Friday, December 25, 2020

A DMZ Christmas 50 Years Ago

 Back in the early 1960s, in the wake of Sputnik and such fanciful terms as "the Space Race," the "Missile Gap," and Pupnik (Sputnik 2 carried a little Russian terrier named Laika), and, in the words of one of the old geezers (gee, he must have been at least 50!) at Jack's Barber Shop on Highland Drive, "if they can put a dog in space, they surely can send a missile over here." When you're 12, and sitting on the wood board the barbers used to elevate children in the big (and mechanically quite amazing) 'barber's chair', words like that from the geezer seemed to carry a lot of weight. Like all the men in that room, he had unquestionably served 15 years before in World War II, and may have even been a witness to the sound, light, and destruction show known as Stalin's Organ. ( A multiple tubed rocket launcher which fired, depending on design, up to 4 dozen rockets all at once, a blizzard of terrifyingly howling explosions and noise). Post Sputnik, when the US briefly expressed regret that the Soviets hadn't waited until early 1958 to celebrate IGY (the International Geophysical Year, a period of joint exploration and research) but had just gone ahead and launched their first satellites without waiting, wanting to let the world in general, and the US in particular, know that their science was as good as our science. It led to a remarkably nimble jump in American education: all of a sudden the late 50s and early 60s were producing one advanced science or math program after the next. I was pretty good at math, not bad in science, and from '58 onwards thought I would be spending my life building rockets for the US space program. The new programs were innovative (I remember the 8th grade Math workbook, created by U/I Champaign Campus) and we students felt pretty juiced. I even knew what integrals and derivatives were, long before those words became popular in the rest of society. (And today, I know they exist, but remain incapable of even describing them.) I was in AP Math the whole of high school, and Mr Barton, the much beloved math teacher at Olympus High School, was our leader. He'd flown helicopters in Korea, and applied many of the little things he learned to math in general, and life in particular. He once described the subtle talent needed to fly a chopper. "You can't," he said, "actually MOVE a control on a helicopter." That would be too much. Over correction. You just have to THINK about it, and that will be about the right amount of pressure." Stuff like that, uttered in a flurry of theorems, has stayed with me for these 55+ years. Most of all, he implored us to slow down, and to "think clearly." For years, on the back of my Nikons, in the 70s, with the arrival of the Dymo label maker, I had the words "Think Clearly" sitting just below the viewfinder of my F and F2s. Our little home room Math class was full of geniuses: Don, Diana, Randy. We were only about a dozen in the class, but we knew we were lucky to be there. My senior year, I placed 11th in the State Math Contest. Not bad, you say, and I would have to agree. But in fact I was only 4th in my Home Room. Yea, it was that kind of crowd.

I probably would have gone on to build rockets ( which no one really did, but you might have the chance to design the buffer valve on a LOX tanking connector for a Saturn V F-1 rocket engine) but my sophomore year Calc professor mumbled as he tried to explain the dark secrets of advanced math, and I fled in a panic to Poli Sci, which became my major, and left me free to pursue photojournalism, my other great interest, which grew from working on the high school yearbook Junior and Senior years. I had a great break in the winter of my Senior year of high school. The little local weekly paper for whom I'd been shooting the odd assignment, and getting paid a whopping $3... or was it $5? was purchased by new owners. (Was it $3 or $5? ... either way, it was enough to keep me interested.) The 'break' part of that was that the two guys who bought the paper were my mom's cousins. And when they enquired about the source for pictures in the paper, the young woman who assigned me, and took delivery of the pictures, told them it was a neighborhood kid, Dave Burnett. What a frolic of serendipity. They needed someone to shoot pictures, and I needed someone to publish them. I worked all spring and into the summer of my Senior year (yes, 17 year olds DO think they know everything!) and it was a wonderful, engaging, exciting thing to see my pictures run each week. The one sucky job was the day-long traverse of the city to shoot pictures of houses for the real estate page. The ads apparently made a fair amount of dough, and offering to photograph the house for the display ad was a marketing plus. It was still an era of minimalism, and if I had 16 houses to shoot, I would start in North Salt Lake, and work my way south over the next few hours, with a book of maps in hand (news flash: there was no Google Maps in 1964!) For 16 to 18 houses, I could shoot two frames of each place and end up with one roll of film. It was a lot of driving, very little shooting, but I had the order right on my poop sheet, and the right houses' picture always seemed to accompany the correct write-up. The one time I freaked out was due to a darkroom error which could have gone horribly wrong. I spooled the film onto a Nikkor reel, dropped it in the tank, covered the tank and put the lights on, only to discover I had put it in the Fixer. Holy Shit, John Wayne, what do I do now? Lights out, cover off, pull reel... rinse in water, put in D-76. Incredibly, it actually worked, and I was saved from having to drive the 16 house circuit yet one more time. For any photographer of my era, if you didn't put the film directly in the fixer, with the lights out, at least once, well, hell , you're not really a photographer.
It was a fun time, and I only wish I had been a little better on captioning. Lack of precise information, which at the time didn't seem like such a big deal, is something which has followed me for decades. I still admire the wire service and daily paper photogs who knew that no picture of theirs would ever be seen if it didn't have a proper caption. Working, as I ended up doing for six decades, for magazines - weekly and monthlies, it never seemed THAT important. Pictures in magazines seem to fill a slightly different role, and the necessity of detail was not as demanding as the daily press was. For that I remain somewhat sorrowful, as the stories behind the pictures, those little picayune details, eventually offer greater illumination than the image alone can provide. The arrival of the online world of photography has provided a few very positive moments for me. About five years ago, I had a message to call a guy in Illinois, who had called the Contact office in New York, looking to speak with me. When I called him back, we spoke a long while, and he told me how, forty-odd years after his time as a grunt in Vietnam (1970-71) he would often start to think of his friends, especially those who didn't come back, and that around Christmas, those moments came with greater frequency. He had been stationed on the old ConThien base on the DMZ, and had won a lottery his Sgt. had held for two guys from that base - out of a couple hundred - to get flown south to Phu Bai, and attend a Bob Hope Xmas Show. He described how, a few nights earlier, being unable to sleep, he hopped on his computer late that evening, and typing in "Bob Hope Phu Bai 1970."
A cool picture popped up of a bunch of GIs in a large crowd, watching the show. The picture wasn't Bob Hope or Johnny Bench or Joie Heatherton. It was the soldiers. The audience. A very energized audience. And as he looked at the picture, and blew it up, he realized he was IN the picture. Our conversation went on quite a while, became very emotional as we spoke of those long ago days. I told him that I'd had to leave the Bob Hope show early to catch a chopper back to Alpha-4/Con Thien, the same base where he had been stationed. I got there in the early afternoon of Christmas Eve, wandered around a good bit, spent some time in the TOC (the Tactical Operations Center) before getting a bit of sleep. UPI had sent one of their guys, Barney Siebert, to do a feature on the DMZ at Christmas, and we all spent much of the evening trying to make sense of it all. I recall that they flew in turkey dinners for the troops, yet it was anything but a White Christmas. Early the next morning, the first chopper in brought a crusty old Naval officer who hopped off the bird, and within minutes was cutting up with some of the enlisted guys, the ones who looked like they might have been staying up on guard duty all night. The Admiral, whose craggy face and puckish smile I still remember, was named John McCain. He was CINCPAC (commander of the Pacific forces), and as he hoisted a breakfast beer, and joked around with those enlisted guys, his son, another John McCain was a prisoner in Hanoi, a few hundred miles to the North. In 2008, I shared this story, and picture with Senator McCain, and he was grateful to have this photograph on the wall of his office.

Admiral McCain (CINCPAC) Christmas 1970

The young soldier who found himself in my picture, Terry Knox, also gave me a gift, 45 years later. We spoke of all those things: being a grunt, Con Thien, the unlikelihood of being chosen to attend the show, his great surprise years later at realizing he was IN the photograph I'd shot. When I had a job in Illinois a couple of years ago, he drove down, and we had a coffee, a catch up, and a very big hug. Sometimes those hugs are really the grist of what we come to appreciate in this life.
I am constantly amazed at the reach which the internet has created, even for those of us who were really lousy caption writers. One of the assignments I did for the weekly paper - The Rocky Moutnain Review - in Salt Lake in the summer of 1966 was to spend a part of an afternoon at Ballet West, a company of talented dancers under the direction of William Christensen (even 54 years on, I remember his name without having to look it up!) During that afternoon session, a couple of rolls of Tri-x (in the era when there wasn't a story you couldn't DO with a couple of rolls of Tri-x!) I photographed a young dancer at rest, at the barre, on point, and looking like a cocked slingshot, ready to be fired at a passing mailbox. We never spoke (yea, that's a whole other essay) but I found her visually charming, adorable, and eminently photogenic. I got her name, we ran a picture - or maybe a couple, I don't remember, a week later, and I felt like I had actually come up with a cool picture just by being there, and looking around. Looking around is the key. My old pal Joe Cantrell, who had Cherokee blood in his background, had taken a name which I have always felt perfectly summed up our mission. In those moments, he would call himself "Walks Slowly, Looking." It is what we do, when things go right.
Suki Smith / Ballet West 1966
photograph ©2020 David Burnett/Contact

So my picture of young dancer Suki Smith ran "not quite as big as I would have liked" in the Rocky Mountain Review, and for 54 years that was pretty much that. Then a couple of months ago my brother in law, Larry Cofer, newly armed with an Ancestry account, tracing his own families' story as well as ours, took a minute to look for my dancer. It became a long and not uncomplicated process, but at one point I found what looked like a connection to her, and wrote a note on FB. (I always look for the first names that are the least common. That gives you a chance, at least.) And tonight I received this message:
"Oh my goodness, this is amazing! Suki is my mother & was still dancing up until a few years ago. Thank you so much for sharing this with me."
Photographers view the world slightly differently than most. We see, we stop and look, we notice, and above all, we try to take that wonderment of what we see, and preserve it, to give it a fuller, extra life, one which we hope can be shared. Pictures tell their own stories, and when they give you a chance to cross the chasm of time, in this case, 54 years, it's like a gift. Photography is.... Memory.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

No Longer Youngest

 You can’t get to my age and not think about what you want to accomplish in the years you have left on this planet.  When someone says he/she went to the other side, I find this description is so much more palatable than; Oh, he/she died, kicked the bucket, passed away, or was terminated by the Mandalorian.  What was really on my mind was,  “why am I thinking I need to accomplish anything”. As it happens being a fourth quarter queen has been quite satisfying.  But in the back of my mind I keep thinking about something Judith Viorst wrote in her book “When Did I Get to be 40 and Other Atrocities”  At some point when she is describing her life she mentions that she will never be the youngest to do anything anymore.She also says that real love is when your husband is late and you wonder whether he was having an affair or he got hit by a truck and you hope he got hit by a truck.  Needless to say, Judith Viorst is one of my favorite writers. 

 Moving on... or moving back to the accomplishments part of this blob. There comes a point when we no longer put our age on a resume.  In addition,  we try to avoid anything that makes us look ancient, which is quite difficult.   If a stranger looked at my resume they might think, geez how did she do all that?  Obviously, the answer is — wait for it,  she got old.

There are some things that I would still like to accomplish, like getting “Gefilte Fish the Musical” produced, but again Judith expresses my feeling better than I ever could:

I used to rail against my compromises.

I yearned for the wild music, the swift race.

But happiness arrived in new disguises:

Sun lighting a child's hair.  A friend's embrace.

Slow dancing in a safe and quiet place.

The pleasures of an ordinary life.

I'll have no trumpets, triumphs, trails of glory.

It seems the woman I've turned out to be

Is not the heroine of some grand story.

But I have learned to find the poetry

In what my hands can touch, my eyes can see.

The pleasures of an ordinary life.

We used to make fun of the people who went to Florida, or if you lived in the West, to Palm Springs or Palm Desert.  But now I get it — the cold and the snow are simply too much work.  What"s funny is that when my parents did their yearly migration to Hallandale Fl. we thought that they, and their friends were old.  In fact, you had to be older or you weren’t allowed past the Georgia border.  

So what does all this rambling mean.  Nothing really, except I only want to stay on this side for as long as I’m functional, healthy and able to enjoy each day.  And the fact that I will not ever be the youngest to achieve anything, isn’t too painful anymore.  We’re just sayin’ ...Iris

Monday, December 14, 2020

Those Holiday Movies

 So I promised to write every day. I Lied. It's just that there is so much bullshit to sift through its hard to get my balance.  Yesterday the TV miraculously went on and was tuned to MSNBC, my news channel of choice -  not really - its just that all the networks do happy news and its hard to be happy when another 3000 people died, and are dying everyday.  Anyway Ali Velshi was in Michigan watching trucks leave the lab with the Covid vaccines. As it happens he was interviewing an expert on immunizations who was talking about how it took seven years to develop the covid vaccine, not seven months.  Because the research was based on Ebola and Sars data. At some point while the Dr. was talking, Velshi said, “We need to take a break from this discussion to see the trucks leave the lab. Its an historic event.” 

Whats wrong with this picture?  It is seriously warped to call trucks leaving a lab, Historic. Its kind of like the “breaking news” label.  Everything is "breaking news."  My guess is the label is supposed to make people think that they are going to hear something unusual, important, even startling.  That is never going to happen because when everything is soooooo impactful, then nothing's impactful. This is why people cannot possibly take the news seriously.  Right now there are several kinds of “news.” Happy news, Entertainment news, and Biased news, depending on what you read and what you watch.  Probably the closest you will get to real news is PBS, but even that information can be editorial rather than facts.  For those of us in the receiving side,  all this bullshit information is simply noise.

Now let’s talk about real news.  As many of you may remember, Hallmark and Lifetime holiday movies, are among my favorites.  The casting in the past has been pretty much plain vanilla. By that I mean Handsome straight white people. But in the past few months there has been a change.  The lead characters are sometimes Black or even Asian, and even interracial and .....hold your breath... sometimes they are gay.  Lifetime movies are a little more overt with their single sex couples. Also, not all the people are attractive. Sometimes they are downright unattractive or on the pudgy side.  What a relief. All those years that we aspired to be perfection zapped in a single holiday season. Here’s a fact:  The absence of people of color was noticeable. What was more noticeable was that most of the people of color (black asian,brown, red) looked like handsome white people with lots of make-up. It cannot be that I am the only person who was disturbed by this.  

Anyway, those movies should probably be boycotted but I simply cannot resist the totally mindless entertainment in this fantasy/other reality, with the same script repeated in every single one of these dramas, whether they are happy or sad.  They don’t touch my heart, but the good news is that they also don’t touch my mind.  Happiest holidays. We're just sayin...Iris

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

More Than the Speed of Sound

 As you start to become a person about whom it can be said that you are 'of a certain age,' the definition of "certain age" can take on a lot of different meanings.  We spend so much of our lives imagining that we might live to a ripe ol' age, and barring accidents and illness, we just might.  But in a world where the news is instantaneous, a mile wide and a half inch thick, the passing of notables is something which briefly grabs our attention, usually very briefly, and lets us reflect on their lives and contributions.  Sometimes the contributions are concrete - discovery of a star system, or creating of a vaccine against a raging disease. Other times it is a bit more metaphysical - just try governing a country with 400 cheeses.  I remember how in his late 70s my dad started to get tired of his friends passing away - golf buddies, friends from the jewelry business. He just didn't want to think about it after a while.  I have always thought it might have something to do with how we acknowledge that in our friends, we see ourselves, and start to feel our own vulnerability, and mortality.  This week with the passing of former French President Giscard d'Estaing, and General Chuck Yeager, we see two notables, their life's work now ended.  I spent a lot of time photographing VGE during his 7 years presidency, and it remains a memorable time for me, especially when I see the ridiculous moustache and hair I was sporting in the 70s.  (What was I thinking?)    In the 1990s, at the apex of my advertising career, I photographed Chuck for ROLEX.  (Yea, my dad worked for OMEGA for years, but hey, business is business!)  Most of the people I photographed for ROLEX (Cynthia Gregory, Placido Domingo, Picaboo Street among others) were top-notch, easy to work with, and considering that there was nothing to look at on the back of my camera except the tab from a film box, very patient.  (That's why we had light meters!  Try it sometime.)  

With Chuck, it was agreed that we would all meet at an airport in central Florida. "We" meaning Chuck Yeager, my art director, the guy who owned the P-51 (painted to resemble Chucks WW2 plane, the Glamorous Glennis) and the account rep. (The account rep is the person who handles the $3000 watch during the photo shoot, though in this case, I think Chuck brought his own.)  It was a crisp mid morning light that graced us, and as usual I had no assistant, no lights, no nothing. Just a chance.

We shot in front of the wing for a while (the ROLEX ad), then as he slowly tired of the moment, moved to the back othe plane where he could throw a glance up at Glennis' tailplane.  It was all over in 20 minutes or so, and afterwords, sitting in the car, I made damn sure every roll of shot film made it into a  caption envelope.  The stuff was treated like gold.  

We sometimes have this passing moments when you are in the company of greatness. It's never really been my way to ask for autographs, at least for myself.  But merely breathing the same air as VGE or Chuck Yeager, or any of the last ten Presidents, lets you share a moment to which you hope you can add a photograph, or two.  Those are the momentos, those are the autographs.  It's a gift to be a photographer, and one which we don't take for granted.  We're just sayin'...David

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

But For the Grace of God

There was some shopping to be done today so I volunteered to do it. I Got all my Covid paraphernalia organized. Mask,check, wipes check, gloves check. You know the drill and are probably just as sick of it as we are. The checkout line was not to long, there was only one woman in front of me on line. She had a moderate amount of stuff and then proceeded to go carefully though the items deciding how much she really needed them. It was a little tedious and I almost said something, but as I watched how painful it was for her to have to make the decision about what she could afford, I just kept quiet. How lucky we are not to have to decide between food, clothing and medication.

The last time we were in New York we were struck by the number of small businesses that had closed. And struck by the increase of people who were homeless and just seeking a little help. It is truly heartbreaking. It is also frustrating because no matter how much we can give, there is no way we can help everyone. We are somewhat comforted by the number of public service organizations that do provide meals and  places to stay. But it seems not to be enough. Before the pandemic there was an older woman on First Avenue who was the person to whom I gave a dollar or two every time I saw her. (It was very “there but for God go I”). Selective giving was a lesson I learned from my friend Phoebe when we were together in Calcutta. The poverty was overwhelming and I asked her how she was able to deal with so much pain. She told me that since she could not give to everyone because there were hundreds of people asking for help, she decided to pick out one person, usually a child, and give her a small amount of money every day. While we were traveling through India I joined her in this effort. It never occurred to me that I would have to do that in this country as well. In addition, where there was one woman on the corner, now there are five.

There is no safety net for people who are out of work, who are getting evicted, are homeless, sick or can’t feed their families. Witch McConnell and the rest of the republican senators, who have warm homes, lots to eat, and don’t have to worry about when their next paycheck will arrive, basically do not give a damn. They will use any excuse not to come up with a solution for all the people who are struggling. They know that this situation began with the pandemic and continues to be more complicated as time passes. What are they thinking? The answer is they are not thinking at all. Or at the very least they are totally without compassion.

The President, who thankfully will not be there for long, plays golf and tweets about how the election was stolen but then to his credit, the economy is great. Just look at the stock market he says, He and all the elected republicans should be ashamed of themselves. Maybe we should all be ashamed of ourselves for not taking care of our own and having to select one person everyday to help.  We’re just sayin.’...Iris