Mary Ellen Mark, Lily with Her Rag Doll, Seattle, 1983
American Dreams: Iconic Images of 20th Century Life
American Dreams is a wonderful exhibition that provides a survey of the great American photographers of the 20th century. The exhibition consists of of photographs from arguably the world’s most important photographic museum, George Eastman House, and is currently being shown at Australia’s Bendigo Art Gallery.
The works highlight the pioneering role these American artists have had on the world stage in developing and shaping photography, and the impact these widely published images have had on the greater society. Their far-reaching images helped shape American culture, and had an impact on the fundamental role photography has in communications today. Even more than this, we can see through these artists the burgeoning love of photography that engaged a nation.
These images show us not only the development of photography, but also provide some of the most powerful social documentary photography of the last century. We see extraordinary moments captured in the lives of a wide range of Americans, works that distil the dramatic transformation that affected people during the 20th century: the affluence, degradation, loss, hope and change, both personally and throughout society.
American Dreams: Iconic Images of 20th Century Life
Annie Leibovitz: The Legacy of a Photographer’s Life and Times
Annie Leibovitz’s Life Has Taken a Sad and Dark Turn
Annie Leibovitz was clearly very unhappy about what a lifetime-achievement award said about her, that the best days of her 40-year career were behind her. Accepting the honor from the International Center of Photography last May, the 59-year-old Leibovitz said, “Photography is not something you retire from.” Photographers, she said, “live to a very old age” and “work until the end.” Then her tone turned rueful. “Seriously, though, this really is a big deal,” she said, hoisting her Infinity Award statuette, her voice quavering to the point where it seemed she might cry. “It means so much to me, you know, especially right now. It’s, it’s a very sweet award to get right now. I’m having some tough times right now, so.…“
The 700 friends and colleagues who had come to share the evening with her knew about the “tough times.” She recently had been sued for more than $700,000 in unpaid bills, and in February the New York Times ran a front-page story reporting that in order to secure a loan, Leibovitz had essentially pawned the copyrights to her entire catalogue of photographs. Even those who had known she was in trouble were shocked to learn about the extent of it. Leibovitz was responsible for some of the world’s most iconic magazine covers: a naked John Lennon with Yoko Ono for Rolling Stone, Demi Moore, naked and pregnant, for Vanity Fair. She had moved from celebrity portraiture to fashion photography to edgier, more artistic pictures; some considered her the heir to Richard Avedon or Helmut Newton.
Leibovitz’s life has now taken a decidedly dark turn. Her reference to “tough times” was significantly understated. In the past five years, Susan Sontag and both of Leibovitz’s parents have died. Her debts now total a staggering $24 million, consolidated with one lender with whom she is engaged in a lawsuit and due on Tuesday, September 8th. If she can’t meet that deadline, she may lose her homes and the rights to her lifetime body of photographic work. Friends say that Leibovitz has begun to think of herself less as a celebrity artist leading a charmed life and more as a single mother of three, who is fighting to keep a roof over her head and food on her family’s table. It isn’t surprising, then, that she bristled at the lifetime-achievement award. The fear of no longer working is terrifying to her. She has to work.
Read more about how this has happened to Annie Leibovitz in New York Magazinehere.
Biographic Notes: The Life and Times of Annie Leibovitz
Annie Leibowitz was born in Westbury, Connecticut, one of the six children born to Sam, an Air Force lieutenant, and Marilyn Leibovitz, a modern dance instructor. In 1967, Leibovitz enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she developed a love for photography. After living briefly on an Israeli kibbutz, in 1970 Leibovitz returned to the United States and applied for a job with the start-up rock music magazine The Rolling Stone. Impressed with Leibovitz’s portfolio, Editor Jann Wenner offered her a job as a staff photographer. Within two years, the 23-year-old Leibovitz was promoted to Chief Photographer, a position that she held for the next 10 years. Her work with the magazine gave her the opportunity to accompany the Rolling Stones band on their 1975 international tour. While with The Rolling Stone, Leibovitz developed her trademark technique, which involved the use of bold primary colors and surprising poses. Wenner has credited her with making many of The Rolling Stone’s covers collector’s items, most notably an issue that featured a nude John Lennon curled around his fully clothed wife, Yoko Ono. Taken on December 8, 1980, Leibovitz’s photo of the former Beatle was shot just hours before his death.
In 1983, Leibovitz left The Rolling Stone and began working for the entertainment magazine Vanity Fair. With a wider array of subjects, Leibovitz’s photographs for Vanity Fair ranged from presidents to literary icons to teen idols. A number of Vanity Fair’s covers have featured Leibovitz’s stunning and often controversial portraits of celebrities. Demi Moore (very pregnant and very nude), Whoopi Goldberg (half-submerged in a bathtub of milk) and her widely controversial photographs of Miley Cyrus are among the most remembered actresses to grace the cover in recent years. Known for her ability to make her subjects become physically involved in her work, one of Leibovitz’s most famous portraits is of the late artist Keith Haring, who painted himself like one of his canvases for the photo.
In 1991, Leibovitz’s collection of over 200 color and black-and-white photographs was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Later that year, a book was published to accompany the show, entitled Photographs: Annie Leibovitz 1970-1990. In 1996, Leibovitz was chosen to be the official photographer for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. A compilation of her black-and-white portraits of American athletes, including Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson, was published in the book Olympic Portraits (1991). Widely considered one of America’s best portrait photographers, Leibovitz also published the book Women (1999), which was accompanied by an essay that was written by her lover, the acclaimed novelist Susan Sontag. With its title subject matter, Leibovitz presented an array of female images from Supreme Court Justices to Las Vegas showgirls, to coal miners and farmers. Currently, many of her original prints are housed in various galleries throughout the United States.
What may be the most controversial aspect of Leibovitz’s book, A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005, is the series of intimate pictures from her relationship with Susan Sontag, and particularly the painful images of the writer when she was seriously ill with cancer. The two first met in the late ’80s, when Leibovitz photographed her for a book jacket. They never lived together, although they each had an apartment within view of the other’s. But their many trips to Paris, Venice, Capri, the Nile, the ruins of Petra in Jordan, are recorded here. Sontag, the author of the award-winning book of criticism “On Photography,” wasn’t easy on Leibovitz. As Leibovitz described it, “She thought I was good—and that I could be better. And I wanted to be a better photographer. She sort of raised the bar and made me feel I needed to take control.” Because of Sontag, Leibowitz went to Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, where she shot such powerful pictures as the one of a child’s bike lying in a road smeared with blood. But Sontag also loved pop culture. When Tina Brown, then Editor of Vanity Fair, seemed to hesitate about printing the pregnant Demi Moore pictures, Sontag called her up to say how great they were. “Susan was so entrenched in life, I couldn’t keep up with her,” said Leibovitz. “She was just bigger than everything.”
Sitting in her Greenwich Village office, wearing jeans and sneakers, Leibovitz explained how Sontag’s death in December 2004, followed only weeks later by the death of Leibovitz’s father, propelled her to make this book. “It totally came out of a moment,” she said. “I had already done some looking at photographs of Susan—that was very hard—for a little memorial book. I had never taken the time to see what I had, really.” She would weep and pin the pictures up on the long walls of an old barn at her country place in upstate New York. “And then, I got very excited, trying to look from 1990 to 2005, as if Susan was standing behind me.” Leibovitz teared up and reached for a box of tissues.
She struggled over whether to publish the few photos from Sontag’s last weeks of life. “They are very tough pictures,” she said. “People have said it’s important to publish them because so much is masked from us about what the end really is.” Leibovitz started to choke up again. “I think Susan would really be proud of those pictures—but she’s dead. Now if she were alive, she would not want them published. It’s really a difference. It’s really strange.” Later, collecting her thoughts, she said, “I’ve been through everything mentally and emotionally, and I’m very comfortable with them. This book is me.”
Most powerful may be the image of Sontag in death, a photograph that evokes a 19th-century memento mori. In counterpoint are the pictures of Leibovitz’s own children. She gave birth as a single mother to her daughter Sarah just after 9/11. Then, a few months after Sontag and Leibovitz’s father died, her twin girls were born, via a surrogate mother. She named one Susan and the other Samuelle, after her dad. “I saw my life with Susan, my life with my family, I saw the birth of my children,” she recalled about looking at all the pictures together. “I was mesmerized by the personal stuff. I just loved it.”
Leibovitz’s book also provides a comprehensive view of the public side of a photographer of legendary ambition and tenacity. Her well-known subjects have described her as a perfectionist who will do almost anything to get the picture she wants. “She has this kind of burning focus,” says Roseanne Cash, who’s been photographed by Leibovitz several time, one time on a beach in Maine in December when it was 3 degrees below zero. “She arrives at a shoot with all these people,” says Mikhail Baryshnikov. “It’s very intense—absolutely intense!” If time allowed, Leibovitz would spend two or three days around a portrait subject first, just getting ideas. Despite the meticulous planning, the perfect image can come out of the blue. For example, Leibovitz’s picture of Jack Nicholson. Whenever she was busy setting up a shot inside his Mulholland Drive house, he’d disappear out back to drive golf balls, and that became the photograph. And believe it or not, she didn’t intend to shoot Bill Gates at his computer, but that’s where she found him when he wandered away from her lights.
It may be her perfectionism that makes Leibovitz question her own work. “I’m not a great studio portraitist,” she says in the book’s introduction. That accolade she reserves for such photographers as Richard Avedon. “His work is a great reminder about trying to be simple and strong,” she says. Avedon knew how to talk to his subjects and “get them animated, or thinking about anything but having their picture taken.”
Leibovitz, on the other hand, likes to look rather than converse. “I’m still learning how to make the portrait more alive,” she says. Early in her career, when she started working for Rolling Stone back when it was based in San Francisco, she might spend days or weeks on the road with a band, taking pictures behind the scenes; but the more formal shots for the magazine’s cover were different. “It wasn’t like life as it was happening—my portraits started to feel like after the decisive moment,” she says, laughing. “I made myself feel a little better by saying it’s the studied moment.” As her magazine work has become more elaborate, Leibovitz seems to long for the feeling of reportage. “It would be nice once in a while to do some Life Magazine real-world imagery instead of making it up all the time,” she says. She cited a favorite shoot with Anderson Cooper in New Orleans after Katrina. “I do work for one of the largest magazine conglomerates in the world [Condé Nast, the publisher of Vanity Fair and Vogue], and they have an agenda for me,” she notes. “I’m trying to work within that and still try to do good work.” In the end, what matters to her most is not any individual picture. “I’ve always thought the strength of my work has been in the body of the work.”
Richard Avedon: Deconstructing the Personality to Burnish the Legend
Portraits to Confirm and Confer Identity
For more than fifty years, Richard Avedon’s portraits filled the pages of the country’s finest magazines. His stark imagery and brilliant insight into his subjects’ characters made him one of the premier American portrait photographers. Born in New York City in 1923, Richard Avedon dropped out of high school and joined the Merchant Marine’s photographic section. Upon his return in 1944, he found a job as a photographer in a department store. Within two years he had been “found” by an art director at Harper’s Bazaar and was producing work for them as well as Vogue, Look, and a number of other magazines.
During the early years, Avedon made his living primarily through work in advertising. His real passion, however, was the portrait and its ability to express the essence of its subject. As Avedon’s notoriety grew, so did the opportunities to photograph celebrities from a broad range of disciplines. Avedon’s ability to present personal views of public figures, who were usually distant and inaccessible, was immediately recognized by the public and the celebrities themselves.
Many sought out Avedon for their most public images. While many photographers are interested in either catching a moment in time or preparing a formal image, Avedon found a way to do both. In 1994, the Whitney Museum brought together fifty years of his work in the retrospective, Richard Avedon: Evidence. In 1989, Avedon received an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art in London.
Avedon’s Studio: A Dramatic Arena
Avedon’s studio was in a converted stable-house on New York’s East 75th Street. Once entering the house, you walked into a lobby whose brick walls were lined with Avedon’s legendary images of Marilyn Monroe and a large print of the model Dovima in a black-and-white Dior evening gown, her long arms stretched between the long trunk of one elephant and the floppy ear of another. You continued past a kitchen galley, down a few steps to a dressing room, and then down a few more steps, past a small room with desks and a light box, through a doorway, and finally into a white space that was repainted for every sitting.
This white space was like a stage, lit by a simple key light, with stretched white cloth behind it. The shift from the reception commotion to the studio quiet, from the real world to a play one, was abrupt and dramatic. Avedon referred to it as his set; in fact it was an arena that put anyone who stepped into it immediately on show. The white floor separated the subject from the unpainted rest of the cavernous space, as well as from the workers who occupied it (Avedon and his three assistants). The arrangement inspired a drama on both sides of the camera: between acting and being seen.
The encounter, like the setting, raised the stakes of play. The game was hide-and-seek, and it was exhilarating and scary. What would Avedon see? Or see through? For each subject, the arrangement created a kind of immanence, a palpable internal demand; the subject had to do something, to be someone. The negotiation of identity was a simulacrum of life. Here in the studio, the subject was called on to improvise; whether professional showman or novice, they had either to mask or to pronounce themselves. From Avedon’s perspective, all choices were telling. His task was to encourage, interpret, re-stage and retouch the portraits in order to confirm and confer identity.
The desire to be properly seen was one of the reasons that, for decades, the performing legends of the Western world paraded through Avedon’s studio door. Many of them could understand their own talent, but they couldn’t grasp what it was in them that attracted the public so powerfully. “They don’t always know what they’re showing,” Avedon once said. “I never quite understood it, this sex symbol,” Monroe said of herself. In his portraits of her, Avedon captured that sense of confusion about her charisma, which she was able to control in front of a camera, but which she imperfectly understood.
Whether Avedon was mourning his father in a series of harrowing death-bed portraits, capturing dramatic portraits of renowned celebrities or exploring the burned-out faces of Utah drifters, within the camera’s vigilant focus the position of a head, a hand, or a lidded eye assumed the significance of a symbol. These studies have a dark glamor. The glamor of Avedon’s portraits, the arrangement of balance of line, texture, figure, and shadows within the frame, speaks with an uncanny, heartbreaking eloquence.
Richard Avedon: The Photography of Minimal Essentialism
Anton Corbijn’s new film, Control, is the story of Ian Curtis, lead singer of the esteemed English post-punk band “Joy Division.” Curtis killed himself in 1980, just two days before the band’s first tour in the U.S.
This article describes his life and presents stunning photographs, two music videos, the movie trailer and a photo-gallery.
There has been increasing alarm that technological advances have changed not only our everyday lives, but also the very nature of our sense of humanity. Others say that surging technology hasn’t had the ruinous impact that some have anticipated.
The article presents both perspectives, as well as very attractive, memorable photographs and a photo-gallery.
“Tereza is staring at herself in the mirror. She wonders what would happen if her nose were to grow a millimetre longer each day. How much time would it take for her face to become unrecognizable? And if her face no longer looked like Tereza, would Tereza still be Tereza?”
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Concerns about the Exponential Advances in Technology
In recent years, a growing number of observers have voiced their concerns about the huge leaps that have been made in the area of scientific knowledge, as well as about the exponential advances that either have been achieved or are said to be forthcoming in the related, but usually distinct field of technology. In particular, there has been an increasing sense of alarm that technological advances have not only changed how we carry on with everyday life, but that the very nature of our sense of humanity is in the process of being irrevocably changed by those ongoing advances.
According to a number of writers and academics, most people just don’t pay enough attention to what they perceive to be crucial issues associated with the ever-accelerating pace of technological development, tending instead to think of it as a powerful substratum in our lives, but moving along at a glacial pace. In this way, commentators suggest that we’ve been acting like sleep-walkers, moving somnabulistically through a world of rote perceptions in the face of rapidly surging technological change. We have failed to face up to the grave implications of what is happening. We are sleepwalking and need to wake up. This way of thinking argues that human life is being so radically transformed that our very essence as human beings is under seige; at some point our very ability to recognize who we our, our sense of “self” or “identity, ” will be threatened and challenged.
Therefore, a failure to become more acutely aware of some of these implications of technological advances will leave us conducting our lives as though we aren’t constrained by the crucial social demands of “The Law of Holes.” “The Law of Holes” is one of life’s more important golden rules for survival, declaring that when you find that you’re in a hole, quit digging!
The Genius of Humanity: The Capacity to Withstand Radical Challenges
Some observers, on the other hand, state that even the most radically transformative technologies have not had the indomitable impact we might have anticipated. The “electronification” of everyday life that has taken place over the last few decades has not fundamentally changed the manner in which we relate to each other: feelings of love, envy, kindness, anxiety, hatred, ambition, bitterness, and joy still appear to have a remarkable resemblance to the emotions people had forty or fifty years ago. Ray Tallis points out that, “The low-grade bitchiness of office politics may be conducted more efficiently by email, but its essential character hasn’t changed. Teenagers communicating by mobile phones and texts and chat rooms and webcams still seem more like teenagers than nodes in an electronic network. I have to admit a little concern at what we might call the “e-ttenuation” of life, whereby people find it increasingly difficult to be here now rather than dissipating themselves into an endless electronic elsewhere; but inner absence…is not entirely new, even if it is now electronically orchestrated. It just becomes more publicly visible….Of course, people are worried about more invasive innovations; in particular, the direct transformation of the human body. And this is where the gradualness of change is important, because as individuals we have a track record of coping with such changes without falling apart or losing our sense of self entirely. After all, we have all been engaged all our lives in creating a stable sense of our identity out of whatever is thrown at us.“
Tallis contends that humans are unique among the animals in having a coherent sense of self, which begins with our appropriating our own bodies as our own. This is our most pivotal human achievement, the transformation of our pre-personal bodies into the foundation of our personal identity. From a dispassionate perspective, the bodies beneath our skin are not terribly human; indeed, they are less human than our human technologies. Accordingly, he maintains that there is very little in our purely organic bodies that we could speak of as a self or a me.
Tallis summarizes his somewhat more optimistic approach to thinking about the challenges that are inherent in an increasingly technological society, explaining his belief that:
“At the root of humanity is…the sense that ‘I am this’; our appropriation of our own bodies as persons who participate in a collective culture. Even at a bodily level, this intuition withstands quite radical changes. And by this I don’t just mean coping with a wooden leg or a heart transplant, or being able to reassume ourselves and our responsibilities each morning when we wake up or when we come round from a knock-out blow. I mean something more fundamental – namely, normal development. We grow from something about a foot long and weighing about 7 pounds, to something about 6 foot long and weighing about 150 pounds, and for the greater part of that period we feel that we are the same thing. We assimilate these changes into an evolving and continuous sense of our own identity.
This is possible because change happens gradually and because it happens to all of us. Gradualness ensures continuity of memory alongside an imperceptible change in our bodies and the configuration of the world in which we live. That is why my earlier reassurances emphasised the gradualness of technological advance. If I look at myself objectively, I see that I am the remote descendent of the 10-year-old I once was, and yet my metamorphosis is quite unlike that of Kafka’s man who turns into a beetle. My dramatic personal growth and development is neither sudden nor solitary; and this will also be true of the changes that take place in human identity in the world of changing technologies.
Yes, we shall change; but the essence of human identity lies in this continuing self-redefinition. And if we remember that our identity and our freedom lie in the intersection between our impersonal but unique bodies and our personal individual memories and shared cultural awareness, it is difficult to worry about the erosion of either our identity or our freedom by technological advance.
If, as I believe, the distinctive genius of humanity is to establish an identity which lies at an ever-increasing distance from our organic nature, we should rejoice in the expression of human possibility in ever-advancing technology. After all, the organic world is one in which life is nasty, brutish and short, and dominated by experiences which are inhumanly unpleasant. Human technology is less alien to us than nature (compare: bitter cold with central heating; being lost without GPS and being found with it; dying of parasitic infestation or spraying with pesticides). Anyone who considers the new technologies as inhuman, or as a threat to our humanity, should consider this. Self-transformation is the essence of humanity, and our humanity is defined by our ever-widening distance from the material and organic world of which we are a part, and from which we are apart.