Photo by Annie Leibovitz, courtesy Vanity Fair
A reader recently took me to task for not writing about Annie Leibovitz's Caitlyn Jenner cover. "I am trying to recall a photograph, at this midpoint of the year," he wrote, "that rippled the 24-hour news cycle (our culture) like the Jenner VF cover photo. And it was competing with—what?—about a billion (low estimate) photos uploaded/shot/shared on that same day? What is the place of photography in 2015?"
Here's the thing, though—though it resembles one, TOP isn't actually a magazine. I'm just one person. And being one person, sometimes I have things to say and sometimes I don't. Sometimes, you've no doubt noticed, I have rather a lot to say about absolutely nothing (getting stuck in traffic, for instance), and other times I have little to say about things that are significant to many. Shouldn't I write about Budd Lee's death? That strikes me as significant. And I could probably think of things to say about photographers who became as deeply involved with their local communities as Bud Lee did with Tampa—it's both an honorable course for a photographic life and something that's remarkable about Bud Lee. But I didn't know him. In fact had never heard of him before a reader sent me his obituary. And I'm not sure I know enough "locally significant" photographers to start bandying generalizations about.
It's true that the Jenner story is superficially an example of "American Irony," in that a person once celebrated as a superathlete—one basic stereotype of the male—should turn out to have been psychologically a woman all along. The public's reaction, though it ranges from approval and sympathy all the way to excoriation and condemnation at the extremes, is probably mostly one of titillated fascination—i.e., isn't she weird? So the intersection between Caitlyn culminating her lifetime's internal struggle and integrating herself and proudly coming out as who she really is, on the one hand, and, on the other, the public's uneaseful attitude about the far edges of gender identity politics, and the triggers to the lizard-brain you find among the troglodytes...that's the core subject. This yoking of disparates together (to misquote the metaphysical poet John Donne) is a stock-in-trade of celebrity-mongering, but something I'm seldom particularly interested in. It doesn't move me. And although my own attitude is one of support (she's lucky, in a way—most people never get to do that much work on self-integration), I also don't know much about gender identity struggles and I don't have anything much to add to that conversation—that's all.
And then there's the fact that I've kind of decided to not write about Annie Leibovitz. I seem to have a particular lack of sympatico for her work—one might even call it an animus. Rather than continue to belabor that, I feel I should write about work that I like by photographers I like, or at least that I'm processing and engaged with and haven't made up my mind about (today it's Dennis Church, a "pure color" photographer suggested by Dave Reichert). So, the Jenner cover photo: it's good; it serves; but it's probably the opposite of Elliott Erwitt's quote yesterday that photography "has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them." This cover photo has everything to do with its subject and very little to do with the photograph itself or the photographer whose phalanx of assistants and helpers made it (see? There's that animus again). I could have made a portrait that would have served pretty much just as well. Should I write about how photographers in the top echelons get to be the go-to people in their specialties? I could do that, I suppose. That's a topic.
I could write about the declining influence of the magazine cover as a cultural visual touchstone, and how we need shared public images approved by gatekeepers as the pennants atop the mast of photographic culture. Maybe someday.
As far as self-integration is concerned, I've been working a lot on that lately myself. I'm working my way through an absolute masterpiece of a book, a milestone of a book, Bessel van der Kolk's The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, a gem of a recommendation from yet another reader. (Who I won't name, but thanks!) The book is meaningful to me in all kinds of ways, not least because it reflects on something someone near and dear to me does for a living. The whole process of integrating past trauma into the stories we tell ourselves about our lives, and placing it in the past instead of a neverending present, is utterly fascinating.
We do have some control over our own identities and our own communities, and I'm glad Caitlyn has become herself; but I don't know her, and I'm very far from an expert in the ways individuals merge their outer and inner lives, their heads and their bodies, their feelings with their genders and so on. I'm not the person you need to listen to on that facet of this subject.
Added to the uncomfortable distance between Jenner's presumed agenda and the public's reaction (pleased self-actualization vs. slyly veiled freak show), and Vanity Fair's interests in between the two, is the issue of money, which is never far from anything and everything surrounding what's known as "celebrity." Is it significant that Jenner wasn't paid anything for the Vanity Fair cover? Is that a topic? What about the fact that she stands to reap $10–15 million for a book deal? How does that relate to the happy coming-out aspect of the story? Again, I got nuthin' of particular interest to add.
All things considered, I'd as soon write about Rachel Dolezal passing as black. [UPDATE: This link wasn't working earlier but is fixed now. You might have to refresh your page. —Ed.] I have a lot of thoughts about volitional communities—I'm all for people picking the community that works for them. My nephew recently converted from Catholicism to Mormonism, for instance. I'm about as far as you can get from a Mormon—I'm naturally a rationalist materialist (though I fight it sometimes), and I'm particularly allergic to the stories of religions (even though Jung and James George Fraser found such richness there), and the more preposterous they are the less I like them. Mormonism's stories.... But Dave's an adult, and he gets to make his own choices and run his own life, so good for him. He's at least forthright and courageous (if a bit of a true believer by type). I think Rachel Dolezal should be embraced by the black community, not kicked out of it. She self-identifies as black, and apparently quite sincerely so. So, to me, she's black. Why? Because I'm all for integration—of individuals with communities, of communities with each other, and of peoples' inner lives with their outward, public selves.
And that's all I'll say about that.
(Thanks to Stephen Gillette)
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Featured Comments from:
Benjamin Marks (partial comment): "As for Jenner, if there is anyone in the world who has been at the eye of the 'reality'/self-exposure paroxysm that has gripped the U.S. for the last ten years, it is Jenner. I guess I see Caitlyn's self-promotion as understandable strategy for handling a transformation that might make its subject the victim rather than the author, if not actively managed.
"...As for Dolezal, I don't even know how to begin think about her story. There are so many facets to it: the parental angle, the race angle, the question of her self-perception, the essence of white privilege, and what 'passing' means. I almost feel like it is a fun-house mirror to America's twisted relationship with race. A true Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot moment. Let me think about it for about thirty years and get back to you."
Stephen Gillette: "Mike, let me personally apologize to TOP readers for luring (goading? I hope not!) you into the Jenner/Leibovitz end of the photography pool. But... Your post in this, a not-magazine, was thoughtful and went in directions that many readers will find helpful and certainly interesting. I did. Having done enough damage to your agenda at TOP this week, I will step back into the shadows and await other comments to your post.
"Oh, one more thing...(images of television detective 'Columbo' come to mind)...you have very economically restated and clarified the current TOP mission statement, aligning it with the path you are taking in your personal life. Something all of us should do now and then...right?"
Mike replies: Right, and if you'll notice, I got to mention Bud Lee, Annie Leibovitz, Dennis Church (I would have posted one of his pictures except he doesn't want me to), Bessel van der Kolk's great book, Rachel Dolezal, my nephew, and one of my favorite science columnists, Chet Raymo. What's not to like?
John Haines: I haven't been following this story other than noting its existence and the fact that it seems to be 'hot.' But also that, so far, I haven't noticed in the few reports I've read any reference to another sex change scandal that occurred back in 1975, that of tennis player (and ophthalmologist) Richard Raskind, who also quite late in life became notorious tennis star Renée Richards who sued the USTA for the right to play as a woman, and won. For those interested in that story, Richards has written three books about her experience, Second Serve, No Way Renée, and Spy Night and other Memories. Full disclosure (as they say): The reason for my interest in this topic is that Renée, now 80, is a friend and fellow golfer at Centennial GC and my ophthalmologist—a very good one too.