Kardashian Selfies, Warhol Superstars and “Famehood”

Kim Kardashian

Kim Kardashian

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Is Kim Kardashian this decade’s Andy Warhol?

Whoa! Don’t get me wrong. Before you disabuse this equivalence of two media-obsessed narcissists, don’t picture the Andy Warhol we know today, whose paintings sell for tens of millions of dollars at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Imagine, instead, the schlumpy kid from Pittsburgh, a slight, wan man who became so obsessed with the idea of celebrity that he “manufactured” his own cult at “The Factory,” rendering his now sought-after paintings and graphics almost a sidebar during his lifetime. It’s hard to deny that Kardashian, today’s queen of media self-promotion, is anything less than Warhol’s wet dream of “fame” come to climax.

Warhol was a shy and introverted nerd who rose out of Manhattan’s underground culture, his star-fucking Interview magazine presaging the 1983 revival of Vanity Fair, whose annual Oscar afterparty is the locus primus of today’s celebrity cool.

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Warhol Self-Portrait

The marginalized, grungy wannabes Warhol transformed into “superstars” anticipated the reality-TV stars that now clog our television screens in an unending cavalcade of banality. It is tempting to fantasize how Warhol could have played Pygmalion in molding Galatea/Kardashian (though you could easily argue for a role reversal). Imagine his Jackie O and Marilyn silkscreens usurped by ones of the Armenian-American diva.

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Mary Ellen Mark: Human-Wise

Mary Ellen Mark (Credit: Ralph Gibson)

Mary Ellen Mark (Credit: Ralph Gibson)

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In his book Why People Photograph, Robert Adams, a master photographer of contemporary Western landscapes, writes, “At our best and most fortunate, we make pictures because of what stands in front of the camera, to honor what is greater and more interesting than we are.” It is not a reach to understand his reflection when your subject is the grandeur of Nature (even in its present lamentable state), but it is a reach when your subjects are searing portraits of “losers,” the marginalized and the outcasts of society who were the hallmark subjects of Mary Ellen Mark’s career. Her 17 books, with the exception of her portrait essay of filmmakers, Seen Behind the Scene (2008), are deeply moving documents of the disadvantaged,  infirm, addicted and exploited — “losers” in the relentless drive for economic success that defines life today.

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Vilmos Zsigmond and The Rose

Bette Midler and director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, on set for The Rose. (Credit: The Criterion Collection)

Star Bette Midler and director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond on set for The Rose. (Credit: The Criterion Collection)

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It was the end of American cinema’s freewheeling 1970s when Vilmos Zsigmond photographed The Rose, the Mark Rydell-directed, Bette Midler-starring, Bo Goldman-scripted movie about a rock ’n’ roll queen, Mary “Rose” Foster — four major artists at the peak of their creative careers in an all too brief era of American auteurism.

“Honestly, we don’t even know sometimes what we are doing.”

Zsigmond’s quip during a recent conversation with me about The Rose was not a confession by someone lost inside the maze of his own work, but an understanding of the crucial improvisatory spirit and energy that was so much a part of that decade’s most adventurous movies. It was a heady time, fueled by a new cinematic imagination even more than by the illegal substances that stalked so many filmmakers’ lives. The American New Wave “cineastes” believed they were re-inventing American movies; they were, and they had proven their box-office clout.

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It’s What I Do: Lynsey Addario on the Front Lines

Lynsey Addario

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Early in her career, before the shock of 9/11 galvanized a generation of emerging photojournalists to throw themselves into the cauldron of international conflicts, Lynsey Addario was living with her boyfriend, Miguel, in a $500-a-month apartment in Buenos Aires. On Thursdays, she photographed the protestors of the Desaparecidos, mothers of victims of Argentina’s “Dirty War,” in the Plaza de Mayo. Addario could little know that years later, much of her greatest work would be documenting the trials and struggles of other women in many of the world’s hotspots, women who were collateral damage of their sons’, husbands’ and fathers’ warring madness.

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Too Much Johnson: Never Enough Welles

Orson Welles directing Too Much Johnson.

Orson Welles directing Too Much Johnson. (Credit: Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences)

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Since Orson Welles’ death almost 30 years ago on Oct. 10, 1985, his life and work continue to fascinate historians and filmmakers like no other figure in the cinema canon. It’s as if the enigmatic figures that haunt his work as an actor, along with the labyrinthine myth of his directing career, are illusions created by a shape-shifting magician, the same one that in later years appeared as a TV talk-show guest and pitchman for indifferent wine. An ever-expanding shelf of scholarly, historical and biographical texts, along with websites like Wellesnet, keep even the most avid fan supplied with fresh material. And the public release of a thought-to-be-lost early film, an adaptation of William Gillette’s 1894 play Too Much Johnson, has stoked anew the flames of Welles scholarship.

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The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky at the Met

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The 16th century mask gorget pictured here, made by a South Dakota Native American of the Hopewell culture, measures only 5½” tall. Its barely incised nose, with piercings for the eyes, are all that reveal it as manmade — a work of art. One wonders at the mind that could see a human face in this inert marine shell. Such a simple object doesn’t readily suggest the artistic subtlety that most contemporary viewers anticipate when they look at Plains Indian art.

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Thomas Hart Benton Part 2: Before and After America Today

Self Portrait, Thomas Hart Benton

Self Portrait, Thomas Hart Benton

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Two years after returning from studies in Paris at the Académie Julian, the young painter Thomas Hart Benton, now living in lower Manhattan, was hired by a former roommate, Rex Hitchcock, to work as a scenic researcher and set designer for the movies. Benton’s salary was $7 a week. Hitchcock soon changed his name to Rex Ingram, and by this name he became one of the most celebrated film directors of the silent era, with credits such as Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Prisoner of Zenda and Mare Nostrum.

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José Clemente Orozco in New England

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Man Released from the Mechanistic to the Creative Life by José Clemente Orozco.

On the wall, just above double doors, in a narrow hallway connecting the Dartmouth College Baker Memorial Library lower-level reserve reading room with Carpenter Hall, is a seldom seen masterpiece. It bears the unwieldy title Man Released from the Mechanistic to the Creative Life. It is a test panel for what became the most ambitious work in the United States by the great Mexican fresco muralist José Clemente Orozco, the least lauded of the three Mexican artists who visited and worked in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s. Known as “Los Tres Grandes,” Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and Orozco came north both by invitation and in search of commissions as work in Mexico became scarce. Orozco said of the mural:

“It represents man emerging from a heap of destructive machinery symbolizing slavery, automatism and the converting of a human being into a robot, without brain, heart or free will, under the control of another machine. Man is now shown in command of his own hands, and he is at last free to shape his own destiny.”

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The Brown Sisters … and a Few Thoughts on Aging

 

25 years of The Brown Sisters

25 years of The Brown Sisters

It seemed at first to be nothing more than a casual, one-off snapshot of his wife, BeBe, and her three younger sisters, Heather, Laurie and Mimi. This was in August 1974. But Nicholas Nixon didn’t much care for the photograph, though as with most of his work, he used an 8×10 view camera, its large-format negative requiring a tripod to support its bulk. In the time-honored tradition of art photographers like Edward Weston, Nixon made contact prints directly from his negatives (this before mural-sized prints became the gallery norm). Such large-format photography was unusual for photojournalists and street photographers like Nixon, who typically gravitated to 35mm for convenience and speed; Garry Winogrand’s shoot-from-the-hip, auto-drive aesthetic was more commonplace. Nixon, a strong editor of his own work, decided to throw out this first negative of the four sisters.

However, nearly a year later, in July 1975, Nixon made another informal portrait of the sisters. This one he decided to keep.

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Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful at the Getty

Josef Koudelka

Josef Koudelka

Between 1970, when he left Prague, and 1985, when he became a French citizen, the Czech photographer Josef Koudelka was a man without a country, and in many ways a man without even an identity. He had no passport, and his papers were listed with the rubric “Nationality Doubtful,” a condition of uncertainty for a still young man who’d had tight bonds to his city’s vibrant culture.

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