Allen's Blog

Posts tagged ‘David Burnett’:

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Alex "A-Rod" Rodriguez, handsomely photographed by Nick Laham and processed by Instagram

In a way, nothing… in another way, everything. Here’s the front page of last Sunday’s New York Times, with major above-the-fold prominence for a beautifully framed, lit and posed portrait of A-Rod. Look at the credit, to Nick Laham (via Getty Images). The first words in the credit line are “Instagram Photo.” Nick Laham is a very gifted photographer, and this image, taken in the bathroom of the Yankees’ training facility in Florida, was made with an iPhone.

It really is remarkable that we’ve reached this point in the art and craft of photography that photographers are willing to yield to a free app to (arguably) enhance their creativity. It’s sort of like the trend in typography a number of years ago when advertising headlines looked like they were set  by five-year-olds in kindergarten and then run over  by the muddy tires of a truck.

As I look at a whole generation of iPhone photography,  it’s ironic to see that my great friend of many years, David Burnett, has chosen a very opposite path – he uses a vintage Speed Graphic 4×5 to make many of his great series of pictures, including at the Olympics. A number of years ago, the dream assignment was one where a client said yes to first-class travel, multiple assistants, and as much gear as you wanted to carry, to wherever you wanted to shoot. No secret that those days are gone, but I always thought that a credo of ‘one camera, one lens’ would be a good way to define oneself as a photographer. A twin-lens Rollei, or a Leica M-series with a 35mm optic, was the choice of many. But no one ever suggested using a post-production technique to diminish the original quality of the original image.

Finally, it seems to say a lot that The New York Times feels the need to tells its readers that it embraces Instagram. Coming soon (perhaps): an all-Instagram edition of the NYT.

Evel Knievel’s Famous Snake River Canyon Jump

Last month, I wrote about the Watergate hearings in Washington that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation and farewell. I remember being really burned out from the intensity of those final weeks in Washington and needing a complete change of scenery and assignment. That’s how I got to spend the better part of the following month in Idaho with my buddy David Burnett, covering Evel Knievel’s failed attempt to rocket across the Snake River Canyon.

Evel Knievel strapped into his X-2 rocket

Every summer, there seems to be a wacky event or stunt that, by design or not, diverts the public’s attention from more urgent matters. Nixon was gone, but we were still deeply involved in Vietnam, although our combat forces had been withdrawn. And Evel Knievel fit the bill in late August and early September. Known for his stunts jumping motorcycles over ever-increasing numbers of obstacles, and breaking an ever-increasing number of bones in the process, the Snake River Canyon jump came from the Knievel’s collaboration with Bob Truax, a former aerospace engineer who conceived of a rocket-powered vehicle that would send Evel across the canyon.

Evel Knievel being interviewed by the press

Then, as now, it was all about hype and publicity. So that by the time September 8, 1974 arrived, media coverage all over the world was focused on the canyon near Twin Falls, Idaho. Knievel would have like to jump the Grand Canyon, but the National Parks Service put an end to that idea. The Snake River Canyon site was actually leased by Knievel and his backers. The full story of Evel Knievel is very well covered in Wikipedia – definitely worth your reading.

Evel Knievel signing a baby

As it all turned out, the jump failed. After the launch, and at the midpoint of the Skycycle X-2’s trajectory, the vehicle’s drogue parachute deployed and Knievel floated down to the bottom of the canyon. Many reasons were given for the failure, but the one that seemed most believable was that Knievel had his hand on a ‘dead man’s switch’ and that his letting go of it just after launch was what deployed the chute. He always denied that, but any time such a heavily promoted stunt ends in failure, there’s no lack of scapegoats.

Evel Knievel Snake River Canyon launch and abort

In a way, it was 1974’s version of Woodstock – many thousands of people, vast quantities of beer and controlled substances, but no rain and mud. And probably the single greatest number of motorcycles in one place in history. Knievel died in 2007, but lots of people who weren’t even born when he was performing still know the name and what he did.

Not long after, I was on my way to Cairo and other points in the Middle East for the rest of the year. More on that at another time…

Louis Mendes: Street Shooting at “Me Priority”

A couple of weeks ago, I encountered a photographer who occupies a unique niche in the digital era. Louis Mendes uses a vintage Graflex Speed Graphic, instant film (now Fuji since Polaroid has left the marketplace), and electronic flash (although he’d gladly use flashbulbs if they were still readily available) to take pictures of individuals and families at locations around Manhattan.

Louis Mendes with his Speed Graphic camera

You may have seen him outside B&H Photo, or in Rockefeller Center during the Christmas season… Mr. Mendes gets around, and was even the subject of a feature in The New York Times back in January. It seems there are enough willing customers to keep him busy. Mr. Mendes spoke disparagingly in The Times piece of the digital photo hustlers who work the tourist areas, saying “…They don’t know aperture priority from shutter priority. This, this is me priority. All manual. I set it.”

I love it – ‘me priority.’ I had a Speed Graphic myself, inherited in the late ’60s from an Associated Press assignment editor named Dan Grassi, himself a former AP shooter. That camera has gone to its final reward, but David Burnett, one of my oldest pals, and one of the finest photojournalists of the past few decades (and still working hard) has himself used his 4×5 Speed Graphic (with film) to photograph recent presidential campaigns and the Olympic Games. It’s all about the discipline of getting it right in one (maybe two) carefully composed frame. And that ethic applies just as much today.

I used to think nothing of traveling on big international shoots with many cameras and even more lenses, but came to understand that the real creative challenge is to make great pictures with one camera, one lens. What I just wrote, “make pictures” I learned originally from the AP’s Dan Grassi. Until he taught me just what those two words mean, I always said “take pictures.” There is a difference.