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February 21st, 2012

Cindy Sherman: Anticipating YouTube and Facebook Since 1975

"Untitled Film Still #21." (1978) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Horace W. Goldsmith Fund through Robert B. Menschel © 2012 Cindy Sherman

The idea that identity is easily constructed and manipulated for the cameras may not seem ground-breaking, but Cindy Sherman has been at it for 35 years, long before the age of reality TV and Facebook. Since the start of her career, Sherman has had an uncanny ability to anticipate the cultural zeitgeist, and her influence permeates contemporary portraiture, where so much imagery is self-consciously constructed for the camera.

Her talent and influence are on spectacular display in a retrospective of her career at MoMA, beginning with what amounted to her eureka moment–a series of identity-bending self-portraits she made as a student in 1975–and progressing through her career to her 2008 series of society portraits. The exhibit adds up to more than the sum of its parts, underscoring Cindy Sherman’s influence and intent in ways that are not always obvious in her individual works.

Sherman is known for her ingenious and provocative creations of (mostly) female character types, all of which are photographs of the artist herself dressed in the different roles. That all of her images are self-portraits is at once beside the point and central to the meaning of the work: Throughout her career, Sherman has explored the malleability of identity and how, with a complicit photographer, identity can be invented and re-invented through dress, make-up, and props that trigger cultural cues and references so familiar to viewers. At first glance, the subjects look familiar and real.

Of course, Sherman is both model and photographer. She shoots without assistants, doing all of the make-up, hair styling, and prop styling herself. And the images aren’t of Sherman or her alter-egos. They’re meant as commentary on popular culture, expressed as a kind of performance art in front of the camera. (“One thing that I’ve always known is that the camera lies,” she said in a 1983 interview.)

Her Untitled Film Stills, for instance, comprise 70 8×10 black and white images that examine  the ideals of femininity and beauty perpetuated by Hollywood during the 50s and 60s. Inspired by the cheap publicity stills handed out by movie studios of that era, Sherman re-created scenes in which she starred as career girls, housewives, bombshells, and other female movie archetypes. Her 2008 society portraits, meanwhile, are a commentary on the tragic and vulgar affects of a certain cohort of aging woman of wealth, struggling to keep up with demands placed on them by a culture obsessed with youth, beauty, and status.

Sherman didn’t show up at the MoMA press preview on February 21. She is reportedly unassuming and genuinely nice in person, but generally press shy. She also prefers to avoid interpreting her work, leaving that to the viewer instead (all of her works are untitled for that reason).

But she explained in a 1987 interview,  “When I was in school I was getting disgusted with the attitude of art being so religious or sacred, so I wanted to make something that people could relate to without having to read a book about it beforehand. So that anybody off the street could appreciate it, even if they couldn’t fully understand it; they could still get something out of it. That’s the reason why I wanted to imitate something out of the culture, and also make fun of the culture as I was doing it.”

But Sherman’s intent is not simply to parody the character types she depicts; there is genuine empathy in the dark undercurrents of her imagery. It is also richly layered, complex and open to broad interpretation–attributes that make the work so enduring–without being opaque.

The Cindy Sherman exhibition at MoMA runs through June 11, 2012.

Related:
PDN Photo of the Day: Cindy Sherman

November 28th, 2011

Israel Apologizes to Lynsey Addario

Israel’s Defense Ministry has apologized to photojournalist Lynsey Addario after soldiers subjected her to a humiliating strip search at a Gaza Strip checkpoint several weeks ago, according to an Associated Press report. The search occurred after Addario, who is pregnant, was forced to pass three times through an X-ray machine, despite the concerns she expressed for her unborn baby.

Addario complained in a letter to the Defense Ministry that before arriving at the checkpoint, she had asked not to go through the machine because of her pregnancy. She said soldiers “watched and laughed from above” as she was forced through the machine, and that she had never been treated with “such blatant cruelty,” according to AP.

A Pulitzer-winning photojournalist who has worked in more than 60 countries, Addario has endured some rough treatment in the past. Last spring, she was groped by forces loyal to deposed Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi after they captured her along with three other journalists working for The New York Times.

Addario was on assignment again for The New York Times when she was mistreated by Israeli soldiers at the Gaza checkpoint.

“We would like to apologize for this particular mishap,” the Defense Ministry said, explaining that security was tight on the Gaza border “to prevent terror from targeting and reaching Israel’s citizens.” The Ministry said that Addario’s request to avoid the X-ray machine had not been handled properly, according to the AP report.

August 9th, 2011

Newspaper Sues to Obtain Ernest Withers’ FBI File

The Memphis Commercial Appeal dropped a bombshell last fall when it reported that the renowned civil rights photographer Ernest Withers worked secretly as an FBI informant, helping the agency “gain a front-row seat to the civil right and anti-war movements in Memphis.”

Now the newspaper says it is suing the FBI for the release of Withers’ complete FBI informant file, in an effort to learn the full extent of his activities as an informant. The questions the paper is trying to answer: When did Withers begin working as an informant? And what information and photographs did he provide to the FBI?

According to the paper, the FBI has refused a Freedom of Information Act request to release Withers’ confidential informant file. So the Commercial Appeal has sued in US District Court in Washington, DC to force the FBI to release the file.

“Holding to decades-old doctrine protecting confidential sources,” the newspaper reported on August 7, “the government argues that exposing any informant, even a dead one, would have a chilling effect when recruiting new informants needed to help battle crime and protect national security.”

Lawyers for the newspaper are arguing that the FBI “is hiding behind laws designed to protect living informants”

Withers died in 2007 at the age of 85. He photographed the civil rights movement from the Emmett Till murder trial in 1955 through the assassination Martin Luther King in 1968 and amassed one of the largest archives an on African-American society, music and culture.

The Commercial Appeal came across Withers’ informant ID number by chance in a document related to a public corruption probe from 1970s that involved the photographer. At the time, Withers was a state employee and had been accused of taking payoffs, the newspaper said.

The FBI blacked out informant ID numbers before releasing the document, but apparently overlooked one number–that belonging to Withers.

“That number, in turn, unlocked the secret of the photographer’s 1960s political spying when the newspaper located repeated references to the number in other FBI reports released…30 years ago,” the paper explained in a story last fall.

A decision on the paper’s lawsuit to compel the FBI to release Withers’ file is pending.

May 19th, 2011

What Do News Organizations Owe to Fixers?

After a long silence, journalists are now talking about the inequality in care paid to photojournalists working in war zones, and the local fixers who help them in their work. The issue is now being addressed by the Poynter institute, the non-profit journalism education organization.

Reporting on the Poynter Web site, writer Steve Myers talks to photographers and editors about what protection, if any, they are authorized to offer local fixers if they are injured or threatened while on the job. Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists notes, “I’ve seen news organizations absolutely step up and support people—even people who have been contracted informally—and I’ve seen news orgs turn their back on people.”

One problem, Simon explains, is the variety of relationships between fixers and the organizations who hire them, “from the one-time assignment to the everyday job, from the driver hired by a full-time employee to one picked up by a freelancer.”

Photographer Lynsey Addario, who worked with two drivers who met bad ends—one, a driver in Afghanistan’s Swat valley who was killed when he fell asleep at the wheel, another who was very likely murdered when Addario and three New York Times colleagues were captured in Libya—argues that the Times has compensated locals when appropriate, but points out that not all hires are alike. “A blanket rule would presume that all situations abroad with local hires are black and white, and anyone who has worked overseas knows that that just isn’t the case.”

The New York Times has been criticized for its treatment of the three media assistants who have died while working for the Times since 2003. Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, tells Myers that the paper has spent hundreds of thousand of dollars to repatriate media assistants who have been in danger in Iraq and elsewhere. “We have relocated local hires when their work put them at risk, paying all of their costs.” Keller adds that freelancers on assignment for the Times are placed on the newspaper’s insurance plan when they enter conflict zones; for locals, however, “we assume responsibility for death, disability and medical at our own expense.”

One interesting note: the Committee to Protect Journalists says that media companies can get specialized insurance for its fixers in conflict areas. The policies are expensive. Photojournalist Teru Kuwayama, who has been outspoken in his criticism of news organizations’ treatment of fixers, says taking out such policies on fixers would be a “massive step forward.”

The full article can be found at: Poynter.org.

Related stories:

Talking about the Deaths We Don’t Talk About

What to Expect if You’re Injured on Assignment

April 26th, 2011

Update: Exhibition Won’t Benefit Injured Photographers After All

An upcoming exhibition of photography from the uprisings in Tunisia, Cairo and Libya will not double as a fundraiser after all, organizers told PDN today.

We reported yesterday that Revolucion(es), a showcase of images shot in the last three months by independent photographers working in the Middle East had been turned into a fundraiser for photographers Guy Martin and Michael Christopher Brown. Both were seriously injured in Libya last week. But it seems neither photographer needs the fundraising assistance after all.

“The families told us their costs have been covered,” says Matt Craig, who organized the exhibition with fellow Wall Street Journal photo editor, Julien Jourdes.

The exhibition will still open as originally planned at the Instituto Cervantes in New York at 7 p.m. on Thursday.

April 19th, 2011

PDN Video Pick: Koothu, Paper and Kerosene

Trailer: Koothu, paper and kerosene from Kannan Arunasalam on Vimeo.

Above is a trailer for “Koothu, Paper and Kerosene,” a series of short videos created by Sri Lankan journalist Kannan Arunasalam, which document how people in Jaffna, Sri Lanka survive when the resources they need are depleted. Made with the support of Sri Lankan citizen journalism organization Groundviews.org, the videos depict the survival of an isolated leper community, a newspaper that presses on despite newsprint shortages, and a taxi driver coping without normal fuel.

To see the Paper and Kerosene videos visit Arunasalam’s Vimeo page here.

April 15th, 2011

How to Submit Your Work to PDN’s Who’s Shooting What Column

PDN’s “Who’s Shooting What” column lists the photographers and creatives behind recent ad campaigns. To be considered for a mention in the column, please e-mail executive editor David Walker at dwalker100@comcast.net. Put “WSW” in the subject line. PLEASE INCLUDE ALL applicable information in the format shown here:

Client: (full name)
Brief description: (what was the assignment, and how will the images be used?)
Agency: (full name and location, eg “BBDO Atlanta” or “Agent16 New York”)
Creative director:
Art director:
Art buyer:
Photo editor:
Rep:

In addition, Please attach one or two small image files (at least 140 pixels wide) in JPG or PDF format.

April 14th, 2011

Photogs Crowd-Sourcing a Global Map of Photo Book Stores

Photographer Matt Johnson and designer Wayne Ford, who operate the Web site Photo Book Club, have been hitting the social media channels asking for recommendations for great photo book stores around the world. They’re plugging the recommendations into a Google map, which they aim to turn into a comprehensive resource. They are up to 50 78 stores in several countries.

Check out the map to make suggestions or to find out where to look for books on your next trip:

http://photobookclub.org/index.php/resources/

December 14th, 2010

Is It a Photographer’s Fault We Don’t Know Where Jimmy Hoffa is Buried?

Best-selling biographer Kitty Kelley appeared on the NPR program called “On the Media” on Sunday to defend the art of unauthorized biographies. Host Bob Garfield asked her why people she interviews (those close to Nancy Reagan, Jacqueline Onassis, and Frank Sinatra, among Kelley’s other subjects) deny afterwards that they ever talked to her. Garfield also asked, “And what happens when you present them with the smoking gun of their participation?”

Kelley answered with a long anecdote about taking photographer Stanley Tretick along on an interview with Frank Sinatra, Jr. He later denied ever having granted the interview to Kelley. “And Stanley produced a photograph,” Kelley told Garfield triumphantly.

But oh, the price of Tretick’s help! He interrupted the interview, ruined everything and changed the course of history, according to Kelley. As she explained to Garfield:

“Everything is going wonderfully well for the first 45 minutes. [Frank Jr. is] talking about what it’s like to be the son of a famous singer, a man connected to organized crime…

“And then he turned to me and he said, you know, hon, I know a lot of people. Do you know what I mean? And I said, you mean mobsters? And he said, yes. I can tell you what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. And right at that point, I thought, oh, the one great unsolved mystery of the 20th century! I thought, maybe I’ll get the Pulitzer Prize. I even thought for, you know, just a second, what’ll I wear when I get the prize?

“And just at that point, there was this clattering noise. The photographer threw down his cameras and said, well, what the hell happened to Jimmy Hoffa? And at that point, Frank Sinatra [Jr.] ran out of the room into the bedroom. And I tried. He said, no, I have said too much, I have said too much. The interview ended.”

Of course, Frank Jr. may know squat about what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. And Tretick, who died in 1999, is no longer around to defend himself. But the moral of the story is: When a famous writer hires you to take pictures, don’t interrupt when the subject is about to solve the mystery of the century.