Thursday, December 6, 2012

Surreal Sokolsky: Classic Fashion Photography

Melvin Sokolsky
Much has already been made of photographer Melvin Sokolsky's early career work for Harper's Bazaar and McCall's Magazine. How a young photographer, with no formal training, achieved something quite unusual and significant. He was able to put his own strong creative stamp on his work, inside the very commercial environment of the fashion industry. He did it his way. It was rarely easy. But the results speak for themselves.

Sokolsky, along with luminaries Helmut Newton and Man Ray, remains one of my favorite fashion photographers. The focus of his work, especially his famous early work, seemed primarily focused on creating a striking image, an iconic pose and creative composition, making a statement about beauty and distinction (or perhaps something deeper), and above all, positively grabbing your attention. The "fashion of beauty", as opposed to the other way around. His images have never gone out of style, even if the hemlines do.

His photos concerned themselves less with clearly illustrating any clothing or jewelry products, and more with his own surreal visions. He was a colleague and friend to Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali and his influence is sometimes evident in Melvin's work. Perhaps most notably in his Spring 1965 "Fly" series for Harper's Bazaar.

Before elevators, women descended staircases "in style". 
His personally chosen models were not "clothes horses" but rather willing participants in his sometimes outlandish dreamscapes. Many photographers (and, sadly, all too many fashion designers) try to shock for the sake of shocking, but Sokolsky would take your breath away with creative elegance, or by staging highly unexpected and surreal scenarios. The actual fashion, the clothing itself, seemed like what any woman would naturally wear... while gliding down a staircase and floating across town to a posh dinner party. Gee, I hope her pearls don't snag on a telephone pole.

Notice the lovers embracing below on the balcony. A narrative begins to unfold in your imagination.

He made the viewer want to know what is going on in that moment. Where exactly are these people? Who are they? And even sometimes, what are they wearingHis work held your attention. It invited you to study it. 

Or possibly, since I'm someone not as interested in the clothes as I am in his technique, that's just how I perceive it. 

Here's another of Sokolsky's gravity-defying pieces. Achieved long before Adobe Photoshop made images such as this commonplace.

Modern in concept - Classic in execution. 

"It's the only way I fly." Back when Super Models had super powers.

Sokolsky's most celebrated work is probably his "Bubble" series from 1963 (again from Harper's Bazaar). Filmed in New York and Paris, the model held her breath while encased inside a plastic sphere, thrown into the air by crew members. After one particuarly grueling shoot, the whole crew broke for lunch and forgot to unlock the model's airtight sphere for over an hour.  It was a tragic event that nearly derailed his burgeoning career.  ...

With Le Dragon

Okay, I'm kidding. She could breathe fine. There was no accident. No one was hurt. And the sphere was not "thrown into the air" either. But rather... well, maybe I'll hold the "behind the scenes" reveal for the end of this post. 

Enjoy the "surreality" of Melvin Sokolsky. 

Imagine. It's Spring 1963. You're strolling along the Seine in Paris. Baguette in hand.
And "Hey look, there's a girl in a giant bubble!"      

New York City

Okay, so how did Sokolsky get these images? What's his secret? 
Quite simple actually. He carefully airbrushed out the suspension cable attached to the top of the plastic sphere. It was held aloft by a crane truck which can be seen reflected in the sphere in some shots. In other shots (not included here) the cable's shadow can even be seen against the background. I purposely selected the images for this post that best kept the illusion's secret. 

But here's a couple on-set images taken during the Paris shoot (Winter, 1963).

Melvin Sokolsky and his giraffe-hybrid model.

Friday, November 30, 2012

I Wish My Brother Steve Was Here

There's a hole in my life the exact shape of my big brother Steve.
I think as a fitting end to my month of reflection, I look back at an event that's having its 20th anniversary next week. 
This is the story of the time I nearly died... and didn't even know it. 

In December of 1992 my parents and I flew down to the Grand Cayman Islands to visit my brother Steve who was living there at the time. My brother, ten years my senior, was something of an adventurer. A boat captain, scuba instructor, underwater photographer, airplane pilot and submarine pilot, skydiver, etc. I've never met anyone more resourceful, but he could also be somewhat reckless. At least in my mother's eyes.

One day we all decided to go out into the ocean and hand feed raw chicken to wild stingrays. Now that may not sound like something the average person might consider doing on a lazy afternoon, but we were in the Caymans and Steve said it would be cool. So why not.

Now, Steve lived on the west coast of the island (Seven Mile Beach, north of George Town) and the area where the rays typically conjugated was around the north rim. He didn't own a car. Just commuted to work in his orange rubber raft with a wooden bottom and outboard motor. (Ahhhh, island life.) My parents and I had rented a car during our stay. Yet I decided to go with Steve in the raft (the long way there) while mom and dad took the car (the shortcut). 

Um, sounded like a good idea at the time. 

We had to go out to sea quite a bit to avoid a dangerous shallow reef that straddled the coastline.  Apparently jagged coral and rubber rafts don't mix. I think Steve had a good laugh at my expense. He sat in the steady stern and piloted the motor while I had to cling to the bouncing bow (the leading edge). Like a bucking bronco I road that raft for an hour or so through rough seas. With battered knees and bruised shins we finally reached our destination. It felt like an hour spent inside a spinning laundry dryer. Even without the chicken, swimming with wild hungry stingrays seemed like a pleasant alternative to another hour on "raging bull".          

The stingrays are so numerous the locals refer to this area of ocean as "Stingray City". Now I've seen recent photos of a sandbar where tourists can actually stand and interact with them, but where we went there was no sand. It was deep dark ocean. Looking straight down my pale legs were silhouetted against total blackness. The rays began to circle us by the dozen and eventually, overcome by curiosity, they would start to bump into us. As if testing us. If you held your hand out flat like a plate, and pinched the raw chicken up between your fingers they would "float" over your hand and suck it up like a vacuum. With your other hand you could gently pet them. Once they realized what we were doing, they swarmed us by the hundreds.

The little ones were the most forceful of the bunch. Constantly bumping or rubbing against us. My attention would be focused on trying to feed a large ray with one hand, petting him with the other, all the while juggling my container of chicken, my snorkel, my waterproof camera, and trying to keep an eye on the yellow nylon rope I'm supposed to be holding so I don't drift too far away. It only took a minute and I'd look up and the boat was 100 yards away and I'd have to swim against ocean current to get back. The yellow rope is your friend. Hold onto it. Gotta remember that.  

I kept feeling things brush against my legs. First thought: was that a shark?, or was that a shark? Even turning around to try to see what just touched you wasn't easy and the thing would be gone by then anyway. Eventually, with all the chicken gone, and still in the middle of the feeding frenzy, we decided to head back home while all of our fingers were still attached. I declined my brother's thoughtful offer to ride the laundry dryer back home. Instead, I took the ten minute car ride with my folks.          

This is when something happened.
An hour later, Steve didn't show up at his condo.
We waited.
Two hours later... nothing. 
Now it was dark.
My mom was getting really worried.
I don't remember him even having lights on his raft. But I'm not sure, maybe he did.

I think he finally pulled his raft up the beach at his condo 3 or 4 hours later.
He seemed tired, but stated he "took the scenic route".
Mom was happy he was home safe and nothing more was said about it. 
(Anyway it was more unusual for Steve to be early to something, than late.)
Then he said, "Do you guys wanna get up at dawn, wade out into the ocean and feed dog biscuits to giant wild sea tortoises". Of course we did. And that was also pretty cool. 

I had wondered why he was so late coming home. But eventually forgot about it.
Seventeen years later I would unexpectedly finally discover the startling reason for his late arrival. 
But only after Steve's funeral.

Two years after the "stingray buffet" my mother passed away. 

Fifteen years after that, Steve passed on. Right after his 50th birthday.

After a month or so, we began sorting my brothers belongings. I found a strange trunk. Inside were personal items (a photo album, what appeared to be old hand-written love letters, a VHS video tape, an old driver's license, etc.) But they did not belong to my brother. He apparently had been storing these items for someone else. Possibly it was someone he knew from Grand Cayman. All of the items were about twenty years old. Luckily there was a name.

I decided to try my best to locate this person. The items weren't valuable per say. But to Steve's friend, they may have some sentimental value at the very least. They certainly could not be replaced. After some searching on the Internet I located the mystery man now living on the West Coast of the United States. We spoke on the phone and I informed him of Steve's passing and got his address so I could ship him the box. 

Often at funerals people get to reminiscing about the deceased, sharing stories and everyone learns things they never knew. And probably would never have known. Well, Steve's friend was very appreciative of my actions to return his stuff, and as we talked at length he told me about how he knew my brother on the island and how Steve had mentioned his "closest call" with death.

Now "close calls" were nothing new for Steve. An airplane he was piloting had to make a crash landing in the Chesapeake Bay (he was rescued by the Coast Guard). He was captaining a large sailboat that went down in the Bermuda Triangle (rescued by a passing oil tanker). He injured his leg repelling into a volcano (who does that?) and had to be airlifted out. He was bitten by a shark while feeding it (how ungrateful). And also bitten by a moray eel. He totalled at least two cars in serious auto accidents. He dislocated his shoulder skiing. Suffered a serious concussion while water skiing. Steve had to escape guard dogs in a junk yard after being locked in by the absent-minded owner (he didn't remember Steve was still in there). And he was attacked by an entire roving pack of wild dogs on Grand Cayman. etc. etc. Yes, it seemed Death had been stalking Steve for a long time. But he had to slow down for ole Mr. Reaper to catch up.

I knew about all those stories from Steve (and others). But what the man on the other end of the phone told me was a shock. He said Steve told him years ago, that he almost died on his way home after feeding stingrays with his parents. He had hit a large wave and it flipped the raft upside down. At the time there was very little development on that part of the shoreline and he couldn't see any lights from the island. After an hour of bobbing in rough seas he didn't know which way was land. And he struggled and struggled for hours to right the raft by himself in heavy swells. Apparently it wasn't his "time" and he was finally able to get the raft flipped and even got the motor started in total darkness. He lost all supplies in the raft. Obviously he didn't spill the beans to mom and dad for fear of their reaction. But then it dawned on me why he never confided in me either. I would've most likely drowned that night. Had I chosen to ride with him. Steve was a better ocean swimmer than I was at that time. And if he barely made it. It's not likely I would have survived to blog about it today. 

What a frightening way to go. All alone out in the ocean at night.

In the end Steve died while hiking a mountain with his best friend. Doing what he loved.

I knew for a long time he wouldn't leave this astral plane from a hospital bed. 

The untold mysteries of my brother unfold slowly and in surprising ways. 
I wonder what I have yet to discover about Steve.

Or what the future will reveal about me, after I'm gone. 
Here's a sketch I made of  Steve's "ocean backyard" at the time.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Hot Tears Flow for Carole

November. My personal time for reflection. For glancing over my shoulder and taking stock of where I stand. Stealing a moment to count my blessings and note my lessons learned. It's also a time for speaking from the heart and giving thanks to those who've helped shape my life. In big ways. In small ways. In many ways. All the little building blocks of my world.

Today, I'd like to offer a small tribute to Frances Lillian Mary Ridste of Fairchild, Wisconsin. Or ... more widely known to her fans as Carole Landis of the silver screen.

Through a brief but busy career with appearances in some 54 films, Carole, a moniker she legally adopted in honor of her idol Carole Lombard upon her tragic death in a plane crash, was always at the mercy of the men in charge. She wanted so much to be taken seriously as a gifted actress and be given an equal chance to perform both onscreen and onstage. She utilized her beauty to enter show business but struggled to find memorable lead roles in which to showcase her considerable abilities. Her career would ultimately rise and fall at the whims of those seeking her romantic favor. And ultimately, she played the game as long as she could.    

So here's to Carole. 
To Frances Lillian Mary Ridste.
The Pin-up.
The Actress.
The Entertainer.
The Daughter.
The Woman.
The Soul.

Her upbringing was fraught with physical and emotional difficulties. Abandoned by her biological father before her birth, Carole would endure poverty, the death of two siblings, the divorce of her parents, sexual abuse as a child, and an annulled marriage by age fifteen. She would eventually be married five times to four different men by age 26. 

Although she desperately wanted a child, she suffered from endometriosis and could not conceive. During her life she would also suffer from dysentery, malaria, pneumonia, and ultimately depression.

Seen as an escape to a better life, the alluring glamour of Hollywood consumed her at a young age and with a natural talent for singing, she finally said goodbye to her mother and boarded a bus bound for San Francisco at age sixteen with $100 in savings.

She found work as a chorus girl in musicals and eventually became a favorite of choreographer/director Busby Berkeley. At one point they were even engaged to be married, but due to unfounded rumors resurfacing her engagement was terminated by Berkeley's mother.

One Million B.C. (1940) - Not necessarily her best role, but perhaps her most famous.

More marriages came and fell apart. She entered into a relationship with film producer Darryl Zanuck and more roles began to come her way. But after her relationship ended, (surprise) her career suffered.

To help with the war effort she joined the USO in 1942. For the next couple years she traveled the globe entertaining servicemen. Landis logged over 100,000 miles on her tours to North Africa and Europe, spending more time visiting troops than any other actress.  

After the war she began a serious relationship with actor Rex Harrison, then still married to Lilli Palmer. Rex refused to divorce his wife for her. 

This lead to her dreadful day of reckoning.

Her ambitious struggle against the odds ended abruptly on the evening of July 4, 1948. Her lifeless body was discovered by Rex Harrison the following day. The tragic details are chronicled here

Much has been made of the events of that day. The elapsed time between Rex discovering her body and his eventual call to police to report it. Over two hours. 

Her family, stating her future plans, her upbeat mood during the day (she hosted a pool party for a dozen friends at her home the day she "suicided") and Harrison's suspicious behavior, claim that her death was not of her choosing. 

I've chosen not to post her famous post-mortem photo, but some blogger sites have even raised questions regarding some odd aspects of those police scene photos. 

Sources claim she left three suicide notes. One for her maid with information regarding her cat's need of medical attention. One for her mother (excerpted in the top header of this page). And another for Rex Harrison which he allegedly had his lawyer burn. Along with other letters and documents of correspondence.

For a while after these events Harrison's career cooled off, but later recovered (My Fair Lady - 1964). He eventually divorced Palmer anyway in 1957.

Perhaps in addition to her troubled upbringing, Carole Landis' inherent natural beauty and desire to be loved contributed in some way to her own turbulent relationships, her enduring unfulfillment, and ultimately, to her sad demise. By all accounts she was a kind open-hearted person. In a cut -throat business full of "actors" she was easy prey. And when she fell for a married man. It was a no-win situation for her. She didn't want to hurt Lilli Palmer, nor be a "home wrecker" in the eyes of the public. 

Carole's actress friend Lupe Velez had found herself in a similar "no-win situation" and took a lethal overdose of Seconal (sleeping pills). Carole had commented to friends at the time that she understood exactly how Lupe felt. And in the end, a few years later Landis chose the exact same method to escape her troubles. 

The world kept turning for most. But not for Carole. The final curtain came down on one of the most promising careers of 1940s Tinsel Town. She survived so much strife. But at that point, she couldn't bear one more broken heart. That's truly what killed Carole Landis.

Thankfully her legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of those who remember her... 
and share her story.     

Learn more about Carole here at her "official" blog.  Or here.


And don't wait until someone is gone, to show them what they mean to you. 
Eulogies are only cold comfort for the ones left behind.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Building Stories by Chris Ware

Chris Ware could retire right now. Period. And leave a proud body of work. The envy of many artists and writers. His ACME Novelty Library series. Singularly awesome. Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. A layered masterstroke. With every release I shake my head and pronounce, THIS is his epic. THIS will be the work mentioned next to his name in the future. Then the guy keeps on going. Chris do you ever sleep? His latest big box of anxiety and emotional isolation has arrived and exploded all over my desk. And when I say "big box", I mean just that.
His latest work is called BUILDING STORIES and is a fly-on-the-wall peak into the life of the residents of an aging building in Chicago, eventually focusing on an average middle-income middle-aged middle-everything woman (later a mother). The "if-these-walls-could-talk" narrative is spread across 14 different books, posters, pamphlets, chipboards and other what-have-you all housed in a large box. A large tangible remnant you can hold in an ever virtualizing world of tiny screen images.
His trademark visual style is that of a detached almost "alien" observer. Peering through invisible walls into the most intimate of human moments. And then even deeper, into the tormented and confused emotions of it's subjects. Rendered in typographic, flat, simplified, almost architectural or even "scientific" illustrations. It's as if an alien observer, or perhaps an angel, sent to Earth to do a "book report" on modern man had found a Winsor McCay cartoon strip in the back of a 1905 newspaper and adopted this visual aesthetic to present his investigative document. Finely observing all the minutia and detritus of human existence and honing the details down to the most crucial and primal. In Ware's work we, as readers, see the world (and recognize our own lives) through this filter. And what's surprising, to me anyway, is what gets through this filter. Perhaps even amplified by it. All the emotion. The sadness. The futility. In fact, some readers would argue his illustrations amply convey these feelings without the aid of a single word.
And that seems to be another Ware trademark of some contention. The running thread of sadness permeating his work. His use of the comic medium is not one of fantasy and escapism. Chris uses his talents to cut to the heart of the human condition and pull back the curtain on our internal selves. Lifting the veil to reveal the scars we all carry and try to hide. That seems to continually be the focus of his interest and the direction of his graphic novels.When someone unfamiliar with Ware's work sees the title Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, they assume it's another Disneyesque adventure of some young-inventor (ala Meet the Robinsons, or Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs). Not what it trully is. The story of an awkward middle-aged man meeting his absentee father for the first time at a "greasy-spoon" diner in Michigan over Thanksgiving. The power and force of Ware's work is typically underplayed and never advertised. His Art Deco covers rarely hint at the quiet human struggles awaiting inside. These aren't your father's "comic books".

Ware's attention to detail is not limited to his visuals. I'm impressed with Ware's ability to write equally well for a woman as for a male character. He nails those awkward moments and little gaps in communication there are so common in couples (and strangers too). This book (I mean books) is chock full of those little emotional triggers. And the aftermath. They do make you smile knowingly. But sometimes, they surprise you and cut a little deeper.

The cool thing here is that Ware is giving the reader a rare gift. To play an interactive role in the experience of this work. By breaking the stories up into 14 separate glimpses spread across a variety of materials, that can be viewed in any order, each reader gets a completely unique experience. We are the ones building the story. Almost like going through someone else's belongings after their death. Piecing together their life's history. We learn a bit here when they were young, and another bit there when they were not so young. Only to ourselves are our lives one long unbroken string. To others, our lives are bits and pieces. Associated with holidays, places, memorable events, music, smells, tastes. Just bits and pieces. 

And considering the subtle detail included in Ware's fiction, it affords the reader the wonderful luxury to repeatedly dig as deep as they so choose, or allow themselves to.  
Well...  I haven't yet finished reading, viewing, and examining all that's in the box, so I'm off to dig deeper and continue... building stories. And, thanks Mr. Ware.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Pictures: 10/24/2012

Today after a nice home lunch, I walked around my yard. Such a beautiful autumn day. The colors of the leaves are still a week or two away from their peak. But I still wanted to capture a little of their grandeur. So I took a camera and strolled around my yard. This is a taste of what I saw. ~ Darren