For Every Answer There Is A Question

I’m involved in a titanic struggle with myself. I have been for over 50 years. There have been times like Par Lagervist’s Dwarf, it is laying dormant or asleep, only occasionally making its Machiavellian self prominent and overbearing.

But for the last year in particular, it has surfaced with a vengeance, and has made my life at times unbearable. The problem, though, is not with the enemy outside. The problem is with me, thou, myself. There is me, and then there is me, fighting out a battle, that if it could be configured on a visual plane, would equal the battle of Gettysburg.

I can make those closest to me, my family and friends miserable, but as the book connotes, this is The End! Some side is going to finally triumph. Either its off to the New England shore, resting in peace, keeping all things under control, or for the life of me, which it may very well be, its off to taking pictures, sticking my head where it shouldn’t be, looking deeply into the very soul of life, causing angst, disrupting the quietude, fighting the “never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.”

It all started with my father (and of course my mother), but you already know this. I have learned a lot, and knowledge is power, but I still can’t let me be me. I have hidden myself from myself, and as I approach The End, I am truly finding that if I can somehow or somewhere find the strength, it will just be the beginning.

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Unpacking

I just returned from the sandy beaches of sunny Minneapolis, Minnesota. I’m busy unpacking my flip-flops, sun tan lotion, and bermuda shorts. Stay tuned during the next few days for bright rays of photographic wisdom.

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Seek and Ye Shall Find

I don’t know what to say. I’m happy, and this is causing me all kinds of consternation and fear. Something will bring its wrath down on me for daring to feel ok. Oh, those of you who feel positive, and for all you photographic geniuses, watch out, for the wrath of God may humble your soul.

This has been an ongoing problem, which I only recently have decided to share with you. You see, deep, I mean truly deep within my soul, lies a content, powerful, happy person, who has always been unwilling or unable to show it for very long. You might dislike it, or me, or be jealous of it. You might want to bring me down to size.

So for years, I have always beaten you to the punch. I have fallen ill with every conceivable ailment imaginable. Unfortunately, some real ones have gotten intermingled with those imagined. But do not despair, both real and imagined have the power to squash anything that feels powerful and happy.

So despite the consequences, despite the retribution, I am here to tell you my most intimate and private thought. Please don’t tell anyone, but in fact, I am a powerhouse. Please don’t hate me for this, it’s in my DNA.

It is now the end of one person, and the beginning of the beginning of another, where the new person slowly becomes more public.

I hope you will like the new me.

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May I Feel, Said He

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(Let’s go, said he
and not too far said she
what’s too far, said he
where you are, said she)

May I move, said he
is it love, said she)
if you’re willing, said he
(but you’re killing, said she

-Excerpts, E.E. Cummings, May I Feel, Said He

There is an intrinsic and basic problem in my life and career. It is a natural consequence of what I do, of who I am, and what I feel. You see, to be a photographer requires an openness and an ability to look deep into someone’s eyes, to regard them with care and affection, and to ultimately fall madly in love with them. There is some discrimination to this, but as I usually choose my subjects, for the most part, it is uncontrollable.

It begins with attraction, and ends with an intimate knowledge of their soul. It involves letting them speak to me, watching carefully, and finding their specialness.

With men, this seems not to be a problem. They quickly become like good friends and confidants. We are able to laugh together, and enjoy each other’s company, but for women (for me), this is a different matter.

I find myself pulled in, looking ever more closely, finding their strength, their delicacy, and their beauty. If they are willing to return the gaze, the game is afoot. In order to succeed, I must slowly disrobe my emotions. I must slowly unveil my feelings, and for the portrait to be successful, she must be willing to do the same. There is a far greater intimacy exposed, although not necessarily in the touch. There is a connection, an openness, an ability to reveal both of ourselves completely, with all our strengths and vulnerabilities. This is a very difficult thing to do, both for me, and for her. It is what distinguishes greatness from mediocrity. How far you are willing to emotionally travel is as important as your talent.

To succeed, we must fall in love, take the pictures, and then slowly take deep breaths, realizing who we are, and walk slowly away from the edge.

Next week, we will be in faraway adventures, and unfortunately, the jungle does not allow for insight. For all those faithful readers, we will be returning, fully suntanned and saturated, on Monday, May 17.

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Skyline, 1995

In the Spring of 1995 I was commissioned by the New York Times Magazine to do this picture. I had already done two others in this series, and by now these pictures were referred to as “the line pictures.” Earlier, I had done Hemline and Airline, and now I was asked to shoot Skyline. The only directive was to have the New York skyline in the picture.

We had found a barge that was large enough to put the crew in the middle of the Hudson River. The day of the shoot, it was raining. I remember the Art Director asking me if we should cancel and reshoot another day. I also remember feeling that shooting that day was fine, and that the rain, rather than a deterrent, was an asset. I have always liked rain. It adds an atmosphere that I am attracted to. It makes things enigmatic, dimensional, and unresolved.

It took some hours to get the barge in place, and by then it was raining quite hard. We got everyone dressed quickly, positioned the barge, and shot the picture very quickly. I remember that the barge would drift slowly, and I found myself waiting for just the right moment, when the man’s hat fell between the Twin Towers. I took a few frames and then the job was done.

As I have mentioned before, one never knows which pictures will strike gold. This picture, even before 9-11, was extremely popular, and since then has become almost an icon. The edition is almost all sold out, with only one print remaining.

Since 9-11, the picture has been purchased by people all over the world, but by no one in New York City. I used to think this strange, but I realize the events of 9-11 are still too close for those who were there. A photograph always has a history. It denotes a time and a place, and is able to halt life, if only for a second. Of all the pictures I have ever taken, this picture is marked in time forever. It is a timeline, as well as a skyline.

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Rule from the Center

I grew up in a family of obsessive fanatics. It’s no wonder that today I needed an inordinate amount of obsessive-compulsive anti-depressant drugs, just to allow me not to veer slightly to the right.

I have an inordinate tendency to obsess about my health, my life, and anything else I can attach myself to. If I’m traveling, I obsess about that. If I’m not traveling, I can find a way to obsess about that as well. But nothing captures my fancy like being sick. I can get right down there with the best of them. Soaking any ailment for all it’s worth, and by all means, annoying all around me with my continual need for attention. After 40 years of intensive psychotherapy, I understand my motivations and neuroses, but like all good neurotics, my ailments, no matter how painful and uncomfortable, are a difficult act to drop.

But enough about me. I was talking about my parents. As I mentioned in earlier blogs, I grew up in a grand house, where everything had its place. There was the upstairs maid, the downstairs maid, the chauffeur, the butler, the laundress, and handyman, all working tirelessly to keep everything under control. The carpet’s nap was always vacuumed to look like Yankee Stadium. The antiques sniffed of polish, the woodwork glistened, the upholstery puffed to perfection, and I was not meant to disturb or touch anything.

Now, despite this claustrophobic, critical environment, I learned to somehow love it. I have become my own worst enemy. I have taken up and joined the club that I would never want to be a member of. I love order. Cleanliness is next to godliness, and despite everything, I must admit- my parents were right. All things do have their right place.

If you look at my photographs, this sense of compulsion, which has turned into a sense of composition, was nurtured and driven into me from a young boy. Despite throwing it up and out, I have learned to use it in my favor. I have learned to place things in their right place, to find order in chaos, to distill an essence from a catastrophe, and to learn my own rhythm. It all looks so easy, but believe me, it took many years of torture and anguish to learn to rule from the center.

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A Change Is Not Necessarily An Improvement

People often ask me particulars about how I shoot, what film, what format, what cameras, lenses, etc I use, and why, and I thought it about time to answer some of these issues. I’ve addressed some, but definitely not all of these questions in previous blogs, and as they are intimately related to vision and life, I will probably address more as time marches on. But as I happened to be rereading the afterword to my first book, In the Land of Light, I thought that although there are some things I do differently today, (as an example, I now shoot mostly with a Hasselblad and a tripod, while before only on occasion), basically all that was true then remains true today. This afterword was written at least 30 years ago, but I feel it remains to me a basic manifesto for today:

Afterword from In the Land of Light

“It is by the bow of a man’s back, the way a woman moves her body, holds a cup, looks at me, by the way people dance and sing and laugh, that I understand them. I have a passion to get below the surface of things, to find an enduring essence. I want each of my photographs to express the underlying forces in life, each frame to be able to stand on its own. When a photograph succeeds for me, I feel that every inch of space is necessary. For these reasons, although I may spend hours in a place, I often shoot very little film.

I find I am always drawn to a subject: I may see something far away that excites me, even if it is only a sense of light or space. I run directly toward it and look through the viewfinder, I move closer or farther away in order to harmonize my relationship to the subject and to what I feel.

My passion for clarity is particularly manifest in the way I use a camera. Many photographers feel that, because the world is unclear, they have no obligation to make their photographs sharp. I agree that the world is unclear. Yet it is my compulsion to make the world as sharp as possible. By doing so, I try to expose more than is readily apparent. Thus I have some means of controlling chaos, if only by describing it. However, the acuity of a photograph does not always define life for me; detail sometimes reveals mystery.

I have spent years studying the technique of photography in search of a means to make a small-format 35mm camera achieve the technical clarity of a large-format camera. I am never satisfied with the results of my work: the detail is never sharp enough; the light is never articulate enough. Though I marvel at the mastery of some large-format photographers, only the unobtrusiveness, speed, and agility of a 35mm camera can achieve the closeness and intimacy I require in my portraits.

For me, the interaction between the photographer and the subject is crucial. In Israel, I often saw photographers cope with the difficulties of portraying people by standing at a distance and using a long-focal-length lens. I want a person to be aware of me, to deal with my presence, and am therefore always physically close to the person I photograph. For these reasons I use only a normal-focal-lenth lens.

There is something about being face to face with someone that is necessary for my life. There is much in the world that terrifies me, so I need to get close to people- to reach out.

When I feel I am close I get closer: to remove everything from the frame that is extraneous, and to scale down the photograph in hopes of achieving a simplicity that reveals only what I feel is in that person. I am so close that I cannot look the other way or hide behind anything. Then I am aware of an intensity of intimacy and understanding. I begin to sense who I am, and to perceive in others the small expressions that help to reveal a person’s unique and essential quality.

People give a great deal to me. They trust me even though I am a stranger. I love them for their strength and for their willingness to reveal themselves to me face to face.”

There is, though, one basic and fundamental issue I do wish to address. 45 years and thousands of rolls of film later, I still have this unwavering love for black-and-white film. Although, just as most who knew me thought I never would, I reconsidered, and started some 8 years ago to shoot color as well. It serves a different function for me, and I will talk about this later, but there is nothing to me like the blackness and luxuriant intensity of the black-and-white. It is an abstraction by addition. You see, there is more color in black-and-white than there is in color. All to be continued.

Lastly, I continue, and no doubt will until death, or until Kodak decides to stop me, to shoot film. I have shot Plus-X 120 film (my all-time favorite film), and Tri-X 120 for over 40 years, and I must thank Kodak for its long-term commitment to an age that is recorded in digital seconds. Unfortunately for me, without these films, my life would not be the same. As time goes on, I will explain why film fits the world as I see it.

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Only a Whisper

For the last few days I’ve been speaking only in whispers. I lost my voice late last week, and I am now busy looking for it. I’ve been searching high and low: turning over couch cushions, checking all of my pant pockets, and peeling back the corners of all my rugs. Give me another day to locate it; I’ll be back in top form tomorrow.

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Early Earth, Part One

Everything began in the Summer of ’62. I was a freshman in high school, and like many well-to-do boys at that time, I was sent on a teen tour of the United States and Mexico. My parents got me excited by the fact that it was coed, and coming from my first year at an all boys boarding school, this experience seemed full of adventure, and presented an opportunity to converse, and perhaps even kiss, some extraordinary creature from the opposite sex. Who cared where we went, as long as there were girls along the way? To this day, the only thing I can remember about that summer is the story I’m about to tell you.

Before I begin, I must go further back into my early childhood. My parents traveled all the time. They loved to go by ship, plane, or camel to whatever remote spot on the planet they could find, as long as there was luxury attached. They would go on safari, explore Egypt on camel, travel by biplane, etc. The expression of ‘taking the longboat’ must have been written about them, because they would often be gone for 2 or 3 months at a time.

This left me alone with the German caretakers, Martin and Fritze. I learned to love them, equally if not more than my parents, and it is Martin of all people who probably initially instilled my interest in photography.

You see, he was a mechanical genius. Like all Germans, he could fix anything. The toast would pop out of the toaster at record velocity, the cars hummed, the lawnmower purred, everything worked when he was around. He also had a love of cameras. I would often go away with them on weekends to hike and camp in the Bear Mountains, where he would take pictures, and on weekday nights on occasion would convert their bathroom into a darkroom.

It is there, at age 5, that I was first exposed, literally, to the wonders of a darkroom. It is Martin and Fritze, (The Help), that not only got me interested in photography, but also taught me who and what is important in life. So while my parents were gallivanting through The Congo, I was in awe of the darkroom, and learning to love and admire people who did not have the trappings of success, but had the wisdom and gentleness of the masters.

So before leaving on my own adventure, for some reason I do not remember, I asked my father for a camera for the trip. It was not just any camera, it was a Kodak Retina Reflex, with a Schneider 50mm lens. In those days, Kodak made a beautiful camera with German optics. It was my first pride and joy.

With my camera and total anxiety in tow as usual, I went off to see America. In the middle of the trip, we were scheduled to take the train from Nuevo Loredo, Texas, to Mexico City. A day out of Texas on the train, deep into Mexican territory, the train stopped, because there had been an avalanche on the tracks. It took two days to send a crew from Mexico city to fix the tracks. So while sitting in the middle of Mexico, all the grown-ups drank the train dry of liquor, and the kids were allowed to get off the train and walk around.

Many Mexican children came to the train as time went on, out of curiosity or to sell items to the tourists. And this is where the real-life adventure begins. I found myself unconsciously attracted to the Mexicans. I took pictures not of my teen mates, but of the Mexicans and their children. I filled the frame with their faces, and to this day, I still remember how they looked. But for the life of me, I cannot remember a face or a person from that tour.

When I got home and had the film developed, I remember showing the pictures to my father, who quickly dismissed them and asked where the pictures of my teen mates were. When there weren’t any, he looked confused and simply dismissed them and me.

So this is where it all began, but where it ends is part of a larger discussion.

These images, although not taken on that trip, are reminiscent of what I shot in Mexico as a child. Both of these were shot in MIssissippi in 1977.

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Interregnum

Although I promised last week to further explain my small momentous epiphany in the Museum of Modern Art, which only transformed my life as I now know it, I realized I’m not quite ready to put this all together. I need a break of sorts, so… Beside a vacation, which I’ve been on for a week, I thought I would take a small break from life’s little questions and get down to the basics: A man’s strong attraction to a woman.

Here she is: Annika on her bicycle. The German, exquisite, 5’11” beauty, with long blonde hair. Look at her. Don’t you agree, if God had created a 10, Annika was at least a 10-and-a-half, maybe even an 11. She was perfect in every way: very beautiful, long legs, voluptuous, exquisite face, etc. Ok, so what’s the problem? Well here’s the inside scoop.

It starts in the Fall of 1993. I was doing a shoot at an estate in Long Island, and we had cast two girls for it. The first was the miraculous Annika, whom you see above, and the second was a girl named Claudia, who was from Brazil. The shoot was for three days, and after the first day of shooting, I approached the Art Director and asked her if we could not use Annika for the next two days.

You see, Annika, this miracle of life, this hedonistic creature, whom I originally lusted over, turned out to be quite a bitch. She was uncooperative, mean-spirited, and to say the least, not very nice. On the other hand, the more normal (down to earth, reality check) Claudia, was funny, vivacious, attractive, and extremely happy to please.

I thought why not just use Claudia for the remainder of the shoot? I was informed by the Art Director that this might have been fine, but we had contracted both girls, and were obliged to use them both.

So for the entire shoot, I shot both girls, convinced that Claudia would triumph. Her vivaciousness, her laughter, would in the end persevere. I was convinced that Annika’s inner self would be revealed and reviled by all. I was sure that I could show through her beauty, and reveal her true essence. All through the shoot, Annika and I barely talked, (although the fact that she barely spoke English could not have been the problem).

Throughout all these months of writing about my tales and insights into the human psyche, I have told you how the camera never lies, that one’s true essence can be revealed. Well, on these three days in the Fall of ’93, truth took a holiday. When the film was developed, and contacts made, it was almost impossible to find a bad picture of Annika. This woman, who did not deserve the grace of God, looked more beautiful in every frame. Claudia, whom I adored, looked attractive and nice, but never spectacular.

In this case, I was wrong. Beauty triumphed over truth. How is it possible that no matter how hard I had tried, I could not take a bad picture of the girl I loathed? And the girl I thought great, I could not picture her as such. What happened to the soul being revealed, and beauty to be found in the eyes of the beholder?

Could it be that sometimes lust and envy are simply too strong for pictures?

PS: It’s now Tuesday morning, and the amnesia that was overwhelming me yesterday has recessed, and thanks to faithful readers, I realized I am repeating myself. I knew there was something about this story that seemed familiar. Well, it turns out I wrote the same story in August 2009. For those of you who wish to compare notes, please feel free to. I am sorry, and promise not to repeat myself too often. Please forgive those of us who are maturing faster than a speeding bullet.

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