THE CAMERA'S EYE
Lens Magazine|December 2021
I have had the incredibly good fortune to learn photography and life lessons from many of the most influential photographers in the history of the medium.
MARK EDWARD HARRIS
In the 1980s, I began to photograph and interview photographers for various magazines. This combined my love of photography and history. I didn't know it at the time, but the knowledge gleaned from my Master's degree in Pictorial/ Documentary History – a major I created at California State University, Los Angeles – would give me the skills to dive deep into my interviews into what made these photographic luminaries click.

In 1998, my first book, “Faces of the Twentieth Century: Master Photographers and Their Work” was published by Abbeville Press in English and French editions, Images du 20ème siecle: Vingt photographes regardent leur temps, and a German edition, Gesichter des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts: Meisterfotografen und ihr Werk publish by Weingarten.

In the book, I presented my portraits of twenty photographers along with excerpted interviews illustrated with five of their images. The book won the Photography Book of the Year and Best of Show awards at the New York Book Festival. I have gone on to publish nine more award-winning books, including The Way of the Japanese Bath, Wanderlust, Inside Iran, North Korea, The Travel Photo Essay: Describing a Journey Through Images and The People of the Forest (about orangutans) as well as continuing my Photographer Portrait and interview series which now numbers in the hundreds. I would like to share a few backstories and some words of wisdom by these lenswomen and lensmen, many of whom now reside in the pantheon of photography.

I photographed the legendary LIFE magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898-1995) on the terrace of the Time & Life Building in 1993 on his 95th birthday with a Nikkor 85mm lens attached to my Nikon camera body using a large silver reflector camera right. Before I depressed the shutter, Eisie advised me, Always check a gentleman's tie before taking a picture. So, of course, I followed his sage advice and took the larger concept behind his statement to check the person's wardrobe, hair, and so on before my lens. The devil is in the details, as the saying goes. When Eisie passed away two years later, the image was used in LIFE as a final page tribute with the caption written by the editor, This is the master's choice, Eisie's favorite photo of himself.

While Eisie's frozen moment of the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square at the end of World War II is his most famous photograph, I am most drawn to his powerful environmental portrait of a woman sitting on a pile of rubble with her young son in Hiroshima less than a half year after an atomic bomb detonated over their city. Eisie was able to capture the quiet strength and fortitude of this woman. The hair across her face conveys a cold wind blowing through the devastating scene that I feel every time I look at an image exposed more than 75 years ago.

Another legendary LIFE magazine photographer, Gordon Parks (19122006), had a significant impact on me on a number of levels. His book, Voices in the Mirror, is a road map on how to live life to the fullest and not get dragged down by whatever obstacles might be placed in your way. My portrait of Parks in his New York apartment was inspired by this powerful autobiography.

My interviews with Parks included a fascinating discussion as to how his first photo essay for LIFE, published in 1948, came about. It serves as an example of a photographer suggesting a project to a magazine instead of the other way around, or as Eve Arnold (19122012) told me Waiting around for the phone to ring. It also gives great insights into the inner workings of a publication's editorial office as well as how one project can lead to another. I walked into Wilson Hicks' office, Parks recalled; Hicks said, 'How the hell did you get in here? What do you want in here?' Wilson was a very tough editor that a lot of people hated. I said, 'I want to show you some pictures.' I had gone up to somebody and asked, 'Where's Mr. Hicks's office?' I knew I was going to get thrown out, but then John Dille, who was editing documentary assignments, came into the office and saw some of the stuffI had done for the FSA (Farm Security Administration). He was looking for a good strong documentary piece. So Wilson asked, 'What do you want to do?' I proposed a story on a Harlem gang, not because I wanted to do it but simply because I felt I had to excite this man.

I had to say something with my camera that none of the white photographers could do to penetrate a Harlem gang. After being convinced by John Dille, Hicks said yes.

The Harlem gang series led directly to Parks' next assignment for LIFE in 1949 to create a photo essay on the island of Stromboli to illustrate the complex love story between Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini. Parks recalled, Roberto had become sort of a tyrant on the island and kicked all the newspeople out because everybody was condemning Ingrid….The whole world seemed to be against her for leaving her husband and daughter and going offwith Rossellini. She was pregnant at the time too. The film was falling apart….Roberto was angry with all the newspeople. They had to have somebody they could trust. Ingrid thought she could trust me. She had seen my pictures of the Harlem gang series in LIFE and thought they were sensitive, so that's why I was invited. Parks describes how his most famous image from the photo essay came about: I was taking a portrait of her on one side of the island, and these three women came along dressed in black. They were curious about me and Ingrid and what we were doing. They just paused for a moment, and I took advantage of that moment. I think the picture is symbolic of what Ingrid and Roberto felt the whole world was thinking.

When it comes to a discussion of photographers creating powerful photo essays and equally powerful portraits, Mary Ellen Mark (1940 - 2015) is a must mention. Among her masterful photo essays were Streetwise, Indian Circus, Twins, and Falkland Road.

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