June 10, 2010
Janette Beckman introduced me to Julie Grahame, founder of aCurator.com, a brilliant website dedicated to presenting photography in all its glory. With features from “In David Bowie’s Living Room” by Michael Putland to Sarah Small’s “Disassociated Characters,” aCurator sumptuously presents these stories in a perfect portfolio. Julie Grahame has graciously agreed to speak about her work here.
Please talk about the inspiration to start aCurator, as well as your mission as a home for photography features on the web.
Julie Grahame: Until 2006 I ran a stock photo library of music, celebrity and historic images, mostly licensing to editorial clients. My favorite parts of the job were working with the photographers and editing shoots. I took a tour of the Life Magazine archives in 1992 and was struck by the breadth and depth of the features and how there were few publishers running more than a couple of images of a subject. From then on, I always fancied publishing a magazine.
In a sense, aCurator’s mission is simply to show more and larger images than average, more depth, and give the photographer a voice. My husband Mike Hartley is a web designer who redesigned and ran ZOOZOOM (Webby-winning full screen fashion magazine) for several years, and I worked there for a spell, so we are able to draw upon that experience.
What are your thoughts on the presentation of photography on the internet, as opposed to tradition forms in print or on exhibition? How do you think access changes the relationship between the audience and the work ?
Clearly the opportunity to simply reach untold more people is key. I work with the Estate of Yousuf Karsh; within a year of launching a new website we were receiving as many as 500+ unique visitors every single day (from almost 200 countries) and if there is an exhibition overseas, we see an increase in traffic to the website from that country. For the Estate, being able to monitor visits and what people look at and how long for, has really supported their web-positive approach toward ensuring Karsh’s work endures.
Now, seeing a Karsh silver print in real life is a whole other thing entirely, but the number of people physically able to do that is minuscule compared to who we can reach online. At the same time, you might also say that some images look better on a computer screen. My feeling is that the web improves and sometimes actually creates the relationship between audience and work—it’s an oppressive “optional” $20 to enter some NYC museums; free to enter a gallery but I know I find galleries in NY among the most uninviting establishments. I will add that I don’t necessarily feel frustrated looking at a small print but I do looking at small images online!
Do you have a preference in terms of genre, and if so what is it about these genres you find most compelling?
I don’t think in terms of genre but do want variety and to give air time to features that wouldn’t necessarily get published, or which I just think would look great. I’m really open to all sorts: I didn’t hesitate to publish Zachary Bako’s “Deconstruction of the Dollar”, a series essentially created in Photoshop, because I thought it was just clever and political and really graphic and it looked so good full screen.
I’ve hardly had any still life submissions, but Stella Kramer introduced me to Mary Parisi’s work and I published “Soup” recently. I’ve had a (very small) handful of fashion submissions, it’d have to make a statement for me to publish a fashion shoot in aCurator (I quote Oscar Wilde on this whenever possible: “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months”). I suppose then that I am compelled by my own taste and by the photographers I have relationships with, and I do think there’s an element of that making the magazine successful, that there’s already an expectation of the kinds of things I might publish.
I love your range—from Janette Beckman’s “Girls’ Fight Club” to Catherine Chalmers “Food Chain” to Stephen Mallon’s “American Reclamation: the Subway Series,” your selection of features shows us a world we have never seen. How do you select your stories?
I am fortunate to know a fair number of photographers and I launched the magazine with what I thought were brilliant stories from some of my favorites that had a varied appeal and that worked in the environment (including being predominantly landscape). I approached each of the photographers either knowing what of their work I wanted to publish (eg. Catherine Chalmers. I had the pleasure of a visit to her studio to chat amongst the bugs she raises) or to discuss what they themselves would like to run (Janette Beckman’s “Girls’ Fight Club” had been under-published in print and warranted a big spread. No crickets during that studio visit, just a couple of cats).
I have an open ear for photographers who could use the exposure, and for everyone I’d like it to be the best online tear-sheet they have. I’d love to publish exclusives but will happily settle for less-well-exposed features until such point as I can pay for the content. Moving forward, I am receiving plenty of submissions—but would like more; on the whole, they either grab me or not. Once or twice I’ve asked for more info and it’s put me off something I thought I might well publish. I’d also like to work with third parties more, as I did with Brian Clamp for the Jesse Burke feature and Aperture for Michael Corridore, other book publishers.
Since you began aCurator, have you seen a change in the ways in which both photography is being presented on the web, as well as the audience that connects to these sites ?
aCurator launched in April, was in development for several months, so it’s early days; despite hoping for more photo-centric web destinations for the last few years (ZOOZOOM launched in 2000 and has always been ahead of its time) I’m still only seeing a handful of other full screen sites other than by photographers and more recently by fashion houses. I suspect established sites will have to wait for major redesigns to focus less on laying out the content around the advertising. Burn Magazine is probably my favorite full screen photography experience. T Magazine is nice. M. Sharkey who photographed “Queer Kids”, was contacted by both Out and the Advocate after they saw his feature in my mag and they both ran it online (one small image per page, maximum ad turns!). I suppose we’ll see what the iPad brings. Rather wonderfully, The Big Issue, a British magazine which is sold by the homeless, has run two articles about aCurator in print.
I’m not sure whether aCurator will have appeal as a whole outside of the photo community, but each feature brings its own interest. “Queer Kids” had the greatest number of visits when it was picked up by the gay community. People who enjoy karaoke would come just to see Ingvar Kenne’s feature and may never come back. If each feature brings a different audience but there’s also a photography fan base, I’ll be very happy.
June 9, 2010
I first met Steven Hirsch while he was working on “Courthouse Confessions,” his series of photographs of and stories told by people coming and going from their cases, talking about their experiences with the law. Steven recently got in touch to share his new work, CrustyPunks, documenting the scene as it still lives and breathes in the the legendary Tompkins Square Park. Steven graciously agreed to share his experiences here.
The Crusty Punk scene in and around Tompkins Square Park has been going on for decades. What was your inspiration to start this project and how long have you been documenting this scene?
Steven Hirsch: Tompkins Square Park is across the street from where I live in the East Village, so I’ve seen the Crusties in the neighborhood for years. They get arrested often and I’ve photographed some at the courts where I do a blog called “Courthouse Confessions.” I photograph defendants at the court and publish their portraits and interviews. So when I was approached by a Crusty panhandler outside my building and he started laying a story on me, I instinctively asked him if I could photograph him and record his story. I loved the format of Courthouse Confessions, a still ongoing project, and always thought it could be used with other equally interesting subjects. I started about a month ago and have done thirty-five so far.
I’ve always been amazed that no matter how much time passes, this culture remains the same (at least to an outsider). How do you think this subculture relates or comments on what is happening in the larger culture as a whole ?
Apparently there has been an evolutionary change in Crusty subculture. From what a few kids have told me, it’s a much darker scene now then it was even two or three years ago. Most of the kids today are heroin addicted. In the past apparently it wasn’t as bad. There are kids that ride the rails and travel and they drop in for a few days and then disappear. They’ve told me the scene is too heavy and they don’t feel comfortable hanging in Crusty Row, a section of Tompkins Square Park where they congregate. According to recent reports there’s an uptick in heroin use in the states. From my interviews, I realize most come from the suburbs or rural areas, leaving behind broken homes or parental abuse. That’s not necessarily a recent trend, obviously, but the level of despair seems to be higher then ever.
I am very impressed with people’s willingness to both be photographed and tell some very difficult stories. How do you select and connect to your subjects?
It took a while to gain their trust. Unlike “Courthouse Confessions,” which is hit and run, I needed to form a relationship with these people before I could start photographing them. Though the blog only shows portraits, I am starting to shoot some candid work. The portraits are easier to do. I ask and they say yes or no. The candid shots are much more difficult. You can’t ask if you want to record real moments. So you just shoot and hope you don’t anger anyone. So far I haven’t had any serious problems.
They freely tell me the most intimate parts of their lives. People in trouble either criminally or emotionally are reaching out for help. Few choose to be in the precarious situations they find themselves in. They’re looking for someone to talk to, or simply want to release the pain and suffering verbally. I’m a good listener and have empathy for these people. I survived a life-threatening disease recently and understand how painful life can be. I think they look in my eyes and understand that. They can see I’ve been around the block and I seriously care about their lives and I’m interested in their stories.
There’s something equally compelling and terrifying about the lives your subjects lead. What do you think of the price people pay for freedom from “civilization” ?
The level of violence, desperation, pain and suffering is unimaginable. Almost all are homeless and have a hard time finding places to sleep in the gentrified East Village. Fights erupt at any moment, an overdose can happen anytime, hunger is ever present and mental illness permeates the air. I think many of the stories convey the level of terror, fear and desperation they lead in their daily lives. I’m not really sure one could call that freedom, though some of them might beg to differ. I’ll have to pose the question. After all, it’s their stories not mine.
My cousin, Jay Rosen, moved from Washington, DC to Israel in August 2006. I remember at his going away party, a guest asked me, “When will you be going to Israel?” to which I answered, “Never.” I remember seeing Jay with a vague look of horror in his eye, steeling himself for a conversation that might take a turn for the worse, so he jumped in with the quick save, “We’re going to meet in Italy.” With a disapproving eye, the guest moved on.
While I have no plans to visit one of the most volatile places on the planet, that does not mean I am without countless questions on the subject. One of the reasons I adore Jay is that we are have an unspoken agreement to leave aside our politiics in the interest of a good story. And story telling is something Jay does very well. When he’s not editing his graduate thesis (identity formation and Diaspora-homeland relations among American Lebanese Maronites) or working (online resources promoting Jewish identity through diversity) or working (retail therapy for ethical consumers and 18-year old Long Island girls), you can find him DJing monthly in Jerusalem or drinking fruit juice spiked with Middle Eastern coca leaves.
My thanks to Jay Rosen for sharing his thoughts.
Israel is a country of immigrants, with some 80 nationalities represented. From Germans to Iranians, Americans to Ethiopians, Russians to Argentinians, it seems that Israel’s ethnic make up is as diverse as that of the United States. But there is one difference: religion. Please talk about the idea of aliyah, and how it fits into the Jewish identity. Please also discuss non-Jew immigrants: how does this work for them?
Jay Rosen: I look at Aliyah, conceptually and practically through my own choices and experiences, as both an ancient and modern phenomenon. Ancient, in that there’s a national aspect intrinsic to Jewish identity that can only be realized through communal self-sustainability and sovereignty. Modern, in that by becoming an Israeli citizen, my identity as a Jew is a given rather than how I introduce myself; as a result, all the other aspects of who I am come to define me just as centrally (something, I’d argue, which is more difficult outside of Israel and possibly New York City).
It’s also modern in the permeability of borders it creates: as a dual-citizen, I pass through customs shuffling between two different passports, thus jumping from one nationality to another within a matter of seconds. Even those born in Israel shuffle through the various layers of their identities—religious, national, ethnic/Diasporic— more times on a weekly basis than the average fifth-generation American thinks about such things in a year.
From the historical to the political significance, please talk about the impetus to live in a Jewish state. Please also talk about how reality plays out against the long standing dream for such a state to exist (meaning social, economic, and political conditions).
I think the difference you point out between the immigration experiences in the United States and Israel stem from the larger differences between Judaism and the rest of the world’s religions, cultures, ethnicities, nations, and other collective identity markers. Judaism isn’t just a faith, nor is it a “members-only” institution in the way many Jews and non-Jews have come to see it. Judaism is a single entity comprising faith, ritual, memory, culture, language, nationhood with permeable yet set borders—near impossible to find a parallel in another self-defined community, let alone another religion.
The first time I came to Israel, now ten years ago, I was initially struck by the visceral differences. Gangs of teenagers were not blond-haired and blue-eyed; they were skinny, dark-skinned and dark-haired. The policeman, the garbage-collector, the waiter, and the models in ads were all Jews. Ads were in the same language that until then was relegated to prayer and classroom dialogues over how much the cucumber cost in the market. Like any 18 year-old tourist eager to escape his angst-filled teenager years, these differences were jarring and exhilarating. Who knew Jews could be swarthy, sexy, and wait tables all at once?
Going back to the States let me connect the visceral with my years of Jewish education, creating an emotional connection that would eventually lead me to travel back to Israel nine more times before becoming a citizen.
There’s a classic joke about the Diaspora Jew’s view of Israel told through a man, recently deceased, who’s given a tour of heaven and hell before having to decide where to spend eternity. After seeing a hedonistic Hell and a sedate Heaven of harp-playing cherubs, he picks Hell only to be subjected to immense torture and agony. Wait, he screams out, this isn’t the Hell I saw?! Ah, what you saw was the tourist version; you’re a resident now.
It’s an old joke, to be sure, but always applicable, just like the one where the Jewish Agency emissary finishes all your immigrant paperwork and upon arrival in Israel hands you a copy of the lyrics to the 1970 Lynn Anderson country hit “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.” Leave it to Israelis to provide deadpan humor and hard reality through Americana.
For a country born in the postmodern era out of existential necessity by people politically weakened by their rulers, there was a lot of simultaneous landing and running to be done. Infrastructure, governance and society had to be built in a hurry to accommodate the hoards coming for shelter. Every feasible resource in this mostly-arid land had to be used, as evidenced by drip irrigation tubs becoming part of lawns and landscaping. Some aspects of present society are entirely modern (solar water heaters grace the rooftops of almost every house, providing 80% of household water heating); others are grounded in older traditions (the diamond polishing industry, imported from the centuries-run Jewish communities in Belgium and Holland, accounts for a sizeable part of Israel’s GDP) and other predate the Diaspora (the rainy season begins and ends the same time each year, coinciding with when Jews begin and end praying for rain, despite their own geographical location, for millennia).
There are lots of challenges here, especially in a country who emulates America in a Eurocentric format within the confines of the Middle East—but as someone who chose to immigrate, I’m drawn to those same challenges in an American Dream/Zionist “you and I can repair the world” masochistic manner.
I remember you telling me about the range of religious experience among the Jews in Israel, noting that amongst the more extremist groups, the Hasidic sect is relatively conservative. Please talk further about the ways in which different ethnicities and religions bring their own religious interpretations to Judaism in Israel.
One of the best aspects of Judaism, and seldom understood by many, is that its borders are very wide—meaning there is a lot of room for interpretation. The Talmud can hardly be called a law book, as its core text is series of conversations and arguments with few concrete resolutions. As a result, there’s a rainbow of approaches inherent to Judaism that is only evident in Israeli society. Israeli Jews usually are categorized as “secular,” religious,” or “ultra-Orthodox” but those categories fail time and time again in polls and surveys in, encapsulating Israeli Jewish self-expression. A great example is in headwear: you can tell a lot about a person’s religious observance and politics by what kind of head covering they choose or not choose to wear. A multicolored knit kippah worn in the front or back or to the side have three separate connotations, which are all in turn entirely different from a black velvet kippah, which in turn is different from a black fedora (which can be worn straight-brimmed or brought up on the sides).
You can find self-described Orthodox prayer services where men and women lead in prayer, Jews of North African descent who dress and study like their Lithuanian counterparts, and so on. Conservative and Reform services exist, but not to the degree that they do in the USA, where those movements rose in popularity as a means of trying to grapple with the unique opportunities America presents.
I also remember you speaking about a hierarchy amongst immigrant groups. Please talk more about this.
In the United States, we talk about the culture of the Puritan colonists as the base for society’s aesthetics, with new trends brought from other communities as being weighed against it. The communal infrastructure that became the apparatuses of the Sates of Israel were largely laid down by Ashkenazi Eastern European immigrants in the early 20th century. When the state was created and had to quickly absorb an immigration influx of 700,000+ Jews from the Arab and Muslim world, there was a transitory period of trying to imbue these new immigrants with the prevailing aesthetics of those in charge. While many would argue that Israel has a ruling Ashkenazi elite, it’s hard to ignore the influence of the rise of the Israeli Black Panther movement and right-wing Likud Party in the 1970‘s, both of which help end the left-wing Labor Party’s hegemony in politics.
I would say there’s two sides to this argument.
On the one hand, there is lot of cross-ethnic integration. There are two national holidays whose origin is from a specific Diaspora community—the Moroccan Mimouna, celebrated on the day after Passsover, and the Ethiopian Sigd, celebrated in the late fall. Popular culture leads the way in this kind of cultural integration, from the music subgenres of Oriental Metal and Mizrachi Hip-Hop to culinary masterpieces like the chicken schnitzel on French baguette with hummus, fries and Yemenite hot sauce. For many years, radio broadcasters were picked based on their accent, interestingly favoring those of Middle Eastern, and more specifically Yemenite, background; to this day, the hourly news updates are read with an accent unlike mainstream Modern Hebrew.
On the other hand, ethnic-based socioeconomic stratification still exists, as do stereotypes and prejudices. Every year, someone tries to claim that the cultural divide between Ashkenazim and Sephardim/Mizrachim is over, but it seems way too premature to say that. “Socio-economic” differences largely reflect ethnic differences, discrimination cases still make national headlines (usually in the form of prejudice against Ethiopians or the ultra-Orthodox barring non-Ashkenazim from their school systems), and ethnic jokes are told freely. I’ve stopped numerous conversations in Hebrew because someone used a derogatory word towards people of color—we’ve got a long way to go, the world’s just gonna have to take a deep breath and go back to their needlework.
Lastly, is it reasonable to draw a parallel between the experience of the Palestinians and that of the Native Americans? If not, what are the differences you see between the two?
I can understand the draw in finding, and wanting to find parallels between Palestinians and Native Americans. Both have narratives of primacy, displacement and ongoing frustration at the hands of supposed Europeans. Palestinian Arab society was not unified under one leadership, rather it was stratified by socioeconomic geography (urban, rural, Bedouin) and by meta-familial clan associations. In the same way, the Native American experience varied by geographic and cultural factors.
Only problem with that parallel is that it’s completely incorrect and slanderous. Jews have lived in the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River for more than 3,000 years, despite wars and diasporas. Archaeological evidence gets turned up on a regular basis to support that connection, not to mention histories and chronicles and testimonials and the prayers of Jews for all that time, or the recent genetic mapping that connects all Jews of all ethnic differentiations to the region 2,500 years ago. It was foreign empires, now long extinct, who invaded and occupied the land; it was the Romans who named it “Palestine” after the coastal-dwelling Philistines, as a means of erasing Jewish history; and it’s an amalgamation of forces today, left and right, who’ve continued where empires treaded to erase that same connection.
Jews wouldn’t be Jews without Israel. Israel is our repository of history and memory, physically encapsulating where we were once free; where we created the idea of social justice; and setting the definition for the Western world’s fantasy of redemption. That Jews continue to live and, in the case of the USA, thrive in Diaspora is a challenge to the relationship of worldwide Jewry to Israel, to be sure; but it does not negate in any way the connection of Jews to the land.
None of the above negates Palestinian claims to the land and their former homes; nor is there any need to go too far into historical details and laws of warfare before saying it’s a sad situation. The kind of creativity it will take to solve this problem hasn’t been invented, and if it has, someone’s being WAY too shy for everyone else’s good. There is no parallel appropriate in describing the situation, be it with Native Americans (hello, Manhattan) or South Africa or the Irish or even Tibet.
June 7, 2010
There is only one Ron Galella. I met him a few years ago, while working on his glorious tome, Disco Years, which continues to inspire and amuse me with flawless photographs of New York City nightlife at its finest. When I see these photos, I always think—this is where I should have been: sitting beside Diane von Furstenberg on the sofa at Studio 54 or slinking down the stairs behind Bette Davis, on the dance floor with Divine or wishing Bianca a happy birthday. For all of these occasions—and countless more, Ron was there, camera in hand, sure to get the shot at any cost. Even if that meant being banned for life from Studio 54—twice.
Tonight, HBO premieres “Smash His Camera,” a documentary on Ron recounting his triumphs over the adversaries he made icons—whether it was Jackie Onassis, who ordered that immoral line, or Marlo Brando, who straight broke his jaw. A man with countless stories, and the photos to prove it, Ron Galella is an American treasure, a highly mobile portrait photographer who will get the perfect shot—whether you like it or not.
In celebration of “Smash His Camera” I am pleased to introduce a profile of Ron written by Tami Mnoian.
By Tami Mnoian
“My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person doing something unfamous. It’s being in the right place at the wrong time. That’s why my favorite photographer is Ron Galella.” —Andy Warhol
Ron Galella didn’t invent the word paparazzo—Italian for a buzzing mosquito—but he certainly personalized it by redefining the relationship between the movie star and the photographer. Before Galella, a celebrity’s image was the province of the Hollywood studio system. When behind the camera, Galella undermined this control. He pulled back the curtains, stepped beyond the velvet rope, and made mortals of the silver screen gods and goddesses. He cast them from their Hollywood perches and set them in everyday life. Instantly, they became accessible. They were fat, they had flaws, they were human—and the public just couldn’t get enough. He fathered celebrity journalism as we know it today. Every subsequent paparazzo has, in some way, taken a cue from Galella’s intrusive yet innovative tactics.
Imagine you’re Doris Day. You’re sunbathing in your Beverly Hills backyard while, unbeknownst to you, someone is camped out in the neighbor’s driveway happily snapping pictures of you in a bikini swimming with your 14 dogs. It appears as a “Bikini Party” photo spread in a magazine and suddenly a moment of your private life is now in multiple full color spreads for sale at a newsstand.
Getting the exclusive shot isn’t easy, proving Galella needed to be cunning in his approach, like a hunter. He was infamous for his hawkish methods and memorable altercations. Marlon Brando broke his jaw. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton’s bodyguards gave him a once over in Cuernavaca, Mexico; and, most famously, Jacqueline Onassis brought him to court, twice, and secured a restraining order against the man whose images of her are among the most iconic.
“She was my ideal subject,” Galella confesses, “because she did not pose and this offered me candid action shots of life.”
Born and raised in the Bronx some 76 years ago, Galella was one of five children, which is why, he explains, “You had to be, in a way, a loud mouth. You had to be loud to be heard.”
His Italian-immigrant father worked as a carpenter making Steinway pianos and later caskets. It was a small paycheck for a family of seven. “Poverty is good,” he says. “It motivates. I always had incentive to better myself. Work, work, work. My father was like an animal. He gave us the animalistic protection of a roof and food. But in the end, it was the US Air Force that gave me a reward: a career in photography and later the GI Bill.”
As a member of the US Air Force, Galella first took up photography during the Korean War as an aerial and ground photographer. Afterward, he attended the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles to study photojournalism on the GI Bill. In 1957, he recalls, “I crashed the Guys & Dolls premiere in Hollywood and that’s when I got hooked. I went just to experience the joy of seeing celebrities—to find out how the stars really measure up. Are they really as glamorous as we see them on the screen? That’s the motivation, curiosity.”
After graduating, Galella returned to New York and set up a studio in his father’s basement in the North Bronx to freelance photograph film premieres and Broadway openings. Celebrities became his calling. “I want to put them on a pedestal, but I also want to take them off the pedestal,” he explains. “I don’t like posed pictures. I prefer action shots of people doing things. I call that the paparazzi approach. Even my letterhead says, ‘Photography with a paparazzi approach.’ Paparazzi try to get an exclusive, spontaneous, off-guard picture. I call it the only game.”
Galella’s work could be considered celebrity photojournalism. He explains, “In those days you had freedom, freedom to move. You want action. You want people doing things because it’s more interesting. Celebrities become themselves. Individuality is there. If you have everybody looking at the camera with a phony smile, it’s not themselves.”
His images have always maintained an elegance that helped define what has since become a booming industry. “I always looked for the glamour,” he reveals. “And to me, the most glamorous thing is the face, the eyes, number one. The eyes bring out sexiness, second the lips.”
Recalling this quest, he discussed his most famous image, Windblown Jackie: “I had an appointment with a girl to take portfolio pictures. She lived on 88th Street, so I said, ‘That’s near Jackie. Meet me in the park, on 85th Street, where Jackie lives and we’ll take pictures there. I figured, I’m not making any money with this girl, but I might be lucky to get Jackie jogging. We were coming out of the park after I shot pictures of—Joy Smith was her name. We were leaving the park when Jackie came out of the building, the side entrance, and started walking on 85th toward Madison. Jackie turned the corner and went north on Madison. So I got to the corner and I did a smart thing. I hopped a cab (because if I ran after her she would have seen me), and put on the glasses. I caught up with her. The window was down. The weather was nice. It was October 1971. I shot the first frame of her walking, second, and third frame on the corner. She turned, I think, because the driver of the taxi blew his horn. I got the picture but she didn’t know it was me.
“That’s what I call the only game—to be sneaky, to get the candid, archive picture. I got out of the cab after that, Joyce was with me, and I did another smart thing. I gave Joyce one of my cameras to shoot me shooting her and as Jackie was walking away, she turned to me and asked, ‘Are you pleased with yourself?’ I said, ‘Yes, thank you, and goodbye.’ It’s Jackie, no appointments, no hairdo, wind blowing, natural, no makeup.”
For over thirty years, Galella has been amassing photographic wealth. “I’ve got gold in my files,” he jokes. Files and boxes occupy a large part of his sprawling New Jersey house, which he shares with his wife Betty and their pet rabbits. There are black and white prints everywhere—on the walls and life-size mounted images on easels. Each image is a familiar face that creates a visual pop culture timeline. After scanning the walls and hallways of his home, just don’t confuse Galella with the paparazzi of today. He is of a different generation. He did it for the love of the game, the love of celebrity, but mostly, because he was curious and in search of a celebrity’s authenticity. Take a look at any one of his photographs. That authenticity is his trademark.
I first met Boza Ivanovic years ago, looking at his photographs of people living with HIV and AIDS around the world. The work was powerful in its ability to show the pathos of daily life for people burdened with this disease, people living in poverty in Africa, Russia, and the United States. We had been chatting about the possibility of doing a book, but then, things changed. Boza was in a motorcycle accident, and had been laid up for months. I hadn’t heard from him for some time, until he began to send me these stark and stunning portraits of animals he had started taking during his recovery.
The images, at once beautiful and captivating, were also very sad in many ways. The more I gazed upon these magnificent creatures, the more I began to notice I was looking at photographs of the incarcerated, sentenced to life behind bars and required to display themselves for our entertainment. And while I have always loved animals, the idea that they exist for our benefit, in conditions that would be inhuman if we confined people to them, was something that I can never forget when looking at these portraits.
I am thankful to Boza Ivanovic for granting this interview and sharing his work.
Please talk in full about how this series came into being.
Boza Ivanovic: Since I first got a camera in my hands, people were not my primary interest. In my late teens early twenties, living it what is now known as the former Yugoslavia, I used to jump the walls in the zoos to get in, since I did not have enough money to pay for the ticket, to be able to photograph animals. These walls were at least six feet tall and were lined with broken glass and barb wire.
I would then spend at least half day taking pictures of the animals on display. I always felt deep sorrow for this encaged animals since I though they were in terrible unnatural conditions. Of course, the quality of my work back then does not compare with my work today but when I look back, these humble beginnings were the start of what I portrait today.
I did not focus on animals until after I was recuperating from a motorcycle accident. The picture that rekindled my love for animal photography was taken at the San Diego zoo in Southern California when I was there for the sole purpose of taking my then six year-old son. It was a photograph of a tiger. The beast, as I saw it, was in a perfect, mysterious combination of darkness and light.
Since then on, I focused all my energy to develop the kind of animal photography that would portrait the beauty, traits and characteristics of these encaged animas. I have come to know and develop great admiration and respect for all the animals I have photographed since it requires quite a large amount of time and patients to have all the necessary elements to come together.
I remember when I first saw the photos, there was a natural joy to looking at the animals, but as time went on I began to see how miserable these creatures are, basically being in jail for their entire lives. In many of your photos, there is a feeling that you are photographing inmates sentenced to life, with no chance of parole. Having spent so much time looking carefully at these animals, did you notice their emotional states, and how would you describe them?
Yes. If you think about it, these animals are in very unnatural situations. Limited to what the enclosed, and most of the time, inadequate dwellings. And this I say regardless of the fancy we may perceive in some of the zoos. The endless pacing of bears, leopards, wolves; the endless rocking-like motion of the elephant’s head. I have seen animal in their natural environment when in one assignment in Africa and I can tell the difference in behavior. This is very disturbing to me and specially the fact that some of these animals when born in captivity will never know what freedom means. What is it more cruel, the animal that has lost his natural environment after being captured, or the one that has been born in captivity?
Your blackening out of the background further serves to underscore an unnatural environment, and focuses in on the animals themselves. What was your inspiration to focus exclusively on the animals?
I consider the majority of my photographs to be portraits. As such, I want people to “see” what I captured about that animal. By “blackening out” as you described it, unnatural elements such as bars and glass, I feel is the way to enhance the beauty, power, or any other characteristic of the animal. By being a documentary photographer, I don’t want to disturb the surrounding, I just want to capture the moment as it is. I want the animal to speak for itself.
Are there any particular animals to which you keep returning, and why ?
Absolutely. Chimps. I keep returning because there is always something happening with or around them. Gorillas because I am not yet completely satisfied with what I have so far. They are also my favorite apes. And of course, I come back to those animal I have not yet captured and portrayed at all or to my satisfaction.
Having spent so much time at zoos, what are your thoughts on the concept of locking up and displaying animals for our entertainment ?
Zoos are businesses and they exploit the natural desire we as humans have to see different animals specially those from the wild. However, I have observed many people at the zoo who do not know the difference between a cheetah and a jaguar, a gorilla and a chimpanzee. There are better and more economical ways to educate ourselves and our children about animals. It is cruel and egotistic from our part to capture these animals for our entertainment.
How do people react to your work? Do they see the pathos in these portraits, or are they, like the zoo-goer, simply enjoying the voyeuristic thrill of looking at animals up close ?
I have encounter both. People from the art field (magazine, books, galleries) tend to have a more sympathetic approach towards the animal. The common zoo-goer see them as interesting pictures and want to know how I got the picture, instead of being concern about the animal itself.
June 7, 2010
I was first introduced to Jennifer Uman by way of Brian Coleman, who asked me, “Who is your favorite writer? Who is your favorite musician?” Giving this some thought, I decided on Raymond Chandler and Miles Davis. Flash forward a couple of weeks, and I am at WFMU, doing “Coffee Break for Heroes and Villians” with Janette Beckman. Our host was none other than Noah Uman, Jen’s husband, who, after the show, told me he had a gift for me from Jen… I opened a small envelope to discover two petite portraits of my favorite artists, and was charmed by their casually groovy attitudes.
I emailed Jen about a week ago, and we just started talking .. and talking .. and talking. She sent me a link to her Flickr page, which contained, amongst other things, a series called “Photo Booth,” which I immediately adored, and, about which I wanted to learn more. Jennifer graciously to chat about her work with me.
Please talk about how you got started painting.
Jennifer Uman: I found a box of poster paint and a paintbrush in my apartment about seven years ago. I sat down and painted a small picture on scrap paper. It was a portrait of Willie Nelson. It came out horrible, but I loved it because it came from the most pure part of myself and making it was the best feeling.
So I began painting. Living in a predominately Hindustani/Pakistani neighborhood their culture, music, and traditions inspired and influenced me a lot….they still do. My life was chaos at the time so I fled into this space where I was painting every person I saw. That evolved into painting memories and places, historic figures I learned about in 4th grade and everything else inside my head.
It’s funny because most of my friends went to art school. I never even thought this was a possibility for me because I never painted before. I’ve still never taken an art class and I know nothing about technique but it works for me and it’s still the best feeling ever.
Please talk about the Photo Booth project. What was the inspiration for this series?
I love flaws.
Teeth, hair, toes, broken car doors, a crooked nose.
I wanted to make a series that could capture these flaws in a distinct environment. Also I liked the idea of taking creating one piece using 100 small works rather than how I have done previous series made up of four or five large works.
I have two photo booth photos above my desk. They were screaming for me to recognize that sometimes the best ideas are born from the things right in front of you. Truly!
What do you think it is that is so compelling about photo booths? Is it the instantaneousness of the images, the fact that they are shot in a series, the privacy behind the curtain, etc ?
I love the old photo booth photos. one little photograph can mark history and a sense of the era. That is what compels me to them. and of course… that instantaneous moment! it’s in these moments all of who we are comes out. The defects, insecurities, the ego, but captured in in an image.
How did you come up with your subjects? Are they based on people you know, photos you have seen, or purely drawn from your imagination?
Most of the subjects come from experiences. Of course there are photos and films that inspire me or that I have stolen from and made my own but mostly my ideas come from being alive. For this series it is great because I can create whatever scenario I want and see it through in a form that will help me to complete this puzzle.
I think my best ideas come when I follow a thought from beginning to end. For example, I was walking through a park and there was a drum circle. It was annoying BUT it triggered my memory of the the toy bongos my grandfather gave me when I was little. It was from this memory that turned into an idea of painting a man with a mustache and holding the bongos and that is how the man with the bongos ended up in the series.
I recently watched the Kurwisawa film “Stray Dog.” In the commentary I learned that this was the first film to use slow or classical music set to a fight scene. In some way I relate to this idea for this series. Perhaps people don’t think of a woman wearing a hijab in a photo booth, or something as simple of a girl eating a donut in a photo booth. Why does she even have a donut in a photo booth? Each character has their own story but together its a totally different idea.
Have you done any of your subjects in a series of 4, or are they just individual shots—a best of if you will?
I originally planned to do a series of ten strips of photo booth panels. I like to paint in series form but for this project I felt rather than putting my strength into repeating the same person/people I could develop different people and scenarios. I have a huge appreciation for small keepsakes, objects, and pocket sized sentimentality so I made each painting the exact same size of an actual photo booth photo.
Hmm….so perhaps each individual shot it’s own best of. I never thought of this before. i like it.
What is your ultimate goal for this project ?
Great question. I would love to make them into posters, notebooks, book covers, a book of stories, flip books, wallpaper, playing cards, everything! Also base or contribute to a group show around a similar idea. Ultimately this project has helped me grow and hopefully people will find something new every time they look at this series.
I read about the importance of taking pictures of the things you will forget. I am a horrible photographer so I’m trying to apply this to my painting. It has always been the small moments are the most important for me.
On the first anniversary of the June 4, 2009 publication of Pillage by Brantly Martin, the only novel published under the Miss Rosen Editions imprint, Variety reports:
Renee Zellweger is ready to party with “Pillage,” having acquired feature rights to former New York City nightlife impresario Brantly Martin’s novel of the same name.
Zellweger will produce “Pillage” with PalmStar Entertainment’s Kevin Frakes. John Krokidas (“Slo-Mo”), who penned the screenplay, will direct; shooting is scheduled to start during the first half of next year in New York City.
Newly minted PalmStar Media Capital will finance and handle worldwide sales.
“Pillage” centers on four best friends living in Manhattan who rebel against their dead-end lives by searching for the perfect party in the downtown nightlife scene.
Having spent the better part of my adolescence in New York’s after hours locales, and countless evenings hosting events in the city’s more upscale establishments, I am familiar with the creatures of the night—the fabulous and flamboyant, the decadent and depraved, the desperate and the effervescent mix that emerges in an unforgettable cocktail of sex, drugs, and DJ grooves.
It was, in fact, at one such party that I first met Brantly Martin, then a promoter who teamed up with powerHouse to host some of our more over-the-top book release parties. Unlike the industry’s standard wine-and-cheese affairs, we have always prided ourselves on unforgettable events that combine the high style of the club scene with the cultural cache of the art world. Most recently, we reconnected at the launch of The powerHouse Library at Mansion, New York’s biggest and boldest superclub. It was there that I discovered Brantly had written a novel.
“Send it to me!” I enthused.
“But you only do art books?”
“That doesn’t matter! I want to read it,” I determined, assured that any expose of the club scene was well worth an evening’s reading. Much like the drugs it describes, Pillage offers more than entertainment and escape—it offers insight and inspiration, refreshingly unpretentious yet intelligent analysis of America through the combination of shocking content and striking style, a risky mix of prose poetry, drug-addled imagery, and clear, concise English.
The love child of Charles Bukowski and Bret Easton Ellis, Brantly Martin provides a brutal yet hilarious look at the lives of Manhattan’s downtown elite at the dawn of the new millennium in Pillage, his first novel. Detailing the decadent descent of Cracula and his crew, Brantly lures us into the shadowy ambiguities of addiction—a world where desire meets destruction and the perversity of this pathos is often laughable. Be it urban wildebeest Aeronymous, the wigga with a taste for BAPE sweaters and iced coffees; the Fireman, the overgrown adolescent who knows the quickest way to your ex-girlfriend’s bed; or the Reverend, who rejected the sins of his brothers to save the Africans from themselves, the entitled creatures of this novel plunder what remains of a once-vibrant culture and reap the spoils of our languorous generation.
Between eight balls of cocaine and pints of Patrón, Cracula fluctuates between reality and fantasy, hyper-aware of the façades, formulas, and falsehoods that encircle his existence, but unable to gain an advantage. Pillage reveals the inherent hypocrisy of America’s social and economic achievements, as they are made manifest in the city that never sleeps, slyly implying that triumph is a trap in itself—and the only way out? Just ask Kurt Cobain…
June 4, 2010
Photographs and Text by Nat Finkelstein
First published in Andy Warhol: The Factory Years, 1964–1967
Andy Warhol’s greatest work of art was Andy Warhol. Other artists first make their art and then celebrity comes from it. Andy reversed this.
For me the Factory was a place of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, for some of the others it was: from ferment comes art. I was thinking, “Art who?” They took this guy named Art, put him on a pedestal, and everybody would get down on their hands and knees and raise their ass like it was Allah, “Andee, Ann…Dee, Andy Warhol, here he comes!” was the drum that Andy danced to in those days.
Andy’s strategy was organized like an air-raid though radar-protected territory. He would drop these showers of silver foil out of the plane to deflect the radar. Behind this screen of smoke and mirrors, there was Andy at work. That was the real function of the entourage. It was a way to get the attention away from Andy, while he hid behind them, doing his number. The entourage was there to distract the attention, to titillate and amuse the public, while Andy was doing his very serious work.
Andy was a very hard-working artist, a working man. He hid this very carefully, creating the myth that his products just kinda appeared. I’m probably one of the very few photographers who actually has pictures of Andy with his hands on a paintbrush and the paintbrush touching the painting. He didn’t want to get paint on his hands. So like any great artist, he had an atelier. He manipulated people to do things for him. It was a very studied casual act, “Hey, you do it.” While he was working, he also had others work for him… Well, what else is a Factory? It was a brilliant scam.
Andy was so good at hiding the fact that he was directing and manipulating that it caused a lot of friction, as with Danny Williams of the Velvet Undergound. It’s not that people were Andy’s puppets, or that he spoke through their bodies, but he was always able to insinuate himself as the driving force, Donovan’s brain. It was like two Haploid cells coming together and forming a unified cell—though it looked like a mass snake fornication. Andy’s great talent was to uncover minor talents, put them together and come out with a great whole made out of minor parts. Gerard was Andy’s great discovery. Gerard was the Factory. He was the curry that hid the taste of slightly spoiled meat. The Factory was a stew made out of society’s left-overs, rejects, and damaged merchandise. The satellites were peaches, waiting to be bruised.
Andy merchandised art in each and every way. He made art into pop culture. The proof of the pudding is in that the Brillo company started in 1968 to give away these plastic balloons with a brillo print on it. Walk into any supermarket now, walk into any park, and you can buy these vinyl balloons; heart-shaped or sausage shaped. Andy was the person who invented the vinyl process and then they became part of pop culture. Andy didn’t need the story of Jesus and Mary to make the Pieta, just Campbell’s soup cans and an idea. He took the artifacts of ordinary life and used them to create a mirror of society. He put into a gestalt the signs and symbols of reality. Not a creator…. An innovator. Andy was the Sony of Modern Art.
Nat Finkelstein’s photographs of Andy Warhol are on view at:
Warhol: Dylan to Duchamp
exhibition at the new Eric Firestone Gallery
In East Hampton, NY
When I discovered Heart for Haiti, I nearly fell over. Benefiting the Haitian relief efforts, this online art auction features 146 pieces of affordable art by everyone form Danielle Levitt, Brian Finke, and Martin Schoeller to Phillip Toledano, Anthony Mandler, and Ben Watts. The auction culminates in an exhibition on June 16 from 6–10pm at Aperture Gallery, New York, and the online auction closes on June 17 at 11:59pm. Organized by Heart Art Productions, along with Sascha & Stephen Mallon, run red creative, and agmac, all proceeds will be donated to Doctors Without Borders. I thank Celeste Holt-Walters for taking the time to discuss this amazing project with me.
Please talk about the inspiration to organize Heart for Haiti.
Celeste Holt-Walters: The idea actually started as a casual conversation between Steve Mallon and myself. His wife, illustrator, Sascha Mallon, was really interested in doing something to help the community in Haiti. There seemed to be a lot of benefits going on immediately after the earthquake, but we knew that several months out, Haitians would still need just as much support. Quite often, funds and peoples attention start to dwindle as events leave the front page news, so we wanted to produce something a few months out, when donations and support where still crucial, but maybe waning. We all thought that an art auction would be a really fun and successful way to both raise $$ and rally the art community to help. We then sort of started moving forward full force from there! Heart Art got on board, as did runredcreative and agmac and from there Heart For Haiti was born!
How did you connect with your partners on this project?
CHW: Steve and Sascha Mallon and Heart Art are great friends and had collaborated in the past on non-Heart Art projects, so we naturally came together for this. Agmac is an expert event organizer, as well as a blogger and art lover and was eager to help. My creative partner at Heart Art Audrie Lawrence and Sally Berman of run red creative had also been discussing different avenues that would enable us to collaborate and this project became the perfect union.
Your line up of artists is sensational! How did you determine who and what to include in the show?
CHW: Our main goal is to raise as much money for the cause as possible. We started by reaching out to photographers whose work and names we thought would be recognizable and eye catching to the general public. We then expanded from there. The auction is not curated and all interested artists were welcome and encouraged to donate. Our only request was that the work be something that the artist felt someone would want to own and hang on their wall!!
The starting bid of the work—$250—is also phenomenal. Why did you decide to price everything at the same, affordable starting bid?
CHW: We really wanted this auction to be accessible and affordable to as many people as possible, while still starting the prices high enough to insure that the amount raised is successful. After A LOT of back and forth!, we decided to start almost everyone’s work at the same price of 250. We really felt that all of the art was and should be treated equal, as it was all generously donated. There are some pieces that we allowed to be priced higher, so as to respect the integrity of an edition, or to acknowledge that the work is one of a kind, etc. But for the most part, all work started at 250$.
What are some of your favorite pieces in the show? Will you be bidding on anything?
Ah, too hard to choose!! There are so many really really fabulous pieces in the show, I cannot pick one as a favorite! I will definitely be bidding on a couple, but will keep which ones a secret for now. :)
June 2, 2010
Lucky .. That’s how I felt when I received an email from FAUST, a graff writer I have never met but have been curious about for the longest. Out of nowhere, FAUST reached out with a couple of shots of his work for “Willoughby Windows,” a block of storefronts in Brooklyn featuring full installations by 12 artists organized by Ad Hoc Art Gallery and the Metro Tech Business Improvement District.
A developer evicted all of the residents and business owners on the block with plans for new construction, which got halted when the recession hit, and has been sitting vacant ever since. Now, with the installations, the street has been transformed from a ghost town to an open air gallery.
And while street art has its charm, I won’t front. Graffiti—for me—just kills it. FAUST graciously agreed to speak about his work in this show. Damn, it’s good to have a blog ..
How did you connect with the “Willoughby Windows” project? Were you able to select your location (cause you got prime real estate in this exhibition)? How long will the work stay up?
FAUST: I first met the Directors of Ad Hoc Art when they hosted the book release for Martha Cooper’s Going Postal. About a year later they reached out to me, inviting me to take part in the “Willoughby Windows” project. I jumped at the opportunity to work in the biggest most visible space and apparently they had faith in me to take full advantage of it. The installations will be up for the next six months.
Everyone else involved in the project looks to be a street artist. As the lone graff writer, what was your inspiration to do a tag on a massive scale?
FAUST: There is this great divide between graffiti and street art, which is perhaps more inflamed today than ever before. Unquestionably, street art reaches a far wider audience than traditional graffiti. But I was stunned meeting avid followers of street art that entirely dismissed letter-based graffiti.
I grew up painting graffiti and am a huge traditionalist when is comes to style. I refuse to believe that a graffiti writer needs to create a figurative image, for their work to be appreciated and recognized as art. When I see a well-executed tag on the street, with great rhythm and flow, a strong overall form with powerful individual letters, I’d take that any day over a cartoon character.
However, I recognize that the conventions of graffiti haven’t changed very much in the past thirty years. One would generally catch a tag if they were short on time or space. With a couple more minutes to spare you might do a fill-in. And with the luxury of time (and square feet) you’d paint a piece. And these often colorful and elaborate pieces were the aspect of graffiti that was most commonly accepted as being artistic. After more than ten years of following these conventions, I began to question them.
I began to think about catching tags bigger than any piece. I wanted to challenge the way everybody saw and thought about graffiti. If I blew-up the scale of a tag so large that it didn’t even fit on the wall anymore and painted it somewhere unexpected, I wondered if more people would appreciate the formal qualities and raw energy of a tag that the minority of graffiti purists recognize and cherish. Or perhaps, if the tag got so big, and so cut off, that it might not even register as graffiti anymore.
I thought being a part of “Willoughby Windows” would be fertile ground for these explorations.
You wrote on the window, “It seemed like a good idea at the time” .. Do you believe that real estate development in NYC, particularly in the business sector, has had a positive effect on the local economy and community (as it tends to put Mom and Pop shops out of business in favor of national chains)?
FAUST: I don’t view the question as only a local concern. I would also hate to generalize. I view my installation as site specific, and the statement as a direct response to that particular situation.
My understanding is that a developer evicted all of the residents and business owners on the block with plans for new construction, which got halted when the recession hit. The buildings have been sitting vacant since. The artists invited to participate in the “Willoughby Windows” project were told that we have complete creative freedom as long as our work isn’t about real estate, politics, or controversial in any way. In other words, nothing relevant. The phrase I chose to write on the windows was my way of critiquing the situation in a subtle, ambiguous, and hopefully poignant manner.
This project completely redefines the term “window shopping” — given that there’s nothing to buy. Do you think public art has the power to change our environment on an economic level? Social level? Political level?
FAUST: I think that question would be better directed to the Metro Tech BID or any public arts organization. As an artist I have far more experience and interest in how public art touches the viewer on a personal level. Naturally, having a graffiti background, I prefer maintaining my anonymity and having as few people see me create my work as possible. But to my surprise, comments and encouragement from passersby made me understand that my installation was less about me and more about them.
The whole time I worked on writing the statement on the window I would overhear people reminiscing over what the block used to be like, the businesses, the people, the character. One gentleman stopped and told me about the store that used to occupy the space I painted. He was very generous, but seemed to infer that I was unaware of the situation, like I was there to put a band-aide over a crack in the window. I asked if he had taken a second to read what I was writing? When he did, he flashed an unavoidable grin of approval. As far as I’m concerned I was there to shatter the window, in as nice a way as possible, of course. It made me feel like I was giving a voice and representation to the people in the community that had to walk down that block each day.
Props to Martha Cooper for inviting me down to Baltimore over Memorial Day weekend to attend the Wild Style Reunion ~and~ the 25th Anniversary Sowebo Festival.
Getting out of New York is one thing—but being on the streets of Southwest Baltimore while Marty snapz the camera is an another altogether. From a sneak peek into the horse stables while dude polished his Mercedes out front to a haggard woman in the pizza spot wearing some kind of Mennonite outfit; from the square where F. Scott Fitzgerald lived while he put Zelda up in at a nearby asylum to the remains of West Baltimore Street some 40 years after the riots of 1968; from walking along the tracks of the B&O railroad (yea, like in “Monopoly”) to the Wild Style reunion itself, my trip to B-more was like an episode of the Twilight Zone, with American history compressed through time and space across a few square miles.
Special thanks goes out to Charlie Ahearn, Chief Rocker Busy Bee, Grand Wizzard Theodore, Cope 2, and Indie 184 for a brilliant party.
June 2, 2010
My new story, White Heat, a piece on the St. Tropez retreat of designer Jean des Bouvrie was just published in April/May issue of Interiors Magazine. Here’s a sneak preview of this casually glamorous getaway, which inspires me with its graceful charm and elegant allure on this beautiful sunny New York day.
June 1, 2010
From the moment I began reading Spent, I felt a surge of recognition that increased with every page I turned. Though we had different styles for compulsive consumption, author Avis Cardella and I shared many common traits, the most glaring being a desire to escape. Filling the chasm with stuff, stuff you don’t want or need, we both have spent untold hours and countless dollars consuming things in the hope that things will heal untreated wounds.
As time goes on, one begins to understand the unfortunate irony of shopping addiction: the act of acquiring is profoundly empty and the object’s only power is to reveal its failure. Hence Avis tossed many purchases into the bottom of her closet the moment she got home, while I became a compulsive gift giver, combining a desire to connect to people through objects with the need to get those objects out of my life.
Shopping addiction is fueled by hope, an all-consuming state where nothing but white noise exists. The distraction, detachment, and avoidance from reality renders the object itself is irrelevant. Shopping is about possibility, the addictive state of partial reinforcement, that maybe this time the object will satisfy our desires and transform our lives. It never does. That’s why we keep coming back.
Spent recounts your life as a shopper—from your formative, fun-filled memories as a child, through your decadent climb through high fashion, finally spiraling out of control into an addiction that took hold of your life. Having my own issues with shopping, I was very moved by all the issues you touched upon, and wanted to begin this interview by asking why do you think we—both as a culture and a gender—have become so focused on the act of purchasing?
Avis Cardella: Culturally, I think we are lead to believe that what we wear, drive, or live in is a true representation of self. Identity is tied in with product so purchasing becomes a form of self-realization.
As far as women and shopping goes… I recently read a quote from the performance artist Karen Finley. In her show, “The Jackie Look” she describes shopping for clothes as “the only form of aggressive and greedy behavior allowed for women.”
There may be something to that.
One of the things you mentioned was the untold amount of time you had dedicated to shopping. That “time is money” and that we “spend” time clearly establishes a link between the two. What are your thoughts on the relationship between time, money, and shopping?
AV: That’s a great question. I think I could write a whole other book on this. There are so many intricate links here and interesting avenues. But for the sake of brevity I’ll just touch on two I’ve been thinking about:
I think we mostly occupy our lives with two kinds of activities: time killers and time savers. On the one hand, we are inundated with ways and means to “save” time. On the other, we find ourselves constantly bombarded with “activities” to keep us busy and supposedly happy… essentially killing time. I killed a lot of time shopping. Today, I’m certain that a large part of that time was not well spent.
The other thing I find interesting is that culturally we are mostly taught how to earn well but not how to spend well. What I mean by this is that there’s little attention paid to the real value of things: the time it took to earn that money in relation to the value of the goods you are buying, or the value of the pleasure or purpose you’ll get from that product.
I know that I paid a lot of attention to how I was earning my money but not how I was spending it.
What I found when I was shopping compulsively was that it got to a point where I was no longer enjoying the shopping experience and no longer enjoying the purchases. I was not spending well.
You listed a number of compulsive shopping styles in your book (three of which I identified in myself; one of which I have beaten, one of which I am battling, and one of which I currently have no interest in giving up). Please talk about these various behaviors, and how you have come to understand and address them within yourself.
AV: If you look at the research currently available, it seems there are myriad ways to be a compulsive shopper: impulse shoppers, bargain shoppers, collectors, compulsive gift-givers, and hoarders, to name a few.
I was mostly an impulse shopper who found herself in stores for no good reason and with no idea of what I wanted or needed. At one point, I also had a strange habit, which I refer to in the book as “hoarding” but it’s not really hoarding as is clinically known. Still, it was a strange thing I did where I would buy an item, put it somewhere in my closet prominently displayed, and not allow myself to wear it until an almost identical or very similar item had been purchased.
I still don’t understand that particular action, but I have come to understand my compulsive shopping as a way to protect myself from negative emotions. It was easier to shop and try to project an image of a perfect self rather than face life’s realities. In the act of shopping, I could pretend that I had control over life and that I could be whatever that particular item I was buying projected.
Of course, this was an illusion. I had to address the root of my problem. I was avoiding grief, loss, unhappiness, loneliness, and I had low self-esteem. When I faced these issues, I began to heal myself.
Are you able to pinpoint at what point did the act of shopping go from being a positive to a negative experience? Can you describe the negative physical, mental, and emotional symptoms of shopping addiction?
I know exactly when shopping took its wrong turn: after my mother’s sudden death. Prior to that, I was a young woman who enjoyed shopping and who started to acquire credit cards to build a credit history. I shopped for fashion but not excessively and I bought on credit but kept meticulous accounts and paid off all my debts on time. After my mother died, I found myself seeking comfort in the act of shopping and this is when I began to avoid other parts of my life. Shopping became the balm and the escape.
You kept you behavior a secret from your friends and family. Was there anyone in your life who knew what was happening to you?
AV: Friends knew I was going through something but were not clear what was wrong. I think it was difficult for anyone to discern at the time because shopping was labeled a normal activity and something that everyone seemed to be doing on a daily basis—at least in NY in the 90’s. It was the age of Sex and the City, and irrational exuberance and “retail therapy” was something that was considered a good thing.
It was easy to hide behind shopping because if you said you were going shopping nobody felt there was anything wrong with that.
Given the fact you did not spend money on food, I am assuming there were some forms of shopping that held no interest for you. Now that you have your addiction in control, do these forms of shopping hold any interest today?
AV: Food shopping and furniture shopping used to bore the heck out of me. I was much more interested in clothes, cosmetics and accessories.
Stereotypical female interests.
Today, I really enjoy shopping for food. In fact, my interest in food and cooking and “nurturing” myself is something that takes precedence over all other shopping.
It’s strange to consider that shopping is a behavior you still engage in, despite your conquering your addiction (whereas drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, gambling—well, when you break that addiction, you cease to engage in those activities). Are there any difficulties in being a former shopping addict when you are shopping?
AV: From my understanding, doctors currently have compulsive shopping pegged as a behavioral problem meaning it differs from alcoholism or drug addiction in that there’s doesn’t seem to be a physical dependency that is developed.
I don’t have real difficulties shopping today since I have gone at the root of my problem. Admittedly, I have moments where I’m in a store and do worry that I may buy one thing and then won’t be able to stop. It’s been over six years since I dealt with my problem and this has not happened.
For people who do not understand that this is a real addiction, what would you say to them?
AV: I can understand why people may not think of shopping addiction as a “real” addiction. In fact, shopping addiction remains controversial in the medical community. It’s currently being reviewed for inclusion in the DSM-V, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due for publication in 2013.
It is being addressed more seriously as a medical problem and it is being heavily researched.
Some of the research is really fascinating and involves neuroscience, where brain activity is being evaluated. Some early research suggests that there may be truth to the “shopper’s high” in that brain chemicals might be activated while we are in the process of shopping. So, there may be something physical going on after all.
From my own experience, I did have physical sensations that accompanied my shopping and didn’t know how to account for them. I’m curious to see what further research reveals about this aspect of compulsive shopping.
Still, aside from the science, compulsive behaviors, whether it is shopping, gaming, overeating, or other, are reportedly on the rise. The question of whether they are “real” addictions doesn’t interest me as much as wanting to understand what’s going on when so many people are behaving in compulsive ways.
June 1, 2010
Brent Lewin recently exhibited photographs from his series Street Elephants at the CONTACT Photography Festival in Toronto, and given how well our first interview went, I asked Brent to chat about this project. Examining the distinctive textures of elephant hides, Brent’s photographs reveal an individuality that is both abstract and realistic, imaginative and iconographic. I thank Brent for sharing his experiences photographing Thailand’s street elephants with us.
Please talk about the inspiration to photograph the skin textures of elephants in Thailand.
Brent Lewin: It was born from an interest in the overall story surrounding the elephant in Thailand. I was spending quite a bit of time with a few groups of mahouts that worked the tourist areas in Bangkok. They tend to work very late and sleep in until the late afternoon. I would always go meet them where they squat (in patches of undeveloped green space in Bangkok) before a day of shooting but they would always be asleep. So I would wander over to where their elephants were grazing and hang out with them, that’s where I first started exploring their skin. It started off as B roll type of stuff but when I got home and was able to see the detail, beauty, and diversity of their skins on a computer screen I had a bit of a eureka moment and I knew this was something I wanted to shoot and blow up large in a gallery.
I am stunned by the work—each photograph reveals a creature that is so different from the next, one would be hard pressed to say that they were even the same animal. Did you photograph different sections of the elephants, or did you pick one area and shoot the same spot on different animals?
BL: Most of the portraits were taken on the elephant’s body anywhere between the head and tail. Some were taken on the exact same spot with different elephants, others were of slightly different areas. A couple were taken on the trunk and one is of the bottom of the foot (Duang, age 45). Duang’s portrait really stands out for me not only because of the color, but the shot of her foot reveals a sole that is badly damaged from a life of walking on city streets.
I read somewhere that elephants’ skin are like snow flakes, no two are identical, I think it was at an elephant logging camp in Taungoo, Burma so I can’t vouch for how scientific or accurate that claim is! But from what I’ve seen, the elephant’s skin varies a lot from one to another. Combined with this is the fact that I shot them at different times of days in different light, some where wet, some dry, some I lit with a strobe as well to really highlight the texture.
I noticed on the captions you included the animal’s name and age. Does age play into the skin texture, as it does with humans?
I consider these photos a portrait series so I thought it was only right to include this information. I think age does play a factor, though I think it was only noticeable when comparing adults to babies.
How did the elephants feel about you getting up close and personal? Are they comfortable with strangers, or did you first need to “get to know” them before you came into their personal space?
These are all captive elephants that walk, or have walked, the streets of Bangkok so they are accustomed to being around strangers. I shot nearly all of these with a wide angle lens so in some cases I was less than a foot away from them. Before I take out my camera I would always spend some time petting and feeding the elephants but I’m not sure if this made them more willing subjects or not.
The most challenging part was not their temperament but just being able to get them to stand still! The elephants would always want to know what I was doing around their bodies. I shot many of these at high apertures with a slower shutter speed so movement was an issue. They would constantly be turning and I’d be turning with them often several times in circles until we were both dizzy! I’m sure this looked completely ridiculous to the mahouts that were watching us. The elephants only seem to get agitated when a flash is used and I learned that very quickly after an elephant took a swing at me with her trunk!
But back to the question, some elephants are hard to work with. I’d guess half the elephants that walk the streets are born in captivity, the other half are captured in the wild as babies in Burma, separated from their mother, and smuggled into Thailand through an illegal trade network to be sold to people who want to use them in the tourism industry but often to buyers wanting to take them street begging… yes they are that lucrative. Many of the elephants that come from Burma were once wild and had to be broken in violent and traumatic procedure. The combination of being taken from the wild, separated from their mother, and violently trained leave these elephant with a lot of mental problems and this can make them unpredictable and sometimes dangerous to be around. They are easy to spot, often exhibiting symptoms of severe PTSD, head-bobbing, swinging back and forth, pacing. Mahouts keep these elephants very close to them when they street-walk. These elephants took a long time to warm up to.
What do you find most compelling and beautiful about this majestic creature?
It’s funny I get asked this a lot and I’m still not sure I can articulate exactly what it is about elephants that make them so compelling. I know very little about the African elephant and my attraction has always been to the Asian elephant, one that has always been in the service of people. The human-elephant relationship goes back hundreds and hundreds of years and has taken many forms throughout time and across cultures. I think there’s something in our collective unconscious that draws us toward the elephant. It can’t just be their looks, they’re an enormous, strange looking creature that has a huge appendage sticking out of its face and above all they seem hard to read and rarely exhibit visible emotion to humans (versus say a dog).
My first up close encounter with elephants in Thailand was more about, “Wow, I’m standing here petting an elephant!” The more time I’ve spent with elephants I’ve come to understand them better and my fascination with them has deepened. They are extremely intelligent, highly emotional and exhibit very complex social behavior. For these reasons they are probably the closest creature on earth to humans. I think this is one of the reasons it’s so distressing to think about the current state of the elephant in Thailand. Many are separated from their mothers at a young age. Most of the captive population remains chained up for most of the day on a short leash with little to no contact with other elephants.
In turn this is making it extremely difficult to breed elephants in captivity and is a big reason they are an endangered species in Asia. It’s also encouraging an illegal trade network in Burma which is robbing them of their wild elephants (a topic I will be working on in depth later this year) It’s not so much about them being captive or domesticated but more about how they are managed. I think the only way this will change is when foreign tourists start demanding another form of elephant tourism different from the one they have in place now which is one based solely on profit and not on conservation. It would be tragic to see this beautiful creature disappear.