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Kitchen Debate | Elliott Erwitt

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I have previously written about the Kitchen Debate, an iconic moment in both television and photographic history. In documentary Contacts, Elliott Erwitt, the photographer of the most famous image of the Kitchen Debate remembers how events unfolded.

The time is 1959. The scene is the American Industrial Fair in Moscow. The characters are the vice president of United States who plans to run for president and the chief of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev. The situation is massive crowds and bedlam as two politicians will from exhibit to exhibit, Nixon boasting about American accomplishments and Khrushchev fielding the gibes and then joining into the asinine argument.

By sheer luck, I guessed correctly where they would turn up next: which was at a display of a modern kitchen behind a barrier. I rushed to it to have an unobstructed view as they approached the rail. Luck was with me. With a direct view and no one to  push and shove, I circumnavigated Nixon and Khrushchev, finding my best range. From then on, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.

But how pictures can lie. The illusion is one of Nixon standing up to the Soviets, where the reality is an argument about cabbage soup versus red meat.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

November 27, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Che Guevara | Rene Burri

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Iconic Photos continues its trek into the world of contact sheets. 

A minor mission of a site such as Iconic Photos is to educate its readers; accordingly, we have written about various aspects of photography, from its master practitioners to its use and abuse to lately, a year-long look at contact sheets. Many, including great photographers, believe contact sheets reveal more about a situation than an individual frame.

But, to coin a phrase, everything lies. Even photographs. Even contact sheets.

Look closely at the following contact sheet by René Burri, featuring a famous photo of Che Guevara. At the first glance, it seems to be single sequence but it is, in fact, a composite of different negatives from different cameras using different lenses.

Each week at the Magnum offices in Paris, Henri Cartier-Bresson would review the contact sheets submitted by younger photographers returning from assignments. It was a daunting experience, not least because Cartier-Bresson had a peculiar way of critiquing, where he would rotate the contact sheet slowly, looking at it upside down and from all possible angles, studying the composition and scrutinizing the content.

René Burri realized that with Che’s pictures, the critique would be more incisive than ever (Cartier-Bresson himself was in Cuba for a Life assignment simultaneously with Burri, but was denied closer access to Che). Burri wanted to make sure that he didn’t miss a shot. He went on the assignment with three cameras, and submitted to his mentor a composite contact sheet. It was unclear whether Mr. Cartier-Bresson caught this sleight of hand.


In a Guardian interview from 2010, Mr. Burri remembers visiting Havana:

Laura Bergquist, a star reporter with Look magazine, had met Che Guevara at the UN in October 1962, after the Cuban missile crisis. She bugged him so much that he told her: “If you get permission from the CIA or the Pentagon, you are invited to Cuba, and I will show you what is really going on.” She got the green light from the Americans – and I went with her.

We arrived at Che’s office on the eighth floor of the Hotel Riviera in Havana. At that time he was the number-two man in Cuba – he was the minister for industry, and director of the Banco Nacional. His face was on the two peso note. I saw the blinds were drawn and, after we were introduced, I asked him in French: “Che, can I open the blinds? I need some light.” But he said no. I thought, well, it’s your face, not mine.

Immediately, Bergquist and Che started a furious ideological dogfight. She had to take back a story for the Americans, who were still angry about the revolution, and he was trying to convince her that what happened had to happen. For two and a half hours I could just dance around them with my camera. It was an incredible opportunity to shoot Che in all kinds of situations: smiling, furious, from the back, from the front. I used up eight rolls of film. He didn’t look at me once, he was so engaged with trying to convince her with maps and graphs. She was a chain-smoker, and he occasionally lit up one of his cigars.

We went back to New York, and Look ran a 16- or 20-page story. This picture was only an eighth of a page. It certainly wasn’t a photo essay, like the one Henri Cartier-Bresson did for Life magazine at the same time. He was in town with us, but only got to shoot Che at a press conference.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

November 21, 2012 at 10:00 pm

The Soiling of the Old Glory

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It was a photograph that shocked a city; it bumped the death of Howard Hughes off the frontpages all over the state. Entire books were written about it. Iconic Photos looks back at its contact sheets. 

Stanley Forman was early for his shift at the Herald American on April 5th, 1976 and he decided to head out to an anti-busing demonstration at Boston City Hall that another journalist was already covering. It was already two years into a desegregated school-busing in Massachusetts, but the protests in favor of the old system were still raging.

Forman managed to capture an episode that was especially violent: a black attorney named Theodore Landsmark — a Yale graduate who worked for Michael Dukakis no less — was attacked by a group of white teenagers as he exited the city hall. One of the attackers, Joseph Rakes, charged towards Landsmark using the American flag and its flagpole as a lance.

His camera motor jammed twice before he captured the iconic photo in his last frame — it was a poignant image; two millennia of history flashed past his lens, from Longinus spearing Christ at Golgotha to flag-rising at Iwo Jima. The next day, it appeared on the frontpages of the Washington PostChicago Tribune, and San Francisco Chronicle, among many others, and inside The New York Times.

A particularly violent retaliation took place the next day in Roxbury where a white driver was beaten and left in a coma; and Boston was finally forced to comfort the realities. The busing crises continued on for another decade. Forman won a Pulitzer Prize for his photo, which he submitted under his editor’s suggested title, “The Soiling of Old Glory.” As for Rakes, he was quickly fired from his job and his life fell apart. He admitted that when he first saw the picture, he thought, “Who is that lunatic with the flag? Then I realized it was me.”

This column is merely a short reflection on an extremely agonizing event during a complicated era for the United States. For more information, go to here, here, here, or buy Louis Masur’s authoritative book on the subject.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

October 17, 2012 at 6:46 pm

When MacArthur Met the Emperor

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Japan officially surrendered on September 2nd, 1945. What happened next was an equally interesting story.

General Douglas MacArthur had landed at Atsugi airbase two days before; since the VJ day, he had been asked by President Truman to oversee the occupation of Japan. It was a daunting task. On his drive to Yokohama from Atsugi, tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers greeted him with their bayonets out in one final act of symbolic defiance. Seventy percent of Americans thought Emperor Hirohito should be persecuted; there were protests outside MacArthur’s headquarters by American servicemen and calls in Australian and Russian press to that effect.

However, MacArthur understood that for the transition to be smooth, the imperial rule must persist. Yet, he didn’t make the customary call to the palace; instead, he waited for the emperor to make the first contact. On 27th September, Hirohito finally crossed the palace moat to reach MacArthur’s headquarters at the Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Company — requisitioned for its relative intactness and its proximity to both the palace and the American embassy. In The Man Who Saved Kabuki, Shin Okamoto wrote:

MacArthur greeted the emperor at the entrance to the reception room, shaking his hand and saying, ‘You are very, very welcome sir.’ The emperor kept bowing lower and lower until MacArthur found himself shaking hands with him over the emperor’s head. Only the emperor, MacArthur and Okamura, the interpreter went into the reception room. Then the door to the reception room was opened and Lt. Gaetano Faillace, of the military camera corps, took a now famous photograph of the emperor and MacArthur from outside the room.”

Faillace was given one shot, but he spoke up and asked for three. Faillace also adviced MacArthur against a seated picture on a soft couch. First two photos were less than ideal — their eyes were closed in one, and the Emperor’s mouth was gaping open in the other. But even the perfect, final shot posed its own problems: at this juncture, Hirohito was still  akitsumikami or manifest deity (he would not renounce his divinity before the coming New Year’s Day), and everyone was supposed to avert eyes from the veiled imperial portraits in government buildings.

Thus, printing the photo was deemed sacrilegious, not least because of the general’s extremely casual attire and his even more pointed body language. MacArthur’s office itself had to intervene to Japanese censors to have it printed. It ran on 29th September. He had to intervene again when the photo appeared in the New York Times alongside an unprecedented interview with the Emperor — where he criticized his government on failing to declare war on US before Pearl Harbour — and police tried to confiscate the papers.

Outside Japan, too, the general’s informal appearance shocked many. Even Life clutched its pearls and wrote, “MacArthur did not trouble to put on a tie for the occasion”. As for the contents of their 40-minute tete-a-tete, nothing was made public; the two men would meet 10 more times during MacArthur’s sojourn as the American Proconsul. The general never paid a return call to the palace.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 28, 2012 at 7:54 pm

9/11 – Thomas Hoepker

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I have written about this photo a couple of times before. But to continue my yearlong devotion to contact sheets, here is the assemblage of frames Thomas Hoepker submitted to Magnum. On 9/11, Hoepker crossed from Manhattan into Queens and then Brooklyn to get closer to the scene. In Williamsburg, he captured the above pastoral scene, but decided to hold back the photo for five years feeling that it was “ambiguous and confusing.”

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 11, 2012 at 5:06 pm

Martine Franck (1938 – 2012)

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Martine Franck, Magnum photographer and the second wife of the late Henri Cartier-Bresson, is dead, aged 74. 

In Contact Theory, Ms Franck remembers being en scene to take this memorable image and how she chose this particular frame:

This picture was taken during the summer of 1976. I had just been given a grant by the Fondation Nationale de la Photographie …. to photograph the French on holiday. I was on my way to photograph a pop and rock festival at Le Castellet and decided to stop by and see my friend the architect Alain Capeilleres. I knew that Alain had just completed the swimming pool, he had talked about its conception the previous year and I was really excited to see it. He greeted me by saying that an Italian photographer had just come to take photographs for an architectural review and that I should go down to the pool and have a swim.

I saw a couple of people doing exercises and an empty hammock and and then all of a sudden a young boy got into the hammock, the first thing I noticed was the shadow and I ran. It was all over so quickly. I remember trying to find the best angle and being bothered by a towel on the left of the hammock and a bathing suit on the right, then Alain’s wife Lucie arrived in her sun hat, said hello to the young boy. A few seconds later another boy climbed into the hammock. I changed angles but the picture was gone. I had Tri X in my camera and I distinctly remember being concerned by the glare of the August midday sun on the white tilings. I had closed down to f.16 and was shooting at a 1000th of a second but I still knew I was going to be over exposed, however most important I was convinced I had an image.

The ultimate choice was easy. Frame 18a was discarded because of the towel on the left, the figures in the background were confused and I had framed too close to the shadow of the hammock. Frame 16a was a possibility but I would have had to crop the bathing suit on the right which I preferred not to do and the man doing push ups in the background was in a less interesting position. The image that had the greatest intensity and concision was to my mind frame 17a.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 17, 2012 at 10:43 am

V-J Day in Contact Sheets

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For this photo, no further caption is needed, and no more ink (pixels?) will be wasted. Instead, I will leave you with Alfred Eisenstaedt’s two slightly different remembrances of that iconic day. In Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt (1985):

In Times Square on V.J. Day I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight. Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, didn’t make a difference. I was running ahead of him with my Leica looking back over my shoulder but none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse. If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture. If the sailor had worn a white uniform, the same. I took exactly four pictures. It was done within a few seconds.

Only one is right, on account of the balance. In the others the emphasis is wrong — the sailor on the left side is either too small or too tall. People tell me that when I am in heaven they will remember this picture.

In The Eye of Eisenstaedt (1969), he recalled differently:

I was walking through the crowds on V-J Day, looking for pictures. I noticed a sailor coming my way. He was grabbing every female he could find and kissing them all — young girls and old ladies alike. Then I noticed the nurse, standing in that enormous crowd. I focused on her, and just as I’d hoped, the sailor came along, grabbed the nurse, and bent down to kiss her. Now if this girl hadn’t been a nurse, if she’d been dressed dark clothes, I wouldn’t have had a picture. The contrast between her white dress and the sailor’s dark uniform gives the photograph its extra impact.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 14, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Posted in Contact Sheets, War

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David Burnett on Mary Decker’s Fall

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Olympics Games have their controversial moments (Personally I am going to be bitching about this year’s biking commissars for decades to come). Iconic Photos has looked back at one of them here before; now it’s time to let its photographer reflect: 


I don’t think there’s going to be many more. Not that there won’t be good pictures taken. But we are in an age of visual overload. I don’t think there’s going to be another Olympic picture that is going to get that kind of run.

I’d been shooting track for a whole week from a lot of different locations, up high and low, but a lot of it from the finish line. I was just so tired of standing next to these guys that had these big tripods with 11 cameras attached to them and remote wires going up to cameras with 400-millimeter lenses — I needed a breath of fresh air. I picked up my stuff and walked down the track. There were two photographers sitting at one bench, next to where the crowd was, and a spot for somebody else.

The 3,000 final came up. This was the big race of the week: Mary Decker would win the gold medal that had been denied her when the U.S. decided to skip [the previous] games. The other big story was Zola Budd, running barefoot, who couldn’t run for South Africa because it was banned from international competition.

The 3,000 is seven-and-a-half laps, and I had a really good shot of turn four with a 400-millimeter lens.

As Zola makes her move, around the fifth lap I shoot with the 400, then pick up the 85 as they start to go by me. Zola tries to pass Mary. Mary comes down hard, trips and falls over the edge.

Thing is, I couldn’t tell in detail what was going on, but I know what’s supposed to happen,  that they’re going to run through my frame and keep going. And I’m seeing that Mary is not doing that, and I look down after I’ve shot some frames with the 85. And I see her lying there, and I immediately grab the 400, brought that up to my eye and I honestly remember taking an extra millisecond saying to myself, “Make sure you’re sharp.” I kind of focused on her eye, and I made seven or eight frames.

The nurse came over, Mary was kind of laying down, and then there’s that one frame where she’s looking down the track. It’s one of those things that I just got lucky, and I didn’t screw up. It’s about being lucky and not screwing up, and trying to be ready for some moment if you happen to be the right place.

Since his debut in that 1984 Los Angeles Games, David Burnett has photographed eight summer Olympics, including London. Read the rest of his interview here.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 7, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Willy Ronis | Le Nu Provençal

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The Telegraph says he was more artistic than Doisneau and less patrician than Cartier-Bresson; like those masters to whom he is frequently compared, Willy Ronis embodied the Golden Age of photography, where photojournalists composed lyrical odes to world-changing events and banal everyday lives alike.

Ronis was best known for a nude of his wife, Marie-Anne Lansiaux, bending over a sink in a rustic bathroom. The photo was almost like a Bonnard painting and reflected that easy rustic feel of country life. Ronis remembered:

We had a little stone cottage at Gordes. It was a hot summer, and I was repairing the attic. I needed a trowel, so I came down and there was Marie-Anne standing naked on the stone flags, washing herself from the tin basin. ‘Don’t move,’ I said and, my hands full of plaster, I grabbed my Rolleiflex and took four shots. It was the second shot which I chose.

It took two minutes in all. Miracles exist, I experienced it. I have never been so anxious as when I developed that film. I felt that, if the image was good, technically and aesthetically, it would be a major moment in my life, a prosaic moment of extraordinary poetry.”

He met the jewel painter, Marie-Anne,when both of them fled to Provence after the German Occupation of France in 1940. They were married after the war, when he also joined the French Communists at the urging of Marie-Anne, who was more militantly political.

Soon afterwards, they bought the above cottage in a Provençal town known for its artist communes. Willy divided his career between the countryside and the capital, gradually becoming a world-renowned photographer. The couple lived in that small cottage until Marie-Anne’s death in 1991, by which time Ronis’s career had come a full circle: in his last major work, he photographed Marie-Anne, now with Alzheimer’s, sitting alone in a park surrounded by autumn trees in a touching collection of photographs chronicled her gradual decline and increasing isolation.

Ronis died in 2009.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

July 24, 2012 at 5:19 pm

Ruth Orkin, American Girl in Italy | Contact Sheets

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This blog has covered the above photo last year on its 60th anniversary (here), but I just only recently stumbled upon its contact sheets.

The photo was the result of a superb collaboration between two American girls each traveling solo across war torn Europe in 1951. Ruth Orkin and Jinx Allen randomly ran into each other in a cheap hostel overlooking the Arno in Florence, and in her widely-acclaimed photoessay, Don’t be Afraid to Travel Alone, Orkin photographed Jinx Allen shopping in the markets, crossing traffic, riding a carriage and flirting at a cafe.

But the most famous was the above photo; it was taken at 10:30 a.m., but the street was packed with loitering men because work was scarce and unemployment high in post-war Italy. While the contact sheet began at its eighth frame, they show that Orkin indeed took only two versions of her famous photo. You can also see from the contact sheets that after those two frames, the man on the Vespa took Jinx Allen for a ride (literally).

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

July 7, 2012 at 4:55 pm

Posted in Contact Sheets, Culture

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Reagan Assassination Attempt Contact Sheets

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Continuing our year-long series on Contact Sheets, Iconic Photos looks back at the assassination attempt at Ronald Reagan in 1981. 

Mike Evans is best remembered for his 1976 photo of Ronald Reagan wearing a cowboy hat taken at the then candidate’s California ranch while Evans was working for Equus Magazine. The genial photo was later used for campaign buttons and as a model for a statue at the Reagan presidential library, and on the president’s death, appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek and People magazines.

Starting with that photoshoot, Evans and Reagan established a strong rapport that the president asked him to be his personal photographer. It was in such capacity that Evans captured an assassination attempt on the president just 69 days into the Reagan presidency, and narrowly evaded the assassin’s bullets himself. His contact sheets clearly highlighted the wide chasm between the quotidian nature of the trade union event at Washington Hilton where Reagan was previously speaking and the chaotic enormity of the assassination attempt and the brawl that immediately ensued outside.

Evans went on to capture other terse moments, such as Reagan’s heated finger-pointing exchanges with Tip O’Neill inside the Oval Office. His other work during the White House Years, a monumental attempt to document the D.C. denizens — from Supreme Court justices and socialites to the Capitol pages and a janitor (see list in pdf here) — in stark black-and-white portraits rivaled what Richard Avedon did a decade earlier. This work was later published in People and Power: Portraits From the Federal Village

Here, Mike Evans who died in 2005 remembers his Reagan Years. Follow me on twitter.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 28, 2012 at 11:56 am

Jean Gaumy, Iran

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Jean Gaumy began his career as a writer and photographer. His exposes on French healthcare and prison systems (he was the first photojournalist to be allowed inside a French prison) led to reforms. Today, he is better known for his photo of Iran’s chandored female militia practicing firing.

Gaumy visited Iran six or seven times over a four-year period. As he recalled:

“For me it was an opportunity to discover the true meaning of what Iran was, to be in a hot news place and really find out about it. I had listened to friends and colleagues at home, all of whom had an opinion on Iran, so my head was buzzing with received information, but when I got out there, I knew I would have to find out the real story for myself. Abbas told me not to believe anything I read in the newspapers about Iran and he was perfectly right. I found it very exciting, discovering an entirely new and different way of life.”

On his first visit, he became the first western photographer to be granted access to the Iranian training camp for female Basij militia on the outskirts of Tehran. It was in 1986, at the height of Iran-Iraq War, and the photos were ayatollahs’ way of saying even our women were prepared to fight and die for us. The war was not going swimmingly for the Islamic Republic; after the initial decisive  victories in 1981-82, Iran had united the United States and the Soviet Union against itself. Alarmed by the prospects of a victorious Iran fomenting Islamic Revolution across Middle East and Central Asia, the Soviet Union, the Gulf States and the NATO began openly arming the Iraqis. The war would drag on for another six years.

Basij militia — whose voluntary members are promised with martyrdom — still survives. During the war, they were sent before the army as a human wave to clear minefields and shield the army from the enemy’s fire. These days, it serves at a de facto religious police of the Islamic Republic, enforcing hijab laws and sex segregation.


Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 24, 2012 at 12:20 pm

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