WE WILL NEVER FORGET

The crowd was roaring last night at Ground Zero, just three blocks from our apartment. The news was good and a long time coming. I will never forget that day, nor this one.

(Photographs ©2011 Doug Menuez/MAP)

Tereza and I were visiting New York on September 11, 2001. We flew in from California for a romantic weekend and I was taking her out to the house on Long Island where we first met in 1976 when her sister finally got her a visa out of Brazil. I rented a limo and was trying to show her a good time. I’d been on the road a while and was trying to make it up to her. We stopped to get coffee before driving out of town and were about 10 blocks North of the World Trade Center off of West Broadway when the first plane hit. We were in the middle of the block perpendicular and getting out of the car when it wailed past overhead, followed instantly by a loud flat bang, like sheets of steel being dropped from a great height flat onto the pavement.

Tereza ran to the corner to see and began screaming. I ran up and we could see smoke and flames billowing out of the large black hole, along with desks, chairs, papers and several bodies. I knew I was no longer a news photographer as my instinct was to get my wife out of there.

She was crying and terrified and so we jumped in the car and I asked the driver, Kenny, to get us the hell over the bridge. I wanted her to be safe, and I was determined not to do what I’d done for so many years as a photojournalist and disappear for days on a story. I was going to take her out to the Island, have our day, and stay married.

But I did have a camera with me, loaded with Tri-X, as I usually do, ever since my days on newspapers where you were trained to be ready for anything. It started to occur to me this was historic, even though we had no idea if this was anything other than an accident. We heard on the radio that they thought it was a small plane, although we were sure it had to be bigger from the sound of the engines we heard. After a few blocks, I couldn’t help myself. I apologized to Tereza, saying I just needed to get one shot, and asked Kenny to pull over and let me try to get something. Which he did, on Delancey Street by a park not far from the bridge. I lifted my camera and pressed the shutter just as the second plane hit from the South. Tereza shouted “terrorists” as she quickly triangulated the obvious impossibility of two planes hitting both towers within minutes of each other. This was truly chilling. Yet I was now in news mode, in denial of emotion, just acting on the mission–except I was acting in complete reverse of my training. Now my mission was to go the opposite direction of every other photographer in New York at that moment which I knew was crazy. Still, I felt nothing, no emotion either way, yet.

We continued over the Williamsburg Bridge and I looked back and could see both towers burning. I asked Kenny to pull off and go down to the water so I could get one last overview shot before we continued out to the Island. As I was getting out of the car I realized I was out of film and ran into a bodega and found a dusty old roll of color neg. As I came out a group of Hassidem jumped out of a minivan in front of me and I made a picture. Tereza joined me and we went to the water where I shot the towers burning. I tried to calm her by saying although it looked bad, and certainly the towers would burn until gutted, I said I was sure we would repair them and life would go on. And then the first tower collapsed, as if in slow motion. It was shocking. Inexplicable. For the first time in a long time I felt a surge of emotion. I lost it then, completely. We had been attacked at the core or our nation, and the symbolic victory the terrorists had sought was now theirs, with likely thousands of dead. A large number of people had just died before our eyes. I then also realized we had probably lost friends, which turned out to be true.

While trapped in New York, unable to get a plane, train, bus, or rental car back to the West Coast for five days we walked and walked through the city. We watched the frantic efforts at the recovery beginning. The city was changing fast with strangers talking to each other, helping each other. You could see both fear and a resolve to survive, fight and rebuild in the faces on the streets. We decided then that we would return soon, and in fact by the following summer we had moved back to Manhattan after decades away. We wanted to be part of it, the resurgence of a great city. We were New Yorkers again.

http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1888705_1863800,00.html

Monday
02
May 2011

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DENNIS STOCK 1928-2010.

Dennis Stock & Susan Richards after exchanging wedding vows in 2006.

Dennis Stock & Susan Richards after exchanging wedding vows in 2006 at their house in Woodstock, NY. ©2010 Doug Menuez.

Dennis Stock has died at the age of 81. He began his long career at Magnum in 1951 shortly after winning first prize in the LIFE Magazine young photographers contest. Widely known for his intimate portraits and coverage of James Dean, Dennis covered a wide range of stories for all the major magazines,  publishing at least 16 books. He was always finding the heart of the subject matter and making compelling, beautifully composed photographs that everyone of my generation grew up remembering. He was a living link to what he often called a “golden” age of photography and an inspiration to me and countless others.

Dennis made pictures that get into your head and never leave. Simple moments that articulate a whole culture. His work in jazz and covering the hippie movement are great examples. He did this with passion and grace and with an open mind and heart. This was a man who lived and breathed photography and exemplified the life well lived.

He was also a dear friend and mentor and his gift to me was a constant vigilance and questioning of what I was doing or planned to do. He helped me immensely at a time when I was at a crossroads with very generous advice. He sometimes had a harsh style and could be intimidating, but that was because of his tremendous passion and belief in his ideas. He was old school, and unwilling to tolerate the least amount of bullshit from anyone. But he had a heart of gold and cared deeply about people, the world in which he lived, and his friends and family.

In my last conversation with Dennis a few days before he died he had just been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and given two months to live. Yet it was not really a sad conversation and we made plans to visit this weekend. He was too fierce to give up and I certainly could not accept the diagnosis as any kind of reality. But it was definitely the gentlest, easiest conversations we’ve had. Usually we debated the many issues we disagreed on. We even debated the ones we agreed on actually. But in this conversation he talked lovingly of his dear wife, the bestselling author and memoirist Susan Richards, who met and married Dennis three years ago. She brought him immeasurable happiness and balance at the very end of his long life, a blessing. He spoke of his “brilliant” son and grandson and their families. He was immensely proud of his offspring and described their considerable and impressive accomplishments. We talked about his years with Magnum, about his mentors and inspirations, his longtime colleagues he admired such as Elliott Erwitt, and his battles and frustrations.

An example of the kind of thing we would talk about a lot was compostion.  During our last talk, without any sense of bragging or ego, Dennis said, “for whatever reason, I was given the ability to frame anything. I can make a great composition instinctively.” He was stating a fact. Just look at his pictures. He also deeply believed in the precepts of HCB in regard to it not being enough to capture the moment, you had to also frame that within a pleasing geometric composition. For Dennis, this is how you catch the eye of the viewer, and this is how you make your pictures memorable.

We talked about his early days and I asked him about Eugene Smith. He told a few Smith anecdotes and the story about how Smith hired and fired him and sent him to Gjon Mili. We got on to the subject of the uncanny portrait taken by Andreas Feininger that graced the cover of LIFE after Dennis won the award in 1951. Dennis mentioned that a few years back one of his workshop students came to him and asked if he could recreate that portrait of Dennis. Although Dennis was a skeptical of the idea he consented and was quite amused and happy with the result in that he had this sort of bookend set of portraits at the beginning and near end of his life.

We once had a show at our former Woodstock Gallery of his Hollywood work, which was a rare and crazy priviledge. In general, except as I said for this last conversation, Dennis kicked my ass almost every time we spoke– constantly, urgently talking to me about what I was doing, or what he thought I should be doing, with my work and my life. That was a gift I can never repay. I was truly lucky to meet him and have him in my life, even briefly.

Dennis was the real deal. He will be sorely missed.

Wednesday
13
January 2010

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.38

From “Blur: A Memoir,” an ongoing and random series of stories, dreams, and memories from my life as a photographer. This is #4 in a continuing series from “Tesão,” about my wife Tereza and our life together.

©2009 Doug Menuez, from "Tesåo"

©2009 Doug Menuez, from "Tesåo"

I should not have been surprised to see her husband rushing out the door of our house as we pulled up with the groceries.

He’d been calling us for months from New York at all hours, threatening and harassing Tereza until she refused to answer the phone. Six months back he’d convinced her to marry him, then kicked her out after a month to get back with his previous girlfriend. Tereza was devastated and not eating. She was down to 85 pounds when I asked her to move to San Francisco and start over with me.

Now he wanted her back and had secretly planned this trip for weeks. Before I could even park, he was pulling Tereza from our car and pushing her into his. He hauled ass down the hill, going the wrong way, toward the bottom of the hill and a dead end. I knew I had a few minutes before he would discover his mistake and come back past me. I called my friend M. who skidded into my driveway less than two minutes later in his new Porsche. I hopped in bringing M’s 38 caliber revolver which he had forgotten at our house weeks ago. Frankly, I was scared of Tereza’s husband and made a clear, conscious decision that whatever it took, she was going to be safe.

His car zoomed past us, up onto the narrow cliff road with a 1000-foot drop on the passing side. M. was a war photographer, loved the action and gunned it. We easily caught up, passed by and forced him off the road. He started insulting me as I jumped out of the Porsche and approached but his ranting was incoherent and his threats rang hollow. I realized I’d won without a fight. I put the gun away and stood back. He got out of the car and tearfully begged Tereza on his knees to come back with him, offering her half a million in cash. She stayed.


Thursday
03
September 2009

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PREGNANT

From “Blur: A Memoir,” an ongoing and random series of stories, dreams, and memories from my life as a photographer. This is #3 in a continuing series from “Tesåo,” about my wife Tereza and our relationship. A recurring theme in any photographer’s life is how to maintain some semblance of family life, or to even keep friends.

©2009 Doug Menuez

©2009 Doug Menuez


We were about to leave Sausalito for Hawaii on an assignment when Tereza came down with a serious fever. I took her to the doctor right away and he became very concerned, forbade her to travel and did some tests. I went anyway as we needed the money but I hated to leave her like that.

The next day I called to see if Tereza was well enough to join me. She said the doctor told her she had severe thyroiditis and would have died of shock within twenty-four hours if she had gone with me undiagnosed. A really long week passed until I was able to finish my shoot and get home. She was feeling better and we went to see the specialist our doctor had arranged. A pill, each day, would regulate her thyroid and keep her well.

Forty-five days later, Tereza tested positive. She was pregnant. Tereza had never been able to have children in her previous marriages and was told in Brazil she never would, so birth control was not in our picture. It turned out the reason was related less to my Basque heritage and more to the new thyroid medication, which the specialist knew would make make her fertile but, um, forgot to tell us.

I was shooting a movie star in Aspen when I got called to the phone by the star’s husband, also a movie star, who happened to be my favorite TV actor when I was a kid. He played a cynical, daring thief, my perfect role model. Tereza was calling with the good but shocking and completely unexpected news. That night at dinner after the shoot I was in a dream-shock state. The star’s husband, still handsome and flashing his trademark grin, asked me why I thought I was the father since I travel so much, and, he added, he was in Sausalito a lot. The movie star kicked him under the table which snapped me out of my shock. I began making plans. Our lives were changed, blessed to be sure, but I had to grow up quick and figure out how to be a father. Something I was sure I would never be, nor be any good at.

Sausalito, 1987.

“Tesão” is from our publication URGE and can be purchased through my web site:

http://menuez.com/ Then select:  Information > Store > Limited Edition Books > URGE/Tesão


Tuesday
14
July 2009

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NOTHING CHANGED

From “Blur: A Memoir,” an ongoing and random series of stories, dreams, and memories from my life as a photographer. This is #2 in a continuing series from “Tesåo,” about my wife Tereza and our relationship. A recurring theme in any photographer’s life is how to maintain some semblance of family life, or to even keep friends. This story reflects parts of my personal evolution and naive attempts to balance my work and family and make my second (and hopefully last) marriage work.

©2009 Doug Menuez from "Tesão"

©2009 Doug Menuez from "Tesão"

After we broke up I drove cross country to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, determined to lose myself in photography. Tereza quickly tired of America and moved back to Brazil in 1977, entered University, got married, got divorced, graduated, moved back to New York to work for Globo TV eight years later, got married again, and in a devastating setback got separated from her new husband within a month.  She began looking for me. Not knowing where I’d moved, she was calling around the US for two years, city by city, finally in late 1985 finding my number in San Francisco with the help of her sister.

I had suffered night after night in those ten long, sad years we had been apart, listening to Brazilian records and memory-etching each detail of that summer together. She found me in California and left a sweet message, which I played upon returning from a shoot. I’d been flying all day in a helicopter with Wayne Newton at the controls, his german shepherd barking continuously in the co-pilot seat as Wayne roared through canyons near Vegas, inches from the red rock walls.  Exhausted, I arrived home and hit play on my answering machine. Her soft voice barely audible with my cocaine-fueled wife screaming for a divorce behind me (“OK, you got it!”).Then I flew all night to New York City full of elation, adrenaline and dread. Laying in bed that first day back together, it was then, looking into her eyes, that I experienced true peace of mind for the first time. We’d found each other again and nothing whatsoever had changed between us.

I was always flying in those days for the magazines and was able to start making weekend trips to New York to see Tereza from wherever I was shooting. We slowly got to know each other again over five months of visits. I started secretly grabbing some of her stuff and putting it into my suitcase to bring back to Sausalito, while slowly trying to convince her to leave New York.

The last weekend before she finally decided to move with me to California, Tereza remembered her visit to a psychic who made some predictions on a tape that she had put in a drawer and never played. She had just forgotten about it. As a young journalist, I was pretty skeptical of psychics but was willing to listen.

Tereza found the tape and put it on her little cassette player. We sat together and listened. The psychic spoke in a calm, even voice. He said that in two years time Tereza would meet a man from her past with the initials “DM or MD” and that he worked for the magazines. We both got chills as we realized it was two years to the month since she had been given the tape. We looked hard at each other. I knew she was deciding that moment to go with me, to trust me. Well, there are just some things that can’t be explained in life. Some force is at work we can only guess at. This then, our meeting again after all this time, was fate.

©2009 Doug Menuez from "Tesão"

©2009 Doug Menuez from "Tesão"


Sunday
21
June 2009

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Beach House '76

From “Blur: A Memoir,” an ongoing and random series of stories, dreams, and memories from my life as a photographer.

When Tereza arrived in New York City from Brazil in 1976, her older sister Magda got her a job in a sweatshop on 23rd Street sewing leather bags for Carlos Falchi. Magda was representing the hot new Brazilian designer, filling orders she’d taken from Bloomindale’s and trendy boutiques downtown.

tesao_021

Every day at lunch the women would rise from their sewing machines and gather by the huge windows on the 10th floor. Across the street, like clockwork, they would see this freaky old guy jerking off on his rooftop, looking over at them as they laughed in amazement and disgust.

At night, Tereza and Magda would go to huge parties downtown wearing black leather mini-skirts. There were East Germans, Russians and Poles who’d escaped through the Iron Curtain, Brazilian diplomats and musicians, French filmmakers, Italian playboys, heroin dealers, dancers, painters, and a few Americans trying to dance the Samba, with everyone high on Capirinhas, shouting over the music in a Babel-like cacophony of miscommunication.

It wasn’t long before the sweatshop job wore Tereza down and she quit, retreating to the calm of Magda’s beach house on Eaton’s Neck, not far from where I grew up in Northport. On Easter Sunday I was making a rare visit home when Magda called me from the city. For three years Magda had been telling me her younger sister would come to live with her as soon as she could arrange things. And finally her sister had arrived, was alone at the beach house, and needed cheering up. I was busy and still a bit mad at Magda for some long-forgotten reason, made some excuse and hung up. Five minutes later, Maria Tereza Pires Machado, 21 years old, called and asked in very broken English why I would not come and see her. Her voice was soft and sexy as hell. I grabbed a bottle of wine and my Nikkormat and hitchhiked the 30 miles to see her. Although I did not understand her Portuguese, language was not an issue that night and we talked for hours. She insisted I stay the night, pulling me into bed. I watched her cross the kitchen into the back bedroom. With a quick, graceful gesture she simultaneously dropped her sun dress revealing her naked, perfect brown body, while slapping her hand on the bed, and said “You stay.” I did.

This utterly blew my 18-year-old, Long Island mind. The night became a week. I was overwhelmed, transported to another planet, converted to a new religion––the religion of her––with the total devotion and hallucinatory intensity of a convert, and in way, way, way over my head. I’d had girlfriends; this was a woman.

We began an affair that lasted almost six months until she abruptly broke up with me. She got bored and wanted to see older guys. On our last date I tried to impress her and took her to Fire Island in my “new” ’65 Opel and we ran out of gas on the highway. She didn’t really speak to me after that, although I continued to visit her sisters. Devastated, I moved to San Francisco determined to forget her and dedicate my life to photography.

Sunday
07
June 2009

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LIFE HAPPENS, ALERT THE MEDIA

“So I laid out my evolving thesis to the crowd of young shooters: if we spent more time with our  families, wouldn’t we then develop more as human beings? Wouldn’t we become more emotionally rounded and more sensitive to the human experience? And wouldn’t that make us better photographers, better able to observe, empathize and understand our subjects on a gut level, rather than what is often a purely visceral news content level? It went over like a lead balloon.”

Our friends Marvi Lacar and Ben Lowy came for dinner last night, with surprising and lovely news that Marvi is pregnant. Naturally the subject came up of how to be a photojournalist and be a good parent. Ben was leaving for Afghanistan in the morning and then possibly returning to Iraq. The discussion was not just about the risks we take to cover the story but being away for extended periods, the endless miles apart from family. When my son was born 21 years ago I was way less mature or prepared to deal with the responsibility then Marvi and Ben. Aside from their incandescent talent and amazing work, they are both incredibly smart and thoughtful people. They will now go through the balancing act a new baby requires. I’ve been writing and talking recently about finding a balance in our work between art and commerce, but this is much deeper and more complicated. Can you have a family and be a dedicated photojournalist?

Sometime in the early 1990′s I was invited to be on the panel of the Flying Short Course. I was the token magazine photojournalist before an audience of mostly young newspaper photographers, many of whom aspired to the perceived glamor and freedom of freelance magazine work. Someday they hoped to be covering wars, celebrities, campaigns, etc., and  expected me to extoll the virtues of my life. True, I was living my dream but was also starting to make the painful decisions that were bringing me to the end-point of that phase in my career. My mindset was very, very different than what my audience was expecting. My son had begun saying inconvenient things like, “Daddy, don’t go,” each time I headed out the door to another far-off assignment. It broke my heart of course. And at that point in my life, not much could get through my field-deadened emotions. And that meant I could no longer ignore the needs of my family for my career. That’s when I started looking for a way to put myself at risk less often, do commercial work or anything that helped me be home more, and deal with the reality I had created. But it is much easier to worry instead about the fierce demands required to not only get across the world but to then get the picture. Much, much easier.

Here’s the first picture I showed in my presentation:

cpw_32

My wife Tereza is holding our two-year old son Paolo in 1989. I had arrived the night before after 8 weeks in China and was leaving at that moment back to China via Hamburg to shoot “A Day in The Life of China,” with 100 of the world’s top photojournalists and then on to another assignment for another month after that. I was able to fit a visit home in San Francisco and had grabbed clean clothes and a meal. As I leaned to kiss my wife goodbye she burst into tears. My son looked at her and also began to cry. My reaction? I snatched the Polaroid off the dresser and shot this image. It was pure training; a moment was happening right in front of me and I reacted as if I was covering a story, instantly. Heartless? Sure, but in retrospect it was probably the only way I could have suppressed the very real pain of leaving my family. I was steeling my mind for more weeks on the road. Super glamorous.

Since then I”ve shown this picture in my talks and workshops because it was such a searing pivotal moment for me in my evolution as a photographer and a person and often relevant to younger shooters contemplating their futures. My heroes in photojournalism, most of the legends, had pretty much abandoned their families to survive as best they could while away on shoots. All my mentors were divorced and married to the camera and job. The attitude I learned with was that to be any good, you had to be willing to die for the picture. It was the work, the work, the work. Everything else came second, if at all.

The life I led then was similar to so many magazine news photographers. You kept a bag packed at all times. You had your eye on the news all the time looking for stories. You would either get a call to cover something or you’d pitch a story. If there was a big story and you could get to it first or second you’d just go knowing your agent would secure the “guarantees” for a number of days plus space. You could never say no to an editor or ever, ever fuck up. At a conference in the 80′s I once heard a young photogapher ask Roxanne Edwards at Business Week what would happen if, you know, somehow the film just did not turn out? Response: “Then you would never work for us again.” Sharp, honest, true answer. But seriously, doh! The other editors on the panel from Time, Newsweek, US News all shook their heads solemnly in agreement. The pressure to get world-class images on deadline against tremendous competition was unrelenting, yet it was also what fueled us. I was on the road so much that at one point I had to write notes to myself before I passed out in my hotel with the name of the city I was in, so when I woke up I’d know where the hell I was. Berlin. Bangkok. Khartoum. Paris. One trip had me shooting in 17 countries in 17 days. 

And I do believe there is a natural tendency when you photograph the misery in the world– people dying or starving– to shut down our emotions, not that differently from an EMT at an accident scene. You must function as a professional. The by-product is that we become damaged goods; emotionally stunted, untreated PTS victims. This is just another layer on top of what the loneliness of the road does to you. I’d say some of us probably become borderline sociapaths. But hey, I’m probably just confusing some photojournalists with hard core paparazzi. Kidding! Or maybe not…

So I laid out my evolving thesis to the crowd of young shooters: if we spent more time with our  families, friends or significant others, wouldn’t we then develop more as human beings? Wouldn’t we become more emotionally rounded and more sensitive to the human experience? And wouldn’t that make us better photographers, better able to observe, empathize and understand our subjects on a gut level, rather than what is often a purely visceral news content level? It went over like a lead balloon. One slightly older guy approached me later with tears in his eyes and said he was struggling with just this issue. But the reaction from the crowd that day, and later from my my peers was pretty negative. None of my friends––who were also my competition––had kids and most were not yet married. From there I chose my own path and moved into a kind of wilderness of isolation from my colleagues and clients in photojournalism. A new life began.

This photograph of my wife and son is always a good reminder to me of the goals I set to try to be a better parent. My son is now a talented musician finishing college so for that I’m grateful. Obviously my career could not have happened without the support of my wife who became my partner in the business and primary caregiver. For her, the decision was easier because she was told she’d never have children. Our son was a miracle kid and she wanted to be part of his every minute. And this issue is obviously more complicated for women in general. It used to be that most women became picture editors; now there are many more women in the field shooting– not enough, but still way more.

Of course smart people will find ways to balance the competing needs of work and family, that’s not new. The issue is about what it takes to do what Ben does in Afghanistan. Can you be at that level, all in, and still create a balance? It can be done I think, but it is not easy and only with careful planning. And with so many more people starting families while working in photojournalism I’m interested to learn some of the creative solutions out there.

The truth that I’ve learned to live with and embrace is this: how my son turns out is way more important than any picture I produce. His impact on his world, the world he grows into, his friends or future family, is my only real legacy. And I’m so, so fine with that.

Thursday
16
April 2009

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Natasha Richardson

natasha-richardson_menuez1

It was very sad news the other day to hear about the death of Natasha Richardson. A sharp reminder of the fragility of our lives. We are just not in control of much that happens so best to pay close attention to what we do get to experience. I flashed back to a day in the late 1980′s that I spent with Natasha, shooting her for People Magazine. I was young and very nervous and so was she. But she was gracious and generous, exceptionally so for someone in her position. She had agreed to let me hang out through her day and I arrived at her father’s house in the Hollywood hills by myself with all my gear. I rarely had an assistant in those days, even when I was lighting.

She said she loved to cook and suggested she make us spaghetti for lunch. I felt this was her subtle way of directing the situation, both me and the photographs, and glad of it as I could relax a bit and begin to work.  She drove us in her little convertible to the market where she shopped for our meal and then back. Her father, the director Tony Richardson, wandered in to the kitchen while she was cooking, tasted the sauce, said hello and wandered out. I just kept shooting and talking with her, hoping to make a picture. After we ate, we did some shots by the pool and around the garden where I made this portrait.

Over the years I’ve shot many of the famous, infamous, up-and-coming and otherwise celebrated of our culture. You often see the way fame twists a person and the pressure and stress they deal with and how they treat people around them. I did not see her again and don’t know really what she was truly like but I got a sense. I keep an open mind and try not to judge people. Yet being human it’s only natural to do so and generally my opinion of a person is shaped by how they treat me. Of course I keep in mind that when I show up I’m there to get something, I’m asking for time and intimacy. It’s tough. I understand that this is difficult, even when your career relies to some degree on the heat that People Magazine and it’s 29 million readers generate.

The shoot with Natasha was sheer pleasure. It was one of those rare shoots that illustrate why what we do is such a privilege. I got to meet and learn something of life from a person of great character, humble and untouched by the mad swirl of celebrity she grew up in. Her civility, manners and core respect for others, along with her profound talent and cautious joy in life took her a long way. A portrait of the artist as a young woman.

Monday
06
April 2009

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ICE BLIND

94_100_102v11A pounding on my cabin door brings me upright from a deep sleep only just begun. Sunlight slanting through the portholes is disorienting me––my clock says 3 a.m.––but then I remember I’m on a Russian icebreaker out of Murmansk bound for the North Pole, somewhere in the vast snow-covered arctic ice plains, smashing our way to the top of the world through endless days of endless summer. I’m on assignment for Condé Nast Traveler to cover a group of environmental scientists and wealthy adventure tourists. Fully dressed and expecting a wake up call in case of polar bear sighting, I jump up and grab my cameras.

Opening the door I see the ship security officers Sergei and Ivan, both ex-KGB and carrying shotguns. They are on board because our icebreaker is nuclear powered. “Helicopter. You come now,” says Sergei as he pulls me through the door, marching me onto the deck where the ancient, massive cargo chopper is warming up. I can see seven or eight passengers, mostly attractive women dressed for disco and a few men from the crew who live below decks where there is supposedly a clandestine prostitution and gambling ring. They appear to have been partying all night and are passing around a clear bottle of what I assume is vodka. I am pushed on board and strapped into an observation seat facing out the open door. They pass the bottle to the pilot who takes a swig and starts revving the engines. I get the bottle and realize I’m drinking de-icing fluid. Clearly they expect me to take pictures of something and I get the idea that I’m now part of the entertainment. As we start lifting off I spy a giant cotter pin on the landing pad. I can’t help but wonder about the standards for air craft maintenance in the collapsing Soviet empire.

We immediately fly into a swirling arctic fog, losing sight of the ship and all visibility. I remember that I was told yesterday this craft has no functioning navigational instruments and will only be used on clear days. A short while later we descend onto the ice, the powerful twin rotors whipping the surface snow around us into a perfect roaring white out.

I’m tensed and ready to shoot whatever is going to happen but completely blinded and turn my head back to Sergei and Ivan to shield my eyes. They are smiling, watching me expectantly, drinking. I motion to go up and am ignored. I look up through the swirling, opaque snow and suddenly make out a looming shadow across a curtain of fog–– it’s our own massive ship, rising up and bearing down on us as it smashes its way through the ice. As the bow makes contact leads are opening, shooting lighting bolts of cracking ice in all directions, the widest lead heading straight for us. I shout to go up, up, up, but the crew is convulsed in laughter, thoroughly enjoying this game of chicken while the leads streak towards us. Just as the biggest lead rips into our skids exposing the black water below us–– so cold you die in minutes–– the pilot skillfully blasts forward and up, rising and turning the chopper like a matador spinning away from the bull, flying just beneath the bow of the icebreaker, now yards away and blasting it’s horn.

Looking back, it was a crazy gift in terms of pictures, but the whole episode was a suicidal, snow-cowboy joyride designed to impress and entertain the women. A few days later I became the 3014th person to stand on the North Pole, a destination many died to reach over the years and at the time only reachable by air, submarine or this Russian icebreaker. The US icebreakers are not equipped with nuclear power and are not built with strong enough hulls or propellers to withstand the weeks of pounding. You can try it via dogsled but the odds are very good you will join the legion of missing explorers. When we arrived at the pole it turned out the Russians didn’t have GPS and after two hours of math and guesswork the captain turned to a passenger who produced a handheld GPS device to pinpoint our location within a few meters at 90 degrees North. The Russians winched a car, stereo system and huge barbeque onto the ice below with cases of vodka. An impromptu disco party began. The last thing I remember before blacking out hours later is being cornered below decks by the very tall and formidable first mate shouting into the face of a young American scientist next to me, “Look in eye! Are you man or woman?! Drink the vodka!!” We drank, we drank.

Journal entry, aboard the Yamal, August 1994.

Saturday
04
April 2009

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