HOW THE SHOW-YOUR-SOFT-SIDE CAMPAIGN
AND A CHIHUAHUA PUPPY MAKE MY DAYS BRIGHTER
When I woke up this morning I looked down and saw the covers moving. A small mound just under the blanket started heading toward my toes, then reversed itself and came charging toward my face. A few seconds later two great ears – mighty triangles, really — popped out of the covers, followed by some very large eyes – eyes that reminded me of Yoda, or maybe Steve Buscemi. Whoever it was rolled over on his back and asked for a tummy rub. While I could think of at least one better way to start the day, this certainly came in a strong second.
When I joined Sande Riesett’s Show Your Soft Side Campaign two years ago as a photographer, the intent was to deter animal abuse. But a strange thing has happened along the way. I’ve seen the campaign enrich the lives of a good many people, myself included.
But first, a quick detour.
Since the 1980’s I’ve loved cats. Even a cursory glance of my first Soft Side blog makes it clear I prefer them over dogs – at least I did at the time. Then one by one, we photographed men with their dogs, and one by one, I witnessed some very special relationships that made me think differently. (Hearing Sande say “awwwwwwwww” every shoot also helped.)
Dogs. I’ve always liked them, but in years past, never enough to bring one home. Not so my wife. Two years ago she got Ava, a 10-lb Havanese bundle of ain’t-I-the-one. Ava is attached to Annette by an invisible rope that’s about ten feet long. Wherever Annette goes, Ava goes. And if Annette actually leaves home without Ava, that little girl will sit in the kitchen and wait for her mama’s return. Wait and wait and wait. On occasion, I’ll lure her away with a treat, and wonderfully, she’ll actually hang out with me for a while, but sooner or later, and usually it’s sooner, she’ll return to her post. Life has many uncertainties, especially for little Ava, but one thing is certain: her keeper will eventually open the kitchen door, and the world will be right again.
Being out of the loop, I had an inspiration. What if I got my own dog? But as a guy, would I have to get a large one? I’ve never wanted a big dog. I know they’re loyal, loving and man’s best friend, but I’m guessing they’re not for me. I know this sounds bad, but I don’t want to deal with a lot of mess. A friend of mine has not one but two Newfoundland dogs. Hearts of gold. Loving animals. But drooling machines. Running faucets of stuff. And big. Many pounds of shedding-fur big. These guys could play for the Ravens.
As for small dogs, they’ve never been a draw for me either. My sister has two miniature teeny-weeny tiny-toy la-la-la something-or-others. Little poofs of fur with piercing eyes and very demanding attitudes (though I’m guessing my sister had a hand in that). “Hey! You! I want a lap and I want it NOW. With a cheese-ball. The ones with peanut butter. Got it? No chicken dings.” They give my sister a great deal of joy, but no, I don’t want a poof-ball.
So what’s a guy to do?
Get a Chihuahua, said a voice from within.
A Chihuahua? Really? Aren’t they snappy little demons that will take your finger off?
I’m not exactly sure how I settled on a Chi. I didn’t know the first thing about the breed. A friend of mine with three dogs did tell me his Chi was the best of the bunch. And not long after that, I saw a Chihuahua puppy playing in the grass, having the best time that any living being has ever had in this or any other universe. But that was it. All the information I had.
Then one day, Darlene Sanders of BARCS (the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Control Center) brought 15 kittens to the studio for a shoot, and right before we started I blurted out: “Darlene, d’ya have any nice Chihuahuas at the shelter, I mean, good guys who don’t growl and go to war?” I saw a twinkle in Darlene’s eyes, as if she knew something I didn’t, but all she said was, “Leo, let me work on that.”
After that, all I was thinking was: what have I done?
Two weeks later, Darlene sent me an email that said that while she didn’t generally take to Chihuahuas, she did like this little guy named Archie, who’d been found at a Royal Farms six months earlier. After being taken to the shelter, Archie had somehow persuaded Danielle, a BARCS employee, into fostering him at her home, where he now hung out, along with three other dogs that were seven or eight times his size.
Within a week, I drove to BARCS with Lisa Feather, our Soft Side animal handler, to vet Archie. We spent 45 minutes with the little guy, indoors and out. He passed every test. Bottom line: he’s a love bug, and the worst that can be said of him is … he’s also a serial licker so bring your raincoat.
The following week Annette was going out of town to visit her parents. I waited for that to happen before I brought Archie home. I wanted just us guys to bond. No way did I want to deal with a love-fest trio of the three A’s – Annette, Ava & Archie. uh uh. I’m no fool.
Luckily, the plan worked. That’s not to say Archie doesn’t hang out with the women. He does. Especially if the circumstances promise opportunity — like special attention from Annette, or relay races with Ava, or an empty yogurt cup to attack. But he also knows that guys have to stick together, so eventually returns to me as home base.
It’s been a year and a few months since Archie joined our home, and I can’t begin to describe the pleasure he gives us. Ava, for instance, loves to wrestle with him, and once in a while will even let him win. When they tumble and growl and pounce — and roll over and over and over — everything in the world stops. It’s better than watching a movie.
As for his manners, I don’t know where he learned them, but the little guy is so quiet and polite, he could’ve dined at Downton Abbey. No aggression, no begging, no whimpering. Just a calm and quiet demeanor, patiently waiting with grace and joy for the world to turn his way.
He’s also a star at stealth. On request, he’ll “disappear,” making him a great traveling companion. All I need to do is cover him, and on cue, he shuts down and goes to sleep. This is particularly helpful when I throw a shirt over his bed in the passenger seat of my car, or when I close the top of his messenger bag when entering a store. (On occasion, he will get curious and peak out of the bag, but so far we haven’t gotten into trouble.)
He also goes to work with me. (Actually, if I can get away with it, he goes everywhere with me.) When we get to the studio he says hi to his friends, asks for a treat from a few loyalists, then runs up his carpeted doggie stairs to his Martha Stewart bed, which awaits him on my desk alongside the keyboard.
During the day, when I look over and see him contently sleeping, a quiet calm passes over me and I can’t help but smile inside.
Life is good.
With Archie, it’s even better.
Why Does Baltimore City Want to Take The Show-Your-Soft-Side Campaign from Sande Riesett?
I think I know something about the Show Your Soft Side Campaign. I was there when Sande Riesett of Outlaw Advertising conceived the idea. One day in the Spring of 2011, Sande contacted me and asked if I’d like to be the photographer for an anti-animal abuse campaign she was thinking of launching. Sande, a true animal lover, had seen a number of incidents of animal abuse in Baltimore city, and she wanted to do something about it. Her idea? To assemble a team (consisting of a graphic designer, a photographer, a promoter, and herself) to create billboards and posters showing tough-guy role-models in loving relationships with their pets. The campaign would be pro bono. Every net dollar would be given to animal shelters and anti-animal abuse causes. Great idea. Great people. I was in.
Since then, Sande has worked day in and day out on the campaign. She meticuously refreshes the Show Your Soft Side Facebook page with news articles, stories and anecdotes, and as a result, the page receives hundreds of thousands of hits each week. Visit Soft Side’s Facebook page in the morning and go back five hours later. It will be different. That’s Sande, sitting at the computer, seven days a week, sending out her message.
The city is teeming with Soft Side images and headlines – on buses and billboards, at bus stops and rail stops, and inside our stadiums. That’s tens of thousands of dollars and more of vital space, sending out the Soft Side message. It’s there through Sande’s blood, sweat and tears.
Have you ever visited one of our many festivals during the dog days of Summer when the temperature closes in on 100? If you have, you’ve seen a friendly blonde-haired woman standing in the Soft Side booth where you can buy a poster for $5.00. That woman is Sande, and whatever she weighed that morning, she weighed five pounds less by the end of the day. I also promise you this: whatever time you left the festival, she was still there.
Have you ever been to a Soft Side Charity event? Each season at least one is held, where you can attend, socialize, eat, drink, and meet some of the “Softies,” from MMA figher/promoter John Rallo to Baltimore Raven Torrey Smith. Can you guess who conceived of these events? Can you guess who was instrumental in setting them up?
This past weekend the Soft Side team went to NYC to shoot two subjects for upcoming billboards. Every dollar spent on that trip came from the personal pockets of the Soft Side members. No member of the Soft Side team has earned a dollar from the campaign. Quite the contrary, everyone, and most of all, Sande, is out of pocket.
Since the Fall of 2011, I’ve spent hundreds of hours working with Sande to create most of the photographs used in the Soft Side campaign. After each shoot, we review the photographs. More specifically, we put on our gloves and spar. “I like this one, Sande.” “No Leo, look at this, where he’s cradling the puppy in his arms. How cute is that?” “But Sande, look at the little one in no. 5238. You see those big eyes?” Back and forth we go. Fighting and fighting and fighting. I’ve never worked for an advertising person like Sande. I wish we could clone her.
What has Baltimore City done in this campaign? I couldn’t say. I’ve never worked with them nor seen them expend any efforts on the campaign. The only exception is the time I saw a newsclip of the Mayor at a press event.
Today, 26 June 2013, I read an article in the Baltimore Sun. The article states that Sande filed an action in Federal court to establish that she, not Baltimore City, owns the intellectual property that is the Soft Side Campaign. In the article, Ryan O’Doherty, a spokesperson for Mayor Stepanie Rawlings, is quoted as saying that “[h]opefully, this is not an effort to privatize and monetize a city public asset.” This person could not know Sande Riesett. This person could not know what Sande has given of herself for Soft Side. This person should rethink what he stands for.
The Soft Side Campaign is Sande Riesett’s creation. It is her child, her message, her intellectual property. True to her nature, she offered to freely license the campaign to Baltimore City. But the City and its officials want more. They want to take her creation and claim it for themselves. To their mind, it is apparently unacceptable to spread the Soft Side message beyond Baltimore. Why is the city taking this postion? To what end? Who benefits? Answer these questions and you answer the larger question of who is right and who is wrong and what is really happening here.
related post: Photographing the Show-Your-Soft-Side Campaign
While any good portrait presents a challenge, the “environmental portrait” presents the special challenge of placing the subject in surroundings that tell us something about the person. Shooting someone in their place of work — a teacher in the classroom, a film editor in the cutting room — well achieves the goal. In the best of such portraits, the background seamlessly becomes an extension of the subject, and in the best of these, the result often moves into metaphor.
One of my favorite environmental portraits — and certainly the one that opened my eyes to the greater possibilities of the genre — is that of Darius Milhaud by Alfred Eisenstaedt. On first glance we see a portly man seated at a table in front of a blackboard, dreamily looking out into space. This is no rock star, movie icon or super athlete. It’s all quite sleepy, and after a few seconds one might be tempted to move on to more exciting stuff. But a second glance tells us to slow down. The clues lie in the
props, and by props I mean almost everything except the subject himself (for if Shakespeare was right that all the world’s a stage, then the objects around us tell our story). First, we see the glasses. They occupy center stage, disdainfully lying face-down on the table. They almost distract from the subject, and by doing so tell us there’s a message here, for it’s clear that Eisenstaedt, well aware of their presence, chose to leave them as is. To my mind, they suggest that as he sits in his chair, the composer is looking within, not without. Confirmation lies in Milhaud’s dazed eyes, which also suggest he is musing more than thinking. Given who he is, one can easily surmise the composer is composing, and indeed, if we look to the blackboard behind him, we see a visual representation of that thought in the musical notes that float above. In short, the photographer has presented the environment in a manner that suggests precisely what lies in the subject’s mind — a composition. The result is an image that transcends the mundane, giving us a kind of visual poetry.
The Milhaud portrait is not unlike the portraits of Arnold Newman, one of the great pioneers of the genre. Among Newman’s best is the iconic portrait of Igor Stravinsky. In this image, the photographer creates a background that obeys the rule of thirds by placing a middle gray field alongside a lighter field of gray and white. In front of this he boldly paints the piano in true black. The result fully takes advantage of the black and
white medium by giving us light/dark contrasts that energize the image with a strong graphic design. The contrast is continued by a half-lit face that adds a psychological density to the subject. Interestingly, the composer, too, obeys the rule of thirds when viewed against the gray field behind him. And the piano? It almost looks like a musical note, adding depth to the photograph by taking us, like Eisenstaedt’s portrait, into the realm of metaphor.
Newman is, in fact, a master of metaphor. In his portraits of Robert Oppenheimer and Kurt Godel, for example, he uses negative space to suggest the mental arena and playing field in which each subject works. In the Oppenheimer portrait, the shadowy wall dominates, telling us that everything here is big. We are looking at a grand mind devoted
to the grand task of tackling a grand universe. The delicately-held cigarette with ashes ready to fall, make a great prop, suggesting intensity and focus. And as we look down at the great physicist, taking in the vastness of the nothingness that surrounds him, we can’t help but feel that we’re in the presence of a visionary. To similar effect, and perhaps more concretely, the emptiness of a large blackboard dominates the later portrait of Kurt Godel. The great mathematician sits frozen in his seat, face dramatically half-lit, hands clenched and ready to spring into action, while the blackboard, clean and tidy like his mind, looms from behind, waiting to be filled. As in the Oppenheimer portrait, given the nature of pure mathematics, it isn’t difficult to surmise that the tabula rasa behind Godel represents both his mind and the abstract field of thought he must enter as builds his equations.
Three additional Newman portraits sharing elements with the above are those of Philip Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Norman Mailer. In the first, the photographer places the architect next to a towering door that reminds us of the mighty skyscrapers Johnson
conceives. In the Wright portrait, the photographer places the architect one-third into the photograph and one-third into a drawing which, like Eisenstaedt’s Milhaud portrait, suggests a work as a thought. And in the Mailer portrait, where a sheet of paper is surrounded by a blank wall, the photographer conveys the isolating and daunting task that the writer must feel as he confronts his work. By placing Mailer in split lighting, Newman also tells us that his subject well knows the dark side, and in allowing Mailer to press his knuckles into the arm of the chair, the photographer portrays a well known attribute of the author: a restrained intensity ready to explode.
That quality, restrained intensity, is also apparent in one of the great portraits of evil: Eisenstaedt’s 1933 capture of Joseph Goebbels. Like the Prince of Darkness surrounded by
attendant subjects, the Reich Minister of Propaganda grips the arms of his chair, a document awaiting his signature, while he stares at the Jewish photographer with an aversion that is frightening. All the more frightening is the fact that here is an environmental portrait in which the subject is not acting. And in another great portrait of evil, we see Newman’s image of the German industrialist and war criminal, Alfried Krupp, looking very much like the devil. This photograph is all about the light, as explained by Newman in the below video.
Arnold Newman on his Krupp portrait
More information on Newman may be found at The Arnold Newman Archive, and in particular, one can see many of his portraits here and here. A 1981 interview of Newman from the Visions and Images series appears below.
While I’m sure there are many fine books showing Newman’s portraits, one I can personally recommend is Taschen’s: Arnold Newman. In addition to essays by Newman and Philip Brookman, the book contains quality prints which inspire and instruct. For videos on Eisenstadt, take a look at youtube Eisenstaedt search.
BAD BOYS & THE COMPANY THEY KEEP
I love cats. They’re the most graceful beings on the planet, and when they’re not hunting down mice or asking for a little loving, they’re hanging out in some kind of half-awake meditative state that monks surely spend a lifetime trying to achieve. I’ve been the keeper of a few cats in my life, the most memorable of whom was Max, a mixed Russian Blue/British Short Hair who was one Big Boy. Max was top cat, the Buddha/Emperor of the household, which meant that Jack, his adopted feline brother, lived to serve only him. At times I did quite a bit of serving myself, but I didn’t mind, my service came with a mighty reward, for when I awoke in that darkest of hours, 3 o’clock in the morning, a time when existence is questioned and the abyss seems right around the corner, I would sometimes hear the Big Boy sleeping on his back alongside me, legs splayed in all directions, snoring, and with that comforting sound all seemed well with the world.
I’m a fan of dogs too. If there’s anyone who lives to love and serve only you, it’s your dog, and a bond like that is a life-giving force. So I well understand those who prefer the company of dogs to cats. That’s what makes the world go ‘round. Some people like PBS, some like SPIKE, and some even like the LIFETIME channel.
In our household, my wife, Annette, and I live with Sophie, a cat who’s quite content to hiss at you for no reason at all, and Ava, a Havanese puppy who lives to play play play, mainly with Annette, who Ava follows everywhere, and I mean everywhere, including the bathroom.
Given the above, when Sande Reisett of Outlaw Advertising asked me this past Spring if I’d be interested in shooting super-athletes and their pets for a poster campaign, I immediately said yes. So what was the goal of the campaign? Like most effective ideas, the concept was simple. Sande wanted to show tough-guy role-models in loving relationships with their pets. Two incidents helped spark the idea. First, Sande told me of an incident in Baltimore City when she was about to pet a dog, only to be told to stop because the dog was being trained as a fighter. The loving touch of a caring person was forbidden. Second, Sande told me about Phoenix, a female pit bull who was allegedly torched to death by two brothers, Travers and Tremayne Johnson, both of whom are presently being prosecuted.
So who were we going to photograph? Sande didn’t know, but she was working on it. As for the images themselves, we agreed that a dramatic black background was the look we wanted. This would supply Hanna Mayer, the art director who would design the poster, with built-in drama. In preparation for the day Sande would call with the first assignment, I searched the internet for inspiring images of men and their dogs, focusing in particular on images showing a strong relationship – a connection, a dialogue, that intangible energy that flows between friends. In looking, I arrived at two conclusions. First, I wanted the faces of the subjects to be close to each other, an easy task if the dog was small, but one requiring a little more thought (and perhaps a prop or two) if the dog was a big boy. Second, I wanted to make sure I could capture enough of the subjects’ faces to give the viewer a feeling of their essence.
I love to photograph people. The portrait is probably my favorite genre as a photographer. Typically, when someone comes to my studio for a portrait, the experience becomes an exploration. We sit, perhaps drink coffee, and get to know each other in as much as five or ten minutes will allow. Here, my goal is to establish a personal connection and make the subject comfortable. Then we go before the lights and shoot — and look at the results – and shoot — and look at the results — and shoot – until we’re happy. Both of us. (Before we start, I tell the subject I want to be happy too.) More often than not, by the second or third round of shooting, the subject is totally relaxed and actually having fun. The process itself includes quiet moments as well as times when I engage the subject with questions and mind games. I like to think of the shoot as a mind/Zen/jump-off-the-cliff experience that dissolves a person’s mask, leading to defining moments of character, joy, contemplation, and whatever else may lie within.
Altogether different is the headshot. Whether it be a musician, an attorney, a CEO, or someone promoting their business, the goal of my headshots is usually the same: I try to capture power and intelligence wrapped in a friendly personna. The process is painless and quick, maybe ten to twenty minutes, sometimes a little more, but again, I ask the subject to continue until we’re both happy with the available choices.
Then there is the campaign shoot. Like the headshot, it has a defined goal, a given look to be achieved. And like headshot, it can also be quick, but unfortunately, not by choice. When dealing with large companies or organizations, time is an imperative, so after your allotment, you’re done, whether you like it or not. For this reason, I usually try to visit the campaign site on a day in advance of the shoot to play with my setup. In addition to lighting challenges, a campaign can also present a problematic venue, a cast of contributors, less control over the final product, and a deadline right around the corner.
The shoot may also be visited by the press. Now I realize that having the press attend a photo shoot can be very good for a campaign. On the other hand, the more people I don’t know at a shoot, the less control I have, and if they’re shooting the shoot, well … the voltage in the room can increase to a level that easily rattles the environment. This can result in great news footage, but lousy still shots.
ADAM JONES & MISSY
In early May, Sande told me our first subjects were Baltimore Oriole Adam Jones and Missy, a Labrador retriever. Big dog. Very big dog. As strong as AJ might be, there would be no carrying this dog. We either needed a table for Missy, a sofa for the two of them, or the floor. And as much as I wanted the shoot to take place at my studio, where I am Master and Commander, that was not going to happen.
A day before the shoot, I drove to Oriole stadium to scout out the venue. I was greeted by a very helpful Kristen Schultz, director of Special Events, who took me on a long and winding walk that ended when she ushered me into a room which, for a location shoot, fulfilled my worst nightmare. It was no larger than 12 by 20, with a ceiling that could send a claustrophobe running.
“Uh, Kristen … do you have a slightly larger space?”
While I’m all for improvisation, some things are impossible. With three Elinchrom RX 600 lights, a nine-foot wide backdrop stand, and a Photek Illumnata II Octagonal Light Bank measuring 52 inches in diameter, this room was a row boat when I needed a cruise ship. The Photek couldn’t be raised to an appropriate height, the closed nature of the room would create too much flash bounce-back, and because the subjects needed to be at least 8 to 10 feet from the backdrop, even if everything else worked, I’d be shooting them from the hall.
“How about the media room, Leo? That’s where we hold our press conferences. It’s quite large.”
“That will work.”
The following day I drove back to the stadium for a 2 PM shoot. Mike Diamond, a photographer friend, met me to assist in the setup, and Sande came armed with peanut butter and toys. With some improvisation during the shoot, the basic setup is that
which you see in the accompanying diagram and photograph. (Simply click the images to make them larger.) While I assumed that in the end, we might go for a “gritty” look, my goal was to obtain a gentle light throughout the shoot. Why? Because in Photoshop it’s easy to turn a gently-lit subject into a gritty one — particularly with the right plugin — but not so easy (at least for me) to do the reverse. For location shooting, the Photek softbox is so effective in achieving a gentle light that it rivals the cumbersome and much more expensive 74 inch Elinchom Octa Light Bank which is permanently parked in my studio.
With the setup done, I asked Sande the inevitable question. “Is there gonna be press?”
“I don’t think so,” she said, knowing that would make me happy. “The last I heard, they’re not coming.”
At 1:45 PM, the press arrived. Shortly after 2, Adam Jones and Missy appeared. With cameras rolling, and I don’t mean mine, an odd feeling that I was in a movie took over, and way too much energy surged through the room. I made the mistake of getting caught up in the voltage rather than tempering it down. So while, for example, I try to
make the subject comfortable by expressing satisfaction with the images we’ve got, this time I was so enthusiastic the powers in charge cut my allotted time by a third. This is not good. Over time I’ve well discovered that in formal shoots, more shots lead to more choices. It’s one of those rare exceptions to “less is more.”
As for the shoot itself, Missy was a sweetheart, but not what I’d call a trained model. She was all over the place, and I just kept clicking, trying to capture both faces. When the dust finally settled, I found two images that caught my eye. In one, we see Missy licking a smiling Adam Jones, and in the other Missy and Adam are having a quiet moment face to face. I went back and forth on these, but thankfully, Hanna and
Sande chose what I do believe is the best of the two, as shown in the poster. For me that image works because a wide-eyed and vulnerable Missy is lovingly looking at a man whose soft touch and closed eyes completes the connection with equal emotion. (If I could turn Adam’s face 15 more degrees toward the camera, I would, but hopefully, the angle as is doesn’t bother most people.)
JOHN RALLO & DOOBIE
A month later, Sande called me again – this time with good news and bad news. The bad news was that our next subject, MMA fighter/promoter John Rallo, also couldn’t make it to the studio. One of his little guys, Doobie, was ill, so we’d have to do the shoot in his basement.
“Basement? Do we know how big it is?”
The good news was: Doobie was a cat! And as an even greater bonus: this time there really would be no press.
On 22 June, with not the highest of expectations, I met Sande at John Rallo’s home at 8:30 in the morning. As soon as I opened the door, things started looking up. First, John was as nice as could be. Second, the man was cut. Third, strong face. Fourth, perfect tank top. Fifth, and best of all: tattoos. We’re not talking one or two. If you wanted to read Dante’s Inferno as a graphic novel, John’s your man. He had heaven, hell and everything in between all over his chest and arms – and they, along with the rest of him, would look just great under the lights – if the basement was big enough.
The John/Doobie shoot was relaxed … except for Doobie. Unlike Missy, who just wanted to play, Doobie wanted out. Who are these barbarians, and why is that creature with the little clicking box making ridiculous coo-cooing sounds at me? Get these lights outta here, and take yourselves with them. We tried various poses, and once in a while Doobie was kind enough to show his face. Two factors saved the shoot. First, my feather duster. It’s a hit with Sophie and Ava, so I brought it along and finally remembered to get it out. Second, both John and Sande suggested we do a simple pose with John and Doobie looking into the camera. This didn’t strike me as promising as I generally find posing to be stiff, but in this case I couldn’t have been more wrong. John is a natural in front of the camera, so when he went into his “bad boy” look, he was so good he could’ve joined the cast of The Expendables.
Equally important, as I waved the feather duster in front of my camera, I saw Doobie open his pupils and look at me like I was a mouse, albeit a big one. He was finally on board and wonderfully doing exactly what John was doing — and there lay the connection. Two bad boys, ready for action. When it came time to choose the John/Doobie poster shot, nothing came close. (Shortly after the shoot, Doobie passed on, but I’ve no doubt he went out with a fight.)
As an aside, one lesson reconfirmed by this shoot is something I try (but sometimes forget) to practice as a photographer: listen to your subject (and in this case, Sande as well). In other words, let the shoot become a collaboration. People generally know what works for them.
JARRET JOHNSON & TUCKER
On 17 August, Sande gave me another call.
“Hey Leo, what are you doing Sunday morning?”
“Having a couple over for brunch — long overdue. They invited us for dinner more than a year ago. We’re a little slow.”
“Don’t tell me, Sande. The Ravens gave us Sunday.”
It was true.
The subjects were linebacker Jarret Johnson and his pal, Tucker. (Double J also has a Shih Tzu. Now that would’ve made quite a couple.)
At 11 AM on Sunday, I met Sande at the training facility of the Baltimore Ravens, otherwise known as “the Castle.” (Sande’s husband, Don, came to assist. The fact that he’s a huge Ravens fan and doesn’t know anything about setup is really just a coincidence.) The room was big, I was given plenty of time to set up, and everything was just right.
Then the press arrived.
Then something delayed the Ravens practice.
Then finally, Double J and Tucker arrived. JJ couldn’t have been more friendly and cooperative, and while Tucker was distracted by a relatively busy room, he sometimes settled down to give me a few good shots. Again, in the final selection, a posing shot seemed best, probably because in the loving shots, Tucker’s face wasn’t as visible as we’d have liked.
I used a gentle light once again, and added the needed grit in post-processing. While the grit and contrast of the final image is a giant step from the original, the technique used would have allowed me to go even further, to the point of unreality. Here lies one of the great challenges of Photoshop: it is so potent it temps you to go too far — and if I get to a point where I can see my own work, I know I have.
I’m not sure what horizon Sande envisioned when she conceived of this project, but as I write this on 4 November 2011, the “Show Your Soft Side” campaign is alive and kicking and growing. As reported by Jill Rosen in a Baltimore Sun article, the campaign was launched during the latter part of September. Since then, posters and billboards with Sande’s tagline, “Only a punk would hurt a cat or dog,” have appeared throughout Baltimore City, and a Facebook page devoted to the campaign has over 4,600 members. Supportive events and additional media coverage are planned. But more important is the question: will the campaign have an impact? Hopefully, it will lead to significant contributions for animals in distress. As for the message itself, that will take some time, but one would hope that with continued support, it will eventually reach those who most need it.
If Henri Cartier-Bresson isn’t my favorite photographer, he’s certainly in the top two or three. And while many of his images don’t speak to me, those 20 to 25 that do continue to amaze. If ever there was a genius in 20th Century photography, it was this man.
The most well-known photographic concept attached to Cartier-Bresson is, of course, the idea of the decisive moment. With one image — Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, France (1932) – he taught us that if one captures a subject at precisely the right instant, one can shatter normal life to retrieve a transcending moment. The location of the right heel of the man jumping from the ladder in Behind the Gare – so perfectly timed – reveals an unseen world, flashing before our eyes, normally veiled by the flow of time. The inspiration is a simple one: it is up to the photographer to search out that moment and seize it with his or her camera. And though the challenge can be daunting, there is some comfort in knowing that if your timing is off, if you’re just a little too early or late, or if some other component is slightly off — exposure, sharpness, composition — you really don’t have a choice, it’s simply not good enough, you’ve failed. In other words, a little can be a lot; Behind the Gare wouldn’t have worked had it been shot at any other instant.
Like many of Cartier-Bresson’s images, there’s more going on in Behind the Gare than perfect timing. Too much has been written about this elsewhere to spend much time on it here. But three often-noted ironies are: the playful dancer on the poster in the background, providing a counterpoint to the rigid Everyman walking on water; the ladder from which the man springs, mimicking the railroad tracks of a station; and the play on words arising from the “Railowsky” poster appearing in a railway station.
Regardless of how much time Cartier-Bresson waited to capture the image we see in this photograph, the setting is a good example of what I’ll call a “waiting stage.” Sometimes, as we walk through the world, we come upon a scene that is ripe for something special; all that is needed is an actor to enter and hit the mark in our mind’s eye. So it is with Behind the Gare. The dancer, the ladder and the Railowsky pun were already there, static props, waiting with Cartier-Bresson for the running man to appear.
Another waiting stage can be seen in the photograph, Mexico, 1964. To most people walking down the street shown in this image, the wall probably didn’t catch the eye. But Cartier-Bresson, schooled in the sensibilities of Surrealism, saw something other-worldly in such items as the suspended watch, swordfish, and symbols at the top right of the image. Again, all that was needed was a subject, properly placed, to send the wall into another dimension.
Like the running man in Behind the Gare, the running boy in this image was probably previsualized by Cartier-Bresson; and like the running man, the boy was captured at just the right time: his head is perfectly placed in the lower left corner of a rectangle where the vertical line dissects the head while the horizontal line holds up the chin. As with so many great photographs, the more one looks, the more one sees. Like the swordfish, the boy is in motion, yet he also belongs on the wall, precisely where he is, while the watch floats above, freezing the time at ten past ten. Because the boy, swordfish and watch are equally sized, the image takes us out of the ordinary world. Behind the boy is a room with a man defying the vacancy sign to his left, and in front of the boy is an entrance containing frames with frames within frames. Foreground and background merge into a dreamlike vision where life (the boy) and object (the drawings) co-equally inhabit some strange Semiotic and Surreal plane; one which surely would have put a smile on Dali.
In Armenia-USSR, 1972 Cartier Bresson uses the subject, a little girl standing on a man’s outstretched hand, to turn a dynamic waiting stage — the natural canvas of water, mountain and clouds behind the girl — into a static painting.
And in Valence, Espagne, 1973, he does just the opposite. By capturing a boy who looks off balance, Cartier-Bresson turns the static wall behind the boy into something dynamic, the illusion of an explosion. While the photographer may or may not have stood by that wall, waiting for the right subject to appear, the end result defines many a Cartier-Bresson: subject and background unite in a way that takes the image out of ordinary experience. In short, the transcending power lies not in the subject or the background, but in their relationship.
Immediately below are six additional waiting-stage images which, though tamed by the passage of time, still inspire one to rush out to a museum or search for larger-than-life advertising. In the top row, the first image shows three billboard characters playfully watching a man smoke a cigarette; in the second, leaders of Russia, framed on the walls of a room, play Big Brother as they spy on the working-class inhabitants; in the third, a statue looks down on museum visitors who appear to be locked in a staring contest with another statue. In the bottom row, the first image turns Lenin into an ominous stalker; in the second, a man walks from a heavenly setting (on the right side of the cross) toward a more hellish environment; and in the third image, spiraling steps neatly complement a cyclist in motion.
As reflected by the above museum image, and as made clear by the work of such great street photographers as Elliot Erwitt, museums are ripe for the waiting space. They often provide clean, geometrically-interesting backgrounds with statues, paintings, and sculptures ready for animation or irony — and the good news is, many museums allow photography. Below is an image I captured in the Picasso Museum in Paris, 2003. Had I not been familiar with the images of Cartier-Bresson, I’m not sure I would have taken the shot. Regardless of its merits, one fact is certain: to my eye, the setting was an excellent waiting stage. The bust presented possibilities of irony; the clean wall and lines behind the bust presented a nice contrast to the dark entrance on the right; and the entrance itself, neatly obeying the rule of thirds, provided perfect framing for someone to enter. That someone appeared five minutes after I began waiting. As soon as he stopped, I took my shot and moved on.
More often than not, in the best of the Cartier-Bressons, the background is every bit as important as the subject. It doesn’t provide a harmony, but rather, its own melody — one that competes in a way that turns the result into something transcending. And while not every background is a waiting stage, you might find the idea of the stage helpful if you’re a photographer, prowling the streets, looking for the next shot.
A friend recently sent me an email that showed portraits of people intently playing video games. This led to quite a few discoveries, one of which was an interesting New York Magazine article, where instead of gamers, the photographer – Phillip Toledano – shows us the faces of men watching porn.
Although the text of the article tempted me to explore elsewhere, I’m happy to report I was more intrigued by the images, so I next visited Toledano’s website. It’s not titled “Phillip Toledano Photography” or the like. It’s simply titled: Mr. Toledano. Why does this remind me of a 1930’s magician in tuxedo and top hat? (Alas, “Lubow Photography” seems quite dull to me now.)
The personal projects that follow – Gamers, Bankrupt, America the Gift Shop, The United States of Entertainment — are slightly mind bending. The most powerful, Days With My Father, is touching, disturbing and exploitive at the same time. [I’m reminded of Avedon.] The text that accompanies these images speaks volumes about age, time, vanity, lost memories, a life lived — and the potent combination of text & image might just have the power to make you drop a tear. (Click here to see the complete project.) I can’t help but wonder, though: did Toledano’s father have the ability to fully consent to this project? If not, how are we to react to these images, and what does our reaction tell us about ourselves?
Also arresting is the text that accompanies Phone Sex, where Toledano wisely allows those in the business of entertaining callers to revealingly speak for themselves.
If you’re intrigued by Toledano, his Commissions section continues with equally imaginative images, but also shows just how skilled a photographer he is – particularly when it comes to lighting. For me, though, Toledano’s photography is all about the power of the idea. More often than not, the images are superb, but it is the idea behind them, and the accompanying text driving the theme, that compels.
Baltimore photographer and educator Sherwin Mark once said something that really stuck with me. He spoke of the emergent power that comes from a group of images. Individual photographs have their own power, but when a group of photographs comes together as an exhibit, the whole exceeds the sum of the parts. Simply stated, each photograph becomes a beacon, shedding additional meaning on the others. With Toledano, it is even more so, because the themes behind his work do not stand softly in the shadows. As Dylan Thomas might say, they rage, rage against the dying of the light — and that’s quite an achievement.
Eloquent Nude: The Love and Legacy of Edmund Weston and Charis Wilson, a one-hour documentary directed by Ian McClusky, is an aptly titled study that isn’t interested in Weston or his photography as much as it is interested in the power of the muse, and in the case of Charis Wilson, the muse who collaborates. Wilson, we learn, not only inspired Weston, but often posed without direction. As a writer she also helped market and chronicle his work. In short, for a few magical years, when love reigned, they were a team.
Made in 2007, the film is greatly enhanced by a 92-year old Wilson – (she died two years later) — whose poignant recollections are nicely complemented with sometimes scholarly and sometimes poetic commentary by Arthur Ollman, Jonathan Spaulding, and Jennifer Watts. And while I’m generally not a fan of recreations, those appearing in this film are so realistic one might think they were commissioned at the time.
As noted by Weston in his diary near the end of 1933, when he first saw “this tall, beautiful girl, with fine proportioned body, intelligent face, well-freckled, blue eyes, golden brown hair to shoulders,” he knew he had to meet her. The muse was equally smitten. States Wilson:
“For anyone interested in statistics – I wasn’t – he was 48 years old and I had just turned 20. What was important to me was the sight of someone who quite evidently was twice as alive as anyone else in the room, and whose eyes most likely saw twice as much as anyone else’s did.”
It didn’t take long for Weston to invite Wilson to his studio, nor did it take long for the liberated Wilson to shed her clothing for the camera. States Weston in his diary:
“I have not opened this book for eight months, and for good reason, I’ve been too busy … busy living. The first nudes of C were easily among the finest I’ve done. Perhaps the finest. I was definitely interested now and knew that she knew I was. I felt a response. But I am slow, even when I feel sure, especially when I’m deeply moved. I made some 18 negatives, delaying, always delaying, until at last she lay there below me waiting, holding my eyes with hers, and I was lost, and have been ever since. A new and important chapter in my life opened Sunday afternoon, April 22d, 1934.”
Nor was it simply a physical attraction. As noted by Ollman, “he was a famous artist, and she was not a famous writer, but he was extraordinarily impressed with her ability to express herself with words.” Indeed, it was Wilson who helped pen an application that won Weston a Guggenheim grant that allowed the couple to travel almost 20,000 miles through California, Nevada, Arizona and several other states — with camera and typewriter in hand – during 1937 and 1938.
Free to photograph anything he wanted, Weston made the most of these travels, as did Wilson, who produced a 300-page journal of their adventures. At one point, the couple caught up with Weston’s younger contemporary, Ansel Adams; and together with Rondal Partridge, Adams’ assistant, the group went on a photographic camping trip. Typical of the stories sprinkled throughout this documentary, curator Jennifer Watts observes:
“One of the things I love about that trip is that before they go, they contact Ansel and say, ‘Where can we buy dehydrated vegetables and things to bring on our trip?’ And Ansel says, ‘Dehydrated vegetables. Why would you want those? The only thing you need for a camping trip are salt, bacon, flour, whisky and jelly beans, and that’ll get you through.’ And I think that’s such a wonderful contrast because that really goes to show the difference between Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.”
Looking back at the trip now, Rondal Partridge makes it clear that Wilson well held her own in such great company:
“First I thought this is sorta funny, I mean, Edward was what, 45, 50 and she was 21 … and I thought this isn’t going to work, but she was 21 going on 40. She was totally unselfconscious about her body, about her times, about her work. She was my introduction to unselfconscious sexuality, and life and verve ….”
The road trip was a great success, Weston and Wilson married in 1939, and in the next two years they published two well-received books — photographs by Weston, text by Wilson.
Buoyed by this success, Weston sought and received another road-trip commission, this time to create photographs for a special edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But in the face of restrictions, deadlines, and divergent interests, the couple did not experience the joy of their first venture. When Wilson wished to explore areas not connected with the commission, a focused Weston would not allow it. The relationship was tested. The team began to splinter. It was the beginning of the end.
In the years that followed, art imitated life in their final sessions together: in contrast to the open sensuality of the early shoots, the final sessions show a clothed Wilson posing with closed body language. Not aware at the time that the onset of tremors spelled Parkinson’s disease for Weston, Wilson filed for divorce in 1946. “We both knew when we did break up, that it was a good idea, that we weren’t doing each other the kind of good that we had once been sort of selected by nature to do.”
Although Wilson remarried and had children, she kept in touch with Weston, particularly through letters. In 1957, knowing that he was greatly debilitated by his disease, she visited him in the home they had once shared. Visiting the home once more, this time for the documentary, a 92-yr old Wilson, looking beyond the camera, tells us:
“One of the things I aimed to do when I was here was pick up a good many of my books, and I remember going over to the big bookshelf over there where a lot of the books were, and plucking these things out and stacking them up, but when I looked at this shelf it just made me feel kind of sick. It was like looking at a … looking at a … jaw that had had the teeth taken out of it, and I put the books back and that was the last time I saw him.”
This is surely Eloquent Nude’s most poignant moment. Mixing the sad with the sweet, it reminds us that sacred times and sacred space should not be tampered with, lest we destroy the sacred memories that give them meaning.
Like the placement of Wilson’s books, photographs also have the power to call up the sacred by suspending time. “Photography,” Jonathan Spaulding tells us, “is about something evanescent. It captures through the alchemy of its process a moment which you then send off into the future.” Stated differently, we can use the camera to freeze time, if only for an instant — but if it is the right instant, we can revisit that moment years down the road, and soak up its resonance as if we were there.
Describing Weston’s portraits of Wilson, Arthur Ollman expounds on this thought:
“Decades ago, in a place we’ve never been, at a time we weren’t even alive … there we are, transported back into his head, looking through his eyes at a woman he loves, and we get to feel that. His pictures of Charis are probably the most intimate pictures he took in his life, the most personally exposed, and the most emotionally generous, perhaps.”
In the end, this is not a film about photography. It is a film about love as the source of creation. “Edward did some of the best work of his career,” states Watts, “as a result of having Charis in his life, and Charis was able to explore and understand parts that she never would have without Edward.” But time is relentless. And as Spaulding observes, while “the relationship of Charis and Edward is all about the magic of creation,” it is also a reminder that given the time we’re here, we should try our best to seize as many of the instants that add up to a lifetime as we can.
Imagine going to an auction and purchasing a repossessed box of film, only to later discover you’ve bought 30,000 negatives created by an unknown woman who promises to be one of the great street photographers of the 20th Century. That’s exactly what happened to John Maloof, a 29-year-old real estate agent who made his purchase in 2007, hoping he might find some vintage images for a book on a Chicago neighborhood.
The master Maloof discovered was Vivian Maier, a former nanny who died in obscurity not too long thereafter — at the age of 83 in April 2009. Ironically, it was just about that time that Maloof seemed to have fully appreciated the treasure he was sitting on. Although it was too late to contact Maier, it wasn’t too late to become her champion. Seized by the excitement of having discovered a great artist, Maloof diligently searched out more of Maier’s work, and began to promote her genius. As a result, he now owns no less than 100,000 Maier negatives, most of which have never been seen by the public, and many of which await development.
Although Maier has been a story for some time, I discovered her only recently, when a friend sent me an email promising to lead me to a collection of “amazing photographs.” I’ve received many such emails over the years, and while I’ve often enjoyed the result, I’ve never been amazed – until now.
Vivian Maier is quite a force. A recluse who apparently was loved by those few who knew her, she took to the streets with her camera during the second half of the 20th Century. The result is a collection of perfectly-exposed images that sharply capture the times in beautiful black & white. While the subjects vary, her portraits of random encounters are among her strongest images. In these we see isolated individuals — sometimes posing, sometimes observing, sometimes lost in thought — belonging precisely where we find them, in well-composed settings (usually slices of the city) that add to the story.
Looking at Maier’s images makes you feel like you’ve traveled through time to a place far far away — and it is this nostalgic fermentation which surely is part of the charm. But the faces painted across her canvas — noble faces, fragile faces, faces of concern, anger, surprise, hubris, bemusement, concentration, joy, pain and quiet desperation — speak to a timelessness of condition common to all generations.
In Maier, we also see something of the chameleon at work. While her eye, sensibility, and technical expertise is that of a master, I wonder about her aesthetic, that special signature that sets her apart. I’m sure that it’s there, but for now, as I continue to explore her images, I can’t help but see the style (if not the influence) of others — the street drama of a Helen Levitt, the humor of an Elliott Erwitt, the compositional geometry of a Cartier-Bresson, the conscious voyeurism of a Lee Friedlander. To be clear: this isn’t a criticism; few photographers are so multidimensional.
Another master who comes to mind is, of course, Diane Arbus. While Arbus appears to have had the darker vision, both women appreciated the Absurd, sharing an existential sensibility that surely inspired them to seek out souls caught in a moment of isolation. And as others have noted, there’s also Lisette Model, who may have been a direct influence.
If you’re a lover of street photography, I strongly recommend that you explore Maier when you have some quiet time. John Maloof’s website, simply titled, Vivian Maier, is a good place to start, as is the always excellent New York Times LENS.
Currently on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) is a show entitled, Seeing Now: Photography Since 1960. The BMA tells us the exhibit, ending on 15 May 2011, contains “200 compelling and provocative images.” I was less impressed — and actually left the show with a nagging feeling of antipathy.
Some of the show (at least to me) bordered on the pretentious, and some of it left me wondering: what were they thinking? Consider, for example, Untitled (Sand), No. 1- No. 8, by Felix Gonzalez-Torres:
To my eye, these are snapshots of footprints in the sand. The BMA sees something much more transforming:
“Sand offers an ever-changing surface – smooth and firm one minute, uneven and choppy the next – as it surrenders to the weight of passing feet. These eight patches of sand, each with a unique pattern of ridges and hollows, bear the imprint of people who have ventured through and moved on, leaving only footprints behind. For Felix Gonzales-Torres the footprints spoke of the painful loss of dear friends to the Aids epidemic. The patterns preserved in these photographs were probably short-lived. The action of wind or water (or perhaps more feet) could have erased them in a minute. Yet on paper they remain as reminders of the power of light and shadow to create beauty at the same time that they become lasting metaphors for impermanence and loss.”
Tying these images to the serious issue of Aids doesn’t, to my sensibility, make them better; and while I’m an existentialist at heart, I don’t think eight images of a trodden beach is a uniquely worthy springboard for reminding us about the transience of life. Shelley did it much better I think, and a long time ago, in Ozymandias. As for the remark that these images are “reminders of the power of light and shadow to create beauty” … puh-leeeze. They’re footprints. And not very pretty ones. I know I’m in the minority here as I’ve learned elsewhere on the web that these eight images fetched $83,000. I hope it wasn’t the BMA that paid this price. If so, the next time you’re thinking of giving them a donation you might want to think about that.
Another grouping is Trademarks, 1970, biting as much of my body as my mouth can reach. Here we see a man contorting his body to bite various parts of himself. In one image we’re treated to the bite marks alone:
I guess there’s some kind of psychological/social commentary going on here. Interestingly, the BMA is not alone in appreciating this work. Though “not currently on view,” it’s also owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
In another grouping by William Christenberry we see a shack being invaded over time by enveloping leaves:
Perhaps Christenberry too is a fan of Ozymandias.
Photographs by Diane Arbus? I saw two; if there were more, I couldn’t find them. Helmut Newton? – a few. There were also a number of Friedlanders and Winogrands if you like these guys. I’ve never been a fan of Eggleston but surprisingly found I liked his displayed work more than most of the show.
I’d be curious to see what the curator chose not to show. Art is, of course, subjective, so if others ultimately find this show to be spectacular, as did Tim Smith and Mary Carole McCauley of the Baltimore Sun, I think that’s great. That’s what makes the world go ’round.
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