Archive for December, 1999

David James

December 22, 1999
Captain John Miller stands helpless, paralyzed by the raging, barbaric spectacle that engulfs his senses. Man after man is savagely ripped to pieces before his eyes and the exploding thunder of one hundred thousand bullets tearing into metal, sand, and flesh is all but muffled by the shock and horror of the carnage. Miller squints, jerking his head from side to side, trying desperately to register with another human being on the beach, but all he sees is wave after wave of cannon fodder. “Captain!” someone yells, “Captain!” A soldier claws at Miller’s wet frame as pellets ricochet off the steel fortifications littering the landscape. “Captain!” Miller locks his eyes with the man, builds momentum, and rushes forward into the terrible storm of war. The date is June 6, 1944, D-Day, Normandy Beach.
In a temperature controlled multiplex in suburban America, a stunned audience sits helpless, gaping at one of the most realistic and graphic depictions of war ever brought to the cinema. They are confused, riveted, and utterly moved by the sights and sounds booming from the flat white screen. They picture their fathers, grandfathers and friends shipped halfway across the globe to engage in the last noble war, fought for generations of people so that another conflict of such magnitude would never be fought again. They see Captain John Miller not as Tom Hanks, Academy Award-winning actor, but as a frightened everyman, placed in unbelievable circumstances, charged with leading his troops towards unmatched danger. They project themselves into the epic struggle. The feeling does not leave them when the house lights go back on.
Such has been the profound effects of Saving Private Ryan on audiences around the country. To accurately depict the horror and bravery of D-Day, director Steven Spielberg mounted an enormous campaign on his own, enlisting thousands of extras, truckloads of equipment, and the brightest talent Hollywood had to offer. Among those who were integral to the production was still photographer David James, whose charge was not only to document behind-the-scenes footage of the filming, but also to serve as a literal war photographer, capturing the faces, emotions, and actions of the story. A veteran of over 150 movies himself including, including Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning Schindlers List and Jurassic Park: The Lost World, James found the experience of Saving Private Ryan the most rewarding and difficult to date. “We were all at war” he explains. “It was the most important movie I have done because it created a tangible piece of history. It was nothing like a movie at all.” The result of his work can be found in the recently released book Saving Private Ryan – The Men, The Mission, The Movie, published by Newmarket Press. The book contains the most gripping of James’ photographs as well as excerpts from the film’s screenplay and quotes from the principle actors and Spielberg himself. Steven Ambrose, the noted historian and consultant to the film, provides vivid descriptions of the fateful day, and first-hand accounts from soldiers of the movement accompany many of the photographs.
The relationship between Spielberg and James is a unique one, and James was in the enviable position to have free reign over the set both during and after takes. A deep element of trust exists between the two men: the director allowed James to interrupt the filming in a way that would both highlight the drama and satiate James’ deep devotion to coming as close as possible to what an actual photographer might have encountered during the war. To achieve this realism, James had to understand the dynamics of combat photography and physically put himself in the throws of the staged combat. Because of his heartfelt admiration for the men who served during World War II as correspondents, James found it easy to endure the same rigors as those who saw actual battle. “Even with the cuts and banged shins and soaked clothes, I found the experience incredibly exhilerating,” he explains.

James found inspiration in the work of Robert Capa, a renowned war photographer who landed with the third wave at Normandy. “I tried to put myself in his position,” James explains, “Capa always said that if your pictures aren’t good it means you were not close enough.” Capa shot under great duress, his camera shaking with each explosion that shattered the men around him. James tried to study other still photographs of war, but found that the majority of them were glossed-over studies of glory rather than realistic portrayals of the grim nature of battle. “Everything else I saw was bad, like a John Wayne epic. War is not a beautiful, glorious thing … war rips people into pieces.” Robert Capa died from stepping on a land mine during the Vietnam War and James is genuine in his reverence for the man and his work. “Capa really helped my work. I was fortunate to be, in a sense, him for a day.”

To historically mimic Capa’s work, James used a Leica M6 range finder lens and desaturated black and white film to achieve a grainy, ghostly look. Using a slow shutter speed, James moved with the action, running and climbing over obstacles and fallen soldiers to capture the kinetic energy of the staged battle. The element of danger was palatable, with explosions churning up earth and debris, and craters and rubble appearing with every great shutter of special effects bombs disturbing the beach. The strict codes of movie photography were dismissed during filming and James was able to get into the eye lines of the actors as they reacted to the events surrounding them. Unusual shots, such as those of the back of Tom Hank’s head, became telling images and one’s that were unique to the project. “To shoot the backside of the film’s star would be unheard of in a typical picture,” says James, “you would never see that in a John Wayne film about war.”

As a human tale of common bravery and patriotism, Saving Private Ryan could not have been photographed in the grandiose manner of earlier war films. With realism as the paramount concern for both Spielberg and James, the pair agreed on separating the shooting of the scenes from the work of capturing still photos of the set. In this way, James was able to interpret the filming as he saw fit with the full faith of Spielberg behind him. Recalls James, “Steven only wanted to see the shots I showed him. He did not want a selection of pictures.” James did not want to be influenced by the shooting schedule and did not attend the “dailies” (sessions where the day’s filming is scrutinized for the director’s approval). Instead, James concentrated his efforts on the experiences of the actors and, by extension, the lives of soldiers past who lived through the war and felt the hardships of military life. For professional performers such as Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, and Tom Sizemore, among others, the grueling nature of the film was a challenge to both their body and spirits. Shedding light on that challenge was part of James’ work.

“They (the actors) were amazing. They put everything they had into the production,” remembers James. Captain Dale Dye (ret) of the United States Marines served as the military consultant to the film, aiding Spielberg in orchestrating the combat footage and most importantly, readying the actors so that their portrayal of soldiers would be accurate and believable. James shot the principles in “boot camp,” a demanding 10 day initiation to military life that included weapon drills, combat maneuvers, and team-building. James documented the actors’ transformation from Hollywood stars to a band of tight-knit brothers-in-arms. Shots of the men marching in formation, with Hanks at the head, reflects the leadership role he assumes to make his character believable. James recalls, “Tom sank himself into his role 100%. When some of the others wanted to quit, Tom played the Captain and set the example.”
Tom Hanks was of particular interest for James, as is evidenced by the numerous close ups and visual ruminations of the character included in the book. Beyond being the principle character of the film, Hanks also represented the quiet heroism of the war. In keeping with James’ desire to capture the humanity within the chaos of the battle, Hanks is often photographed with a pensive look on his face instead of the fierce scowl of a plastic action figure. Nearly every shot shows men who are scared, tired, and longing for a piece of home. As they search for the elusive Private Ryan – who according to the script, has lost three brothers in the war and is slated for discharge to take care of his grieving mother – each man contemplates the rationale for risking the lives of many to save one. The photographs illustrate this predicament beautifully, showcasing the best of the film in a way that stops the movement and allows the viewer to contemplate the images with more depth and analysis.

Among the most moving scenes James photographed were not of the action itself, but rather, the quiet stories within the story. Of great importance to James were photographs that exhibited the cost of war, both physical and emotional. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Captain Miller’s platoon moves deeper into enemy territory only to find a family stranded in the bombed out remains of their home. The sound of mortar shells and gunfire is heard in the distance, and it is evident to the family that their safety is in danger. The father frantically tries to give his daughter to the soldiers in hope that she will be safer under their protection. James shot a series of photographs depicting this sequence and, like the moving images, they are among the most telling in the book. The shots speak to the theme of finding decency in the hell of war and the blurred, unrefined prints illustrate the fear and confusion.

In another shot, a wounded soldier lies dying on the beach. Sand and grit are caked in his eyes and ears, yet he concentrates on a crucifix clutched in his hand as the war rages all around him. He knows he is finished, but he still finds the strength to pray and ask for forgiveness. “It is a great image of war,” notes James, “it speaks to the humanity of the inhuman circumstances.” James remembers talking to veterans about the engagement and found they were not forthcoming about their battle experiences. Their humility served to clarify James’ intent. Because every man who served in the war was, in a sense, a hero, James did not see the need to manipulate or gloss over their memories with his photographs. He shot only what he thought to be accurate and true as a testament to those who were there.
The men who did not return from the war also struck a chord with James. He believes the most harrowing sequence in the film was that of the soldiers’ cemetery in Normandy, France. The photograph shows simple white markers stretched endlessly out to the horizon, the costly sacrifice for the cause of freedom. “When you walk among the crosses, they become people. It was a humbling experience.” James reflect. James learned that the stones marked “Comrade at Arms, Known Only to God,” were the graves of men who could not be identified because the bodies were incomplete or mere pieces. It was a chilling realization. “War is ugly and evil and it is important that people constantly reexamine the price. men pay for their country,” says James
Critics have charged that Saving Private Ryan was overtly graphic and too disturbing for many moviegoers. In many instances, audience members have had to leave the theater because the sight of severed limbs and bloody red waves were to much to bear. James’ photographs, too, leave little to the imagination when it comes to showing the full brutality of combat, but James is quick to defend his work. “The photographs were a historic representation of the scene. None [of the photographs] looked like movie stills. I rejected those shots.” Spielberg agreed with James’ choice of shots. “I didn’t want to shoot the picture as a Hollywood gung-ho Rambo kind of extravaganza. I wanted the audience to be fairly uneasy.” James was reminded of the importance of accuracy when, at a viewing of the film, a veteran who had never spoken about his experience said simply, “So now you know.”
Critics have charged that Saving Private Ryan was overtly graphic and too disturbing for many moviegoers. In many instances, audience members have had to leave the theater because the sight of severed limbs and bloody red waves were to much to bear. James’ photographs, too, leave little to the imagination when it comes to showing the full brutality of combat, but James is quick to defend his work. “The photographs were a historic representation of the scene. None [of the photographs] looked like movie stills. I rejected those shots.” Spielberg agreed with James’ choice of shots. “I didn’t want to shoot the picture as a Hollywood gung-ho Rambo kind of extravaganza. I wanted the audience to be fairly uneasy.” James was reminded of the importance of accuracy when, at a viewing of the film, a veteran who had never spoken about his experience said simply, “So now you know.”
Saving Private Ryan, the gripping, powerful account of war, the combined efforts of hundreds of individuals, has indeed been seen, discussed, debated, and admired. James’ book, as an extension of the message of film, is a valuable artifact of cinematic history. Inspired by those who sacrificed their lives for liberty, the memory of the images is not soon forgotten.
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Joyce Tenneson

December 22, 1999

Joyce Tenneson’s mythic images – often of the human figure, sometimes of sculpture or architecture – are striking and distinctive. Possessing an ethereal, mysterious air, they are timeless and even haunting. Working in photography for several decades, she has achieved worldwide recognition in both the fine art and commercial worlds. her fine art prints have been displayed at more than 100 exhibitions around the globe, and are included in many museum collections, and her distinctive style has garnered commissions for portrait, beauty and fashion work in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Both her fine art and commercial images have been widely published, appearing in Time, Life, Esquire, L.A. Style, The New York Times Magazine, and Premiere to name a few.

The photographer’s 1993 book, Transformations (Bullfinch Press, currently out of print) describes her work as follows: “Using a graceful, formal structure and sculpturesque subjects against painted backdrops, Tenneson creates enigmatic and sensuous images with a mythic quality. Whether a classically draped nude or a mysterious portrait of a young child and an aged man, her photographs speak to the fragility of life, it’s poignant beauty – and its pain. The images are deeply affecting, evoking forgotten memories.” Her fifth and most recent publication, Illuminations, published by Bullfinch in 1997, is widely available.

After our interview, Tenneson had arranged for a friend and a former student to show me her work for possible publication. Even if I hadn’t thought the work was wonderful – which it was – I was very impressed by this accomplished artist’s generosity and thoughtfulness toward a younger photographer. Furthermore, she then invited a group of young assistants and interns to a lecture that evening given by another photographer.

Recently, I stepped into Tenneson’s Manhattan studio and was graciously ushered into her working world. White walls and high ceilings were softened by a sparse decor including architectural elements sculpture, and hydrangeas. She proceeded to show me several trays of work much as she would show them in a lecture or workshop. Haunting Soprano voices wafted in the background from a CD.

Photo Insider (PhotoInsider): One if the hallmarks of both your fine art and commercial work is you very distinctive style. How did that develop?

Joyce Tenneson (Tenneson): I very strongly believe that if you go back to your roots, if you mine that inner territory, you can bring out something that is indelibly you and authentic – like your thumbprint. Its going to have your style because there is no one like you. (Tenneson shows family photos from her childhood. These include the photographer and her two sisters dressed as angels for a Christmas pageant, wearing shiny crowns and a bride in a white flowing dress floating among a dozen nuns in black habits.)

PhotoInsider: It’s not a far path from these images to your contemporary work with wings, caps, and a feeling of spirituality and suspension in time and space.

Tenneson: As a child, I lived on the grounds of a convent where my parents worked. We were enlisted to be in holiday pageants and processions. It was a mysterious environment – something out of Fellini – filled with symbolism, ritual, beauty, and also a disturbing kind of surreal imagery.

PhotoInsider: The great majority of your photographs are of women.

Tenneson: The fact that I was surrounded by a female culture has also marked me. Not only the convent, but my mother had nine sisters who lived nearby. I had two sisters and my mother was an identical twin and her sister lived with us. The sense of mystery, the unconscious, death, beauty, and pain were all inextricably interwoven for me.

PhotoInsider: What was the next major influence in your life?

Tenneson: Going to France as an exchange student at 16 introduced me to yet another element of feminine beauty and the French culture’s vision of women and their importance in the world – their attention to the spirituality of women. I was struck by the sculpture of nudes on churches and bridges.

PhotoInsider: Foreshadowing your linking of the sensual and the spiritual?

Tenneson: The next turning point was when I was in college. I was enlisted by Polaroid to be a model for them to test films. They gave me an opportunity to work with their photographers and to notice that there were no female photographers except for Maria Cosindas. I very much didn’t like the pictures that were being taken of me, so Polaroid gave me a camera and all the free film I could use and I embarked on my own photo journey.

Soon I married and had a beautiful son. I then moved to Washington D.C., to put my then husband through medical school, which is what women did back then. I gave a full scholarship to a Harvard Ph.D. program in literature.

Because I got married so young, I didn’t have a clue as to who I was. My first body of work that I showed and published were self-portraits. The result was my first book – Insights, published when I was 27, by David Godine.

PhotoInsider: If you had been studying literature, how did you come to a career in photography?

Tenneson: I got a full-time teaching job in Washington where I headed the photo club. I got Polaroid to give us materials. Then, I got my masters degree in fine arts with an emphasis on photography. After the degree I started teaching immediately at the college level where I stayed for 15 years.

PhotoInsider: What personal work were you doing during this period?

Tenneson: I felt that the self-portraits in the Insights book were an exterior view. I wanted to show emotional equivalents, to distill emotions and feelings, to somehow bring that sense of who I was on a deeper level than just the surface into my photographs.

I used my friends and their children as models, shooting in natural light, outdoors on a deck. I’m very glad that I looked through that window because it’s one that is no longer available to me.

PhotoInsider: Please comment on that union of spirituality and sensuality in your work.

Tenneson: These two elements are tied together for me physically, and I guess it’s part of what gives my style that “signature” people talk about. There’s also a fragility and an attention to the life cycle and the way skin metamorphoses over time and is beautiful from old age to very young. Skin is mezmerizingly fascinating for me – that’s why I am drawn to the nude. It’s completely new all the time. I think that people do show their soul when they are stripped down. There’s some psychological thing that happens, and I’m interested in that depth.

PhotoInsider: Why did you leave Washington and move to New York City?

Tenneson: My inner desire to dance to my own drummer. It’s always been important to me to feel that I’m growing and seeing new things, so I decided to move and re-create my life. I gave up everything – a tenured teaching job, a doctor husband, a five-story house, my retirement, my security. I never wanted to be like the other mothers – the cocktail parties and the husbands status weren’t important to me. I wanted my own internal sense of who I was and who I could be. I yearned to jump into the abyss of my own destiny. It was scary, but less scary than the
status quo.

PhotoInsider: When you abandoned all this, what were you planning to do in New York?

Tenneson: I planned to move here and get assignment work and continue to do my personal work.

PhotoInsider: had you been doing assignments in Washington in addition to teaching?

Tenneson: Oh, no. I was an artist and educator.

PhotoInsider: So what happened when you arrived in the mid-1980’s?

Tenneson: I got rejected for a long time. I started doing commissioned portraits, but I soon found that this was not to be my thing because when someone pays you a lot of money, they want to look good. They don’t want my insights into the intricacies of the human condition. So now I’d rather work for magazines doing portraits – it’s a lot more challenging. I love photographing people when I am free to use my higher powers.

PhotoInsider: How did you get the first portrait jobs?Tenneson: Word of mouth – from people in my building, friends and so on.

PhotoInsider: How did you make the transition to magazine assignments?

Tenneson: My first break came when I was in Italy teaching. I had the track record of teaching for 15 years, and I had books published, so I met the head of Conde Nast Italy. He gave me a 12-page assignment. I was like a little racehorse at the gate, – ready to run. Those Catholic girls are well trained, disciplined. Once I’m given a break, I move with it. Today, I do a combination – some assignments to pay my bills, but I spend most of my time on my own work, my own projects and books.

PhotoInsider: How do you start a series? Do you have a theme in mind?

Tenneson: This is pivotal For every series, I try to find what I haven’t completely explored. My recent work examines the idea of the spiritual warrior. It’s a continuation of my autobiographical quest. My whole life has been devoted to battling myself and my own ability to externalize who I am at a deep level. In the new work I have become more direct, perhaps reflecting the fact that for the first time in my life, I feel free.

PhotoInsider: Tell me about your female models.

Tenneson: I am interested in the mysteries and the complexity of the
of the female psyche, not as a feminist, but as an autobiographical journey. I am interested in all the things I missed out on, that I wasn’t aware of. For example, when I was pregnant with my son, I was in my twenties, and I wasn’t really in a position to reflect on it. Yet, birth is an incredible mystery – new life and bringing it into the world. So now I am able to rediscover through the people I photograph and get close to.

PhotoInsider: This latest series includes a variety of ethnic groups.

Tenneson: I’m fascinated by people from many different countries and how we all share similar life experiences.

PhotoInsider: How do you find your models?

Tenneson: I find people in the subway, the art store, in the elevator. Often, after I give a lecture, people press their names in my palm, or call me.

PhotoInsider: How do you approach potential models in the street?

Tenneson: I give them a card with a photograph and say that I am doing a series and that I’m not a pervert!

All the people I photograph either are friends or become friends. If I’m interested enough to photograph them for my personal work, then there’s something that connects us.

My current photographs have a more open feeling. I’m able to show more facets of my own personality through these people. I’m more expressed than I’ve ever been – and this shows in the work.

For example, one woman from my last series had spent time in India and learned how to balance a sword on her head and belly dance. I though it was so liberating watching her. I’m taking lessons now.

PhotoInsider: You work primarily in the studio.

Tenneson: Yes. I do all my own styling and paint all my own backdrops and props. All the art school training – you can recycle anything, you can make anything.

PhotoInsider: We haven’t talked about your studio or your shooting techniques.

Tenneson: I don’t’ like to talk about my techniques. It’s like a magician revealing her secrets. I work in all formats, but no matter which format I use, the work always ends up looking like me.

PhotoInsider: Are you working digitally?

Tenneson: I only use digital for book design, studio business and promotion, invoicing, and storage of my inventory. I have smart assistants who help with these tasks.

PhotoInsider: So all the effects you are getting are done in camera?

Tenneson: Yes. I don’t shoot anything until it is perfect. I’m a bit of a perfectionist.

PhotoInsider: What teaching are you doing now?

Tenneson: I still teach a few workshops a year in Santa Fe, Maine, and Europe. But my first concern, the primary use of my time, has always been my personal work. Doing five books has been a major commitment.

PhotoInsider: One of the elements that recurs in your work is wings.

Tenneson: I’ve been fascinated with wings all my life. I’ve had an obsession with transcendence, the need to push forward and to metaphorically “fly.”

PhotoInsider: The mirror is another prop that you use to add a further dimension to your images.

Tenneson: I think it was Michelangelo who said the mirror is our greatest teacher. For me, it involves looking at ourselves psychically -who we are, who we’ve been, our friends and how they mirror us.

Often, the face is distorted in the mirror, or it changes since you get it at a different angle, so it’s often more than a reflection. Sometimes it’s a surprise, something emerges – some darkness, some secret emerges without you knowing it or giving permission.

PhotoInsider: Why do your subjects wear caps or head coverings, or even have their heads cropped off?

Tenneson: I try to neutralize my figures. I want them to be mythic and timeless. I want them to have an identity that is not identifiable. I want them to be beyond time, so I’ve used many ways to banish the hair – either the skullcaps or the cowls I have made, or just pulling the hair back. I don’t like hair. I like the face and wheats going on there. The hair is a distraction.

PhotoInsider: When you are presenting workshops, what are your goals?

Tenneson: They’re about personal growth but photography unites us in some way. Afterwards, participants write to me and tell me that they were attracted to my workshops because they were in a transition. There’s been some kind of insight that they’ve gained or a new type of self-confidence. I get letters afterwards saying that it was a transformational experience.

If I’m giving a simple portrait workshop, that’s more basic in terms of giving assignments and showing lots of slides of work. Because of my academic background, I always come
very well prepared. I have lectures on the history of portraiture so we can look at slides and talk about what makes people different stylistically and, over time, trace trends that are intellectually stimulating. That’s fun to do; I love feeling that I’m opening new world for people that they don’t have time to investigate themselves.

I like to tease them that I am raising their IQ in photography. A lot of people are seemingly attracted to photography because it is seemingly easy. Yet, you don’t study literature without studying the great books. So, to me, you can’t be interested in portraiture or anything else without knowing the historical precedents. I bring all that to the workshop as well as my interest in human development and in people. We also laugh a lot.

PhotoInsider: Your photographs of people cover a wide range of ages and physical types, as well.

Tenneson: I am a people person, but I’m not a superficial cocktail conversation person – I’m an intimate friend person. I’m interested in what makes people tick. The people I work with, the people I photograph, become a kind of family to me.

PhotoInsider: Tell me more about your latest work – The Spiritual Warriors.

Tenneson: It’s sort of a continuation of my ongoing autobiographical series which shows my interest in looking into the inner life of my subjects in a new way, to try to find their essence and see what is alike about us all. It’s been one of the most exciting times in my career, because the work seemed so effortless. The images just poured out of me.

PhotoInsider: Once you’ve found a model and set up a time, how does a session proceed? How do you prepare for it?

Tenneson: Because my work often has a very still, meditative quality to it, it looks like the studio must have been filled with hushed tones in a very serious atmosphere. Well, it’s the opposite. I have a lot of fun when I photograph. That’s the high point of my life. I spend a lot of time getting ready to photograph and cleaning up afterwards. So when I actually get the chance to photograph, I’m flying high.

PhotoInsider: When you know a person is coming, how do you plan which background and props you’ll use for them?

Tenneson: I make a series of props, then I organize a series of people I want to work with. I usually have several people here at the same time. I like the synergy of what happens. Maybe I’ll photograph them together. Also, they don’t to be so nervous. I’ll shoot one person and then give them a break while I work with another person.

PhotoInsider: And that might last how long?

Tenneson: All day. With all of this work, you don’t think I’m going to set up for an hour do you?

PhotoInsider: How many days a month do you do this?

Tenneson: Just a couple days. It takes me a long time to get things ready and to clear things down afterwards. People always want to know, “How do you get your subjects to look that way?” The only thing I can say is, “hypnosis”-jokingly. I don’t ask then to do anything, I’m just interacting. They somehow read me or become one with me, and so it’s effortless. I never have to direct, “Do this or do that.” We’re just being together. And if I am lucky something new and magical emerges. I’m always surprised by the mystery of how my best images appear. And that excitement and shock of discovery makes my life at these moments a gift.’