Thursday, November 28, 2013

... And I Cried

Maybe it's the stress lately, but I heard this (Go to track 4) on the radio and literally cried.  It was on a public radio show for Thanksgiving, and they played it starting at track 3 and running through track 5 -- and in context it's even more interesting -- but it was track 4 that really got me.  And with the silky, conversational tones of Charles Laughton (what a brilliant actor and fascinating man) speaking ... no wonder the album won a Grammy in its day.

Just listen and wish, as I did, that you had had the chance to hear this in one-to-one conversation with him, and that you had had the experience he did.  I would be envious, if the experience of simply hearing the tale hadn't been so moving ...

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

And in Yet Other Blogs ...

In a blog on one of my favorite pet peeves -- wanted something for nothing, and failing to value the work that goes into making something seem effortless -- there is the British musician Whitey, who reacted unhappily to a request to use his music for free.  Frankly, I do love his reaction, even as it echoes several other similar rants -- one most notably by Harlan Ellison.

His epilog, however, is interesting:
I don’t want payment for everything. I don’t even care that much about money, I give away my music all the time. You and I live in a society where filesharing is the norm. I’m fine with that.
But i don’t give my music away to large, affluent companies who wish to use it to make themselves more money. Who can afford to pay, but who smell the filesharing buffet and want to grab themselves a free plate. That is a different scenario.
Now, I'm no absolutist about this.  I've often said that if, for example, there's a cause you're really into, and you want to contribute your work, more power to you.  I've done it and will happily do it again.  But, like Whitey and so many others, I am sick to death with people thinking that creative work -- work made up not of some tangible raw product, but years of hard training and experience -- like photography is something anyone can do and should just be given for free, especially to a commercial enterprise.

However, I do back away from the faint smell of crypto-socialism there.  I'm sure he's proud of that, and more power to him -- that's his right -- but the fact that it's a large, affluent company as opposed to a small company or even a charity is, to me, only a question of rates and usage.  As someone once told me years ago, when that charity comes to you asking you to shoot their giant fundraiser for free "for the cause," ask: Are you paying for the room, the food, the waiters?  Who printed the programs?  Did they do that on their own dime "for the cause?"  The answer usually comes that you're the only one who is not considered a professional producing something with value.

The fact that it's an affluent company is neither here nor there in the moral question (though an understandable consideration in a practical sense).  It reminds me of the priest a few years ago, who as part of his Christmas sermon said it was okay to shoplift from large stores.

Also in the moral realm comes this from PetaPixel about "White Guy Photography."  That, according to author Nick Vossbrink, "is the approach which entails traveling, or moving, someplace with the intent of documenting and photographing so as to 'explain' or 'capture' it for others. And the amount of privilege required to start such a project and make those kinds of claims is generally limited to (but not exclusively the domain of) white guys."  This I think is a variant on a long held complaint (by me as well as others) that the prizes and other accolades that drive the desire to do these projects all seem to go to stories about the same sort of tragic Third Worlders, preferably of some sort of fashionable minority.  The styles of the times may change (slightly) the specifics, but it is often the same through the years.

"I’m done with it, " Vossbrink says, and I've got to agree with him.  As he ably puts it: "I’m tired of the outsider view which treats cities as urban jungles full of diversity which have to be tamed. I’m tired of the idea that you can just drive through a culture snapping photos and claim to be presenting it to the rest of us. I’m tired of the idea that non-white or native people are exotic objects. I’m tired of the lack of context which results in the photos providing little to no information about the actual culture being depicted."

So what's the alternative?  Frankly, there are tons of interesting stories out there -- a few people have undertaken projects to prove that literally everyone has an interesting story to tell, CBS' Steve Hartman being perhaps the most visible example.  But in the end, only two things will bring about change: a public willing to pay to see certain stories, and a shift in the fickle fashion trends of the media elite.  In other words: we'll stop getting White Guy Photography when it becomes trendy and rewarding to do something else.  So basically, never.

And finally, there's this:

It is perhaps the perfect blog post: Catchy headline with an au courant technobabble term in it, an unexpected pairing of the modern with the historic, and a text that not only relates to both the picture and the hed but actually segues from old to new and back again well while actually teaching you something.  Pretty cool.

I'm jealous.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Value of Things

I had a dream the other night.

I was with a travel group from Washington and Lee University, though I wasn't part of the group.  Rather, I was photographing the tour, and we we were in a large church.  The Pope came to meet the group, and as I made pictures we began to chat.

He was taken with me and asked me to come with him as he left, which I did.  (The group continued on in the church, though I had some anxiety about rejoining them before they left later.)  We talked, and he asked about my cameras.  I handed him one -- a Canon DSLR with a small zoom lens -- and he looked through it gently, handling it uncertainly before passing it back.  He noted that it must be expensive, and I said that it was actually fairly cheap compared to some, such as the Leica I was using at that moment.

My pal Pope Francis

He then sat down to lunch with a number of others from different countries and ethnicities -- African, Indian, etc.  I was not asked to sit at the table (all the seats were taken) but welcomed into the discussion.  He noted the cost of the cameras and wondered about whether that money might be better used.  I answered that at least the cameras would bring the stories of need to others, but I asked the group what they thought about the proper use of money.  Specifically, I saw this as a chance to ask people who might actually have some useful answers about something that had been bothering me of late.

 The world's most expensive painting
Would you spend something like the budget of a small city for this?

Christie's recently sold the world's most expensive painting, a triptych by Francis Bacon that went for over $142 million.  Yep, basically the budget of a decently sized corporation.  One commentary I heard on the radio speculated that it was bought by a "trophy hunter:" someone recently made fabulously rich who wants to prove his wealth and good taste with the purchase of things like this, whether he himself values them or not.

Now this sort of thing has given me pause from time to time.  Often, it's when some sports star receives a massive salary (mainly because the star in question usually plays in a sport in which I have little or no interest).  I think it's a useful example; the sports industry globally is worth something in the area of $600 billion (with a B, billion) dollars.  That's a little less than $100 per person, man woman and child, on the entire surface of the earth.  What do we get for it?

Sports doesn't build roads or run food programs.  It doesn't clothe people or end disease.  It just entertains.

Now, one can make the same argument about sports as one can about paintings: The human mind cannot live on work alone.  We need to unwind and enjoy things, elevate the spirit and so on.  And whenever there's a way to make money off of something, humans will do so.  (I have a similar rule that any time a human discovers something with forward motion, he will find a way to race it competitively, but that's neither here nor there right now.)  $600 billion for a few quiet afternoons ... for those who can afford it?

Perhaps a better argument could be made to say that the $600 billion doesn't simply evaporate, or go directly into the team owners' and players' massive bank accounts.  That includes the cost for construction workers to build stadiums and hot dog vendors and janitors to clean up afterwards, not to mention all the secondary markets in bars where people watch the games and companies that make jerseys and stuff for fans.  It's a considerable little economy there, but it's still an economy built on basically nothing.  (As opposed to the economy around, say, a car factory, which actually produces something.)

Let's go somewhere else, like popular entertainment.  Or how about the whole secondary industry around popular entertainment?  A nice play, some music -- again, you can make the human spirit argument.  But what about something like the Michael Jackson trial in 2005.  Global coverage.  Satellite trucks and thousands of reporters gathered, waiting, day after day.  What did that cost?  Not the trial, just all the people hanging around to cover it, and the satellite time, the equipment rental, the food and hotel expenses.

Outside the courthouse in 2005

What more productive thing could all this money be applied to?  What if we could all agree to take one day, or one event, and just apply all that money to something like development in a poor country?  (Of course, I'm sure everyone would instantly agree with this, except for the sport or team or game that they follow.  Just take someone else's.)

So I cited the painting example (a particularly galling one to me) to the lunch crowd, who seemed to receive it with interest.  A discussion was beginning when my group started to leave, and -- as dreams will -- the scene suddenly shifted elsewhere.  China, to be specific.  But perhaps that's another posting ...

What shall it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but hath not works? Shall faith be able to save him?   And if a brother or sister be naked and want daily food: And one of you say to them: Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; yet give them not those things that are necessary for the body, what shall it profit? So faith also, if it have not works, is dead in itself.  

- James 2:14-17 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Secret Code of 1940s Movie Guns

Once upon a time, I noticed the hammerless Colt .32 automatic.  It was probably in some old movie, and I think I only paid attention because the hammerless Glock had just come out, and I thought that feature (not having the thumb spar for cocking a pistol) was a modern innovation.  The Colt, however, was made in 1903.

But then I began to see it all the time in old movies, and it occurred to me that there is a secret social code built into the guns that appear in movies, particularly the detective pictures from the 30s and 40s.

You see, for example, all the cops carried Smith and Wesson .38 police special because that was the standard issue then.  (Coming full circle, in a way, you'll often find police today carrying Glocks.)  It was the bad guys who had the hammerless Colt, because it was small enough to stuff in a pocket and wouldn't catch on something when you pulled it out.

The good guys (the tough-as-nails detective) always had the M1911 Colt .45, and here's where the code came in.  The implication is that the pistol was a memento from the detective's experience in the war.  It's also why he wears a trench coat.

It's an instant backstory.  The good guy was in the Great War, an officer.  He's probably a little damaged, can't really put it behind him, but undoubtedly did his duty.

The bad guy, on the other hand, used his underworld connections to avoid service.  He has fancy suits and a fancy gun -- a little gun, like something a girl would use.

After a while, the .45 has come to carry a cache all its own, and since even took on a whole new meaning in the 80s with the development of the Colt Desert Eagle.

But what's interesting to me, and why I even bring this up, is what this says about society and culture.  The viewers of those old movies -- when they were new movies -- knew all these things without conscious thought.

While I think we could, and do, use unspoken signals like that today, they're much more cliche-specific and less able to tell as broad a story that most if not all of society could agree on.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The American Apocalypse

One day, while caught in a seemingly interminable evening traffic jam in downtown Washington, DC, I had what was at first an amusing then oddly disturbing thought:  What if the Apocalypse came in the form of a global gridlock?

One day, all the major cities would start to bog down, cars filling every inch of road, until there was no escape.  The jams would start to grow out of the cities as more and more cars tried to enter, filling the roads and turnpikes, highways and bypasses, spilling out like a stain, until finally everything grinds inevitably to a halt.

And then the sun sets on all of us, waiting patiently or angrily (as the personality dictates) in our idling cars, never to rise again.

Of course, this makes Final Judgment very convenient.  Drive Through!

The Small Miracle of Normality

On my commute this morning -- a quiet hour of forced contemplation, accompanied by the BBC World News -- it occurred to me that in the news business, and in life in general, we tend to miss something: the fact that we pay attention mainly to the unusual.

As I drive down the interstate, a place often affected with accidents and minor catastrophes, my commute is generally uneventful.  I am surrounded by cars and trucks, and their drives are likewise normal, even dull.  Every day, millions upon millions commute to work, noticing the drive mainly because they find it boring.  Whereas, if you give it a moment's thought, the whole thing could go sideways astoundingly quickly.

By extension, thousands of flights take off and land without trouble every day and night, even in parts of the world where (if we're honest with ourselves) it's astounding that they have a civil air system at all.  Trains travel down miles and miles of rail, never bouncing off those narrow strips of steel, and crude and refined oil is pumped in volumes one has difficulty grasping in a simple way through as many miles of giant pipelines.  Nuclear reactors pen up the most basic level of explosion -- splitting the very atoms of uranium -- without mishap in dozens of places around the world.  Ships don't sink, cargoes are unloaded, and people run through their routines, blissfully unaware.

This is a miracle.  It's miraculous that things just tick along without disaster, day after day after day, when we really are constantly perched on the brink of the precipice at every moment. 

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents ... some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age.” 

- H.P. Lovecraft

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Photo that Never Dies

One could safely say that the photo that made Robert Capa was his "Death of a Spanish Soldier," shot during the Civil War in Spain in 1936.  Yet in the years since it was made -- most particularly in the last 30 or so -- it has become increasingly mired in controversy.

I wrote about it a few years ago for the NPPA, when I thought the newest clue, far from proving the photo a fake, simply provided a difference without a distinction.  Now we have Capa himself telling the story of it, a similar story to another version he wrote before.  This is actually rather unusual, as he was notoriously reluctant to talk about it.  Why?

The usual theory was that the event had profoundly upset him.  Remember, when the picture was made, Capa was a young man just starting out.  While he affected an air of nonchalance (even then), Spain was his first serious war coverage, and like any real war, it wasn't pretty.  (Let's keep in mind, this is the fighting that brought us Guernica.)

Also, he was in the throes of his first, perhaps most profound and some say greatest love.  He and Gerta Taro (nee Pohorylle -- like Capa, who was born Andre Friedmann, she chose a literal nom de guerre) were at the least linked when the picture was made (she was with him, also making photos).  Not long after, Gerda was killed in Spain, still covering the war, while Capa was in China covering the fighting there.  Some say the love had died (she was in the company of another man when killed), some not, but there is an air of tragedy about the affair and his accounts of it.  I like to think that he always looked on her as The One, lost to death and time, and thus another reason he didn't like to talk about the events then.

However, here's something else I think: In that 1947 interview, he's lying.

As I say in the NPPA piece, I don't think there was a machine gun, let alone four waves of attacks to take it.  I think a bunch of relatively inexperienced soldiers were running around in a field playing at battle for the cameras when everything turned horribly real.  I don't think Capa even meant to take that picture.  Rather, he flinched when the shot was fired and accidentally triggered the shutter.  I think the men then ran around trying to assemble some sort of response, getting at least one more of them killed, before a sniper melted back into the landscape.  And most of all, I think Capa was embarrassed by what he saw as personal cowardice, disgusted by his own profit from the situation, and finally trapped by the myth that rose up around the picture.

So he finally, through a few reluctant retellings, assembled a more acceptable story probably based on his later experiences in combat, something that could be disposed of quickly with a minimum of questions, thus sparing him the need to dwell on his unpleasant and ambivalent feelings on the event.  It's a more public version of what we all do when trying to explain later some embarrassing mistake or unhappy argument, for example.

But here's the thing: it's just my guess based on personal experience in life and photography and some research.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

And Another Thing ...

I heard this on the radio the other day, a quote from Jack London:
"I would rather be ashes than dust.  I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than that it should be stifled by dry-rot.  I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.  The proper function of man is to LIVE.  I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.  I shall use my time."

While there is some question of its authenticity,  it's a great bit of writing and an interesting thought.

However, I must admit that on first hearing it made me a bit uncomfortable.  It struck me as a relative of the movie line of, "Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse."  (Truth be told, I had to look that one up.  I thought it was from the old Jimmy Cagney movie, "Public Enemy," but it turns out to be from a Humphrey Bogart film, "Knock on Any Door.")

Another scene from the movie, also clever, but not with the key line ...

You see, the more extreme, latter version makes me ... nervous.  I am left thinking, as the knight says to Indiana Jones, that he did not choose wisely.  Perhaps it's because I am rather attached to the idea of a long and comfortable life.

But a dull life?  Not so much.  That's what leads me to give London's quote a second look.  I do feel sympathy with his dislike of being a "sleepy and permanent planet."  Enduring in some plodding, pedestrian way doesn't suit either.

 I have sort of touched on this before, and the question I raised there still remains for me, still valid.  Is it really good to do interesting and even great things, but then linger about waiting for accolades, or even for people to remember?  If you're to be forgotten and ignored, must you really be around to endure it?

So perhaps I hope to be not a superb meteor, atomized in worldly glory, but a secondary star, remembered fondly and accorded the occasional lifetime achievement award or so such.

And money.  Yes, wealth would be nice too.

Monday, November 11, 2013

More Amazing Writing ...

Heard the opening line from Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth" on the radio today.

Simply amazing.

"What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?"

Now that's a lead sentence.

Here's the whole thing ...