Soul Rebel: David Burnett

Went to the David Burnett opening last night at Mr. Musichead Gallery in Los Angeles. Drove up with long time photographer friend and Wisconsin cheese-eating native Paul Gero who happens to be a friend of Burnett. I’d never been to this particular gallery before, and I’m glad I made the trip. In addition to Burnett’s work, which was centered on a project about Jamaican superstar Bob Marley, the gallery had a range of other imagery and artwork. There was a Hunter Thompson piece by Al Satterwhite that I was lusting after.

But I digress. For anyone who out there who loves documentary photography, editorial photography, political photography or photojournalism, David Burnett is a name you MUST know. A friend recently described him as “The Michael Jordan of photojournalism,” which I think is a accurate description. Burnett is a good photographer and has been good for a long, long while. Constantly reinventing himself, his genre, he continues to produce work that actually influences not only those around him but the actual industry in which he works. Not many folks I can say this about. Plus, he is just a cool guy. Always a smile, always a joke.

The project being exhibited, “Soul Rebel” depicts an intimate look at reggae superstar Marley. This project reflects what time, access and someone with a point of view can accomplish when given the chance. Living as close to Hollywood as I do, and knowing a fair number of photographers who cover the entertainment world, I wish I could take this book around to all of them, and their agents, and agencies and magazine editors and art directors and say “Look at this.” “This is what is possible with time and access.” The book, which I bought for my brother and nephew(a secret but neither read my blog), depicts a relaxed and mercurial Marley, at home and seemingly at peace. The work feels personal, very personal, and reminds me of other bodies of rock and roll work by the likes of Claxton and “back in the day” photographers that had relationships with these music stars, as opposed to the modern method of the five-minute portrait. When I see Burnett’s images I feel like I begin to know what the real Bob Marley was like. Quiet, reflective, lover of weed and soccer. I see Marley with his guard down, relaxing with friends in Kingston, on the road with the band and performing, dreadlocks backlit and glowing, face twisted in lyric.

When I see these images it feels to me like I’m being given a look at a secret world, but I’m being given this look by someone considered a friend to those in the images. I can’t tell you how important this is, and how critical this is to getting images that are a true reflection of someone, something or somewhere. I could tell you more about Burnett, the “Photographer of the Year” award, the “Robert Capa” award, the co-founder of Contact Press and the years he covered Vietnam, but I’m going to stop there. I want you to work at this and go discover him on your own. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Al Queda Takes Down Another One

I just heard some disparaging news. At least it was disparaging news to me. To others the news will come with relief, glee and the sound of chalk on chalkboards as the name at the top of the list is crossed off.

Salgado has gone digital. Yep, it’s true.

Was it the unbelievable quality? Nope.

Was it the ability to shoot unlimited images? No.

How about being able to see those Galapagos animals seconds after he snapped them? Nope, not that either.

Salgado went digital, at least according to what I read, because of airport security.

The world’s greatest documentary photography, reduced to the pixel by the residue of Bin Laden and those blue coats at the TSA.

Yep, it seems that his problems traveling with film were at a peak during his recent project, forcing him to change what had been his method of working, dare I say from the beginning.

Scanning his 220 film, multiple times, had reduced the quality down to 35mm levels, and the desire to print big forced him to make a change. So, the images he captures on digital are written back to film, then printed analog. This might seem odd, but people have been doing this for years.

If I had to guess, and guessing is my best attribute, I’d say this will end with this project. I would imagine, in the future, as the need to make wall size, house size, airport runway size prints takes over the art world, as it has for the past four years, the digital print will also become a part of his world. The sinks will dry, the lab coats will hang on hooks from the back of doors no longer required, and fat, negative cabinets will be replaced with monitors, cables, surge protectors, raids backed up on raids, as our best world treasure in photography experiences his own migration into the slippery world of digital imaging.

He has success on his side. I would imagine that behind every terminal will be a young digital ace, fresh from tech-school, able to perfect every pixel of a world we all used to know as being flawed. No longer. Most of us come to digital closer to the other end of the rating scale, forced into digital by clients no longer willing to pay for film and processing, clients on skeletal budgets, used to getting things for royalty free rates from photographers willing to offer up anything they have and anything they can get, just to keep the machine moving.

I will imagine that he will be at a level, right from the beginning, where he won’t deal with perpetual upgrades, software issues, corrupted drives and mismatched profiles. He will probably not have to spend day after day, night after night, solving electronic issues that come with “being digital.” Others will do it, and for this I would imagine he will be grateful.

But, in the end, as long as he keeps shooting, and speaking, and donating, and being a walking example of what is possible in the world of photography, well, that is all that matters.

The geeks will run with this, like they always do. As I write this they are mobilizing in the streets, like carnaval without the floats. “See, I told ya,” they will yell, fueled by another high-profile member of their camp, THE feather they dreamed of having in their proverbial hat.

But allow me for a moment to retrace where this post started. Airport security.

A lot of people ask me about film, and about traveling with film, and I have to say, post 9/11, for me, traveling with film has been EASIER than ever before. I don’t travel like Salgado, not even close, and I know his situation is far different than mine. But for me, pre 9/11 was tougher. I had a more difficult time getting hand inspections. Now, I’ve yet to have an issue.

With having said this, there are certain countries that just won’t hand inspect, even though having a hand inspection is your right as a traveler. Some will give you different reason after different reason, others no reason at all. Some countries see an American passport and your cooked, done, over, no chance. This has happened to me in France and Switzerland. In France it was veiled but also clear enough to figure out. In Switzerland it was clear. I was lucky you see, the airport security guard started screaming at me, yelling about Americans in general, how horrible we are and that any flight with Americans was a “high risk flight.” I explained my mom’s family was from Switzerland, which only seemed to incense him even further, as if I’d betrayed my motherland from the womb.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, I shoot a lot of ASA 3200 film. In fact, I’ve traveled more with this film than any other, and I’ve yet to have a ruined roll.

I think for a lot of photographers somewhat troubled by their transition to digital, blaming airport security is an easy way to say, “Okay, I know I’ve got to do this digital thing, so blaming airport security will at least make me feel a little better.”

Not to say that airport security isn’t a horrible mess at this point. In short, nothing they do seems to make much sense at all, unless complete confusion is their goal, and frankly, it might be. Might as well try it, works for the government right?

Take four trips in the United States, ask for hand inspections and you will get four different scenes. You might get an easy inspection on all four, but chances are, they will all be done differently.

You know me, I’m inquisitive. I ask. “Hey buddy, what’s the drill?” I’ve been told countless different tales of this rule, that rule, this regulation, that regulation, etc, In short, I don’t think they have a clue.

I’m scared to death of airport security in the United States.

Overseas, another story. These folks tend to have their collective acts together, more than we do. And in some places, they are downright militant. But again, I don’t see this as a bad thing. I wanna be safe, and I don’t want to ride coach with Richard Reid , or his lousy iPod music or vegan meal.

I don’t think Bin Laden, or any of his boys knew just how far reaching their acts would be. I certainly didn’t think I’d hear the world’s best photographer having to change his work due to the effects of the world of terror, but it appears as if the change has already been made. I can see Bin Laden, sipping his morning latte from the basement of the Pakistani Presidential Palace, chuckling as he turns the paper to his second in command, “Look, we forced Salgado to go digital,” his second in command sneering as he returns to his People Magazine, uttering to himself, “I hope he backs up his work.”

And let’s also not forget the power of the art world, the only world left in photography that seems to have money. If the art world wants big prints, photographers will print big, end of story. It doesn’t matter if you are a contact printer, if the gallery says, “Hey, I think I can sell those if you make your contact prints eight feet wide,” then that contact printer, chances are, is scheming a way to make a negative eight feet tall. I’ve seen it happen a hundred times.

I don’t think the traditional documentary channels are really viable anymore, at least not like they used to be, so all photographers must look elsewhere, for other, more profitable channels, and at the moment, the art world is the space being chased. Big prints are the rage, and I don’t think anyone can escape this. Digital makes big prints a snap, no pun intended. Get it, snap?? Okay, forget it.

So in the end, what did we learn? I can ramble? Due to me having written “Al Queda,” “Richard Reid,” Bin Laden,” I’m now on a watch list? And yes, another photographer due to reasons beyond apples to apples is headed down a new path.

I wish him the best of luck and hope like hell he continues his work for decades to come. And, I hope that somewhere out there, perhaps in a small, mountain village, in a remote land, a young kid is pouring over the pages of a book of black and white photogr
aphs, making the decision to follow in those very footsteps.

Until then my friends, I’ll be here, at home, polishing my lead bags and lighting candles to the Gods in blue jackets that roam airports like a pack of vipers. I fear not.