Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Who's Who, Redefined

Photographer Turned a Clinical Eye on the Powerful

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 15, 2008; C01

Tomorrow through Friday, a Washington Post writer will examine a particular photo from the show "Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power " at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Richard Avedon photographed celebrities: presidents and generals, great artists and heads of industry. And he photographed nonentities: no-name soldiers and protesters and secretaries. What makes him one of the greatest portraitists of the 20th century is that, when he's at his very best, you can't tell which is which. Forget the old idea that portraiture's about revealing what a sitter has done, or some kind of "deeper self." Avedon goes even deeper than that, down to the banal personhood that we all share. He reveals his sitters as being simply there , and real. He gives them a compelling authenticity, even if he never claims to reveal the "authentic" them.

Of course, Avedon needs all the tricks in his tool kit to simulate such unadulterated, unplanned states of being.

"Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power," which opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art on Saturday, lets us watch the photographer achieve his no-frills portrait style. The show's 231 portraits stretch from 1950, when Avedon was 27 and just launching his career as the world's greatest fashion photographer, to shots done not long before his death in September 2004, when the 81-year-old celebrity was felled by a stroke in the middle of a New Yorker assignment.

The show's not as tight as it could be. "Power" is interpreted so widely it covers playwright Clifford Odets (the 1950 image) as well as an average couple from a gun show in Nevada (one of Avedon's last shots). It seems to include everyone who could possibly assert or be touched by authority, which means there's no one it ex cludes. A better title might have been "Portraits of People," if that weren't redundant.

The project's also risky for the Corcoran. The impoverished gallery has a long-standing reputation for pandering to ticket buyers; hosting an overstuffed survey of yet another celebrity photographer -- after last year's Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz events -- looks perilously close to selling out. Art lovers groaned when the Avedon show was announced. Only the hard work and scholarship of curator Paul Roth -- his catalogue essay, though more focused than the show, has 264 footnotes -- has made the risk pay off. There's an Avedon here we haven't seen much of before, and it's the one the photographer himself seemed most committed to.

I met Avedon a half-dozen or so times (he was the close friend of a sibling). When I praised the fashion photos I thought were his greatest work, he disagreed. He preferred his images of what-you-see-is-what-you-get reality.

The Avedons at the Corcoran give us the real Henry Kissinger. The authentic Andrew Young. The unadorned Ronald Reagan. The actual Duke and Duchess of Windsor. But also the authentic Abraham Rosenthal, Pete Rozelle and Evelyn Lincoln.

Who? Precisely. The crucial thing about Avedon's approach is he's an equal-opportunity authenticator. Here you are, in the presence of someone who's supposed to be the greatest recorder of the nation's great and mighty, and you can't tell the players without a scorecard.

Look at Avedon's group portrait of the Chicago Seven, famous opponents of the Vietnam War, presented larger than life on one wall of the Corcoran. (The huge, unframed photos are the exact prints that were on the wall at Avedon's landmark Marlborough Gallery show in New York in 1975.) Then turn your back on them to look at a companion image of the 11 men in the Mission Council, who led that war. You're struck not by the two groups' fundamental differences but by their underlying sameness. Strip away the beards and jeans and slouches of the protesters, and the suits and uniforms and ramrod backs of the hawks -- Avedon's portraits ask you to do such stripping -- and you're left with 18 people whose shared but flawed humanity is all that really counts. In Avedon's portraits, it's not what or who his sitters are that matters. It's that they are.

Back in 1975, this newspaper asked Avedon if he planned on photographing politicians. He said no: "There has to be a connection between me and the people I photographed. . . . I have to get the sense that we're all in the same boat." What he came to realize is that every single one of us is in that boat, and that his pictures could convey that fact.

* * *

How did he do it? Some of Avedon's "tricks" are right there on the surface. The neutral lighting and white backgrounds are his most obvious, much discussed devices: They put his portraits in the company of impartial scientific illustrations, of catalogue photographs, of ID shots -- which is where Avedon got his start in photography, taking pictures for identity cards in the merchant marine. Plain white backgrounds deny fanciness or trickery.

The preservation of his negatives' black borders (known in the trade as "rebates") is a similar device. Those borders, which became the crucial Avedon trademark, flag the fact that he is using the kind of huge, unwieldy sheet-film camera favored by the most technical of photographers. It's as though he doesn't want to risk missing a single pore in any sitter's self. Such cameras sit foursquare on the floor, often on massive stands or tripods, and they invite a notion that their subject is equally stolid. There's no interacting with such a behemoth camera; you're just a thing that's set before its eye to be recorded.

Avedon's black borders also signal that we're seeing every bit of subject that his camera did, without a drop of editing from the photographer. They are the trademark sign of a contact print, the first and most immediate encounter anyone can have with the content of a photographic negative. Avedon's borders assert the edge-to-edge authenticity of a photograph -- of his whole photographic technique. And that's supposed to rub off on his sitters.

Then there's where those black edges fall. In many of Avedon's portraits, they slice right through a figure or a body part. In his "Chicago Seven," all shoes are awkwardly cut off in mid-foot. In "The Family," Avedon's photo essay on this nation's Bicentennial elite -- its 69 images originally filled 48 pages of the Oct. 21, 1976, issue of Rolling Stone -- many of the mighty have their hands, the most expressive of body parts, cropped off at the wrist. For about 500 years, artists have used that kind of "accidental" cropping by the picture's edge as a sign of spontaneity -- as the sign of a scene not planned to look just so but captured on the fly, as it happens to pass into or out of the artist's field of view. There's authenticity for you.

The whole setup recalls a zoologist's camera blind, put out in the wild and then removed from human control. Avedon's best portraits present him as a machine for seeing. "I just popped in and did it and left," is how Donald Rumsfeld remembers his session for the "Family" series, and that squares with other people's memories. "All of the photos were rather matter-of-fact -- minimal instructions and minimal posing by him. Just look in the camera and click," recalled Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP.

Those are some of the markers of the "truth" that are right there for the looking in each Avedon portrait. But there are others that operate less openly.

You may not grasp it consciously, for example, but your eye knows that many of these portraits were taken from closer in than usual. Look hard at Avedon's 2004 portrait of a yet-to-be-famous Illinois state senator, Barack Obama, and you realize that his nose is rather larger than his ears. That gap in scale is something we only see when we're up close to someone. Without resorting to forced, rhetorical signs of intimacy -- a deliberate smile, a welcoming gesture -- Avedon can make a remote politician into someone you can get close to.

Or look at how Avedon can make Buckminster Fuller, with an ego's worth of plans for reshaping the Earth, look like the old man next door you want to buttonhole -- that you have buttonholed, since you're so close you see the tops of his shoes and the underside of his chin at the same time. That means that you're not only close, you're also looking at him from nearer to his navel than his head, another device Avedon uses to stress his portraits' neutral, scientific gaze. They forgo the eye-to-eye encounter that can make a sitter seem unique and engaging -- and too special to be just another one of us.

Anthony Van Dyck, the great pioneer of royal portraiture, perfected perspectival tricks to make his noble sitters look unusually tall. Avedon used the special capabilities of a large-format camera -- lens tilts and film shifts and other esoterica -- to reverse precisely those same tricks. He crafted a democratic vision that brings his modern royals down to earth. Fuller's legs don't seem to soar above us like the legs of a Van Dyck cavalier; they seem strangely compressed, as though we're looking down at them. Ditto for the legs in Avedon's Chicago Seven, or in his image of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1976, or in almost any of his full-length portraits of achievers.

Writers and wall texts have claimed that the great portraits of Richard Avedon, our greatest portraitist, uniquely reflect the "zeitgeists" he lived through, or his sitters' special "essences." Look closely at Avedon's portraits and you realize that, when they are most uniquely his, they work against those cliches. They give a sense that whatever pose his sitters may be taking, whatever character they may assume, Avedon has captured an averageness that matters more.

In Avedon's hands, Mark Felt gets to be the-guy-who's-just-Mark-Felt. There's no revealing the Deep Throat within.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Simple Photographs

I have been thinking lately about making more simple photographs. No flash, no multiple cameras, no deep themes. Just getting my 8x10 with 250mm Fujinon and making day light portraits. My best bet might be to go with HP5 film because I have it tested for zone development/exposure and I think it might be more readily available in the future. I love Tri-x but the film seems to be heading down the Kodak toilet, it is now only available in 10 sheet boxes.

I might follow Jocks Sturges advice and simplify my photography. Shooting street/country portraits with the 8x10 in South East Asia may be my future. I so do want to make a series of lasting important portraits of normal everyday folk.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Quote: Howard Thurman Philosopher and Civil Rights Leader

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive"

History of Thai Sex Worker Photos

I was asked by a APUG member to explain a bit about the reasons/motivations behind my ladyboy images, here is that post:

I originally started making photographs in Thailand in 1996. I had never photographed outside of Canada and the USA so it was a big expedition for me. I had read about the bar life and thought that the people (woman at that point) that worked the bars would be a great subject to document. I wanted to show the reality of their lives. When I got there (sex tourist areas) I was so nervous and uncomfortable I could barely communicate. I remember going into (actually got pulled in) my first bar and ordering a drink, not knowing the scene, not knowing the language, not having any friends, sweating like hell from the heat etc . I was so nervous my hand shook when I tried to drink my coke. This current project started there that night for real because I got to see first hand who these people were. I got to watch the interaction between the girls in the bar and the people running the bar (Mamasan) I got to see the reactions of the girls to their customers and customers to the girls and I was hooked! The more I learned that first trip the more I got involved. I started to make friends started to make a few poor photographs. I grew to feel a deep compassion for the girls working the bars.

The 1996 trip lasted 3 months, in 1999 I returned to Thailand again this time with a clearer understanding of what I was trying to say. I decided I would photograph on the streets, that I would do outdoor portraits of freelance sex workers.

(note: webpage has a typo, photo was actually shot in 1999)
I stayed in the country that trip for about 8 months with side trips to Japan and Cambodia. I found that I needed to learn to speak Thai so that I could communicate with my subjects and understand the country better, so I started the long trip down the Thai language highway!! Am still a long way from ending that journey. The photographs I made were all non nude, I wanted the images to be non exploitive and I worried that nudity might exploit the people I was trying to understand. The problem was that later when I showed the work, people would often be surprised that the girls were sex workers. I felt that my images were not communicating the message I wanted to tell. I was trying to be a sympathetic voice for the people I felt were being used by Western sex tourists but I was failing in that message. I also learned thou that the situation was much more complex than I initially thought in 1996. The more I learned the more difficult it was to understand things, you could not just go with the simple answers because this sex scene world was very complicated.. As I learned the language and the more friends I had both Thai and Westerner (farang) the more difficult it became to categorize things.

The next trip was in 2003, I went to Thailand for 1 year this time. This trip I shot color as well as b/w film. I decided that I needed to photograph in the shortime rooms and that I needed to show nudity but I wanted to show it in the proper way, in a non sexual fashion, I wanted the nudity to be honest and straight forward and true to the reality of that persons life. I ended up shooting both clothed and unclothed images in the rooms the girls took their customers to and sometimes in their own private rooms. This photo for example is shot in a room shared by 4 girls working a shortime sex bar.


My next trip was in 2007, I went all out this trip. I only had 7 weeks to travel I spent 1 week in India and 1 week in Nepal, with the 5 weeks left over I rented a room in the bar area and set up a small studio in Thailand. I took 3 overweight check in bags and 2 overweight carry on bags loaded with equipment. I took a 4800 watt Speedotron flash system and a power transformer/converter(changed Thai 220 power so I can use it with my 110 Speedotron). I had a white background, 4 flash heads, 4 light stands, 1 tripod, 1 8x10 Kodak Viewmaster camera, light meter, 10 8x10 holders, 5 5x7 holders, extra flash tubes, 5x7 back for the Viewmaster, 300mm Nikon lens and a bunch of other stuff...also about 400 sheets of 8x10 tri-x and 200 or so sheets of 5x7 tri-x.

I wanted to broaden my subject matter, to tell a more truthful story of the sex worker. I photographed:

Female Sex Workers………http://gerryyaum.com/SW1.html

Male Sex Workers…………http://gerryyaum.com/SW28.html
Ladyboy Sex Workers…….http://gerryyaum.com/SW16.html

I wanted to not only tell the story of the woman who work the scene but also of the men and ladyboys. I wanted to photograph with compassion who they were but I also felt my feelings were changing somewhat, these people were not just victims, things were more complex than that. I wanted to show them as individuals who were being exploited but also as people with a certain amount of freedom of choice.

This last trip was for 3 weeks, 1 week I was at a Thai funeral for a friends father and for 2 weeks I shot the ladyboy series that you see on APUG. The ladyboy photographs are a bit different than the other ones at least the experience of shooting them was. When I photographed the woman workers in 1999 and 2003 I felt they were being used by the system, exploited for the most part and mostly unhappy in their lives. I found with the ladyboy shoots thou that many were happy with where they were, that they actually enjoyed the life to a certain degree and that thou they might be unhappy in their personal lives the sex with foreign males was not something they necessarily disliked. The woman sex workers from the earlier years almost to a person disliked sex with their customers but the people I met this trip seemed to be responding differently.

My feelings on the scene changes from trip to trip, maybe what I feel now or what I think I understand now is wrong and maybe next trip I will learn more and my opinions will change, but that is what it is all about, learning and experiencing that world and trying to understand.

Sorry for the long winded manifesto but why I make these photographs is not an easy answer for me. I guess when it comes down to is that I do it because I am curious and I want to understand and also because I think I owe it to the these people who are often forgotten. Many times when you work as a sex worker your here one day and gone the next, disease, physical(sexual) and mental abuse all take their toll. I have known maybe 1000 people in this industry in Thailand but if I go back today maybe only 50 or so people would still be around. I always felt it was important to make photographs to remember them. It sort of becomes like an obsession, I can see the faces of the people I have met in my minds eye, I can hear their voices and I feel a responsibility to make portraits of them, to make a record that they were important people that mattered. Maybe that is sort of egotistical but I feel it is a responsibility to document their lives, sort of like something I owe them.

The ladyboy series shot in July this year is a continuation of that, an attempt to learn and understand people and a world very different from the one I was raised in.

hope that explains things a bit clearer regarding motivation and history of this whole thingy!

APUG Should I Stop Showing my Photos? Post

I have been having lots of fun at the site APUG.org. There are many knowledgeable film photographers there (APUG = Analog Photography Users Group). I have been posting my lady boy images to a certain amount of interest by APUG members, one person thou said my work offended them which resulted in the following forum post. I found the discussion quite interesting, if your interested check it out.


Monday, September 1, 2008

Ann 27 Ladyboy Sex Worker, Thailand 2008

Gobee 29 Ladyboy Sex Worker, Thailand 2008

Jiji 29 Ladyboy Sex Worker, Thailand 2008

Been working quite a bit in the darkroom lately. I am printing some of the ladyboy photos from July and also playing with various fiber papers. The Foma (made in Hungry) warmtone cream looks very good.