Sally Mann Commands: Hold Still

Amrotype self-portrait by Sally Mann.

Ambrotype self-portrait by Sally Mann.

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If your photographic weapon of choice happens to be, like Sally Mann’s, an unwieldy 8×10 view camera complete with 19th-century evocative black drape cloth, the spontaneity of a selfie or even a Garry Winogrand street grab is not your preferred armament. Mann’s introduction to a camera came when her father gave the 17-year-old his 35mm Leica III with a Hector lens. On returning from her 1969 spring break to the Putney School in Vermont, Mann developed her first roll of film in the school photo lab. Many of the frames were abstract studies of peeling paint, tangled vines and weathered wooden boards — predictable student subjects. In her recently published memoir, Hold Still, Mann, now 64, describes the excitement of making her first contact sheet (which is reproduced in the book along with hundreds of other illustrations).

I am absolutely frantic with … happiness and pride …. It’s all rather unbelievable and perhaps a total fluke, but really very exciting anyway. God!!

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The Artist Project at the Met

1-artistprojectSeveral years ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art posted on its website a series of slideshow videos highlighting individual works in its voluminous collections. It was an eclectic selection, ranging from major European paintings to small Japanese netsuke. Once a week, a Met curator from the featured department guided the viewer into an up-close examination of the work, often employing lighting and camera angles that were far more revealing than what could be seen in a vitrine or on the gallery wall. The perspective was that of the curator: informative and detailed, but somewhat bloodless. Still, it was a brilliant use of the Web to “visit” the museum.

In March, the Met introduced a follow-up series, The Artist Project, which employs the same format but offers a much more engaging perspective. Over the course of this year, 100 artists (not curators, art critics or art historians) will face off with a single painting, photograph, sculpture, art object or gallery space and explain how it has influenced his or her own work — why it “rocks their world,” as series director Christopher Noey says — and has enduring value for all of us.

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Akira “Harry” Mimura: From Hollywood to Hiroshima

Akira "Harry" Mimura

Akira “Harry” Mimura at the Mitchell NC for the 1932 feature A Kid from Spain. (Photo courtesy of Izumi Hashizume)

Shortly after 8 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets, entered airspace above the Japanese city of Hiroshima at 31,060 feet. When its payload, a uranium guntype atomic bomb, exploded about 2,000′ above the Shima Surgical College, only 800′ from its target, the Aioi Bridge, tens of thousands of people were killed instantly. Even the most conservative estimates place the number of those who died within the next several months at more than 100,000.

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The sky above Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.

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Schiele, Ego(n): The Sacred Body

I paint the light that emanates from all bodies. Erotic works of art are also sacred.”

Self-Portrait, Egon Schiele

Self-Portrait, Egon Schiele

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Even allowing for the rich legacy of nearly 100 self-portraits left to us by Rembrandt van Rijn over the 40 years he painted, Austrian artist Egon Schiele’s hundreds of self-portraits in only 12 years, from 1906 to his death in 1918, are staggering. Unlike Rembrandt’s almost dogged record of his slowly aging body, Schiele’s watercolors and charcoal drawings exhibit little aging, but revel in ever more revelatory flaying of his psyche. On one hand, Schiele’s narcissism seems to prophetically define the late 20th century’s obsession with self and celebrity; on the other, he offers himself as a sacrificial victim on the altar of art’s sexual freedom.

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Raymond Cauchetier: Still New (Wave) at 95

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Most of them are gone: Chabrol, Malle, Rohmer, Resnais, Rouch, Rossif, Reichenbach and, of course, their godfathers: Melville, Bresson and Franju. Varda and Rivette (both now 87) have made films in the last decade, and Godard, at 84, with 118 credits according to IMDb, is unstoppable. (Some pray he’s immortal, while others would prefer to wrest his 3-D iPhone rigs from his 84-year-old mitts.) François Truffaut, Godard’s ally-turned-nemesis, died way too early at 52. Two great New Wave cinematographers, Henri Decaë and Néstor Almendros, are gone, but two more are still with us: Raoul Coutard, 90, and Willy Kurant, 81. Agnès Guillemot, an editor mainly for Godard, but also with some Truffaut credits, died a decade ago; Suzanne Baron, 88, lives.

But no survivor of the “Nouvelle Vague” has the longevity of its best known “photographe de plateau” (set still photographer) Raymond Cauchetier. In fragile health for many years, still living with his Japanese wife, Kaoru, in the fifth-floor walk-up where he was born, Cauchetier is ever born anew.

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Kardashian Selfies, Warhol Superstars and “Famehood”

Kim Kardashian

Kim Kardashian

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Is Kim Kardashian this decade’s Andy Warhol?

Whoa! Don’t get me wrong. Before you disabuse this equivalence of two media-obsessed narcissists, don’t picture the Andy Warhol we know today, whose paintings sell for tens of millions of dollars at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Imagine, instead, the schlumpy kid from Pittsburgh, a slight, wan man who became so obsessed with the idea of celebrity that he “manufactured” his own cult at “The Factory,” rendering his now sought-after paintings and graphics almost a sidebar during his lifetime. It’s hard to deny that Kardashian, today’s queen of media self-promotion, is anything less than Warhol’s wet dream of “fame” come to climax.

Warhol was a shy and introverted nerd who rose out of Manhattan’s underground culture, his star-fucking Interview magazine presaging the 1983 revival of Vanity Fair, whose annual Oscar afterparty is the locus primus of today’s celebrity cool.

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Warhol Self-Portrait

The marginalized, grungy wannabes Warhol transformed into “superstars” anticipated the reality-TV stars that now clog our television screens in an unending cavalcade of banality. It is tempting to fantasize how Warhol could have played Pygmalion in molding Galatea/Kardashian (though you could easily argue for a role reversal). Imagine his Jackie O and Marilyn silkscreens usurped by ones of the Armenian-American diva.

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Mary Ellen Mark: Human-Wise

Mary Ellen Mark (Credit: Ralph Gibson)

Mary Ellen Mark (Credit: Ralph Gibson)

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In his book Why People Photograph, Robert Adams, a master photographer of contemporary Western landscapes, writes, “At our best and most fortunate, we make pictures because of what stands in front of the camera, to honor what is greater and more interesting than we are.” It is not a reach to understand his reflection when your subject is the grandeur of Nature (even in its present lamentable state), but it is a reach when your subjects are searing portraits of “losers,” the marginalized and the outcasts of society who were the hallmark subjects of Mary Ellen Mark’s career. Her 17 books, with the exception of her portrait essay of filmmakers, Seen Behind the Scene (2008), are deeply moving documents of the disadvantaged,  infirm, addicted and exploited — “losers” in the relentless drive for economic success that defines life today.

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Vilmos Zsigmond and The Rose

Bette Midler and director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, on set for The Rose. (Credit: The Criterion Collection)

Star Bette Midler and director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond on set for The Rose. (Credit: The Criterion Collection)

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It was the end of American cinema’s freewheeling 1970s when Vilmos Zsigmond photographed The Rose, the Mark Rydell-directed, Bette Midler-starring, Bo Goldman-scripted movie about a rock ’n’ roll queen, Mary “Rose” Foster — four major artists at the peak of their creative careers in an all too brief era of American auteurism.

“Honestly, we don’t even know sometimes what we are doing.”

Zsigmond’s quip during a recent conversation with me about The Rose was not a confession by someone lost inside the maze of his own work, but an understanding of the crucial improvisatory spirit and energy that was so much a part of that decade’s most adventurous movies. It was a heady time, fueled by a new cinematic imagination even more than by the illegal substances that stalked so many filmmakers’ lives. The American New Wave “cineastes” believed they were re-inventing American movies; they were, and they had proven their box-office clout.

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It’s What I Do: Lynsey Addario on the Front Lines

Lynsey Addario

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Early in her career, before the shock of 9/11 galvanized a generation of emerging photojournalists to throw themselves into the cauldron of international conflicts, Lynsey Addario was living with her boyfriend, Miguel, in a $500-a-month apartment in Buenos Aires. On Thursdays, she photographed the protestors of the Desaparecidos, mothers of victims of Argentina’s “Dirty War,” in the Plaza de Mayo. Addario could little know that years later, much of her greatest work would be documenting the trials and struggles of other women in many of the world’s hotspots, women who were collateral damage of their sons’, husbands’ and fathers’ warring madness.

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Too Much Johnson: Never Enough Welles

Orson Welles directing Too Much Johnson.

Orson Welles directing Too Much Johnson. (Credit: Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences)

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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.

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