Orson Welles directing Too Much Johnson. (Credit: Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences)
Since Orson Welles’ death almost 30 years ago on Oct. 10, 1985, his life and work continue to fascinate historians and filmmakers like no other figure in the cinema canon. It’s as if the enigmatic figures that haunt his work as an actor, along with the labyrinthine myth of his directing career, are illusions created by a shape-shifting magician, the same one that in later years appeared as a TV talk-show guest and pitchman for indifferent wine. An ever-expanding shelf of scholarly, historical and biographical texts, along with websites like Wellesnet, keep even the most avid fan supplied with fresh material. And the public release of a thought-to-be-lost early film, an adaptation of William Gillette’s 1894 play Too Much Johnson, has stoked anew the flames of Welles scholarship.
Continue reading ‘Too Much Johnson: Never Enough Welles’
The 16th century mask gorget pictured here, made by a South Dakota Native American of the Hopewell culture, measures only 5½” tall. Its barely incised nose, with piercings for the eyes, are all that reveal it as manmade — a work of art. One wonders at the mind that could see a human face in this inert marine shell. Such a simple object doesn’t readily suggest the artistic subtlety that most contemporary viewers anticipate when they look at Plains Indian art.
Continue reading ‘The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky at the Met’
Self Portrait, Thomas Hart Benton
Two years after returning from studies in Paris at the Académie Julian, the young painter Thomas Hart Benton, now living in lower Manhattan, was hired by a former roommate, Rex Hitchcock, to work as a scenic researcher and set designer for the movies. Benton’s salary was $7 a week. Hitchcock soon changed his name to Rex Ingram, and by this name he became one of the most celebrated film directors of the silent era, with credits such as Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Prisoner of Zenda and Mare Nostrum.
Continue reading ‘Thomas Hart Benton Part 2: Before and After America Today‘
Man Released from the Mechanistic to the Creative Life by José Clemente Orozco.
On the wall, just above double doors, in a narrow hallway connecting the Dartmouth College Baker Memorial Library lower-level reserve reading room with Carpenter Hall, is a seldom seen masterpiece. It bears the unwieldy title Man Released from the Mechanistic to the Creative Life. It is a test panel for what became the most ambitious work in the United States by the great Mexican fresco muralist José Clemente Orozco, the least lauded of the three Mexican artists who visited and worked in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s. Known as “Los Tres Grandes,” Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and Orozco came north both by invitation and in search of commissions as work in Mexico became scarce. Orozco said of the mural:
“It represents man emerging from a heap of destructive machinery symbolizing slavery, automatism and the converting of a human being into a robot, without brain, heart or free will, under the control of another machine. Man is now shown in command of his own hands, and he is at last free to shape his own destiny.”
Continue reading ‘José Clemente Orozco in New England’
25 years of The Brown Sisters
It seemed at first to be nothing more than a casual, one-off snapshot of his wife, BeBe, and her three younger sisters, Heather, Laurie and Mimi. This was in August 1974. But Nicholas Nixon didn’t much care for the photograph, though as with most of his work, he used an 8×10 view camera, its large-format negative requiring a tripod to support its bulk. In the time-honored tradition of art photographers like Edward Weston, Nixon made contact prints directly from his negatives (this before mural-sized prints became the gallery norm). Such large-format photography was unusual for photojournalists and street photographers like Nixon, who typically gravitated to 35mm for convenience and speed; Garry Winogrand’s shoot-from-the-hip, auto-drive aesthetic was more commonplace. Nixon, a strong editor of his own work, decided to throw out this first negative of the four sisters.
However, nearly a year later, in July 1975, Nixon made another informal portrait of the sisters. This one he decided to keep.
Continue reading ‘The Brown Sisters … and a Few Thoughts on Aging’
Between 1970, when he left Prague, and 1985, when he became a French citizen, the Czech photographer Josef Koudelka was a man without a country, and in many ways a man without even an identity. He had no passport, and his papers were listed with the rubric “Nationality Doubtful,” a condition of uncertainty for a still young man who’d had tight bonds to his city’s vibrant culture.
Continue reading ‘Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful at the Getty’
A section of Thomas Hart Benton’s mural America Today
The “today” of Thomas Hart Benton’s 10-panel mural painting is pre-FDR, early Great Depression America of 1930-’31, a kaleidoscopic portrait of working people and their entertainments; their Moloch-like machines of production; the land’s bountiful crops and natural resources. It is peopled by New York City subway straphangers, cowboys in the West, steel-mill and coal workers in the industrial Northeast, cotton balers in the Deep South, and corn farmers in the Midwest (whence came Benton, an artist born in the heartland town of Neosho, Mo.) The mural is also a catalog of heroic portraits limning the post-World War I rising might of the United States, even as its promise hovered over the precipice of economic crisis.
Continue reading ‘Thomas Hart Benton and America Today‘
Filmmaker Juliano Salgado in Los Angeles.
Sitting on the terrace outside his room at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Juliano Salgado, son of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, pulls down on his cigarette as the day turns to night and the Christmas lights below come to life. Juliano is only a few hours away from attending the IDA Awards, where he’ll represent the nominated feature documentary The Salt of the Earth, which he and Wim Wenders have made about Sebastião’s life and work. A few days before, the film was shortlisted by the Academy’s documentary-nominating committee; it has since been nominated in the Documentary Feature category.
Juliano has flown in from Berlin and is scheduled to leave the next day for São Paolo. Even on a tight schedule, he is meeting with me to discuss the film and how he, an experienced documentarian himself, and Wim Wenders had worked together to bring his father’s life and work to an audience that knew the photographer mainly through his powerful, often disturbing images — or those who did not know his work at all.
Continue reading ‘Sebastião Salgado, Part 3: The Salt of the Earth‘
Midway through a scene in the documentary The Spectre of Hope, Sebastião Salgado explains to John Berger that the near 350 photographs in Salgado’s book Migrations represent little more than one second of actual time. This is premised on an average exposure of about 1/250th of a second, yet Salgado says this single second of life as captured with clicks of the camera shutter “tells the story of what is going on in the planet” and poses the question, “Why am I being hurt?” — echoing the Simone Weil quote Berger had read earlier in their conversation.
This “hurt” is also the result of unimaginable psychic pain as it bore down on Salgado as he photographed famine, war, endemic poverty and genocide in Rwanda and in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. This visual catalog of unrest and privation around the world in the final decades of the 20th century evoked in Salgado’s soul a pain that forced him finally to return to Brazil to heal his body and spirit by restoring his family’s devastated farmland. He and his wife, Lélia, came to call this project “Instituto Terra”; it was a return to his roots and the embrace of his aged father.
Continue reading ‘Sebastião Salgado, Part 2: Genesis‘
During the seemingly endless wars and humanitarian crises of recent decades, some “conflict” photographers have been accused of exploiting their helpless subjects, of purveying “poverty porn.” Doubtless, there are NGOs and other aid organizations that have found photographs of starving children and displaced people to be useful tools in their fundraising. Much of this photographic genre is merely serviceable imagery, but some of it, including the work of James Nachtwey and Sebastião Salgado, is not only closely observed and deeply emotional, but also representative of the highest aesthetic level of photographic art. And there’s the rub!
Continue reading ‘Sebastião Salgado, Part 1: The Spectre of Hope‘