In July 2012, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA) asked me to compile a playlist of videos directed by photographers for their new online series, MOCAtv. Launched last week, MOCAtv bills itself as the “Global Contemporary Art Channel,” providing a wide range of content related to the arts. Looking to see if photographers’ skills translated into music videos was one of the most enjoyable commissions I have ever had.
My personal interest in music videos is mainly autobiographical. I was a teenager in the 1980s—the heyday of the music video. Videos were crucial to bands’ identity; it was really the only way, apart from photography, that an image was disseminated to the world. MTV was the dominant force, but if you grew up in Britain, it was the quaintly titled BBC show Top of the Pops that was one of the only ways to see them.
Looking back at these videos has evoked amazing memories, but at times, I view some videos with a new perspective and appreciate them now because of who made them and how they look. For example, the mesmerizing Addicted to Love by Robert Palmer was always incredible – but now that I know it was directed by the great British fashion and portrait photographer Terence Donovan, all I can see are the similarities to his later photographs of the 1980s with their strong, almost aggressive, female glamour. It’s interesting to note where the photographer’s hand is so apparent and successful, and elsewhere, when they lose something of their signature flair by having a moving camera instead of a still shot.
Like many, my introduction to music came via my older brother. Always one step ahead of me, he had very sophisticated taste. My first concert was Souxsie and the Banshees when I was 14. Somehow I managed to persuade him (and more miraculously my parents) that I should go along with him and a gang of heavily hair-sprayed goths. It was not the music that I particularly remember, but the amazing beauty of this particular strand of post punk music. From that moment I was addicted to live concerts and the performance of dressing up.
I knew about New Order due to my brothers liking of Joy Division. I saw them perform that summer and their shortened remix of Blue Monday (1988) is like a backing track to those heady months, which were incredibly hot and renamed by many of my contemporaries as ‘the summer of ale.’ I was 18.
When I was asked to put this playlist together I couldn’t believe that I had never seen the video. I was so delighted that it was done by William Wegman. It is full of lovely references for me. Wegman is an artist who manages to have conceptual credibility and respect in the art world and also make calendars with puppies. I can’t think of any one else who manages such success in both commercial and art worlds with such ease and lack of compromise on either side. His ABC video Alphabet Soup featuring Fay, Batty, Chundo and Crooky is my favorite gift to all new parents; my daughter’s go-to bedtime book is Wegmonolgy and my brother has Weineramas. It’s like all good things in my life are condensed into this one video.
A year after Blue Monday, New Order released Run and asked Robert Frank to direct it. This video combines many different kinds of video techniques into one film. It has both live footage and a narrative. It also uses still photographs many times. Nothing is really explained but it has that coldness, disconnect and mystery which is so crucial to a Frank photograph. The song is not the strongest, but you are held utterly by the video. The ending is pure Frank: it stops on a still photograph where everyone is looking in different directions and the scene is chaotic but happy. In two takes he goes closer in to the black-and-white photograph with a woman clutching a book titled listen to god. About two seconds of existential anxiety almost lost as the song fades out.
Staying in the 1980s is Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game, directed by Herb Ritts. This song, which came out in 1989, was reinserted into popular culture when it was used in a scene of Wild at Heart by David Lynch. The video is trademark Ritts. The female body (Helena Christensen) is Amazonian—sexy, strong and very much associated with the 1980s before the AIDS crisis (although of course the AIDS crisis had very much gripped huge swaths of society by this time). It’s crisp, clean and erotic. He shoots from many angles so the body, although always sensuous, can also become abstracted. This photographic technique, which Ritts has become so famous for, was most eloquently played out in a photograph of five of the most famous supermodels gathered together naked (Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, Naomi, Hollywood, 1989) their limbs lending graphic strength and dynamism to the composition of the picture.
Die Antwoord, I Fink U Freeky directed by Roger Ballen (2012) practically went viral among photography circles recently. The video starts with “Die Antwoord in Association with Roger Ballen.” This is the first time I have seen musicians and the director on equal footing, especially when the band has a much bigger global presence than the photographer.
Ballen has lived and worked in South Africa for most of his life. His work is a swirling mix of reality, fantasy, documentary and personal investigation. He photographs in the poorest white areas of South Africa, and his work is immediately recognizable for its disturbing almost nihilistic qualities, which are confusing in terms of ethics and morals of representation. This video is like a zooped up, hammy musical journey through his work and is so well suited to the band, who have a trickster element to them. They are the perfect artistic combination.
Another South African photographer, Pieter Hugo, has directed Spoek Mathambo, Control which was originally recorded by Joy Division and has again been introduced to a younger generation through the biopic of Ian Curtis in the film Control by Anton Corbijn (who has also done a large number of music videos). Again this has similar elements to the Ballen video in that reality has been pushed to appear fantastical. Of all the videos selected it is the most ‘photographic,’ and you can really see Hugo’s skill in using backdrops to create scenes. If you were to go through freeze framing it each scene could work beautifully as a photograph. It reminds me of his Nollywood series about the horror film industry in Nigeria. For this he took costumed actors and put them into the street causing a tension between reality, fantasy, horror, staging and theater. This video has all of those elements and similar references to the genre, but was filmed in a township in Cape Town. It’s the best cover of Control I have ever heard, making it absolutely belong here in South Africa and not the North of England.
Music videos act as lightening rods to memories. Headier than photographs they possess the most potent Proustain links to the past. When they are at their very best, like the ones I have mentioned here, they are like stills come to life. Photographers can offer a particular way of looking at the world. When that coincides with a similar musical vision the results can be spectacular.
Susan Bright is a New York-based writer and curator. You can see more of her work here.
View more of MOCAtv’s programming on their YouTube channel.
Fourth of July #2, Independence, Missouri, by Mike Sinclair
Photographers, mark your calendars! 2009 Ne Plus Ultra Mike Sinclair's debut solo show in NYC, at Jen Bekman Gallery, is but mere days away. An opening reception for Public Assembly will be held on Friday, May 11th, 2012, from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m., and the show will be on view Saturday, May 12th, through Saturday, June 24th.
Mike impressed our panelists with his ephemeral portraits focusing on "crowds at sun-soaked fairgrounds, beaches and baseball games," and he adeptly captured a sense of nostalgic Americana that we simply couldn't get out of our heads and hearts. Soon, he was creating limited-edition prints with 20x200 to share with collectors all around the world. We are thrilled for Mike's success, which includes being published in the New York Times, Metropolis, Architectural Record and Interior Design, as well as having his work in private and public collections in the U.S.
+ Photographer Daniel Seung Lee, who was a contender in a past round of our competition, was selected to participate with 20x200. Two of his photographs are now available as limited editions on the site.
+ April is almost over, and with it the Month of Photography Los Angeles (MOPLA). If you're in L.A., there are major ongoing exhibitions you can catch, like Robert Adams: The Place We Live and Fracture: Daido Moriyama at LACMA, as well as In Focus: Los Angeles, 1945-1980, Herb Ritts: L.A. Style and Portraits of Renown: Photography and the Cult of Celebrity at The Getty.
Aung San Suu Kyi, once a prisoner, is now a parliamentarian. On April 1, the Nobel Laureate led the National League for Democracy to victory in by-elections hailed as a landmark for Burma. For five decades, the former British colony has languished under military rule, caught in the clutch of a small group of cadres. This was just the third poll since they seized power in 1962 and the first that might plausibly be called free or fair. Suu Kyi’s party swept it, claiming 43 of 44 seats.
For Suu Kyi, who spent much of the last 20 years under house arrest, the win was a stunning reversal. For her followers, it was a revelation. On the streets of Rangoon last week, the joy and relief were palpable. Supporters piled into pickup trucks, honked horns and cheered. A year ago, you could be arrested for clutching a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi. Now, people wave her picture proudly.
James Nachtwey’s photographs from the campaign trail capture this rapturous moment, but hint, too, at challenges to come. Though voters handed a clear victory to the opposition NLD, just a small portion of parliamentary seats were at stake and reports of electoral infractions abound. The military maintains its grip on power. Poverty persists. After 50 years of authoritarian rule, it no doubt will take time for the country to find its footing. For Suu Kyi, and for Burma, there is a long road ahead.
James Nachtwey is a TIME contract photographer. Keep up with his work on his Facebook page.
Emily Rauhala is an Associate Editor at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @emilyrauhala.
The long and legendary supermodel era of the ’90s can be summed up in one gorgeous and distinct photograph: Herb Ritts’ now-iconic shot of Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Tatjana Patitz and Stephanie Seymour huddled together in the nude.
But the 1989 sitting almost didn’t happen.
As Campbell recalls, Turlington was on a Calvin Klein contract and reportedly wasn’t allowed to participate. “We said, ‘How can you not be in this picture?’” Campbell says. “And she jumped in, and that was it!”
That black-and-white image is just one of nearly 80 photographs on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles as part of a new exhibition and book on the photographer. Herb Ritts: L.A. Style, on view through Aug. 12, focuses on the portraits and nudes from Ritts, who documented models, musicians, actresses and other celebrities for magazines such as Interview, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair throughout his career.
“He always had a vision about how he wanted every picture,” Campbell says. “He liked strength in his pictures, and he got you to do things that you never thought you could do. He was very encouraging and would talk to you about a picture first, and slowly get you there to where he wanted. And you’d be amazed that you even could do that. It was always a pleasure working with him. He was a complete gentleman, and I loved every picture he took of me.”
Herb Ritts—© Herb Ritts Foundation
Herb Ritts: L.A. Style is on view through Aug. 12 at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Campbell first met Ritts in the late ’80s when she was introduced by fellow model Tatitz. She would often stay with him when she visited Los Angeles, and the two later traveled together to South Africa, where Ritts captured the first photograph of the supermodel with former South African president Nelson Mandela. “He was just a really special human being, and someone that I know is dearly missed in fashion—you never see that kind of picture anymore,” Campbell says.
And while many people revere the image of the five supermodels as one of the most famous sittings in fashion photography, Campbell says they had no idea it would become so iconic. “It was just nice for us to be together,” she says. “We rarely get to do pictures together—even to this day—so it was like a catch-up time for us. We got there in the morning, had lunch and then he told us what we were going to do. It was easy—it was always easy with Herb.”
It’s not unusual for photojournalists to travel to places that have been scarred by genocide, accident and natural disaster. But photographer Ambroise Tézenas has spent the last few years turning that norm on its head to capture what happens to those sites after the journalists leave, when they become tourist destinations.
In 2008, Tézenas was looking for his next photographic project when he read that a train, swept into the Sri Lankan jungle by a tsunami, was still there four years after the fact. Tézenas happened to have been in Sri Lanka at the time of the storm—on a vacation that became a job—and was fascinated to learn that the train had become a place of pilgrimage.
“Some tourists were coming to have their pictures taken there,” the photographer says. “I thought about what the victims and the survivors would think.”
That question became the seed of a long-term project, Dark Tourism, now on view at Galerie Mélanie Rio in Nantes, France. Tézenas immersed himself in the tourist experience: he always traveled with a tour group, always paid for the experience and only took pictures of things any tourist could see. Sometimes that ethos meant his pictures were restrained—he only had the time allotted by the tourism groups, so he was unable to wait for ideal light—but it also allowed the photographer to comment on more than the scenery.
“It wasn’t just to find new places nobody had seen,” says Tézenas, “but to link these places and to have a portrait of a new tendency of tourism.”
Not that so-called “dark tourism” is new. Professor John Lennon of Glasgow Caledonian University, who coined the term in 1996 and whose work influenced Tézenas’ project, says that the urge to turn the tourist’s gaze on horror—what Lennon calls the “pull factor” of the macabre—dates back to the spectators at the Battle of Waterloo, and further than that, to the first people who watched crucifixions as spectacle.
“It’s a human fascination with our ability to do evil, a human fascination with death,” he explains. “It’s so unimaginably terrible but it exerts this fascination.” Survey data has shown him that the impulse comes from a cross between genuine interest in history, voyeurism and, especially in recent years, commoditization, the kind of pre-packaged deals of which Tézenas availed himself. That ease of access is, according to Lennon, the new factor in the equation.
Tézenas saw that commercialization in action at a Latvian jail where tourists could pay to play prisoner and be terrorized by guards in the middle of the night, on a guided visit to Chernobyl and on a “genocide tour” of Rwanda. Lennon points out that “visiting sites of genocide doesn’t prevent genocide from happening again” and that certain gift shops can make visitors queasy, but tourism can benefit economies that are still recovering from disaster.
And, for Tézenas, it was a subject that was ripe for exploration. “In our time, we are so close to death through news and cinema and video games, but at the same time death is so removed from our contemporary society,” he says, explaining that he hoped to use photography to get to the root of the sociological phenomenon. “I want to raise the point, very humbly, because there are so many questions.”
Before he was executive director of the Herb Ritts Foundation, Mark McKenna was renowned photographer Herb Ritts’s camera assistant. In a recent interview Mr. McKenna tells about the making of the iconic image of the model Christy Turlington seen from the back, in a keyhole of white surrounded by the dramatic shadow of black fabric pulling upwards. He recalls that Ritts was “an incredible director of people…not just telling them what to do, but getting them to step in and be a part of the process.”
On this day, there was a sense of “play” in the air, despite the important client, Versace. Out in the Mojave desert, in full sun on the dry lake bed, El Mirage, with a small but able team, Ritts was in his element. As the model Christy Turlington held the fabric in front of her, the crew tied the outer corners to weighted stands on either side. All at once, the desert wind blew up the cone of fabric like an inside-out balloon, and Ritts had his moment. Minutes afterward, a storm rolled in and the crew rushed to clear out. The exhibition Herb Ritts: L.A. Style, opened April 3rd at The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and is accompanied by a book of the same name from Getty Publications.
Versace Dress, Back View, El Mirage, 1990. © Herb Ritts Foundation
Christy Turlington, Versace 3, Milan, 1991. © Herb Ritts Foundation
Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Point Dume, 1987. © Herb Ritts Foundation
Male Nude with Socks I, Los Angeles (Mark Findlay), 1990. © Herb Ritts Foundation
Greg Louganis, Hollywood, 1985. Herb Ritts Foundation
Just in time for the short and dark days of January, “Backyard Oasis” is a sunny book and exhibition including works by such photographers and artists as John Baldessari, Ruth Bernhard, David Hockney, Herb Ritts, Ed Ruscha and Larry Sultan. Thematically grouped into topics including celebrity culture, avant-garde architectural landscape design and the cult of the body, these images are a celebration of the culture of the swimming pool. Accompanying essays examine the development of the swimming pool and its attendant aesthetic and social aspects. The exhibition is on view at the Palm Springs Art Museum in California from Jan. 21 to May 27.
Herb Ritts, Richard Gere – Poolside,1982 © Herb Ritts Foundation
Bill Owens,”He’s a typical Californian who doesn’t know how to relax,” 1971. Courtesy of PDNB Gallery, Dallas, TX © Bill Owens
Lawrence Schiller, Marilyn Monroe,1962, Lawrence Schiller © Polaris Communications, Inc.
Bill Anderson, El Mirador, early 1950s, gelatin silver print, © Palm Springs Art Museum
David Hockney, Nathan Swimming Los Angeles March 11th 1982, color Polaroid composite,© David Hockney, photo credit Richard Schmidt
Mel Roberts, Robert and Cliff, Sherman Oaks, 1980, Type-R print from Kodachrome transparency, © Michael H. Epstein & Scott E. Schwimer
Craig Stecyk, Jay Adams, Northridge, California, ca. 1973, Courtesy of the artist © C.R. Stecyk