Essays Intro



Essays Intro



Antonioni’s Orgy: Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point was in many ways the last film of the sixties - conceived in the Summer of Love, shot in 1969 and released in February of 1970. This essay is about how the film describes that decade and the conflicts that simmered very close to the surface by the time that it was shot. Aside from a history of its production the essay details Antonioni's ideas for the film and the various interpretations, both positive and negative, that have surrounded the work from its release to the present. The essay concludes with an assessment of the famous blow-up sequence, set to the music of Pink Floyd, that ends the film and how it sums up not only the film but Antonioni's body of work in the 1960's.

The Arc of a Dive: Photographs by Alexander Rodchenko and Leni Riefensthal

This essay describes the photographic and film work of Alexander Rodchenko and Leni Reiefensthal as they were both, by coincidence, working in the realm of photojournalism during the 1936 Olympic Games. Their radically different pictures of divers tell us a great deal about not only their aesthetics but their political orientation. A brief history of the Games and of photojournalism at that time puts their work into perspective. This essay's essential format comes from John Berger's comment that a photograph fundamentally describes a whole world view - and the implications of that idea when it is set into motion in the real world by two very strong willed, talented artists, at a turning point in 20th century history.

Fuck History, Let's Dance: Richard Avedon in Paris

In 1956 Richard Avedon traveled to Paris for Conde Nast to photograph the models Robin Tattersall and Suzy Paker, in the Place de la Concorde, for a new line of winter clothes, and the resulting photograph tells us a great deal about the mindset of the audience for which the photograph was intended, desperate to escape History in the midst of a pivotal historical moment in the post war years. The main subject of this essay is an examination of why that picture would become a template for American editorial photography and advertising in the coming years, and why Avedon himself abandoned that format to create mostly portraits in the studio using a white seamless that eliminated the outside world.

Who Shot Marilyn? Photography and Andy Warhol's Silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe

In the early sixties, shortly after the death of Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol incorporated an image, taken from his vast archive of pictures, of the film star and included it in his series "Death in America." Who shot the original picture that Warhol used? Why has this silkscreen become one of the most iconic portraits of the 20th Century? What was Warhol's own take on the work and his reasoning? This essay deals with these questions, as well as providing a historical context, as other artists, such as Willem de Kooning and Bruce Conner, were also working with images of Marilyn Monroe.  Why do these portraits resonate still - and what do they tell us about our own time?

A Bridge in Blythe, a Panorama in Waterloo and a Vortex in Time: Photography in the Novels of W.G.Sebald

W.G. Sebald used photography in all of his writing and was himself an avid photographer and collector of photographs. How did these collections work in his novels and what is their relationship to films and to photography within his narratives?  Since Sebald had an encyclopedic knowledge of the medium what role did seemingly random snapshots - the most used format in his work - play in the narratives that he created? This essay deals with those questions as well as Sebald's playfulness, which is often bypassed because of the serious themes - principally the tragic absurdity of life and the irreconcilability of death - that always seemed front and center in his work.

Fellini Goes to the Beach

Fellini grew up in Rimini, a small beach town in Italy, and the beach was always a prominent player in his work.  What roles did the beach play in his films and how did it change over the years as his work shifted from neorealist narratives to fantastical vignettes? Did the beach always play the same role or did it change - and if so how did it change?  This essay is both an attempt to answer those questions and a study of Fellini's transition from realism to archetypal fantasy.

Photographic Adventures With Edgar Degas

In 1885 at the height of the craze for academic art and neoclassical tableaus Degas made a photograph and titled it The Apotheosis of Degas. This was a ferociously brilliant and acerbic re-creation of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ The Apotheosis of Homer (1827). What was the idea behind this satirical picture and why did Degas make it?  This essay attempts to understand Degas' reasoning and why the picture was part of a larger critical/satirical artistic enterprise, found in popular magazines and newspapers of the day, that Degas would have been familiar with. The essay gives a background to this picture and the historical and philosophical ramifications of its satire, coming at the height of the popularity for neoclassical art, that would only be shattered in the following century by WW1 and early modernist art - a two front fragmentation bomb from which neoclassicism never quite recovered. The Apotheosis of Degas is the first call to arms in that long battle.

Doubting Thomas: Photography and Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up

This essay examines Michelangelo Antonioni's film from the point-of-view of the emerging documentary kitchen sink realism of the period as well as the more realistic and sarcastic fashion emerging from the London scene throughout the sixties. The story by Julio Cortazar that gave birth to the film is dealt with at length as is the production of the film. But the centerpiece of the work is why Antonioni chose to compare and contrast two very different kinds of photography - photojournalism and fashion - and the implications of the choices that must be made by Thomas, the photographer in Blow-Up.

The Biggest Film Biographer in the World: The Films of Ken Russell for the BBC

This essay looks at Ken Russell's work for the BBC during the late fifties and sixties, with their extraordinary ability to condense enormous amounts of information and emotional impact into one hour. The films' counterpoint between documentary and fiction, is without parallel. While Russell would go on to a great career making feature films the early work for the BBC is perhaps his most serious and complex body of work - challenging the ideas regarding both the truth of documentary and the nature of re-enactments - that go much farther than anything being done at the time or today. This essay is a short history of their production and the implications of their radical content.

No One Here Gets Out Alive: Federico Fellini's Toby Dammit

This is an essay on Federico Fellini's short film from 1968 that sits between the longer feature films - Juliet of the Spirits and Satyricon - that have become iconic within the Italian master's filmography. The film was made in a period of transition where Fellini began to have enormous doubts about the possibility of narrative to describe the contemporary world. These doubts would be incorporated into the film itself in a variety of ways, as Fellini, with great humor, mimics an encyclopedic array of narrative conventions and formulas as well as cinematic techniques for conveying emotional cues, and exposes them as insipid and inadequate, but to what end? Toby Dammit is also the most compelling observation of what Guy Debord, in the same period, called "The Society of the Spectacle" - something akin to what we now call the “celebrity industrial complex” - the film eviscerates that social matrix and points the way to reasons why we needed to construct such a society in the first place. In many respects it goes beyond Debord's own films, suggesting a profoundly ambivalent death drive - linked to a narcissistic romanticism - that is out of control. With typical humor and fantastical pastiche Fellini goes into the deep end of spectacle, via Edgar Allan Poe, in arguably the greatest short film ever made.

Gone To Hollywood: Annie Leibovitz and Helmut Newton Shoot the Stars

In the 1980's Annie Leibovitz and Helmut Newton took several trips to Hollywood, California to photograph film stars. Their resulting pictures are radically different and tell us a great deal not only about their own temperaments, and their thoughts about fame, but about Hollywood - or simply "the industry" as the locals call it - which is an enormously influential cultural and artistic factory, rivaled in the 1980’s only by television and later by video games and social media. While both artists had an encyclopedic knowledge of art and photographic history to draw on, they took radically different paths in their treatment of fame, power, money and beauty - the foundation of the American star system. This essay is about those differences and what they can tell us about America in the 1980's and today.

The Delight of the Particular: Photographs by Ronald Traeger

Ronald Traeger, an American photographer, lived in London, Paris and Rome from 1962 to 1968. While the pictures he took there were mostly fashion and editorial work that ended up in the pages of Elle and Vogue there is something very contemporary and extraordinary about his work that is relevant for our time. Traeger, and many of his colleagues, such as David Bailey, sought to overturn the staid tableaus of the 1950's that characterized much of the work being produced, both in the fine art and commercial realms. Many of the young photographers of the period challenged this orthodox style and sought a more spontaneous approach, with wider philosophical implications, that are the subject of this essay.

Who's the Clown With the Camera? A Brief History of the Art of the Paparazzi

Paparazzi photography - that is one devoted to the machinery of 'yellow journalism' - has been around since the early 20th century, and is now the most pervasive photographic convention that the general public is familiar with. While that public consumes enormous amounts of popular culture on a daily basis, the history - and the philosophy - of paparazzi photography is little known or understood. The paparazzi have had many lives, first being determined photojournalists with hidden cameras in the early 20th century, then moving to Cinecitta and La Dolce Vita, via Federico Fellini, in the enchanted world of Rome in the early 1960's, then to the hard realities of the 1980's, becoming a formidable commercial enterprise, then to assuming their present form as early 21st century, corporate, multinational digital 'guns for hire.' This is a brief history of their birth, the philosophy behind their aesthetic, and their rise to importance, if not prominence, within the field known as popular culture.

Nobody's Vision: Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, made in 1995, is one of the American director’s greatest works. The film brilliantly fuses the poetry of the 19th Century English mystical poet William Blake with the traditional “Vision Quest” of the Native American Indian during the same period, but to what end? The answer to that question has repercussions not only for America at the end of the millennium, when the film was made but perhaps even more for our time, at the beginning of the new century and the ascendancy of technology as the new dominant religious force that is, presumably, the window to the sublime, the transcendental and the mysterious.


The Collector and His Discontents: Richard Prince's Photographs

This is an essay first published in 1987 and then revised some twenty years later, on the photographs of Richard Prince, who was one of the leading members of the "pictures generation." The essay examines the various traditions, particularly in American landscape painting and portraiture, that inform the work. The essay looks at his use of irony and appropriation in his collage and photography, that was a common practice when he began his career, and the successes and failures of his work.

The Book of Phantoms: Valerie Jouve and the Crisis of the Contemporary Portrait


Valerie Jouve's portraits are about subjects lost in thought, elementary actions caught in medias res, behavioral ticks that perhaps allude to something, but what that something is remains opaque. There seems to be a certain reticence in the subjects, a turning away, a particularly urban solitude that produces strange body movements, such as those that happen to people who don’t experience intimacy over long periods and are then put into an intimate situation. Some of the subjects are thinking silently and keeping it to themselves. They maintain a certain distance. Narrative is everywhere (like rocks on the beach, as Barthes described it), but nothing takes hold, nothing solidifies into what is called a primary narrative. The sort of significant gestures that "tell a story" - moments that commercial photographers create on a regular basis - never arrives. But to what end? This essay sets out to try to answer these questions, as well as to pinpoint just what this crisis in photographic portraiture might be, and how Jouve has dealt with it in her photographic and film work. 

A Small Civilization: torpor by Chris Kraus

Torpor remains the most personal, insightful and moving work of fiction centered around the end of the millennium and its aftermath. Sylvie, Kraus' hyper self-conscious alter-ego, attempts a new beginning - to enter history fresh - by adopting a child and starting a family with Jerome, her partner, a disaffected European professor haunted by History and seeking a way out. Their catastrophic failure, in the post-apocalyptic ruins of Romania, the art salons of New York, and the academic ivory towers of Los Angeles, set the stage for a finale that brilliantly describes our situation in terms that are both horrific and hilarious.

One Second to Live: A Brief History of the Photography of Concern

There are several names for it and it is often seen as a genre that lives within the confines of photojournalism, documentary, or war photography. Some call it the photography of agony (John Berger), some call it shock-pictures (Susan Sontag) and some in social media call it violence porn. In this essay we will call it the photography of concern, after the Magnum agency's phrase "the concerned photographer" that was coined by Cornell Capa who defined it as "describing those photographers who demonstrated in their work a humanitarian impulse to use pictures to educate and change the world, not just to record it." This essay covers the history of the genre, the conflicts that have come up since the beginning, and the philosophical disagreements - ethical and aesthetic - and where they have led. 

Our Man In Vietnam: The Color Photography of Larry Burrows

Larry Burrows was a British born photographer who worked his whole life for Life magazine from the age of sixteen onward - he was the principal photojournalist for them from 1962 when he arrived in Vietnam to 1971 when he was killed in a helicopter that crashed - caught in a firefight somewhere in the border between Laos and Vietnam. His photographs have been used not only as documents of the war, and as works of art, but also as reference material for films such as Apocalypse Now and The Thin Red Line due to the evocative poetics that form a central part of his work. How to describe that poetics? This is the central question posed by this essay - trying to find some answers - as it traces Burrows' trajectory in the nine years that he lived and worked in Vietnam.

The Strand Test

The Strand Test is a personal essay about my experiences working in the Strand Bookstore in New York City beginning in 1979, a year after I moved to the city from Los Angeles. The essay is a remembrance of a difficult time, living on the Lower East side on Delancey Street, trying to take pictures during off hours, discovering the city, getting an education - on the streets and off - while trying to keep my job at the seminal bookstore in Manhattan.

Gardena (16 Episodes)

Gardena is a personal essay on my experience in Gardena High School, and Peary Junior High School, located in the South Bay city of Gardena - a suburb of Los Angeles. Throughout the 1960's Gardena High was a Vocational Technical School and I want to relate my experiences in going through that school in one of the most turbulent periods in recent American history. The everyday life of the city, along with Hermosa Beach, which was a sort of refuge and cultural center for me, are also covered. My years there, 1964 through 1970, were pivotal not only for me, as I went from child to adult, but for the country as a whole that basically underwent a collective nervous breakdown. It is dedicated to my friends and colleagues in Peary and Gardena High, most of whom I never got to meet, as, looking back, one always realizes how important those little details really were.