The Forgotten Tower

The first fallen structure that I ever admired was a 237-foot tower that once stood at the intersection of Market and Santa Clara Streets in San Jose, California. It was known as the Electric Light Tower and was hurled into the real from a newspaperman’s idealistic vision. James Jerome Owen knew that electric lighting was the future and, on May 13, 1881, he wrote an editorial in the San Jose Daily Mercury calling for the construction of an enormous tower looming over two streets, an electric landmark that would stub out the gaslights, showering evening luster onto the city with the same indomitable force as the sun. It took only seven months for the idea to seize the imagination of locals, and the tower was constructed and lighted by December 13, 1881.

electriclight1The tower never produced the searing glow that Owen longed for, but it served as a symbol of hope and progress to the people of San Jose. Electricity had only just arrived and the frame of the tower was juiced up by sizzling refulgence. Birds often smacked into its tempting bones, lured by the light, and it is said that policemen cadged a bit of pin money by hawking fallen duck corpses at local establishments. Drunkards often attempted to scale it. Moreover, San Jose had beaten Paris to the punch. Alexandre Gustave Eiffel pilfered the plans and, eight years after Owen’s gigantic tower was raised, Eiffel constructed his own version. This French treachery caused San Jose to sue Paris in 1989 for the century-long appropriation. In the trial, the architect Pierre Prodis claimed that the Eiffel Tower was merely a “trace job” of Owen’s vision. Paris triumphed in the court, but not without the famous engineer’s legacy sullied.

electrictower1I learned of the tower when I was five, attracted to the pointillist rings glowing on photos and postcards. I was smitten by the great circular aura shooting into the onyx skyscape from the six carbon arc lamps planted at the tower’s peak. And when my parents took me to Kelly Park, I became overcome with tumultuous wonder when my little eyes snagged onto a replica of the tower built in History Park. The replica was only 115 feet tall, recently constructed, and I remember asking the tour guide why it was so small. I had somehow remembered the height of the original, plucking it from some stray placard that most tourists ignored. What was the point of reproducing a tower if you couldn’t put it in the right place or match the previous height? The tour guide, sifting through his mental arsenal for general historical information to answer my question, told me how the original tower fell. Gale force winds had ravaged the tower on December 3, 1915. It was the deadliest part of a vicious storm. The center of the massive metal structure wended and wobbled and, just before noon, pipe and metal poured onto San Jose’s streets. I closed my eyes and began to imagine the beautiful tower destroyed, and I remember silently crying, knowing that the tower’s end was needlessly permanent. I don’t remember the tour guide’s exact words, but there was a peremptory tone in his voice, a suggestion that it was mad folly to build another tower and cause harm to future San Jose residents. San Jose still suffered from wintry winds every now and then. And there was still the possibility, especially given the freak 1976 snowstorm from a few years before, that the tower could do more damage.

CliffHouseStormI didn’t remember the snowstorm because I was an infant at the time. But like the Electric Light Tower, it had been captured in family photographs assembled in blue-covered albums identified sequentially by numbered stickers, so that I could trace the precise moment that the memories of my life aligned with the photographs. I had no memory of the snowstorm, but I had lived through it. I was forming memories of the electrical tower, visions that made it more real than any representation, yet I hadn’t been fortunate enough to be alive during the time of its existence. (I would have similar feelings for the Victorian version of the Cliff House constructed by Adolph Sutro in 1896, a magnificent multiroom palace with sharp gables famously captured in photographs during a thunderstorm. It burned to the ground on September 7, 1907 — another architectural tragedy, another great structure destroyed on a whim.)

electriclight2There hasn’t been a year when I haven’t thought about the tower. Yet I wonder how long I can keep its vision alive in my heart and mind. Nobody seems to remember it or care about it outside San Jose. Nobody wants to honor the tower that once attracted international attention. I can’t talk about the Electric Light Tower with anyone, especially on the East Coast. It is, like many funny ideas in the history books, an eccentric and possibly nonsensical idea. But for a decent stretch in history, it held one city together.


Memory in the Raw

This essay is about a thousand words.

Just after the poppers shot sticky glitter onto the hardwood floor and the horns (available in two strident tones!) bleated sweet fleeting salutations into the post-midnight air and the noisemakers rattled in response to wrist-shaking whirls, and just after the shouts and the hosannas and the well-lubricated well-wishing to friendly strangers, I spent 2011’s first minutes fully immersed in the Pratt’s New Year’s Eve Steam Whistle Blow, grateful to a friend for the tipoff. I traversed Pratt’s open gates, passing the glum-looking guard in his square cage, hearing the sweet toots of botched tunes and vaguely diatonic offerings sounding as beautiful as an elephant giving birth (or I suggested; it was better to conjure comparisons without first-hand reference). I turned a corner and saw…


A contraption defying easy steampunk cliches only a few hundred feet away! I departed our flock and sprinted through the foot-high snow patches, like some dog loosened upon an expansive beach. This spastic run sprang from a concern that there were only a few minutes of steam whistles left. Nobody had informed me how long it went on for. So I had to grab a quick look.

Standing ten feet away from the machine, I marveled at the elbow-like gauges and the grand gusts and the keyboards connected in the distance! Most pleasant was the vaguely preternatural noise, sounding like some alien landscape and keeping me spellbound, lost, completely at one with the experience before me. For this was the sound of a dead time being restored! A kind man reminding humanity of an age that came before iPods and World of Warcraft and…

I realize there is a picture attached to this post. I did not take it. It was snapped by somebody else. I did not consult the photo as I wrote the above paragraphs. It has been provided for your benefit so that you can get some tangential sense of what I experienced, even though I’d like to think that my words will be enough. It has become increasingly clear that words are no longer enough. But my description came entirely from my memory. It may not be entirely accurate. It may be unreliable. But I can tell you that I experienced a great deal of joy writing that paragraph and recalling a series of moments that involved great pleasure. And I hope that some of that ebullience has translated to the reader. I can also report that my memory feels truer than any instrument. On January 1, 2011, at approximately 12:10 AM. I had no camera. I had no cell phone. I had no contraption to memorialize the experience. I had no need to…

“Excuse me,” said some shadowy figure, “do you have a card? I’ve got you on video.”

That’s not precisely what he said. But that is pretty close to what he said.

At first I thought he wanted a Flash card. But I realized that he was referring to a business card. And it hadn’t occurred to me to think of business.

I don’t know who he was. Perhaps he was a starving student. Perhaps he was some yearly regular who needed the cash. Similar to one of those photographers who snaps you at social functions (and not unlike the more aggressive, more impoverished, and more interesting variety you find in Mexico and areas of Southern California) and then hope that you will pay out the dough. You walk away with a “memory.” He walks away with some cash. Capitalism in action.

It wasn’t my bag at all.

I did not want “video” or a “snapshot.” Wasn’t my experience enough? Wasn’t there enough wonder contained before my very eyes?

But the man shook me out of my apparent reverie.

I looked around and discovered that I was in the minority. Of the roughly twenty people around me, I saw a good fifteen holding some form of camera, feeling the overwhelming need to document the steam whistle machine. They had to grab the moment. They needed proof that they’d seen something wonderful. I wondered if some of them would put their cameras down.

Joanne McNeil has written about this phenomenon in relation to numerous cell phone cameras capturing President Obama’s speech at the Inaugural Youth Ball. And while her concerns are rooted in the things we choose not to photograph (a slimmer field in this epoch of sexting and more intrusive paparazzi), I’m wondering more about what separates the person who prefers to remember versus the person who needs to reconcile some memory against the memorialized item. If I’m not operating as a journalist, I’d say that I’d place myself more in the first category in relation to the human experience. This may be a more egoistic position. Because I’m essentially stating, “Photographs? Video? No, I don’t need any of that. You see, I’d rather believe in my admittedly imperfect and abstract recall for the remainder of my natural life.” It feels more dishonest and less human to match up my memory to meet the absolute data contained within a photograph. It is as if I’m filling out a form, never driving above the posted speed limit, or always coloring inside the lines. (Tom Bissell did this to interesting effect in his memoir, The Father of All Things, inventing fabricated moments from a single photograph. Did this get him any closer to knowing the truth?)

Given the choice between risking my imagination or an actual photograph fudging up the truth of what transpired, I’ll take the prospects of forgetfulness and hyperbole. I’m certain that my memory isn’t absolutely correct. But I’m more comfortable and more interested in the idea of people sharing their individual accounts of an event rather than relying upon an absolute photograph intended to sort out the mistakes. Besides, isn’t there truth in what people decide to forget? Isn’t there unexpected insight in what certain souls opt to invent?

Today, when I do something fun (such as the Pratt New Year’s Eve Steam Whistle Blow, which I wholeheartedly recommend to anybody who happens to be in that area of Brooklyn), I’m now in the minority. It has become essential to photograph everything. We’ve only had photographs for about 170 years and we’re more reliant upon the camera to confirm our existence than at any other time in human history. We must have our memory in the raw with an intermediary. Yet it often doesn’t occur to us that existence is sometimes best confirmed by existing.


NYFF: An Impromptu Interview with Ed Lachman

[This is the third in a series of posts relating to the 2009 New York Film Festival.]

lachmanAt the Life During Wartime press conference, I noticed that director of photography Ed Lachman was a bit grumpy about differences between shooting on film and shooting digital. Life During Wartime had been shot, like Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, on the RED digital system. Now Soderbergh’s film looked a bit soft and strained to my eye. Lachman, on the other hand, had managed to beef up much of Life During Wartime using color correction. But I was really curious about how Lachman got these results. Plus, Lachman was wearing a pretty snazzy and stylin’ hat.

So I tracked him down, figuring that two guys sharing the same first name might just get along, and recorded an impromptu interview, which you can listen to at the end of the post. Many thanks to Mr. Lachman for being very gracious in talking with me just as he was heading out the door. My apologies to any cinematography die-hards for being a tad rusty.

Here’s the transcript.

Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about the use of the RED digital system for this versus what you’ve done in terms of film. You alluded during the press conference to having some struggle trying to get the color right. Presumably, a lot of color correction in post. I’m curious to what degree you relied on preexisting locations, whether planning has completely shifted thanks to the RED digital system, and whether you have any possible regrets over this possibly inevitability of where film is headed.

Lachman: Well, I think there’s a place for the digital world and a place for film, and also the merge between the film and digital world. It’s just that my eye and feeling is toward film. Because that’s what I grew up with. It’s not to negate that certain stories can’t be told digitally. But I think it’s an erroneous argument to worry that the digital world should be film. Because the color space is different and the exposure latitude is greatly lessened. Now with a lot of time and money, you can get the digital world closer to film. But for me, it’s still not there yet. And the question they always bring up is that it’s a cost factor. Because it’s like $1,000 a roll for processing of 35mm. But I’ve seen the trend back towards film. Even if you shoot in Super 16 or three-perf 35mm or two-perf 35mm, and then go through a digital intermediate, to me, that’s like the best of both worlds. Where you’re originating on film because of the exposure and the color latitude of the film and also because, in the digital world, at least with the RED, you’re not actually seeing what you’re getting on the set. And the cameraman has to rely on what his eye and, when we use film, our light meter and our lenses. And with the RED, you have to estimate what it’s going to look like. Because you’re not actually seeing at what they say 4K, but is actually 3.2K at the output. Because monitors aren’t at 4K or 3K.

Correspondent: I’m curious. Where do you think digital filmmaking needs to go in order to be acceptable for you? Is it a matter of anticipating how you second-guess how it’s going to look? Once you factor in the potential color correction, the potential fixing in post, and the like? I mean, how does the eye adjust with such developments?

Lachman: Once the digital world can equate the exposure latitude with film, which I would say is close to ten or twelve stops. And for me, in the digital world, it’s about half of that. And then also, you know, there’s something to say about why an image looks the way it does. Being analog versus digital. And there’s a random access to the analog image on film in which actually it’s like an etching. The film is being created by light because of the action — not to get too technical, but the silver in the film is being etched away by the film. And then you’re projecting with light through a piece of film when you see a film. And digital, you’re on one plane. So your shadows and your highlights are on this one plane. And it has a different feeling. And I’m saying there are certain stories that I think can be told very well digitally. And I used the digital world as best I could in Life During Wartime, and I’m happy with the results. But I had to do a lot of post work to bring out things I wanted to feel and see in the digital format that in film I would have had.

Correspondent: What was the worst case scenario in terms of color correction? Did you have a situation in which you lit the heck out of a scene and you got it absolutely how your eye wanted it and it didn’t turn out that way when you looked at it?

Lachman: It’s not so much in lit situations. I can control that. It’s more in unlit situations when you’re outdoors and when you have a strong contrast of over ten or twelve stops. Between shadow, detail, and highlights. And there’s a scene — it’s a fantasy sequence — when you pan around a lake and you see the boy standing there. And you cut back and forth. I had to do that in a number of different passes to bring out the shadow detail, to bring out the highlight. And then I did it for the color space. And that’s not something I would have had to do in film.

Correspondent: How many passes did you do for that shot?

Lachman: Well, each take, I probably did about six passes.

Correspondent: Did you have to record a certain amount of information per pass and mix it all together?

Lachman: You do a matte actually. So you matte out. Let’s say you go for the shadow detail. Matte out the other part. Then I went for the highlights. So I just did different passes. And they can put it together. But that’s very time-consuming.

Correspondent: Well, I’m curious. For a practical situation. For example, the night time parking lot scene. There you have a situation in which you have very little light. And you have to get this image of a woman walking in her nightgown across a parking lot. And so with a situation like that, was that pretty much all color correction? What did you do in terms of lighting the scene to ensure that there was some kind of information there to work with?

Lachman: Well, I’m glad you thought there wasn’t much light. And there wasn’t a lot. But I had to light it on a crane. A 12K on a crane. An 18K. And then a bounce. So I lit it the way I would have done it on film. Another aspect of the digital world that nobody tells you about is: Film right now, you can shoot at ASA 500, push it a stop, 1000, and get incredible results. The digital format, it’s about 200 to get an image that’s acceptable, that isn’t noisy and you have problems later with. So you’re losing a stop to a stop and a half to almost two stops. So then you’re in a position that you have to use more light. So then why are you gaining something by shooting in the digital world over film? Now the digital format loves low light. And I think that shooting at night scenes digitally is wonderful. Because you have lower contrast ratio. But in high contrast situations, where there’s a lot of light, the digital world, you get artifacts. You get highlights burning out. You don’t get as much information as you do with film.

Correspondent: What’s the ideal lighting for a digital situation? Presumably, how would Kino Flos work in relation to film versus digital?

Lachman: Well, you have to keep it within a certain range. Let’s say a 3:1 ratio. Where in film, you might go with a 6:1 ratio. So you just have to be a lot more careful. It’s almost for me like shooting with reversal film. Positive film, what we used to shoot. Now we shoot primarily negative. Well, we do shoot negative film. But when we used to shoot in positive film. Let’s say with documentaries or whatever. You had to be much more careful about the exposure latitude you shot with.

Correspondent: Since you’re dealing with such a limited spectrum, how have you adjusted, say, getting a spot meter reading or a light meter reading?

Lachman: Even though it’s a digital world and people laugh at me, I use my spot meter once I’ve evaluated what the ASA of the digital medium is. And I like to rate it around 200. I then just balance it with my spot meter the way I do with film.

Correspondent: Have you managed to get it so that you pretty much get an ASA 200 reading that more or less reflects the final results without artifacts? Or are you still having problems?

Lachman: No, I rate it at 200 and then do an exposure latitude of a stop and a half on the highlights and the shadow detail. That’s what you’re looking at in the film. When you see just the detail in Michael Kenneth Williams’s face, he’s African-American. And it’s so wonderful. You just read the detail. That’s because I made sure about what my ratio was between the highlight and the shadow. You know, I think part of the mystique of the whole digital world is the idea that for directors, it’s a liberating thing. If they see an image, they can shoot. But it’s a lot more than seeing the image that you have. It’s also about balance in the scene and it’s about creating the continuity of the image, so to speak. So it’s not enough to say, “Oh, I have an image we can shoot.” What happens when you go into the close-up? What happens when you start at one point of the day and you have sunlight and at the end of the day you’re in shadow or clouds? So it’s about balancing to make a scene look like it’s a continuation of the same time period, which many times you’re not allowed to do.

Correspondent: This leads me to actually ask you about depth of field and focus lengths. Obviously, if you don’t have as much of a spectrum, you’re going to have limits in terms of how far you can use the Z-axis. And I’m curious about how your photography has changed in light of the focus problem.

Lachman: I don’t worry about that. People say you have more depth of focus digitally than you do with film. That doesn’t worry me. If I use a longer lens. If I want to knock the background out.

Interview with Ed Lachman (Download MP3)

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Is Thomas Hawk a First-Rate Jerk?

Thomas Hawk is at it again. But this time, he’s determined to smear a man’s reputation based on his own decidedly subjective account.

For those who haven’t followed Hawk’s blog, Hawk is a San Francisco photographer who campaigns against institutions wishing to ban photography. If a building or a museum won’t let him shoot a photo, he blogs about it. He uploads photos of those who wouldn’t let him snap shots, and fires back shots with impunity.

He’s been doing this for some time. Sifting through Hawk’s blog, Hawk’s unalienable right to take photos are often more frequent than the photos.

Now Hawk’s target is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Or rather a man named Blint. Hawk was taking photos under an open photographic policy. There was an altercation. He was kicked out. It’s clobbering time. Hawk initially called Simon Blint, its Director of Visual Relations, “a first rate asshole” and published a photo of Blint. He later replaced “asshole” with “jerk.”

As someone who has had to persuade a few folks with chips on their shoulders that my podcasting equipment isn’t intended for terrorist purposes, I can sympathize with Hawk to some extent. While most proprietors I’ve encountered in my podcasting adventures have been friendly and permitted me to conduct an interview (some of them becoming so fascinated with the conversation that they’ve asked for the URL), there have been a few petulant managers who have remained hostile to the idea of a room or a table being used for unanticipated purposes. They have made unreasonable efforts to eject me. But I have not named these names. After all, maybe the manager was having a bad day. Maybe the manager has been screamed at by somebody else and the manager is taking this out on me. At the end of the day, I figure that the podcasts will trump these inconveniences. But in a few cases, reason (and bountiful tips) has won out, and I’ve returned to the establishment for another interview.

What troubles me about the Hawk contretemps is how Hawk and his acolytes are so willing to crucify Blint when Hawk hasn’t once suggested that his own conduct may have been one of the reasons that things escalated this far. Unlike monologuist Mike Daisey, who showed real class in trying to contact the individuals who walked out of his show and poured water on his notes, Hawk hasn’t even tried to open up a broader debate by directly contacting SFMOMA. To give you some sense of the outcry, a commenter at the SFist writes, “If Blint read this SFist article, he just soiled his pants and will be out of a job by Monday,” taking apparent glee in this shitstorm.

This is not a case where the offense comes from a third party. This is a situation in which we have only Hawk’s word to go by. But what of Blint himself? It’s not as if Blint has a high-traffic Web page or runs a major newspaper outlet in which he can respond to Hawk’s charges. Does he even have an online presence? Is this really a fair battle? Many have remarked upon this incident, but nobody has thought to contact Blint to get his side of the story.

If Blint had a history of banning photographers from SFMOMA when the museum keeps an open policy towards photography, then I might be one of the first people in line to criticize his actions. If there was video of the exchange presenting unimpeachable evidence that Blint was out of line, then I’d be more inclined to cite this as another example of free speech being muzzled in a post-9/11 age. But this is only one incident, perhaps poorly handled by both men. And the broader debate about artistic expression has been lost in the skirmish.

Hawk’s blunt words about Blint seem unreasonable to me. It makes the blog medium look bad. Hawk is unwilling to suggest that he may have been wrong, and his undiplomatic efforts here suggest that he is more interested in being a half-baked martyr than an activist. Hawk was just as autocratic in his grievances as Blint was in kicking Hawk out of the museum. And it makes bloggers look like the first-rate assholes that the mainstream media continues to portray them as. In an age when Jason Fortuny humiliates people by invading their privacy, there are vital questions that must be asked.


Paris Occupied, Color Photos Taken

New Yorker: “In France, the wounds of war are only thinly healed, as proven by the pained response to a recent exhibit of 270 color photographs by André Zucca, called ‘Les Parisiens sous l’Occupation’ (‘Parisians Under the Occupation’). The photographs are of street life in Paris during wartime, and they’re said to be the only known color photographs from then.” (Some photos here and a Flickr set.) (via MeFi)

“Visions and Violence” — Vollmann and Drew at the Whitney

There are indeed people in New York who are interested in William T. Vollmann. On Thursday night, accompanied by Marydell, Levi, and Jason, I attended the Whitney Museum “Summer of Love” lecture featuring photographer Richard Drew — the man behind the Falling Man photos — and, of course, Vollmann. There, I also met a smart Pynchon enthusiast by the name of Christopher Byrd, a guy named Doug (a Barth fan who I met in the lobby), and another gentleman named Ralph, who apparently discovered The Vollmann Club while trying to find information on the man to teach a class. There was also another pleasant gentleman who reads this site, but whose name I sadly don’t recall. I was pleasantly surprised that my announcement drew a few WTV fans out of the closet who apparently recognized me and were kind enough to say hello.

richarddrew.jpgDespite the event’s title “Vision and Violence,” I was particularly surprised that nobody had mentioned the Abu Ghraib photos during the course of the conversation. But both Vollmann and photographer Richard Drew had interesting things to say about the role of photography, of which more anon.

The moderator, whose name I neglected to jot down in my notes because of an unexpected shift in lighting that startled me, was a regrettably stiff gentleman who worked for The New Yorker. I feel that I can sufficiently call him stiff because, when Vollmann read a stirring passage (“The White Knights”) from The Rainbow Stories, the moderator stared at Vollmann the entire time, craning his neck like an affluent ostrich ensnared in the unexpected Swedish cold. I know that he was doing his best and was no doubt apprised by someone that discussing violence was a serious business. Nevertheless, it was a bit awkward to see the moderator, Vollmann, and Drew crammed around a small table on stage right, so that the same twenty-five photographic images — John Filo’s Kent State photo, Nick Út’s Vietnam napalm girl, Eddie Adams’s execution photo, et al. — could be projected on a large screen in front of the audience. But the talk itself was interesting, with Drew even becoming defensive near the end.

The moderator began by asking what the two men were doing during the Summer of Love. Vollmann replied that he was not even a teenager, but said that he remembered his mother driving him home from school, when Kennedy was assassinated. His mother was crying and couldn’t stand this news. The young Vollmann looked to the other cars and saw that other people were crying.

“How do you find your subject matter?” asked the moderator. (This was a sampling of the generalized questions he had at his disposal.) Drew indicated that his daily assignments are determined on a minute-by-minute basis. Recently, he had taken photos of “the girl from Harry Potter on the Today Show,” as well as a 280 point jump at the New York Stock Exchange. Vollmann said that his subject matter came from a desire to understand, learn, and help others. He remarked upon how the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had upset him, particularly when it started disappearing from the newspapers. His desire to help became “more attenuated.” Vollmann said that in all journalistic capacities, he wanted to give something to the people he met. In 1992 Sarajevo, Vollmann said that he “wanted understanding of who was more wrong.”

Upon Vollmann’s response, Drew became a bit rankled with this journalistic notion of helping people. “I’m not the Red Cross!” he insisted, shortly after declaring that he “records history every day.” Drew declared that there’s nothing political in what he does. And while one might argue that there may not be much of a political stake in photographing “the girl from Harry Potter” (I’m certain that future historians will be looking back at a Today Show publicity junket when chronicling the important moments of our time), are not Drew’s Falling Man photos political in some sense? Drew later mentioned that some newspapers thought it inappropriate to publish these photos. He also observed that this Channel 4 documentary (full one hour, eleven minute YouTube link) examining the subject of whether the photos were appropriate had not yet aired in the States. During the Q&A session that came later, Drew was adamant that he was not pushed around or pressured to shoot particular photos as an AP photographer. But surely a man with 37 years in the business understands that the decisions of editors and publishers to prioritize lionized firemen over a man plunging to his death from the Twin Towers is certainly political in nature. Without discounting Drew’s artistry as a photographer, surely a man who knows what photos are going to sell is more likely to tilt his lens in a certain direction if it will make ends meet. (Drew later confessed that, despite accepting nearly every assignment that came to him, he elected not to go to Iraq between the two wars because he had a kid on the way. It’s worth noting that Vollmann has continued to travel to faraway locales despite having a family to support, although, unlike Drew, he did not mention his family.)

Vollmann pointed out that he tried not to judge people — “at least not too early.” He offered a novelist’s comparison between flat and round characters, and pointed out distinction between understanding and telling, using an example of Muslims who had never heard of the Holocaust and couldn’t believe that it was true.

In response to the moderator’s question of whether the two men had observed the world becoming a more dangerous place, Drew again divested himself of politics, observing, “You don’t have to choose a side. You just have to be in the right place at the right time.” Vollmann didn’t think the world had become any more dangerous. But when the talk shifted to assignments, he pointed out that his only criteria in turning something down was (1) the publication not paying him enough and (2) whether his work is going to be helpful and worth the risk. Vollmann stated that if he were to go to Iraq today, he would have to think about it. “What good would it do? Would I have anything new to contribute?”

Concerning photography, Vollmann pointed out that he relied on Comtex cameras when going to a war zone because the lenses are very sharp and durable. For situations that are less dangerous, he relied on an 810. The photographs that Vollmann takes often allow his readers to get another sense of a person, such as some of the subjects that Vollmann included in Poor People.

Drew noted that photos tell the story and that he doesn’t have the luxury of 10,00 words. He had only one picture. The moderator noted that the Falling Man photos were “formally beautiful,” and in referring to his Falling Man photos, Drew pointed out that he had not experienced nearly as much controversy when he published his Kennedy photos.

Vollmann said that he didn’t face much in the way of restrictions. “A lot of people don’t read. So I don’t have too many problems.” He then referred to his Bosnia experience, when two friends of his were killed in a jeep. He said that he had the right and the duty to publish something, but that he didn’t want to publish pictures of their dead faces. He didn’t feel this ws right. Nevertheless, Vollmann said, “The job of the reporter is to show conflict, to show suffering.” So while in the back seat, he grabbed his notebook and started writing. Drew grew visibly uneasy over this and Vollmann simply responded, “They were already dead.” He pointed out that had that not been the case, he would have helped them.

Despite Drew’s quibbles over Vollmann’s personal concern for his subjects, Drew nevertheless pointed out that he would carry on taking photos without obtaining the permission of his subjects. Drew said that his motto was Shoot first, ask questions later. “I have to capture reality as it happens.”

Perhaps observing Drew’s growing discomfort, Vollmann then said that he doesn’t necessarily believe that Drew’s approach is wrong, but that his own approach involves “wanting to understand a person or event over time.” He said that it was important to earn the trust of his subjects. If he knew the subject, then he was more inclined to ask their permission. But when it come to depicting naked violence — such as an extreme Serbian nationalist shooting someone — “some of the rules don’t apply.”

nytdrew.jpgThe moderator then asked another regrettably general question: “What made you want to do what you want to do?” Vollmann said that he hopes that he can document moments in time. Drew pointed out that his photography started off as a hobby. When in college, a street sweeper had overturned. He took photos and, upon getting an offer for $5 for the picture or a free roll of film and a photo credit, he chose the latter. He then became a freelance photographer, constantly listening to the police scanner. Today, with digital demand, Drew said that “the beast has become more insatiable.”

Vollmann pointed out, “As the beast becomes more insatiable, it’s for more and more types of meat in smaller bytes.” He said that he was more inclined to write books and less inclined to write magazine pieces, because there was no longer the demand for 20,000 word stories, as there was in the ’90’s. But he also observed, “If your heart is really in something, no one’s going to stop you.”

When Don DeLillo’s Falling Man was brought up, Drew offered a remarkable story. When DeLillo’s book was reviewed in the NYTBR, the review came with an accompanying graphic for the cover. Without accreditation to Drew, it seems that Sam Tanenhaus’s team not only stole Drew’s image for the cover, but egregiously smudged out the figure of the man (see above image to left). Drew was understandably upset about this, simply asking for “credit where credit is due.” And it makes one wonder how many other images have been appropriated by Tanenhaus’s team without credit.

[UPDATE: Jason has a brief writeup, which also references the conversation that Vollmann and a good cluster of us had afterwards.]

[UPDATE 2: Marydell also has a report up.]

Well, That and a Sizable Paycheck, One Presumes

This guy (NSFW) claims he can help you take better dirty pictures. Among some of his tips: “Seem complicated? Not at all. You just have to concentrate on a few things… talk to her, remind her to look at the camera, tell her often that she looks GREAT, (yes, that old cliché of a photographer saying. ‘yes, yes, baby… great, great, show it to me…beautiful’, works!. Say it!). Keep moving side to side, closer and closer…That’s it!'” (via D)

R.I.P. Helmut


[1/25/06 UPDATE: Two years after Helmut Newton’s death, it occurs to me that there is nobody who can really replace him. There is nobody daring enough to make people sexy in a skewered yet genuine way. It is all artifice. Like Russ Meyer, Helmut Newton, along with the other strangely respectful deviants, have expired.]


Of Demagogues and Political Photo Ops

My memory is often hopeless beyond compare, but there are things I remember. Important things. Things that come back in the most unexpected of ways. Back in June 1994, I had the misfortune of listening regularly to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. I was working in a Sacramento copy shop, one of several jobs I was working to save up cash for my move to San Francisco that fall. The jobs had me working anywhere from 60-80 hours a week. I was a scrawny underfed kid, nineteen, just on the cusp of twenty, inexperienced. Despite my ability to type 100 wpm, I couldn’t seem to land so much as a lucrative data entry job. But I somehow talked my way into this morning copy shop job through a temp agency. (Some of my other jobs included doing filing for an insurance company, telemarketing funds for the Sacramento Symphony, working as a movie usher, working as a short-order cook — the job I probably liked the best and took the most pride in — and toiling at a Target snack bar. The latter was the worst job I have ever had. At Target, after you had spent the entire day immersed in grease, often without breaks, after cleaning the fryers and unleashing the remainder of your strength scrubbing the grill, they would literally lock you in the store and force you to restock before you could leave, which meant unpaid overtime and sometimes ten hours recorded as eight. And people wonder why I don’t shop at Target or Wal-Mart. But I digress.)

normandy.jpegThe shop was owned by a quiet, portly and agreeable man with thinning sandy hair, egg-shaped spectacles working wonders accentuating his two thin horizontal slats into an owl-like visage, and a bristling moustache. He was a friendly guy, fond of chatting with the post-teen, pre-college transfer hired help. He outsourced desperate young plebeians like me for low wages to perform mind-numbing tasks that he wouldn’t dare perform himself: in my case, collating thousands of high school newspapers and bland user documentation put out by fledgling startups.

Like many small business owners, he had a radio to get him through the day. On this radio, I was inducted into the world of Rush Limbaugh first-hand.

Limbaugh boomed and blustered like the strange charm of William Shatner gone horribly wrong. There was an element of McCarthyism in his voice. And there was no way to escape his DSM-IV cadences, even with the radio turned down. Perhaps because politicians had softened their voices for the tricky subtleties of television, Limbaugh compensated for radio by regurgitating the flamboyance of Winston Churchill and W.C. Fields. He talked as if he needed complete command of the entire AM radio bandwidth. So in performing my mundane job, concentration was of paramount consideration.

I tried to zone out by delving into the paperwork like a savant, thinking of things I was reading. Raskolnikov’s guilt or the exploits of the Pickwick Society, eagerly awaiting return to those pastures, magical places I had little time to wander through. But this was difficult, because I’d hear the word “liberal” every other minute, inscribed with the same hatred given to words like “cunt” or “nigger” or “motherfucker.” As far as I could tell, I was one of those “people,” even though my politics were rudimentary at best. (In my high school politics class, I was one of only two students to defend the right to burn the flag. The other person ended up as my brother-in-law. Go figure.)

One day, I had come in to the copy shop extremely tired. I had worked about sixteen hours the previous day, managing only about three hours of sleep. (My girlfriend at the time, whom I almost never saw, was exceptionally forgiving of my crabbiness.) Limbaugh came on. And I could no longer keep up the sanguine face, or control my sighs and dismay. The copy shop owner saw this, but was surprisingly forgiving. I confessed I wasn’t exactly a Dittohead, but I did ask him why he liked Limbaugh. He replied that he thought that Limbaugh was funny. Funny? Perhaps. Funny, if introducing terms like “Feminazi” was funny (although admittedly warranted in the cases of extremists like Valerie Solanas, whose legitimate points were undermined by the same hatred extant within the Moral Majority). Funny, if declaring anything even remotely left as Bolshevist was funny (on paper or in relaxed environs, yes; but with blathering audio while performing a mindless task, decidedly not).

Funny, yes. But with humor occluded by the dreariest of labor, possibly a bona-fide authority after years of a small business owner working long and hard for nothing.

clintoncairn.jpgBut one day, Limbaugh eventually revealed his colors. On June 6, 1994, Clinton was in Europe to recognize the 50th anniversary of Normandy. And like any President, he staged the predictable photo ops. Clinton gave a speech. He walked lone along the beach of Normandy, preparing a cairn. Hardly surprising. All politicians are forced to embrace artificiality at some point. It’s only the most gifted politician who can make every moment feel natural.

And it’s hardly the kind of thing that someone would use as backup material for the shameful liberal cabal. But that didn’t stop Limbaugh. He tore into Clinton as if the photo-op was the very embodiment of evil. He declared it an insult to the men who lost their lives. Clinton should be ashamed of himself. And why hadn’t “the mainstream media” picked up on this? To this very day, it is one of Limbaugh’s textbook examples of Clinton’s “phoniness,” ironically enough, standing comparatively against Bush’s honest and sterling nature.

It was then that I knew that Limbaugh was unquestionably an irrational chowderhead let loose on the airwaves.

bushthanks.jpgWhich makes the recent Washington Post news that Bush ‘s Baghdad turkey was decorative all the more hilarious.

Ask yourself what is more artificial: (1) Standing in an admittedly staged position placing a stone upon a cairn, but with the process itself actually standing for some genuine expression of loss or (2) bringing a turkey to Baghdad, posing with reporters with it, but without anyone going to the trouble to eat the turkey! Shouldn’t Limbaugh be drawing upon the same duplicity here?

Personally, I’d rather see a President stumble a bit through a photo op than fall flat on his ass playing 52 Pickup with the flimsiest deck of cards in Washington.

[3/16/14 UPDATE: In addition to some corrected spelling errors, I was forced to update the links. An original version of this post directed to Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, as hosted at an MIT page run by Olin Shivers (dead original link). I haven’t looked at this little essay in ten years, but, today, I work much harder for a lot less, although I enjoy all the work. If anything, the terrible labor conditions that I experienced at Target have become much worse in American life. In the late 1990s, it was still possible to accrue any number of part-time jobs. But a visit to any drugstore or a grocery store now reveals an overextended staff working around many closed registers. Who knew that retail conditions would deteriorate further? I wonder whatever happened to the guy who ran the copy shop. I was far too hard on him. He was very kind to give a job to a cocky young loudmouth. One thing I didn’t mention in this piece was my stint at Rally’s, a burger joint in Sacramento that stood on the southeastern corner of Madison and Manzanita — now long gone — where I worked my way up to cashier. At the time, and this was when I was in high school, a few customers compared my theatrical delivery through the speaker system to Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh was really peaking at the time. I had never listened to Limbaugh for an extended period of time until those weeks in the copy shop. Perhaps there was a part of me that feared turning into him.]