Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Rites of Spring

No rants today, I promise.

Spring is in the air here in the nation's capital, and ranting would just spoil the karma. The cherry blossoms are about to bloom, the Nationals are about to christen a new stadium, and the White House lawn was filled yesterday with thousands of children, most of them giddy at the prospect of having their pictures taken with Mickey Mouse or Strawberry Shortcake or Snoopy.

(Any character, that is, except Teddy Roosevelt, the goofy nine-foot Washington Nationals mascot my daughter is absolutely terrified of. "What is he doing here?!?" asked Alexandra, as we entered the White House grounds. I honestly believe that I can lay claim to the only four-year-old in America who has nightmares about a dead president.)

The White House Easter Egg Roll aside, we're fortunate to have a more subtle, more personal harbinger of spring each year, and we don't have to even leave our house to see it. As if keeping to a train schedule, every March a bird takes up residence in the nest a foot or two off our kitchen window. Sometimes a robin, usually a mourning dove, I watch each day with fascination as the mother patiently sits on her eggs, oblivious to everything around her.

I'm not bird expert, and so I always wonder how these birds find this same nest. Word of mouth? Is there some bird equivalent of Yelp! or Craigslist, where a cardinal can find a nice duplex in North Arlington for not that much? (In fact, go ahead and compare the two images, from this year and last, and I'd swear it was the same bird returning.)

Last year, as some of you might remember, the chick's arrival came on a sad day indeed for those of us here in Virginia, just minutes after a moment of silence for the 32 students gunned down at Virginia Tech. I didn't want to read too much into it at the time, but the touching coincidence stayed with me for a while. This year, we wait again, just as eager to see a couple of scrawny necks peeking out of their nest. In a world filled with so much sadness and war, it's always amazing to me how much joy I can get out of some baby birds being born outside the kitchen window.

And while we're on the topic of birth, I did want to share a beautiful maternity image I shot in the Old Town studio a few weeks ago. I photographed Alicia and her family a few years back and was delighted when they told me they were expecting again. Sometimes women are unsure of what to bring to these portrait sessions and my standard response is something along the lines of, "don't think too hard about it." Well, Alicia brought along some wrappy thing (a very technical fashion term) and within an instant transformed herself into a perfect incarnation of a Greek goddess. That was a neat trick. (As usual, double-click the images for better viewing.)

I'll close this short post today with a couple of photos from yesterday's White House event. The first picture is of our friend Denyce with her daughter, Ella. The last time Alexandra and Ella saw each other they were munching on chocolate crepes under the Eiffel Tower. Now both girls are a few years older and it was fun to hear Ella's talking voice, which is rich and distinctive--just like mom's. I have this dream of shooting Denyce and Ella in costume someday at the Kennedy Center, Big Carmen and Mini Carmen.

The second picture is Alexandra, of course, who might have a thing against Teddy Roosevelt but never met a fairy she didn't like. No, Alexandra is all about fairies and we were happy to see such a convincing one on the South Lawn.

Hope you all had a happy Easter and I wish you all a happy spring. Wedding season begins this week, so we'll be back with some fun pictures in no time.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

In a handbasket

As I get ready to fly to Las Vegas on Thursday, where I will be staying in that "other" Paris, the one that, sadly, many Americans will happily substitute for the real European city-- the one we visited just last month-- I couldn't help but think about the ever-blurring line between reality and manufactured reality.

There's nothing like staying at Paris Las Vegas, where the facade looks like it's made of foam core and the shops all sell French bric-a-brac, which usually means rooster serving dishes and rooster coasters and rooster pitchers. What is it with the roosters? It's like someone told the Las Vegas folks that French country style is all about roosters and they haven't looked back since. But if it makes people feel more French and if it makes them gamble a bit more, who's really to mind? After all, Las Vegas has always been about fake reality, from the New York skyline to the Venetian canals. Even the lighting in all the shopping areas makes it feel like perpetual dusk.

I'm going to Las Vegas to judge the photojournalism category at the Wedding and Portrait Photographers International conference. And as you can imagine, there are a few wedding photojournalists--just a few--for whom the line between reality and staged is already fairly thin. Those walking-down-the-country-road-and-dipping-the-bride pictures might fool them but they don't fool me. I've shot 450 consecutive weddings and have never seen that happen for real. So maybe Paris Las Vegas, with all those roosters, is the perfect venue. And then again, maybe I'm a good person to ask to judge.

I had already been in this frame of mind, of distinguishing real from fake, after my brother's brilliant op-ed piece in this past Sunday's New York Times. In that column, Daniel discussed the rash of fabricated memoirs that have plagued the publishing world of late, beginning with James Frey "A Million Little Pieces" a few years back, and ending with last week's revelation that the highly touted autobiography of Margaret Jones (in actuality, Margaret Seltzer), "Love and Consequences," is a complete and utter fraud. (She said she was a half-white, half-Native American member of a South Central gang. Turns out she was an all-white valley girl, which, I guess, is close enough for government work, as I like to say.)

As Daniel pointed out, the crimes of these fabulists is not that they've plagiarized work, but rather plagiarized experience. The sadness, the suffering, the horrors of these respective memoirs belong not to them but to other people. Even the genre of Holocaust memoirs has been sullied--a field my brother and I know something about--with the revelation that a bestselling 1997 memoir by a Polish Jew was all made up, right down to the sympathetic wolves.

(In hindsight, one would think that would have been a giveaway. Kindly wolves? It sounds like an after school special. There's a an old Woody Allen stand-up routine I used to listen to when I was a teenager, the one where he's "discovered" at a Klan rally. As Woody tells it, he's at this rally and they ask for donations and when it comes his turn he says, "I pledge fifty dollars." About to be killed, he relates how his whole life flashes before his eyes--growing up in the South, buying gingham for Emmmy Lou--until he realizes that it's the wrong life that's flashing.)

Believe it or not, though it will all seem apropos in a moment, none of this was on my brain this afternoon, when, as I was driving my car on the George Washington Parkway, I realized this country was going to hell in a handbasket faster than a speeding bullet. And it all has to do with more fake reality. Yup, it was right near the Key Bridge, as I listened to a WTOP radio report about a new vest that is being marketed to "hardcore gamers," those people who spend their entire lives waving their arms at their fifty inch LCD televisions, that I knew it was time to hoist the Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter banner.

Why, you ask? What could be so wrong with a vest for video gamers? Well, you see, this particular vest, made by a company called TN Games (I was driving and trying to scribble notes, the horror of which even a video game can't replicate), uses puffs of compressed air into various pockets to simulate the effects of....ready?....being shot or stabbed or even Bazooka'd. So when the cartoon Nazi pulls his trigger, you feel it in the chest.

Well, if that isn't exactly what the youth of this country need right now: a more enhanced, more real simulation of what it feels like to be gunned down. It's not enough that this particular report of WTOP was done during a jovial exchange between reporter and anchor, as each gushed about the coolness of such an accessory. As my mind raced around the recent reports, on the very same radio station, of the deaths of two accomplished young women, both shot, on the campuses of Auburn University and Chapel Hill, I kept waiting for the kicker. Surely, one of these journalists would bring up the issue of the sanity of such a gaming device. Surely one of them would mention Virginia Tech or Northern Illinois or the mall in Omaha. Surely.

Nope, no such luck. Just a fun exchange about the latest gotta-have-it gadget from the gaming industry. As the anchors and reporter finished their banter, one of them did raise the issue of whether a vest like this could lead to "desensitizing" people to the effects of gun violence. The reporter assured said anchor that he had been told by the manufacturer that the vest could actually be a good tool towards "sensitizing" people to violence.

Well, there's logic for you. It's not just a vest which heightens a video gamer's sense of violence, it's a teaching tool. Heck, why not bring it around to elementary schools, so all youngsters in America can have an early simulation of what it feels like to be murdered in the cafeteria.

Look, I know I'm supposed to write fluffy pieces about weddings but tonight's not one of them. We are a culture that is losing it's grip. Our children already spend so much time playing their Xbox 360's and their PlayStation's that stories abound of overweight kids who go to a real tennis court and find they can't hit a ball like their televisions promised they could. (Just last week The Onion featured a headline that read, "Federer shows up to Grand Slam event with Wii controller.")

Add to this the fact that so many of these video games are not about tennis and golf and baseball, but rather murder and car theft and war. Does anyone really believe that the images these kids are seeing--game after game after game--are not leaving an indelible mark? Well, if not, they now have the simulated indelible mark, thanks to the folks at TN Games.

Pathetic. Truly pathetic.


I want to switch gears completely here and give a little holler to my friends Stephanie and Stewart Brown. I shot their wedding some nine or so years ago--I can't even remember anymore--in an adorable little church in Maryland. It was one of the earlier weddings I photographed, come to think of it, but I still remember, all these years later, cursing the microphone that was coming out of Stephanie's head.

We've stayed friends through all these years, and they have two great boys. In fact, Stewart and Stephanie know another couple whose wedding I photographed, Diane Halpin and Kevin Cordell, and we all went to dinner at Blacksalt a few years back. (Diane Halpin is the world's greatest pediatrician, by the way, so we see each other every time Alexandra has a cough.)

Stewart had a little medical issue come up last week and he was incredibly brave and
tough through a very, very long surgery. So was Stephanie. And I'm sure the boys as well! So I just wanted to say, hang in there, Stewart, beer is on the way. Well, maybe not this week but soon enough. Get well soon.


And one last tidbit:

The other morning, the Washington Post ran a big story about the state of our national Mall. In a word, it's a disgrace, and I applaud the Post's Marc Fisher for taking the time to write about it. What began as a celebration of our nation through parks and monuments, cherry trees and statues, has turned into an endless sea of jersey barricades, chain link fencing and permanently parked construction and police vehicles. Security bollards are placed without thought, public areas are cordoned off, and snow fencing has replaced manicured walkways. (The scenes below were all taken within twenty feet of the actual White House border. The White House!)

September 11 was in 2001. It is now 2008 and someone needs to take charge. I'm not in favor of more government, but we need an aesthetics czar and fast. For years I've shaken my head as construction equipment is left encircled by chain link fence on the Ellipse. For years, I've sighed heavily as I've watched tourists have to photograph the White House as they're surrounded by chain link. And ever since 9/11 I've desperately hoped for some consistency with regard to the placement of those stubby things called "bollards." (In front of the Federal Reserve they are the wrong color and placed so close to the original steps that they create a visual claustrophobia. In front of the Senate offices they don't match the right architectural style.)

I know it's not fashionable to speak highly of the French, but that's just nonsense. We should look to Paris for guidance here. The notion that the French would allow their beautiful city to be so cluttered with Jersey barricades is laughable. Take a stroll through les Jardins du Luxembourg and see how much chain link you see. This past winter, there was story about a new tradition started by the National Park Service, the lighting of tremendous "yule" logs in a pit on the Ellipse. It seemed like a fun idea--people gathering around a huge fire pit before the holidays, singing carols and sipping hot chocolate. Then I saw the photo that accompanied the story: the pit was surrounded by chain link fence. Currier and Ives just rolled over in their graves.

According to the Post story, Chip Akridge, a big developer and avid runner, wants to do something about the uglification of this once beautiful part of our nation's capital. He's created the Trust for National Mall and hopefully some of these issues can finally get the hearing they deserve.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Paris, and no Hilton

I know we're all supposed to love Paris in the springtime, but trust me, January ain't all that bad.

We made our second January excursion to the City of Light in the last three years, and I can see making it an annual pilgrimage. After all, what's not to like? The city is just as beautiful, the lines at the Louvre are are a breeze, and there's nothing better, quite frankly, then sitting outside a bistro in St-Germain-des-Pres on a cold winter night watching people walk by. (I can't for the life of me figure out why Americans can't figure this part out. The space heaters make it nice and toasty and the view can't be beat.)

And this trip held the added bonus of staying not in some random hotel, but rather the apartment of a friend. It makes all the difference in the world. Hotels force you to go out to eat each meal, to have your clothes pressed at absurd rates (and if you want to know what absurd means, check out the dollar against the euro), and to go out on some concierge-approved plan each day. They make one think like a tourist.

An apartment, on the other hand, forces one to live; to buy groceries each morning at the Monoprix or the cheese shop, to figure out those damn European washing machines (is it the sun symbol or the umbrella symbol or the half moon symbol??), and to wander smaller side streets. I guess the goal of any traveler is to blend in, and on this trip we came closer than ever.

(Not to mention that our address, 3 rue Jacob, came with a history. We learned that Madame de Lamballe, Marie Antionette's best friend lived here. And, without getting too grisly, it was from this location that she was famously taken by the revolutionary mob, beaten and dismembered, before having her head paraded on a pole for her friend to see. Well, I guess that was grisly.)

This was Alexandra's third trip to Paris in her four years, and I can't tell you how adorable she was saying "bonjour" and "merci" to everyone she met. It took her all of three minutes at the Jardins du Luxembourg to latch onto a French school field trip. Only one of these kids, who had traveled three hours from central France, spoke a word of English but that didn't seem to matter at all. By the end of an hour they were all ready to adopt Alexandra and bring her home with them.

Between the pony rides at Les Tuileries, the hot chocolate at Angelina (again!), and the seemingly endless cavalcade of carousels (no city could possibly have more), Alexandra was having a blast. We were too, though the aforementioned Euro exchange rate is enough to give anyone the blues.

The reason, by the way, we were in France was to help my brother celebrate the great success of the French translation of his book, Les Disparus. Winning the Prix Medicis is huge, obviously, and we got to see for ourselves: when we entered a cafe one evening Daniel was immediately surrounded by book-wielding fans looking for an autograph.

(I should also mention that it was my father's first trip to France (or Europe) at the tender age of 79. I think he liked it, though he kept saying that Starbucks had bigger and better coffee. How do you say oy vey in French?)

Anyway, here are some pictures:

Take care,


p.s. A quick shout-out to our good friend Katharine Weymouth, who was named publisher of the Washington Post today. (I'm not even sure if one can still qualify for a shout-out if said person is now a publisher of a legendary newspaper.) We've known Katharine since our dogs, Cooper and Max, were best buds as puppies. Yikes, that was ten years ago. Anyway, we couldn't be more excited for you, Kath!

I photographed Katharine two weeks ago in the Old Town studio and think she looks fantastic here.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Hash House Harriers

A little bird has been whispering in my ear that my posts of late have been a tad on the ponderous side. “Get back to weddings,” this bird keeps chirping.

Well, okay. I try and keep a good balance on The Dark Slide, alternating between a bit of weddings and a bit of history, and as the pendulum swings once again, we now return to our regularly scheduled program. (But first, do check out my latest column at www.sportsshooter.com regarding the bombshell announcement last week that Robert Capa’s long lost negatives of the Spanish Civil War—known as the “Mexican Suitcase” in photo circles—has finally been found. Whew, got that in!)

And just to prove that we can go two in a row without drifting into weighty territory, I promise that this post will be followed shortly with some fun pics from our recent trip to Paris. We love Paris in the wintertime; the crowds have thinned, the weather is mild, and moules frites abound. Plus, I know you guys always like to see what new cultural landmark Alexandra will be jumping in front of.

So, on with the weddings!

It seems to me that I should begin any post about a couple that had a three-mile fun run for all of their wedding guests on a cold winter morning with, well, the run itself. Because that run seemed to represent everything that is important to Doug Sackin and Jessica Adelman: family and fun.

I got to the Willard Hotel on the morning of Jessica and Doug's wedding to find just about every guest--guests I would later see in suits and ties--laughing in the lobby, dressed in sweats and hoods and gloves. Jessica, bride-to-be-was decked out in running attire, complete with a veil. As I was warned before the wedding, Doug is a hashing enthusiast, and he and Jessica have become followers of the world's most eccentric running club, the Hash House Harriers. (Say that three times fast.)

What's hashing, you ask? Well, without getting technical to the point that someone will write in an correct me, hashing is basically a way of turning competitive running into a much more inclusive, fun, and adventurous pursuit. I Googled and here's the best all-around definition I could find:

"Hashing is a state of mind- a friendship of kindred spirits joined together for the sole purpose of reliving their childhood or fraternity days, releasing the tensions of everyday life, and generally, acting a fool amongst others who will not judge you or measure you by anything more than your sense of humor."

Everyone is welcome on the fun runs, old and young, in shape and out. (In fact, some of the participants were not even walking yet!) The point seemed clear to me: have fun, laugh with friends, get some exercise. Hashers (and I'm not sure if I'm using these terms correctly) follow a trail that has been left earlier in the day, along with some clues designed to throw the scent off, so to speak. Once again, from the Hash House Harriers home page:

"The Hash House Harriers is a more social version of Hare and Hounds, where you join the pack of hounds (runners) to chase down the trail set by the hare or hares (other runners), then gather together for a bit of social activity known as the On In or Down Down with refreshment, humor, song and sometimes a feast."

Who could argue with that? And what better way to spend a chilly Washington winter morning? As the entire wedding party gathered in the middle of Pennsylvania Ave. for a group photo, I thought to myself, this is a fun way to begin a special day.

I returned later in the day for Doug and Jessica's actual wedding. Sweatshirts and scarves were replaced by tuxes and gowns, but the sense of fun was still there. As I walked into the room where Jessica was getting ready I found her mom taking a nap on the sofa, her dog snuggled beside her. Jessica and Doug's pooch was ambling around the room as well. My kind of wedding.

The ballroom at the Willard looked spectacular, with the chuppah in the center delicately balancing scores of votives. And because the ceremony configuration was in the round, all guests had a good vantage point for the proceedings.

People always assume that January is a "slow" month for wedding photographers, but I have to say some of the most fun I've had at weddings has been in the winter. There's a cozy feeling that hangs over a winter wedding, something that's a bit hard to explain. And needless to say, things heat up a bit as the first strains of the hora are played.

And in this case, Jessica and Doug had some extra help. Jessica's sister, Jocelyn, plays violin with the Richmond Symphony and she and her pals joined in to lend the band a hand. Even later, she dazzled the guests with a beautiful rendition of a piece called "Invocation." (Jocelyn probably didn't expect a wedding photographer who would talk her ear off about the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, the greatest orchestral work of the twentieth century. But how could I resist, knowing that her thesis revolved around the question of Shostakovich's subversive/compliant relationship with Stalin? I alluded to this longstanding debate way back here.)

I probably should wrap this up: It's 11:00p.m., the Giants have just won the Super Bowl (my dad is very excited right now), and I have to teach at Boston University's new Center for Digital Imaging campus in Georgetown in the morning. I'll be back in a day or so with some of those Paris pictures I promised earlier.

See ya,


p.s. As always, double-click images for better viewing.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bird Bites Dog

Just five days ago I wrote a column about the odd things photographers collect, and how one of my most treasured possessions is a signed print of Nick Ut's 1971 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph--without a doubt one of the most recognizable photographs ever taken.

I worked with Nick when I was in Los Angeles in the early nineties and, like most photographers of my generation, had idolized him for years before ever meeting him. Nick called me yesterday from Los Angeles and said that he hopes we can get together when he comes out to Washington for a ceremony in which some of his cameras will be given to the Newseum. I can't wait.

I've always tried to make The Dark Slide less of a wedding blog ("and Jennie wore a gorgeous Vera Wang dress...") and more of a ongoing exercise in connect-the-dots. I try to make connections--from the wedding world to photojournalism and from the current back to my past--that lead somewhere. Learning today of the deaths of two great photographers, I was again reminded that life truly does follow such a path of connectivity.

My signed copy of Nick Ut's photo is something I cherish. Needless to say, it's a photo every young news photographer knows well, an image I can remember looking at over and over again during lunchtime at Mattlin Junior High School on Long Island. But I have lots of other photos that mean a great deal me, photographs that may lack the recognition of Nick's image but are equally as important. One such photo, taken in 1961--one year before I was born--has to be one of the oddest, a bizarre encounter between one truly peeved bird and one dopey golden retriever.

It's signed by the photographer, right down there in the right hand corner: George Honeycutt, 1961. It's a remarkable picture--a weather feature, I'm guessing. Remarkable, of course, because, well, you just don't see a lot of birds taking on dogs ten times their size. When I started my career in Binghamton, New York we used to call these photos "enterprise." As in, "Matt, we need some enterprise art for 1A." For the non-newsies here, that usually gets translated as "Matt, we don't have a clue what to put on page one tomorrow. Can you go drive to a park and find us a sunny day photo?"

I did that a lot but I never got a picture this good.

George Honeycutt died on Tuesday of a stroke. His son, Kevin, who runs a company which produces massive charity events and who gave me this picture some eight years ago, wrote to tell me, as well as point me to an appreciation piece in the Houston Chronicle, where his dad served served as director of photography for thirty-three years. Thirty-three years. Wow.

Kevin has always been very proud of his father. I knew it way back when he gave me the bird photo. We were sitting in a diner near the town of North Pole, Alaska (which is nowhere near the north pole but makes a lot of money selling postcards to tourists who couldn't care anyway), eating some of the best pie you'll ever have, when Kevin started telling me about his dad. We had time to kill, as the thousands of cyclists who were taking part in the Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride still had fifty miles to ride that day. Kevin told me about this photo his father had taken, the one of the bird and dog, and promised to send me a signed copy as soon as we got back to civilization. He kept his word.

But today, when I clicked on the link Kevin sent me, I learned a lot about George Honeycutt that I didn't know: How he saved a fellow photographer from drowning with only a camera strap, how he won accolades for a 1966 piece on poverty in Texas, and that he loved to fish. I love hearing stories about photographers, especially those of the generation before me, and I'm glad I had a chance to learn more about the man behind this photo that has always made me smile.


Another great photographer passed away this week, one whom I did have the pleasure of knowing, if just for a few years. If Nick Ut's photo blindsided a nation with the horror of the war it was waging in Southeast Asia, Bernie Boston's iconic 1967 image of an anit-war protest single-handedly captured the growing tide of discontent with that war. Like Ut's picture, Boston's picture is timeless: a young man in a turtleneck sweater placing flowers in the barrels of soldier's guns. It's a photograph that became spokesmodel for an entire generation, much like the image of a lone protester waving off a tank in Tienanmen Square would some twenty-two years later.

I had the pleasure of working alongside Bernie Boston when I came to the nation's capital in 1988. To say that he was a true gentleman would be an understatement. Politeness oozed out of the man. He treated younger photographers with incredible kindness and generosity. And other than veteran Washington photographer Doug Mills, whose bald head has been recognized below more congressional hearing tables than perhaps anyone else, Bernie Boston was not a difficult guy to spot in a scrum. His ever-present cowboy hat was a hallmark of the Washington news media.

In fact, Bernie's cowboy hat is one of the reasons I'm writing this photography blog today. Back in 1984, when I was still a clueless English major in Binghamton, New York, reading "Absalom, Absalom" and "Look Homeward, Angel," Ronald Reagan made a campaign swing through the Triple Cities. By this point in my life I was spending far too much time working for the college newspaper and far too little time reading Faulkner. I covered Reagan's stop at Union-Endicott High School and was mesmerized by the presence of the traveling White House press corps.

"There they are!" I thought, as I watched the photographers whose photo credits were legendary to any budding photojournalist: Dirck Halstead, Bernie Boston (yup, he's the one in the cowboy hat), Barry Thumma, Wally McNamee. Ronald Reagan was on the stage but somehow I was shooting pictures of the press corps! (It wouldn't be the first or last time in my life that I'd miss the main picture.)

When I read this afternoon that Bernie had passed away I knew exactly where to find that old contact sheet from Endicott, New York. It's one of those relics that I stumble upon from time to time, one that always reminds me how I got from point A to B.


p.s. As always, double click photos for larger viewing. And if you can identify anyone else in the press corps photo, extra credit! Top picture by George Honeycutt, Vietnam protest by Bernie Boston.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

It's about time!

Fun news to report tonight: a childhood friend of mine, Marco Beltrami, a composer who has become the go-to guy in Hollywood for horror and action films, received his first Academy Award nomination today for his score to 3:10 to Yuma. Many critics say it's long overdue.

I'm quite confident that Marco wouldn't recognize (or even remember) me at this point in his life. But back in the late sixties and early seventies we saw each other several times a year. Marco's dad, Nino, is a mathematician and one of my father's oldest friends. We used to visit the Beltrami boys out near Stony Brook, Long Island, where we would have races down the enormous wooded hill in the backyard of their home. One weird memory: I remember coming down with chicken pox at the Beltrami home one year.

Anyway, Marco vaulted to stardom after he wrote the score for a small film in 1996 called Scream. It made a few dollars, if I remember correctly.

Congratulations, Marco!


Also from the Dep't. of Overdue Praise: My dear friend Kelly Corrigan, whose wedding I photographed many years back in Radnor, Pennsylvania, is now officially a best-selling author, having popped up on this week's New York Times bestseller list with her newly released memoir, The Middle Place.

I first wrote about Kelly back in October of 2006, after she had started her cancer website and had written a children's book about cancer called "Last Year, This Year." You can find that post here.

Since then, Kelly has been hard at work on The Middle Place, a memoir that touchingly (and, not surprisingly, knowing Kelly, humorously) deals with both her own breast cancer as well as the bladder cancer that her father, Big George, was struggling with. One doesn't ever expect to share chemo treatments with a parent but Kel did just that.

Last week I had the honor of hearing Kelly read from The Middle Place at Thyme Out in Gaithersburg. Thyme Out is a place where folks can prepare delicious meals for their families (thereby avoiding expensive take-out) and happens to be owned by Kelly's dear friend, chef Missy Bigelow Carr. Yup, I shot Missy's wedding as well!

It was fantastic to see Missy's business doing so well and Kelly's book gathering incredible word of mouth. (Kelly did a segment with Ann Curry on the Today show last week.) To get a feel the effect this book is having on regular people, read this story.

So skip on over to Amazon.com and pick yourself up a copy of The Middle Place. We're proud of you, Kel!


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Double Exposure: What happens after the shutter is released?

Photographers are a curious lot when it comes to the things we collect. Every shooter I've ever known has a closet filled with boxes upon boxes of odd mementos, faded press passes sporting more youthful (and thinner) headshots, and favorite photos made by our friends and idols.

I'm no different. Though I have copies of my own photos signed by the likes of Oprah and Jimmy Carter, I'd be more likely to share with you some of my more offbeat collectibles, like the official candy bar of the Million Man March (it always seemed a bit off-message to me), a cigar I picked up near the bombed out Commandancia in Panama that reads "Antonio Noriega" around the band, or the signed copy of Catch-22 I secured when I photographed Joseph Heller at the USA Today building in Arlington. (Oh, wait. I gave that to my childhood friend, David Fischer. You so owe me, David.)

One of my all-time favorites comes courtesy of the international airport in Riyad, Saudi Arabia. It's a bright orange puffy envelope used by the airline for items that can't be brought aboard an aircraft. The items, presumably collected from passengers before a flight, would be given back to said flyers upon landing. A pen knife, you're thinking, or a pair of scissors, right? No. Printed right there on the envelope, in big, bold letters is the following warning: "If item removed from passenger is valuable, like a gold dagger,..."

Like a gold dagger! I'd love to see the folks at TSA deal with that one.

I do have a couple of things that aren't frivolous, of course. One of them is a print of one of the most famous photographs ever taken, signed by the photographer. In fact, it's so famous an image that I really didn't need a photo here. All I really need to say is "girl runs down street screaming after napalm attack" and you'll instantly conjure the image. There aren't too many photographs that have that much visual recognition.

The photograph was taken by Nick Ut, one of the true living legends of photojournalism. I consider myself incredibly luck to have worked next to Nicky for the couple of years I was in Los Angeles during the early nineties. I was shooting for UPI and Nick was with AP, of course, the same outfit he made the napalm photo for. We were competitors, technically speaking, but Nick doesn't see anyone as a competitor once the scrum is over. He is a teddy bear of a guy, someone so polite, so caring, so lovable that you sometimes have to remind yourself that he took one of the most haunting photographs of the twentieth century.

In fact, I simply need to point to the inscription, which I'm somewhat embarrassed to report reads, "To my best friend, Matt...Nick Ut" to illustrate my point. As much as I would love to think otherwise, the truth is I'm not Nick's best friend. Not even close. But that's just it. Nick sees everyone as his best friend and vice versa.

I shared a lot of laughs with Nicky in Los Angeles. He was never one to turn down a free meal, especially the big Rose Bowl media dinner held at an L.A. steakhouse. I think they called the event the Beef Bowl or something. And I'll never forget a press event to introduce a new perfume line from Elvira, the late-night TV vamp. We photographers love our swag and I can still picture Nick stuffing twenty bottles of free Elvira perfume into his Domke bag.

"Nicky, what the hell are you going to do with all of that stuff?" I asked.

"I give to wife!" he said with a huge smile.

I haven't seen Nick in a while (the last time, I think, was chasing Monica Lewinsky around Washington. Nick is such a veteran of the Los Angeles courtroom beat that his editors sent him here to see if he could work some magic on the east coast). But two recent back to back stories about him caught my eye and reminded me what a great human being he is. They also reminded me of the great compassion that photographers often have for their subjects.

The first appeared a couple weeks back in the Washington Post, by Phillip Kennicott, headlined, "Poles and Decades Apart, Two Silent Screams Issue Discomfiting Reverberations." The story analyzes the odd bookends that now seem to define Nick's career: that iconic image of a young Kim Phuc running down that road in Cambodia in 1972, coupled with another great photo taken by Nick Ut thirty-five years to the day later, a teary Paris Hilton being hauled off to L.A. County jail. To the day, ladies and gents. Is there some cosmic irony at work here or are the parallels purely poppycock?

Kennicott writes: "...placed side by side, these two images begin to take on meaning, slowly, in counterpoint, in part because they seem weirdly uneasy in each other's presence. The proximity of something so serious (war) with something so trivial (celebrity sightings) should create sparks of cultural blasphemy. Enumerate everything these two images might possibly have in common, and you quickly find they resist each other almost like the poles of a magnet."

The story is really a fascinating read, one that shrewdly examines the widening chasm between serious journalism and celebrity obsession that has developed in the intervening years. Again, Kennicott's own words:

"But there is this: On both the basic, factual level and in a broader, more metaphysical sense, we made them. Kim Phuc's misery was the collateral damage of a war we made. Paris Hilton's vanity and fame and preposterous sense of entitlement is the collateral damage of a society we made. Before filing these two images into their proper categories -- the tragedy of war, the vacuity of the home front -- we should acknowledge the one thing they have in common at the deepest level. We own them, they are us, and they define the odd limits of our silly, foolish, bloody-minded species."

Another story that same day in the London Telegraph by John Preston, titled "Nick Ut: Double Negative," covers much the same ground, though it somewhat annoyingly fails to make the distinction, as Kennicott's does, that Nick is not a paparazzi but a working news photographer who, quite often, must cover the same celebrity events that the paparazzi are chasing. It is this intersection of serious journalism and frivolous tabloid pursuit that is at the heart of both pieces. (In fact, the beauty of Nick's Paris Hilton picture is that he not only beat the younger, rowdier paparazzi in getting THE picture but that he also made it seem carefully composed and thought out. Tabloid photographers want a picture; a photojournalist wants the picture.)

The Preston story does go a bit more into depth into Nick's lifelong relationship with Kim Phuc, the girl in his famous photo, now 44 and running a charity for children in Toronto. Seconds after making his photograph, which of course won him a Pulitzer, Nick did what any human being would do in a similar situation: he cared for her burns and drove her to a hospital where she would receive care. There's no issue of crossing lines or ethical boundaries here. Being a journalist doesn't mean one gets a Get Out of Jail Free card when it comes to being a compassionate human.

"Uncle Ut definitely saved my life," Kim Phuc tells Preston. "When we arrived at the hospital, the doctors all thought I was going to die. I had third-degree burns over 65 per cent of my body. After everything that had happened to me, he was the one person who restored my faith in human nature."

Only a few months back, the Los Angeles Times published an amazing two-part story by staff photographer Luis Sinco titled "Two Lives Blurred Together by a Photo." It examines the unique bond often shared by photographer and subject, in this case a weary Marine forever immortalized by Sinco as the "Marlboro Marine" of the Iraq war. One seemingly innocuous click of a shutter can change lives, as evidenced in Clint Eastwood's Flags of our Fathers or Frank Johnston's devastating search for the haggard Marine in his famous Peace Church photo from Vietnam, a topic I discussed here a few months back. The road from obscurity to universal symbol is almost always fraught with land mines. In Sinco's case, the ambivalence he feels for "creating" a media icon of Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller, no matter how well intentioned, ultimately leads to a near-intervention in Miller's post-Iraq plunge into PTSD. Like Nick decades earlier, Sinco treads carefully upon the line between journalistic objectivity and basic human compassion. I may have gotten him into this mess, can't I at least help him get out of it? he seems to be asking.

Well, what would a Dark Slide post be without just a bit of serendipity? As I was pondering these stories about Nick Ut and Luis Sinco et al. I received an email from one of my former bosses and mentors at USA Today, Frank Folwell, telling me he was leaving the paper after 21 years. Frank is another legend in photojournalism circles, someone who has led the nation's newspaper through every single technological advance of the last two decades--from an early analog transmitter in a Haliburton case called a Leafax through Sony Mavica still video cameras to today's megapixel-loaded Canons and Nikons. He's scouted every Olympic venue dating back to the ancient Greeks themselves and is as even-keeled as they come. (He came from the Des Moines Register, what do you expect?) All this without ever forgetting that it is always the photograph, not the technology, that is paramount.

So it's no surprise then that one of Frank's photographs, taken on a cold day in Croatia in 1991, is one that had an enormous impact on my development as a photographer. The photograph is of a little boy and a grandfather walking down a road, the old man lugging what has to be the sorriest Christmas tree since Charlie Brown presented his lame specimen to Linus and the gang. Of course the beauty of the image is that the little boy is beaming like he had just chopped down the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. War was ravaging his homeland and he has not a care in the world. Pure joy.

I'll never forget the day I saw that picture run in USA Today. It left such an impression on me--the juxtaposition of sadness and hope--that I knew right then and there that I was on the right path. The picture became a gold standard of mine for years, something I never told Frank all these years until we spoke last week.

Here's what Frank wrote:

I took the picture in December 1991 on the way to covering the massacre of 43 civilians by Serb paramilitaries in the small village of Vocin in Croatia.

It was ironic to encounter young Dario Rahle and his (step) grandfather Juro Botincan walking along with a newly-cut Christmas tree. At least one reason for the big smile might be that Christmas was not officially celebrated in communist Yugoslavia. Croatia had declared itself independent and despite an ongoing war, the citizens began to observe the holiday.

I think most readers were struck by the scraggly tree and Dario's jacket with the broken zipper. Several people sent me new jackets for him.

I got letters and calls for several years asking for copies of the photo and inquiring about how they could help Dario. In February 1992, Sherry and I took several boxes of gifts to the family - all sent by readers. Also, there was a pretty substantial amount of money sent to me that we were able to give the family. On our next visit we found they had bought a freezer, something that makes a big difference because they can preserve their produce and meats. They had chickens, geese, pigs etc.

Over the years we have tried to keep in touch with the family. Grandfather Juro has died. Dario was doing odd jobs since he could not get a job as a baker. We have tried to give him help and support but he is probably still doing day work.

In order to communicate we have to go to his home, which is a 90 minute drive from Zagreb. They don't have a phone and don't respond to mail. We hope to visit him this year.

Once again, a great photographer whose heart is in the right place. Photojournalism will no doubt face more and more pressure from its bastard cousin, the tabloid press. But the paparazzi don't care about their subjects any more than a seal hunter cares about the pup he's about to club. Great photographers like Nick Ut, Luis Sinco, Frank Johnston and Frank Folwell care and that's what will always separate the good guys from the mob. I'll leave it to Nick Ut, whose mastery of the English language has always been a source of good-natured ribbing from his colleagues, to wrap this up with what has to be the quote of the year, a simple yet staggering reflection:

"It's a strange feeling because I know I will never take another photograph that's as good as this - not as long as I live. When I look at my photograph of Kim and my photograph of Paris Hilton, I think they are both good pictures, in their way. I suppose the big difference is that I grew to love Kim, whereas… well, frankly, I don't give a damn about Paris Hilton."

Well said, Nicky.


Thursday, January 03, 2008

Hapy New Year!

I'm rushing today as we're leaving for Paris shortly. As I mentioned in my last post, the French translation of my brother Daniel's book, "Les Disparus," recently won France's highest award for a non-French author. It's called the Prix Medicis and previous winners of the prize include Milan Kundera, Philip Roth and Umberto Eco. Daniel has some speaking engagements and we're going to go over and join in the fun.

(Paris in January may not be Paris in the springtime, but it's actually a nice time to visit. You can see the Mona Lisa as often as you like and drink hot chocolate at Angelina to your heart's content. The usual hour wait outside on the Rue de Rivoli vanishes.)

I didn't want to leave without posting a few pictures from the gorgeous Christmas wedding of Cara Magee and Patrick Leroy. I say Christmas but the wedding was actually on my birthday, December 22, which, for anyone born on the days immediately preceding and following Christmas will tell you, is a rotten time to be a kid. Everyone always assumes you get twice as much but most kids will tell you that there birthdays on those dates just get lost in the shuffle.

I won't tell you how old I am but the knees are starting to creak a bit. Put it this way: the other day ESPN Classic was showing Game 4 of the 1969 Wold Series between the Mets and the Orioles and I knew all the Met players by name. (My favorite piece of baseball trivia: Did you know that Tom Seaver once struck out 19 batters in a game, including the last ten in a row to end the game. Ten in a row!!!!!!!)

But I digress, as I always do.

Patrick and Cara had an absolutely gorgeous wedding at The Ritz Carlton in Washington. The weather was perfect, Christmas lights were everywhere, and the reception room at the Ritz looked like a ice palace.

I'm sure Cara has heard this many a time before, but she bears an uncanny resemblance to Arlington's very own Sandra Bullock. All brides are radiant on their wedding day; Cara just radiates at 110%. Like her lookalike, she has movie star thing going in spades. And while I've repeatedly told you all that I know as much about fashion as Borat, I do know that there's something about a winter wedding dress with a beautiful wrap. The white winter wrap always manages to conjure Dr. Zhivago for me, Lara and Boris on their way to the ice castle in Yuriatin.

Patrick and Cara were married at one of my favorite churches--I say favorite for purely selfish reasons--Holy Trinity in Georgetown. It's one of the few churches where no one bothers me (read: no dour church lady) and the light is nice and even. My assistant Matt, who was just married a month ago himself, was on hand to make the critical balcony coming-down-the-aisle-from-above picture.

(You could tell it was the weekend before Christmas because the street in front of Holy Trinity was devoid of cars. I assumed that there were emergency no parking signs up but it was simply that everyone was out of town! believe me, you don't see an empty street in Georgetown very often.)

Anyway, congratulations to Patrick and Cara on their beautiful wedding. They're in Tahiti right now, where I'm sure the tempertures are dipping into the 20's like they are here in Washington.

Also a big thank you to Cara's mom, Christine, who was so easy and fun to work with. And a reminder to Cara's brother, C. Max Magee, creator of one of the most impressive
literary blogs around, The Millions, to unwrap the copy of The Lost I sent-- the one that's gathering dust-- and start reading. :)


Some housekeeping notes: I'll be out of town for the next week and half but I will have email access. Please don't leave phone messages, as the phone doesn't work over there. (Another reason to get an iPhone!)

If you're a prospective bride or groom looking to set-up an inteview, just shoot me a note and we'll meet in Old Town when I return. there are still a couple of dates open for 2008!

And finally, a big happy new year to all of you faithful readers. I never imagined that a blog could draw as much traffic as it does--and from so far away. Thanks for all your great comments and emails.


p.s. As always, double click the images for better viewing.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A list truly worth checking twice

We've been so busy trying to fulfill holiday orders that I was fairly certain I wouldn't have a chance to write again before the holidays. But then I happened upon Oprah's annual "Favorite Things" installment last week and I couldn't wait to get to the keyboard.

Now I like Oprah as much as the next guy. As wildly successful and rich people go, what's not to like? Her show is always fun to watch, whether it's Dr. Mehmet Oz dissecting a spleen or Tom Cruise self-destructing in mid leap. And her charity efforts in places like South Africa always get me teary-eyed. Oprah's okay with me.

Except, that is, for her annual holiday episode, in which the art of giving is always reduced to its most vulgar form. To see grown adults flailing away and gasping for air after being told that they're all receiving a set of plastic juice tumblers or the latest Mp3 player is just too much for me to handle. Yes, I know Oprah always handpicks the audience for this day of material worship, just like Willy Wonka and his golden tickets, and yes, I know the audience is always comprised of deserving people, but none of that lessens the degree of cringeworthiness I feel when watching each year. Perhaps it's not so much that audience members faint over being given juice tumblers; it's that they cheer and stomp usually only after being told the retail price of said gift. It's the declaration of price--the proof that their gift has value--that prompts the hysterics, not the gift itself.

There's not a lot more to be said about Oprah's Favorite Things episode. Saturday Night Live did the definitive parody years ago, complete with bodies being launched into the air, and not much has changed since. Oprah does spend a lot more time, it seems, reiterating that her favorite gifts are the ones that have no commercial value--"appreciation" is the greatest gift, she recently said--as if to lessen the obvious distaste that this one episode can conjure.

Seeing people hyperventilate over a free panini press (from Williams Sonoma, $99.95!) can only help focus oneself on the truly important things in life. We don't have a list of cookware we endorse here at Matt Mendelsohn World Headquarters, but we do have a list of favorite people who are deserving of your thoughts this holiday season. Forget about applauding for iPods--let's hear it for these people.

Lindsay Ess

Over the years, I've been fortunate to work with a lot of fun and talented professionals in the wedding business. One of my favorites is Kim Giammaria, the best wedding make-up artist in the region. I've been bumping into Kim for years and years, from messy bedrooms in private homes to presidential suites at the Four Seasons. I always smile when I see her upon arriving, because I know that we'll have lots of good gossip to catch up on.

A few months back, Kim began telling me about an extraordinary young woman she was very close with named Lindsay Ess. Lindsay, 24, is a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where she majored in fashion design. From all the stories I've heard from Kim, Lindsay is the kind of person you don't forget--beautiful, full of energy, and, most of all, always exuding kindness.

Lindsay went into the hospital this August for what should have been routine surgery to help her manage with her Crohn's Disease, a chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. But a few days later sepsis set in, an extremely serious condition in which organs begin failing. I'm no doctor, obviously, so I will instead direct you to a story about Linsday's condition in the Richmond Times-Dispatch here. The bottom line is that as a result of the sepsis and the circulation loss caused by it, Lindsay lost both her arms below the elbows and both her legs beneath her knees.

I know from Kim's frequent emails that Lindsay is both struggling and fighting mightily, something one could only expect from such a catastrophic event. Her emotional swings will be as tough to conquer as her physical needs. Lindsay was recently transferred to a rehab hospital in Baltimore where she will begin the very long road to recovery. She will need all the support she can get. A fund has been set up to help her family deal with what will likely be staggering medical costs. Visit her page at www.loveoflindsay.com. You can make donations to help directly online at the site. And even if you can't make a financial contribution, please sign the guest book and let Lindsay know you're thinking about her this holiday season.

Alexis Goggins

Alexis Goggins is not your average seven-year-old kid.

Earlier this month the young Detroit girl threw herself in front of her mother in order to protect her from a carjacker, a former boyfriend of her mom. When the gunman shot her mother in the front seat of their SUV, Alexis instinctively lept from the back of the car to protect her. Mom was shot twice, but it was little Alexis who bore the brunt of this violent crime. She was shot six times, with wounds to the temple, chin, arm, cheek, chest and eye. She lies in a Detroit hospital right now in critical condition, her eye already lost, though able to squeeze her mother's hand.

When I read about Alexis' plight last week I was amazed at her selflessness, even at such a young age. In the split-second before being shot those six times, Alexis yelled out the words that would make any parent weep: "Don't hurt my mother!" We live in a very sick society where roles are reversed and children must sacrifice their bodies to protect adults from gunmen.

In a world in which the word hero is applied perhaps a little too liberally these days, Alexis is the real deal. In reading editorials about her acts in newspapers around the country, I came upon these words by Lester Holmes, a writer for the Journal newspapers in Wayne, Michigan:

During the holidays we are told to express our love by buying the most expensive gifts we possibly can. While receiving a nice gift is memorable, there are expressions of true love from the young people in our lives that we pass by every day without acknowledgement.

The way your daughter seems to give you a hug after a hard day, even through you didn’t mention one word to her about what happened. How about the way your son tries to help you with the groceries despite the bag weighing more than he does?

While we are busy in our lives and sometimes view the eagerness of our children, nieces/nephews to help as more of a nuisance than assistance, maybe we just need to be grateful that they think of us so much that they want to help.

Just like Alexis, your child has no income. Just like Alexis, the child in your life finds a way to give an expression of love that trumps any gift money could.

Please keep Alexis in your thoughts this Christmas. Donations to a fund set up for her can be sent to the Alexis Goggins Hero Fund in care of Campbell Elementary School, 2301 E Alexandrine St, Detroit, MI 48207. And you can read more about her story here and here.


Everyone who helped with Photo Marathon

I know I've said this many time before, but I really do feel incredibly lucky to have such a great client base. Over the past few years you guys have helped us raise money for MS research, tsunami relief, and, most generously, the college funds of several young children whose fathers were killed in Iraq. I can't believe that I'm even typing this, but we're right around $45,000 in money donated to these great causes. $45,000!!!

I want to thank all of you who have pitched in to help, from strangers donating money to friends buying coffee and doughnuts. I never dreamed that giving away money would become part of my job description as a portrait photographer but now that is, I couldn't imagine doing it any other way. To Laura Gonzalez, Julie Newell, Bill Auth, Carolyn Alers, Matthew Girard, the folks at Alpha Fotoworks and Black and White, and all the wedding and portrait clients who keep returning each year to donate money, I thank you deeply.

A special thanks to Charlotte Freeman, the wife of Capt. Brian Freeman, who was killed in Iraq this past January. We don't deposit any money raised from our Photo Marathons, instead opting to send our beneficiaries all the checks we collect. It ends up being a lot of checks, mailed in one FedEx shipment. I've been getting a lot of calls of late describing the touching thank you note they've received from Charlotte. I never expected--or wanted--her to have to write so many notes. But the fact that she has speaks volumes about her character.

Lastly, to my wife, Maya, who not only puts up with my crazy ideas on things like Photo Marathon but has to process all the images to boot. I wouldn't be able to do it without you.

Happy Holidays to all!!!


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Leave the gun. Take the cannoli

Years ago, I went to see an exhibit at the Corcoran entitled "What Remains," by the legendary photographer Sally Mann. Usually associated with provocative large format images of her children, this time Mann had turned her camera to a more ethereal subject, the paradox of what effect time and the earth have on our bones, and, conversely, what effect our bones have on the earth and time.

I was fascinated (and grossed out, truth be told) by Mann's haunting images of femurs and fibulas slowly turning into ash. In a peculiar twist, an escaped convict was shot and killed on Mann's Virginia farm and she began photographing the spot where the man had died, looking for any clues that the earth changes just a bit each time it witnesses such an event. Not exactly a crowd-pleasing topic, but Mann has never been one for pleasing crowds. Years after seeing that exhibit, the concept of "what remains" has stayed with me with me longer than the photograph themselves.

It certainly popped to the surface the other day after a series of bizarre coincidences had unfolded. As you all know, bizarre coincidences follow me almost as much as my neighbor's cat, Sparkle. I sometimes feel like Rod Serling is going to pop out from a corner and tell me that it's all been one long Twilight Zone episode.

So the other day was November 13th. It was Cooper the Wonder Dog's 10th birthday. Did I remember? Of course not. I reminded myself to remember all week but forgot when the actual day came around. The funny part is that the night before, on November 12th, I stumbled upon my 1997 pocket diary. I have no idea why it suddenly turned up on my nightstand, though I'm assuming the cleaning ladies found it in the closet or something. So there I was, sitting on my bed, perusing this ten-year-old artifact of dates and contacts, a glimpse back into every appointment and assignment I had that year. According to my book, on January 20th I photographed the inauguration, on April 22 I met the Dali Lama while shoting an assignment on Larry King, and on October 7th I went out to buy a silly rocking horse for a Chris Rock shoot the next day at the Four Seasons hotel. Don't ask. I laughed as I tried to figure out who half the names in the address book belonged to. It's both amazing and disheartening to realize just how many people were prominent in your life ten short years ago, people whose whereabouts today are a total mystery.

Anyway, there I am looking at this freshly certified relic, when I thought I should see what I was doing exactly ten years ago. The answer should have been obvious: We were arriving, at 7:35 a.m on Air France 29, in Paris for our honeymoon. The only other notation was for the next day, November 13, a big asterisk that said "Katy Kelly's BD!" (It didn't say "Cooper's birthday," obviously, because there's no way I could have known Cooper was about to be born the next day.)

Katy is a great friend of mine, dating back to my USA Today days. We used to go out on assignments together in the early 1990's. Then one night we had to drive to Baltimore to cover a convention of adults who collect Barbie dolls and we haven't stopped laughing since. And since I forget so many birthdays, I felt like there was some divine influence at work here. I thought, how cool is this, I would have never remembered Katy's birthday the next day if not for finding this ten-year-old date book.

Well, guess what? I forgot to call Katy the next day. So now I'm 0 for 2. I forgot my dog Cooper's birthday, as well as the birthday of my friend Katy. Serendipity, shmerendipity.

And what does this have to do with "What Remains?" Well, on the day before my day of forgetting things, I happened to bump into a friend on the street in Georgetown. I was crossing R Street into Montrose Park, a place I've shot so many portraits over the years that Sally Mann might want to come over and see what effect one playground can have on an individual, when my friend Alexandra Kovach pulled up and said hi. Alexandra is in charge of events at Evermay, just down the block, one of the most beautiful places one can be married in Washington. It's an old mansion in Georgetown that oozes a different kind of history than most other important landmarks in our nation's capital. Unlike, say, neighboring Dumbarton House, with its Federal era mannequins and its Society of Colonial Dames, Evermay's history is all family, all personal.

Evermay was home to the Belin family for much of the last century and their presence can be felt all over the grounds, including the final resting place of several family members. Photographs of the Belins can be seen all throughout the house, from the day in 1923 they moved in to some of the overseas conferences Mary Belin, the family matriarch, attended when she was a translator for the State Department in the 1930's. (An accomplished tennis player, she also played on center court at Wimbledon in 1938!)

Every time I photograph a wedding at Evermay I find myself staring at Belin family photos all day long. There's something about the staying power of one single image, of one fleeting moment in a family's life, that makes me marvel. It's the opposite effect of walking into a Pottery Barn and seeing all the living room setups lined with fake books and fake photos. At Evermay, all of those people in the pictures actually once called this place their home. This isn't a museum, it's a home. And without the photographs, it would just be another venue.

And so the day after my day of forgetting meaningful things, I Googled Alexandra Kovach to get her number at Evermay and follow up on our chance. But Google gave me something other than a phone number.

The first thing it listed was a story written in the Washington Post by one Alexandra Kovach, titled, "What Fire Couldn't Destroy." Intrigued, I began reading. Dated October 27, just a couple weeks ago, when fires were ravaging Southern California, the story is a first-hand account of the effects another terrible fire, the Oakland Hills wildfire of 1991, had on a little girl. Kovach writes:

I still visualize our house on Vicente Road. I have dreams that take place there. I can still feel the lace on my mother's wedding veil, which my sisters and I would sneak out of its box when we were little girls with big ideas. Or the texture of my parents' bedspread, as we read "The Wind in the Willows," leaving my dreams filled with visions of Mr. Toad floating down the river, night after night. And that giant box where my mother would proudly store the artistic treasures we brought home from school. I would love to see now, or to show my children one day, how I drew the sun when I was 5.

Before I could even finish I picked up the phone and called Alexandra.

"Hey, funny bumping into you on the street yesterday. Um, I was trying to find your number and I Googled you and found this beautiful and sad story about the Okaland Hills fire of 1991. Is that you??" (I mean, how many Alexandra Kovach's can there be, right?)

"I did write that," she said.

"Um, you won't believe this, but I was there that day," I said. "I covered the Oakland Hills fire. I was up from Los Angeles for the Cal football game. I've never seen anything like that. There were only chimneys left as far as the eye could see."

Just another coincidence in my life. Here is someone I know writing movingly about a fire that took her childhood home away in a flash--and with it all her toys and books and photographs--and it turns out I was in the very same place those sixteen years ago, looking at the same devastation, though from a very different perspective. 3,000 homes were burned that day in 1991 and now I felt odd, hoping that Alexandra's house wasn't one of the ones I photographed.

And if you think the Rod Serling stuff is over, think again.

Like many of the people who asked me when my own piece was in the Washington Post in September, I asked Alexandra how she came to write the story for the Post. She told me that she had mulled it over while watching the news, but that it was reading my story in the Post that gave her the courage to pursue it. I was floored. Even by my standard of coincidence and serendipity, this was getting downright spooky.

If you haven't already, please read Alexandra's touching essay. It goes right to the core of "What Remains." What do we keep? What do we lose? What are the remainders?

As Alexandra tells it, the only photo album her family was able to save from the burning house was the one that she and her sister had made of "reject" pictures no one else wanted to save. The ones with the bad expressions, the bad complexions, the eyes closed.

"Overnight, these snapshot disasters became our greatest treasures. Today's digital photos can be modified or erased within seconds of being taken, wiping away all signs of human imperfection. These albums had held the outtakes of our lives so far, but in their flaws, they were true testimony to the children we were and the adults we became, making them all the more precious."

For years I've been trying to explain to people the importance of photos that are real, not staged and manipulated. I've bitten my tongue when the occasional wedding client rejects a stupendous photo because his or her hair was out of place, or when a Georgetown mother rejects a gorgeous photo of her child because he has a scrape on his chin. You're missing the forest for the trees, I usually mumble to myself. And now Alexandra Kovach, the friend who I bumped into on the street that day in Georgetown, a chance encounter that caused me to Google her, an internet search that led to the discovery that her own home was burned to the ground in a fire sixteen years earlier, a fire I witnessed, and an emotional story she felt confident in relating partly because of my story in a newspaper sixteen years later, that Alexandra Kovach was now perfectly summing up my very own feelings about photography itself.

One of the great ironies of the digital era is that in the end, only paper will survive. Faced with raging fire, no one ever runs to save their hard drive. People run to save their photographs. A photograph on a laptop is data. But when printed on paper it is a relic, a prized possesion. It's these photographs that have so much meaning to us, the ones that we put in frames and tape to our monitors and store in the attic. The printed photograph will never die, even in 2057, when we're all driving flying cars and the metric system will have finally arrived, because it will always have one leg up on its digital counterpart. Like humans, the printed picture is alive, gets beat up, and becomes frail and brittle over time. Data is just that--data.

She may not have thought much about this, but I now realize that Alexandra is the perfect person to be at Evermay, a house filled with so many important family photos. In fact, each time I'm photographing a wedding at Evermay, I feel drawn to read and re-read the same letter that is on display in one of the cases. It's a letter from Harry Belin to another family member describing the night he went to pick up his son who was arriving from Germany. Something terrible happened that night. Thankfully the son survived, but the account of the tragedy is so gripping, so riveting in its fountain pen cursive script on yellowed and torn paper, that I often drag wedding guests over to make sure they've seen it. It's incredible: The fire, the "burning hulk crashing to the ground," the desperate search for and reunion with family.

Oh, did I mention? The Belin boy was on the Hindenburg.


p.s. Speaking of important keepsakes, the pictures that accompany this post are all from last month's Photo Marathon. Click them to make them bigger.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Great Joni Mitchell Cover-up

A rant, a rant and a rave tonight.

And to get to those items faster, I'll dispense quickly with the obligatory apologies for taking so long to blog. As I said last time, this is crazy time in the life of any photographer, the holidays just around the corner, and I've been a tad busy. This past weekend, for instance, I shot seven portrait jobs. Like I said, a tad busy.

Now that's we're clear on that, on to rant number one.

Many of you know that I'm a bit of a Joni Mitchell nut. To say that I consider Joni to be a part of my family--as odd as that sounds--would not be a stretch. I've listened to Blue so many thousands of times in the past 25 years that I sometimes think I'm the one who needs a river to skate away on. Like a security blanket, Joni is always there for me. From Hejira's Coyote (love that Bay of Fundy) to Turbulent Indigo's Magdalene Laundries, I've stayed true. None of this fair weather stuff. (That great scene in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, where the space aliens tell him that they love his films--"especially," says the martian, "the early funny ones.") Nope. I've been with Joni for the long haul.

Now, friends can be hard on a lifelong Joni fan. You get teased in ways that, say, a lifelong Bruce Springsteen fan might not. One friend who shall remain nameless, unless, of course, you've read my last blog entry, has accused me of listening to "mopey chick music." Fair enough. Coupled with my love for Aimee Mann and Nanci Griffith and Gillian Welch (the mopiest of them all--Maya once attempted to throw herself from the car when Gillian started singing The Revelator) I guess I can see the argument. But Joni isn't really mopey at all. I mean, how could you not love someone who can write like this:

I met a redneck on a Grecian Isle/ He did the goat dance very well/ He gave me back my smile/ But he kept my camera to sell.

When I read in the New York Times recently that Joni was set to release a new album, Shine, as well as lend her songs to a new work by the Alberta Ballet, I was excited. I wasn't too thrilled to learn that the album was being marketed exclusively on Starbuck's Hear Music label, as corporate synergy has worn me down of late, but excited nonetheless.

So a week or so ago, as I waited for my venti hot chocolate at the Macarthur Blvd. Starbucks, a joint where the baristas work so damn hard and still get your order wrong all the time, I noticed the album for the first time. I scooped it up, knowing I had a nine hour drive to Savannah in front of me, and hit the road.

That's when Maya noticed the cover. Or should I say cover-up?

The cover of Shine is a beautiful photograph of dancers with the Alberta Ballet engaged in a lunar leap of sorts. It's evocative, it's moody, and it's a noticeable departure from many of Joni's albums that feature her own artwork. I feel ridiculous stating this, but for the record, the muscular male dancers are all wearing tights. There is not a nude body to be found.

But in the spirit of John Ashcroft, who was so offended by the sight of a woman's breast that he ordered a new set of drapes, someone at Starbucks clearly has some issues. How else can one explain the hideous band of blue paper that covers, quite neatly, every single tush in the photograph? It's as if buying a Joni Mitchell album has suddenly become akin to leaving an adult bookstore with a paper-clad girlie magazine.

Would someone wake me when this all ends? Have we become so absurdly prudish as a society that the bodies of male dancers--clothed!!!--can't be shown on an album cover? Is someone worried that a child might see these dancers and, god forbid, dream about going into the arts? Nigel Tufnel couldn't understand why the "Smell the Glove" cover was censored in This is Spinal Tap. But that was a movie farce--this is real life.

I went back into Starbucks to see if any other album they sold had an added "wrapper," but couldn't find one. And to head off any explanation that the wrap was added to give more visual clarity for sales purposes, Joni's own Blue, which features one of the hardest to read titles of any album--blue on blue type--is also sold at Starbucks, sans wrapper.

That someone in the corporate world would actually worry that ballet dancers' derrieres might be offensive--only in America, right?--is not surprising. But I am very surprised that Joni would go along with such a harebrained scheme. We're talking about a woman who, by her own admission, didn't go near a piano for the last ten years because she so despised the record industry. Et tu, Joni?

Back in the late 1970's, when I was attending Mattlin Junior High School on Long Island, a music teacher named Miss Sparrow was trying her best to be hip. She was teaching a lesson about "modern" music and was about to play Jimi Hendrix's version of the Star Spangled Banner. (Other favorites included overly deep analysis of the Beatles' incredibly simple "Michelle.") But before she let the needle drop onto the record player (record player!), Miss sparrow cautioned our class that the music we were about to hear was so powerful that we could be potentially be harmed. As if she was about to give us all LSD, she dutifully asked if anyone wanted to leave the room. One of my classmates, David L., sheepishly raised his hand and left.

Jimi Hendrix would no doubt get a kick to learn that ballet dancers have joined his club.

Rant #2.

Last night Maya and I went to see Bruce Springsteen, courtesy of my friend and former bride, Laura Gonzalez. Laura knows that I'm as big a Bruce fan as I am a Joni Mitchell nut. I won't forget her kindness very soon.

The concert was sublime. I first saw Bruce at the Carrier Dome in 1985, on the Born in the USA tour, and it's hard to think that almost 22 years have past since that show. And even if I factor in the handful of times I've seen Bruce since that first show, none of them can top last night. Sure, the Verizon Center felt a tad geriatric, as middle aged bald guys maneuvered down the stairs clutching their beers, but big deal. The true believers showed a little faith and there truly was magic in the night. As Jon Stewart said last night, a Springsteen concert is about nothing but pure joy.

(Alexandra's great parlor trick, as four-year-old parlor tricks go, has always been her rendition of Thunder Road. I love the way she blissfully skips past lines like "Lying out there like a killer in the sun...")

As the show progressed, Backstreets morphed into Thunder Road. Thunder Road into Born to Run. All the anthems you could have asked for, and all framed by the incredibly powerful songs off the new album. I'm not sure what constitutes an instant classic, but I was almost moved to tears by Devil's Arcade, a heartbreaking song told from the perspective of an Iraqi war widow.

Remember the morning we dug up your gun
The worms in the barrel, the hanging sun
Those first nervous evenings of perfume and gin
The lost smell on your breath as I helped you get it in
The rush of your lips, the feel of your name
The beat in your heart, the devil's arcade

So, if everything was as great as you describe, Matt, what's to rant about?

Cell phones. And for a laugh, not because of their noise.

As if I didn't have to deal with enough dopes and their ever-ringing cellphones at weddings each week, I now can't go see a live music event without seven hundred people holding up their phones for the entire event, all of them trying to not-so-secretly record some absurdly low-res video to post on YouTube. Do these people know how incredibly distracting this is? (Or do they even care?) For the record, I don't want to watch Bruce Springsteen as he is illuminated by the ever-present glow of your cell phone's LED display. I want to watch Bruce Springsteen, live and in front of me, not reduced to some minuscule mpeg movie.

I know, just forget it, Matt, watch the show. But it's really hard to watch the show when the guy in front of you is holding up a lit phone for two hours. And for what? Is there really so much of a rush posting a grainy, inaudible video clip for one's cell phone on the internet? And this was in a huge arena. I've seen the same thing happen at the Birchmere, an intimate music hall that seats only a couple of hundred. The room is dark, the mood is electric, and there's that damn glow of a cell phone being held aloft. Argh.

I always made fun of the tourists who arrived at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and descended from their tour buses with cameras in front of their faces. Didn't they want to just look at the canyon for a minute before they started snapping? It's not like it's going anywhere. But there's an odd obsession with capturing something, with taking something back with you. It makes no difference that the video is jerky and pixelated and garbled. You've got a little bit of Bruce in a bottle, and if it means pissing off the hundreds of people around you for a few hours, well, by god, it's worth it.

The old commercial used to go, is it live or is it Memorex? The implication was that the tape was so good it practically felt like you were there. These days I'm convinced that more people would just rather have the tape.


And now, finally, a couple of raves.

Yesterday, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (or Les Disparus, as it's known in Paris), by my brother, Daniel Mendelsohn, was awarded the Prix Médicis étranger, France's most prestigious award for a work by a foreign author. To give you an idea of the company Daniel is now in, previous winners of this prize include Milan Kundera, Umberto Eco, Philip Roth and Doris Lessing (who just won the Nobel Prize for literature a few weeks back). Not bad.

In a country that takes reading quite seriously, Daniel was treated like royalty. He dined last night across form the former prime minister, who insisted that he be seated next to Daniel, as well as greeted by microphones and cameras the minute he steeped into the hotel. If you're going to have your fifteen minutes, you might as well have them in Paris.

Congratulations, Daniel.


We've all been working hard here at Matt Mendelsohn World Headquarters. We have two new employees, Katie Persons and Ashley Dally, whom we hope will speed up our workflow a bit. Ashley hails from Defiance, Ohio and will tell you the entire history of that town if you ask her. So don't get her started. Katie has only been with us a short time and she's already chchangedur lives by introducing us to www.pandora.com, a site that instantly creates a personalized radio station based on your musical preferences. Really neat.

But without a doubt, the hardest worker has been Maya. She has the tough job of making every image look as good as it can. And I can say that our images have never looked better. Most people don't understand the digital process very much, their only point of reference being the old days of dropping film at a lab. But these days there frequently is no lab. We're the lab. And all of the care that a lab once gave to making images look beautiful has now fallen back to the photographer.

It's counter intuitive, I know, but most digital images require more, not less, work than their film cousins. Every image we process gets intensive individual care to bring out contrast, tonality and vibrance. There are no quick fixes.

So I'll leave you tonight, as the clock here strikes 2:00 a.m., with some of our fall portraits.

Take care. (And, as always, double-click the images for better viewing.)