Tag Archives: photography

Diane Arbus: Describing the Loneliness that Shames Us

Photographer Diane Arbus poses for a rare portrait in the Automat at Sixth Avenue between 41st & 42nd Street in New York, New York, circa 1968. (Photo by Roz Kelly/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

With the publication of two books and new gallery showings featuring photographer Diane Arbus, Hilton Als explores her work, writings, artistic motivation, and uncanny ability to capture on film the humanity of the “freaks” — the marginalized people — who were the subjects of her work. Read his piece at the New York Review of Books.

Arbus’s photographs were elegant, too—classically composed and cool—but they were on fire with what difference looked like and what it felt like as seen through the eyes of a straight Jewish girl whose power lay in her ability to be herself and not herself—different—all at once. The story she told with her camera was about shape-shifting: in order to understand difference one had to not only not dismiss it, but try to become it. “I don’t like to arrange things,” Arbus once said. “If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.”

As Arbus went on, though, she became more and more interested in the drama of the self as it appeared not only to her through her lens (her magic portal) but to her subject. No visual artist of the twentieth century has described with more accuracy the enormous pride her characters, certainly in the early pictures, feel at having risked all to become themselves—selves they could not lock up, or hide, or resist being recorded despite the pain of being marginalized in their daily life.

Arbus made pictures that grew out of and described the loneliness we are all taught to be ashamed of and should try to “fix” through conventional connections—marriage, children, and so on.2 Arbus’s “I”—the eye behind her camera—was unabashed loneliness, looking to connect, if only because she understood what it felt like not to. She wanted to see the world whole, which meant seeing and accepting the fractures in those connections, too, along with all that could not be fixed. When she started taking pictures of drag queens and interracial couples, homosexuality was illegal, and miscegenation was still met with violence or derision.

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Chelsea Manning Stays in the Picture

The first image posted by xychelsea87 was a pair of black, brand-new Chuck Taylors, shot from above on a plain wood floor like any good Instagram influencer who “has a thing with floors.” Next up, a slice of pepperoni pizza, a hand, and a sleeve of a black and white striped shirt. “So, im already enjoying my first hot, greasy pizza.” Next post, the same hand, the same striped shirt, with two glasses of champagne. “Here’s to freedom and a new beginning.” And on May 18, Manning turned the camera on herself for the first time. It’s a carefully-styled image—her Instagram has been a study in carefulness—as she reveals a portrait on her own terms for the first time since her release. The sun is on her face — she’s outside. “Okay, so here I am everyone!!”

Chelsea Manning didn’t get to chose the image that defined her for the seven years she was in prison, a blurry shot in a blond wig, smiling in a car while on leave in the US during her time in Iraq. The leave was essential to her decision to leak the files she had downloaded as an intelligence officer, she explains to the New York Times.

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Was the World Press Wrong to Choose This As The Photo of the Year?

Burhan Özbilici / AP Images

Earlier this week, the jurors of the World Press Photo of the Year chose the defining image of 2016: the dramatic assassination of of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey at an art opening in Ankara.

The image began to go viral within minutes of the attack, which was captured on live video, and critics noted that the staged quality of the event—the white walls of the gallery, black suit of the gunman, the triumphant pose over the slain ambassador, all captured in a split second by AP photographer Burhan Özbilici—was “like a scene from Godard or Tarantino.”

But The New York Times reports that the jury was “quite split” with the decision, and one dissenter, jury chairman Stuart Franklin, quickly took to the Guardian with a short post explaining his reasoning. According to Franklin, this is the third time the image of an assassination has been chosen as photo of of the year (a group which includes Eddie Adams’ iconic 1968 photograph of the killing of a Vietcong police chief), but he argued that to choose it in our present moment is “morally as problematic [as publishing] a terrorist beheading.”

Placing the photograph on this high pedestal is an invitation to those contemplating such staged spectaculars: it reaffirms the compact between martyrdom and publicity.

This debate’s not new. The Greeks probably started it, nearly two and a half thousand years ago, when Herostratus sought notoriety by torching one of the seven wonders of the world and the judiciary, in response, banned any mention of his name. To be clear, my moral position is not that the well-intentioned photographer should be denied the credit he deserves; rather that I feared we’d be amplifying a terrorist’s message through the additional publicity that the top prize attracts.

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The Trick to It All: A Conversation with Photographer Henry Leutwyler

The gun that killed John Lennon. All images by Henry Leutwyler.

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | October 2016 | 12 minutes (3,326 words)


Born in Switzerland in 1961, the portrait photographer Henry Leutwyler was told he wouldn’t make it as a photographer. He was rejected from a top Swiss photography school, and when he opened his own photo studio in Lausanne — photographing watches and chocolates and cheeses — he went bankrupt in a swift year-and-a-half.

But at age 25, Leutwyler moved to Paris and began apprenticing with the French photographer Gilles Tapie, who helped him find his stride as an editorial photographer. A decade later, in 1995, Leutwyler moved to New York City, where his portrait photography began to appear in Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Esquire, and Time, among others.

Since then, Leutwyler has photographed the top-tier of global talent, including Martin Scorsese, Michelle Obama, Julia Roberts, Misty Copeland, Tom Wolfe, and Rihanna.

In 2010, Leutwyler published his first book with the German imprint Steidl called Neverland Lost: A Portrait of Michael Jackson, following it with two editions of Ballet: Photographs of the New York City Ballet. This year, he completed his most extensive project yet. After 12 years in the works, Document was released on October 25, 2016, by Steidl and will be accompanied by a show at the Foley Gallery in New York City, from November 3, 2016, to January 8, 2017.

The one-of-a-kind project is comprised of 124 photographs of seemingly ordinary items whose history renders them extraordinary: the gun that killed John Lennon, Bob Dylan’s harmonica, Andy Warhol’s paintbrush, Julia Child’s madeleine tray, Charlie Chaplin’s cane, Fred Astaire’s tap shoes, Janis Joplin’s guitar, Michael Jackson’s sequined glove, a hand-sewn Civil War-era flag, Mahatma Gandhi’s cracked leather sandal, among many others — all of which Leutwyler managed to round-up and photograph on his trademark white background.

Recently, while Leutwyler was in Palermo, Italy, I spoke with him about the trick to portrait photography, the magic of inanimate objects, his laughs with Julia Roberts, his awkwardness with Helmut Newton, and how he manages to stay creative after decades of universally adored photography.

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Chronicling Mexico City Nights: The Grave Shift’s Violence

Photo by ismael villafranco CCBY SA 2.0

When you work the night shift for too long, the murders start to link up with one another, blending cause and effect in a centrifugal force that gnaws away at the city. The veteran reporters start to see this; the man gunned down one night is related to an ongoing gang dispute, which originates in another murder from the previous week, and so on. The crimes dot their personal maps. Driving by Mosqueta Street, David points to a specific building and recalls the night he photographed an injured man that had been hit by a car. It was only later that his editor pointed out to him that the victim was in fact José Luis Calva Zepeda, also known as the Guerrero Cannibal, one of contemporary Mexico’s most notorious serial killers, accused of eating parts of his victims, all young women. When the police located him, he jumped out of his apartment window and ran across the street, before being struck by a car and apprehended.

At The Towner, Francisco Serrano shadows journalists during Mexico City’s violent night shift.

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By the Reflection of What Is

Plate 2. Unknown photographer, July–August 1843.

John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd | Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American| Liveright | Nov. 2015 | 22 minutes (5,654 words)

The following excerpt appears courtesy of Liveright Publishing.

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Frederick Douglass was in love with photography. During the four years of civil war, he wrote more extensively on photography than any other American, even while recognizing that his audiences were “riveted” to the war and wanted a speech only on “this mighty struggle.” He frequented photographers’ studios and sat for his portrait whenever he could. As a result of this passion, he also became the most photographed American of the nineteenth century.

It may seem strange, if not implausible, to assert that a black man and former slave wrote more extensively on photography, and sat for his portrait more frequently, than any of his American peers. But he did. We know this because Douglass penned four separate talks on photography (“Lecture on Pictures,” “Life Pictures,” “Age of Pictures,” and “Pictures and Progress”), whereas Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Boston physician and writer who is generally considered the most prolific Civil-War era photo critic, penned only three. We have also identified, after years of research, 160 separate photographs of Douglass, as defined by distinct poses rather than multiple copies of the same negative. By contrast, scholars have identified 155 separate photographs of George Custer, 128 of Red Cloud, 127 of Walt Whitman, and 126 of Abraham Lincoln. Ulysses S. Grant is a contender, but no one has published the corpus of Grant photographs; one eminent scholar (Harold Holzer) has estimated 150 separate photographs of Grant. Although there are some 850 total portraits of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his Wild West Show, and 650 of Mark Twain, no one has analyzed how many of these are distinct poses, or photographs as opposed to engravings, lithographs, and other non-photographic media. Moreover, Cody and Twain were a generation younger, and many if not most of their portraits were taken after 1900, when the Eastman Kodak snapshot had transformed the medium, bringing photography “within reach of every human being who desires to preserve a record of what he sees,” as Kodak declared. In the world, the only contemporaries who surpass Douglass are the British Royal Family: there are 676 separate photographs of Princess Alexandra, 655 of the Prince of Wales, 593 of Ellen Terry, 428 of Queen Victoria, and 366 of William Gladstone.

Douglass’s passion for photography, however, has been largely ignored. He is, perhaps, most popularly remembered as one of the foremost abolitionists, and the preeminent black leader, of the nineteenth century. History books have also celebrated his relationship with President Lincoln, the fact that he met with every subsequent president until his death in 1895, and that he was the first African American to receive a federal appointment requiring Senate approval. His three autobiographies (two of them bestsellers), which helped transform the genre, are still read today. Yet, because his photographic passion has been almost completely forgotten, historians have missed an important question: why would a man who devoted his life to ending slavery and racism and championing civil rights be so in love with photography? Read more…

Diane Arbus, Uncropped: A Reading List

Diane Arbus' Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City (1962)

Diane Arbus was renowned for photographing people on the margins, such as the mentally challenged, dwarves, giants, sideshow performers, crossdressers, and transsexuals. Was she merely a privileged voyeur of the vulnerable or an unsung champion of sexual and societal minorities? Here are five stories that will help you cut through the controversy. Read more…

Q. Sakamaki and the Art of the Socio-Photo-Documentary

Homeless people line up for food on Christmas Day at the soup kitchen at La Plaza Cultural, on Ninth Street and Avenue C. December 1987.

Lucy McKeon | Longreads | May 2015 | 15 minutes (3,806 words)


Photographer Q. Sakamaki was born and raised in Japan, but he moved to New York City in 1986, and has lived there ever since, covering the nightclub scene of ‘80s and ‘90s New York, documenting political efforts like the anti-gentrification movement, and capturing everyday life through striking street photography across the city.

New York is not his only focus. While Sakamaki has taken photographs around the world, from Burma to Haiti, China to Kosovo, Bosnia to Israel, Palestine to Liberia, and Afghanistan to Harlem, where he resides today—it’s his Instagram feed that has recently attracted many new fans. There, his daily, often-impressionistic images communicate a sense of profundity, even melancholy, in representing the quotidian.

Sakamaki’s photographs have appeared in books and magazines worldwide and have been the subject of exhibitions in New York and Tokyo. Among the many honors he’s received are four POYi prizes, two Overseas Press Club awards, and a first prize World Press Photo in 2006. He has published five books, including WAR DNA, which covers seven conflicts, and Tompkins Square Park, which documents the Lower East Side protests of the late ‘80s to mid-‘90s. Sakamaki is represented by Redux Pictures. We spoke recently about how he got his start and how he aims to combine identity with photography.

* * *

I’ve read that you began your career in photojournalism covering the Tompkins Square Park uprising in New York City in the late 1980s—is that right? Did you take photographs even before that, if not professionally?

I photographed before, but it was more fashion photography [and] portraits. I was doing that and trying to get a job, when something started in the Lower East Side at Tompkins Square Park. It started before ’88, the summer of ’88, and then continued until the middle of the ’90s, depending on people’s definition of what is a movement. It was like a real melting pot, there. The only real melting pot I’ve ever seen in New York City. Not like here [in Harlem] today. But anyway, after [the Tompkins movement in reaction to gentrification and other labor issues], I decided I would like to cover more—I don’t like the term photojournalism. [We’ll return to this later.]

I used to be very political, when I was 13 or 14 year old. Then I loved fashion and entertainment in my late teens. So the Tompkins Square Park movement felt like something of a flashback. Until the mid-’90s I covered a lot of New York political movements, like the anti-gentrification movement. But then the Tompkins Square Park movement was gone—with Mayor Dinkins closing the park. People tried to keep it going, but in the mid-’90s, they couldn’t. So the mid-90s in New York started to feel very boring for me. I started to pay attention more to outside, worldwide. I went to many conflict zones, war zones—to Haiti, Cambodia, and Israel, Palestine, then Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia. Read more…

‘I Started to Think About the Prospect of Documenting a Culture That I Understood.’

Photo by Amazon

After my internship, my first assignment for National Geographic was a story about the Zinacenteco Indians in the highlands of Chiapas. The subject was interesting but very challenging. As a woman, my access was mostly limited to other women who only spoke the Maya language I was struggling to learn. Once I traversed the language barrier, it was still very difficult to gain permission to photograph because it was a culture that traditionally believed that taking one’s pictures meant taking one’s soul. Each photograph was the result of a protracted pre-negotiation. While I was struggling to make pictures there, I started dreaming of photographing in a place where people actually liked being photographed. I started to think about the prospect of documenting a culture that I understood, where my perspective and understanding could actually make a difference in my seeing.

I found an old copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, a groundbreaking novel about the jaded alienation of the young and rich in Los Angeles, on the bookshelf of our rented house in Chiapas. As I reread it, I thought about how people around the world were fascinated by the depiction of Los Angeles kids in the popular TV show Beverly Hills 90210. I realized that the world I grew up in, Los Angeles, was worthy of the same kind of sociological and anthropological study, that as photographers, anthropologists and documentarians, we customarily turn on the other rather than on ourselves.

So I came back to my hometown and started documenting kids in Los Angeles, the place that fabricates the popular culture that is exported around the world.

Photographer and documentarian Lauren Greenfield writing in Time. Greenfield studied film and anthropology in college and had initially planned to spend her career “documenting the exotic [and] the other”; instead she returned home to Los Angeles and turned the lens on the world she’d grown up in. Those photographs ended up becoming Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywoodher acclaimed first book. That was nearly two decades ago. Since then, Greenfield has become a renowned chronicler of youth culture, gender and consumerism, and is perhaps best known for her 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles.

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A Resourceful Woman

Jeff Sharlet | Longreads | February 2015 | 24 minutes (5,994 words)


  1. Mary Mazur, 61, set off near midnight to buy her Thanksgiving turkey. She took her plant with her. “He doesn’t like to be left alone,” she later explained. The plant rode in a white cart, Mary in her wheelchair. With only one hand to wheel herself, the other on the cart, she’d push the left wheel forward, switch hands, push the right. Left, right, cursing, until a sweet girl found her, and wheeled her into Crown Fried Chicken. “Do not forget my plant!” she shouted at the girl. I held the door. // “I have a problem with my foot,” she said—the left one, a scabbed stump, purple in the cold. Her slipper wouldn’t stay on. // Mary wore purple. Purple sweats, purple fleece. 30 degrees. “I bet you have a coat,” she said. Not asking, just observing. Measuring the distance. Between us. Between her and her turkey. Miles away. “You’ll freeze,” I said. “I’ll starve,” she said. I offered her chicken. “I have to have my turkey!” Also, a microwave. Her motel didn’t have one. // “Nobody will help you,” she said. “Not even if you’re bleeding from your two eyes.” // Two paramedics from the fire department. Two cops. An ambulance, two EMTs. “I didn’t call you!” she shouted. “I don’t care who called me,” said one of the cops. One of the paramedics put on blue latex gloves. “She won’t go without this—this friggin’ plant,” he said. “You’ll go,” said the cop. “You’re not my husband!” said Mary. The cop laughed. “Thank god,” he said. The whole gang laughed. One of them said maybe her plant was her husband. That made them laugh, too. “I’m not going!” said Mary. “Your plant is going,” said the cop. Mary caved. Stood on one foot. “Don’t touch me!” They lowered her onto the stretcher. “Let me hold it,” she said. “What?” said the EMT. “The plant,” said the cop. He lifted it out of the cart. “Be careful!” she shouted. He smirked but he was. “Thank you,” she rasped, her shouting all gone. Mary Mazur, 61, shrank into the blankets, muttering into the leaves, whispering to her only friend.

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