Sunday, April 14, 2013

Happy Fortieth Anniversary

May 23, 1973 will be the 40th anniversary of my first published newspaper photo. It has been posted before, but for those who didn't see it, here it is.

I find it hard to believe how far photography has come since I started seeing a camera as something I might actually master. I remember when the whole process started to come together for me: the loading of the camera, the selection of the subject, the actual exposure, the developing of the film, and finally, the creation of the finished print. I didn't realize it at the time, but my fascination with the craft would last for many, many years. True, I pursued other hobbies in the 80's and would not return to photography until the advent of the affordable digital camera and the expansion of my duties to include the production of our school's catalog of courses.

At the time, my "hero" photographers were photojournalists. David Douglas Duncan, Eugene Smith, Larry Burrows, and a lesser known photographer named Mark Jury. His book, The Viet Nam Photo Book, really brought to war home to me. Unlike the first three photographers who were better known for their combat photography, Jury included much of what was often overlooked: life in the rear echelons. His photos highlighted the surreal lives of the 80% of service personnel responsible for keeping the other 20% fighting in the field. Finding the book in stacks of the City College of San Francisco library was a very fortunate accident.

The real game changer came in December of 1972, although I didn't realize it at the time. Vogue had run its Holiday Issue with Cher. I was stunned. The photo spread was incredible - I had never fully appreciated the art of studio lighting until that point. The photographer? Richard Avedon. There was something about the complete control available to the studio photographer. I started to re-think the direction I wanted my photography to go, and became a closer observer of studio work, particularly fashion.

The years prior to this revelation were full of inspiration. In 1966, a movie called "Blowup", featuring a young English fashion photographer played by David Hemmings, had just been released. He was young, handsome, impetuous, and self possessed. It suffices to say that the movie had an influence on how mainstream culture viewed fashion photographers, and to some extent, helped create the myth. 

Vogue Magazine, with its lavish photo spreads and a seemingly unlimited budget for innovation, was leading the charge, and Irving Penn, Bert Stern, and the aforementioned Richard Avedon were the white knights at the head of the column. As I write, a framed poster from the Berkeley Museum of Art featuring one of Penn's still life photographs titled "After Dinner Games" hangs on my wall, dating back to 1986 when an exhibit of his work was making the museum circuit. It serves to remind me that studio photographs aren't always about fashion, but also includes editorial illustration, the art of combining visual elements to reproduce a mood or a concept.

A collection of Penn's work can be seen in Moment's Preserved. I first found this book in the City College Library, and consider it the greatest photo book I have ever held. I would own it, were it not for the astronomical prices demanded by used book sellers. I found a signed, first edition, for slightly less than $2,000.00 US.

Stern is well known for his advertising campaign for Smirnoff Vodka, a campaign that included his flying to Egypt to photograph a martini in the middle of the dessert, complete with an inverted reflection of a REAL pyramid in the glass.  When I first saw photos, I was fascinated by the extravagance of the photo shoot, but did not fully understand the significance of the location until I read the catch phrase, "Driest of the Dry". Now the pyramid and the location made absolute sense. And more than forty years later, I have come to realize the link this image made connecting the image and the subliminal "dry" message was the very essence of the story telling potential of a well executed image. I might add that Stern is about to become an American Icon. An upcoming movie, "Bert Stern: The Original Madman" is scheduled for release in May of 2013.

Avedon's "Dovima And The Elephants" gives another glimpse of how elaborate an image could be. With three elephants and a stunning Dior gown, this was not a the product of a serious hobbyist, but the final iteration of a vision. In this image, you can clear see the black edges left by the retaining clips of the sheet film holder. This is a view camera shot, made with a camera that cannot be focused while the film was in place, and movement by the subject during the long exposure times could quickly ruin a shot. Incidentally, Avedon was probably the inspiration for the Richard Avery character played by Fred Astaire in "Funny Face". He did serve as a technical adviser during the filming of the movie.

With all of this, it is no surprise that this kind of commercial/ editorial photography would appeal to me. Here was the melding of an idea with an image. It appealed to the technician, the artist, and to some extent, the silent poet hiding deep inside me, hoping to find the words that would transcend mere prose. I wanted to meld Stern's imagery with a subliminal message, however lofty or banal. Until then, I would be content to refine my studio lighting skills with the equipment I had.

More to follow.