On Photography - Candice Bergen - My Failure
Saturday, August 08, 2009
I always prefer to work in the Studio. It isolates people from their environment. They become in a sense…symbolic of themselves. I often feel that people come to me to be photographed as they would go to the doctor or a fortune teller – to find out how they are. So they’re dependent on me. I have to engage them. Otherwise there’s nothing to photograph. The concentration has to come from me to involve them. Sometimes the force of it grows so strong that sounds in the studio go unheard. Time stops. We share a brief and intense intimacy. But it’s unearned. It has no past…no future. And when the sitting is over- when the picture is done – there is nothing left except the photograph…the photograph and a kind of embarrassment. They leave…and I don’t know them. I’ve hardly heard what they’ve said. If I meet them a week later in a room somewhere, I expect they won’t recognize me. Because I don’t really feel I was really there. At least the part of me that was…is now in the photograph. And the photographs have a reality for me that the people don’t. It’s through the photographs that I know them. Maybe it’s in the nature of being a photographer. I’m never really implicated. I don’t have to have any knowledge. It’s all a question of recognitions.
It was sometime in the winter of 1986 that the Georgia Straight dispatched me to a mansion in Shaughnessy to photograph Candice Bergen. She was filming an episode of CBC’s highly rated Lies From Lotus Land
(why does the CBC not do anything like it now?). The other actors in the episode were Bruno Gerussi, Jackson Davies and a striking and darkish young man I had never seen before.
I was off on the wrong foot from the very beginning. I approached Ms Bergen and told her I had been assigned to photograph her. She immediately began to shout at the director and said, “Why was I not informed? I have no makeup. I am not going to pose for anybody without makeup. I am simply not ready for this.” I interjected, “You are perhaps one of the few Hollywood actresses who do not need makeup. You are fine as you are.” She looked at me and melted just a bit and told me, “Wait about 30 minutes and I will pose for you in the attic upstairs.”
I went to the attic and found an empty room with a cane back chair. In 1986 I was still crazy about 40s Hollywood lighting and I had brought my portable spotlight. I set it up and used a secondary light (with a grid) as a hair light.
She came into the room, sat down and smiled. I noticed her Olympic ski jump nose (sort of like Richard Nixon’s) and I knew she would never do anything but look straight at my camera. I attempted to speak to her. I attempted to connect in some way. All I got was that wonderful smile. I remembered friends who had told me that when she appeared in Mike Nichols 1971 film Carnal Knowledge
with Jack Nicholson critics commented that her sexual climax scene was devoid of any passion or emotion. The critics asserted that her father’s (Edgar Bergen) wooden dummy, Charlie McCarthy was capable of showing much more emotion.
That very week I had purchased For the World to See – The Life of Margaret Bourke – White
. It was Bourke-White who had photographed Gandhi spinning cotton and it was the wide dissemination of that photograph that finally convinced the British to give up their empire in the Indian sub continent. Candice Bergen had played Bourke White in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi.
I decided to use a technique that I had never ever tried before. I was going to see if an insult would force Bergen out of her protective shell.
“Ms Bergen, I just received a wonderful book on Margaret Bourke-White. After some thought, I have come to the conclusion that you had nothing in common with the photographer. A few years after the film, Bergen had become an amateur/professional photographer and she appeared in film and camera ads in photo magazines. She preceded our very own Bryan Adams but was never even remotely as good as other amateur/professionals like Senator Barry Goldwater, Dennis Hopper, Oscar Peterson and The Police
guitarist Andy Summers.
I watched her face through the big viewfinder of my Mamiya RB-67 and I noticed nothing. There was not a flicker of acknowledgement of my insult. She kept on smiling. I thanked her. She smiled and left the room leaving with no more knowledge of what she was about than when she had come in. I went downstairs and watched the actors in their roles. I was mesmerized by the performance of the young man. I lingered. During a break I asked him if he would pose for me, “Sure he,” said, “But it will have to be in an hour when our next break is.” I lingered for a bit longer and thought to myself, “I want to go home now. This guy will probably never amount to anything.” I left.
And that is how my failure to photograph Candice Bergen was compounded by my not taking a picture of a most willing Keanu Reeves.
Babies, Weddings & Pornography
Friday, August 07, 2009
When I decided to become a photographer and I arrived in Vancouver I told myself there were three things I was not going to do and that was to shoot weddings (and bar mitzvahs), babies and pornography. The first two self prohibitions came out of previous failures or near failures in Mexico. I had shot a couple of weddings in Mexico City and I had been plagued by bad equipment and flash connection problems. Shooting weddings was much too stressful. Re-shoots were out of the question. Someone I knew hired me to photograph his beautiful baby girl. He never told me that she was a Thalidomide baby. When I saw the child, she was missing limbs and fingers. I did not know where to begin. I have stuck to my guns since (sort of). I was ordered by Mac Parry to photograph Susan Musgrave getting married in jail for his magazine Vancouver Magazine
. Joey Shithead made a request I could not refuse and I photographed his civil wedding. The only babies I have photographed, and gladly, have been my two granddaughters, Rebecca and Lauren. With pornography it gets a tad more complicated.
The only porn film I had ever seen before I arrived in Vancouver in 1975 was the inevitable Deep Throat.
I had not warmed much to the experience in a movie theatre in San Francisco. I have a lingering memory of two men sitting in front of me watching it while munching on pop corn. I lost all interest in pornography. When I saw a few Penthouse centerfolds that featured women fingering sharp, colourful and shiny pudenda I saw it as pornography. It was the colour and the shine that imparted that difference that separated art and or artsy b+w nudes from these.
Sometime in the middle 80s Les Wiseman interviewed porn star Marilyn Chambers and I accompanied him to take her portrait. The excuse for the interview which was published in Vancouver Magazine was that Chambers was in town with her country & western band. When we left the Four Seasons Hotel where Chambers was staying with her manager and husband Chuck Traynor I asked Les, “Do they actually do it on film? “ Les looked at me and laughed.
It may have been at least 12 years when I visited Wiseman at his coach house near City Hall. He let me in and went to his TV console and opened its doors. He played a video and he answered my question as if it had only been posed a few seconds before, “See Alex, they really do it.”
But I have always thought that had photography in the 19th century begun with the Lumiere brothers’ photographs in colour and not Daguerre’s Daguerreotype process we would have immediately adopted photography in colour as art. And perhaps I would have looked at those Penthouse centerfolds with more of a discerning eye. There is that residual memory in those of us who are of a certain age that associate b+w nudes as art and the equivalent in colour as smut. I could prove this to the contrary with pictures that I have taken myself, in colour and in b+w but I have a self-prohibition about publishing such stuff or nudes in this blog.
I will be the first to not only admit but assert that the photography of the undraped human body is high in sexual content. The photographer who says, “I love how the human form can mimic a Sahara Desert sand dune,” is in complete delusion. If it weren’t so the photographer would be happily taking pictures of undraped dromedaries.
I have photographed many nudes in my years in Vancouver and I even teach a class at Focal Point called the Contemporary Portrait Nude. I gave it that title because to me the nude has never been about parts but about the humanity of the person posing. Sometimes the face is not there but there are ways of implying it. It is only of late where I have sensed a waning in my passion for photography of the undraped. It must have a lot to do with being as old as I am. The concept of getting into bed with a good book and a large mug of tea really is beginning to supersede any ideas of sexual frolicking.
Today I found these pictures of a woman whom I will call as J.M. It was in the middle 90s that our leading newspaper gossip columnist called me up and told me something like this, “This attractive woman I have written about wants some pictures taken of her. I have given her your name. She will call you. Don’t fret about anything as she has money.”
The woman indeed did call and she made her appointment for me to photograph her in her condo apartment. She gave me the impression she wanted me to take racy photographs. When I got there two very good looking men opened the door. J.M. was a mature woman. She was voluptuous and maybe her surgeon had improved beyond the perfect nose she had.
I tried to imagine some sort of scenario involving the two young men and J.M. but my failure was based both on shock; I had never done this sort of thing before, and my desire to make the woman look her best. Baring her breasts and whatever else she may have wanted to expose was something I didn’t think was a good idea. I failed because I was much too conservative and naïve. Looking back at these pictures I see a potential that I squandered. J.M. was having some fun (the boys were having fun, too) and wanted it on film but I was too dense to understand this. I may have injected some humour but most of it was unintended. Whatever J.M. wanted me to photograph it was not pornography.
Looking at the pictures now they seem almost silly, particularly when compared to the images that my 11 year-old granddaughter is capable of finding in the internet. She has seen just about every nude I have I taken and she has a mature adult approach to what I have shot in my past.
But as propriety and manners erode and as TV programs, films and standard on line content get racier and racier, the border between what is perceived as sexy to what is pornographic becomes that much more muddled. When I am asked what I consider pornography to be I always answer, “I vowed never to shoot babies, weddings and pornography. I have avoided the first two and tried on the third." Every time I try, I realize that to shoot pornography one must park one’s good taste. But good taste always prevails and my would-be pornography atempts descend to the realm of sexy or, as you see here, silly. I have long ago given up in punching people in the nose when they tell me, “Alex your nudes are tasteful.” Perhaps it is not too late to change what could well be my epitaph, "He was indeed tasteful".
Vanesa, The Dark Lady From Belorusse
Thursday, August 06, 2009
She was born in 1911, like Ginger Rogers and Jean Harlow, but she didn't have their platinum look: she was the dark lady from Belorusse.
The Dark Lady From Belorusse, Jerome Charyn
Swimming & Not Drowning
Wednesday, August 05, 2009
Not too long ago I received an unusual invitation from a renowned local designer to help in a workshop that was to address the declining esprit de corps of the arts staff of one of our city’s best design institute/college. I attended some of the talks and these dispirited professor/artists spoke of classes that had students that spanned ages from 19 to over 50. “How do you weigh, the perhaps, mediocre portfolio of an older student when you consider what could be their contribution in maturity and having lived?" said one professor. They spoke of students who were not interested in drawing, painting or life drawing classes. They wanted to skip all that “manual stuff”. They wanted to do what they believed was the future of art and design, the computer. These professors had so much bureaucratic stuff to do, and forms to fill out that the act of teaching was almost curtailed. I knew of one art teacher who was suffering the effects of artistic revisionism. “I am not allowed to stress the skills and stature of Picasso, the artist, because he ill-treated the women of his life.”
Not being part of an arts institution I was at a loss of words as to what I could possibly contribute to help the people who were facing me. But something suddenly popped into my head and I asked, “How many of you have some sort of personal project that you are currently working on? How many of you who are photographers are taking pictures? How many of you who paint are painting?” The raised hand count was sparse. I was perhaps rude or even cruel in then saying, “Unless you have a personal project how can you possibly inspire your students to learn?”
As my photographic profession fades into irrelevance and I face students at local photography schools I feel a bit of that depression and stress of those professors I write about above. I tell my wife, “How can I teach someone to swim when I am drowning?”
A few days ago my friend Abraham Rogatnick placed in my hands a pristine Leica IIIf
. It does not have a coupled rangefinder so it is a pain to focus. But it has that solid heft of a camera that was made when some cameras could also be and were works of art. My Leica (I like the ring of that!) is not going to be a museum piece. I am going to use it. I might load it with Kodak Tri-X or Plus-X. But I will use it.
If I have been low in spirits all these months it has to do with the fact that I have not been practicing what I preach. I have always had a personal project until now. I have not taken pictures for fun except the few, the very few, of my granddaughters. This has to change.
As an example many years ago I had a show of women in bathtubs. This was a personal project. I was hired to photograph architect Bing Thom for Western Living. It was about the Canada Pavilion he had designed for the Expo 92 in Seville, Spain. I asked Thom, “Have you designed any houses in Vancouver with a swimming pool?” His affirmative answer prompted me to photograph him floating in a pool. My picture was so well received that in that year I won a Western Magazine Award for the best editorial photograph. This is ample proof that the personal project nurtures inspiration to perform in an unusual and satisfying manner for those projects that may seem to some as being humdrum.
I believe as the commercial photographer that I am that if I have a personal project that I do for no purpose except to please myself I will soon find a way of doing it again for very good money. Art and commercial photography can live side by side, harmoniously.
The Dark Side of Nina Gouveia
Tuesday, August 04, 2009
It’s not only painters that have pigment periods (blue, red, etc) or brightness and darkness periods. Additionally those of us who printed (and I still print) b+w photographs in a darkroom had our high contrast periods and our low, milky skin ones. When I look back at some of my vintage prints I am amazed at how dark or how light they are.
It seems that accuracy was not important as much as drama. Here are some pictures of that wonderful subject of mine who had to go to Spain and now I can only look at the many negatives that I have of her that never saw the light of day. A scanner and a lonely evening combine perfectly for the task of finding gems I did not notice the first or second time around. Here are some scanned really dark. I am pleased with their rich darkness. I will have to go to my studio and print these dark on good photographic paper.
Puckish By Lunchtime
Monday, August 03, 2009
I spent my day in a most extraordinary but ambivalent way. One moment I felt I was in a soaring situation and the next I was in a no solution, no way out fit of depression. I spent my day with two persons (not together). One told me once, a few days back, “I am dying,” while the other has often told me, “I don’t want to live.”
It was quite a few years ago that on my way to my first hosta convention in Columbus, Ohio I visited my aunt Dorothy in Toronto. I wrote about her statement that she didn’t want to go on here
. I have been thinking about her recently as I deal with my 85 year-old cousin and godmother in Buenos Aires who is excited to be alive and enjoys every spoken DVD book I send her by the mail.
I live with what I consider to be minor chronic pains and I wonder if I too, when that pain is racked up in intensity, will want to stop living. I will only know when I am there.
Today I read to my friend from The Nowel Coward Diaries
which has post-it notes to passages that interested me the first time I read this lovely book. I was suddenly moved to optimism and glee when I read him:…Cole and I had a long and cosy [ Noel Coward’s spelling] talk about death the other evening, sitting up here watching the dark come and the fireflies to appear. He is so sensible. We discussed what would happen if I died and what would happen if he died, and came to the sensible conclusion that there was nothing to be done. We should have to get on with life until our turn came. I said, ‘After all, the day had to go on and breakfast had to be eaten,’ and he replied that if I died he might find it a little difficult to eat breakfast but would probably be puckish by lunch-time…
Sunday, 19 November,1961, The Noel Coward Diaries
I came to the conclusion today that it is not pain ( since I am not suffering enough of it I could be completely wrong here) but the prospect of losing one’s independence and self-sufficiency that initiates a desire to vacate in some way a present existence.
As a boy my black Raleigh was indestructible. I could repair flat tires and when the chain fell off I knew how to fix it. A frequent hosing of the bike and an application of 3 & 1 Oil made the bike seem to run twice as fast. I did not need anybody. In Mexico around 1970 I learned to do most of the tuneups and repairs to our VW Beetle. I would remove the gasoline tank once a year and wash its interior with paint thinner. Mexican gasoline had lots of water and gunk. Fuel lines would stop up frequently if I did not perform this task.
If my wife’s Audi would suddenly stop in the middle of a bridge or street I would not even begin to know where to look to start it again. The complexification of our machines has made us ever more dependent on others. If my computer crashes I might turn it off and then turn it on as a last ditch attempt to repair it. After that I will be lost and will have to take the unit to someone who might know.
Tomorrow I teach from 9 to 4. Rosemary will be leaving the hospital late morning. There is no way I can cancel my classes in short notice nor can I find anybody to substitute me in class. This means that the only person who can take Rosemary home is my son-in-law Bruce who happily does not work tomorrow.
I left my wife with a sad look on her face tonight and I told her, “I have you and you have me. We have nobody else." At one time that was good. We were young and healthy. There was always a way. Now we have lost that independence, that self-sufficiency. We are going to have to learn to depend on others.
It is somewhere when that dependency becomes almost total that one’s will to live erodes.
One Plum, One SUV & Rosemary Nags Me To Water The Garden
Sunday, August 02, 2009
Yesterday Saturday my daughter Ale and her nieces Rebecca and Lauren went to Baja California for two weeks. Rosemary was supposed to go but she had an unscheduled and violent appointment with an SUV at a city corner on Friday noon. She was an innocent pedestrian at the wrong place.
A shattered left ankle must be an example of good luck within all the bad luck that has prevented Rosemary of having our two granddaughters almost all for herself for 14 days.
The operation (this morning) was successful and her doctor predicts that she might be walking (in an orthopedic boot) in about four weeks.
While I always think that Rosemary is most serious she has shown some humour. It seems that she chatted with her ambulance attendant on the short trip to VGH. She asked him, “You did put on the siren for me, didn’t you?” At emergency she was depressed to find out that her clothes had been all cut out. It took me a couple of days to retrieve her sandals, “They were $200 sandals you know?”
As soon as Rosemary found out about the fire in Lillooet she forgot about her ankle and her pain. “There is that Ramirez guitar we bought for Ale in Madrid. It’s going to burn.” Meanwhile my positively philosophical daughter Ale told me on Skype from San Jose del Cabo, “My cats are in Cache Creek and I am here, what could be safer? Besides the Ramirez guitar is in my old room in your house in the closet.”
So now Rosemary is concerned she will not be around to nag our little girls to only speak in Spanish. She is worried about being able to walk for the wedding of her nephew in Brockville at the end of August. And she is of course happily nagging me to water the garden in the allowed hours of 7 to 10 on Sunday nights which is precisely what I am doing right now.
Rosemary is sad that I am not going to have the vacation without her during the next two weeks. I could not manage to explain that while I am sorry she is not having fun in the 42 degree weather of Baja I am very happy to have her here all to myself. Or at least by tomorrow afternoon when she will probably checking out of the hospital.
I returned from the hospital and went into the refrigerator and found a large plum that Rosemary bought for me. I have written many times here about that wonderful poem by William Carlos Williams.This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
I ate that single plum and I reminded myself that Rebecca knows that poem by heart. For two weeks I will have my Rosemary and then, when the girls return, we might just celebrate that we are all alive and that we can enjoy some cold plums from the icebox.