INSPIRATION #3: FACING THE OTHER

 

©2009 Lyle Owerko/CLIC Gallery

©2009 Lyle Owerko/CLIC Gallery

 

I’m torn sometimes between my core desire to capture moments and to create photographs. I’m also prone to seek the bliss of isolation after periods of intense work. I have to force myself to get out and see what’s going on, but I rarely regret it. So when I am knocked off my feet by such beauty as I recently saw at Lyle Owerko’s show of his project on the Samburu people of Northern Kenya at the CLIC Gallery in Soho I am inspired and overcome with the desire to rush out and do portraits. Lyle goes deep with these lyrical, sensitive portraits and the stunning large prints are hypnotic.

Clic Bookstore & Gallery – New York, St. Barth – ABOUT

In a related vein, Elisabeth Sunday’s AFRICA VI: The Tuareg Portfolios, 2005–2009 presents dramatic figurative portraits of the nomadic Tuareg from the Sahara Desert in Northern Mali, which I also find haunting, lyrical, mystical; they push my inner Jungian dreamscape blast-off button. And I’ve not yet seen these up close, but will next week.

Gallery 291

Back in the US, I was pulled in by Richard Rinaldi’s new monograph “Fall River Boys” from Charles Lane Press, which yields the stark, honest reality of young men coming of age in a struggling New England town. The work rises up and bites when you least expect it to. Eloquent, and also haunting and sad, the images are not without glimmers of dignity and determination as seen on the faces Rinaldi reveals with care.

Charles Lane Press | Fall River Boys

Inspiration alone is a pretty great thing, no?

But it’s deeper than that. I’m responding also to the search for the other, as these artists all seem to me to be pursuing in their own ways. By the “other” I refer to the stranger we encounter in our travels, or even in our own street. Through our understanding of the other, we define ourselves.  The famous journalist Rsyard Kapucinski discusses this phenomenon extensively in his posthumous book “The Other,” Verso, 2008, and refers to the great French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who said “…the self is only possible through the recognition of the other.”

Through my own portraits on my travels I’ve noticed a continuing theme in my work over the years that explores this idea. In all my work, since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with images that could be called portraits but are made as street shots where the subject has momentarily looked into my lens as I was grabbing the moment––probably they were lost in thought while waiting in a line or while working or whatever––but they looked up at me as I pressed the shutter. There is an unguarded quality as if I have known them all my life and they are trusting me. It’s a lovely fraction of a second when defenses between strangers are down. I have the nerve to look the stranger in the eye and they are completely open to me in turn.

I’ve written a bit about this and how I see this as a search for my own identity and place in the world, and that’s about the size of it. Not at all a conscious effort, just part of what I’m doing. Which may be why the above artist’s work is so exciting and inspiring to me.

And by creating a photograph, as opposed to capturing a portrait as a moment, I mean a situation, most likely a portrait where I’m in dialog with the subject. I’m choosing the background, location and position of the subject, or a still life, or some other conceptual approach such as some of the fashion or advertising work I’ve done that may be more illustrative.

These really seem two sides of the same coin because even moments captured in camera are later partly “created” in terms of how I render the print in the darkroom, digital or wet. There the print becomes an expression and subjective interpretation of how I saw the image. While digital manipulation in terms of switching out heads or changing skies and whatnot is not my thing, burning and dodging is definitely another form of manipulation, and is something very important to me. Since your eye goes to the lightest areas first I can control where your eye moves around the image to yield a heightened emotional response. Some of this may be planned in the exposure and depth of field of course, but in the final print comes the full expression of the idea. And that leads to a discussion about the magic of the print… to be continued…

Tuesday
28
April 2009

Tagged , , , , , ,

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

Tagged , ,

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

Tagged , , , ,

INSPIRATION #2: KEENPRESS

In my workshops I’ve tried to pound home the point that if you want to do good work, be happy, avoid burnout and stop beating your spouse and kids, you ought to think about longevity– how to achieve a creatively satisfying life for the long term. Once that is your goal, all your decisions line up to move you in the right direction.

Two photographers who epitomize this philosophy and never fail to astound and inspire me through their work and the lives they live are Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson, founders of KEENPRESS. Married for 30 years, parents of two talented children, and now working not only as business partners but as creative collaboraters, sharing credit on their images they create, and exhibiting and selling prints from their base in Copenhagen.

Although Sisse is Danish, many of us were surprised when they sold their house in Mill Valley, California, one of the world’s sweet spots and moved to Europe. OK so Copenhagen is pretty sweet but you have to love winter to stay year round. Both have spent the majority of their long careers documenting the world for National Geographic. Cotton spent a hiatus as a picture editor at US NEWS (where I shot a cover for him) and in Silicon Valley at CNET as a VP developing content and then resumed shooting full time after they moved back to Europe.

Recently Cotton sent me their updated web site with some new work which knocked me out. Here’s the first image from their series “The Besmirched.”

the-besmirched2

Part of what I’ve always admired about these two is their incredible storytelling ability from their Nat Geo work. And now here we see a giant leap into abstraction, pure expression and a shift into new and challenging waters. It really is true that to grow as photographers we have to embrace risk and try new things and I can’t think of a better example of how this strategy can succeed. But this is not new for Cotton and Sisse, this is just the latest iteration.

What’s surprising is that they keep pushing themselves after all they have accomplished. Whenever I talk to them they exude the passion and hunger of 20-somethings. This is both inspiring and terrifying. Whether they are pursuing this strategy consciously or instinctively doesn’t matter. It has led them to careers of longevity and a level of creative satisfaction and professional success that is spectacular and instructive. You can see more of their lovely work at:

KEENPRESS Photography

Saturday
28
March 2009

Tagged , ,

INSPIRATION #1: PHOTO SECESSIONISTS

Where do you find inspiration? Sometimes you walk right into it. Yesterday I was arriving to give a talk at Eastman House on my recent book “Transcendent Spirit: The Orphans of Uganda” (published by Beaufort Books, NY and which is still for sale with all profits to the children: “Transcendent Spirit: The Orphans of Uganda”) and was delighted to see the exhibit “TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art 1845-1945″ which features the work of the secessionists led by Alfred Stieglitz, Steichen, Alvin Langdon Coburn, F. Holland Day and other well known practitioners of pictorialism. Their goal was to elevate photography to be considered art equal to painting or sculpture and distinguish their efforts from mere craft or hobby.

While assisting in my teens in a studio in New York I was given a book of Steichen’s work and fell in love with the mystery and beauty of the work. This led me to discover the work of the others mentioned above. I spent a lot of time walking in woods in rain after that looking for images that could trigger the sweet melancholy, sadness tinged joy, and longing I felt when looking at the work of these artists.

Our creative lives go through phases of course. My very first impulse to create was triggered by seeing the work of Picasso, Matisse, Mary Cassatt, Manet, Cezanne, Degas and that gang. I wanted to be a painter. Then I was given a camera and a few years later the book “The Concerned Photographer” and it was like an explosion in my brain, my rocket ride took off. I began learning to be a documentary photographer. This was at 12. So the discovery of Steichen at 15 was a revelation. Thus began a kind of psychosis, a break in my mind between art as the pure expression of the artist and discovering the world and reporting the world as a documentarian. I was torn. When I was 17 I met W. Eugene Smith who was very concerned with his legacy and wanted very, very much to be considered an artist. At the talk I saw he read a letter from Ansel Adams to Smith assuring him that Adams did indeed consider Smith an artist of the highest rank. What I saw in Smith was the very real possibility of merging the two impulses, to create and also to report. Years later I felt this expressed very clearly in the work of Sebastião Salgado.

(I spoke to Smith afterward while he drank two coffee mugs of scotch and lectured me on craft as the foundation of art. He described spending five days in the darkroom making a single print and said that if I ever felt in my gut that some area of the print could be even slightly improved I had to start that print over.)

I was reminded of Dennis Stock’s comments about composition (see earlier blog “Clocks for Seeing”) when I saw this image below by Alvin Langdon Coburn, and of Gene Smith, who Dennis happened to assist in the 50′s, because it encompasses both worlds. It seems it must involve some documentary skills, some timing and luck as anything happening on water surely does, while also serving as an illustration of classical composition that Dennis and I were discussing. But clearly the driving force behind this group of artists was to find the beauty in the world.

Coburn_Wapping, 1904.jpg

After touring the exhibit I spoke about the amazing oprhans I had met who had transcended their difficult lives through education and dance to create new lives for themselves. It was a relief to find good news from Africa. In my years working as a photojournalist I had to cover some difficult stories. Over time the effect of seeing so much misery in the world caused me to question the value of what I was doing. At some point, the pictures of intimate moments of suffering began to feel exploitive and an invasion, despite my desire to bring awareness and hopefully change to the situation. This line of thinking led to many changes in my life and work.

A huge part of what we do is dependent on serendipity. We all have our own ways of being lucky and being in the right place at the right time. F8 and be there. This is not just about the pictures for me but part of how I look at life and the way I try to live. So getting to see this particular exhibit at that moment was one of those key moments of serendipity and encouragement from the universe. As part of my talk I was planning to explain how my efforts to move from covering the disasters and tragedies of the world to trying to find tangible stories of positive change, partly as a way to create meaning in my own life, had led to doing this book. Seeing the results of the secessionist quest to express the beauty they found around them was both inspiring and disturbing in that it reminded me of my early inspiration from these artists, and the lifelong creative schism between pure expression and documentation it triggered. Ouch.

This is mostly unresolved for me. My background as a photojournalist cautions me against trying to do anything but simply record and report the story. My early training in art school gives me license to express myself. My Uganda book and my prior book on Mexican culture and tequila, “Heaven, Earth, Tequila,” are explorations in what I’m describing as “subjective documentary” in that I am now interpreting the story as an artist would to express my personal take. Objectivity on it’s face is no longer interesting or useful for me. So my steps to resolve the schism naturally lead me in the direction Smith described, in a sense to make art from documentary source material. You are still telling a story, it just comes out in ways driven as much by the unconscious as the eye.

If you are going to be in Rochester soon definitely stop by Eastman House and take time to see this fantastic exhibit.

George Eastman House

Saturday
28
March 2009

Tagged , , , , ,

CLOCKS FOR SEEING: THE OTHER

Why do photographs– still images– survive? In this media saturated culture where video is king there remains a vital place in our lives for frozen moments in time– simple still photographs, produced by what French critic Roland Barthes called “clocks for seeing,” his crazy/perfect description of a camera. For me it seems to be the collision between the profound, deep seated human need to find meaning– not just in our lives but the meaning of life itself– and the way our brains must decode still photographs. 

There must be some evolutionary twist in our brain development that causes us to be immensely attracted to and compelled to pause and study photographs, even images we are not particularly interested in. When I think hard about memory and my past, every memory is conveyed in a frozen still image in my mind. There is no film running, no motion. Each event is summed up in a moment. And then a series of cascading moments follow, but these are individual frames. I think this is true of most people. Our brain patches these together exactly like frames in a film so we get the impression sometimes our memory is flowing like a film. I don’t think it is a film.

We look at photographs to find ourselves, our place in the world. We learn and affirm who we are and our place in our culture by identifying with the subjects or by opposition and by our differences with the subjects. This ties into the meaning of the “other” and the connections we make with strangers we encounter. We are all human but what is their experience? We wonder and are fascinated by strangers in strange cultures, their clothes, habits, beliefs. This curiosity is particularly well served by the still image precisely because it is fixed, still, frozen and available for long study.

Now I understand that I photograph with an unconscious purpose other than to simply document a people or place I am interested in. Like everyone else, I need to find my place in the world and understand who I am. This is not something I think about, it’s part of human DNA and so I’m constantly attracted to the “other” and looking to connect. It’s meeting a stranger as you press the shutter.

apa_slideshow_94

Recently I came across the famous Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s fantastic book “The Other” which deals at length in an extremely accessible way with this subject. In the introduction there is a reference to the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas’ wonderful quote that sums it all up: “The self is only possible through the recognition of the Other.” Exactly.

As I’m pondering the “other” and why photographs have survived all the changes in our culture and technology, I’m thinking of my friend and mentor Dennis Stock and his opinions about exactly what qualities a photograph must have to succeed and last the test of time. Dennis believes photographs that have certain qualities explain why the still image has remained useful and part of the culture. Over dinner at our house in Woodstock, I began to describe a recent show of contemporary photography I’d seen that was entirely conceptual, as opposed to overtly emotional. It was purely an intellectual exercise and you could read the artist’s statement and agree or not, get the point, perhaps appreciate a little better the imagery, but it was art. Subjective and debatable as to its merits.

Dennis is never shy of his opinions and began a critique of contemporary fine art photography. I lamely interjected that rules are made to be broken. “Bullshit,” he cried, slamming his hand on the table. “Do you want your pictures to be memorable or not? Be serious!” 

His point was that most contemporary work was going to pass by in a flash and disappear. To be useful it has to be memorable. To be memorable it has to follow certain fundamental principals passed down through Aristotle’s golden mean. He reminded me of Cartier-Bresson’s comments, roughly paraphrased here, that it is not enough to capture the moment, the photographer must at the same time position the subject in a compelling geometric composition. He suggested I go back and look at all my favorite images from the 20th century and promised I would see HCB’s ideas were correct. 

I have to report that I did look up the golden mean again and copied one out. I pulled out many of my old photography books of my heroes and inspirations and damn if almost all of the images I’d remembered seeing in my youth did in fact fit with Dennis’ beliefs and combined a moment with classic geometric composition. 

Does it then follow that what Aristotle discovered about composition is related to how our brains evolved to perceive still images? And therefore, to take photographs that will become important to the culture, that we always remember, must by default always follow a set of compositional rules?

Friday
20
March 2009

Tagged , , , ,

EMIRATES CAMPAIGN BREAKS

The new Emirates Airline worldwide campaign “Meet Dubai” of 18 ads created by Leo Burnett Dubai is breaking this month.  Commissioned to shoot for an entire month all over Dubai, this project epitomizes everything I have been saying about merging art and commerce: get hired for your eye and paid to shoot what you love and would be shooting anyway. The creative team and client gave me a free hand to document the daily lives of Dubai citizens from a range of cultural and economic backgrounds, exploring the traditional Arab culture and modern Western influences, as I normally would on my own. Does not get better or more fun than this if you work for a living. And yes, these kinds of campaigns are becoming rare as the economy sinks.

Friday
20
March 2009

Tagged , , ,

Digital PhotoPro Master’s Issue

I was delighted to be included which such esteemed company in the recent Master’s Issue and really appreciated the excellent writing by Richard Speer. I love how he picked out a very obscure image from my youth to talk about. It fits with my current efforts to revisit my past and I’m looking for the film from my teenage years now. Check out the rest of the issue as DPP is an incredibly useful publication. I am not Mr. Technical by any means and I learn something new every issue. I start out flipping through and end up bending my brain. Ck it out:

 Doug Menuez: Master of The Long Form – Digital Photo Pro | DigitalPhotoPro.comdpp-article

Wednesday
18
March 2009

Tagged , , ,

Digital PhotoPro Master's Issue

I was delighted to be included which such esteemed company in the recent Master’s Issue and really appreciated the excellent writing by Richard Speer. I love how he picked out a very obscure image from my youth to talk about. It fits with my current efforts to revisit my past and I’m looking for the film from my teenage years now. Check out the rest of the issue as DPP is an incredibly useful publication. I am not Mr. Technical by any means and I learn something new every issue. I start out flipping through and end up bending my brain. Ck it out:

 Doug Menuez: Master of The Long Form – Digital Photo Pro | DigitalPhotoPro.comdpp-article

Wednesday
18
March 2009

Tagged , , ,

Uncommon Schools Pro Bono Campaign

As a photojournalist I’ve shot hundreds of schools going back to the 1970′s, of all kinds, worldwide, as well as the various educational trends in the US coming and going as we as a society have sought to fix our school system. (I personally was the worst student, so bad my own mother tried to have me expelled from High School.) Never had I seen such intensely interested and dedicated kids– they really seemed to love being in school and learning. Imagine that! Alan Blum and his agency Re: Vision pitched my agent Bill Stockland for someone to help out with this new campaign for Uncommon Schools, a charter school system, and Bill brought the project to me. At first I was reluctant given how much pro bono work we did in the last few years. Honestly, we really need to work these days. Once I met Alan, heard about the schools and understood that he really wanted me to do my thing and collaborate with him,

 I was hooked.  From their site: “Uncommon Schools (Uncommon) is a nonprofit organization that starts and manages outstanding urban charter public schools that close the achievement gap and prepare low-income students to graduate from college.” We shot in two schools in Bed Stuy. Look for these hitting the NYC Subways this month.

Wednesday
18
March 2009

Tagged , , , ,
Page 5 of 6« First...23456