I’ve spent the past five years in the photo department of The New Yorker, carefully reading magazine pieces and then researching or commissioning photographs to accompany them. The stories, from music reviews to war reporting to fiction, are the impetus for our photographs. I was curious to ask the writers, whose work informs me, inspires me, and alters my perspective about subjects that were previously far from my thoughts, if there were photographs that had done the same for them.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, here is a selection of eight writers on photographs that they are thankful for.
I dropped out of college for this wave. It was way out in the country then, on the west end of Maui. Surfing it was like jumping on a roaring blue freight train. On great days, when it got crowded, it felt like a religious shrine overrun by passionate pilgrims. You half expected people to start speaking in tongues, to flail and foam at the mouth, or monastery monkeys to bomb us with guavas. Gratitude was a big part of the whole devotional-emotional mess. This photo became a popular poster. It’s my favorite image of the wave. I’m just finishing a surfing memoir, “Barbarian Days,” and this poster is on the wall in my office as I write. But the wave is no longer out in the sticks. Condos and golf courses have crept up to its doorstep. Conservationists, led by Les Potts, a guy I used to surf with there, have been battling the developers for years. This year, the good guys finally won. The state of Hawaii now owns this stretch of coast. It will stay wild and unbuilt, with public access unimpeded. Future generations will have Potts and his allies to thank.
Recently, I’ve been travelling in the Deep South, pausing at civil-rights sites along my reporting route—Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s’s bomb-pocked parsonage in Montgomery, Alabama, for starters, and Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Most of the landmarks that I’ve visited display iconic photographs of the movement’s labors, largely rooted in the politics and aesthetics of struggle: black youth and integrated Freedom Riders standing, disobediently civil, before snarling police dogs and sneering lunch-counter crowds. Here, though, I’ve plucked a photograph from the movement that draws its strength less from struggle than from domestic affection, which seems well-suited to file under “Thanksgiving”: an image from Grey Villet’s 1965 series, for Life magazine, on Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple in Central Point, Virginia, who helped to end the interminable era of anti-miscegenation statutes. The power of the series lies in the quiet intimacies that it captures. Mostly, the photos depict everyday life: eating, idling, kissing, conferring. In this particular shot, the Lovings watch TV and laugh—a reminder that to lounge about in simple communion can sometimes be beautifully subversive, too.
I found a clutch of photographs to be thankful for last January. Friends took me to a screening that was part of MOMA’s “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde” exhibit. That night, several of Shuji Terayama’s films played, including his infamous “Emperor Tomato Ketchup,” which walks a very fine line between exploring the sexualization of childhood dress-up play and “hold up, pal.” The curator and archivist Johan Kugelberg, of Boo-Hooray, described Terayama, via e-mail, as “the number one King Tarzan of Japanese avant-garde theatre. He was also such a key instigator for Japanese underground art, and he was central for the psych-y/folk-y bands in Tokyo: Murahatsibu, Brain Police, that sort of thing.” Ubuweb hosts a variety of Terayama films, but they no longer host a copy of a 1975 book of his photography called, informally, “The Inugamis.” This eBay listing is the closest you can get at the moment. I was only able to find a digital scan of the book on a torrent site; three hundred dollars is too much for any book, even one as perverse and fertile as this one. Terayama is still relevant at home, and his work was featured in a photography show last March, which was held, oddly, on “the ninth floor of Armani’s luxury flagship in Ginza.”
Steven C. Ridgely’s “Japanese Counterculture: The Antiestablishment Art of Terayama Shuji,” cites the full Japanese title of the book as “Terayama Shūji gensōshshinkan: Inugami-ke no hitobito” (“Terayama Shūji’s Fantasy Photo Studio: Members of the Inugami clan, 1975”). It is, to use the art-history term, fucking crazy-pants. Some of models are actual members of Terayama’s family, and others are his friends. Some subjects are presented in vaguely military garb, arrayed in retro, heavily gilded, family-photo-album fashion. There are several grainy black-and-white photos of half-clad women sitting, smiling, or letting their hair flap in the wind. Terayama seems to have a productive lack of regard for historical trends and for place—the book leaps all over, as if four different generations had stitched together their portraits to make a demented whole.
My favorite photograph in the book is of a man squatting in a bathtub, up to his chest in water, wearing a suit, and holding an umbrella; it’s framed with an engraved wooden oval, like a family portrait. The image comes to mind every few months, a scene that is right on the edge of being possible, which makes the viewer both want to unravel the staging of the photo and to accept it, to believe that Terayama and his Inugami clan were simply sharing their life as they lived it.
In January, 1871, Julia Margaret Cameron, the photographer whose portraits of Tennyson, Darwin, Browning, and Carlyle remain among the most durable images of the Victorian age, sent a package of her pictures to one of the most prominent women of the era, George Eliot, whom she had never met. In her thank-you note, Eliot expressed admiration for Cameron’s work, as well as a hope that one day Cameron might pay her a visit at home, in Saint John’s Wood, London.
Here’s what should have happened then: Julia Margaret Cameron should have leapt on a train, armed with her photographic equipment and her steely persuasiveness, gone to Eliot’s house, and insisted that the novelist—who was in the midst of writing “Middlemarch”—sit for a portrait on the spot. Cameron might have been able to capture something of Eliot’s great seriousness, intelligence, and generosity—her expression “not only of habitual brooding thought and intellectual travail but of intense and yearning human sympathy and tenderness,” as one observer put it.
Unfortunately, Cameron never made Eliot’s portrait. Instead, what we are left with is this: an image of Eliot taken at a well-known London studio, in 1858. “I have rather a horror of photography,” Eliot wrote a couple of years later, and, looking at the unbecomingly girlish posture in which the photographer has positioned her, one can guess why. For a long time, this picture made me cringe on George Eliot’s behalf. It seems lacking in dignity—diminishing, somehow. But after visiting the archive of the National Portrait Gallery, in London, where it is kept, and thinking hard about the circumstances of its making, I see it differently.
A year before the portrait was taken, Eliot’s first work of fiction, “Scenes of Clerical Life,” appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine. Its pseudonymous author was greeted with acclaim, and with perplexity as to his identity. By January of 1858, Eliot had finished her first novel, “Adam Bede.” It, too, became a sensation upon publication, in January, 1859, and was also published pseudonymously. George Eliot didn’t reveal her true identity until later that year, when a nobody named Joseph Liggins started claiming to be—and being taken to be—the author of her books.
This studio portrait, then, is an author photograph taken in advance of the author’s fame—and, I imagine, in preparation for it. And so when I look at it now, I no longer see the discomfort of a woman who did not enjoy being in front of the camera. Instead, I see the smile of a thirty-nine-year-old woman with a delicious secret. I see Eliot, conscious of her own power, quietly satisfied by her accomplishment, sitting for a portrait that was made in obscurity but which was bound, as perhaps she knew, for posterity.
Rebecca Mead’s book “My Life In Middlemarch” will be published in January.
I first encountered this photograph of Tron, a Vietnamese girl who lost part of her right leg to American gunfire, when her story appeared on the cover of Life magazine <http://tinyurl.com/potmt2h> , in November, 1968. I had just turned six and lived in Chicago. I pored over Tron’s story so obsessively that I can still recall some of its details: the fact that she had been picking vegetables when the pilots fired at her, and that, like me, she had a younger brother and was learning (with a new prosthetic leg, in her case) to ride a bike. So radically did I identify with this twelve-year-old Vietnamese girl that I woke one morning to find my legs stiff and sore, and presumed that I was paralyzed. I crawled frantically around our apartment, howling in fear, until my stepfather pointed out that crawling, in fact, required the use of my legs. Now I think that Tron’s story, and its rich accompanying photos, were my first encounter with journalism and its power to close the distance between people.
When I look at Andreas Gursky’s “99 Cent,” I think, So this is what life was like for all those Baby Ruths and Junior Mints before they became the innards of a thousand plastic pumpkins. Calvin Tomkins wrote, in 2001, that the picture “is a drop-dead gorgeous (and nightmarish) vision of our proliferating trash culture.” Gursky, who comes from Düsseldorf, may very well have seen a wasteland under the fluorescent lights. I see my birthright: Kit Kat, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Rolo, Starburst, Spree, Mr. Goodbar. (Who knew that Mr. Goodbars existed in non-miniature form?) The photograph, for me, is a catechism of American consumerism at its sweetest and most innocent. Squinting at Gursky’s receding rows, I’m surprised and delighted by how many treats I can identify merely by the shapes and colors of their packaging. (“What is the candy in the blue-and-white bag?” “That candy is Almond Joy.”) As much as you can revel in the photograph’s specificity, it is also a masterpiece of abstraction. Put aside the lens of nostalgia, and the sacks of sugar become cells on a television test bar.
Lauren Lancaster’s photograph of a woman sunbathing plunges you into a mystery. The moment you see it, you become a detective, like it or not. Who is that woman? Who is watching her, and from where? Why is she sprawled out on the lounger as though she is waiting to be outlined with a piece of chalk? The picture is sinister and erotic and beautifully composed—Weegee by way of Helmut Newton. Lancaster, who is thirty-five, took the photograph in 2008, at the Park Rotana hotel in Dubai. She has said, “Many people I photographed have a slightly lost expression. It seemed to me that much of the population was just waiting.” A clue, then. The victim of the killing is time.
The two photographs appear to have little in common: the former sold for three million dollars at Christie’s, and the latter is propped up on my mantel. (I fell in love with the swimming pool picture after seeing a slide show of Lancaster’s work; I wrote to her and bought an unsigned print.) However, I think about them together, often when I’m working; they are both testaments to the transformative effect of a perspective shift. The point of view of “99 Cent” is not quite aerial. It seems, instead, to been taken from one of those lifeguard-stand-like platforms where customer-service representatives preside over exchanges and pass judgment on the validity of coupons. From her voyeuristic perch, Lancaster turns what could have been a Dubai grotesque into something much more enigmatic. When I write, I’m thinking of these photographs, grateful for their instruction, and hoping that I can make something big small, or something small big.
I met Yevgeny Khaldei when he was old, struggling through his final years, marooned in a desolate high-rise on the edge of Moscow. Like millions of others, I knew his work: Khaldei, the Soviet Union’s greatest combat photographer, is most famous for his picture of soldiers raising the Soviet flag over Berlin’s burning Reichstag. But Khaldei captured many important moments: he photographed every Soviet leader from Stalin to Yeltsin, and he documented the plight of Shostakovich as he struggled through the Siege of Leningrad. Khaldei, a Jew, (purged twice) photographed other Jews as they were liberated from the ghetto of Budapest. Then he ripped the yellow Stars of David from their chests. His picture of Hermann Göering gives form to the idea of evil.
But of all his photographs, I am most haunted by this stark, desperately beautiful shot, taken on the edge of Murmansk in 1941. Nothing of note is going on; just a platoon of soldiers, marching under the gathering clouds, their ponchos and combat helmets mirrored on the ice. The photograph’s eerie loveliness always makes me think of the darkness that was to come, for Russia and for the rest of the world, and how much of it Khaldei managed to record.
“Judy Linn” (circa 1980s), by Darryl Turner
The memories behind these photographs render me speechless. Purely visual information is rare, so I’m reluctant to introduce verbiage into these photographs, by two contemporary masters, but such is our age. The woman with the hat is named Karen Binns; she is what the late George W. S. Trow might call a “woman with interesting syntax.” A fashion stylist by trade, Karen is her own greatest creation; she is one of the few pieces of art that I’ve ever wanted to live with. The photograph was taken by Judy Linn, who is best known for her portraits of Patti Smith, and Robert Mapplethorpe, among others. Judy comes at Karen simultaneously at an angle and straight on, like the best kind of conversation. Karen is the equal of the other stars who frequented Judy’s orbit in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, but she is more fascinating to me in many ways, because she is not interested in audience satisfaction but, rather, in self-satisfaction.
The black-and-white image is by Darryl Turner. It is a portrait of Judy Linn. When it comes to picture-making, Darryl and Judy are my heroes; they taught me to look up at buildings, the sky, and the particular rhythms of the day to find the photographs in them. Darryl took this picture some time in the late eighties. It is one of the great images—the late MOMA photography curator John Szarkowski admired it tremendously—because it is a portrait that takes portraiture as its subject. We see and do not see Judy in the frame; she is as visible and invisible as the talent that went into taking the photograph.
By Jessie Wender, The New Yorker Magazine © 2013 Condé Nast.
But if you look closely, you can see a tiny speck of light. That speck is the Earth, seen from very, very, very far away.
Two decades ago, Candice Hansen-Koharcheck became the first person to ever see that speck, sitting in front of a computer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California. “I was all alone, actually, that afternoon, in my office,” she recalls.
Her office was dark. The window shades were drawn. She was searching through a database of images sent home by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which at the time was nearly 4 billion miles away. “I knew the data was coming back,” she says, “and I wanted to see how it had turned out.”
Finally, she found it.
“It was just a little dot, about two pixels big, three pixels big,” she says. “So not very large.”
But this was the Earth — seen as no human had ever seen it before.
What’s more, an accidental reflection off the spacecraft made it look as though the tiny speck was being lit up by a glowing beam of light. “You know, I still get chills down my back,” says Hansen-Koharcheck. “Because here was our planet, bathed in this ray of light, and it just looked incredibly special.”
And yet, if you weren’t searching for it, that special little speck would be almost invisible. The Apollo astronauts had taken photos that showed the Earth as a big blue marble, swirling with clouds and continents. But this picture showed the smallness of Earth in the vastness of space.
A New Perspective On The Planet
The late astronomer Carl Sagan eloquently tried to express how he felt about this photo in his book Pale Blue Dot:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Robert Poole, a historian at the University of Cumbria in the United Kingdom who wrote a book on images of Earth from space called Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth, says this particular photo shows what an extraterrestrial might see as it approached our solar system.
“This is not our view. We’ve managed to go out and get the view that somebody else might have, whereas the early Apollo pictures of the blue marble were our own view of Earth,” Poole says. “Like most people, I saw it in the newspaper not long after it was taken and kind of intellectually I thought, ‘This is amazing!’ “
A Photo That Almost Didn’t Happen
Pictures like this are still few and far between. They are not exactly easy to take. In fact, we almost didn’t get this one. Sagan lobbied for it early in the Voyager 1 mission. But others objected that taking it might fry the spacecraft’s camera. That’s because the Earth is so close to our extremely bright sun. “There was a reluctance to take any kind of risk when we would point back towards the sun; we didn’t want to accidentally damage the cameras in any way,” says Hansen-Koharcheck.
“Oh, there was a lot of debate as to what its value would be,” recalls Edward Stone, who was — and still is — the chief scientist for the Voyager mission. “It was not a scientific image. It was really, I think, an image to sort of declare that here, for the first time we could take such an image, and second of all it provided a new perspective of Earth and its place in our solar neighborhood.”
But the idea was shelved for years, as Voyager 1 flew through the solar system and did its science, sending images back from Saturn and Jupiter.
In 1989, the mission was winding down — some staff was going to leave. And Sagan made a last-minute request to please, please, take this unique photo before the opportunity disappeared forever. The decision went to the top levels of NASA “because it was going to extend the mission in terms of imaging capability for an additional six months or so and that of course did cost money,” explains Stone.
“I did get a visit from Carl Sagan. We talked about a lot of things. And somewhere in that conversation he mentioned this idea,” recalls the then-head of NASA, retired Vice Adm. Richard Truly. “I thought, heck, with Voyager so far away, if it could turn around and take a picture of the different planets including the Earth, that that would really be cool. And so I was a great advocate of it, although I can’t take any credit for it.”
In 1990, late on Feb. 13 — or on Valentine’s Day, in the time zone used by the Voyager 1 team — the spacecraft turned its cameras to Earth.
A Relatively Tiny Object In The Vastness Of Space
Later, the image was released to the world to great fanfare. But it never really captured the popular imagination like the famous Apollo images.
“I think it was hard — it’s still hard — to get really your head around the fact that our solar system is so immense, compared to Earth,” says Stone.
To get the full impact of this photo, Stone says, you really have to see it up on a wall, as part of large panorama that Voyager 1 took of the solar system’s distant planets.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab used to have just such a display with the full mosaic of photos posted up in an auditorium, says Hansen-Koharcheck. “And to show the whole thing it covered, oh, I don’t know, 12 or 14 feet,” she says — of mostly empty black space, with just a few pinpricks of light showing the planets. One of them was labeled Earth.
“One of the guys that took care of that display told me one time that he was forever having to replace that picture,” says Hansen-Koharcheck, “because people would come up to look at it and they would always touch the Earth.”
Voyager 1 is now about three times farther away than it was 20 years ago, says Stone. The spacecraft still routinely phones home, although its cameras no longer take photos. But if it could send back another picture, the little dot that is Earth would look even fainter and even smaller.
by Nell Greenfieldboyce
February 12, 2010
Listen to NPR Broadcast: An Alien View of Earth
Taken from a photograph by Wilfred Bauer, this lithograph shows Beuys at the desk of his Information Officeat documenta V, Kassel in 1972. The Information Office was run under the auspices of the Organization for Direct Democracy, a platform for the propagation of the artist’s radical ideas, which he had founded the previous year. For 100 days Beuys tirelessly debated his ideas with visitors to the exhibition. On the last day, he fought a Boxing Match for Direct Democracy.