Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Fifty Years On....

Like a few of my colleagues (David K, are you listening?) this year marks a rather major milestone for me as a photographer.  I came into photojournalism the same way a lot of my friends did: I signed up for the High School Yearbook, clueless about what the photo staff did, but became completely entranced when I saw that first 8x10 sheet of Medalist come to life in the Dektol of Mr. Blackham’s darkroom.  That was junior year of High School, and I got the bug.  I began shooting almost everything, and within a few months was trying to sell pictures at the local weekly paper (which my cousins bought the next year, and kept me on in what became my first and only “Staff” position.)  Basketball games were a good chance to try and shoot the first half, then drive quickly downtown and hope that the Salt Lake Tribune might a) care about that game and b) not having their own photog there, actually buy one of yours for $5 (and give you your exposed film back), give you a fresh roll of film, and then to top it off, put your name next to it in the paper.  Hailing the next day’s paper to see what it looked like was one of those exciting moments which I came celebrate both the pain and joy of in the magazine years.  
I went off to college in 1964 armed with my supposed smarts in advanced math, with the idea of building Moon rockets for NASA. But my math skills seemed to have given way to my photographic eye, and even though there were no photo classes at Colorado College, I shot on my own, sold weekend prints to the drag strips I would frequent (when you sold 20 pictures at a buck each, you realized that twenty bucks was a pretty good haul for a weekend in the early 60’s and a chance to have your ear drums blown out by a AA/S Automatic Hemi.  Talk about fun!

the Grateful Dead  June 1967 - New York

Spring break of Junior Year, this was 1967, I bought a cheap (as they were then) United Air Lines ticket to New York, and spent a week trying to find a summer gig in the city.  In those days there were tons of classified ads in the Times  Help Wanted for Studio Assistant,etc., and while I did see a couple of them, that wasn’t my main aim.   My aunt had a good friend from Kansas City who had come for dinner the Sunday before I left, and as it happened she had an old pal, Ruth Lester, whose job it was to look at portfolios off the street for LIFE magazine.  A quick call was made, and I was invited to come see Ruth, showing off my pictures (which were, frankly, pretty lame….) in an attempt to get some kind of  summer gig.  Most of the magazines that did hire college kids limited their applicants to PhotoJ majors - usually from Missouri.  But I met a few contacts - friends of friends, who would call a photographer and ask if they would see me. (Steve Horn at Horn/Griner.  Katherine Abbe, are two I recall.)   I so remember the kindness that was paid to me, and have honestly tried over the years to return the favor to young photographers who want to talk about the business.  
Ruth was very welcoming, though I remember being so damn up tight on the 29th floor of the Time Life building, where LIFE Edit offices were.  Looking around you could see names on office walls who you had only ever seen on a page in the magazine.  She had, she said, nothing, but offered to call the Time B/W Editor (in the late 60s, the magazine could only use color with a couple of week’s advance, and so most pictures were in black & white, and that is what they spent most of their time working on.)  The Editor, Barker T Hartshorn was a jaunty New Englander, who I recall (Arnold I’m sure will correct me) wearing a lot of bowties.  In his charge was a large room of office cubbies, staffed by the women researchers (in those days, “Women” were the “Researchers”… it was one of those last (?)  bastions of male chauvinism) including Alice Rose George, Michele Stephenson [who became Photo editor twenty years later], and the unforgettable Evelyn Merrin.  “Bo” Hartshorn, as he was known, was very welcoming, and for reasons I have never truly understood, apparently saw in me someone who could eventually be of worth to both him and to the Magazine.  I briefly met Charlie Jackson, who was the overall editor in charge of pictures, and working with him, a  youngish editor named Arnold Drapkin, who was still a kid.  I left the building that day with no idea of what had transpired, other than I knew I’d been in the TIme-Life building, and that was pretty damn cool.  It was another three weeks later that I received the letter from Charlie Jackson offering me a 3 day per week internship at $85 per week.  How could I beat that?!  Couldn’t.  I can still remember the feeling of anticipation as I walked in from school the day the letter arrived. My  mom had placed it on my bed, the blue tinted envelope with the TIME logo sitting almost helplessly on the brown corduroy bedspread.  I don’t know if I ever opened a letter with such excitement.
I spent the summer in New York (for a month), Washington DC under the tutelage of Wally Bennett, the TIME staffer ( 6 weeks) and back in NY for a couple of weeks at the end of the summer.  I still had another year of college to go, but I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to work for a magazine.  Space, page size, and of course the attention that came with something which reached 25 milliion readers every week.  
My first few days that summer were a bit dodgy.  There was really nothing set up for me when I arrived in New York on the morning the 6-Day war started, so they just cleared one of the extra desks and that became my space.  There were still a number of NYC daily newspapers, and each day as they made the rounds, the papers would pile up on  my desk. I wondered, as I sat there in my coat & tie, my huge “everything I own in it” camera bag next to me, when I would have a chance to do something.   Sometime late in my second week, as I was about ready to give up in despair, Michele Stephensen, whose cubbie was just around the corner from my desk, gave a yell…”David!”   I sprung to life, grabbed my bag and asked her what was up.  “There is a new President of J Walter Thompson… Dan Seymour… he’s leaving town in half an hour, so get over there and see if you can make a portrait…”   I hauled ass out of the building, found a cab on 6th avenue, and sat nervously as the cab went almost no where in the slow sluggish traffic.  I hopped out, grabbing my WorldsLargestCameraBagWithEverythingIOWNinIT and ran the last half dozen blocks.  I was shown upstairs to Seymour’s office , panting like a race horse, and as he talked on the phone, shot about 30 frames on my one roll.  He hung up the fone, I shot the rest of the roll, him looking at me with the expression of someone who feels his wallet has just been lifted, and that picture was what ran in TIME  “The Weekly Newsmagazine” the next week.   I had to make a real decision. Michele (whose mom, as it turned out, had gone to high school with my mom in Salt Lake) asked me that most important of questions:  “Do you want the credit line to be Dave or David?”   It took a few seconds to react, but I decided that it was, safe for Facebook, the last time I would be known as Dave.  That next week became very collegial as many of the magazine’s regulars   -  David Gahr, Peter Polymenakis, and Burt Berinsky, among others, all said something nice about having my “first picture” published.  
Every week there was an adventure of some kind.  Photographing private aircraft for a story on General Aviation,Vietnamese business women touring the states, etc.    And one day, I had another of those over the cubbie-wall screams for my name  — this time it was Linda George.  She had another of those “get down there NOW!” jobs.  There was a band playing a free concert in Tomkins Square Park in the East Village (decades before it was remotely gentrified) and please get down there and make some pictures.  I was not exactly the greatest of rock & roll trivia experts, but young people who I’ve met over years still can’t believe I’d never heard of The Grateful Dead.  I arrived as they were playing in a small bandstand, and with several hundred devoted listeners having taken lunch off to hear them play.  I hopped on stage, and to me Pigpen was THE guy to photograph.  He looked as if he’d been there a half dozen lives already, and made for a good picture. At one point a young boy, probably lost from his pals (or mom?) broke out into tears on stage in the middle of a song.   I’m sure he ended up making it home ok, but it made for one of those pictures that you remember. Not because it’s a great picture, just because it’s a kind of weird moment.   Who is that guy?  He would now be in his mid or late 50s, and somewhere, I’m sure, has a very distinct memory of freaking out at the Dead concert.   
Fifty years is a long time to be doing anything, and I have to admit that had it been anything other than photography, I probably would have moved on.  I’m still kind of sorry I didn’t drive dragsters or work on the Saturn V  Apollo rocket program.  I studied Poli Sci in college, but have never run for anything other than one semester as Kappa Sig Grand Master.  You never really know where life will take you, but as long as you are able to be open to the things which present themselves you can make a life which won’t be full of regret.  I keep thinking that from the Class of ’46 —-   Donald Trump born June ’46, George W Bush born July ’46, Bill Clinton August ’46, that I, born in September ’46 should have really been the next President.  It would have made for a helluva lot less “Fake News,”  progress might actually have been made on a number of social challenges, and boy, would the pictures that the White House photographers make be damn good, or what!?  I don’t really  feel that bad about missing out on being POTUS, and I feel lucky and honored that I have seen as a witness with a camera so much of what has gone on in our time - in a hundred countries - over the last fifty years.  What better wish can a photographer have hoped for, other than, of course, ‘don’t fuck up.’   We’re just sayin’… David

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

About the Gossip, And the Baby

Sometimes the best laid plans….. Guess how I spent a few days and nights last week?  You won’t guess. Well, my niece went into labor, in the morning.  We figured nothing much would happen until late in the afternoon. But late in the afternoon nothing was happening.  She made the decision that she would have an epidural so she wouldn’t be in any pain.  She spent  most of the day texting.  What else would a millennial do.  When Jordan was born we played Yatzee and Connect Four until I  had a reaction to the 2nd epidural, felt the life rushing from my body, and I had to have an emergency Caesarean section.  When Seth was born it was an unmedicated back labor and it felt like a Mack truck was running me over every few minutes.  What a joy.  They say a woman forgets the pain of childbirth — that’s a lie.  A woman decides to be medicated for her second birth.

Anyway, enough about my traumas, there was still no action in the evening.  At some point, after 12 hours of labor, you are exhausted from the contractions and just want it to be over. That doesn’t always happen. For whatever reason, with group practices, the doctor you like is not always the doctor who is with you during the labor.  There are some doctors who think a woman has unlimited tolerance for pain and she can just keep having contractions for hours and hours and hours.  The doctor she liked was pretty much absent through the whole labor. By 9am, she was no longer amused by what seemed would never be over.  Maybe because I was an older mother, and Jordan was in jeopardy, we all made the decision to have a Caesarean.  But some doctors are just shortsighted.  Who knows?   I’ll get back to that in a minute.

By this time all the aunts, cousins and friends were a wreck.  How long could this go on?  Since you asked, I will tell you — for 20 episodes of Season 5 of “The Gossip Girls”. This is an older series, I think about 2013.  It is horrible.  The acting is awful, the people are disgusting. There is not a character with any redeeming qualities. The story lines are simply stupid.  So who watches hundreds of hours of a television series that is so horrible?  People who are fascinated by clothing.  You cannot believe the wardrobe. Even as teenagers these kids wear the most incredibly fabulous outfits.  They are so wonderful I was able to sit through hours and hours of the most annoying shows ever written, and ever on TV.  But I couldn’t stop.  My viewing  was relentless.

Back to the birth.  Which happened without incident — other than the interminable labor. Anyway,  in the end, she gave birth to a big beautiful healthy girl baby. And as my cousin said, it was fine, but just  like giving birth to a toddler.  And we are all delighted.

Random thoughts about nothing…

If you want to cook chopped frozen kale, be aware that your kitchen will be covered with bitty pieces of kale and it will take forever to clean it up.  We’re just sayin’…. Iris

Friday, March 10, 2017

A Holga Moment

When former Ambassador Joe Wilson ended up on the White House ‘shitlist’ for having dared speak publicly about his report on the lack of uranium shipments to Iraq, he and his wife became the toughest interview in the country.   She - Valerie Plame - was still working in Langley for the CIA as an analyst, and the disclosure that she was working for CIA, by columnist Robert Novak, caused a huge brouhaha as Washington found itself trying to figure out who had blown her cover.  (Eventually it became known that former Under Sec. Richard Armitage had been the one who told Novak.)   It was October of 2003, about a year after Wilson’s Niger trip, and some days after she had been named in Novak’s column.  In theory, divulging the identity of a CIA employee could be a chargeable offense.  Everyone knew WHO Valerie Plame was, but since she still worked for CIA, and no pictures had been published, no one knew what she looked like.  It was an odd juxtapostion for modern journalism.  I had called USNews to see about having them back me to photograph Joe Wilson (and of course having their backing to do so would probably make it easier for me to get to him.)    The conversation with Jen Poggi, the editor started with  something like (“…you need me to photograph Joe Wilson for you…”)  and Jen agreed it was a great idea.   Within a couple of days it was arranged:  “arrive at the Wilson home the following morning at about 8, and you’ll have about an hour…”  

I pulled my car in front of their house the next morning, grabbed my motley crew of gear (Speed Graphic, Holga, and Canons) and was greeted at the door by Mrs. Wilson — Valerie Plame —  in a morning robe. She was getting their young twins ready for the day, and invited me in to the house.  We passed through the kitchen, and I schlepped my gear into the family room, which faced east, and was happy to see the first hard rays of sunshine coming through the trees, and lighting the room nicely.   I’m an available light guy.  And when what’s available is good, I’m all for it.  I set up the tripod and Speed Graphic, and made sure the Holga had a roll of film, before checking my Canon’s to be sure they were charged and ready. 

Joe Wilson came in, we made small talk, and as I often try to do, just began shooting a bit while we were chatting.  Anything you can do to take the subject’s attention off  “being photographed” helps. Usually.  He was pretty easy.   We talked, I shot, we talked and I shot some more.  This was in that period of the early 2000s when on almost every job I had, I tried to shoot at least one roll of 120 b/w in my Holga.  The camera is an odd duck. Imprecise, uneven, full of light leaks, and occasionally a lucky surprise.  I use the Stroboframe quick-release plates on all my cameras, and it makes using a tripod pretty easy.  You can undo one camera and slam another onto the quick-release in just a few seconds.   Normally I would save the Holga for the last bit of the shoot, once I had a feeling that I was covered.  The thing about a Holga, as opposed to any digital camera, or even a film camera like a Hassie or Rollei, is that you have to manually wind, and take note of the next frame number.  It’s like that first Brownie Holiday camera you had when Ike was still President.  You would just wind the film till that next number came into view in the red window on the back then be ready for your next picture.   A great, uncomplicated, efficient way of moving to the next shot.  So, once I got shooting with Wilson, I may have been talking with him, but my eye was concentrating on the numbers on the back of the camera.  The numbers on a roll of Tri-x are pretty visible, but it’s easy to accidently wind past the next number if you aren’t careful.  In an era of 15 frames-per-second on the modern digi cams, the Holga is more like — in high speed mode — about one frame every ten seconds.

I shot, and wound, and shot and wound, all the way through a roll of film, hoping that in the roll might be a good portrait the magazine could use.  We finished, and I packed up, and headed to the US News lab, where I dropped my film.   Later that afternoon I came back to the photo office to see how the pictures looked, and was absolutely jolted to see in the middle of the Holga roll, a frame of Wilson looking into the camera, and behind him, in what was an obviously accidental moment , Valerie Plame in her robe, looking as if she’d started to head upstairs for something, thought better of it, and was about to turn around and head back to the kitchen.  To make it more interesting, she seemed to be in a kind of quizzical stance.  It was one frame.  One Image.  All of a sudden I realized I had a picture I hadn’t bargained for.  We talked about it at the magazine, and everyone decided that since she was still a CIA employee, and since she hadn’t been ‘outed’ visually, that maybe we shouldn’t run the picture. (This story didn’t rise to the level of the Pentagon Papers, or I’m sure we would have.)   The decision bounced around the building, and in the end, they went with a more standard portrait, by standard I mean his wife wasn’t in it.  I called Joe Wilson, and told him about the picture.  He said it would be trouble for them if the picture ran, and we made a gentleman’s agreement not to use the picture until she was no longer under the CIA umbrella.

Even a few months later, at “contest” time, when I talked to him again, Wilson said it would be problematic if the picture became public.  It wasn’t till later that year, once Valerie had left the government, and the Wilsons did the full scale Vanity Fair treatment, did I realize the ‘deal’ was no longer on.  By then, USNews wasn’t really interested in doing a story on the Wilsons and the pictures came back to me and my agency, Contact Press Images.  TIME, on the other hand, was running a story, and they hopped at the chance to use the “one frame.”   It ran nearly two pages, and became one of those pictures which I was happy to have my name on.  When news breaks, and hitherto unknowns become the news headliners — think Monica Lewinsky for one — there tend to be a zillion pictures of them, yet seldom anything of real visual or journalistic interest.  I was lucky this time around.  Sometimes taking your eye off the target — especially when you have to watch those numbers roll across the red Holga window — gets you where you want to be.

photograph ©2017 David Burnett/Contact Press Images

Thursday, March 09, 2017

In Honor of Intl Womens Day

Happy International Women’s Day… we’ll get back to that.

It costs the taxpayer about 21 million dollars every time Trump goes to Florida. We thought home was NYC and now Washington DC. That sounds reasonable, right.  And by the way, I hate it when people excuse his lies and ridiculous executive pronouncements by saying, “He’s not your traditional President”.  I am seriously depressed, but this election hit me harder than I thought. When a sixties hippie starts yearning for Nixon, you know we are in trouble.

Back to International Women's Day.  There are also International Women’s Years and Conferences.  When I was at the State Department I was often detailed to the White House for to Advance Presidential or First Lady Trips. The International Women”s Conference was held in Houston and Mrs. Carter was going to attend.  So a few of former Advance people (women of course), were asked to set things up for her.

Mary, Christine and I flew out a week before the Conference — figuring we would spend a few days just hanging out. This was not to be. As soon as we arrived the Secret Service attacked. They said it was a horrible mess and we needed to do “something”. Apparently, the opening ceremonies were in shambles and there was no one in charge.  We needed to go right to work.  First thing was to put out a press advisory. Actually, the first thing was to find out what was going on.  We had no office space, paper or even pens— it was like we were undercover.  There were no cell phones, no computers, or iPads —no new technology, how did we ever survive?

Sometimes the most outrageous acts are never identified as outrageous. We figured everything we needed was across the street in the Conference hotel. It was like another world over there.  They had the supplies we needed to survive.  So over we went and (without hiding anything) we helped ourselves to a electric typewriter, paper, pens, press lists, staff lists, preliminary schedules (that made no sense), and plans for the opening ceremonies in which at least 500 people were invited to participate.   We decided to reenact what the ceremonies would look like. there were many gory details but reliving them would be too painful.  Imagine 50 members of a choir, a marching band of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the military honor guard, the VIP’s and Mrs.Carters entourage.

When you have been doing this kind of work for the as long as we had, you learn that the best way to visualize events is to act them out.  The first group to deal with were the VIP’s. They wanted to enter from the rear of the auditorium, who knows why. So I started at the rear of the auditorium and by the time I got to the front we couldn’t stop laughing. There were no stairs for the VIP’s to get upon the stage. Most of the day went just like that and we only had two days left to do five days worth of work.

The ceremony was about to begin.  We had to commandeer some stairs but that was no problem.  We asked the choir to sing one song before Mrs Cater arrived and one while she was getting up on the stage. The choir director had another agenda in mind.  They started to sing as Mrs. Carter entered but they didn’t stop after the second song, or the third. Despite my pleas to stop singing, they continued and ignored me.  Finally, in desperation I pulled the mikes so they had no sound. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts marched in as did the military guard with the flags and the speeches began.  We all breathed again, went out for a cocktail and recounted with hilarity the events of the week.

When I reflect upon those events all I can think of was how wonderful it was working with those ingenious, talented, warm and wonderful women, some of whom are still in my life, some of are not but they will always remain in memories and in my heart.  We're just sayin'.....Iris