Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Nine Below Zero (and 3 O'Clock in the Afternoon)

Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson II...what better reason to take a road trip from Memphis to New Orleans along Highway 61?

And then, there's Ernest C. Withers.

On Christmas Day, 1954, an inebriated young singer named John Marshall Alexander Jr. took a break between sets at the City Auditorium in Houston, Texas, and played a game of Russian roulette, pulling the trigger on a revolver—first on his girlfriend, Olivia Gibbs, then on her friend, Mary Carter. The gun failed to go off. The third time, when he pointed the gun at himself, the hammer finally fell on a bullet in the chamber, killing Alexander—a.k.a. "Johnny Ace"—instantly.

"Big Mama" Thornton was a witness to Ace's death, but the name of the witness on his death certificate when Ace was buried on Jan. 2, 1955 was Ernest C. Withers. It would be almost a year before Rosa Parks would disobey bus driver James Blake on Dec. 1, 1955, and refuse to make room for a white passenger. Those were different times than our own, but not less violent.

In the late spring of 2004, I was wandering down Beale Street in Memphis when I happened to look above a door and notice a faded, torn piece of paper that had the words "Ernest C. Withers, photographer," scrawled on it. I had just purchased a postcard in a curio store with a photo of B.B. King's first touring band, taken in 1955, and something made me pull it from my back pocket and turn it over. When I saw the credit to "Ernest C. Withers," the hair stood up on the back of my neck. An hour later, my life changed forever.

I walked back to my room at the Peabody Hotel and dialed the almost illegible phone number on the scrap of paper, and a crusty old voice answered. Half an hour later, a big old sedan pulled up on Beale Street and Ernest slid out and unlocked the front door to the building. As we shuffled down a dark corridor to his studio, I could just make out above the door a large print of a black man standing in front of a 1950 Ford "Woodie," holding a Speed Graphic at his side. It was Ernest. Stacks of his old prints were everywhere, and as I stood looking at them I had a sense for the first time of the importance of history. The photographs of that time have a different "look," and an immediacy that is forever—the images almost literally burn themselves into our consciousness. Joe Rosenthal used a Speed Graphic at Iwo Jima and the last Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken with a Speed Graphic was Yasushi Nagao's 1961 image of Otoya Yamaguchi assassinating Inejiro Asanuma on stage.

Looking at print after print of Martin Luther King Jr., Tina Turner, black baseball players, civil rights riots, Isaac Hayes, Elvis, and a few whose faces I didn't recognize, I knew I was in the presence of a genius, of someone who understood the "big picture" of life, and who had recorded it day by day as a journeyman. If there was nothing else, no writing, no first person accounts, there was this—thousands and thousands of images that chronicled the life and times of a city in the Deep South that was at the epicenter of blues music and of the civil rights struggle.

As we left Ernest's studio, he offered to drive me back and I hesitated. He had a new title, "octogenarian," and I didn't want to trouble him, but the twinkle in his eye told me he would have none of it. A few minutes later, we were lumbering down Beale Street, with Ernest calling out the names and significance of each and every "landmark." "Well, now over there's where I first photographed Dr. King in the Greyhound bus station…" An hour earlier, I hadn't given any thought to Memphis' history, and now I was getting a private, guided tour from someone who knew the name of each and every person in each and every photograph he had ever taken.

Slowly we cruised the streets, finally ending back at the Peabody. I invited Ernest to dinner, and later that night I struggled to take notes as he gave me a synopsis of his life as a photographer in Memphis. In three hours he went from Howlin' Wolf, to King, to the Negro Baseball League, his job as a photographer stationed in Saipan during World War II, his job as a cop in Memphis (appointed in 1949 by his nemesis, political legend and former Memphis mayor E. H. "Boss" Crump), getting paid $35 a week to cover the Emmett Till trial for theTri-State Defender, Count Basie, the chitlin' circuit, the Little Rock "Nine"…. My notes from that night say, "Ernest is a walking Forrest Gump, who seems to have photographed everything in the Forties, Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, from Little Rock to Chicago, to the Delta…he is a walking encyclopedia, a classic." Occasionally Ernest would interrupt his flow of words to drop a bombshell of a non sequitur. Gazing up from the table in the midst of a sentence filled with names and dates, he looked at the windows of the Peabody and let on that "…my momma made those curtains…sewed them by hand." As he left that evening, I didn't know what to say, and for some reason I asked him, "what kind of film do you shoot?" He reached in his pocket, and pulled out a 35mm cartridge. Printed on the side in bold letters was "Walgreens".

The word "hyperbole" does not apply either to the life or to the life or the work of the photographer Ernest C. Withers, for in a career which staggers the imagination, he amassed more that five million negatives. Picking up a camera discarded by a sister's boyfriend, Withers began one of the most remarkable careers in journalism while still in high school, yet somehow found time to raise a daughter and seven sons.

Withers traveled up and down Highway 61 in the Deep South, photographing everything from the civil rights actions to the Memphis blues scene. Of his civil rights photography, Withers is best known for his iconic "I Am a Man" image, taken during the sanitation workers strike that started in Memphis in February of 1968, which drew national attention including the support of Rev. Martin Luther King who visited Memphis a month later. 

Withers may have been unknown to most of the mainstream media in those days but he was well known to black journalists. Joseph Louw, a black student studying at the Columbia School of Journalism in 1968, was working on a documentary and traveling with the Martin Luther King party staying at Memphis' Lorraine Motel when King was assassinated.  He made the famous photos of people pointing in the direction of the assassin's bullet while Dr. Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson attend to the dying King. If you recall, in those first hours after the shooting, racial tensions roiled, and not just in Memphis. Louw took his film to Withers who processed it in his darkroom. The pictures appeared in Life the next week. 

Withers provided other services to the profession. In the days before photojournalists created "pools" to share photographs Ernest developed his own procedure. White photographers couldn't cover some of the predominantly black civil rights demonstrations so, using several cameras, Ernst would sell them his extra rolls of exposed, but undeveloped, film of the event. The pictures would then appear in publications— probably in some newspapers that would never hire a black photographer—with the credit line of the photographer who got their film from Ernest.

Perhaps the most compelling images Withers made are those of the people of Memphis, his hometown, where he maintained a studio on historic Beale Street until he passed away this October at the age of 85. Like many visionaries, Withers saw something few did, and his portraits of faith healers, tent cities and striking sanitation workers have recently enjoyed a revival. If these images were not enough, what was equally impressive was his attention to detail – every image had a story behind it, many of which Withers told in his occasional lectures to college audiences.

But one of Withers' most telling achievements was to self-publish a booklet of photographs of the Emmett Till trial (which many historians point to as the spark that ignited the civil rights movement) which he sold for $1 each. Ernest was aware of the revolution that was taking place, and he had assigned himself as its historian. Today, only one original of that incredible document remains in existence.  Withers died on October 15, 2007.  Withers disappeared off the map in the Nineties, but his career and images were revived largely through the work of Tony Decaneas, who began organizing and printing Withers' vast archive as well as selling prints at the Panopticon Gallery in Boston. And the writer Daniel Wolff organized Withers' work into two books—Pictures Tell the Story and Memphis Blues Again—writing thoughtful introductions that put Withers' images in the context of the times and that give the images the attention they deserve.

This brings me back to that road trip out on Highway 61.  On March 22, 1965, Bob Dylan's album Bringing It All Back Home, was released.  On the song "Outlaw Blues," Dylan talks about it being "...nine below zero and three o'clock in the afternoon," a reference to the song of that name by harmonica virtuoso Sonny Boy Williamson II, who died just two months later on May 25, 1965.

If you stop at actor Morgan Freeman's small restaurant Madidi in Clarksdale, Mississippi for some wonderful southern cooking, then continue on to the small town of Tutwiler, and then on the outskirts go straight down Prairie Place for about 1/2 mile, and walk into the weeds, you'll come across Sonny Boy's grave, which usually has several harmonicas and flowers placed on it: Sonny Boy Williamson's Grave.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Beyond Passion: Tim Mantoani's 20x24 Portraits

" I don’t think there are many editors who could give me the assignments I give myself."
 - Ernst Haas, in a letter to the editors at  Life magazine, in 1949, turning down a staff position.

The question I am most asked by young photographers is, "What words of advice do you have for us?"  Or, "Is it still possible to succeed in this economic environment?"  The short, acerbic answer might be "No."  Yet every time, I repeat the same mantra: "Find a subject you are passionate about and photograph it like it's never been seen before."

Tim Mantoani's self-assigned project, titled "Behind Photographs," is a testament to just how far one photographer can take that dictum.  In 2006, Tim made his first exposure, of the late, great Jim Marshall, holding his famous portrait of Johnny Cash "flippin' the bird."

The premise is simple: Use the Polaroid 20x20 camera to make portraits of many of the world's greatest photographers, holding one of the favorite images they have made.  One hundred and fifty photographers later, I interviewed Tim about his project—why he started it, what it means to him, and how far he's willing to take it.  So far, he's had to refinance his house, and no one has given him a dime.  I thought his passion might be instructive for those who raise their hands and ask me "What advice can you give us?"

- Who was the first photographer you photographed for the project and on what date ? Jim Marshall and Michael Zagaris in San Francisco on Dec 27, 2006. As digital cameras came into my day to day commercial work, I had been forced away from shooting large format portrait work. Clients just didn't want to take the risk or spend the money. I missed shooting large format and had seen the 20x24 Polaroid for rent. The writing was on the wall that Polaroid film was going to be "fading away", so I rented the camera for a 1/2 day and asked Jim and Michael to come in for a portrait. I wanted to shoot something that was important to me. I asked each of them to bring a print to hold, it all started there.

Do you collect photographs?  You have a pretty good sense of the modern "classics."
I really feel like this project is me collecting images. Honestly, I feel like every photographer is a collector, we collect pictures that we take. Several of the photographers that I have photographed have been kind enough to give me a print. Jim Marshall and I spoke often after I photographed him and just a month prior to his death he sent me the Johnny Cash photo that he held for his portrait session.

- Is a book in the works?
I have seen this project as a book from the beginning. It is a difficult time to find a publisher, and I have had conversions with a few houses. My problem is that I want the book to be big enough so the images will read well and most publishers don't see profit in that model. I have also been researching self-publishing. I hope to have a book out in the fall of 2011.

- Will there be a 20x24 self-portrait? 
No plans at the moment.

- What exhibits have there been? 
I have had a few partial shows of this work. I showed most of the California shooters in a show at MOPLA in 2009 and also had a show at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, The Farmani Gallery in Brooklyn and a few of the images are currently at Ogilvy. By doing shows at ad agencies, I am hoping to generate some advertising work to help with the cost of the project. I also had a show in New York for the opening of a clothing store, "7 For All Mankind." It was during fashion week and was a unique way to show some of the images. Since the originals are so large, it will take a huge space to show them all.

- Did you try to get funding ? 
Been trying hard for the past couple of years.  It has not been easy to find someone to support it. In the photo industry, it isn't digital and it isn't output, so the direct tie to product sales is not something that works for most companies.

- The project seems to me to be a lot more than answering your own need to shoot large format—for me it seems it's part "homage"...photographing the images and the people who made the images that "spoke" to you as you grew up wanting to become a photographer...is there some of that in there?
For sure—I have been inspired by so many great photographers over the years and this was a way to honor them. As photographers we get assignments shooting athletes or musicians or poets, etc....but rarely is an assignment handed out where a photographer gets to photograph other photographers. I found a unique balance in the simplicity of these portraits with a balance between the photographer and their image. Both are of equal importance. I feel that people need to be reminded that photographers took these images, not cameras. Many of these images have helped shape history and I hope this project will be a way for future generations to appreciate these dedicated individuals.

- Were there ever moments of self-doubt?
The thing what has kept me going the most is the support I have received from people like yourself that have encouraged me to continue. I know many of the participants have thought I was nuts, but that is what fueled me as well. Numerous photographers have asked to use my portrait to promote themselves—that is a huge honor for me. At Jim Marshall's memorial, Joan Baez got up and sang a few songs.  Behind her were images of Jim, my portrait included. 

- Did any assignments come out of this ? 
After Communication Arts ran a feature, I reconnected with an old client. This led to a series of portrait jobs earlier in the year.

- Can you say with conviction that the publicity around this project has been a boost to your career?
Yes—I have been published around the world and will be showing some of this work at Photokina, as well. This interview is a prime example, I met you through this project and who knows where that collaboration will lead us?

- Knowing what you know now...would you do it over again? 
Without a doubt!  I'm still shooting. There are a few more people I would love to archive while I have the opportunity.  So far I've photographed close to 150 photographers.

- What was the cost of a 20x24 back then as opposed to now? 
 $75 per exposure, now $200. 

- Do you still have access to materials? 
Yes. The 20x24 studio in NY purchased the remaining film stock and chemistry pods. The old pods are starting to fail, so they are making fresh pods for the old film. I just got my first batch. However, all the film stock that remains is what Polaroid made. The equipment no longer exists. The hope of the 20x24 studio is find someone else, Fuji perhaps, to make a new film base. 

  -Have you received any funding? 
Zero, this project has been a labor of love and passion. I have been doing my commercial work to fund it and have had to refinance my home.

-What has it cost you, personally, in terms of expenses not reimbursed? 
I know a bunch...but honestly I have not tried to determine that number. If I was too focused on the cost, I would have never done it.
-Has anyone turned you down?  I notice Annie Leibovitz is missing.  Why ? 
I have tried Annie's studio several times with no luck. I honestly have no idea if she has even seen my proposal or project. I do email her studio each time I am in New York, just in case. Several people have said no and each have their reasons or fears. More women have said no than men. 

 -In which 20x24 studios have you shot the project?
I have shot with the 20x24 cameras in San Francisco and New York. In addition, in Boston, I shot with Elsa Dorfman's 20x24 and I purchased a 20x24 Wisner so I could shoot on the West Coast.

-Any interesting stories? 
I have found each shoot to be educational. I think one of my favorites is that the day I photographed you.  Dan Kramer came in later that day and held his "Bringin' It All Back Home" Bob Dylan photo. In his image is a woman in a red dress. In the first few Polaroids, he kept looking at your portrait and the red in the image you were holding. Dan wasn't pleased with the way the red in his photo was reproducing and kept saying, look at Eric's image, let's try another. We adjusted lighting and a bit of filtration and still no luck. Finally Dan looked at me and smiled and said, " Well, that's Eric Meola, his reds will always be better than mine!"

-Did you have a criteria for the people you chose?  Some seem to be for a specific photo, such as Nick Ut, whereas others, for their specialty.
It is a bit of both of these things. Some people are known for a specific image, while others have been passionate about documenting a specific subject. I really have not tried to limited the criteria too much because I didn't want to let my own preconceptions blind me to learning. Many of the photographers are people that in the beginning I didn't know, but were recommended to me by other shooters. All of these people are passionate about their work. I wanted to document a wide range of people and subject matter, a survey of the industry.

-Who's next on the list? 
I am still trying to round out the work with a few more nature shooters and have not been able to connect with them yet. I would love to include Salgado, but again, timing and location are difficult.

- What did you get out of this...for your psyche, your own sense of what photography is about? 

This has been such a rewarding project. 10 years ago, I found out I had a tumor in my leg and was told that I would likely die. Surviving that experience has taught me that life is the real payday. I am blessed to have a career doing something I love so much. I feel proud that this project has historical importance and will live beyond me. Most of the photographers in this project were just doing what they loved when they made these images. I think young photographers have to realize that without passion behind your images, you will have nothing compelling. Every photographer needs to go out and shoot subject matter that they love. I know you have spent years on the road shooting—it takes that type of passion and dedication to build a beautiful body of work.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Cathedral on Seventh Avenue

There are many cathedrals in the world, but the one at 853 Seventh Avenue in New York sits quietly near the shadow of Carnegie Hall, as the world passes by every day.  Shrine, cathedral, small apartment of the poet of photography.

Few people know that perhaps the greatest photographer to have lived in modern times, called this home.  On September 12, 1986, Ernst Haas had a heart attack, and those who knew him and his images, were cut through to the quick when they heard the news of his passing; for there is probably no single other photographer who is so revered.  There was Ernst, and there was everyone else.  No one had eyes like him, for his arched, thick, silvery eyebrows were intimidating, yet with his piercingly brilliant, intense stare he could be one of the most modest, engaging teachers that photography has ever known.  And coupled with those eyes was a smile and a love of photography and of seeing that was infectious. 

“The best lens is your feet.”   “No one gives you freedom—you take it.”  Two Haas truisms that have stayed with me through the years. Haas was known as the poet of color, and his masterpiece, the best-selling The Creation, is, for my generation of photographers, the book that changed everything, and that always comes up in conversation.

When I recently met a photographer and kept staring at her t-shirt, she looked at me and said “It means ‘light.’”    There was a large kanji character on the back, and she was somewhat startled when I said “That’s not what I was staring at.”   There, in small letters were the words “Haas/Japan Photographic Expedition,” and when I asked about it she said that she had gone to his workshop in Japan in 1984, 26 years earlier.   And then she began to talk, and as she talked I heard it—that faraway, almost mystic voice, of someone who has fallen under the spell of a gypsy—part Buddhist, part poet, and all genius.

I asked her to write down a few words about Ernst, and a day later, this was her email:

In 1984, I was 26 years old. Through all my odd jobs, I had managed to save $10,000.  Then I read that my idol, Ernst Haas, was offering a workshop in Japan. An audible gasp, heart racing, frantically rereading in disbelief. Could it be true? Do I really have an opportunity to spend 2 weeks in Japan with Ernst Haas?  Without hesitation, I spent 60% of my net worth to go on that trip.  He was gentle and caring, unobtrusive and modest.

I remember our first day in Tokyo—torrential rain. Ernst, in his singsong way: “okay everybody—put on your rain suits. We’re going out in the rain like little ducks to photograph!”   Ernst wanted you to dig deep, to learn the culture and become apart of the environment.  We stayed in a monastery on top of Mt. Koyasan with magical forests, photographed a Noh play at night in Tokyo, visited countless Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, visited the “bowing deer” in Nara, enjoyed the rice planting celebration and beautiful gardens in Kyoto. 

Open The Creation, In America, or Himalayan Pilgrimage, and you see images which resonate perhaps more than any others you have seen that year or that day.  Moving his camera with the subject, Haas’ motion studies of the ballet and of horses, are the classics that define the technique.  And his close-ups of blades of grass, leaves, sulfur pools in Yellowstone, and peeling paint and posters defy categorization.  The words of William Blake immediately come to mind:

“To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, 
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.”

In the early Nineties, I got an excited call from photographer Peter B. Kaplan, saying he had just seen an exhibit of Ernst’s work at the Howard Greenberg Gallery, which at that time was in Soho.  The world was different then.  Photography was different then.  Ernst worked with little equipment, often preferring a simple satchel or a soft messenger bag for his camera.  As I looked at the images on the walls, I felt the need that Peter had expressed to me, the need to call a friend.  And I did.  And he came, and we talked, and we looked.

Talking with photographer Arthur Meyerson, who also attended the famous 1984 Japan workshop, his carefully chosen words reflect the wonder and awe most photographers feel when viewing Haas' images. In discussions about Haas there is always a constant—an acknowledged point in the universe where time stops, and beyond which light will not pass.  There is an audible drop in the voice, a reverence to the name “Ernst,” and it is silly, because if anything, Ernst would be embarrassed and have nothing of it.

When I first came to New York, I called Ernst and he answered, and I quietly explained that I was a photographer, and as I hung up the phone I could still hear his voice saying “Come by at six.”    Six for Ernst was 6AM.  In those days, he lived above a garish lingerie store on Seventh Avenue. The next morning I timidly knocked on his door, and for an hour we talked about photography and about my work.  He asked if I painted and I said “No...I don’t know how to paint."

Haas immediately said “You don’t need to know how to paint in order to paint.”  And he smiled.  There was an intense alacrity in the way he said it, and with an arch of his eyebrow, I knew it was said without any hint of being specious. As photographers we are humbled by Haas‘ images.  As dreamers we dream.  We know we have stepped into another world that defies the boundaries of seeing, and speaks to us with an uncompromised vision.

In 1949, Haas wrote a letter to Life magazine, turning down a staff position.  Though he would later enjoy the success and exposure of having many photographs and essays published in Life, the innocence of this letter reveals his singular sense of who he was and who he wanted to be:

I believe in the end-success of a man’s work...aware of the connection in life between our earth and the cosmos; a person able to understand the mistakes, and to admire the achievements, of other people… I have always felt better taking a risk rather than an easier route, for what I believe in. I am young enough to do that and I am full of energy and hope to reach my goal. I prefer to be noticed, some day, first for my ideas and second for my good eye… Maybe you will think I have not got my two feet quite on the ground...What I want is to stay free, so that I can carry out my ideas…I don’t think there are many editors who could give me the assignments I give myself.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Provenance: Collecting Color Photography

If you've ever collected photographs, provenance is a word you're familiar with; and like Provence, the region of France, its roots are French and Latin:

the place of origin or earliest known history of something : an orange rug of Iranian provenance.
• the beginning of something's existence; something's origin : they try to understand the whole universe, its provenance and fate.
See note at origin .
• a record of ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality : the manuscript has a distinguished provenance.
ORIGIN late 18th cent.: from French, from the verb provenir ‘come or stem from,’ from Latin provenire, from pro- ‘forth’ + venire ‘come.’

There is a dividing line in collectible photography, and it falls neatly between black-and-white and color photography.  Or did.  Photographers William Eggleston and Andreas Gursky have, for years, defined the polar extremes of collectible color.  It is not hard to express the dismay and disdain that this Wikipedia entry for Eggleston elicits from many modern color photographers: He is widely credited with securing recognition for color photography as a legitimate artistic medium to display in art galleries.

Gursky, whose prints have sold in millions of dollars, is no less polarizing for his detailed yet  dispassionate images of supermarkets, buildings and stock exchanges. 

Until recently, few collectors have collected color prints, mainly because of one issue—impermanence.  Eggleston's prints have been made, for the most part, on Type-C paper, or dye transfer, both of which are susceptible to fading.  Gursky has also chosen Type-C materials though the Fuji paper he uses is far less prone to fading than earlier materials.

With the publication in January of 2006 of Saul Leiter's Early Color, the collecting of color photography has gone mainstream.  Edward Steichen exhibited some of Leiter's color photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953, but it is only recently that his work has been rediscovered; and as a result, this book is already in its second printing.  As well, the appearance of Ross Periodicals' new magazine COLOR, signals a sea change in the acceptance of color.  There may always be a disconnect between the consensus of photographers and the consensus of galleries and collectors as to what constitutes great color imagery.  Stephen Wilkes' beautiful recent book, Ellis Island, and the work of his contemporaries, such as photographers Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld, are bridges between the present and the gallery world where color imagery, to be accepted, must have a purpose or a meaning.  The art world has long embraced color for color's sake, such as in the paintings of Mark Rothko or Kenneth Noland.  

Yet even that is changing, with the advent of exhibitions such as the upcoming (September 16, 2010 - October 23, 2010) exhibit Beyond COLOR: Color in American Photography, 1950-1970 at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery, which will feature works by contemporary masters such as Ernst Haas, Pete Turner and Eliot Porter.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Finding Pete Turner's "Rolling Ball"

In its January, 1981 issue, American Photographer magazine published an article by Sean Callahan called “Countdown to Moonrise,” in which astronomer David Elmore of the High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, CO, calculated that Ansel Adams’ famous photograph “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” was photographed on October 31, 1941, at 4:03 PM local time. This was later refuted through independent analysis by astronomer Dennis di Cicco, who noted issues with those calculations and that “Moonrise” was photographed the next day at 4:49:20 P.M.

Who cares ?
I’m not sure that’s the question.  I think we look at certain iconic images and want to know more about them. Where were they taken, when, why, and under what circumstances?   
One day, while on the phone with photographer Pete Turner, I asked him a question about his famous image “Rolling Ball.”  Did he think “it” was still there?  The “it” is the “pyramid” in the image, the silhouette of an African “hut," with an arrow-like smokestack at its top pointing up.  But it’s the sun at sunset that’s the subject of the image, the “rolling ball.”  
The image was made in 1960, when Turner was near the end of an epic 7-month journey transecting Africa from south to north.  Turner, who had graduated from R.I.T. in the late Fifties, had just landed his first major assignment, to photograph a caravan of Airstream trailers as they traveled from Capetown to Cairo.  Somewhere north of Khartoum, in the Sudan, Turner came across the lone structure and framed the triangle within the rectangle of his camera’s frame, adding the third element of geometry, the circle, by placing the sun right at the edge of the hut so that it appears to be rolling down the side of the roof.  It’s the title, of course, that completes that illusion.
Later that same year, the image would become part of the permanent collection of the George Eastman House.  And a photographer’s career would shift into high gear.
And so, my question, “Do you think it’s still there?” met with a long pause, and then Pete said “Sure, it could be...who knows...it was in the middle of the Nubian desert, far from any town...all by itself.”
We talked about a few other things, and then hung up.  A few days went by, and then, one afternoon, while sitting in front of my computer, I started typing into Google.  I didn’t have much to go on.  I knew that Pete had been somewhere between Khartoum and a town in the north called Wadi Halfa, near the border with Egypt.  Great.  Not too bad.  Nine hundred kilometers.  Taken when?  1960.  Sure.   But I had another piece of the puzzle.  I was, according to Pete, looking for a place called “Station Number 6.”  The hut was near some abandoned trains and tracks in the desert, and as trains connect Wadi Halfa to Khartoum, the reference was, most likely, to a train station or layover.  But would the “hut” still be there?
And then, I came across a reference to a collection of memorabilia of a William Russell Grant Wollen:

Durham University Special Collections Catalog: William Russell Grant Wollen.  Photographs contained within a leather-bound album dating from May 1898 to 1899. The album covers Wollen's service in the Sudan, particularly the construction of the Wadi Halfa - Khartoum military railway during the Nile campaign of 1898.

Durham University in England had his collection and someone had carefully catalogued it, but the list was very long.  Why was "Station No. 6" triggering the list to show up in  a Google search?  I scanned my eyes down the list and couldn't see why.

I copied the pages-long list by scrolling down it with my cursor, and pasted it into a blank Word document which lets you search for a certain word, and then I did a search for "Station".  The third occurrence listed two photographs "SAD. A1/81 and 82."  While stationed there Wollen took two photos and captioned them "Station No. 6, between Wadi Halfa and Abu Hamed."  It was the "Abu Hamed" that turned out to be the key, as it moved me halfway up from Khartoum.
And then, I hit the “mother lode." I typed in "Distance, Abu Hamed to Wadi Halfa," and came across two photos in a Flickr gallery by a photographer named Kenny Carruthers who in his own words, explained that "...in October of 2005, I purchased a one-way plane ticket from San Francisco to London. After a few days in London, I caught a second flight to Barcelona and from there I traveled overland across Europe, through the Middle East and then down the east coast of Africa, finishing in Cape Town."

Although I had used Google Earth to zoom in and follow the terrain, seeing the ground view in Carruthers' photographs, and particularly the conical buildings with their stovepipe "arrows" pointing to the sky, was, to say the least, electric:

It's another story altogether about tracking down Kenny Carruthers, and another one altogether as to how aerial photographer George Steinmetz helped me confirm that I had, indeed, found the spot where Turner made his "rolling ball" image.  After several phone calls, and scans of Google Earth, George and I honed in on the spot as seen from a satellite, and there they were...the five circular specks on the ground that Carruthers came across in 2006, and Turner nearly a half century earlier.  Where there had been one, there were now five.  And what are they used for?  Storage for the railroad?  Ahhh.  Another question waiting for an answer...and someone else's blog.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

George Jardine's Lightroom 3 Video Tutorials

George Jardine's Lightroom 3 Video Workshop is a series of 15 tutorials on various Lightoom 3 topics, including the Library, the Catalog, the user interface, the import module, editing, and keywording.  It makes a great companion set to Seth Resnick and Jamie Spritzer's Lightroom 3 Workbook.  As a member of the original team from Adobe that worked on Lightroom's introduction, George's tutorials are clear and concise, and anyone who uses Lightroom or intends to buy it should download these invaluable tutorials.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Dream Workshop in Iceland

The eruption of Eyjafjallaj√∂kull in south-central Iceland in April 2010 was one of the most spectacular recent volcanic eruptions in Iceland's long love affair with vulcanology. 

The Icelandic team of Einar Eriendsson of Focus on Nature and photographer Ragnar Sigurdsson teamed up in late April with American photographer and Lightroom guru Seth Resnick of D-65 for a spectacular tour of Iceland's ice fields, churches, wild horses, waterfalls and, of course, the eruption.

I went along as a participant and had one of the best times of my life.  Great camraderie and new friends, and in the small windows of time in between road trips, Seth brought us all up to speed on our Lightroom skills. Einar and Ragnar were great hosts, and Iceland lived up to its reputation as one of the few last remaining unspoiled wilderness landscapes on Earth.