To mark the passing of Hugh Hefner I’m reposting this from years gone by. RIP Hef. Lord knows you’d need some rest by now. 😉
So let me tell you the story.
I get a call from a BET producer on a Friday night asking if I can go shoot an event for her at the Playboy Mansion the next night. It might come as a surprise to most people but the Playboy Mansion is the site of innumerable charity functions. I’d been up there before. Swam in the grotto pool. Blah blah blah.
But never, slow my rapidly beating heart, had I ever been there with a camera and a press credential.
So of course, I say yes! The problem, however, is that at that time in my life my health was absolutely miserable. So when the next day dawned blisteringly hot, I was both sick and apprehensive.
To get to these things at the Playboy Mansion you have to shuttle over. Actually they’re full-sized buses and you usually depart from a giant multi-level parking garage somewhere else on the Westside of Los Angeles. That was the case when I had my significant and dubious girlfriend of over three decades drop me off at the parking garage.
And I was still feeling very bad. And it was hot as Hades. I gave her strict instructions to be ‘on call’ cell phone on because I knew there’d be a long wait in a smothering parking garage and that I’d probably bail even before the first bus departed.
That was at 5:00 pm west coast time. Girlfriend didn’t hear from me again until near 1:00 am, when she found me lying on the sidewalk where she left me, drenched in sweat, with an absolutely stupid semi-permanent smile plastered on my half-crocked visage.
Yes. I was there a LONG time. I went through three or four different types of event photography all in one night. Red carpet. Long lens daylight candids. Available lowlight shooting. Standard event flash photography with the SB-800 and the 24-70 f2.8 Nikkor.
Lot of great stories. Met a lot of great people, believe it or not.
A pair of young female reporters for an online publication that covers charity events hooked up with me on the bus over. I guess this is when you know you’re getting old and harmless as a guy and maybe just a little pathetic. One of the girls was LOVELY. For a lot of the evening she carried my heavy camera back pack around for me. Are you kidding me? Nice girl, definitely not from L.A.
At one point in the dusky part of the early evening, after sundown but when there’s still some light in the air, and of course there’s plenty of lighting at the event, a heavily geared up Canon shooter came up to me while I was shooting with the 70-200 f2.8 Nikkor. This is in the early days of the D3. He was very irritated with me for some reason and he says, “You know you’re not getting anything with that lens in this light?”
That was right around the time the picture at the top of this post was taken. And this one.
I’m linking to a Flickr slideshow of the images that ended up being used not by BET but another publication. They might appear a little soft in the slideshow as they are only 800x on the long end. It’s the entire gallery of ‘safe’ images.
But I’m also including below a definitevly NSFW slideshow of images that have never been seen by anyone but myself. These are of body-painted girls and when I say NSFW I really mean it! These are not your father’s body-painted naked girls here.
It’s the Playboy Mansion. What’d you expect?
No, not the splendid cold war thriller on FX that began its second season last night. I want to talk a bit about the iconic book portraying 1950s America by Robert Frank that changed photography forever.
This will also give me a chance to introduce, to anyone who doesn’t know about it, what has been an incredible resource and source of inspiration over the years as I’ve grown more serious about my own photography. That would be the website known as AMERICAN SUBURB X.
ASX focuses on, I guess it’s safe to say, contemporary art photography and the work of the great 20th century icons of photojournalism and documentary photography as well. I can’t really even begin to relate the meaning that has been imparted to my mind, the holes that have been filled in my education, the understanding that has slowly and painfully made its way into my heart, digging through ASX.
Okay, let’s do this. I’d known about Frank’s seminal work for years and mostly through ASX had read here and there a number of essays and analysis pieces on The Americans. I thought I understood the book. Thinking about it from a post-1960s (when I grew up) perspective it didn’t really appear to me to be a work that offered the sort of photographic worldview changing experience the book’s peerless reputation clearly suggested it should.
Probably suggested is a bad word choice there as the book’s reputation comes down, through the decades of photographic history, just a little bit like a sledgehammer.
But I loved the collection of images (as stupid as that might sound) and I did understand it all to be an intentionally unflattering look at American culture. Well, big deal. I do understand the primacy of anything that manages to be the first major effort that opens the world’s eyes to a new way of looking at itself. But I grew up in the counter culture of 1960s and 70s America. This book was published in the US when I was 2 years old. America and its culture had and has been taking its well earned and justified knocks before I was even out of diapers.
To say I’m used to it is an understatement. All I’ve ever known is a world in which the the United States has had its scathing critics, always there nipping on the heels of things like national pride and patriotism and capitalism and militarism etc.
And, as an ex-hippy, I’m down with all of it. Man.
So I respected The Americans for being a pioneer work and, also, simply because I liked the images.
Then one day, browsing ASX, I happened upon yet another essay on Robert Frank and his book that was itself already a couple of decades old.
I remember reading it in the middle of the night. The spooky wee smallest of the wee small hours. But I knew that what I was reading was outrageous to my mind and changing me forever as I read it.
Cleverly, ASX’s website seems to prevent copying (and that problematic subsequent pasting) of text from their site. That’s okay. You can all read the essay here.
But then again, I do have skills. Here are some selected quotes… certainly NOT the most impactful paragraphs… but just something to whet your appetites, maybe.
“Robert Frank’s The Americans, which I think is the most important single effort in photography in this century, is also the most enigmatic. For 24 years the book has remained nearly impenetrable. There has seldom been any question of its intensity, its cohesiveness, or its uniqueness. The question has been what it is about.
“To realize the extent to which the content of the 83 photographs in The Americans has been glossed over one can look at what has been said about it over the years. For the most part, criticism as well as enthusiasm has centered on Frank’s style of photography and on its formal aspects. Until recently, no one delved into the content of his pictures.
“And in 1978 Szarkowski noted the difficulty younger photographers would have in understanding “how radical Frank’s book was when it first appeared.”
“But these accolades do little to explain how the book was important — except in terms of its revolutionary style — and they say nothing about what the images in it mean.
“Today the pictures no longer shock us. Today only one quality stands out — their muteness. Twenty-four years later, those images still never describe fully, never seem to make a clear point.
“When I first saw work from the The Americans I could make no sense of it. It wasn’t political. It wasn’t an exposé. It seemed only to deal in street photography enlightened by some perverse sense of humor, at times pervaded with an undirected melancholy.
“Only when I was told that this was the work of a Swiss national did it make sense — and then instantly.”
Well. As cliche as it might sound I never looked at photography the same way again after reading this essay. Not my own, not anyone else’s. It did the most amazing job of, finally, sorting things out for me. I didn’t care about the same things that MOST other photographers care about, anymore.
But beyond photography, because I’m an incredibly political person (for a person who doesn’t involve himself in politics in any way) this essay on ASX explained something of the dynamic that exists between Europeans and their culture, Americans and the culture we do have as well as our many voids, and more than any of that, the dynamic that exists between Europeans and Americans themselves.
Okay. Honestly, the rest here is largely up to you the inquisitive (I hope) visitors to my site. The link is there. The piece is long. It is sumptuous and contemptuous. I think it is painfully honest. When I first read it I guarantee you my blood pressure and respiration changed. I changed.
Okay. The image at the top. This picture was taken a week (or two) after I first bought my Leica M9. Anyone familiar with The Americans will recognize it as a reference to one of the most controversial (photographically) images in that book. That of the starlet at the premier on Hollywood Blvd. Enough on that. It’s pathetic in comparison to Robert Frank’s photography but… it’s still a pretty good shot… so whatever.
In the far left hand top corner of the image is a European who became an American. He’s since passed away. He was, by all accounts, a great doctor and the COO of one of the largest hospital systems in the US. The night before this image was taken we all shared a much more intimate dinner setting and he was admiring my new Leica M9 as only a European might.
We got to talking about things and the differences between the United States and Europe. I was at that time fresh off having my world view of Americans versus Europeans changed forever by the aforementioned ASX article and I was thrilled to be explaining it all to an actual cultured European.
Achilles was so kind as he smiled and deflated my hostility towards my own country. He praised America and explained that, while it is true, Europeans have many cultural advantages, they also suffer greatly from many entrenched and intransigent realities that we Americans are not saddled with. He said that most people around the world admire and are inspired by and aspire to much of what America has to offer.
Okay. That helped, actually. Because before that… I was pissed. 😉
But my perspective on photography and what it could be used for and had been used for was changed forever by what I can only describe as a more complete understanding of Robert Frank’s The Americans that I came to have after reading this essay.
Please enjoy and please visit American Suburb X frequently. I’m sure it will benefit your photography and your perspective as it has mine.
As I write this the rain is falling on the roof of my building in cold jealous sheets. 😉 Damn you, rain! Be gone! We photographic artists must be allowed to co-mingle and congratulate ourselves over wine and cheese that we did not pay for!
Okay. (Let’s hope that works.) No rain can dampen the excitement and warm feelings today holds, not just for me, but for the 28 other street photographers who will be honored at the Los Angeles Center of Photography’s first Annual Street Shooting Exhibition in Hollywood.
I don’t really discuss street photography much here on 50lux.com. As I’ve said in an earlier post from last year, I prefer to let my images do the talking for me. It is a sentiment that has been shared by so many photographers throughout the history of the medium. Let the work speak for itself, the images for themselves.
Not always a workable position to take there, it is increasingly less so in the world of contemporary art photography and galleries and clients etc., which all demand that any visual artist know exactly what the purpose is in their work and that they possess and own the very reasons their art exists. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask.
In my case, I don’t even have the excuse that I’m not good (enough) with words or that I don’t have anything to say about what I’m doing. I’m good (enough) with words to say what I’m thinking and I have actual thoughts on photography and, maybe especially, the street photography that accounts for the majority of my own creative efforts over the last 15 years.
So I’m going to take this opportunity, on the occasion when what I’ve been doing for so long is being recognized, when the undertaking itself is being recognized, to say a few things about the work of street photography.
First I have to say that upon perusing the fine selections for the LACP showing online I’m reminded that, thankfully, whatever positions or thoughts I hold in regard to street photography aren’t instantly transferable to the work of others. Photography itself and street photography in particular means something different to everyone who picks up the camera.
I think when I started to make street photography a form of creative expression I did it because I wanted to capture and preserve and make permanent my own life in the form of what I was seeing in my world. I saw it my way. I don’t believe there is a higher power simultaneously seeing and recording and preserving my perspective… or any perspective at all.
Moments, like life itself, were fleeting, but even moreso. There is no guarantee of permanence of human life or even the planet we live on. I had a desperation to grab the ordinary because I saw it, and still do, as being so extraordinary. Everything I see and photograph is, to my mind, the most singularly pointed definition of unique.
Selecting scenes and frames from what I see happening in front of me is a far more subconscious process. I am looking for specific things and then something inside of me is also more instinctively looking as well. Sometimes the things that are most integral to my images are not physical image elements. At best, meaning when I think an image of mine is most successful, the things that I have photographed are not physically apparent.
More than anything, I’m trying to photograph humanity and the human interplay between the living beings and this imposing city. The grace, lack of grace, responses to life, its pressures and pleasures, the human reactions to the environment that we have created for ourselves.
In street-photographing Los Angeles, I am attempting to make subtle, psychological images of humanity as I find them and see them against the backdrop of one of the more chaotic and overdeveloped places on Earth.
I hope that touches on the more general aspects of my street photography in a way that people can relate to when looking at my images. I thank everyone who comes to 50lux.com and who has supported me and my photography over the years.
I want to once again thank Julia Dean and the Los Angeles Center of Photography. Thank you for everything that you do, LACP!
The Los Angeles Center of Photography proudly presents our First Annual Street Shooting Exhibition that celebrates street photography in Los Angeles and around the world. The exhibition showcases 29 photographers and 39 photographs. The works were carefully selected among 120 photographers and 767 images. The selection process was juried by Sam Abell, Julia Dean and Stephen McLaren.