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Thursday, 01 January 2009


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If I followed your rule I'd have never met Josef Koudelka who was by far the greatest influence on my life. Always strive to meet your heros. If they disappoint, get over it!

This isn't a new phenomenon - I can think of several examples in the music and visual arts field. Look at Caravaggio - now seen as a key figure in baroque painting. He had an infamous reputation for picking fights and killing people.

"There's no correspondence between artistic accomplishment and human decency, unfortunately."

So true. I learned that when I met David Byrne.

I hope I never meet Steve Jobs.

Don't like the photos, don't like the attitude! What has he captured in the end? It's no slice of life on the street, it's a shock snap of the indignation people feel when they are confronted with a camera and flash shoved in their faces. I have nothing against spontaneous street photography but this is arrogant and aggressive. There is no decisive moment here.

Some good points here, Mike. It's difficult separating the artist from the human being. As a young teenager I was a basketball addict and my #1 hero was Magic Johnson; so much so that I had tapes full of Lakers games which I studied so I could learn from him how to be a better player.

When the news about his rocky and less-than-perfect personal life broke out, many shunned him. Even today, many years after retirement I still have arguments with friends about his value as a basketball legend. This arguments come about because they are incapable of judging Magic Johnson's basketball career independently of his personal life choices. Some people can separate, others can't.

From what I've read, this is something that happens with many talented actors. Apparently Robert DeNiro is an A**hole, yet he is a great actor.

But I agree, Mike: Don't meet your heroes. Part of the reason they are heroes to begin with is that you know nothing of their faults and, as such, they are not quite fully human in your mind.

All I know is...I'd punch him.

Never meet your heroes?

That seems to be a rather negative look at the world. I've found that meeting my heroes tends to go well. People are people, flaws and all. The problem could be more an expectation of perfection.

My hero-Ansel Adams. Went to Yosmite to meet him. He was kind and supportive. As a college-retired-photography teacher college I always remembered his kindness and support and did the same with my students.

"The lesson is to engage with the work, and take it on its own terms. Asking for virtue in addition is asking for too much."

You are right Mike, however, I keep hoping otherwise. I think in the end I would rather be disappointed by the lack of virtue in another rather than surprised by its presence.

"Generally speaking, you get the best of an artist through his or her work. The work is not just a portal to the artist, who holds even greater riches in reserve, waiting for you; the work is it, the work is the thing."
I think you would be one of many exceptions to this maxim.

Well, I have a pet theory that goes like this: "Everyone's an a**hole."

Want proof? Let's say you disagree with me; clearly, you're an a**hole for being so disagreeable. And if you agree with me, well ...

You might well say, "It would take a real a**hole to come up with a theory like that." Precisely so.

Thing is, the world would be a better place if we took this idea to heart. Think about it.

You haven't missed much. Sternfeld's overrated. WAY overrated.

Thanks for telling us that you had an issue with Joel Sternfeld. I was wondering why his nominated work didn't appear in the list. I'm sure that 10 hour wasted drive could still rankle.

But that was personal. Would you not go see a Caravaggio show because he was a thug? Would you not look at Weston's work because he was a womanizing cheater?

I'd be much happier if people weren't exposed to his work through your site because his work wasn't your cup of tea and it's YOUR list of photo books of the year than because you knew he was a jerk.

So thanks again for telling us that he was nominated and that you had an issue.

I was fortunate enough in the 1970's to work as a rock n' roll lighting designer for a few years. I ended up working for a band that, a couple years previously, I had been a fan of. It was a relatively well-known foursome with a much better known solo artist/leader, one that most readers of this blog over-40 would have heard of. Knowing your taste in music, Mike, you absolutely know this guy and the group. The keyboard player? Brilliantly talented, wonderful human being. The bass player? As talented as the keyboardist, very nice guy. The drummer? Pretty talented, kinda a jerk, but not too bad. The lead singer/grouo leader, guitar player? Amazingly talented, hands down the smartest guy I've ever met in my life, inspirational in many ways, charismatic live performer, wonderful thoughtful honest songwriter, whose talent and body of work I am still a loyal fan of, but, as a person . . . If he was in person the person he seemed to be in his songs . . . But what he projected in day-to-day life, not so much. My observation, and the point of this long-winded post, is this: when I got to know that artist, he WAS the person who 'appears' in his songs. But that hidden-away inner being he cannot 'show' in day-to-day life because he fears being hurt, used, abused, rejected. Or, he was all of those things when he was a teenager, which resulted in the years of art lost of people enjoyed. He just never learned the skills to bridge that gap, or his financial success became the excuse not to ever drop the act. This is not an excuse, but I think that many artistic people are like this, unfortunately.

Didn't HCB fall pretty much into the "prick" camp? In fact, once I learned what Henri was like on a personal level (it was probably the journal by John Malcom-Brinnin of his cross-country trip with HCB that turned the tide for me, and subsequent reports only backed up that impression), I resolved to focus on Cartier-Bresson's photos and not on the way he treated others... so I guess I agree with your basic thesis. Or maybe I agree but with one modification: "Don't meet your hero--unless you've had reliable word that he or she is a personally generous individual."

I recommend a fantastic book: _The No A**hole Rule_, (fill in the asterisks to search at Amazon) written by a Robert Sutton from Stanford. It's a series of case studies examining the impact of a**holes in the workplace, and he comes to the conclusion that even the best performing a**holes are not worth the associated overhead. He points to example after example of situations in which the overall performance of an organization is improved after removing star a**holes.

No a**hole is indispensable.

I don't think "Never meet your heroes" is a good mantra in photography. I started taking pictures when I came to NY in 2002, not knowing anybody in the photography world. After going to lectures, book signings, parties, etc. I cannot say that I know them, but at least I have a glance of a few extraordinary photographers and how they interact with their audience. Elliott Erwitt, Duane Michals and James Natchwey come to mind. A photograph is more that what you see, is their maker as well as their context.


Really, you can not tell if this fellow is an a-hole by watching the vid or by seeing his photos. He's trying to convey the stress, uniqueness and fire of New York City and I think does a better job than a million timid monkeys with Leicas will ever do. New York is not Minneapolis( where I live) or LA, or Dallas, or Miami. In the vid he laments the dying individuality of the folks of the city he loves and I bet that in 30yrs many of his pix will be seen as a wonderful time capsule of when NYC looked like NYC instead of Kansas City, or anywhere else. The brash, in your face honesty of his interactions with the folks he ambushes are as much a part of the culture he grew up in as the Scandinavian "Minnesota Nice" I grew up with. I suspect he's a pretty good guy, will tell you like he sees it and won't put up with any crap, like a New Yorker. If I tried this stuff in MPLS I would be beaten or in jail inside of half an hour. Different environment.

"So thanks again for telling us that he was nominated and that you had an issue."

Not to nitpick, but it's not one of the nominees. I haven't seen it.

Mike J.

Perhaps the lesson here is to choose as heroes those who are first great people and secondarily possessing talent you admire.

As to the whole Gilden thing, I like his work. It's different and distinctive, something hard to achieve in the me-too world of today.

I think the context matters too. Many people would say Mr. Gilden's personality fits with the place he grew up and currently lives in. There are alot of people in that part of the country who are very similar to him in character. In the mid-west he would be seen in a very different light and would probably not be successful. He is the man of his environment.

This question of "good art, bad artist" has been with us a long time. A few quotations, apropos:

Oscar Wilde: "The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose."

Edgar Degas: "A painting is a thing which requires as much cunning, rascality and viciousness as the perpetration of a crime."

Jacques Maritain: "Art by itself tends to the good of the work, not to the good of man. The first responsibility of the artist is toward his work." (from "Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry")

I have met Bruce Gilden on a sidewalk in the middle of the scrum in NYC. We spoke for at least 15 -20 minutes and I must say he was very pleasant. Now I know a**holes when I meet them, and I would say that he is not one.

Saying that you'd punch him is more than a bit extreme, I'd say. He is all about the work that he is doing and believes in to his core. What he does hurts no one beyond the surprise he gives them.

Yes, perhaps he exaggerates what it is that draws him to the people he photographs, but where is the dishonesty in that? Don't we all do that when we make those we love more attractive by doing a bit of photoshop? Didn't dear Ansel exaggerate what he photographed by adding those filters to make it all seem so grand?

I don't think it's fair to so personally attack a man because you don't agree with his work or approach. Especially when you haven't met him, he is really quite polite on a one to one basis. Maybe I just have a way with people, or maybe I just take people for what they present to me. But trust me, I'm not here to apologize for Gilden. I respect much of what he's done, but I'm not a nut for him, and I even find some of his work to be a bit over the top.

I do think it is important to separate the artist from the art, and leave it at that. Unless of course you have had a personal experience like MJ did with Sternfield, then it's just not possible to give yourself enough distance to be objective.

What Brian said is also very appropriate, we are all products of our environment. Some people embrace who they are and where they come from, while others spend their lives trying to be different. Both approaches have given us fine people and fine art, and whatever the opposite of that is. Take it for what it is.

There was a discussion about Bruce over on Photo.net a while back and one poster says he knows Bruce and assures us he's a nice guy. For what it's worth.

I've met quite a few of my heroes, mostly ones from the realms of sports and music, and most all have been extremely accommodating and gracious. The few that I've met that were complete assholes quickly fell out of my favor and I pretty much forgot about them.

It's nice to be able to tell someone thank you for inspiring you with what they do.

I'm with Mike on this one. I don't pursue my heroes, ever. If I happen to meet one of them it's always by chance. So for it's worked out fine as far as the a-hole thing goes...none yet.

The work is enough for me. Matter fact, if the work is so good that I'm making heroes out of the creators, it's always a let down when I find the stuff was done by a mortal. OK?

Besides, I figure if I'm making heroes out of these folks then others are too, and, among that group of "others" are people looking to make contact with those heroes.

I can only imagine that, for the heroes involved, it becomes a pain in the ass to accomodate those folks and have to listen to the same old crap..compliments, saucy words, questions about the "choices" they made. Personal policy here...don't burst your own bubbles if you're enjoying them.

I agree with the featured comment - as**holes cause more harm than good.

My take - (in general), heroes do not necessarily have a great deal of charm or conversational skills to enjoy a meeting with. Its the work that we admire. So I prefer leaving it that way.

Thanks Mike for the post. It made me smile and light up my Friday morning at work.

Thinking a bit more about the way Bruce G. works,I had the thought that this was as if there was a little boy with his first new camera roll-playing being a grown up 'Artist.' Inspired to poking holes into the adult mystic that threatens little boys. Recording catching them off guard to his mischevious, innocent-like stare.

Well, when I read Mike's initial post I instantly agreed. Many of my artistic heroes have not stood up to biographical scrutiny. Then I started reading the responses and I realized that sometimes it is worth learning about one's heroes. Like so much else in life, black and white rules are hard to apply.

It was disappointing to learn how my literary hero, James Joyce, had his wife Nora send him her dirty underwear in Paris, which he liked to smell; it was disappointing when another literary hero, Gilbert Sorrentino, could manage only a very terse response to an (unsolicited) request for literary encouragement; or how brusquely Chick Corea brushed off a brief verbal thanks for providing musical pleasure.

But as noted by others, many artists are equally charming and encouraging. Most recently I learned what a splendid fellow the recently suicided David Foster Wallace was supposed to have been to all and sundry.

At the end of the day, artists are just people, like the rest of us, some nice, some not. I tend not to dig too deeply into their personal lives and I shun biographies. But I think reaching out to connect, where appropriate, is always worth the effort even where it is not immediately rewarded.


I'm pretty cocky, I have an inner city mentality. Brought up in poor and tough industrial area, only the industry has long since died. Crime, boxing and football were and still are the way out. I tried a couple of them, I never did try football. I do think my history makes me shoot a certain way. But I won't pretend for a moment that it makes my photographs any good or that you need to know my history to get any value from my photographs.

"If pictures cannot be understood without knowing the details of the artists private life, then that is the reason for faulting them; major art can stand independent of its maker."

Robert Adams.

But I must admit that when I found out about Weegee's history it did make me love his photographs even more.

I hear Robert De Nero is quite shy.

I met a couple once who were on a round-the-world ticket. They were both psychiatric nurses taking the year off to shake the job out of the systems. He was very difficult and if there is a way to get on with people, he knew how not to do it.
The place I was staying at had a communal kitchen and I was there about mid-day when he came back from the town. He had not bought his guitar with him on his trip and he missed it, so he had gone out an bought one. And he played 'My Funny Valentine' in as poignant a way as you can imagine.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that Gilden is an a-hole --hell, I even admire some of the results he gets.

The problem I have with his style is that it's not very people friendly.

These days, people are in general a bit leery of having their photo taken because most have seen shots that are somewhat mis-representative, or have been taken out of context: "Hey, look at that goofy expression on his face!" etc., etc.

I'll guess that a LOT of the folks that Gilden has shot in his 'in your face' style would not like the results.

Is he good at what he does? Absolutely!
Is what he's doing illegal? No.
Is what he's doing morally wrong? Maybe yes, maybe no.

What he is doing, is pushing people further away from photographers. Next time, they'll be a lot more careful about avoiding someone with a camera slung around their neck, unless, of course, they find that their portrait is hanging on the wall of the MoMA!

I agree with you 100% on your observation to never meet your heroes. The times I did I wish I hadn't.

I've decided I'll not look you up next time I'm in SE Wisconsin, Mike. It can only lead to heartbreak.

Alternatively, I can expect the worst and be surprised at anything better. Perhaps pessimists are really optimists in disguise, they're just tired of disappointment.

I'd have been tempted to confront Sternfeld, since you knew where he was. Well, maybe "confront" is too agressive a word. Rather, let's say, track him down and ask politely whether he lost track of time. Could it be this simple? Doesn't sound like it. Nothing more helpful than advice decades late on a situation I have little knowledge of, eh?

"People are people, flaws and all. The problem could be more an expectation of perfection."

Exactly my experience. People tend to believe they understand and can relate to artists whose work they have strong reactions to, positive or negative. That's a fantasy, and it reveals more about the listener/viewer/fan than the artist. The a**hole part happens when the artist doesn't measure up to the fantasy. The reverse can be true as well - nice artists sometimes just have better image control. The truth is you can't judge the artist by the art, just judge the art.

Most of my heroes are already dead anyway. Anyhow, Gilden seems just fine. Although he claims he has no ethics, what he does is more ethical than stalking people with a telephoto. I wouldn't punch him. If I wanted to ruin his photo I'd smile or wave at the camera.

Has anyone here actually met Bruce Gilden? I have seen several documentaries about him & feel that he is actually a very pleasant & funny person with a wonderful NY sense of humour. One documentary has a touching scene of him & his daughter walking around Coney Island. His warmth of feeling towards his daughter was very real. He is passionate about his work & shows a piece of the human condition that is not always beautiful. Check out his Magnum In Motion essay about foreclosures if you don't think he cares about people.

You ask if it's possible to be both an a**hole and a genius, but that's like asking if you can be left-handed and tall. One has nothing to do with the other; they're entirely different dimensions.

In the case of Bruce Gilden, I think he's neither. Sure, he's a loud-mouth New Yawker type, but that doesn't necessarily make him an a**hole. Mind you, the way he gets in people's faces is pretty a**holish, but I don't think he crosses the line because he's quick and he's not aggressive about it.

As for his talent, he definitely has a knack for a certain kind of image, which he does really well. It's a bit of a schtick at this point, but still, some of the images are brilliant. But I think it's a stretch to call it "genius."

The most visible a holes are seen in the National Football League. Terrell Owens immediately comes to mind but he is certainly not alone. These guys are most definitely talented but they destroy their workplace (locker rooms) and the lack of success for the Cowboys this year shows the impact of having a team (in their case I use this word carefully) filled with superstars (a holes) with terrible attitudes. Trying to get these guys to mesh as a cohesive unit is not a task I would enjoy, no matter how much money a coach is paid.

My late chemical engineering professor, mentor, and friend once enlightened me regarding assholes with this story:

All the parts of the body were having a meeting to determine which should be the boss. The brain, who controlled all logic and thinking, put his name in for the job. The heart, which controlled circulation, and the lungs, which controlled breathing all put in their names. Other body parts also did. Then the asshole said that he should be the brain. All the other body parts laughed, and in a fit of rage, the asshole shut down.

In a few days, the brain could hardly think. The heart was skipping beats. The lungs were scarcely able to catch a breath. Other body parts had similar issues. So they got together again and the brain, spokesperson for the organs, gave in to the asshole. Proving once again that you don't have to be a brain to be the boss, just an asshole.

God, I miss Bob!

I remember one photographer who I'd see regularly on NYC streets, motorized Nikon in one hand, Leica in the other- sporting a leather, Italian racing glove. Major A**hole Deluxe. Then I saw his prints in a gallery one day- and no doubt as to the a**hole who rushed to judgement. I would've worn stilettos to get his results.

Speaking of major A**holes- reminds me of the time my friend met Billy Martin. Nicest guy you could ever meet, until... Seems there always was an "until" with Billy.

Interesting discussion.
The existence of extremely talented/creative individuals with poor people skills :)is not limited to photography and the other arts.
You find this in all areas of human endeavor.
You meet some really nice and creative folks, and some not nice ones.

For instance, the famous biologist E. O. Wilson is, i guess is one of my heroes. I have never met him, but do know those who have. They all say, and the general word-of mouth is, that despite having a brain the size of a planet, is one of the warmest, quiet, humble people they have ever met.

His run in with his also uber-famous late colleague S.J. Gould in the 1970's is now the stuff of legend, and the late Mr. Gould, also brilliant, had a rep of being an unpleasant fellow.
Well i did met Gould. Yep, also brilliant and creative. But he was not a pleasant man.


Interesting, because when I was thinking of genius a**holes, Gould was the first name that popped into my head.

On the flip side: there are also many who mistake a**holery for genius. One fellow I had the misfortune of working with was moderately smart, but had the skill of being able to obfuscate his ideas in such a way as to sound much more profound than they really were. Top that off with a total inability to interact with human beings, and you had a lot of people who concluded that he had to be a genius.

I didn't last long, working with him. The first time I took one of his profundities and rendered it into jargon-free English, boiling three pages down to a paragraph and a diagram, he stopped talking to me. Since he was the company's star a**hole, being on the outs with him meant that there was no way to do my job. On the plus side, he helped dig the company into a pit which has pretty much ruined the professional reputation of anybody who worked there for more than a year.

Ahh, Schadenfreude.

Is this hero worship or just reverence?

KJ tells us ""Here's the deal when it comes to privacy and the butterflies and ALL of the issues involved with the shooting of strangers"

He knows it all!

KJ can of course think what he wants about Bruce et al.

However when he thinks he knows everything, he needs to know that that is only his opinion.

Just because you have a camera and people know what a camera is doesn't make the taking of a photo OK.

KJ says Bruce's approach works "just fine for him". I thought what we were discussing was how it worked for his subjects!

As for the thought that "people who live in grass huts " can't stand up for themselves. That at least seems to acknowledge that they might have something to be annoyed about.

Quite what a poor person would make of a "rich" foreigner bumming a smoke off him I can guess. I think its quite funny, such unawareness.

As for ""Something like: I couldn't do that myself, so how dare you violate the privacy of these poor helpless souls?" So what is it that we couldn't do ourselves? Press a button? Be disrespectful? Photograph strangers? My thought was that I wouldn't take a photo when I was clearly not welcome (especially as the photo was not newsworthy etc.)

I totally agree with speaking to people first. What happens sometimes is that I speak to people on a street and just hang around making myself very obvious and my intent very obvious. What happens is usually that people forget about you (assuming they don't mind your presence) and you can photograph at your ease. It has been the case that people discuss me and it is usually someone who I spoke to repeats to another what i told them. (hes here for x weeks, hes from Ireland......).

In Paris I tried the above in Belleville and it didn't work but one of the guys explained that some people didn't want to be photographed working (we didn't discuss why) so I just moved on after a handshake.

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