chose a path.

    No, history chose a path for us, down a road that includes three photographers: a woman of chipped flint and fine ethics (Dorothea Lange); a man whose mysteries remained mysteries (Walker Evans); and a gentleman of many talents and bright philosophies (Gordon Parks).
     
     

    You and I look down the road, forward and then back, contemplating these characters. We’ve gone so far from where we began.
     
     

    As we walk and talk, there are questions to be considered. What happened to Roy Stryker? How did the FSA become the OWI (Office of War Information) at the start of WWII?

    What about the European photographers? Their story takes a different path than the Americans of the same era.

    And how about the folks in Mexico in the 1930s? Such a spectacular display of light and flash and talent in a short period of time!

    Then, there’s the big one— Edward Steichen, and The Family of Man, a story that draws so many unlikely threads together into a solid, smart knot.
     
     

    While I have been so focused on the road in front of us, the photographers, the dust devils, the little eddies of tricky research— my own story has been unfolding.

    I have started to write a book. And I didn’t know it. What you see here is the first shaping of parts of what will become a manuscript about the modern history of photography.

    Who knew? Did you?
     
     

    There are many possible paths ahead of us, and many choices to be made.

    Some of these choices you and I will make together; some will be dictated by the winding direction history takes. Some choices will blow in like leaves on a thrashing wind, and we’ll be blown along with them.
     
     

    The Family of Man is the turning point; the change of the game; the flip of the wrist where all the ideas are laid out upon the table. Should we go there next?

    This how all books begin— with questions. Books end not when we find the answers, but when we find the middle place between the question and the answer. That is where I’m headed.

    Would you like to join me on this journey?
     
     
     

    A NOTE ON THE PHOTOGRAPH AT THE TOP: The photographer of this piece is Russell Lee, who worked for the FSA.
     
     

    ***

     
     

    *WANT TO READ THEM ALL IN ORDER?*
     

    THE CROSSROADS OF THE EYE AND THE HEART

    *PART ONE

    *PART TWO

    *INTERMISSION

    *PART THREE

    *PART FOUR

    *A SMALL EPILOGUE
     
     

    [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 Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: Where the Eye and Heart Meet— Gordon Parks (Part 4)

     
     
     
    USDA HIstorical Photos;  Gordon Parks; made available by Wikimedia Commons
     
     
     

      You are up against odds. I bought my first camera in Seattle, Washington. Only paid about seven dollars and fifty cents for it. And I fell in Puget Sound the first day out. I was trying to shoot seagulls.[i]  Gordon Parks

     
     

    It is August 1942.  Gordon Parks has been in Washington D.C. for less than a month.

    He hasn’t taken a single picture.

    Today he will.  He is in the hallway with a woman by the name of Emma Watson[ii].  She’s a cleaning lady.

    In the last month[iii], Parks’s boss, Roy Stryker, sent him out to run three personal errands that would help the new photographer become acquainted with the city.  He told Parks to go to the movies, to check out a local restaurant, and to buy a winter coat.  Stryker made him leave his camera in the office.

    Parks didn’t ask why.  He left the building with Strykers’s instructions in his head— the movie theater, the restaurant, the department store for a winter coat.

    Parks went to the movie theater.  This theater isn’t for Negros, said the usher at the ticket window.

    Parks went to the restaurant.  We don’t serve N——, said the host at the restaurant.

    Parks went to the department store.  You can’t buy a coat here, said the salesman in the Men’s Department.

    Gordon Parks went roaring back into the office.  I want my camera, he said to Stryker.  I’m going to go out and—

    —shoot what?  Asked Stryker.   Now you see.   Now you tell me what you see.  Sit down and write a proposal.

    It took him weeks to hone down his proposal.  Weeks to get past the blind anger of being refused at the door of the simplest places.  Parks finally had an answer.  Emma Watson.

    Watson cleans the room of a woman’s office who is a notary public, a woman who has the same education level as Watson does.

    Watson stares at Parks.  Parks stares at Watson.

    And history stares at them both.

     
     
     

      And so in 1939 I think, as I tell it now, I’m sure that it is true I first became interested in photography when I saw pictures of the bombing of the “Panay” which was a U.S. gunboat and I was in Chicago on a layover and a chap named Norman Allay (?) who shot the picture—  Gordon Parks

     
     

    Like many of the FSA photographers, Parks is an anomaly.  What makes him unusual is that he the anomaly of an anomalous situation.

    Whereas most of the FSA photographers came from places where they had to make their own road, young, as photographers and artists before coming to the FSA, Parks picked up his first camera at 25.

    Whereas many of the photographers had to fight the good fight because they were women, or because they came from working class circumstances, or because they were the sons of immigrants—  Parks was African-American.

    Parks didn’t have to do anything to fight the good fight.  All he had to do was walk down the street of Washington D.C. looking for a place to have lunch to find himself in the middle of a social crisis. [iv]
     
     
     

    FSA-OWI  Official Photographer Gordon Parks; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
     
     
     

      —And I just plain thought it was exciting the way [Jack Delano] captured these pictures and suddenly this new medium seemed like a possibility to me and I had been looking for all sorts of means whereby I might be able to express myself. Gordon Parks

     
     

    What worked in Parks’s favor is that he made his own luck.   The first day that he went out to shoot photographs for the first time, he was so intent on shooting the seagulls, he fell in the Puget Sound, yet managed to salvage some of his film.

    Shortly thereafter, he decided he wanted to shoot fashion, so he walked into the nicest clothing store in Minneapolis/St. Paul and asked the owners if he could do some fashion photographs for them.

    Mr. Murphey the man who owned the store said, No.  We get all of our photographs done out of New York.  What makes you think you can shoot fashion?

    And Mrs. Murphey,  wife of that owner said, What makes you think he can’t?  We’ll have models and clothes ready for you two nights from now. 

    Parks shot those photographs with a borrowed Speed Graphic camera.

    He double-exposed every single shot but one.

    He was crestfallen.   Parks’s first wife told him to print the one picture that worked, and to take it down to Mrs. Murphey, and tell her what happened.

    She loved the one shot.  She wanted to see the others.

    Parks made his own luck by determination alone, and much like many other people who belong in history because they worked their way into history, great forces with kind faces came to his aid.[v]
     
     
     

      …I [don’t think] was any more sensitive than the rest of the photographers on the FSA, but I certainly had other areas of my own personal problems in rejection and discrimination than any of them did, because I was a Negro and Roy I think taught me to use that disadvantage in an intelligent way instead of striking back with violence any longer, and so I put it into the camera.  Gordon Parks

     
     

    Roy Stryker didn’t know anything about the technical aspects of photography, but he did know how to pick photographers and get them moving in the right direction.  Because Parks was such a green photographer, he started him out in Washington D.C.  Then, he sent him out on the East Coast.  Finally, Parks was sent into areas where the other photographers of the FSA hadn’t gone yet, for one reason or another.

    Parks photographed everyone, everywhere during this period of his development.  It was right before the war  (WWII) when the FSA would become the OWI (the Office of War Information).

    In Parks’s photographs, people dropped their ordinary faces.  The workers smiled.  The children opened their eyes.  The women gently posed.  Parks’s eye was a kind eye.  He sought out the dignity of the human experience in a very direct and very forward way.  Just by seeking this quality, it emerged, everywhere in front of Parks’s camera.
     
     
     

      So I went to Chicago in 1940, I think, ’41, and the photographs that I made there, aside from fashion, were things that I was trying to express in a social conscious way. I’d become sort of involved in things that were happening to people. No matter what color they be, whether they be Indians, or Negroes, the poor white person or anyone who was I thought more or less getting a bad shake. I, you know, thought I had the instinct toward championing the cause. I don’t know where it came from but possibly . . . . Gordon Parks

     
     

    So, here they are, on a Sunday.  Watson considers Parks.  Parks considers Watson.

    They are standing in an anonymous hallway.

    The photographer is still angry about his experiences in Washington D.C., but it’s a muted, focused anger.

    I thought we could take some pictures in that office you clean, he said.  Let me help you carry your supplies.

    She unlocks the door to the office.

    Emma Watson looks to Parks for direction. 

    They are standing in the woman’s office where she cleans every day.

    Parks hands her two of her tools— a mop and a broom.  In a quiet voice, he asks her to stand in front of the American flag.

    She does not smile.  He does not smile.

    He adjusts his camera and takes a breath.  Emma Watson carries a solemnity with her mop and her broom.  That’s what he wants to capture.  This is Gordon Parks’s America— where people emerge from the background to the fore because they, too, are Americans.

    Click.

    American Gothic.  August 1942.

    History rushes out and envelops them both.
     
     
     

    FSA photographer; Gordon Parks; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
     
     
     


    [i] All of the header quotes come from The Oral History Interview of Gordon Parks for the Archives of American Art by the Smithsonian Institute

     
     

    [ii] Additional information about American Gothic, Gordon Park’s first and most famous shot for the FSA can be found on Wikipedia. Parks thoughts on this portrait from the oral history interview listed above: Roy Stryker said, “My God, this can’t be published, but it’s a start.” So it was published. I sneaked it out and published it in an old paper that used to be in Brooklyn. It was published in Brooklyn, you probably remember, what was it called? I forget, a Marshall Field paper, do you remember that one?

     
     

    [iii] I’ve taken a few liberties with time, and the quotes aren’t exact.  That’s why everything spoken is in italics versus quotes.  The resources for this story are from the Oral History Interview of Gordon Parks. (See first endnote.), and two of Parks’s many books— Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective, and A Hungry Heart. Both books were recommended by Donald Ewers. (See notes and links below in italics.)

     
     

    [iv] Clip from CBS News interview with Gordon Parks.

     
     

    [v] That’s an adaptation from a quote attributed to reverend and writer Basil King, which feels especially apt in regards to Gordon Parks.

     
     

    A NOTE ON THE PHOTOGRAPHS IN THIS ESSAY: The top and the bottom photographs are by Parks during and around his early years with the FSA/OWI.

    The bottom photograph is the famous first photograph I discuss here in this story, American Gothic. (See the second endnote for a link to additional commentary on this shot.)

    The middle photograph is Parks himself during the early 1960s. The photographer’s name is unlisted, but it is an official photograph. All photographs that you find here came from the U.S. Government in conjunction with Wikimedia Commons.

    Click on this link to the Wikimedia Commons Gordon Parks page to be taken directly to its site in the archives of the Commons.
     
     

    ***

     
     

    *WANT TO READ THEM ALL IN ORDER?*
     

    THE CROSSROADS OF THE EYE AND THE HEART

    *PART ONE

    *PART TWO

    *INTERMISSION

    *PART THREE

    *PART FOUR

    *A SMALL EPILOGUE
     
     

    [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 Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: The Mysterious Majesty of Walker Evans (Part 3)

     
     
     
    Walker Evans 1937-02
     
     
     

      No. I wasn’t drawn to the world of photography.

      In fact I was against it.

      Walker Evans[i]

     
     

    It is June 1936.  Hale County, Alabama.

    Walker Evans hotfoots down a dirt road that is bent like an old pin.

    His partner on this job, writer James Agee, is back at another sharecropper’s house, where he’s interviewing a family.  Agee talks and talks.  And listens and listens.

    Evans isn’t talking to anybody.   He’s sweating.   He carries his camera equipment under his long arm.  His stride stirs the dust.  It is such a humid morning the red dust flops back down like an old dog.

    There’s no breeze in June, in Hale County, Alabama.

    He doesn’t notice.  Evans is ahead of himself already.  There’s a sharecropper’s shack right after the bend, which is where he’s headed.

    A young woman is hanging her family’s wash up to dry.  He lifts his arm so she can see him arriving.

    She glances at him for a second, then turns back to the wash and the line and a tangled old bed sheet.

    He calls out to the woman as he gets closer to the ramshackle dog-run where her family lives.  She puts the wet sheet she was trying to hang on the line back in the half-broken basket.

    With a grim smile, Evans notices that the bed sheet in the basket has been patched a dozen times or more with bits and pieces of scrap fabric in every color.

    He doesn’t know what exactly it is he’s going to photograph today, but that patched together sheet has alerted him that he has arrived at the right place.

    Hello, he says.

    The young woman doesn’t answer.

    But history knows he’s coming. 

    Hello, there, Walker Evans.  We’ve been waiting for you to get here.
     
     
     

    Evans isn’t supposed to be here with Agee.  He’s supposed to be working for the FSA right now, but instead here he is helping Agee record history[ii] for Fortune Magazine.  He’s taken a break[iii].  Nobody is taking breaks at the moment.  Except for Evans.

    Whatever Walker had to say about this period in his life with the FSA, or his work with Agee for the seminal book of fictionalized reportage and photography, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he’s not saying it.

    You can hear this silence in his interviews, what few there are to be had.  And you can hear it when people who knew him are asked talk about him.  They don’t hesitate; what is there is an absence of information.

    Walker Evans, himself, is an absence of information.
     
     
     

    General store interior Alabama USA
     
     
     

    By now, these holes in the narrative shouldn’t be a hidden part of the story, not for you.

    Yes, there are records.   These records have facts and dates and names.  Other records have different facts and dates and names. One set of records argues with another.

    So, when we talk about modern photography, consider this idea, alone: We are talking about people who spoke in images, not in words.

    As a result, you and I find ourselves dissecting a visual poetics of history.
     
     
     

    It’s not Walker Evans whose causing a dearth of information— this era of modern photography depended on the photographer to record her/his own story, and photographers, even photographer-writers, didn’t record their own history[iv] about this period.

    They were busy stitching together a world coming apart at the seams, one photograph, one story at a time.

    When did they have time to sit down and talk about themselves?  You tell me.

    If Group f/64 lacked the length of time to throw together a story because they weren’t really together long enough to have much of a story, the stories from members of Roy Stryker’s Division of Information for the FSA  (Farm Securities Administration) vary so fantastically, that piecing together a narrative is about a subtle as a patched together bed sheet.
     
     
     

    Evans stands before us today in front of a dog-run shack in Hale, Alabama.

    You cannot really see him. He doesn’t want to be seen.

    He refuses to be in the frame of this story, or any other story, really.

    But, there’s something about Walker Evans that makes his subjects want to look closer at him, at the camera in his hands.

    Just look at Allie Mae Burroughs, there, in her cleanest cotton topper.

    You don’t get that kind of portrait from a place of distrust.

    Walker Evans isn’t a total absence of information— he chose to be an absence of information for us.
     
     
     

     
     
     


     
     

    [i] The header quote is from the Smithsonian oral history interview with Walker Evans    

     
     

    [ii] Walker Evans took a three month leave-of-absence to work on James Agee’s project for Fortune Magazine, which was rejected and became a book, instead—  Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

     
     

    [iii] By “subterfuge” I mean I would ignore bureaucratic orders, administration orders. I wasn’t going to listen to – I wasn’t going to serve anybody in this position except myself. So I just used it to go off freely and do exactly what came before my eye. I remember once somebody wanted one of those stupid building projects photographed. I photographed it but I said this is the last time I’m going to do that; I’m not interested in this; to hell with it, I won’t do it. (That was about as clear as Evans would be about his work with the FSA. When the Smithsonian interviewer asked him directly about his history, he said, “Watch this,” and turned off the tape recorder.)

     
     

    [iv] This era especially produced some stellar writers, so you’d think they’d be writing about themselves somewhere.  They aren’t like Edward Weston who kept meticulous daybooks where he talked about photography and his personal life on a regular basis, or Dorothea Lange, who wrote tons of letters.  Really what we have most to go on for this history are letters.  When we talk about photographer Gordon Parks next week, expect more words.  Parks was a true renaissance man— he wrote, by golly.

     
     

    NOTE: The portrait of Walker Evans at the top was shot by Edwin Locke for the FSA. The remaining images were shot by Evans himself. Even the available images from Evans’ period with the FSA are scant now. The two above reflect his standard themes of American life during the Great Depression. The portrait of the Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife (aka, Allie Mae Burroughs) was shot when he was on his leave of absence with James Agee. The second image typical of Evans fare— it’s believed he had the best understanding of American culture during the Great Depression of his contemporaries, at least according to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Photographs.
     
     

    ***

     
     

    *WANT TO READ THEM ALL IN ORDER?*
     

    THE CROSSROADS OF THE EYE AND THE HEART

    *PART ONE

    *PART TWO

    *INTERMISSION

    *PART THREE

    *PART FOUR

    *A SMALL EPILOGUE
     
     

    [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 Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: (Intermission, and a Breath)

     
     
     

     
     
     

    There is a problem with history that cannot be fixed.

    The problem is that history itself is not a fixed idea.
     
     

    History moves with us, changes as we change.

    Writing cannot pin history into place; photography cannot set history on a sure axis.

    Words drip off of the side of the page.

    Events unveil beyond the scope of the camera lens.
     
     
     

    The simplest things redirect the story of history that we think we know.

    When we look at the relationship of The Great Depression to the FSA (Farm Securities Administration) and we start to examine the enigma that is Walker Evans—right there in front of us!—please, remember that history is not a fixed state.
     
     
     

    Your photographic eye will blink at the wrong time.

    Your writer’s ear will miss a crucial word.

    These little, human things can cause you to miss an intersection of people and objects and places, a collective event that will cause the world to turn, and turn again.
     
     
     

    History is a problem that can never be fixed.

    You know it, and I know it.

    It’s the crossroads you’ve got to watch out for.

    Things happen in too many directions, at once, at a crossroads.

    And here we are standing right in the middle of one.

    We take a breath. We engage our senses. We lean into the pull of time.

    And we go forward, ready or not, into history.
     
     
     

    ***

     
     

    *WANT TO READ THEM ALL IN ORDER?*
     

    THE CROSSROADS OF THE EYE AND THE HEART

    *PART ONE

    *PART TWO

    *INTERMISSION

    *PART THREE

    *PART FOUR

    *A SMALL EPILOGUE
     
     

    [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 Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: Dorothea Lange and the Humble Truth (Part 2)

     
     
     

    Dorothea Lange, Resettled farm child, New Mexico, 1935

     
     
     


    [The first part of this series is located here: Our Sunday Best: The Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: Objectivity, Photography, and the FSA (Part 1).]  
     
     

      I never had any sense in making a career out of it. It was more a sense of personal commitment; in fact I have never had a conscious career. People hand it to me, but I don’t feel that way.[i]. Dorothea Lange

     
     

    Dorothea Lange stands in her studio that morning in 1933 with a wary eye on the street.

    This morning at the window of her studio finds her agitated.

    The Great Depression widens and deepens day after day. The newspapers are beginning to sound a note of hysteria.

    She takes photographic portraits of the “cream of the trade,” as she likes to put it.

    Lange’s job is secure. Nothing else is, though.

    Lange sees what is going on around her.

    Men, out of work, with the lowered eyes of the defeated.

    The silent breadlines.

    The dark smell of despair that clings to your skin.

    She needs to do something. She has to do something. Now. Today.

    She pulls her camera strap around her neck and steps out into the street.

    Her eyes sweep upward to the last trails of morning fog clinging to the hills of San Francisco.

    She turns in the direction of a neighborhood where she has been told that she should not go.

    And she walks there as quickly and as deliberately as she can.

    Although Lange was established as a portrait photographer, this exact moment is the first time she will meet her true subject: humanity.

    History will hurry her along. History always knows the most direct route to your destination.
     
     
     

      I decided, almost on a certain day, that I was going to be a photographer. I thought at the time that I could earn my living without too much difficulty…. Maybe I was one of those lucky people who know what they want to do without having to make these hard decisions, but I didn’t know any photography.
      Dorothea Lange

     
     

    That same year, Ansel Adams rejected her from Group f/64![ii]

    Her work wasn’t like f/64, he said. Too pictorial, he said. Too fuzzy-wuzzy.

    Lange was furious.

    Adams regretted this statement much later. By his own admission, he hadn’t seen enough of her work to know what Lange was made of. [iii]

    Lange was made of star stuff, of steel springs, of torchlight dreams, and the flint to spark them into life.
     
     
     

      What you were doing was important. You were important. Not in the way in an organizational chart, not that way at all. Which made you feel that you had a responsibility. Not to those people in the office, but in general. Dorothea Lange

     
     

    The day in 1933 that she walked out of her studio into the street changed the entire direction of her life.

    Two years later, these images of Great Depression’s effect on San Francisco will bring her to the attention of one Roy Stryker, the chief of the Division of Information of the FSA (Farm Securities Administration).

    Like many of the photographers for the FSA, Lange was an unexpected talent with a strong sense of what needed to be done. Stryker hired her with the knowledge that she was tough as a boot.

    Striker and Lange fought, often, by letter about her wanting to stay longer in the field in a specific area or about the logistics of keeping her film from being damaged in humid conditions , but she always said that she felt he had “a hospitable mind.”

    In the beginning, the FSA’s Division of Information was a little office and one man who wanted, fiercely, to record the truth of the Great Depression, the hard parts about displaced rural populations, starvation, and squatters’ camps.

    How do you record the truth?

    It’s harder than you think.

    The truth is mutable. The truth is subjective.

    Start by hiring photographers that believe that there are truths to be had out there.

    Give them a general direction and some money, and set them loose.
     
     
     

    Dorothea Lange, Ex-tenant farmer on relief grant in the Imperial Valley, California, 1937

     
     
     

      We found our way in, slid in on the edges. We used our hunches, we lived, and it was hard, hard living. It wasn’t easy, rather rough, not too far away from the people we were working with. Dorothea Lange

     
     

    In Linda Morris’s monograph at the beginning of Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life[iv], Morris points out Lange shot primarily with a Rolleiflex camera.

    Morris explains that Lange held the square format camera near her waist. THe viewfinder of a Rolleiflex is located at the top of the camera.

    When Lange took a photograph, she had to bow her head to look into the viewfinder in order to see her subject.

    Morris calls this gesture, in Lange’s hands, a “position of humility.”

    All those who shot with this style of camera worked in this fashion, but Lange’s general demeanor seems to suggest a true gentleness.

    And her gentleness, her posture of humility allowed her subjects to release the tight distance one holds with a stranger. A stranger who is recording the worst parts of your life.

    I see you, say the people in Dorothea Lange’s FSA photographs. In another life, you could be me, and I, you. In another life. Not this one, but maybe, the next.

    Morris steps farther into this idea several sentences later. She says that Lange’s way of working allowed for these everyday Americans—the folks on the breadline, the sharecroppers, the migrant workers, the children in the Hoovervilles— to show their dignity and pride during times of enormous human sadness.

    A sense of human dignity was in short supply everywhere during the Great Depression.
     
     
     

      One of them is my most famed photograph. I made that on the first day I ever went out in an area where people said, “Oh, don’t go there.” It was the first day that I ever made a photograph on the street. I made the old man with the tin cup first, but that was life. Dorothea Lange

     
     

    She walks down the street on an ordinary morning in 1933.

    The White Angel Breadline is forming up, so the men can get a little something to eat.

    Lange watches them from a distance at first. The anger and sadness shows itself in the way they stand and wait turned this way and that, disconnected from one another, cut adrift into the hopeless eddies of poverty.

    Lange steps forward. So much sadness. She’s amongst the men now, and they are shifting around in that cold hungry morning. She might get jostled.

    Lange steps forward again. She bows to her Rolleiflex and peers down into the viewfinder. A man leans against the fence erected around the breadline.

    She releases the shutter. Lange steps back from the breadline, leaving the men to their thoughts and their hunger.

    It is 1933. Dorothea Lange has just put a face to the experience of The Great Depression. It’s no monolithic structure in the distance. It’s not a theory. Nor is it an economic game.

    It’s hunger, early in the morning, and no hope of eating.

    It’s a man lost in thought— jobless, homeless, hopeless.

    It’s a thin cloth coat that won’t keep out the cold.

    It is a migrant mother who cannot feed her children.

    Everywhere you look from 1933 onward, Dorothea Lange is there with her camera and her kind eye, ready to offer dignity back to the experience of everyday Americans.
     
     
     
     

    Dorothea Lange, Migrant mother (alternative), Nipomo, California, 1936

     
     
     
     

    [i] All the Dorothea Lange quotes in this essay are from the Oral History Interview with Dorothea Lange, Smithsonian Institution.
     

    [ii] The California Digital Archive maintains a wonderful, and complete, interview with Ansel Adams. Keep in mind that Adams was prone to reverse his opinion on photography history here and there. Most hilarious statement about not inviting Lange into Group f/64 in this interview: “She at the time was so pictorial and so fuzzy-wuzzy it never occurred to us. And I really regretted it later after seeing more of her work.”
     

    [iii] Not that much later, Dorothea Lange would mail her film to Ansel Adams for processing. Often rolls would be destroyed by the humid conditions of certain parts of the South. Those rolls could not be salvaged. He did his best to process her film as quickly as possible, so, in a way, he made it up to her for not including her in Group f/ 64.
     

    [iv] Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life (from p. 22). This collection of photographs and essays was Edited by Elizabeth Partridge, daughter of photographer Imogen Cunningham, protégée of Dorothea Lange. (We talked about Imogene Cunningham in Our Sunday Best: The Time Ghost Rides the Light— Green Succulents and Tina Modotti’s Hips! See how these people start to connect up? Fascinating stuff.)
     
     
     

     
     
     
     

    ***

     
     

    *WANT TO READ THEM ALL IN ORDER?*
     

    THE CROSSROADS OF THE EYE AND THE HEART

    *PART ONE

    *PART TWO

    *INTERMISSION

    *PART THREE

    *PART FOUR

    *A SMALL EPILOGUE
     
     

    [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 Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: Objectivity, Photography, and the FSA (Part 1)

     
     
     

     
     
     


    [All of my work in this area is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. His blog, While On A Walk, just celebrated its one year anniversary. Happy Anniversary, Donald Ewers!]
     
     
     
    Today, you and I stand upon a rock that looks over the years of 1935 to 1944.

    The hour is dark. I am scanning the landscape trying to find the best trail through this intense time in the history of photography.

    We have a number of rocky outcroppings of theory to cross. There is a stretch of unmapped historical terrain right at the start.

    And the truth has no passport here.

    We will depend on our wits. We will rely on a pieced-together timeline made of small things— letters passed from one side of the country to the other; official memos in the public file; interviews dependent on memory and personality; and the photographs themselves.

    In short, we will enter a history within a history.
     
     
     
    First, we should get our bearings.

    Stand here on this outcropping to get the best view.

    The Great Depression rages below you— see the hundred thousand campfires guttering below?

    That’s hope threatening to blink out.

    But wait— the photographers are coming— with their hearts and eyes to stoke hope into the minds of a population.

    These photographers are different. Firstly, they are multifaceted. The ranks of this cadre include photographer-writers, photographer-artists, photographer-filmmakers and others so chockablock with talent you will they they are nearly imaginary.

    Secondly, these photographers are even leaner and hungrier than their predecessors and contemporaries of the Stieglitz years and Group f/64[i].

    They have to be. The Great Depression demands a great talent. A great hunger.
     
     
     

    On Highway 84, Outskirts of Eloy, Pinal County, Arizona. Highway Signs Reading "Cotton Pickers Wanted”

     
     
     
    Three of these photographers will become extraordinarily famous by the mid-point of the 20th Century.

    They are the ones we remember— the three whose endings were more dramatic than their beginnings with the humble but ambitious Farm Security Administration (FSA)[ii].

    Standing in front of this collection of photographers is the singular Roy Stryker[iii] — he is the head of the Information Division of the FSA, whose job is to “introduce America to Americans.” His real job is to make the FSA look useful and functional.

    His legacy is something altogether different.

    Stryker helped to invent the next wave of documentary photography— the most recognized form of photography in the history of the medium itself.
     
     
     
    What may surprise you is that Stryker knew nothing about photography as a technical construct.

    He negotiated with his photographers about the location of their assignments. He offered general directives and ready money and access to contacts.

    He made sure that the photographs taken for the FSA were available to all media outlets.

    With this methodology, Stryker created a new form of visual literacy by placing beautifully photographed images of people in ordinary circumstances in front of the public constantly and thoroughly.

    Stryker gave us documentary photography at its finest.

    We must watch where we step when we talk about documentary photography, especially of this era— because what we’re really talking about is an individual’s notion of history as it is unfolding in front of the lens.

    So much history happens in this short period, and all of it is hard on the heart.
     
     
     
    The problem is objectivity.

    Objectivity in photography is the idea that one can divorce oneself from history, from training, from upbringing, from bias, from gender, from the limitations of the photographic medium itself as well as the nature of the human eye.

    The eye sees what it sees.

    A world exists outside of the frame of a camera. What is not photographed is as important as what is photographed.

    It’s a tricky thing:

    Objectivity is an idealist’s form of history.
     
     
     
    It’s time.

    We must hike down into 1935 where Roy Stryker is attempting to save farmers and farming culture by grabbing up the best photographers he can find and throwing them out in the field for months at a time.

    And we will begin with the most contentious one— Dorothea Lange. The one who got rough with Stryker in telegraphs across the continent.

    Behind us is Group f/64, now splintering prettily to be flung to the winds.

    Aha! See that?

    First light breaks. It will be morning again, soon.
     
     
     
    We stand in the space between darknesses.

    In this thin thread of light, Dorothea Lange enters our view.

    Her way of seeing the world will loom large over this landscape.

    Prepare yourself.

    The truth is not a valid passport here.

    It’s just you and me telling stories in the dark.

    Like any history, anywhere.
     
     
     

    Toward Los Angeles, California (LOC)

     
     
     

    [i] If you haven’t read the first part of this ongoing series, boy do I have a story to tell YOU. Go here, then here, and finally here.

     
     

    [ii] The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was first known as the Rural Authority (RA). The RA/FSA was created to help consolidate farms into collectives in order to slow down the rate of production, the overuse of land, and to intentionally drive up inflation on produce and livestock in order to stabilize the economy. Trust me, there’s a whole lot more going on here, but this is what will fit into an endnote.

     
     

    [iii] Roy Stryker is a character. If he wasn’t an actual human being, you’d think that someone made him up. If Alfred Stieglitz had his crotchets, Stryker was a straight up crank. But, like Stieglitz, he was a crank with a heart. All of the photographers fought with Stryker at one time or another.

     
     
    All of the photographs in this story are by Dorothea Lange.
     
    NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST— Dorothea Lange and Roy Stryker DUKE it out over SOCIAL politics! Photographers who wear DRESSES out in the FIELD! WHY did Lange photograph so many FEET? Did you KNOW that FILM will go FUNKY in the humid American SOUTH? All this and MUCH MUCH MORE— NEXT SUNDAY on OUR SUNDAY BEST!
     
     

    ***

     
     

    *WANT TO READ THIS SERIES IN ORDER?*
     

    OUR SUNDAY BEST: THE TIME GHOST RIDES THE LIGHT
     

    *PROLOGUE: WHERE THE LIGHT CAPTURES US

    *PART ONE

    *PART TWO

    *PART THREE

    *BOOKS & FILMS on Early Modern Photography
     

    As always, all of my work in this area is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers.

     

    Our Sunday Best: Who Is Driving This Story, Anyway? POV in Writing

     
     
     
    C.W.A.Scott Binoculars


     
     
     
     
    I crave books I love the way I crave certain foods.   I will stop cold in the middle of a task during the day with a single line from a novel or poem written in fire over my head, and the craving is so strong that I know, before the day is out, I will have that book tucked open in my right hand as neatly, and as tightly as a well-made bed.

    The moment that drives my ordinary reader’s desire into the swerve of a bibliophilic craving is the artistry of the writing itself. (There are stories, and there are stories, after all.) What keeps me turning pages is my fascination with the person (or persons) whose story is being told.

    But who is telling the story?

    I’m not talking about the writer/author, per se.

    (We know s/he is telling the story— sometimes s/he tells us right in the middle of the story— disruptively— but we’ll get into the fiddly bits of postmodern literature in just a bit.)
     
     
     

    What I’m trying to ask you here is who is the actual voice telling you the story?

    POV, or point-of-view, is one of the most necessary structural details you need to consider as you prepare to write your own stories.

    Because, for every story, there are a thousand, thousand ways to use POV as one of the pistons pulling the action and motivation and meaning along.

    There are no shortcuts to figuring out the POV question to help you sort out the structural details of your story.   

    What should be helpful is to know what your options are in the POV world.   (Some structural details of a novel are setting, plot, tense, time frame and so on. There are many architectural elements necessary to provide your novel with a solid structure, but POV is where we will start.)

    Those options may spur you to think of a new, or relatively unused form of POV that will send me, your reader, skidding to the bookshelf to devour the story you tell to sate a mad craving.
     
     
     

    The big four points-of-view (POV) in brief — First person  (“I” or “We”); Second person (“You”); Close Third Person (“S/he “or “It” or “They”); and Omniscient Third Person (Reader sees everything narrator, AKA storyteller, reveals.). 

    The hot POV right now is Close Third Person because— honestly?  That’s the POV everyone sees on TV.  Some folks argue that Close Third Person encourages strong verbs, but if you are revising your work— which you do, I am sure, because you are trying to create something beautiful and readable— you will tighten and strengthen your verbs when you revise.
     
     
     

    Bundesarchiv Bild 183-31476-0007, Prerow, Urlauber mit Ferngläsern am Strand

     
     
     
     
    POV is reallyreallyreallyreally important.  Think about it this way:  When your cousin tells the story of the time she got you to eat cat food, that’s one version of the story.  It isn’t the story.   I’m sure that version of the cat food eating story is a BIG HIT on holidays with your cousins.

    When your mom tells that story, it becomes a completely different tale about the time when your badly-raised cousin talked you into eating cat food and your pediatrician had to take x-rays to make sure that you hadn’t also eaten the batch of free coupons in the cat food bag.  That’s your mother’s version.

    What’s your mother’s sister’s version?  Is it the story of her free-spirited child and her uncontrollable younger cousin who didn’t know how to take a joke?

    Ah.  Now you see what I’m seeing!  You are seeing the world as a writer views the world— the ways to tell the story fall out in endless combinations of POV! 

    Each person is telling a completely different story using their own viewpoint, remembrance of the facts (dates, times, places), ability to observe, and on and on!
     
     
     
    Here are a few imaginative uses of POV to think about today:
     
     
    First Person POV/Alternating:   Each first person character tells their version of the story.  Jonathan Safran Foer wrote  Everything Is Illuminated with a double-first person POV.  The first part of the book is one part of the story by one person (Jonathan Safran Foer himself) and the second half of the book is the rest of the story told by his guide, Alexander Perchov. 

    Popular in the 18th Century was the epistolary novel in which First Person POV/ Alternating narrator is played out in alternating letters between two or more parties.  Les Liasons Dangereuses, (Chonderlos de Laclos) is my favorite example.  It’s a more masterful novel than Safran Foer’s early but ambitious effort.
     
     
    First Person POV/Gender Unspecified:  In Jeanette Winterson’s Written On The Body, you never know whether the person telling the story is a woman or a man.  The additional twist— Written On The Body is a compelling love story about the (gender non-specified) main character’s illicit attraction for a married woman.
     
     
    First person POV/chorus:  The Virgin Suicides (Jeffrey Eugenides) is written from the perspective of a group of neighborhood boys— now grown men— who are fascinated by the Lisbon sisters, even after each girl commits an untimely act that ends in her death. You wouldn’t think this would work well, but the speaking as a Greek chorus of “we” makes the story more heartbreaking and intimate.
     
     
    Second Person POV:  Although a second person narrator (“you”) is rarely used as a device in an entire novel, it’s often used in pop songs.   Because the directness of “you” can be difficult to maintain, only the most practiced and inventive writers use it with confidence in a longer form like a novel or novella— try  The Things They Carried  (Tim O’Brian) or Bright Lights, Big City (Jay McInterney).   

    It’s such a rare POV that Wikipedia has a fairly definitive list of instances in novels and short stories where Second Person POV is used as the main POV.
     
     
    Third Person POV/Close:  Almost every novel you read is in Third Person Close POV, but did you know there are two distinct subsets?
     
     

      The first is Subjective Third Person Close POV— that’s the one you know, where you see inside a singular character’s actions and the story is based on what s/he discerns from her/his sensory information.
       
       
      The second, Objective Third Person Close POV, is used more in feature stories for newspapers and academic writing— third person is used, but only observable phenomena are described.  (You, the reader, will get no internal psychological discussion in Objective Third Person Close POV.)

     
     
    Third Person POV/True Omniscient:  You see everything under the sun, but do not know advance information about what will happen to the characters.  Dune  (Frank Herbert), which we will be discussing in about two weeks, is a textbook-perfect example of this POV.  Third person POV/True Omniscient is another common POV for the contemporary novel. Third Person POV/True Omniscient takes a lot of muscle control because the writer has almost infinite resources at her/his disposal with which to tell the story.
     
     
    Third Person POV/Universal Omniscient:  This POV allows readers to have advance information the characters don’t know yet— of the “Little did Janie Sue know that she would soon fall off of a cliff.  But, you dear reader, know this” school of thought.   Victorian novels used this POV trick beautifully— it invites closeness between the reader and the unnamed (or named) narrator who is not inside the story being told and can jump around as s/he it sees fit.
     
     
     

    Lookout-Oregon-1951

     
     
     
     
    Let’s talk about the narrator of the story— that’s the person or persons whose voice is heard throughout the novel, short story, et. al.

    When I say “narrator,” I’m not talking about the writer. The narrator is the person created by the writer to tell the story. Sometimes the narrator is well defined character, and sometimes you never really get to know who they are. Sometimes they are trustworthy, sometimes they are unreliable. 

    Sometimes the “universal” narrator is the author— that’s another trope that postmodern writers liked to employ, and it is similar to “breaking the fourth wall” in theater, where the storyteller is revealed to be a storyteller and you, the readers/audience has “contact” with him/her.  (Officially, these breaks where the writer/author “speaks” to the reader are called “disruptions/intrusions into the narrative.”)

    The bigger point here is that when you are reading and when you are writing— someone is being created or utilized to tell the story on the page.

    The better control you have over point-of-view and its tricks and tropes, the stronger and more compelling the story becomes.
     
     
     
    What people love about narrative and stories has little to do with the events or the action per se— we care about the people in the midst of the action, and one of the ways we learn to care about them is by tuning into the point-of-view that frames the way their story gets told.

    For instance, when Andy Griffith retells the story of Romeo and Juliet, we care deeply about what happens to the two younguns’ because Griffith (who used this story in his comedy act first) makes the star-crossed lovers’ tale seem fresh for his audience. It’s a clear use of good POV— the Andy Griffith persona tells us a gripping tale of love and youth straight out of the hills that surround Mayberry.

    In those moments when you are reading a story, you can easily get caught up in the moment and forget that a great deal of thought and structure when into the shaping of this tale that you love. The goal of every writer, and storyteller, of note— is to make it all seem effortless— as though the story is floating on a breeze and you managed to catch ahold of it.

    And when a story is particularly well-crafted and effortless and created from an intoxicating POV, you’ll find me running towards it in the middle of the day, full-tilt, on fire with the words, enthralled with what happens next— even if I know the story word for word. Good POV unleashes the heart of my cravings, and that, alone, brings me back to the page again and again.

     
     
     
    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dmor_dOtw_E

     
     
     

    Our Sunday Best: The Time Ghost Rides the Light: A Secret and Luminous Thing

     
     
     
    Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park," Colorado. (vertical orientation), 1933 - 1942 - NARA - 519942


     
     
     

      One does not think during creative work, any more than one thinks when driving a car. But one has a background of years – learning, unlearning, success, failure, dreaming, thinking, experience, all this – then the moment of creation, the focusing of all into the moment. So I can make ‘without thought,’ fifteen carefully considered negatives, one every fifteen minutes, given material with as many possibilities. But there is all the eyes have seen in this life to influence me. Edward Weston

     
     

    This is the difficult one.   The light is a trick, but it is not an illusion.

    The man standing over the camera knows a secret thing about the light, and what it will reveal and conceal at the same time.

    In front of him is a mollusk, a simple shell.  It appears to glow and glow and glow.

    He is taking the most important photograph of his entire career.  Strangely, he knows this photograph will be his most important work.[i]

    Everything now depends on the light.

    The light that is a trick.

    This man knows what light will reveal and what it will conceal.

    His name is Edward Weston.  The late daylight hour dances across his unreadable face.

    The shutter closes with a pretty click.

    Welcome to history, Edward Weston.

    We’ve been waiting for you to arrive.
     
     
     

    Of all the photographers we’ve discussed so far who crossed paths in Group f/64, Weston is the one people know best by name. 

    Weston’s work shows up in the most unlikely places, but it is always, always recognizable as the vision of one man.

    Why?  Everything about his work is elliptical.

    Dunes, peppers, shells, nudes— the world curves in Weston’s eye. 

    The world bends as he lends the weight of his gaze to it. 

    And the world moves toward him.   He is magnetic.  He is single-minded, but as fluid as the surfaces he photographs. 

    Nothing will stand in the way of Weston.
     
     
     

    All is laid bare for Weston. He knows how to see. 

    Weston’s nudes are easily the most famous photographic studies of the human body during the early period.  And when you look at them[ii]— you’ll know why.  Bodies are entirely new when Weston trains his eye on them. 

    What we take for granted as perfunctory or sexual about the body, Weston renders into a visual language so true and clear it’s hard to believe that these are only human bodies.

    His models were often his lovers.  Or his lovers were often his models.  Weston is all art all the time, so it’s hard to tell where one story leads off and another begins.  His models who are lovers were artists, photographers, writers[iii].  While he was married, he had relationships with Margarete Mather, Tina Modotti, and Sonia Noskowiak, among others.  Many others.  

    Finally, Weston divorced his long-suffering wife and mother of his children to marry model and muse Charis Wilson[iv].  She was 19 to his 49.

    People pay a lot of attention to Weston’s love life for two reasons. 

    The first reason is that Weston kept meticulous records of his entire life in his Daybooks[v].

    Those beautifully written records are a primary reader for anyone in the arts who wants to know what it is like to be entirely focused on one’s art to the point where everything in one’s life leads back to art.

    The second reason is that the images are singularly beautiful.

    You see, Weston’s eye bends naturally to a curve. Curves bend into ellipses, so easily.
     
     
     


     
     
     

    It’s no wonder then that Edward Weston is both an answer to the question of Group f/64 and a continual riddle.

    Weston actually is the loop from the beginning and the end of Group f/64 in a strange way.

    William Van Dyke— co-creator (with Ansel Adams) of Group f/64 movement— was first Weston’s apprentice.  There’s the beginning.  Van Dyke managed to keep the movement of Group f/64 going with his Gallery 683.

    Here’s one version of what happened to break Group f/64 :  The Great Depression began to rage in earnest. 

    For the population of the area that was later called the Dust Bowl, the golden light of the West Coast beamed like a lighthouse.  

    They walked through dust storms toward the rumors of good pickings in the golden light. 

    Entire towns left a trail of personal goods one the roadside in their rush to escape, to survive.

    And how the hell are you supposed to make photographs in that kind of scene?

    The theoretical dust was thick and heavy for a little while.  

    Where does art fit into a falling-apart world?  What does taking a crisp picture have to do with starving families?

    Everything.  It has everything to do with what happens next.
     
     
     

    Quickly now!

    Follow the light back to the West Coast where seven photographers are carving out their respective dominions in the photographic world.  

    Adams sweeps across the mythos of the American West. Weston shuts down his studio in Carmel, and finally finds his soul at Point Lobos near Carmel on the California coast.  Willard Van Dyke strikes the tent of Gallery 683 and goes to New York to become a documentary filmmaker.  Imogen Cunningham goes to New York, comes back, always photographing, pioneering

    Of the original seven, four become famous. Two of the Group f/64 members never photograph again and disappear into the mist. The last of the seven, John Paul Edwards, photographs entirely in anonymity for the rest of his life.

    But look!  As Group f/64 fades in the jittery photographic flash of early modern history, singular figures like Weston, Adams, and Cunningham walk out of the twirling smoke to become icons in their own right. They get their museums and accolades, all right.

    It is strange to think that what we think of as photography now— so much hinges on a sharply-tuned manifesto and seven people whose lives intersected for a maximum of three years.

    And by the end of the brief era of Group f/64, every member will walk away to tell a different story— Cunningham and Adams cannot and will not share a version of what happened in Group f/64 in their later years.  They did not ever, really get along all that well in the first place.

    Stieglitz, the father of all modern photography, whose large heart welcomed so many photographers into the annals of art, will begin to have one coronary attack after another beginning in 1938.
     
     
     

    And Weston?  Ah, Weston!

    His hand will be one of the ones to reach out to the next group of photographers to come up during The Great Depression. 

    It is his sharp eye these photographers admire, and his singular vision they emulate.

    Photography became photography because of Weston, according to a famed critic in Mexico City.

    The next group of photographers are standing in the wings, waiting to take their turn on the stage.

    Their story is tied into the Works Progress Administration and the FSA photographers of The Great Depression

    Weston will be there to help them into the spotlight.

    And these new photographers will help Weston become even more famous to a bigger world over time.
     
     
     

    Meanwhile, the light is playing its old tricks again. 

    Weston packs his entire camera kit in under two minutes.

    He picks up the shell, examines its opalescent interior and smiles.

    Inside his packed camera is an exposed image of a shell on flat sheet film.

    The sheet of film glows, secret and luminous thing, in the gut of his camera, waiting to be exhaled into the world.

    Weston will call it Nautilus — for the species of mollusk that it is.   A mollusk that is an historical metaphor for elliptical perfection.

    A sunset flares on the edge of the horizon.

    Weston stands in that last light.  He glows and glows and glows.

    The light is a trick, but it is not an illusion.
     
     
     

     
     
     

    ***

     
     
    ENDNOTES
     

    [i]   Edward Weston left behind a clear legacy with his daybooks— brief, regularly updated prose entries that detail his art life as well as his personal life.  The Edward Weston family website, maintained by photographer Cara Weston, is filled with Weston photographs and details.  You’ll see famous shell photograph and the daybook entry that went along with it there.

     
     

    [ii] Once again, I will need to refer you to the Edward Weston family website to see the careful selection of Weston’s nudes.  As photographic works, you’ve never seen anything as exquisite as the female body through Weston’s eyes.

     
     

    [iii]This story in The Guardian discusses a recent show on Weston’s work, and explains the relationship between Weston and some of his famous models.

     
     

    [iv] CHARIS WILSON gave a stunning interview in the years before her death about her relationship and marriage to Weston. She is not the muse and model that we see in the movies. None of Weston’s lovers were traditional groupies. Oh, and add this to the insult-to-injury department— when Charis Wilson died, the New York Times wrote a long obituary about her… where they repeatedly misspelled her first name and had to issue a retraction. 

     
     

    [v] Weston burned all the daybooks that date before his trip to Mexico with Tina Modotti in 1923.   Weston went back and forth to Mexico from 1923 to 1927.  Modotti, an actress and photographer, may have had hot hips and a sharp lens of her own, yet she also took time to push Weston to photograph in an entirely new way.  You can get your own copy of Edward Weston’s Daybooks. Weston wrote in his Daybooks, daily, for most of his life. They are luminous.  

     
     

    ***

     

    *ADDITIONAL NOTES Hey there! Just like last week, certain photographs are in the public domain, while others are not. That means while we are discussing the work of Edward Weston, we are LOOKING at the photographs of Ansel Adams.

    The U.S. Parks Service owns some of Adams’ work, and that means his works are in the public domain.

    Weston’s work, like Cunningham’s, is owned by family. You can find links to Edward Weston’s website in the endnotes above!
     
     

    ***

     

    NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST! I will be writing about POV, or point of view, and WRITING! It will be a GAS, y’all! We will take apart TIME and SPACE and PERSON together like a set of Tinker Toys!
     

    BUT TWO WEEKS from TODAY on OUR SUNDAY BEST— I will begin to tell you the THRILLING TALE of the photographers who shot the SWIRL and BANG of the GREAT DEPRESSION! We’ll be talking about the great EDWARD STIECHEN’S exquisite legacy— he tipped the world and spilled its photographic contents… ON the FLOOR! And oh, so, so, SO MUCH MORE!
     
     
     

    ***

     
     

    *WANT TO READ THIS SERIES IN ORDER?*
     

    OUR SUNDAY BEST: THE TIME GHOST RIDES THE LIGHT
     

    *PROLOGUE: WHERE THE LIGHT CAPTURES US

    *PART ONE

    *PART TWO

    *PART THREE

    *BOOKS & FILMS on Early Modern Photography
     

    As always, all of my work in this area is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers.

     

    Our Sunday Best: The Time Ghost Rides the Light— Green Succulents and Tina Modotti’s Hips

     
     
     
     

    Imogen Cunningham: Succulent, 1920. This image...

     
     
     
     

      In a dancer there is a reverence for such forgotten things as the miracle of the small beautiful bones and their delicate strength. In a thinker there is a reverence for the beauty of the alert and directed and lucid mind. In all of us who perform, there is an awareness of the smile, which is part of the equipment, or gift, of the acrobat. We have all walked the high wire of circumstance at times. We recognize the gravity of pull on the Earth as he does. The smile is there because he is practicing living at that instant of danger. He does not choose to fall.[i]  Martha Graham

     
     
     
    Two women stand in the hard light of the countryside on a Santa Barbara afternoon.

    The first woman, a photographer, stares intently into the viewfinder of her camera. 

    All of the photographer’s emotions ride her face, the muscles jumping as she considers her subject.

    The subject, a dancer, shifts her long, languid body half in and out of the shadow of a barn, and the hot California light.

    She wears a white bias gown that turns her hips and shoulders into sculptured abstractions.

    The light is hard but the dancer’s face welcomes its honesty.

    The photographer’s hands are sure on the camera, sure of the light.  Sure of her subject.  She holds up her own hand to signal that they would now begin.

    The two artists do not need to speak—  the camera and the dance speak for them both.

    The two artists are photographer Imogen Cunningham and choreographer/dancer Martha Graham.

    Cunningham shoots her first image of Graham in that sure, firm light of a Santa Monica afternoon.

    Click.
     
     
     

      The name of this Group is derived from a diaphragm number of the photographic lens. It signifies to a large extent the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image which is an important element in the work of members of this Group.  Manifesto of Group f/64

     
     
     

    Imogen Cunningham is an anomaly among photographers.

    While Ansel Adams was the breakaway rebel, the rewriter of history, the eye that captured the vast imagination of the American West, Cunningham is the American original, the vivid technician, the anti-hero whose photographs are more iconic than Cunningham herself.

    But Cunningham always was an original.

    From childhood, her father especially encouraged Cunningham to explore her own capabilities in every art medium.

    At 17, Cunningham turned with great zeal and capability to the camera— which in her hands will become an instrument as capable as a well-trained dancer’s body.

    Her 20s are a blur of university studies in chemistry with a post-graduate stint in Germany where she pioneers a new technique[ii] for darkroom printing.

    Cunningham, now in her 30s, shoots the iconic, unembellished images of Graham that land her the occasional work for Vanity Fair in New York.  She also shoots a series of images of Ansel Adams and does a show with up-and-comer Edward Weston.

    By 1931, she is poised on the threshold of the next great Zeitgeist— Group f/64.
     
     
     
     

     
     
     
     

      The chief object of the Group is to present in frequent shows what it considers the best contemporary photography of the West; in addition to the showing of the work of its members, it will include prints from other photographers who evidence tendencies in their work similar to that of the Group. Manifesto of Group f/64

     
     
     

    Cunningham is a native daughter of the Northwest and understands, instinctively, the temperament of light.

    And temperament is what Cunningham will need to hold her own amongst the seven photographers who have banded together to tell the story of the American West and its possibility— a story of possibility that is becoming ever more popular as the Great Depression deepens and widens across the United States.

    The photographers of the West are drawn to all the native subject matter.  

    The local plants and succulents;  the vast unrefined landscapes;  even the nudes are touched with this crisp eye and luminous light. 

    All of these subjects have an East Coast equivalent.  Most of these ideas have passed through the lilting pictorial lens so loved by Stieglitz and his contemporaries.

    In the hands of Group f/64,  the approach to the subject matter is what really changes— not the location.

    Images no longer swim on the page in refracted light.  Either you find yourself right on top of the subject— the curve of an arm; the cup of a succulent — or the subject is BIG and VAST and MAGISTERIAL, leaving you breathless in its wake.

    But, wait!  It’s still early yet.  First, we must follow Cunningham out of the bright light of a Santa Monica afternoon to the magnificent gray day in San Francisco— November 15, 1932 to be exact— for Group f/64’s first show at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum[iii].

    According to limited accounts, droves of people saw the first show. 

    Eighty images hung on the walls of this established gallery, representing the seven core members of Group f/64 as well as four other photographers whose work fit the aesthetic they desired.

    In addition the manifesto was clearly printed and placed where everyone could see it.
     
     
     
     

     
     
     
     

      Group f/64 is not pretending to cover the entire spectrum of photography or to indicate through its selection of members any deprecating opinion of the photographers who are not included in its shows. There are great number of serious workers in photography whose style and technique does not relate to the metier of the Group. Manifesto of Group f/64

     
     
     

    Somewhere in the East, Alfred Stieglitz stirred.

    The father of Modern American photography was in the process of examining his own feelings about photography.

    He had spent all his energies on creating a distinct place for photography to land among the annals of art— with a special focus on making American photography an art form as good as its European counterpart, if not better.

    Stieglitz may have been in this contemplative mood when he mounted a retrospective of his own work in 1932 at his new gallery, An American Place[iv].

    Although much of his work reflects this pictorialist aesthetic he helped develop, Stieglitz is quite capable of creating haunting, crisp, close-up images, especially of Georgia O’Keefe.

    What makes his retrospective so interesting is that he does not, in fact, hang his breathtaking portraits of O’ Keefe.  (He shot her image so frequently that a definitive and lovely record of her life remains for all of us.)

    While displaying older established photographs like “The Steerage,”  Stieglitz also hung recent images of his young, nubile mistress…  right next to less-flattering photographs of his New Mexico sun-baked wife, Georgia O’Keefe.[v]

    His friends were stunned at his lack of subtlety.
     
     
     

      Group f/64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards of pure photography. Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the “Pictorialist,” on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts. Manifesto of Group f/64

     
     
     

    Oh, yes, Group f/64 mean business!   

    They intend to “strive to define photography” and they will “show no work… that does not conform to its standards.”    From that first show at M. H. de Young Memorial Museum onward, the gauntlet is thrown down.

    Never mind that the gauntlet is made of close-up succulents and vast rock wonderlands of New Mexico and the hip of Tina Modotti— they are reacting to this idea that photography isn’t art. 

    That despite the rise and fall of pictorialism in the East— (Remember Stieglitz’s sharp O’Keefe’s and even sharper strikes at his marriage?)— pictorialism is alive and thriving in the West.

    Group f/64 is rebelling against the entire art establishment— but they are also rebelling towards a somewhat unified idea of photography as a means and an end unto itself.

    The image as the beginning, middle and end unto itself.

    Oh, and the museums can go jump off a cliff. 

    That’s the big one, right there.  The museums still set the standard for what is, and what is not art. 

    Museums don’t give a fig whether it is pictorialism or Group f/64 or some other thing on photographic paper.  They don’t think that photographs are art.  At all.

    To the museums, a photograph is a novelty item! 

    A novelty item!  Like a bicycle!   

    Whee!

    And that’s what Group f/64 lines up in the sights of its camera.  The museums.

    Ticking off Stieglitz is an incidental pleasure.  It’s the museums they want.  And it’s the museums they’ll get.
     
     
     
     

     
     
     
     

      The members of Group f/64 believe that photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.

      The Group will appreciate information regarding any serious work in photography that has escaped its attention, and is favorable towards establishing itself as a Forum of Modern Photography. Manifesto of Group f/64

     
     
     

    Cunningham[vi] is concentrating so hard that she’s sweating.

    She wipes her forehead with her sleeve and leans back to her camera, to Graham, who already belongs to history.

    Graham, the dancer, leans sideways as if unhooked from the clutching grasp of gravity.

    Her arms, her hands, are flowers, are birds, are rivers.

    The dancer moves and moves in time and space.

    Cunningham, the photographer, takes shot after shot of this luminous woman in a hard light against the black, black shadows of the open barn door.

    In a matter of hours in this hot Santa Monica light, Cunningham will shoot over one hundred images of Graham.

    Meanwhile, time stands still on firm, scarred dancer’s feet.

    Cunningham bends to her camera.  Graham appears to swim in the bold natural light.

    Click.

    It is 1931.
     
     
     

    ***

     
     
    ENDNOTES
     

    [i] Quote from Martha Graham’s “An Athlete of God.”  (1953)

     

    [ii] What makes Cunningham distinct among her Group f/64 colleagues is that a college professor encouraged her to study chemistry, the technical foundation of darkroom work.  On her matriculation with a chemistry degree, Cunningham’s sorority funded further technical studies at Dresden, Germany’s Technische Hochschule with Professor Robert Luther. “About the Direct Development of Platinum Paper for Brown Tones,” is the thesis that covers her findings.  (Good luck tracking a copy.  I even tried Google Scholar. )

     

    [iii] Lisa Hoestetier of the Department of Photographs, Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote a brief synopsis of Group f/64’s first show, providing the factual details for my own account.

     

    [iv] Photographs of An American Place and Alfred Stieglitz.  (The Yale Library maintains Stieglitz’s papers at Georgia O’Keefe’s request.)

     

    [v] Stieglitz in a letter to Aline Meyer Lieberman on May 8, 1932— I am herewith sending you one of my photographs of New New [sic] York as appreciation of your helping to make An American Place possible – I hope you feel that the Place is at least not a complete loss.

    I must also point out that history has been hideously unkind to Stieglitz— few published biographies exist on the man, and I cannot find— anywhere!— the date of his retrospective at An American Place.

     

    [vi] Edward Weston was fond of saying that Imogen Cunningham had “acid in her blood.”  She was a tough cuss, you all.  T-o-u-g-h.  Much of what I discuss here today is inspired by this oral recording created by, and for, the Smithsonian Museum.
     
     

    ***

     

    NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST! The break-up of Group f/64!  We FINALLY talk NUDES and Edward Weston!  Great ART and the Great DEPRESSION?!? (What’s the connection?)  And who the HELL is TINA MODOTTI, anyway?  (What’s so great about her HIPS?)  And Courtenay Bluebird, will you EVER give us some photography books we can find at the library to read… for FUN?  ALL THESE QUESTIONS AND SO MANY MORE WILL BE ANSWERED… NEXT WEEK! on OUR SUNDAY BEST!
     
     
     

    ***

     

    *ADDITIONAL NOTES: Hey there! A few items to keep in mind. Almost all of Imogen Cunningham’s images are not in the public domain. Her works are maintained by her granddaughter on her website Photo Liaison. You will find all of Cunningham’s published Martha Graham photographs there.

    That means the first image of this story is Cunningham’s, and the rest… are Ansel Adams. The same thing will happen next week when we talk about Edward Weston. Why? The U.S. Parks Service owns some of Adams’ work, and that means his works are in the public domain. Weston’s work, like Cunningham’s, is owned by family.

     
     

    ***

     
     

    *WANT TO READ THIS SERIES IN ORDER?*
     

    OUR SUNDAY BEST: THE TIME GHOST RIDES THE LIGHT
     

    *PROLOGUE: WHERE THE LIGHT CAPTURES US

    *PART ONE

    *PART TWO

    *PART THREE

    *BOOKS & FILMS on Early Modern Photography
     

    As always, all of my work in this area is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers.

     

    Our Sunday Best: The Little Things Count for a Lot Around Here

     
     
    Little girl in a park with Union Station in the background, Washington, D.C. (LOC)
     
     

    One of the primary lessons I learned at my grandfather’s knee is that the little things are what make up the width and breadth of a person’s life.

    The stories we tell about one another are often these big swaths of overarching narrative— the facts and places and faces version of events.

    What really happens to us, when you get down to it, is that we wake up in the morning and we commit a series of sacred, small acts— whatever they may be— that are ours and ours alone.

    I think this is why I am so haunted by Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“— it’s a poem about a life full of small gestures. It’s also one of the most perfectly executed poems I’ve ever read, which haunts me for a different reason— but that’s a discussion for another Sunday.

    Unlike Prufrock, my grandfather was not rattled by a life made of small gestures.

    Each moment was examined and opened like a gift. If he was having his morning cup of black percolated coffee and looking out the window, you knew he was doing those two things and nothing more.

    His mind was right there with that singular moment. He wasn’t thinking about the newspaper or the work he needed to do an hour from then— he was having coffee and gazing out the window at the natural world and its wonders. That’s it.

    This week, I have had a number of big, not-so-happy things on my mind. I find the bigger the issue I am considering, the more I prefer to balance out the big and scary with the small and interesting.
     
     
     

    Should I find myself having a truly bad time of it, I start listing good things in my mind from one to ten.

    I start small and work my way up. The more engrossed I become in making my list, the less engrossed I am in fixing the unfixable, or the not-so-fixable at the moment, anyway.

    Some days, my friends, you really have to dig to find those ten good things, but they’re there. I promise. Even on the worst day— ten good things are lurking in the picture.
     
     
     

    My basic internal lists of ten look like this:

    What are ten good things I can remember about today? What are ten moments that make me happy? What are ten things I like about myself? What are ten qualities that I admire about the people I know?

    YES! I can think of ONE GOOD THING right now! You’re here!

    To show my fidelity to my grandfather’s adoration of these little sacred acts of life, I’d love to share with you, the awesome fabulous people whom I admire, ten good things about my week.

    Are you ready? I’m ready!

    Put on your house slippers!

    Prep your clicking finger!
     
     
     

    Two little girls in a park near Union Station, Washington, D.C. (LOC)
     
     
     

    TEN! GOOD! THINGS!
     
     
     

    ONE!

    Earlier this week, I remembered that I had an account with I Can Has Cheezburger? You’ve seen their funny cat/dog/people images everywhere— but they’ve become so ubiquitous people sometimes forget that all those funny memes comes from a single site. In random moments this week, I made seven new Lolz; I’d love for you to see them, but even more than that, I’d love for you to make some of your own. (Seriously. So relaxing.)
     
     
     
    TWO!

    My friend G—, a filmmaker, keeps finding these gorgeous, lovely tidbits all over the internet. He’s the one who found the The City of Samba short film that no one watched on my blog. (But you can watch it now. Good gravy, is that short film AMAZING!)
     
     
     

    THREE!

    THERE’S MORE! G— found something quite cool today that cracks me up. NPR did a story yesterday on this Sargeant who has found a way to make writing the small crimes in the local police blotter the best job in the world by writing it with humor. The Unalaska Police Blotter has become this massively popular item on the internet thanks to Sgt. Jennifer Shockley’s fine writing. Sgt. Shockley, you are lovely! Thank you for making my day, G—!
     
     
     

    FOUR!

    My friend KDB came to visit me yesterday, driving over an hour to bring her awesomeness right to my front door. Not only did I have a really fantastic day with KDB, she brought some special pixie happy book magic with her because I found a great condition copy of Seamus Heaney‘s translation of Beowulf. I have been looking for this thing everywhichwhere. One of my favorite poets translating one of the greatest tales of English literature in a side-by-side translation? I could faint from the happiness, truly.
     
     
     

    FIVE!

    AND! Guess what KDB told me? The BBC show I adore, Sherlock, is getting ready for their American release of Series Two! It’s a savvy literary update of the classic with some truly unpredictable plot twists that Television Tropes & Idioms explains why and how its brilliant. Two of my fellow bloggers, Metan and Snoring Dog Studio, are also fans of BBC television. Both of these fabulous bloggers have given me some hot tips on shows they love. (And check them out! Metan writes these engrossing short essays on Australian history based on 19th/20th century newspaper clippings— I adore her writing. Snoring Dog Studios is a writer and a watercolorist— she is fantastically talented at both mediums.)
     
     
     

    Little girl in a park near Union Station, Washington, D.C. (LOC)
     
     
     

    SIX!

    You may or may not know that I am on Twitter. I have theories about Twitter as a writer’s medium— here’s the first one: it’s not. Twitter is designed for one liners, absurdities, and non sequiturs. If you want to learn how to write one-off lines like stand-up comics do, definitely join Twitter. Occasionally, I am funny! The rest of the time, I am merely odd!

    At any rate, did you know there are grammar rules for Twitter? Grammar Girl believes she can answer some of your burning, churning Twitter questions! She throws in a little grammar-Twitter philosophy as a fine bonus. The Husband listens to her podcasts. Grammar Girl holds a lot of clout in this household— she’s the tiebreaker in our grammar arguments. Gotta love that.
     
     
     

    SEVEN!

    In childhood, everyone I know made dioramas for school book reports. The classic shoe box and glitter-glue dioramas bear no resemblance to the work of artist Lori Nix, who creates worlds within worlds in the miniature medium of the diorama. Her vision of the world makes me think of the attention to beauty and decay of famed animator Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke). (Miyazaki, one of my artistic obsessions, is a subject we’ll talk about on another day.)

    What delights me most about Nix’s work is that she does things with the diorama medium that I have never seen— anywhere. I love dioramas and miniatures. I follow a number of artists and photographers who use miniatures and created spaces in their work. Trust me when I say that she does things with light and space and concepts I haven’t seen another contemporary artist do before now. She also (gasp!) shares extensive details about her process on her blog. (Nix, you have my respect! So sincerely!)
     
     
     

    EIGHT!

    Is your mood improving? Mine is! Would you like a little bit more happiness? I thought so!

    I saw this site for the first time this evening when a friend was asking about baby names on Facebook and I went hunting for something suitably literary. (My choice? Nigel Jackson. What do you think?)

    In order to avoid the awful spam gauntlet that follows baby name sites, I went straight for the good stuff— I googled famous literary characters.

    And that is how I came across The Composites.

    The premise is genius. You know all of those famed characters from the books you love? Brian Joseph Davis makes, in his own words, “images created using a commercially available law enforcement composite sketch software and descriptions of literary characters.”

    At the moment I’m torn between which police sketch of two favorite characters I love best: Daisy Buchanan (from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby) or Ignatius J. Reilly (A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole).

    OH! You can also submit suggestions! The more interesting, the better!
     
     
     

    NINE!

    Get ready for some oohs and ahhs! This one you’re gonna have to go look and see and gawp and come on back. Yay, Stratocam!

    Stratocam is a blog devoted to global Google images seen from above. Everything in the world is beautiful shot from above, isn’t it? You can also create your own images and submit them as well.

    It’s true. The world is art. Lucky us!
     
     
     
    TEN!

    Oh, y’allllllll. Every happy list should end with a moment like this one. Merely talking about happiness has made me happier, and even better, you’re here! YAY! I hope you found something in this list of ten that lifted you up today!

    Rear Window is considered to be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s more stunning creations. One of the ways Hitchcock created intense tension was by showing only what wheelchair-bound protagonist “Jeff” Jeffries could see through his binoculars from his apartment window. There is not a single full pan shot of the entire apartment complex and courtyard in the entire film.

    Budding filmmaker Jeff Desom used footage from Rear Window to create the entire apartment complex and courtyard using simple software, patience, and an artistic flair that just won’t quit.

    Please! Enjoy! Life is full of days and days are full of small moments and moments are the fibers from which our lives are woven whole into whole cloth. My grandfather was an easy master with the textural moments of his days, and I am learning his ease— one list of ten good things at a time.

     
     
     

    Rear Window Timelapse from Jeff Desom on Vimeo.
     
     
     
    Oh, HEY! I realized a moment ago that this is my 300th post! Neat!

     

    Our Sunday Best: The Myth of the Second Act

     
     
     
    X-ray of a Boxer's fractured hand.
     
     
     

    Near the beginning of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing career, he penned The Great Gatsby, a modern age novel that explores, explodes and exiles every deeply held myth of the American Dream.

    Toward the end of his writing career, an ego-bruised and soul-wrenched Fitzgerald is alleged to have scratched the following line in the notes for his posthumously published novel The Last Tycoon:

    There are no second acts in American lives.

     
     
    Ah.

    I know.

    You’ve heard this unverified quote or something like it.

    It’s a bitter sentence. The meaning behind it is black as peat.

    You only get the one go round, Fitzgerald is saying.

    You don’t get that next wave where you grow and stretch, do something different.

    They like you when you’re new or when you’re young. Both if you can manage it.

    There are no second acts in American lives.
     
     
     
    Everyone with an artistic vocation wonders whether there are, in fact, second acts in a creative life.

    You don’t have to be American to feel fear.

    You are/want to be an artist.

    Or a writer.

    Or a musician.

    Or a photographer.

    Or an actor.

    I can feel you here, next to me right now shaking your head.

    You’re here because you are trying to feel your way through your second act.

    Where to begin? Where does it go? Is Fitzgerald right?

    There are no second acts in American lives.

    Bullhockey.

    I do not believe it.

    And I’ll tell you why.
     
     
     
    Please slip under the ropes in that metaphorical boxing ring of my writing space.

    On my rainiest days, writing feels about as good as a punch I caught on the jaw.

    I need to get up off of this mat.

    I need to get stop getting sucker-socked by language.

    Keep finding a way to spar with words.

    The thesaurus isn’t working.

    The deadline is looming.

    On my rainiest days, I know that I’m boxing shadows and the shadows are winning.

    I do what any sane Bluebird does—
     
     
     

    Bennet's fracture X-ray (1)

     
     
     
    I call my mother.

    She answers. Thank goodness.

    On the phone, her voice is beautiful— soft, full, slightly deep.

    She speaks the way people sing— lots of inflection, with a surprising range of tones and moods.

    Everyone loves her voice.

    My mother steps into the metaphorical boxing ring of my writing space and speaks to me.

    I’m flat out, emotionally exhausted, creatively wiped.

    I am lying there on the mat. I am refusing to get up.
     
     
     
    She says:

    — Grandma Moses. Grandma Moses got her start as a painter in her mid 70s.

    I lean my head into the phone to get as close as I can to her voice. Writing. How am I—

    She goes on:

    Laura Ingalls Wilder. First book in her 60s.

    —But what if—?

    No “what ifs.” You write because you write. Set it aside. This is what you do.

    I get my head off the mat inside my mind. That mat smells of old sweat and strong punches. It’s still raining outside.

    —But how do I—?

    I can’t even finish the sentence.

    You’ll find a way. Winston Churchill. Kept failing. Prime Minister. Twice.

    —What if it isn’t any goo—

    Einstein. Terrible at school. Beatrix Potter. No one wanted to publish stories and pictures about animals.

    —But I don’t know where I’m going to go—

    No such thing as second acts. Prior to the electronic age, people didn’t get information quickly, nor did they expect to get things quickly. Lots of people didn’t start things until they were 40 and 50, or later.

    — The publishing industry likes their young geniuses, Mom. Forty is a pretty big cut-off. I’m coming up on it.

    Don’t look over your shoulder. The past is the past.

    I stand up. I shake my head to get the blood moving to my shoulders. I bounce on the balls of my feet.

    The room is warm with the promise of more rain. My sweat makes a fine sheen on my forearms.

    — How? On days like today?

    Keep moving. Don’t rely on inspiration. Inspiration is fickle. It’s the muscle of the everyday. Make sure you have strong, clean work.

    — Okay, Mom. Okay.

    It’s just you. You compete with you. Keep it clean. Keep it up. Keep moving forward.
     
     
     

    Metacarpal fractures

     
     
     
    I thank my mother and she shoos me off of the phone to go work.

    It’s still raining. Why is it always raining when I have one of these days where every sentence, every word I write, is tinny and off? I stare out the window for a moment. The water slides down the glass, blurring my view.

    I put the house phone back on the cradle.

    I am not here. I am not anywhere. I am there with the words.

    I’m up. Blood is moving. The pen is in front of me.
     
     
     

      MY MOTHER AND THE MYTH OF THE SECOND ACT

      I love my mother. She’s given me this speech so many times over so many years that I can recall parts of it without conferring with her. (Still, I asked for her permission to write this story.)

      As a bonus, she allowed me to grab a quick interview with her while she was on the fly.

      It’s been a few months since I’ve called and asked her for “the talk,” so I wanted to see what she found recently that she loved.

      At the bottom of the page, you will find a list of Our Sunday Best links based on her recommendations.
       
       
      LATE BLOOMERS

      ME: I think of the term “late bloomers” as derogatory, but when you go to look up information on the internet, this is how you find it.

      MY MOTHER: We call them late bloomers, but they didn’t see it that way. I think there are two kinds of late bloomers. There’s one type that does not come into their own for whatever reason until later. This type wasn’t really sure what they wanted to be, and discovered what they wanted to be later.

      (The second type) Some late bloomers deferred their own dreams because they had responsibilities. After they raised their children… then they did what they wanted to after they took care of their responsibilities. For instance, many people quit school in the (19)30s and ’40s because their families needed them, and came back to what they really loved much later.
       
       
      KNOWING YOU ARE ON THE RIGHT PATH

      MY MOTHER: When you know you’re in your element, you lose track of time. When you love something, time changes for you. And you have one hundred percent of fulfillment.

      If you’re doing a job and you’re not in your element, it’s painful.

      When I see someone coming into their own, it’s amazing how a small amount of encouragement and kindness goes a long way.

      They give more; they dig deeper. They expect more of themselves. They’re blossoming. It’s their time. There’s no late. Just now.
       
       
       
       

      OUR SUNDAY BEST— (MY MOTHER’S RECOMMENDATIONS)

      It’s a Wonderful Life (“He was a late bloomer. He thought he wanted to do something else with his life, and it turned out that what he was doing then was what he really loved.”)

      Miss Potter (“She had to promote herself entirely.”)

      Late Bloomers: 75 People Who Found Fame, Success & Joy in the Second Half of Their Lives by Brendan Gill.

     
     
     
    (CODA)

    In any life, you must allow what comes next to come next.

    An early start in your vocation, your career, is not a ward against failure.

    Starting early only means that you will experience the moment of failure a little earlier than some.

    You absorb the shock of it. You learn from its shape, and you move on.

    In other words, you learn to take a punch.

    Even now as I walk towards my office, muscles warm, ready to go, ready to write— I hear my mother’s voice, whispering away:

    Isak Dinesen. Jacques Tati. Theloneous Monk. O. Henry. Helen Keller…
     
     
     
    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqJL5uSZznU

     
     
     
     

    Our Sunday Best: The Time Ghost Rides the Light— Group f/64, Zeitgeist and Photography

     
     
     

    Ansel Adams - National Archives 79-AA-F01

     
     
     

    [Writer’s note:  A few weeks ago, I wrote an Our Sunday Best about the birth of Modern-Era photography in America, with the help and encouragement of my mentor, Donald Ewers

    Due to the sheer pleasure of writing this piece and its surprising popularity, I said the following to Don— “I think I just started something unexpected.  There’s so much more I have to say.”  “Group f/64 is a whole other story,” he replied.

     Now, let’s continue where Stieglitz left off.]
     
     
     
     

      The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for

      authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place

      of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their

      households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They

      contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties

      at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.—Socrates

     
     
     

    A man stands in a canyon. 

    He is wearing a hat with a round brim.  The sun is late in the sky, but the man’s attention is solely on his view camera.  He’s almost ready to take a picture in the golden honey-light of the mountainous region of the Sierra Nevada.

    He has been setting up this shot for the last two hours. 

    It is 1930.  Ah.  The large-format camera is now ready. 

    The photographer steps forward sure-footed as a dancer.  He makes one small adjustment to the front plane of the camera.  He holds up the cable release, and examines the light one more time.

    Three years before, he wanted to be a concert pianist.

    He is shooting images for his first major photography show for the Smithsonian Institution.

    His name is Ansel Adams.

    Click.  He takes the picture.
     
     
     

    Adams was an American rebel. And he belonged to a group of rebels, at least for a time, called Group f/64.

    People remember Adams and a few of his cohorts, but not the way he and Group f/64 used an established technology for a new purpose.

    That purpose? To make photography an art not in competition with, or in relationship to, any other art form. At all.

    Photography as a means to create its own expression of a photographic image. Beginning, middle, and end.

    At the time it was revolutionary.

    American rebels of the 20th and 21st Century bring to mind the obvious contenders— movie stars; rock gods; civil rights activists.  

    And civil rights activists barely make the cut.  Americans are conditioned to think first of James Dean.  A blond actor wearing a black leather jacket.

    Beyond the easy conditioning, we devote a lot of energy, specifically awe or annoyance with clothing or mating habits of the current generation’s rebels.

    Forget their clothes.  Really. Just forget about it.
     
     
     

    Ansel Adams - National Archives 79-AA-G06

     
     
     

    Pay attention to their technology.

    That’s the real rebellion of the 20th and 21st century— each generation broke from the last one not based on a matter of taste or morals, but because of a difference in the availability and application of new technology.

    Technology is the coalescent Zeitgeist[i] of all great rebellion and growth.

    Photography is merely one example, but it’s a good one. Photography changed the way we see, changed what we saw of the world, changed language ourselves. That’s why we need to know who helped develop our eye.

    A rebellion kicks off the story of how you and I learned to see.

    But, all rebellions of the coalescent Zeitgeist begin with the tapering of the rebellion of the previous generation.

    In the case of Group f/64, what came before them was not even a what, it was a who.

    Alfred Stieglitz. Whotta legend!
     
     
     

      It was in the catalog for this (1920) show that (Alfred) Stieglitz made his famous declaration: “I was born in Hoboken. I am an American. Photography is my passion. The search for Truth my obsession.” What is less known is that he conditioned this statement by following it with these words:

      “PLEASE NOTE: In the above STATEMENT the following, fast becoming “obsolete,” terms do not appear: ART, SCIENCE, BEAUTY, RELIGION, every ISM, ABSTRACTION, FORM, PLASTICITY, OBJECTIVITY, SUBJECTIVITY, OLD MASTERS, MODERN ART, PSYCHOANALYSIS, AESTHETICS, PICTORIAL PHOTOGRAPHY, DEMOCRACY, CEZANNE, “291”, PROHIBITION. The term TRUTH did creep in but it may be kicked out by any one.” [ii]

     

    Alfred Stieglitz was the photographer and gallery owner who provided the East Coast muscle to move the photograph out of the realm of novelty and representation into an art form.

    He was the first recognized rebel of his era to break from the fairly new technology of the camera— and Stieglitz gave his life to making photography recognized as art. (Keep this in mind as you hear some of his petty antics. He is the well-spring for the photography we love now. Even if he was a jack#@%.)

    The style he championed was “pictorialism“— images of people and places rendered in soft, painterly strokes of light.

    In the process of cultivating new talent, he mentored two young photographers— Ansel Adams and Edward Weston— who would repay him by going out west and doing what the next generation does—

    —they rebelled.
     
     
     

    Ansel Adams - National Archives 79-AA-T11

     
     
     

    While Stieglitz consciously changed photography by taking soft, dream-like images on the foggy East Coast, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Sonya Noskowiak, and Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke, and John Paul Edwards planted their stake into the golden light of the Northern California coast, and named themselves Group f/64 [iii].

    San Francisco became the primary area where they lived and worked, but all seven photographers went far afield in the American West, taking photographs of nature and abstracted figures in a clear, crisp style that excites the eye due to its reinvention of texture and depth-of-field. (Texture— some photographs of the Group f/64 bunch take ordinary objects and make them alien with close-ups and unexpected angles. Depth-of-field— the eye can travel some serious kilometers in the big-scope landscape photographs.)

    Group f/64 also had great fun at Stieglitz’s expense when member Willard Van Dyke named his new venture Gallery 683 as a direct reference to Stieglitz’s earlier, revolutionary gallery in New York, Gallery 291

    Woo!  I know— you’re shrugging your shoulders, but Stieglitz could be a huge passive aggressive hothead who could, and did, slap back. 

    Photographer Donald Ewers told me, “There is an Ansel Adams video where he said Stieglitz’s response to the name Group f/64 was something like, ‘Oh, I’m f/128.'”

    Ker-SNAP!

    Oh, Stieglitz!  You naughty godfather of all modern photography, you![iv]
     
     
     

    Ansel Adams - National Archives 79-AA-G08

     
     
     
    A man stands in a canyon.  It is 1930.

    The Great Depression started months ago; restlessness can be felt everywhere, especially amongst the photographers— who are intimate with this restlessness and ambiguity.

    Photography doesn’t have a place of its own yet, not really. In the meantime, the country is beginning a slow-burn panic.

    Adams isn’t paying attention to that right now.

    Having taken his photograph and packed his equipment, Adams turns to go back down the trail before the last ribbon of sunlight leaves the thin dirt path.

    He does not know it yet, but he just joined part of the brewing zeitgeist surrounding photography and art.

    Adams turns his sharp eye to the little bit of sunlight left.  The air cools around him rapidly.  He shoulders his equipment and continues down the trail, whistling a little tune as he goes.
     
     

    ***

     
     

    NEXT WEEK ON OUR SUNDAY BEST! Group f/64 and the changing face of art during the Great Depression!   Snappy Stieglitz comebacks!  New technology!  Edward Weston and the abstracted nude! Whoa Nelly! Pull the car around! We gotta get to next Sunday, quick!
     
     
     

    ***

     
    ENDNOTES

    [i] Zeitgeist— from the German Zeit and Geist.   In English, this translates to “Time Ghost,”  but the meaning has to do with a group of people having a similar, revolutionary idea at the same time.  Often they may not know each other at the beginning of their new idea, but the do know each other once their idea gets rolling. At the end of a Zeitgeist moment, it’s anybody’s guess if anyone is still getting along.

     

    [ii] Dorothy Norman (1973). Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

     

    [iii] f/64 is the smallest aperture on a large format camera.

     

    [iv] No, seriously.  He could be straight-up cruel.  Some of the things he did to his first and second wives would make you scream.  Second wife— Georgia O’Keefe.  Guess what?  She screamed back.  Well… his first wife was no slouch in the screaming department either.

     
     

    ***

     
     

    *WANT TO READ THIS SERIES IN ORDER?*
     

    OUR SUNDAY BEST: THE TIME GHOST RIDES THE LIGHT
     

    *PROLOGUE: WHERE THE LIGHT CAPTURES US

    *PART ONE

    *PART TWO

    *PART THREE

    *BOOKS & FILMS on Early Modern Photography
     

    As always, all of my work in this area is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers.

    *The first installment of the “History of Modern Photography” series was this piece here, but it began when I wrote a piece for Our Sunday Best, which is Bluebird Blvd.’s weekly in-depth survey of some cool idea or thing. (Initially, it was my attempt to do a groovy list post in the early days of Bluebird Blvd., when I was posting seven days a week. Of course, the list posts kept getting bigger and more complex and more about things I am madly in love with, and so, you know, I ended up writing things like this piece, which took eight or more hours of pedal to the metal research with flipping footnotes and stuff. (Having a journalism/English/writing background does have its perks. I am a pretty fast researcher.) (Keep in mind that I am an absolute idiot at dozens of other things, just in case you think I sound a little too proud at the moment.)

    My bigger point is, I have worked as photographer semi-professionally since my early 20s, but I had not, until last year, shown any interest in writing about the history of photography. Photography’s history is pretty nutty and full of gossip and switchback roads and all sorts of nonsense. It’s also amazing and gratifying and shows you just how tough photographers are. Photography is also one of the first art forms where, right out of the gate, there were women photographers— and no one said jack-diddly-doo about it. (Well, some idiots might have tried, but Imogen Cunningham and Dorothea Lange could pin folks’ ears back with a reply, I am certain. All the early ones were tough— the women and the men— and they worked together. It makes me giddy to think on it.)

    Bluebird Blvd. is still running new installments in this ongoing series. In fact, what I’m working on now is a complete manuscript that covers the width and breadth of modern photography. I’m excited to share this with you today, and I was excited when I posted this installment last year on April 17, 2012. Because from here— we’ll be jumping right into a whole different history next week. Shall we begin? Let us begin!
     
     
     

    Why a repost? Go here for a partial explanation as to why we’re reposting this week.
     
     
     

    A NOTE: Guess WHICH BLUEBIRD of your ACQUAINTANCE is back from BIG BEND U.S. NATIONAL PARK! No, GUESS! (I’ve begun to put up some pix from this short but potent trip on the Bluebird Blvd. FB Page.)

     

    Our Sunday Best: Disguises and Surprises

     
     

    Garage mechanic near Newark, N.J. Badge denotes member of Office of Defense Transportation (LOC)

     
     

    My mother invited me to a charity gala whatchacallit this week, and I had my semi-annual panic over what to wear.

    I love to go places with my mother. And I hate to dress up. It’s a real head-shrinker of a problem, I tell you.

    After doing a quick mental flick-through of my current clothes situation, I panicked. Was I going to have to wear the one dress I own with the sleeves I loathe? Whattodo? Whattodo?

    Would it be possible to cobble something together from other garments I own?

    Despite my panic, I managed to mouth-breathe long enough to source a pair of slim black trousers in my closet I forgot I purchased from the thrift store last summer. And a sleeveless grey cashmere sweater, and a silk menswear jacket, all thrifted from the same trip. I slapped some heels on and away we went!
     
     

    Well, that’s how the story is supposed to go, anyway.

    What really happened is that the trousers, in good sunlight, though clean, were coated in dog hair and weird fibers of unknown origin.

    (My mother called them my mo’ hair trousers ’cause they got mo’ hair than they’re supposed to have.)

    After wearing the four-inch heels for two hours, I started to wonder when I had replaced the heels of my shoes with railroad spikes.

    My poppy-toned red lipstick migrated to my forehead after dinner, but before I drank my post-dessert cup of decaf.

    To recap: Here’s a mental snapshot of what I looked like by the end of the evening—

    I was wearing furry trousers.
    I was limping from painful heels, and—
    my red lipstick looked quite lovely on my glistening forehead.

    The moral of this story?

    You can’t take me anywhere. (That’s pronounced enny-whurr, by the way, in certain parts of Texas.)

    And so, do you know what I do? Do you know what I did?

    I could get embarrassed, oh my good Aunt Sally, I could get really embarrassed every time I look like a fool in public.

    But, I’m so foolhardy, so often, I’d walk around with a perpetual flush.

    Instead? I laughed. My mother laughed too. We’re quite a pair in public!
     
     

    Besides, my friends, what’s the fun in embarrassment?

    This hilarious debacle of the pants and the shoes and the lipstick got me to thinking about disguises and surprises.

    You know what I’m talking about, y’all.

    Sometimes you don’t know what your gonna get or who you’re going to be until you get there.

    In the spirit of that kind of good fun, let me give you a few goodies that aren’t what you think until you take a good look.

    There’s a lot of love and a lot of happiness out there on the internet, and you don’t have to poke much to find it.
     
     

    Hump master in a Chicago and Northwestern railroad yard operating a signal switch system which extends the length of the hump track. He is thus able to control movements of locomotives pushing the train over the hump from his post at the hump office; Chic

     
     

    Why don’t you let me take you on a short trolley tour through some of my favorite happy places on the internet?

    Some are surprises and some are full of unusual disguises!

    All ABOARD!

    Tickets out please!

    Pleased to meet you and you and YOU!

    It’s good to see you today!

    You’re looking rather spiffy!
     
     

    FIRST STOP!
     

    SURPRISES!

     
     

    Our first stop on our tour is my latest de-stressing device, found by my friend Phillip, and courtesy of the Discovery Channel and Sea World.

    I give you the 24-HOUR PENGUIN CAM! Your life is never gonna be the same! There are two views: topside and underwater.

    To click from one to the other, mash the Multiview button in the bar title bar. (This feature I discovered TODAY. Whoa! Life is good!)

    GO HERE and then come back and tell me what you saw! Go on! You’re gonna get happy, I promise!

    Do you know what I do? I make up dialogue for the penguins hanging out topside!

    There’s one male penguin that stands there in profile near the camera a lot.

    I’ve named him Sartre.

    He’s the only penguin I’ve ever seen who looks like he’s having some sort of multi-layered deep thoughts moment at all times.
     
     

    Another unexpected surprise this week is that Françoise Mouly, the art editor for the weekly cover of The New Yorker, maintains a fantastic blog (with the help of Nadja Spiegelman, her daughter) that shows all the covers that didn’t make the cut for the week.

    I see that you’re shrugging. So?

    Françoise Mouly, Nadja Spiegelman and Blown Covers show the progress of idea to end product of how The New Yorker covers get conceived, created, and chosen.

    The ones that don’t get chosen? A slideshow of the week’s near-hits are posted on this Tumblr site with notes by Mouly. Fascinating stuff!

    Also? Each day of the work week is devoted to some part of the cover process for the magazine— from discussing past covers, to talking about artist who’ve done covers recently and their processes, to a weekly contest.

    Honest-to-goodness, y’all, if you want to see commercial art come alive? Go run off and read some Blown Covers!
     
     

    Switch lists coming in by teletype to the hump office at a Chicago and Northwestern railroad yard, Chicago, Ill. (LOC)

     
     
     

    DING-DING! NEXT STOP?
     

    DISGUISES!

     
     

    Oh, you think history needs more oomph do you? (I know that you all love yourselves some history!)

    I can think of two blogs right off of the top of my head that will make history come alive (insert jazz hands moment here) for you right now!
     
     

    The first one is a super-favorite-favorite of some time now— The Retronaut.

    This blog is like a living museum of things designed for minutiae-style obsessions.

    Do you want to see… a pictorial timeline of Winston Churchill’s life with photographs you never knew existed?

    What about Bridget Bardot’s first trip to Cannes?

    How about an exploration of the exercise video fad of the ’80s?

    Would you like to visit a retrospective of Sea Monkey Ads?

    Of course you would! OF COURSE YOU WOULD! Go here right now!
     

    As for the remaining passengers on this vessel. Let’s go farther!
     
     

    Let’s relive all the straight-up weirdness that is the fabulous 1970s via the prolific blog, Plaid Stallions!

    I can see I have your attention now!

    My friend Phillip pointed me in the direction of Plaid Stallions last year as I opined my mislaid gigantic Fischer Price Little People collection, which may be in storage somewhere.

    And it may not be. (I’ll keep y’all posted on this important issue.)

    Plaid Stallion’s subhead is “Reliving the ’70s a Catalogue Page At a Time,” and jeez, Louisiana, they don’t fool around!

    This blog comes down to two important main sections— Fashion and Toys. There are other subheads, but they aren’t nearly so full of pages upon pages of ’70s arcana as the two big ones.

    The fashion is primarily male-oriented— which I applaud— as so many retro fashion sites are exclusively focused on women’s clothes.

    Not Plaid Stallions! NO SIR!

    As for toys? Whatever your retro heart desires? Plaid Stallion either has, or will, explore it in the near future!

    Prepare for the wild nostalgia ride of your life at Plaid Stallions. (Yeah, Gen Xers! I’m looking at you!)

    Your stop is right here!
     
     

    THE FINAL STOP of this trolley ride

    is at the end of the page.

    It’s not so much a place as it is a moment with one of my favorite scenes from my favorite movie series of all time— The Pink Panther.

    Last week, I left the house looking presentable, and halfway through the night, I resembled a demented limping goat faun with a lipstick-aiming problem.

    I am okay with that part of myself.

    Why?

    Because my heroes include people like Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau.

    And if Clouseau manages to live another day after failing to get anything right?

    I think I can live with my mo’ hair pants.

    In fact, I know I can.
     
     
     
     

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jOtVy3t7-Q