Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ciao Gianni

On my way back to Washington this afternoon, from a wonderful short trip to Key West - we had a book signing of Soul Rebel coinciding with Reggae Fest- I found myself on the Delta jet, happily ensconced on 26d (an exit row on the MD80s). As usual, I was editing the pictures just shot the last few days, these of no particularly world-wide import, but to me, perhaps no small tokens. Iris, Jordan, Soozie and her amazing pair of fuzzy dogs, Steve and Jane. The kind of pictures which you shoot, and as you do, understand just why it is that people take snapshots. To preserve a little sliver of that wonderful person sitting next to you, when fate, as it always does, causes you to drift apart. I never really understood what all the hoopla was about color-negative film and one-hour photolabs back in the eighties. I shot ultra sharp (that is, when my hands or lens didn't shake) color transparency film (".. mama don't take my Kodachrome..") and couldn’t really understand the appeal of that quick turn-around product which nevertheless seemed to be a thriving business. That is, until I became a dad. In the spring of 1986 it was all made clear to me. Jordan Kai Burnett, my first born, made an appearance in February. And in a mad dash to try and let the world know that I had just become the proud poppa of the world’s cutest baby, I bought dozens of rolls of color negative film, and turned them around at the neighborhood One-Hour lab (Action Photo!) All of a sudden I understood what the draw was to that billion dollar industry. You take a picture, (remember, this is very PRE digital), you unload the film, drive to Action Photo, drop the film off while you run to the market for yogurt and toilet paper, then stop by the lab on the way home, with your thick wad of prints of that morning’s baby snookums pictures. In one fell swoop it dawned on me the hows and whys of what made Kodak and Fuji such powerhouse companies (stay with me, folks... in the 80s they WERE powerhouses.) Now, I shoot pictures, like everyone else (literally) in the world, and upload the files to my laptop, and spend my time in the air between cities, looking at those images, choosing the ones to keep, and maybe even 'processing' them a little bit in order to make them just a little closer to how I saw the moment when the button was pushed. (Let’s face it, the cameras don’t always get it right!) We're all photographers, now, and there is hardly a time that I don't work with an editor or art director, that they don't have very particular ideas about how a picture should be done. After all, they, too, are now photographers, and look upon it almost as if it were an act of brotherly advice. Sometimes the advice is useful, often not so much. But as one who has had a few favorite pictures happen simply because an accompanying reporter said something like "don’t just stand there, shoot the picture!" I always try and at least follow through on the suggestion. In the digital photography age, we sometimes forget that great pictures are usually made by hard working, dedicated photographers who already see the world with a vision far apart from the rest of society. There is no question that few things are more tedious than for a non-photographer (you could insert "wife" or "daughter" here) to walk around any ole place with someone who can't help looking at the scene around them as if it were a photo op arranged by God and to be discovered on that stroll. We stop, we squint as we try and compose, we halt for a second to see if the light is right, if the shadow falls in the grooviest place. It's not exactly a simple meander, but one accented by all kinds of stops and starts, and often punctuated by "you can stay if you want, I'll see you back at the hotel."

It's not like we're trying to be annoying. We really can't help it. Most of us, in what seems like some sort of ongoing search for visual truth, act in a slightly immature way, as compared with, say, investment bankers, food service executives, and motel clerks. Again, we can't help it. It's just our curse. But that kind of child-like absorption with the world around us lets us connect in that unspoken visual way which produces the sweetest of pictures. This weekend our business lost one of the most wonderful of those child-like serious people, the kind that make me proud to be a photographer. Gianni Giansanti, the Italian wunderkind passed away Thursday from bone cancer at the all too early age of 52. I got to know Gianni during the early days of Pope John Paul II's tenure. We were part of that small group who followed the Pope on his early trips around the world, captivated by the way he captivated crowds, and amazed at the nouveau view of the Vatican which his presence brought to the Catholic church. It was, in the days preceding cable tv news (and the oversaturation we live with today) quite the event to see a youthful, dynamic Pope careen into town in the Pope-mobile, and deliver a message which young people, in particular, could relate to. It was the first time in a generation that there was that kind of popular enthusiasm. And from the first time JPII dropped to the ground and kissed it upon arriving at a new country, till the Alitalia jumbo jet left for Rome, the trips were all energy, all the time. On a number of trips I flew from Rome with the Holy Father's party (the Flying Papal Press Corps, according to one of my t-shirts) and visited such various places as England, Poland, France, Argentina, and of course, the US. Gianni was always one of those present with the Vuolo Papale press card we wore around our necks (Papal Flight.) Some places that actually meant something. In others, it was just another piece of chest decoration without any pull, but you never knew until you tried to push your way in, just how far you could go. Some of the usual group would resort to demonstrably colorful tactics. Fabian, a dashing French/Italian shooter for Sygma (ah, the days of the great agencies, all now sold off and whithered away!) usually wore very simple clothes: a black turtleneck, black pants and carried never more than two cameras. Truth be told, the turtle neck did NOT have a white collar, though he did little to disabuse any local security that he wasn't really a man of the cloth. He always made his way to the second or third row (the press was usually back at row 52 or so), and when the emotions of the prayers started to move the crowd, no one was more moved than Fabian, whose cries of "ohhhhh Madonnnnnna mia....." placed him in the center of the true believers. He'd make a couple of snaps, then sit back down and resume his heart-breaking plaints. He was a master.
In Buenos Aires with Pope John Paul II, 1982 - J-C Francolon (GAMMA), me in a bowtie, Luciano Mellace (UPI), Giancarlo Giuliani (Vatican), Rudi Frey (TIME), and Gianni .. all with our brand new Domke Bags
Yet I don't believe I ever knew anyone as smooth or dedicated as Gianni was. I, of the "I'm with TIME Magazine, and I NEED to be in the choir-loft" variety, usually had a pass which would get me there. Not always, but most of the time. Some of the other photographers, including Gianni, even though they were working for major agencies, had to make their own way to the event without a pass. It was one of those things I always felt the tinest bit guilty about. I could just stroll in, and they really had to work it. Yet, watching Gianni work was a true and wonderful work of art in itself. On the trip to England in 1982, just at the time of the Falklands War (with Argentina) the Pope faced much criticism, as if his presence would be an endorsement of the English attacks. Yet, the trip had been planned, and he felt that perhaps in some small way he might be able to bring the parties together to talk. (Just a few days later, we flew from Rome to Buenos Aires, so as to equalize the political impact of the England trip.) I was standing outside Winchester Cathedral, probably humming the Tony Randall song (yes, that Cathedral), pondering the Choir-Loft photo pass around my neck. I saw Gianni near by, scouting the area the way a good game hunter stalks his prey. Then, like the lion picking a zebra out of the pack, he started walking briskly towards a priest who was striding in black across the lawn, towards the entry gate. Gianni began speaking to him, his irresistable smile lighting up his face, speaking in Italian with the priest. For all I know they were talking about soccer scores, but the two of them headed for the door, and when a bobby tried to stop Gianni for lack of a pass, Gianni really let the guy have it "don't interrupt me, I am speaking with the good father!"... and kept marching into the church, never missing a stride. It was a moment of press triumph, only to be matched by his next performance. He later told me that as soon as he got into the cathedral, he went to the men's room, found a stall, walked in with his cameras, and sat down. And waited. And waited.

I made my way to the choir loft, dragged out the 300 lens, and waited for his Holiness to arrive. As the moment of the program approached the organ began to roar with music of centuries ago, echoing off the rafters. Gianni later told me that when he heard the music, he knew it was time to move. He left the men's room and crawled up rafters that had probably not been visited by actual human beings in centuries. And thus, 15 minutes later, just as JPII was to enter the Apse, I felt a sprinkle of dust and musty dirt start to cascade around me. I looked up and all I could see were Gianni's feet. He had crawled the 'back way' up to the top of the church, made his way across the beams to the loft, and let himself down to the area where we were. He looked as if he had just been playing cards with Indiana Jones at the bottom of a spider-infested cave. Cobwebs strung across his hair. Dirt on his clothes. But the irrepressible grin had never left, and at that moment I realized that Gianni Giansanti was no mere photographer, he was a man dedicated wholly and completely to his work. It was a thing of beauty. Gianni spent much of the last 30 years photographing JPII in that behind the scenes, private way which none of the rest of us were able to get to. He inspired confidence, not only in his discretion but his inherent ability to make a beautiful picture. The last couple of times I was in Rome we spoke by phone, but never managed to connect for one of those barely palatable Italian apertifs. (Who else makes liquor out of artichokes?) I have been blessed over the years to know a whole raft of wonderful and talented characters like Gianni (see his work here) , but even though we haven't flown on a Vuolo Papale for some years together, I just enjoyed knowing that somewhere in the world he was alive and sharing that air of simpatico which made him so special. I suppose he probably took his cameras with him, and I have no doubt that he's meeting with JPII this week to try and figure out what their next photo op might be. That would be one to cherish. Ciao Gianni... We're just sayin'.... David


Anonymous said...

I'm still embarassed after many years about suggesting you take a picture of our party in a mirror-lined Italian restaurant. Of course, as the silly advice was coming out of my mouth, I looked and you were mentally setting the picture up. You smiled at me. A little.


Photoessayist said...

I don't know how many time I have been out with someone and I suddenly see a photo. I stop, and before I even raise the camera to the eye I hear "I'll see you back at the . . ." Never fails.

Anonymous said...

Wow..that was such a nice tribute.

Walter B

藤原 明日香 said...

I have been worked in Time Magazine rome office with Rudy Frei from '89 to '92 and I always though I was a priviledged one to have his friendship. Unfortunately I have lost any contact and references with him, so if you have any notice or contact phone or something that can help me to get in touch with rudy, please send me at the following address
thank a lot