"[This book] embodies the Buddhist wisdom about change, life, and the
world more than anything written after the events of that day."
Robert Stone

February 2010 Archives

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February 14, 2010


This Presidents’ Day weekend, consider picking up a copy of the ultimate, compact, up-to-date compendium that summarizes the successes and failures, public personas and private lives, quirks and foibles of all 44 Presidents. The book, just released by Abrams, is called Vanity Fair’s Presidential Profiles.

Illustration by Mark Summers

February 13, 2010


Yesterday, the winners of the annual World Press Photo contest were announced in Amsterdam, with a wise, artful choice selected as World Press Photo of the Year: Italian photographer Pietro Masturzo’s image of an Iranian woman shouting from her apartment building rooftop in Tehran during last year’s pivotal anti-government protests.

Pietro Masturzo/World Press Photo

It was a pleasant surprise to see the number of Italian photographers who were honored this year (less remarkable: the overwhelming number of Dutch winners, given that the prize is judged and awarded in Holland). With increasing frequency, the contest judges appear to be migrating toward the more muted and at times pastel palette--some images even seem to have been taken under moonlight’s spell—a palette favored by photographers using medium-format digital cameras and often hailing from from places like Scandinavia, Holland, and Italy. Many of the images have something of a Vermeer-like veneer: a result of the overpowering resolution and texture allowed by new digital cameras, an example of the barriers that continue to fall between photojournalism and fine-art photography, and a reflection of the northern climes that have nurtured many of the image-makers.

This painterly translucence is a quality discussed at length, it so happens, in Peggy Samuels’s remarkable and sublime new book, Deep Skin: Elizabeth Bishop and Visual Art (Cornell University Press), in which Samuels explores the influence of painters like Vermeer and Bishop's modernist contemporaries (such as Paul Klee and Alexander Calder) on Bishop’s poetry. Samuels, a renowned Milton scholar with a fondness for 17th century British literature and contemporary American poetry, might as well be describing many of this year’s World Press Photo winners when she describes Paul Claudel’s influential 1935 essay on the work of Vermeer and his peers: “For Claudel, the Dutch landscape itself, with its many bodies of water and its clarity and stillness, lent itself to an unusual and eerie thinness of boundary between reality and the reality reflected in mirrored, slivery surfaces. . . . According to Claudel, in Vermeer’s painting the eeriness or mysteriousness comes from the way that the watery, reflective environment, when precisely and realistically rendered, becomes the wavery, unstable, silvery, nacreous, and therefore mysterious or 'supernatural' surface in Vermeer’s painting. It is the place where solidity and uncertainty, reality and reflection, interpenetrate.”

Oddly enough, as photographers embrace the digital medium, bringing about the demise of the Silver Era in photography, their images seem to be all the more silvery and reflective, both literally and metaphorically.


In the Times, Ellen Barry describes how prosecutors in Uzbekistan recently accused photogorapher Umida Akhmedova of slandering the Uzbeck people merely by producing images that showed “people with sour expressions or bowed heads, children in ragged clothing, old people begging for change.” Though Akhmedova avoided a three-year prison term when a judge gave her an eleventh-hour amnesty, she told the Times, “I can’t say my anxiety has subsided. I can’t say I’m suddenly O.K. . . . To tell you the truth, I feel insulted, that’s the main thing.”

The Times also reported that many of the key works in the seminal photo collection of Edwin Land, the inventor of Polaroid film, are being put up for auction.

In “Nude Awakening: The Dangerous Naked Machines,” The New Republic’s Jeffrey Rosen writes thoughtfully about civil liberty implications of new airport-security body-scanning devices.

…And on VanityFair.com, I write about an exhibition of Herman Leonard’s incomparable jazz photographs at Manhattan's Jazz at Lincoln Center, which has now been extended through March.

February 12, 2010


This week ABC News, through a Freedom of Information Act request, retrieved and disseminated astounding new aerial photographs of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, taken by NYPD Detective Greg Semendinger while perched in a would-be rescue helicopter that day.

Det. Greg Semendinger/NYC Police Aviation Unit

The images are chilling in their vivid, step-by-step detail, and in the eerily omniscient birds’-eye perspective from which they capture the enormity of the footprint of death and devastation. Yet they are not, in and of themselves, unique. The NYPD actually put out a book in 2002 called Above Hallowed Ground: A Photographic Record of September 11, 2001, with images by various police photographers, including Semendinger and Detective David Fitzpatrick, whose ordeal on that harrowing day is recounted on pages 51-52 of Watching the World Change.

The significant point, however, is that we must continue to see these images, afresh and repeatedly - because our memories fade, our resolve wavers, our priorities shift. We forget just how abhorrent and monstrous these acts were. We forget how many lives were taken in the course of two ungodly hours.

Moreover, there are so many young people who have come of age since 9/11 who have no literal sense of what the attacks looked like and how the assault and its aftermath tangibly relate to their lives in 2010. It is for the teens and 20-somethings, most of all, that we need to show these scenes yet again.