January, 2012

Going Wild with Maurice Sendak


"What's it take for a celebrity to make a successful book?" Stephen Colbert asked Maurice Sendak during his two-part interview this week with the author of Where the Wild Things Are and other beloved children's books. "What do I have to do?"

"Well, you've started already by being an idiot," Sendak responded.

Sendak's advice for aspiring writers was hilarious, and spot on, during his appearance on The Colbert Report, and it was for me as well during an afternoon that I spent at his house nearly 20 years ago. I was shooting photographs of the children's author for a collection of portraits of Connecticut writers I was making for Northeast magazine. I didn't get to draw or sniff markers with him like Colbert did (make sure and watch to the end of the second part of the interview), but he definitely inspired my creativity. As during his appearance on The Colbert Report, Sendak was both brusque and warm, charming and bombastic. He worked hard to seem curmudgeonly, and that made him incredibly fun to photograph. As I was leaving, he put a leash on his dog and headed out for a walk before dark. Somewhere, I have one last photograph I made of him, standing with his dog in the woods with a crimson sunset behind him. That photograph didn't fit with the project, so the clip I dug out today has another of the portraits I made. But the photograph that remains in my mind's eye is the one of him with his dog in the woods filled with alpenglow. Someday I'll have to dig that one out too.





"You don't have to rely on a healthy body image or self respect anymore. Now that's the power of Fotoshop."

So states filmmaker Jesse Rosten's terrific parody of digital beauty, and the computer programming on which it relies. It's a fabulous sendup of a topic that's been scrutinized for years - the mythology of feminine beauty that's promoted on magazine covers and in television advertisements.

"Why eat healthy and exercise when you can just look like you do?"


Naomi Wolf's groundbreaking book, The Beauty Myth, which looked past the advertisements and movie posters to reveal how women are manipulated by unattainable ideals of feminine beauty, is now 20 years old - her updated version of the book turns 10 this year.

Photoshop was only a year old when Wolf first published The Beauty Myth. Few photographers used the program, and it hadn't developed its most powerful tools to manipulate images. In the years since, however, it has become the standard imaging program used by virtually every photographer, designer and publisher in the world. It can liquify body parts to change their shape or size, clear up skin, and change the color of individual strands of hair. What's more, manipulating images in Photoshop is far cheaper than investing in the photojournalism that filled most magazine covers 20 years ago, so on today's newstand readers are confronted by a crowd of pretty faces and perfect bodies that spent more time on computer screens than they did in front of the camera. The images of beauty for both men and women presented by the media today are far less grounded in reality – and in greater need of mythbusting – than when Wolf wrote her groundbreaking book.

Rosten's satire kicks off what promises to be big year for coverage, and uncoverage, of the female body. Wolf has a new book coming out in May – Vagina: A Cultural History. My friend, science writer Florence Williams, also has book arriving in May that's certain to, um, pique a lot of interest – Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History.

But, while I find Rosten's video hillarious and accurate, I've also been troubled by the way Photoshop has become a verb meaning to manipulate images with the intent of misleading viewers. Almost every published photograph is processed through Photoshop and the vast majority of them are honest depictions of the scenes and people the photographer was recording. Subjects shown in an unfavorable light in photographs routinely claim that the images were "Photoshopped," and that's probably true - the image was almost certainly processed through the standard imaging program. But that doesn't mean it was manipulated with the intent of bamboozling its viewers. Certainly the advent of digital photography has made it more common for images presented as honest records of what was before the lens turning out to be fabrications created in computers. But, while the digital age's tools to manipulate images are far more powerful than the ones used before pixels replaced grains of silver, photographs have been altered to mislead since the invention of the Daguerreotype. So perhaps, rather than saying dishonest images are "Photoshopped," we should just call them what they are - visual lies.

For those interested in the manipulation of women's images, I find this short video by JAGORI powerful and to the point. You can make dishonest images with Photoshop's fancy electronic tools, or you can just pick up a pencil and an eraser.


Diving In


Alicia Christopoulos dives from a sailboat into the Aegean Sea.


In any new endeavor, there is a point of no-turning-back. It's the moment when we commit to trying to fly, or we fall. Regardless of the outcome, at that second, we no longer have the option of keeping our feet on the familiar ground where moments before we stood, stable and secure. For me, that moment of commitment - in my career, in my sports, in my relationships - has always been the most difficult. In the past three years I've left the job I held for 21 years, moved out of the community I was in for 25, sold my home of 12 years, and started a new stage of my work as a writer and photographer - one in which I have all the freedom and fear of being my own boss. I struggled to commit to each of those changes, and continue to find running my own show a daily challenge of uncertainty and hesitation.

January 1st, with it's resolutions, year-end-lists, and personal, professional and government deadlines, leads most of us to challenge our resistance to commitment. For a few days we dedicate ourselves to new diets, financial plans, adventures, and relationships. But, while I have plenty of big goals and dreams that I need to throw myself at, last weekend I found myself thinking of the dozens of small moments each day when I fail to commit to everything from workouts, to typing words onto my laptop screen. And I remembered a photo I have of Alicia Christopoulos.

For a week during the summer of 2010, Carolyn and I sailed through Greece's Aegean Sea with several friends, Alicia and her husband, Thanos, the captain of our sailboat. Every morning I watched Alicia, who is originally from Poland, leave the boat, sometimes with a dive, sometimes just stepping out onto a dock. She would return with a fish - I remember one particularly delicious barracuda - and the rest of the makings for our lunch. Alicia's meals were so consistently delicious and her management of the vessel so fluid and natural, I assumed that she had grown up sailing. But over drinks with the couple, I learned that she had neither sailed nor cooked before answering a help-wanted ad that Thanos placed looking for a cook on his sailboat just a few years ago. Today's she's married to the captain.

After our lunches all the boat's passengers would take a dip in the sea that was luxuriously warm and as blue as any we had ever seen. Alicia would start our swims with a dive that was as delicious as her cooking. Most of us would wait to get into the water ourselves until we had watched her graceful entrance, and eventually I made a series of photographers of her dive.

As is often the case with writing and photography, the editing was a challenge. I narrowed the sequence down to two favorite but very different frames. One showed Alicia in a perfect airborn arc - full of grace and expectation of the splash and submersion in the luscious water. But I found I kept coming back to a frame taken a split second earlier. That picture showed Alicia with her arms outstretched like a bird, her legs coiled like thunderbolts, but her toes still on the boat's railing. That photo doesn't show expectation of hitting the water, but of flying through the air. It's the moment of commitment to the change inherent in the dive - of embracing the airborn second of transition between standing dry on something solid and familiar, and being wet and in over her head in an alien and dangerous place.

For the first few days of the trip, after watching Alicia dive in, the rest of us would test the water with our toes and slowly lower ourselves into the sea. But you can't make a splash like that. By the end of the trip, most of us were making our own, far less elegant leaps into the sea. And I remember the water always feeling better when I was completely airborn the second before I was in it.

This year I hope we can all find the courage to dive into our lives and embrace those heart-in-our-throats seconds when we're airborn, about to splash into the adventures of our future.


Greece--05-13-2010--Fresh-caught barracuda and potatoes by Alicia Christopoulos.


Greece--05-13-2010--Feta, sun-dried tomatoes, and capers crostini.