there's times when i sit at my desk, try to write and all i come up with are memories. like the frog story, like the fridge. now i feel like cranking up some more reflections on that past, pentimenti in a way. i know pentimento means an alteration, even a repentance. far from repenting, i am amazed how stories change after a time, after a fashion. the old saw of what people saw at the cross road, when a cyclist got run over by a truck. the first witness insisted there was no truck... the second blamed the truck driver, the third believed the bike ran into the truck and so on to the last observer who asserted it was all a mirage.
so i'd like to suggest to my reader that things often aren't what they seem to be, but also, when you know what happened in your past you might not want to admit as much. hence pentimento.
seems like yesterday, but at avedon's i met the famous who sat for pictures at first for bazaar, later for vogue. the studio had a huge table, covered in black vinyl, where everyone, the crew and the stars lunched together. imagine, i got to sit next to renata adler, such beauty, such smarts, brilliant wit, what lips. a bite into her sandwich, she asked crisply how it felt to be the only german in an all jewish studio. nice, i thought, and i told them: i am a german half-jew, mind you; the table broke up, the very stern studio manager, hated my guts, even he had to laugh. avedon looked at me and snickered. adler petted my knee, she looked at me and i blushed. she had that smile, though likely only i will remember those very details. then there was avedon's phrase that all photographs he ever took were simply images of himself. true or not, his work and his style and the way of fashion at the time, moved me away, if late, from taking pictures of fashion and those people. i thought the business of fashion made objects out of woman. i began work on portraits of flowers and eventually made images of food. but i didn't know that then. while i worked at avedon's, i had access to his collection of photography books. i studied the work of stieglitz and weston, bill brandt and brassai, bresson and kertesz. in this extraordinary library, i saw the firsts of munkacsi, man ray and august sander. and most all of the greats in photography, also painters and sculptors. while my color machine ran, often into the night, i could peruse up to date years of harper's bazaar and vogue bound into books. i also was allowed to participate in an upstairs workshop of the famed alexey brodovitch. he assigned each week a project, the first a portrait of a shoe. imagine, a shoe. he tore my first print in half, i could do better. twice. he approved of my third with barely a nod, i felt fully elated, as he never was one to praise. this class of brodovitch made me look at still life as a different way to pursue my photographic-new-york-adventures. i saw then for the first time the work of karl blossfeldt, those marvelous studies of plant material, imaged in tight close ups, called urformen der kunst.
not to compete, nor to compare, but these are some of mine:
not to compete, nor to compare, but these are some of mine:
i got to be part of new york's art scene and photographed most of its artists. pop art was fab then, such silly notions, even now in some hindsight. but the greats, those who went beyond mere tra-la-la, lichtenstein, rauschenberg, johns, warhol, rivers and rosenquist. i played ping-pong with johns in his bank building on east houston, he put a dot on fuller's dymaxion map, when i showed him the spot of my hometown. he took me to harlem, was i scared? to the apollo, to see the jackson five. we were there. yes, the only whites in a sea of blacks. i was lucky, but i also insisted that i should meet those sixties artists for interviews and images. and i learned from their work, their thoughts, certainly of the politics of that time.
the work of irving penn had me mimic his table top stills, images of his early flowers published in vogue set me on my own way to see flowers through the lens of my first 8x10 camera. on the way to take shirts to the laundry i passed an antique store on second avenue. through the window, in the midst of rummage, i saw a wooden camera on a rickety tripod, with saggy leather bellows, wooden standards, and a brass enclosed lens. on inquiry the tripod, camera and three 8x10 wooden film-holders were offered at a hundred bucks. i produced four twenties and had me a deal. on closer inspection the bellows held light, the standards moved straight on brass rails, the action of tilt, swing and turn, the rise of the front standard worked smoothly and tight, if on a drop of sewing machine oil, which perfected the mechanics of my machine. the lens was an old goerz doppel anastigmat, not really useful for anything excepting portraits. i traded my nikon for a used dagor lens. rosewood and dagor made images for avon, revlon and a host of commercial clients, affording me a first studio on nine-twenty broadway.
then time was for clapton's guitar, as in cream and sunshine of your love, hendrix did wild thing at monterey, the dead, the who and god knows who else. janis and big brother, ball and chain. california dreamin' became the studio anthem, and mama cass elliot the voice of a monday's blues. psychedelics were the norm, reefers the smoke, max's cansas city the place. i swear i hadn't any. always felt of the petite bourgeoisie, if from the outside, watching; photography and the city my real high. above all i was an assistant and learned on the job to forget most all the details they taught at school. munich might well have been late nineteenth century. that bohemian life, the much principalled school with a lady director, deeply attached to her world of the green fairy, an opera length cigarette holder in hand, long woolen skirts and a seafaring bossom. lessons of physics and chemistry. the monthly assignments, the daily sign-in, routines i just couldn't follow. i was expelled from school a few times and re-instated only because of my pictures and the hint, strongly supported by me, that i would soon be avedon's assistant. but for now in the principals office again; set fire to the lunch room, if only to take pictures of a cognac flambé, i was rescued because my photo had strong graphics, another time i was absent two weeks. none knew where i'd gone, not my folk, not my mates. my mama thought me lazy, my baby called me crazy, gonna show them all this time. though clapton wouldn't do this song till '78, i was living on tulsa time. already then. this would be '63. hitchhiked to vienna. slept in the infamous bunker hotel, did a reportage on its guests. my way of having fun, groovin' if you like. a rollei in my hand, endless rolls of film, never had heard of bob frank, doing vienna from the gutter up to st. stephen's. negs tri-x pushed to the limit, grainy as hell. printed on high contrast paper, wild, rowdy, no care for fine details asserted at school. the last reprimand had me cleared as a master of photography, what little this meant for my future. avedon's and the city would be another kind of school. two years there would turn me around. the color machine dungeon behind me, i was free to roam the studio. avedon's on the left, the labs, the lunchroom in the middle, hiro's studio on the right. i worked both, when hiro was busy i'd be there to help out. one day he sent for me to his office. always afraid i'd get fired, if only for my latest sin, using his nikon with a pc lens without asking. he waved me in and closed the door. i stood looking at him, heart in my throat, hands at my side, my stomach a knot. he just looked at me through those huge glasses, black eyes magnified, a small smile at the corner of his mouth, inscrutable east all over his face. he said nothing for some time. then he asked if i wanted to be his assistent for an upcoming trip to colombia. a three week fashion shoot for bazaar. of course i died. word got around. why pick me? other assistants had worked for him longer, even avedon looked at me sideways.
avianca to bogota. the crew took a limo to jfk, i stayed behind for some special equipment arriving late. to catch up to their flight i took a flying banana from top of the panam. the chrysler building right outside my window, within arms length, the gargoyles too close, almost. the united nations down by the east river appeared quickly, then the twinkling expanse of queens. i made the flight, some six hours later we were in bogota.
so i got to go to colombia, which in itself is a pretty scary story. but more on this, when i feel like having another pentimento. yes?