People have asked me if the photograph above this blog is is a screen-shot from Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” as it resembles a scene from that classic 1959 film. It is not.
It is Alfred Eisenstaedt‘s amazing picture of kids at a Parisian puppet show, “Saint George and the Dragon,” at an outdoor theater in 1963.
Time magazine recently wrote about this enchanting photo:
Capturing the thrill, the shock, the shared triumph-over-evil that the children feel at the very moment when St. George slays the mythical beast, Eisenstaedt’s picture feels as fresh as when it was made, more than 50 years ago.
Here, the picture tells us, is an innocence that can remind even the most jaded of what it was once like to believe, to really believe, in the stories that unfold before our eyes onstage, or onscreen.
The master photographer himself said of this very picture:
“It took a long time to get the angle I liked. But the best picture is the one I took at the climax of the action. It carries all the excitement of the children screaming, The dragon is slain! Very often this sort of thing is only a momentary vision. My brain does not register, only my eyes and finger react. Click.”
The naked man looked at the clothed man, and then he looked at the naked people, and then back at the clothed man, all the time wearing a scrunched look that said, “What is this dude doing here?”
This dude (yours truly), fully dressed, was there to talk to naked people. He told the naked man this, and the naked man relaxed. But the clothed man did not relax, for he was one of only a few clothed people in an art gallery filled with naked men and women.
Twenty-one of the naked people were there in the literal, quivering flesh, and about as many were hanging on two long walls, the subjects of life-size photographs by artist George Krause.
Recently at an urban art gallery, a bevy of nudists came to a nude art show. The nudists, an informal tribe of devoted clothes peel-offers, are always on the lookout for novel ways to gather, and what’s more fitting than naked people looking at naked people?
The gallery owner was happy to give the group a private viewing, and Krause, clothed but bald, came to talk about his work. Each human-size black-and-white portrait depicts an ordinary person, standing stark naked, facing the camera. His singular technique uses white light to create a smoky sfumato effect, bathing the figures in a ghostly, X-ray glow.
Naked people admired the photos’ indiscriminate honesty, and the boxy, concrete gallery echoed with the slappy patter of bare feet. Sipping cheap cabernet in plastic cups, nudists mixed casually in the shocking altogether, proud in their mammalian resplendence. They embodied all sizes and shapes, from pears to bears, though the age scale tipped to ear hair and back aches.
“Seeing the photos in the middle of a group of nudes reinforces how many different kinds of bodies there are,” said nudist Bill Morgan, whose body hair could pass for clothing in some cultures. “Running around with this group has done a lot for me in terms of accepting my own body.”
One thin woman was all bare flesh but for a yellow Livestrong bracelet, while a tall man with a round belly wore only silver-rimmed spectacles. A green, quarter-sized tattoo announced itself from a woman’s right dorsal cheek. Tan lines: oddly scarce.
The nudist group has roughly 60 members, about 40 of whom are men, says club president Steve Bosbach, diminutive and hairless as a fish. The lopsided male-to-female ratio was on full-frontal display at the private party. It was a man’s world.
There was chatter about “liberation,” “society” and the nudist “agenda,” yet a curious dearth about sexuality and the whole nakedy thing. One wondered how these people abstain from . . . looking.
“With some practice, it’s completely possible to maintain eye contact with a topless woman,” Morgan said. “You don’t stare, but you don’t avoid looking in a particular direction either.”
Morgan has a long gray ponytail and lives with his mother, who was surprised by his nuditude. She doesn’t see him naked, though her son likes to spend a few hours a day kicking back in the buff. Like his clubmates, Morgan does many things without attire, cut free from the bondage of cotton fibers. Perhaps it’s the leather seats, but one thing he has not done is drive naked.
“I’ve wanted to drive naked a few times after club get-togethers,” he said. “Putting the clothes back on is the hardest part.”
A monkey yelled at me in Jaipur. Another snatched a banana from my hand in Cambodia. A gang of them exploded in all directions, thumping on cars, flying onto rooftops, screeching and scaring the holy bejesus out of me in Delhi. Monkeys: the devil’s minions.
I adore animals and I’ve met many on my journeys, mostly skinny street dogs, but also water buffalos, cows, painted elephants, a mammoth tattooed pig, Egyptian camels, those accursed simians and more skinny street dogs. Because I haven’t been to sub-Saharan Africa or deep into tropical jungles, I haven’t encountered anything wildly exotic, say, a panther or platypus. (I did meet a king cobra in Hanoi. And then I ate it. Eleven courses, including its beating heart in rice wine. I am still recovering.)
Never, ever do I visit zoos on my travels. The mere idea is a great depressant. The sad, ramshackle Shinagawa Aquarium in Tokyo helped snuff my appetite for captive-animal displays.
Of course I meet milling mutts wherever I go. Dogs are the best, even if they can break your heart. In Kathmandu a young punk randomly kicked a stray dog in the ribs. It let out a terrible yowl. I grabbed the kid and chewed him out and promptly befriended the dog, which seemed alright. We still email.
In Tokyo I hung out with a guy and his shambling black Lab. In Paris I played with a pooch wearing one of those medical cone-collars. I took his picture, but didn’t include it here. For now, I offer these creature features:
I’m starting this with a longish quote from journalist Janet Malcolm. Don’t let its length deter you. It’s quick and breezy and devilishly smart — and, for seasoned travelers, likely very apropos.
“Without knowing exactly why, I have always found travel writing a little boring, and now the reason seemed clear: travel itself is a low-key emotional experience, a pallid affair in comparison with ordinary life. … (Our homes) are where the action is; they are where the riches of experience are distributed. On our travels, we stand before paintings and look at scenery, and sometimes we are moved, but rarely are we as engaged with life as we are in the course of any ordinary day in our usual surroundings. Only when faced with one of the inevitable hardships of travel do we break out of the trance of tourism and once again feel the sharp savor of the real.”
Despite the faint bite of the discontent, Malcolm doesn’t sound like a traveling grump to me. She crystallizes, I think, the realities of moving about, strenuously seeking the kind of transcendence concomitant with the very best travel.
But it’s only part of the picture, which is, of course, far richer than the one she paints. She’s right: travel is largely a “pallid affair” compared with actual daily living, which thrums with family, friends, work, pets, a house — all that fluid, unpredictable, tangible, huggable life stuff. And true, staring at paintings and cathedrals can sometimes be a static, numbing, “low-key emotional experience.”
Yet for this hardened solo traveler, it can be a challenge to keep the noise of real life on mute. Alone, I have to seek human contact, that great distraction from oneself, though mostly on my journeys I will go hours, even a day, without speaking so much as two or three words. I live largely in the bustling mental metropolis of my mind, Pop. 1. It is very noisy. Reality isn’t easily shaken.
Naturally, I see all the sights, monuments, museums, theater, ruins, vistas, cemeteries, etc. of a place. The beaten path does have detours: I’ll observe the riverside cremations of human bodies in India and Nepal or witness the ritual slaughter of sheep at a mosque in Istanbul. These extracurricular excursions pry open the head to strange wonderments and infuse a journey with reality-excusing exoticism.
Yet it’s never so perfect. Life’s banalities and hassles don’t just vaporize once you’re negotiating the lunatic streets of Tokyo or chilling in your stunning cave hotel in Cappadocia. Workaday concerns, from money and transportation, to waiting in lines and surmounting language barriers (that’s always entertaining, even fun, I find) barge in, upending the illusion of Being Far Away.
I hate to admit to boredom while traveling, and I combat it fiercely. I get restless and disappointed when I linger for more than 20 minutes in a cafe reading the paper or simply decompressing. I like to move, sustain a momentum. But then you risk rushing and, the upshot of that, running out of things to see and do. You max out the city, at least for a time. Even when this happens I invariably rally, recharge, suck in a second wind and begin to discover all over again.
I’ve blogged that taking photos of locals profoundly enriches the cultural experience. You meet people that way. Or vice-versa. I have met dozens of terrific humans around the world by pure serendipity — at a bar or bazaar, in a museum or on a train. Meeting people is easy.
But some effort is required. In India, during Diwali, the Festival of Lights, I bought a wad of fireworks for a gaggle of kids who were gathered in front of a convenience store. They lit them off and had a ball. So did I.
It was one of those transporting, non-static moments of travel that happens when you crawl out of your head, search, stretch and explore, and, as Malcolm says, “break out of the trance of tourism and once again feel the sharp savor of the real.”
But in this case the real is peerlessly human and rapturous, the very definition of surpassing lackluster reality for something almost impossible to attain in everyday life — the transcendent.
When I travel abroad, once or twice a year, I keep my digital point-and-shoot camera in my outer coat pocket or untangled in my messenger bag, always at the ready, grabbable, right there for the right shot.
I’m something of a shutterbug, a total amateur driven by the blameless enthusiasm of a self-taught neophyte, toting a picture-taking toy. But I learn fast, and one of the early lessons in my journeys was how dull so many of my photos were. They were dry, clichéd, postcardy, filled with stolid buildings and objects and places you’re supposed to photograph just because you’re there and you want indelible proof that you did indeed behold the Mount of Olives, Ghiberti’s bronze doors or the Hanoi Hilton.
They weren’t awful, but they were lifeless, generic. What they missed were people and faces — humanity. I almost always travel solo, and, anyway, I’m not a big fan of pictures of friends and family standing robotically in front of oceanfronts and monuments.
So I started seeking locals for my shots. The approach not only improved my photographs but also improved my travels. Suddenly I was paying more attention to the daily activities of people, their work, play, drudgery and joys. Observing residents in action literally put a face on a place and deepened the cultural experience.
Sometimes I “sneak” photos of people engaged in everyday life — men bathing in the Ganges in Varanasi, India; a man selling prayer beads to a customer in Istanbul; a student bicycling in Beijing — yet as a general rule I approach subjects who have a striking face or are wearing an arresting outfit or are doing something vaguely exotic and ask permission to take their picture.
This requires a spot of nerve, especially for an introvert like me. But I’ve found that in many places, if you’re courteous, low-key and smiling, people are receptive, even eager.
I’ve had great success in Asian nations, where residents display a friendly excitement and curiosity toward the dopey American who wants their photo. Children in developing countries are especially agreeable to having their picture taken, mugging, posing, snatching at the camera to see their image. (Though, with both young and old, you should be prepared to drop a couple of coins into outstretched hands when you’re through.)
This is a selection of portraits I’ve taken around the world. They are the simplest of snapshots done with basic consumer digital cameras, not phones. They are carefully framed, yet quickly shot. I take only one picture of my subjects as a matter of speed and courtesy. There are no re-dos.
I’ve recently done some traveling to Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal and London, art-encrusted metropolises boasting drop-dead, world-class museums, from D.C.’s National Gallery to London’s twin Tates and the mighty Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was spun around (picture Mary Tyler Moore giddy and agape in the big city) by the sheer voluminous quality around almost every corner, be it the say-what size of the magnificent Turner collections in London or the rare “Chagall: Colour and Music” show in Montreal.
Yet, for all that sublime perambulation, meandering among masterpieces, the best art show I’ve seen in a spell, hands-down, is the Irving Penn photography exhibit at The Met in New York. “Irving Penn: Centennial” features over 200 photos — glamorous portraits of writers, artists, actors, dancers and other outsize personalities; insane food still lifes; leonine fashion divas; and worlds more. It’s an exhilarating joy.
Avers the show catalog: It’s the “most comprehensive retrospective to date of the work of the great American photographer,” who, after a sensational stint at Vogue, died in 2009. “Penn mastered a pared-down aesthetic of studio photography that is distinguished for its meticulous attention to composition, nuance, and detail.”
Yes, but there’s so much more than that clinical description suggests, and you can see it in the work itself. (Time is of the essence: the exhibit closes July 30. The Met has posted a nice video preview of the show here.) A smoky elegance and playful naturalism imbue the hugely influential pictures — hello, Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz — whose complexity and sophistication are on full display, if rarely peacocky.
Below are a few of Penn’s famous black and white celebrity portraits — some of my favorites — lucid, lush, deceptively simple images that pierce into the personalities to become indelibly iconic. (Try and identify the subjects.)