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Nobuyoshi Araki and his Unremitting Lens

Photography is about a single point of a moment. It’s like stopping time. As everything gets condensed in that forced instant. But if you keep creating these points, they form a line which reflects your life.

A Tokyo-born photographic maestro and contemporary artist Nobuyoshi Araki is has a notorious persona and is arguably the most prolific living photographer of Japan.

He has amassed an encyclopedic wealth of work. To date, Araki has published over 450 photo books, also shot for the likes of Dazed, Playboy, The New York Times Magazine and Vogue, and taken part in 280 solo exhibitions.

Tokyo’s darling may leave critics divided but his artistic genius is undeniable: every image is unique and capture with extreme levels of technical mastery; his influence has penetrated just about every creative field from film, photography to the world of fashion.

Pretty much a self-evident truth, Araki’s work has garnered equal amounts of praise and criticism over the years for treading the line between photography and pornography, misogyny and conceptual genius.

Background

Having be born on May, 25, 1940 in a red light district in northeastern Tokyo, Araki spent his formative years in wartime and postwar in Japan. The most part of Araki’s images are centered around Japanese society.

Most of the photographer’s pictures are taken in Tokyo where he was born and he is captured thousands of Tokyo street scenes as well as images of the resident Edokko (Edo is historical name of Tokyo) Accordingly, it is not surprising that his attention is so focused on subjects linked with the environment of his upbringing- sexuality, lust and power play.

From 1959 to 1963, he studied photography and filmmaking at Chiba University in Tokyo, and graduated and majored in Film Making and Photography in 1963.

After studying, he first entered the workforce as a commercial photographer for advertising giant Dentsu, where he worked until 1972.

Dentsu was instrumental in making Araki the artist he would later become. He found commercial photography to be so conservative and limiting that he started to experiment with radical conceptual photography.

In 1970, he compiled his all artworks in 25 volumes, printing 70 copies each and distributing them to art critics, his friend and random people; he called this year The First Year of Araki.

Araki’s particular fascination is Kinbaku-bi, ‘the beauty of tight bondage’.

An ancient form of Japanese rope play, Kinbaki-bi is a sexualized development of Hojojutsu, the traditional martial art of using ropes as restraints.

The technique, once used on prisoners, has been adopted to blur the line between pain and pleasure; the element of control is transformed into a consensual erotic art.

The ideas of control, eroticism and submission that he found in Kunbaku-bi were the most alluring subjects for Araki; the practice of depicting demure Japanese women in traditional dress, hanging precariously from ceilings or sitting on floors, staring silently back at camera with their limbs tightly restrained.

The photographer’s pictures of naked women bound with ropes in overtly sexual positions are perhaps his best known and most controversial, drawing frequent criticism and accusations of falling somewhere between misogyny and pornography.

In 1971, he married to his life partner Yōko.

As his partner, Yōko also found her own life captured on a daily basis, becoming his muse in the process.

In their relationship, nothing was out-of-bounds and Araki recorded every minute detail of their everyday lives, from Yōko in the midst of an orgasm, to Yōko on her deathbed, and later, in her coffin after she died of ovarian cancer in 1990.

Sentimental Journey

When he had released the book Sentimental Journey, documenting the honeymoon he and his wife took and exposing the tender and intimate moments, he made his mark on contemporary photography.

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Araki’s wife Yōko aged 42, passed away on January, 27 1990. The same year, he was awarded with Annual Award of the Photographic Society of Japan.

The Sentimental Journey, Winter Journey released in 1991, recounts the final years of his marriage, with the particular focus on Yōko’s battle with terminal illness.

The images methodically detail her symptoms, the deterioration of her physical and mental health and her eventual death. Araki now signs every photo with their wedding date as a constant reminder of her deeply-felt absence.

Her passing marked a turning point in Araki’s style, which changed its focus from sexual ecstasy and hedonism to more shocking end explicit photo-compositions.

Recently, morose and melancholy undertones have become pervasive in his work as his style has mellowed with old age.

Tokyo Lucky Hole

Shortly after his wife’s death, in 1990, the most controversial period of Araki’s career has started.

The book titled Tokyo Lucky Hole, a personal diary of Araki’s trips to the brothels of his home city is incredibly shocking in its visceral detail of sex, cages, orgies and bondage, all feature heavily, but the documentarian style that pervades the body of work gives it an almost anthropological angle.

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The Unremitting Lens

The power of the imagery lies in the authenticity of Araki’s approach, something he achieved by blurring the lines between photographer and subject.

The first-hand participatory method in which Tokyo Lucky Hole is shot sees Araki at the center of many images, actively engaging in sex with the prostitutes whilst his assistant takes control of the camera.
 
In Tokyo Lucky Hole, nothing is off-limits; prostitutes and their clients were shown in all emotional and physical states.

Pleasure, passion and depression are all captured by Araki’s unremitting lens. The work has been interpreted by some as voyeuristic, but Araki is playing the role of documenter, capturing a part of life that is rarely seen by outside world.

Araki’s series ‘Erotos’, consisted of understated black and white photos, was published in 1993.

In this very photo-book Araki seeks out the form of female genitalia in the natural world; a set of lips, a crack in the ground, a fig, a woman’s eye turned sideways, a curved pipe suggests the male body.

Abstract and muted, these works are erotically evocative, rather than explicit.

While the snapshot studies of Japanese bondage have shocked, with women naked or in maiko makeup suspended from the ceiling or bound in elaborately tied knots, the ‘Erotos series has a subtler sensibility, like an artist’s love poem to human sexuality.

The themes and subject matters that Araki explores bear a striking similarity to that of American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe who is known for his active involvement and extensive photographic documentation of the gay and underground fetish scenes of New York in the 1970s.

Robert Mapplethorpe also broke the line between photographer and subject, very often invited his sitters, subjects, in order to engage them in sexual acts with him.

Like Araki, he used his sexual behavior as the basis for much of his artistic output; they both played with the idea of sexuality in non-sexual objects.

Araki’s photo-books show that he considers no subjects too sensitive. Even his battle with prostate cancer in 2009, is documented in forensic, emotionless detail in the book Tokyo Prostate Cancer.

The date stamps on the bottom corner of the photographs have been manipulated by Araki in order to display the 6th and 9th of April, references to the dates of the 1945 atomic bombing by the United States on the cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Araki is alluding to his own personal relationship with radioactivity by making the connection to two of the most harrowing days in Japanese history.

After Yōko’s death, Araki lived alone with his cat Chiro who arrived in the photographer’s life in 1988, and stayed with him for the next 22 years, becoming his most constant companion.

The book Sentimental Journey, Spring Journey (2010) shows their relationship. And once again, the work was published after Chiro’s death and the main focus is on the moments the two shared together in the wake of Yōko departure.

The parallels between the two journeys are poignant, with Araki intentionally choosing similar compositions and themes to draw parallels between his two muses.

Love on the Left Eye

In October, 2013, Araki lost his vision in his left eye due to a retinal artery obstruction. For some photographers, this would have been a massive blow, but for Araki, it only served as new inspiration.

The next year, 2014, he released a new photo book coupled with a June 2014 exhibition at Tokyo’s Taka Ishii Gallery, both entitled Love on the Left Eye. The images reflect his altered visual state.

The nudes and flowers that make up this collection are half eclipsed – the right side of each exposure colored in with a marker before printing, and the photographs produced represent the shadowed vision of his right eye.

shi-shōsetsu

The main reason for Araki’s never-ending output of photography boils down to the philosophy of shi-shōsetsu, literally translated as ‘’I-novel’’.

It was a genre of early Japanese literature where the author narrated the plot from a first-person perspective. Araki has adopted the same modus operandi for his photography where he obsessively documents his life, thus creating a diary of sorts.

This concept is ingrained into his work, with many of his photo books featuring nikki, the Japanese word for diary, in their titles.

Araki’s photography is extremely personal and some of his photo books can be seen as contemporary versions of the Japanese pillow book, a type of private diary, where nothing is too personal or too sacred to be recorded.

Araki’s work shows a man with a relentless passion for photography. The vast majority of his images make their way into the public domain via his photo books, with his prodigious work seeing him release up to 20 a year.

No Compromise

The impact of his work will always be most acutely felt in his homeland, where his uncompromising portrayal of sex and sexual practices caused the most controversy.

Whilst Araki has gained many admirers and a legion of dedicated followers, his detractors dismiss his work as misogynistic and derogatory, comparing it to mere pornography.

Undoubtedly, Araki has a taboo-breaking career. His graphic images confront the hidden eroticism that lies beneath the surface of polite Japanese society; sex, BDSM, prostitution and the role of the Geisha are all subjects that fearless photographer addresses.

By pointing his camera lens at the hidden sexual underbelly of Japanese society, he tackles off-limit issues and confronts the hypocrisy of the country’s censorship laws.

The nature of some of his pictures has been so outrageous, in fact, that he has been arrested for obscenity under Japanese law.

His ‘Photomania Diary’ exhibition (1992) was forcibly shut by the police on grounds of obscenity, and Araki was arrested for disorderly conduct.

For Nobuyoshi Araki photography is a way of life; with a camera in his hands, he is free to pursue his fantasies and write his life experiences, trying to capture the ephemeral moments that life presents before they disappear forever.

 

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Henri Cartier-Bresson – Decisive Moments

Widely considered as one of the leading artistic forces and major artists of the twentieth century, Henri Cartier-Bresson with his humane and spontaneous photographs is closely linked to the modern photojournalism in its early stages.

His wandering nature brought him to some of the most significant sites and events in modern history; he covered many of the biggest events from the Spanish civil war to the French upbringing in 1968.

He is regarded as one of the true pioneers of street photography who was capable of producing extremely modern compositions.

Background

Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908 in Chanteloup-en-Brie, France. His family was wealthy; his father Andre, a severe man dedicated to his successful business, made a fortune as a textile manufacturer.

Henri’s mother Martha exposed him to the Parisian arts scene from his early age, including music concerts, literature, poetry and art exhibitions.

At the early age of five, painting captured the interest of the young boy mainly thanks to his uncle Louis who was an accomplished painter.

The two spent hours in Louis’s studio together and young Henri began referring to his uncle as his ‘mythical father’. This apprenticeship ended tragically when his uncle was killed during the World War I.

Despite his father’s wishes for his son to attend the prestigious French business school, Henri Cartier-Bresson failed the entrance exam three times.

Eventually, in 1926 he went studying in Montparnasse at the private art academy of French cubist painter and sculptor Andre Lhote.

Lhote advocated combining the aesthetic of the Cubists with the technical conventions of French neoclassical painting, which he thought would connect modernism to tradition.

Along with his students, Lhote (pictured below) made trips to Parisian Louvre to study classical works of old masters and visited contemporary exhibitions around Paris.

From 1928 to 1929 Cartier-Bresson spent a year in England studying art and literature at Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge.

The next year, he was forced to leave studying, because he was enlisted into the French army and station outside of Paris. Upon returning to Paris, he was introduced to some important people in French art circles.

Young Henri was especially attracted to surrealist writer Rene Cravel and his well-known nihilism, his dedication to the philosophy outlined in the Surrealist manifesto and his air of rebellion.

Owing to Crevel, young Henri met some of the greatest minds and artists at that time such as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Andre Breton and Man Ray.

Surrealism’s reliance on intuition and spontaneous expression enticed Cartier-Bresson to add those ideas to his own experimental work.

Although the ideas and personalities of this very movement intrigued Cartier-Bresson greatly, he eventually choose to follow colleagues Robert Capa’s advice- to watch out for labels, because “they’re reassuring but somebody’s going to stick one on you that you’ll never get rid of”.

He advised him to keep the other thing for himself, in his heart of hearts.

As a boy, Cartier-Bresson had been initiated into the mysteries of the simple ‘brownie’ snapshot camera, but his first serious concern with medium occurred about 1930, after seeing the work of two major 20th century photographers Man Ray and Eugène Atget.

Having fulfilled his military obligations, in 1931, Henri Cartier traveled to French colonial Africa, the Cote d’Ivoire, seeking adventure, with the intention of escaping the structures of city life.

He took some photographs with his second-hand Krauss camera. This year-long adventure ended when he contracted parasitical disease, blackwater fever that nearly killed him.

Having returned to France in 1931, during his recuperation in Marseille, he saw, by chance, ‘Three Boys at Lake Tanganiyka’ (pictured below), a photo by Hungarian photographer Martin Munkacsi.

The image featured three boys running naked into waves on an African beach; the image captured a unique moment in time so strikingly that Henri was inspired to pursue photography more seriously that had been absent in his earlier dabbling with the medium.

First Camera and Photos

Soon thereafter, Cartier-Bresson bought his first Leica camera, a new one to the market. It helped him facilitate the impromptu nature of his approach to photography, allowing him to act promptly, to capture candid images of his subjects without being overly intrusive.

From 1932 through 1933 and 1934 he traveled with his camera across Europe, Africa and Mexico producing a good number of photographs that were commissioned for publications.

One of the most successful image by Cartiert-Bresson from this period is Plase de l’Europe (1932.) The snapshot of a man gleefully hopping over a flooded area in Paris catches the moment just before the man’s heel hits the water.

A hazily-captured building in the distance contrasts with the ornamented, spiked fence; the two diverse elements combine in alchemy of curves and reflections creates the urban background.

The spontaneous photo was captured at the iconic railway, a bustling urban space, served as the settling for many famous twentieth-century artists such as Monet, Manet and Caillebote, all of whom had been influential in Cartier-Bresson’s own artistic development.

Modern motion is celebrated by the fact that it is forever stopped, the leaping man will never hit the puddle, the split-second image is permanently frozen in time.

This very photograph is one of only a few ones that Cartier-Bresson ever chose to crop. Ordinarily, he avoided adjusting his work after originally framing a shot and instead embraced unmediated chance encounters.

This aesthetic practice and preference made him one of the pioneers and founders of street photography.

Surrealism, War, and Changing Views

The photograph “Natcho Aguirre” was shot during his trip to Mexico in 1934 exemplifies the heavy influence of Surrealism on Cartier-Bresson work.

Like the Surrealist painters, Cartier-Bresson photographs are perplexing and disturbing visual games intended to provoke the subconscious mind to make connections that are deeply personal.

The half-naked man who seems to be writhing free of the reminder of his clothing could be contorting himself in either agony or ecstasy, the ambiguity is what makes the image so deeply unsettling.

The shoes take on a significance because of their displacement. Cast off and ordinary, in the context of this image, juxtaposed with the male torso, there is no logic to their inclusion in the composition.

The uncanny juxtaposition was a hallmark of Surrealism that Cartier-Bresson found interesting and irresistible.

Just before World War II, Henri Cartier-Bresson set aside photography and traveled to New York where he spent a year learning the principles of montage under the patronage of the modernist photographer Paul Strand.

The next year, he decided to return to Paris determined to capture Europe’s political climate in moving images. He joined Jean Renoir as an assistant to work in the production on the film for the communist party.

This very film named ‘Life is Ours’’ / La vie est á nous from 1936, attacked the leading powerful families who controlled France. As a photographer he felt indebted to the great films he saw as a youth.

They taught him to choose precisely the expressive moment, the telling viewpoint. The importance he gave to sequential images in still photography may be attributed to his preoccupation with film.

Afterwards, Henri Cartier-Bresson made three documentaries in support of Republican Spain. Shortly thereafter, he joined the staff of the newly founded communist newspaper Ce Soir and returned to photography.

Military Photographer

With the onset of World War II, Cartier-Bresson joined the French military as a photographer. That very year, he was taken prisoner and sent to German labor camp.

After three terrible years in the camp, he escaped on his third attempt. He settled down on the farm in Vosges and remained there until the end of the war.

He continued underground resistance activities with the MNPGD- National Movement of War Prisoners and Deportees.

When the Allied forces had landed in Normandy, Henri Cartier traveled to Paris with his fellow Capa in order to cover the city’s liberation from German occupation.

Capa had taken some of the most emblematic photographs of the Allied invasion on D-day on Omaha Beach, but the two men were responsible for providing some of the most memorable images of the death throes of the devastating war; they defined wartime photojournalism.

Henri Cariter-Bresson co-founded Magnum Photos agency along with fellow photographers Seymor, Capa and George Rodgers. The agency was found to help protect photographers and their interests, all reproduction rights and the rightful owners of their negatives.

On His Own

No longer working under contracts for magazines, Cartier-Bresson had to seek out work on his own. His political views and activities were firmly to the left and he was mainly dedicated to journalistic photography. He was free to pursue photography and its artistic possibilities.

In 1947, Cartier-Bresson went to China to document the civil war, social unrest that accompanied the political transition from Kuomintang, the Chinese National Party, to Mao Zedong’s communist rule and the People’s Liberation Army.

At that time in China, the value of paper money extremely decreased and Kuomintang decided to distribute 40 grams of gold per person to prevent even worse social unrest.

In the image Shanghai, frenetic Chinese citizens have lined up to sell their gold before the Revolution of Mao Zedong could render even the reliable currency of gold obsolete.

The subjects stand in a crush of bodies, their desperation fuses them into a single mass.

The photo was taken just before ten lives were lost in suffocating crush; Cartier-Bresson succinctly captured the claustrophobic character of the image.

The Birla House, from 1948 documents Jawaharlal Nehru, a Prime Minister of India, announcing the death of Mahatma Gandhi to the crowd.

The gravity of the historic speech and dramatic lightning create the pathos of the moment.

The photograph is a document of Cartier-Bresson’s awareness of the historical significance of the event and particularly, moment it captures: the tragedy of Gandhi’s death and the independence of India from British colonial rule.

Cartier-Bresson was one of the last people who speak with Gandhi before he died, little more than an hour before he was shot and killed.

The Decisive Moment

The publication of the book The Decisive Moment in 1952 was one of the most crucial events of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s career.

Henri Matisse designed the book’s cover, and the 126 photos it featured drew from his portfolio of images from all around the world.

Henri Cartier explained how he chose the title of the book. He used quote of seventeenth-century cleric and political agitator Cardinal de Retz which states: ‘There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment’.

This phrase, the title of his first publication became his aesthetic raison d’être. For Henri Cartier-Bresson, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of the second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.

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By the time of his grand exhibition in the prestigious Louvre in France 1955, Cartier-Bresson had acquired international recognition for photojournalism.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ability to get the most out of each situation was the key to his success.

He never refused being introduced to anyone, he had sensitivity to whoever he spoke with, and ultimately he was very connected to many important people.

All these attributes allowed him access to photos that no other photographer could match. For the next ten years he continued traveling the world, very often in the context of war.

In addition, he had the unique privilege of being the first Western photographer to take photographs in the Cold War-era SSSR.

Retirement

Cartier- Bresson retired from photography and left Magnum Photo around 1966.

During the 1970s, Cartier-Bresson stopped carrying his camera around, which had been like a part of his body much of his adult life; he kept the camera in a safe where it remained.

In this period, he began painting again, applying an aesthetic honed over a lifetime of producing primarily photographs.

Towards the end of his life, Henri Cartier-Bresson even developed a reluctance to photography and wished to have no part in being curator, archivist or even a commentator on his own photography.

He died on August 3, 2004 in Cereste, France.

The concept of ‘the decisive moment’ captures the essence of Cartier-Bresson work. Since its invention, the potential of photography had been debated widely; the divide between ‘documentary’ and ‘art’ photography seemed intractable.

Cartier-Bresson used photography as medium to create visual documents of remarkable spontaneity; combining his affinity for the disciplined painting of the great masters, his interest in modern philosophy with his passion for adventure and desire to be in the middle of current events.

 

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Annie Leibovitz – History In The Making

I can never forget the sensation of being at a newsstand and seeing for the first time my photograph transformed into the Rolling Stone cover.

Anne Leibovitz is renowned for her quirky and dramatic iconic portraits of a great variety of celebrities. She has created some of the most controversial and popular images of the last 40 years. Iconic figures spanning creative, celebrity and intellectual circles have sought to work with Leibovitz in admiration of her interpretative perspective.
 
Possessing an ability to celebrate and critique mainstream culture in equal measure, her signature style is crisp and well lighted. She is influenced by the documentary tradition, but also comfortable with theatrical staging. The blending of fine art and pop contexts lends her work a unique cultural cachet.

Background

Anna-Lou Leibovitz was born on October, 2, in 1949, in Connecticut and grew up in an idyllic, middle-class family. Her parents were of Jewish and Eastern Europe descent; the mother, Marilyn, was a modern dance instructor who instilled in little Anne a passion for art, music and dancing, and the father Sam had a military career, as a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force.
 
The Leibovitz moved around frequently and her family credits her success as a photographer to growing up seeing the world through a car window.

In 1967, Annie Leibovitz attended the San Francisco Art Institute, began studying painting with the main intention to become an art teacher. Meanwhile, in her second semester she took a photography workshop, and became engrossed in medium.
 
The photography workshop was based on the ideas of famous modern photographers, especially Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. Both photographers were known for their documentary style, their engagement with quotidian and famous subjects, and both of them were influential for Liebovitz.

Rolling Stone

In 1970, while still in school Annie showed Jann Wenner, the creator of Rolling Stone magazine, her photograph of a poet Allen Ginsberg smoking pot at an anti-Vietnam march. She was immediately hired to be a contributing photographer and her image was used as the cover for the magazine.
 
At the time, Rolling Stone was a new, experimental, magazine focused on the counterculture that emerged from the bohemian thinking of the late 1950s and rock music.

Three years later, Leibovitz had become the chief photographer for the Rolling Stone (by the time she was 23 years old) and had been given absolute artistic freedom to experiment with her work. She directed her energies toward a unique presentation of the major personalities of contemporary rock music.
 
She made some of the publication’s most iconic images, including the most influential musicians of the 20
th century.

After having building her reputation as a skillful rock’n’roll photographer, in 1975 she documented the Rolling Stones’ six-month North American concert tour during which she shot several widely reproduced photographs of lead singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards.

Mick Jagger (Buffalo, NY, 1975), captures one of these moments and has become an emblematic image from the historic tour.

The black and white photo depicts Jagger standing in an elevator wearing a white robe and turbaned towel on his head. The image was taken immediately after one of his last performances; Mick stares directly at the camera, reflecting exhaustion that comes with performing and partying every night.
 
This piece along with others from this very tour has come to show how Annie approached her subjects, early in her career. She would spend days, weeks, or even a year with her subject in order to get familiar and revealing shots.
 
She was so successful at integrating herself into new environments that subject eventually became comfortable with her presence, even forgetting she was there. The result of these immersive interactions led to drug abuse problems; she became addicted to cocaine.

 

Capturing Moments

Annie enjoyed the collaborative and social environment by the magazine; it was a mix of personalities that led to some original work. She particularly enjoyed working with the legendary journalist and creator of gonzo journalism, Hunter S.
 
Thompson, whose erratic and fast paced lifestyle became legendary as his writing. The two shared a kindred spirit and affinity for hard partying.

Working on assignment for Rolling Stone with Hunter S. Thompson, Leibovitz captured the moment when president Nixon left the White House for the last time.

The expressive photos (Untitled; Guards rolling up carpet after Nixon, 1974) captured an extraordinary documented event in American history in a novel way. Leibovitz herself attributed this to her ability to capture moments either before or after‘ the moment’ .It was the moment after the helicopter carrying Nixon had taken off, and the three men are packing up the last vestiges of ceremony, the carpet where Nixon would appear as president for the last time.
 
It is both mundane and theatrical; the guards could be stagehands or porters, but the presence of the carpet and the White House setting evokes the pageantry of the State.

Her work for this very magazine introduced her to some of the most famous creative figures of the time. Perhaps her most famous work from this period is a portrait of John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono (Yoko Ono; John Lennon, 1980).

She depicts the couple in an intimate embrace with a naked Lennon curled around fully clothed Ono. Annie requested them to be pose nude together; Ono refused to remove her clothes, but Lennon did not.
 
The clash between clothed woman and naked man subverts the conventional art historical canon which often exalts the nude female form. The image was taken a few hours before Lennon was shot outside his Upper West Side apartment by crazed fan Mark David Chapman.
 
It was first published on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1981, and would become iconic for its timing and the manner in which it immortalized the couple’s devotion to each other.

 

Vanity Fair

The year 1983; it was a huge risk for the famous rock photographer to move to a glossy mainstream magazine, Vanity Fair. During her 13 years tenure at the Rolling Stone her work interfered with her extensive drug use; she had overdosed twice and was rumoured to have hawked her photograph equipment to pay for cocaine.
 
After some time in rehabilitation, clear and good, Annie was ready to start a new chapter in her career. The timing was right; Annie became the first magazine’s chief photographer. Vanity Fair envisioned Leibovitz as a continuation of grand tradition of portraiture and also gave her full artistic freedom.
 
Unlike Rolling Stone, budgets at Vanity Fair were not a problem, and Leibovitz could be more experimental. Her portraiture work transitioned from simple black and white images to extravagant, rich colour staged production full of drama.

In 1987, Annie Leibovitz captured the Pop and graffiti artist Keith Haring naked and squatting on top of a coffee table with a surprised expression of his face; his entire body was painted, camouflaging him against the mural he painted (on the Salvation Army furniture and walls of the room).
 
Haring’s boldness and oneness with his work are made literal. The image also marks the beginning of Leibovitz’s transition to the more concept –driven and staged photography that would come to define her work; it was the beginning of the conceptual photography.

Susan

In 1989, Annie met Susan Sontag, a critic, writer and political activist, and the two developed a long lasting intimate relationship. They were partners in every sense. The intellectual writer was 16 years older than pop culture photographer, but the two complement each other’s strengths; Susan Sontag, a celebrated critic of media and photography, introduced new dimension to Leibovitz’s work, while Leibovitz introduced Sontag to the world of celebrity.
 
Annie admired Sontag despite the fact that she was interested in her work, but criticized it. Sontag could be tough on her at times, but Leibovitz attributes Sontag with helping her discover and seriousness and intellect in her photographs.

When actress Demi Moore was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair, in 1991, Leibovitz’s staged portraiture earned a reputation as being intentionally provocative. Wearing only a 33-carat diamond earrings and a ring, the seven months pregnant star stands in profile, one hand covers her breasts while the other tenderly cups her pregnant belly; the star proudly displays her naked body.

The cover image was seen as an unprecedented provocation from a mainstream publication the Culture Wars. When the issue was released, the backlash and controversy was immediate; the celebrity on a cover of a magazine, completely naked was considered obscene and grotesque.
 
The photograph started a nation-wide discussion on propriety, femininity, and what it meant to be a good mother. Critics deeming Moore unfit for motherhood for posing nude, while advocates celebrated her celebration of the natural state of pregnancy.
 
As a result of its controversy, the image has become one of the most iconic ones of the past two decades and was named as one of the most iconic images of all time by Time Magazine.

However, in the same year, Leibovitz had her first museum exhibition and became the first woman and second living photographer to show at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. A companion book Photographs: Annie Liebovitz 1970-1990 was published in 1991.

In 1992-1994, Annie traveled with Susan Sontag to Sarajevo to document Bosnia’s bloody war. The image “Fallen bicycle of teenage boy just killed by a sniper, 1994”, depicts the aftermath of the death of an innocent boy trapped in the midst of the conflict.
 
The picture of the bicycle and the blood was taken just after the boy on the bike had been hit by mortar that came down in front of the Leibovitz’s car. They put him in the car, but the boy died on the way to the hospital.
 
Annie documented the boy’s traumatic final moments; his absence is an unsettling reminder of the fragility of life.

Sarah

The early 2000s brought transformative shifts for Leibovitz. In 2001, at the age of 51, she gave birth to her first daughter, Sarah. During this time, Susan Sontag had been battling acute leukemia off and on, but in 2004, she learned that it had returned.
 
The same year Sontag succumbed to her illness a few days after Christmas. In addition, Annie’s father passed away from lung cancer a few weeks after Susan Sontag. Three years later, Leibovitz’s mother died, too.

Leibovitz was notoriously bad at managing money and her poor financial decisions culminated during the period of her mother’s death; she found herself $24 million dollars in debt. In order to pay the debt, she secured a large loan, using the right to her images as collateral.
 
When she was unable to pay back the loan, she was sued, and her work was jeopardized. After a legal battle, in which she filed for bankruptcy and sold numerous artworks and properties, eventually, she was able to pay the debt and regain the rights to her work.

Despite these difficulties, this period was also full of incredible highs for Leibovitz.

In 2000, she was deemed a Living Legend by the Library on Congress and awarded The Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal and Honorary Fellowship. In 2009, Leibovitz began working on a personal project, photographing objects and places that were meaningful to her; the image were collected in the book named Pilgrimage, published in 2011.

In 2005, with the help of a surrogate, she was welcomed twin girls, whom she named Sam and Susan in honour of her father and her lover.

In 1995, Vanity Fair started the tradition of devoting its March issue to celebrating the stars deemed to have made an impact in film the previous year; Annie has photographed each issue. The grouping changes annually but Annie’s composition are strikingly similar; the cover images speak to glamour and elegance, but also the interchangeability and ephemerality of the industry and the careers of the subjects.
 
The relevance of the work of art is often not about what is reveals or exposes about the subject, but what it reveals about the cultural moment in which it was created.

Over the past four decades of her career, Annie Leibovitz has become one of the world’s best known portrait photographer, now rivaling the legacies of forebears like David Bailey and Richard Avedon.

A master of capturing popular culture icons in dramatic and innovative ways, Annie has become just as famous as the people she photographs.

 

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Helen Levitt – Streets of New York

“Since I am inarticulate, I express myself with images” – Helen Levitt

A mother of modern colour photography, Helen Levitt is perhaps one of time’s most forgotten jewels.

Roaming the streets of New York with her precious Leica, she captured an era of front stoops and chalk drawings; of children playing and elders waiting. Prolific from the 1930’s to the 1990’s, her work remains a definitive guide to the sentiment of an era.

Taking Notice

Street photography requires an appreciation for the impermanence of circumstance. The sparks for Levitt’s particular genius were the ubiquitous chalk scrawls of children. Struck by the temporary nature of these works, she sought to document them; eventually becoming fascinated by the the children themselves. Soon the very fabric of New York with its splendid characters and gritty streets became her passion. Chronicling the living nature of working class neighbourhoods, Levitt led us into a paradox of fanciful reality.

Children Are the Future Past

Life in New York in the 30’s, before air conditioning and television, was lived on the stoop. Children played intricate chalked games with enigmatic rules that have no analog today. Entire universes of imagination sprung from every sidewalk and alley as mothers washed and watched. Feet were black soled and faces smudged. Everyone was inspirational in their vivid character borne of hard labouring lives. This is the world Helen Levitt sought to immortalize.

Her early silver gelatin prints set the tone for generations of street photographers. Voyeuristic in nature, Levitt would wait until she was of no notice and choose her shots carefully. Kids were her most beloved subject. She caught the nature of their childish realities in her lens; often creating images bordering on surreal.

Children in masks watch an unseen drama as mother dozes. It is a painterly composition and emphasizes the private world of children; separate from the doldrums of adulthood.

Here we see one of the now nameless chalk games of New York. The complexity of their play is offset by the angle taken from the perspective of a watchful parent. Can we ever truly know the meaning of their symbols? No. We are too far away in age and time.

Pioneering Colour

Though more confident in black and white, Levitt received two grants from the Guggenheim Foundation in 1959 and 1960 for her breakthrough work in colour. Most of her colour work from the 60s was stolen in 1970 by a burglar, ostensibly still at large.

The use of colour takes Levitt’s work from fanciful to devastatingly real. The method of colour transfer used creates saturated tones, evoking the constantly moving wiles of New York. Even these men standing still give a sense of motion, as though seen by one quickly walking past.

Children laugh while standing with a laundry basket; each one floral in their unique beauty. Each face a solitary vignette. Every one a work of art. There is something pleasantly heartbreaking about the way Levitt frames time itself.

This writer’s favourite shot in Levitt’s grand catalog takes a purely absurd moment and sanctifies it. A small boy sits next to his sibling. His serious face made more so by the penned mustache and beard. The drawn scar on his forehead only serves to bring more attention to his strong gaze. I feel as though Helen was being committed to memory as much as her subject. It is an intimate moment between them.

A Very Private Life

Levitt eschewed interviews. She was a woman of few words, though it is easy to pretend to know her from her work. Born August 31, 1913, to Sam and May Levitt, the child of Russian, Jewish immigrants flourished in the small neighbourhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Before marrying Sam, mother May was a bookkeeper; experience that benefited her in her new life married to the proprietor of a wholesale knit goods business.

Not a fan of guided study, Helen dropped out of high school in her senior year. She began working for J. Florian Mitchell; a family acquaintance. Mitchell, as a commercial photographer, put Levitt to work in 1931 developing portrait prints. With her six dollar a week salary, Helen managed to save up for a used Voigtländer camera, which she deployed to practice by photographing her mother’s friends.

Inspired by the work of members of the Film and Photo League; particularly Evans, Ben Shahn and Cartier-Bresson, Levitt was lucky to meet Cartier-Bresson during a year he spent in New York. It was 1935 when Helen accompanied him on a photo walk of the Brooklyn waterfront.
 
This experience as well as that of frequenting galleries to train her eye in composition fueled her already aflame creative mind. In 1936 she purchased her signature Leica, also favoured by Cartier-Bresson.

Over the course of the next two years, Levitt frequented the colourful working class neighbourhoods of New York, with Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side being favourite haunts. Her shy, wallflower personality suited her well for the task of being an unobserved observer. She had quite the breathtaking portfolio by the time she decided to take her work to Evans. She rapidly became friends with him and helped prepare his exhibition, American Photographs.

Through Evans she was introduced to who she credits as her greatest influence, Ben Shahn. His spontaneous style and honest characterization of his subjects is something Levitt carried through her work all her life. Shahn was impressed with her and sent her to meet James Agee who was both influence and admirer. Helen’s work was a perennial favourite of Agee, especially in his role as a journalist. Not technologically inclined, Levitt never made the jump to photo journalism despite the documentary nature of her work stating, “I was a lousy technician. That part bored me.”

During 1939, MoMA launched it’s photography department. One of Levitt’s most celebrated photographs, Halloween, was a crowning piece of the exhibition and in 1943 she had her first solo exhibition there.

Every artist must eat, so by 1949 she found herself a full time film editor under Luis Buñuel, editing pro American propaganda films. Art finds it’s way though and in 1948 a collaborative film between Levitt, Agee, and painter Janice Loeb (then married to brother Bill Levitt) was released. In the Street, a 14 minute documentary of Levitt’s beloved Spanish Harlem, was met with little fanfare. A little later also in 1948, they released a full length film called, The Quiet One.

Still photography, being Levitt’s first love, called her back in 1959 and she came back with a bang. For two years she received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation to explore colour photography. Unfortunately, in 1970 her apartment was burglarized; the only things being stolen were her prints and negatives. She returned entirely to black and white photography in the 90’s because colour was not always appropriate for her vision.

In her later year, Levitt continued to stay out of the spotlight, never being one for attention seeking. This and other factors kept her relatively unknown despite her importance to street photographers and artists of her association. She allowed few books of her works to be published and remained fairly unsung until a traveling retrospective by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1991. By this time she had given up developing her own prints because sciatica made standing and moving around painful.
 
She passed quietly from this world on March 29, 2009 at the age of 95.

There was little left for her to photograph anyway. With a changing fast paced culture, people spent more and more time inside. Of this she said, “I go where there’s a lot of activity. Children used to be outside. Now the streets are empty. People are indoors looking at television or something.”

A boy and girl share a private dance in now empty streets. A sombre woman disappearing against the fabric of their fancy watches unregarded. She holds a heavy Leica in which she keeps the echos of their laughter. She is Helen Levitt.

Books

  • A Way of Seeing (1965), Helen Levitt and James Agee
  • In the Street: Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City, 1938-1948 (1987), Helen Levitt
  • Helen Levitt (1991), Maria Morris Hambourg and Sandra S. Phillips
  • Helen Levitt: Mexico City (1997), James Oles
  • Crosstown (2001), Francine Prose
  • Here and There (2004), Adam Gopnik
  • Slide Show: The Color Photographs of Helen Levitt (2005), John Szarkowski

Filmography

  • In the Street (1948): cinematographer
  • The Quiet One (1948): writer and cinematographer
  • The steps of Age (1950): producer
  • The Savage Eye (1960): cinematographer
  • The Balcony (1963): assistant director
  • An Affair of the Skin (1963): co-producer
  • In the Year of the Pig (1968): co-editor
  • The End of an Old Song (1972): editor

Written by: A. Martellacci

 

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Cindy Sherman – Essay On Her Famous Works

cindy-sherman-untitled-film-still-3

The work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff. – Cindy Sherman

A contemporary master of social photography, Cindy Sherman is a key figure of the Pictures Generation, a loose circle of the most influential and productive American Artists who came to artistic maturity and recognition during the early 1980s, a period notable for the rapid and widespread proliferation of mass media imagery.
 
For the most of her remarkable artistic career, she has been the face of postmodernism.

 

Early Life

Ms Sherman was born in January, 19, 1954, in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, as a youngest of the five children, and shortly after her birth, the family moved to Long Island where she spent her early childhood.
 
Her father was an engineer and her mother a reading teacher, but although her parents shared a general disinterest in the arts, Cindy chose to study art in college, and afterwards, studied at Buffalo, at the State University of New York, in the early 1970s.

In this period, from 1972 to 1976, she began as a painter in a super- realist art style in Buffalo. The 1970s was an eclectic era for painters working in the aftermath of Minimalism, and feeling as though ‘’there was nothing else to say’.
 
But very quickly after, she found herself frustrated by the certain limitations of the medium and shifted her attention to photography, toward the end of 1970s, in order to explore a wide range of common female social role or personas.
 
Owing to a widely influential art instructor, Barbara Jo Revelle, she was exposed to conceptual art and other progressive media and art movements.

As Sherman came of age in the art world, the prevailing visual mode was painting dominated by ‘bad boy’ expressionist and figurative painters like David Salle or Eric Fischl. Photography was still thought to fall below painting in the hierarchy of mediums, but it granted women artists a mode that was relatively free from the heavy, conservative and male- dominated history of the painted canvas.
 
Many of the women artists adopted the camera and ‘’there was a female solidarity’’

 

Untitled Film Stills

After graduation, Sherman moved to New York in order to pursue her artistic career. In 1977, in her downtown residential and loft studio she started taking a series of photographs, a project she would eventually refer to as the Untitled Film Stills.
 
This series, 1977-80, is considered an early cornerstone of postmodernism.

In Untitled Film Stills, Ms. Sherman embodies the character of ‘Everywoman’; the artist served as both photographer and subject, transforming herself into the guise of various female archetypes, re-fashioning herself repeatedly and played the film noir siren, the prostitute, the girly pin-up, the housewife and the noble damsel in distress, also the movie stars of an earlier generation: Monica Vitti, Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren.

For about three years, she was occupied by black-and-white series, so that by 1980, Sherman had exhausted a myriad of seemingly timeless clichés referring to the ‘feminine’. This photographs of women by woman quickly gained attraction within the feminist community. A theorist Laura Mulvey, in one of her essays, contextualized Sherman’s work within the prevailing feminist modes of thought at the time.

End Of An Era

When Ms. Sherman arrived on the scene, it marked ‘the end of the era in which the female body had become, if not quite unrepresentable, only representable if refracted through theory’. Rather than sidestepping, Sherman reacts and shifts the agenda; she recuperates a politics of the body that had been lost or neglected in the twists and turns of 70s feminism.
 
It is easy to see some of the way Sherman’s representations of women avoided the proclivities of the day. The high heels and the heavy makeups, as well as the bullet bras of the film stills, harken back to the 50s rather than the au naturel look favored in the 70s.
 
It is not just a range of feminine expressions that are shown but the process of the ‘feminine’, as an effect, something acted upon.

Posing And Pretence

Museum of Modern Arts announced, in 1996, that it had just acquired Sherman’s Untitled Film Still series, the curators knew they had laid claim to one of the most representative works of the early 1980s American movement of ‘simulationism’ and ‘appropriation’; both terms refer to American artists’ mimicking, in the first half of the 1980s, widely circulating images in the mass media or former art masterpieces, and critically reworking them to arouse a sense of unease in the viewer, indeed often suggesting that culture had become a game of theatrical posing and egoistic pretence.
 
In Untitled Film Still #21, from 1978, Sherman takes on the role of the small- town girl just happening upon the Big City. She is, at first, suspicious of the metropolitan shadows and lights, only to be eventually seduced by its attractions.

 

Untitled Film Stills was Sherman’s big artistic break which secured her position in the New York art scene.

Debate

In 1981, the Arforum’s editor Ingrid Sischy commissioned a series for the publication, and that Sherman’s work took hold of the feminist imagination. The artist planned to riff on the Playboy centerfold with a pair of horizontal photographs showing women in intimate states of repose.
 
But, the Sherman’s women were all clothed, unlike Playboy’s women though. These works were never printed in Artforum, and it was the first time Ingrid Sischy refused to print a commission. She worried that the series would be misunderstood by militant feminists since they looked ‘’a little too close’’ to the pinups in actual men’s magazines.
 
However, Metro Pictures showed them and Calvin Tomkins noted, in the New Yorker, they were, in fact, ‘’ misunderstood by a number of political-minded art students (male and female), who accused Sherman of undermining the feminist cause by depicting women in ‘vulnerable’ poses’’.

Yet, through these moments, Ms. Sherman remained unwilling to directly tie her work to feminist theory. This tension became especially clear with her Untitled #93, from 1981, a centerfold featuring a tearful girl drawing her bedsheets close.
 
The girl was interpreted by the many critics as a survivor of sexual assault. But, according to the Sherman’s state, the inspiration was a woman who had gone to bed moments before the sun rose, following a night of debauchery.
 
This example is typical of the debates that have surrounded Sherman and her work: the artist’s account of her own intentions often conflict with the scholarly debates about feminism and the role of the women in her pictures.

Disasters and Fairy Tales, from 1985 to 1989, much darker endeavour than its prettified predecessor; he gloomy palette and scenes strewn with vomit and mold challenged viewers to find the unqualified grotesque and the beauty in the ugly.

Her photographic portraiture is intensely grounded in the present, but also extends long traditions in art, that force the audience to reconsider cultural assumptions and common stereotypes, among the latter political satire, the graphic novel, caricature, stand-up comedy, the pulp fiction and the other socially critical disciplines.

History Portraits

Sherman’s History Portraits, again presented herself as a model, but this time, she assumed the air of European art history’s most famous leading ladies. Leaving in Europe at the time of its creation, she was absorbed in the West’s great museums.
 
That interlude gave way to Sherman’s Sex Pictures, in 1992, in which she substituted her own figure for that of a doll, and her main intention was to shock and scandalize the public; the images present close-ups of doll-on-doll sex scenes and prosthetic genitalia.

untitled #250 1992

Theatre

Over the last decade, Sherman dons clown’s make-up in a series of still photography, in 2003, and even more recently, she explored carefully staged female suburban identities in solo show in New York, in 2008.
 
Also, in her latter series, she photographed herself in various states of awkward make-up, superimposing stodgy, highly-conscious portraits over contrived domestic and faux-monumental backdrops.

Recalling a long tradition of theatrical role-playing in art and self-portraiture, Cindy Sherman uses the camera and the various tools of everyday cinema- costumes, makeup, stage scenery to re-create common illusions, or iconic ‘snapshots’, that signify very different concepts of self confidence, entertainment, public celebrity, and other socially sanctioned, existential conditions.
 
Although they constituted only a first premise, these images begin to unravel in various ways that suggest how self identity is often an unstable compromise between personal intention and social dictates.

Yet, with each passing year, Ms, Sherman’s art deviates more noticeably from a basic postmodern tenet and the so-called ‘death of the author’, but this idea holds that there is no such thing as originality, that we are all formed by external forces and that identity is completely constructed, which implies that it is also completely de-constructable.

Appropriation

Many variations on the methods of self-portraiture share a single, notable feature: in the majority of Sherman’s portraits, she directly confronts the viewer’s gaze in order to suggest that an underlying penchant for deception is perhaps the only value that truly unites us.

Many critics and art historians have explored the idea of Sherman’s appropriating the ‘’male gaze’’ and the voyeuristic feeling of the works. The artist twists the traditional formula of pin-up shots, and plays into the male conditioning of looking at photographs of exposed women, but she takes on the roles of both, male photograph and female pinup.

Critical

Cindy Sherman epitomizes the 1980s technique of ‘image-scavengering’ and ‘appropriations’ by artists seeking to question the so-called truth-potential of mass-imagery and its seductive hold on our individual and collective psyches. Sherman depersonalized approach to portrait photography has suggested a new, socially critical capacity for a medium that was once presumed a tool of documentary realism or aesthetic pleasure.
 
This ‘readymade’ quality of the critically applied photograph, whereby a preexisting image or convention is appropriated intact by artist and turned into something more conceptually problematic, if not psychologically disturbing, has come to characterize much work of a new generation defying easy categorization.