Great Photographers

Times Feature on 15 Women Who Received No Obituary Includes One That is Inexcusable

Someone posted this to a message board I frequent yesterday morning. I clicked on the thread and saw the names and thought, Bronte, etc, whatever. Ancient history. Sylvia Plath surprised me. But then I forgot about it all and went about doing other things. Later I opened the NYTimes app on my iPhone and the first thing I saw, because the Times is pushing this feature out there, was the image above of a woman with a camera. The face was instantly familiar but I literally could not believe my eyes.

Why is Diane Arbus’s picture attached to this feature?

So instantly, far from being appreciative of the long overdue recognition of this amazing iconic photographer, just seeing her there included and knowing per passing wasn’t noted at the time in the newspaper of record set off a rush of anger in me. Arbus is like a pillar of my photographic world.

The emotion I felt and still feel at seeing that Diane Arbus didn’t warrant an obituary in the New York Times comes from a place of meaning because I understand who she was during her life. I don’t think the reason she didn’t get an obit was about her being a woman. I think it was about her work. And also about her personal affect. And I think the writer they chose for this overdue obituary and the piece he produced says everything about why she didn’t receive an obituary decades ago.

Arbus had been championed by John Szarkowski and had already had an exhibition at MOMA. She was famous. But she was difficult and she’d pissed off a lot of people with both her work and her temperament. Many people poisoned her reputation and I think all of that impacted whether or not she would have warranted, in the eyes of the people who make these decisions, an obituary in her own city’s newspaper of record.

It’s one thing to pull up people from the ancient past. It’s a whole different animal when you admit to something from the modern era that is as glaring as this. And then blame it all on a bias against women. I’m just not having it. Read the piece. At this point, is it really necessary to include all of the scathing criticisms of her work and her life? You can literally see why the Times chose not to give Diane Arbus an obituary when she died. I’m not going to say that isn’t great writing. It’s great writing. But everything you need to know is inherent in this piece published today.

“After decades of intense examination of her work and life, perhaps there is room to understand Arbus as a woman driven by artistic vision as well as personal compulsion, and her photographs as documents of empathy as well as exploitation.”

Perhaps. As well as exploitation. Do you see what I’m saying? Agendas are everything in our world.

Just to be clear, Diane Arbus does not deserve this paragraph above in 2018. She is a giant of 20th century photography. 

I think I’m taking this personally for a couple of reasons. One I won’t get into. But the other is that I’m a photographer who fully expects to be ignored until long after I’m gone if not forever. Because I’m producing a controversial and unconventional (in the art world) form of photography that many would see as exploitative. Nothing on the level of an Arbus in any respect I will be the first to tell you. But to see this type of snobbery still shaping the perspective and assessment of the work of Diane Arbus? It’s soul crushing.

Someone tweeted this series of long overdue obituaries and added the following:

Read these beautiful tributes to extraordinary women who were overlooked by the New York Times. 

I would ask anyone to read James Estrin’s piece on Diane Arbus and ask yourself if it is a beautiful tribute to an extraordinary woman. In the case of Diane Arbus, a better and more honest approach the Times could have taken was just to admit the underlying yet obvious hostility that existed towards her work back in the years of her life. Admit it all now.

In the early 1070s, clearly in the modern era, when we should have known better, and because we were listening to voices who had nothing but contempt for someone who would go on to be regarded as a giant of 20th century photography, we decided not to provide an obituary to our readers to note the passing of Diane Arbus.

But if you read this correction of the record, you’ll find that you’re still hearing from one of those scornful voices. Very disappointing but not unexpected. Snobbery and probably no small measure of jealousy are still shaping our world. Shame on the New York Times.

WILLIAM EGGLESTON: “Draft of a Presentation” (2003) – AMERICAN SUBURB X

“It’s hard for me to describe the fascination that William Eggleston’s photographs exert on me. More than twenty years ago, I bought William Eggleston’s Guide, the catalogue of his solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1976.”

Source: WILLIAM EGGLESTON: “Draft of a Presentation” (2003) – ASX | AMERICAN SUBURB X | Photography & Culture

Harry Benson, Early Photographer of Trump, Looks Back and Forward

You may have thought Harry Benson had seen it all. His camera front-loaded the pillow-fighting Beatles into the 1960s, hitting the tarmac with them in New York, and closed the decade by capturing Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, Ethel Kennedy’s hand taking up much of a frame, as if to stop the tragedy cold. The civil rights movement, the Ku Klux Klan, Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, Muhammad Ali and other assignments from the magazines Look, Life and Time, along with seemingly every lethal crisis and celebrity hideaway in the world.

In the 1970s, Mr. Benson shot a hard-driving, show-offy young real estate heir named Donald J. Trump shadowboxing as if with his future on the roof of Mr. Trump’s Fifth Avenue tower. Some 20 years later, Mr. Benson posed Mr. Trump in the money cage of his casino, the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, with a million dollars in cash in his arms. “He was trying to hold on to it,” Mr. Benson said. “It was against gaming commission rulings for him to even be there.”

Source: Harry Benson, an Early Photographer of Trump, Looks Back and Forward – The New York Times

The Democratic Forest: William Eggleston


“Eggleston was in New York during the last week in October for the opening of a new exhibition of his work at the Zwirner gallery that runs through December 17. All of the nearly 50 images in the show were taken in the ’80s as part of a mammoth series called The Democratic Forest, which in its entirety includes some 12,000 images. But in the Zwirner show, for the first time, many of the images have been reproduced on a giant scale, some of them five feet across. Staring at them on opening night (and it is a measure of how Eggleston is idolized, particularly by the young, that hundreds of people braved a truly filthy rain to attend the opening), I thought, when you make a picture that big, there is no room for error, no place for a photographer to hide. And in this case, no need. You could put these pictures on a billboard, and they would lose none of their integrity.”

Source: William Eggleston: The Father of Modern Color Photography – The Daily Beast

Previously Unseen Arbus – The New York Times

“Diane Arbus: In the Beginning” shows, among other things, that Arbus settled early on many of her major themes.

“Street photography was the advanced mode of the day, and practitioners like Lee Friedlander, William Klein, Helen Levitt and Garry Winogrand all claimed New York City as their turf. So did Lisette Model, a Viennese émigré with whom Arbus studied briefly. Ms. Model didn’t give her student much formal advice. Instead, she urged her to ease away from the stance of objectivity then considered requisite for serious photography and instead establish emotional relationships with her subjects, and see where that would take her. For Arbus, the advice was heaven-sent. It gave her permission to be the artist she was ready to be.”

“Diane Arbus: In the Beginning” runs through Nov. 27 at the Met Breuer, 945 Madison Avenue, at 75th Street; 212-731-1675;

Source: Previously Unseen Arbus, Unearthed Years After Her Death – The New York Times

The Americans – Reposted!


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.

ROBERT FRANK: “Robert Frank’s America” (1982) – Since 2008, AMERICAN SUBURB X | Art, Photography and Culture that matters..

And as usual, someone watching me… repost!

The image above is mine. The words are William Klein’s but I can certainly identify with them . He says this in an amazing contact sheet analysis film I’ve included below.

Everyone with an interest in photography should watch it and should look on YouTube for other contact sheet discussions by photographers like Sebastião Salgado and Josef Koudelka.

As always, thank you for looking.