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Tuesday, 16 June 2015


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It used to be that things like this were private and the business of no one else, now in headlong pursuit of fame anything goes. I despise stories like this that are self promoting, there are better stories out there.


Does anyone but Jenner know what the true motivation was for his/her circus transformation? It was rather fitting that Leibovitz was tagged to be the photographer. Just added one more ring under the big top of media craziness.

I feel for Rachel Dolezal. Her life has guided her in the direction she took, or maybe it was the other way around. Dolezal by all accounts she was a tireless defender of human rights and racial equality. Kudos to her. In this day and age it baffles me why we even include the identification of race on any government or business application documents. Documents pertaining to medical situations might be a necessary exception.

Getting back to photography, about the only thing we can discuss with respect to the Jenner photograph is the massive amount of Photoshopping that was done. Beyond that it's a pretty standard average quality image that any number of your readers could have done.

"And that's all I'll have to say about that." At 1,142 words I'd say that's far more than I'd ever have to say about it, Mike. It's a subject that certainly needs no further publicity.

It helps to have an impressive physique in the first place - I would imagine.

It's your blog. If I wanted to read about some image that's "trending" on Twitter, I can always turn to HuffPost, etc.

Hi Mike. 1)you are right its your blog and you don't have to explain yourself but it is usually interesting when you do. 2) Less Caitlin (and Liebowitz) and more Ctein.


You should certainly be writing about the new Leica, Canon 5DS tests that are popping up all over the internet, rumored new Tesla model and of course about this year's Oskar Barnack Award winner!

Mike: Some random observations about some difficult subjects. There are photographers like Mary Ellen Mark with whom I feel like I know more about their subjects after viewing her pictures. I don't know whether I actually do or not, but I _feel_ like I do, if that makes any sense. In general, with Leibovitz I generally feel the opposite: like I am looking at a self portrait -- that her pictures tell me more about her than her subjects. I don't know where your difficulties with Leibovitz arise, but that is where I am. This is unkind, but I tend to feel like she is not as interesting as she thinks she is. Having said all this, I see your point about the Caitlyn image (which is almost the opposite observation as what I just wrote).

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 US 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. This is precisely because of the ironic nature of the story that you cite above. It is like media catnip. But it is also going to be gone in a moment and then Caitlyn can live her life in peace if she chooses. If the whole thing disappears without a trace, I wouldn't be a bit surprised. I guess we will see.

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.

Mike, that was one of the most relevant defenses of the rights, joys, reasons for being a blogger. Thank you. It is one of the reasons that you are my first point-of-call each morning down here in Australia.
As a burnt out old advertising photographer with a large archive of old photographs to play with, I get to put up my choice and make a few observations as and when I please; but I also tend to notice the more focused journalistic dedication that you bring to your craft with some envy.
Stick to your gut feeling, it has a potent validity.

There's nothing remarkable about this photo in terms of lighting, pose, styling etc. What is of interest is the editor's decision to put it on the cover and that had nothing with Annie Leibovitz.

To summarize: the world doesn't need more straight, white men passing opinions (judgement) on the disenfranchised. I applaud your recognizance that just because you can voice on opinion doesn't mean you should Mike.

Let's leave the opinions to those impacted by the subject, theirs is the story that needs to be heard.

I remember that I sent a link to the initial story on this because I found the photography interesting. It did not bother me that you chose not to follow up - that's your decision as the owner of the blog. I personally still appreciate Leibovitz but can understand you not doing so - there have been occasions where you've promoted someone who I find makes me scratch my head. That's 90% of the joy of this place in a nutshell - the other 10% being the moments that take cliche's an own them for the joys they are :D

I don't think you could have shot a portrait that would have "served just as well," because I don't think you have that kind of mind, and you can't just go around inventing a new mind. You would have done something sensitive and serious and maybe a bit dark. Leibovitz (and quite rightly, IMHO) shot a clown photo, designed to titillate and outrage, to sell a million extra Vanity Fairs. She went straight for the superficial glitz, and she got it: I think it's a wonderful shot, maybe the best she's ever done. I mean like, man, the circus has definitely come to town.

Bravo. Well written and well thought. But I do wonder what lens Annie Leibovitz used.... (kidding, just kidding!).

It used to be that things like this were private and the business of no one else Well -- in 1952, Christine Jorgensen became briefly famous because of her sex change, whereas today Caitlyn Jenner is news only because she was already something of a celebrity. So if anything it seems to me we're moving towards the situation described in that quote, not away from it.

I'll be ordering a copy of the van der Kolk book.

Nice retort. This is the kind of nuanced writing that reafirms why I keep checking back.

Wow, Dennis Church is really good. Thanks for the link. (It's rare to see a really good photographer who works with the color as well as he does with the compositions and the subject.) A pity he did not want you to put up one of his pictures. I am much puzzled by people who say no to free, positive publicity.

I also want to come in strongly on the side of re-evaluating one's purpose. I may be wilfully misunderstanding a bit here, because I mean in the personal site. I think it's essential for one's path (spiritual in the broadest sense of the word) to once in a while climb to the highest mast the ship has, and ask "where exactly am I going? And why again?"

[Maybe I shouldn't have said "he didn't want me to"--that makes it too active. But I don't publish pictures with copyright notices right on them. --Mike]

So, let me ask you something, Mike:

If someone with my skin pigmentation, an approximate match of Don Cheadle's, decided to self-identify as White, and if the person seemed sincere about it, would you accept him as White? Or would you think that this person's link to reality had become...unmoored?

I just love, which is to say that I don't love, how people with parentage that isn't comprised of two Black people just get to choose a Black self-identity, but people who aren't phenotypically Caucasian would never be able to get others to join in the delusion that they are White.

When I point out that the current US President is Bi-Racial, someone, always feels the need to inform me that "He self-identifies as Black." Imagine if he were to self-identify as "White." Would the world agree? Would you? If it's just a matter of choosing any racial identity one wants, then why isn't it an option for people to choose "White"? White occupies an inviolate space in reality: one either is, or is not; the best one who is not can do is to "pass" for it. And if one doesn't appear to be White, one just isn't--self-identification be damned.

Black, on the other hand is a designation of so little value that inclusion requires neither meeting some minimum phenotypical standard, nor even having Black parentage. Someone merely wanting to be Black is enough for some people to assert that the "Black community" (whatever that is) should "embrace" her.

As long as humans continue to assign importance on what should be meaningless phenotypical distinctions, I won't see Blackness any less a fixed reality than is Whiteness; as long as Whiteness is defined by having White parents and looking White, then I don't see why a lower standard should be applied to identifications of Blackness.

On the day that Barack Obama, or Don Cheadle for that matter, can declare themselves as White and be "embraced" by [their fellow] White people, I'll accept that a blue-eyed Caucasian woman with a suntan and curled hair is Black woman. Not before.


[I don't really know anything about Rachel Dolezal. just think we should all stop paying so much attention to these separations. There are much more important things about people than what percentage of their parentage is what. Hate makes the world go 'round, and I gotta say I hate that. I hope my son lives in a nation where he will not be judged by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. (With apologies to MLK.) --Mike]

Dolezal seems more opportunist than anthing- she sued Howard University for discrimination when 'still' White, and later sent herself 'hate' mail when 'Black.' We all got our personal problems, but why ride them on the backs of others? Unlike Jenner, intead of attempting to reslove hers, she compounded them- Bigtime!

About Caitlyn Jenner: I'll never know how it feels to be a woman trapped in a man's body - or the opposite -, so I don't allow myself to make judgments. I'm glad people can do something about it if they don't feel happy inside the body they're wrapped in. Others are not so fortunate.
About Annie Leibowitz's portrait: I concur with most of what Benjamin Marks commented above. Normally I love to hate Annie Leibowitz, yet this portrait is so full of subtleties - the reflections, the hands behind the back, the clothes... if we take some time and look a little deeper into it, we'll find it's a truly masterful portrait. (I hate to have to recognize it...)

We have been on the road ala "Travels with Charlie" photographically and I have been unable to touch down with TOP as I am able to do daily.
I finally get online and here Mike you have touched upon the self agrandizing, "200 photographs of Coke Bottles" Liebovitz.
It seems apropos that she would record Jenner and probably auction the photos for a new Greenwich Village studio...and there are such great photographers out there, too.
Mi dos pesos.

Any body can take a photograph; deciding which photograph to take and
present is the important decision.

You covered a very large range here. Kudos.
As far as Rachel Dolezal is concerned (and her "case" is complex) two things come to mind.
1. People don't like being deceived and in an age of deceit everyone's mighty touchy and may exaggerate this when a more vulnerable person/institution is unmasked. That's rather intellectual & a bit too pat.
2. She claimed for herself a legacy, unearned; a family history that didn't exist & whose consequences were never borne. She does not have the burden of a legacy of slavery nor its consequences nor its motivations.
I'll bring this back to photography by highlighting that legacy that existed in our own lifetime as depicted by Gordon Parks in the book Segregation Story. That was real. Parks makes a more tangible reminder with these pictures (and also, incidentally, adds to the history of color photography). Kudos to Steidl for making that available to us, in The Land of the Free.

The most impressive thing about the cover to me is that Vanity Fair broke from the current mode of magazines posting half a dozen clickbait blurbs surrounding an ordinary 3/4 portrait. I haven't been buying or subscribing to print magazines for several years now but when I take a moment to browse the covers of a display rack I find they are disheartening and ordinary. All the photos are "good" but few if any are great, and most of them are confused and smeared with busy mini-headlines and blurbs. And the award winners like "Outside" and "Wired" are the worst offenders!

If you look at the A Photo Editor website you'll see the homogenization of commercial photography presented as an aspirational goal for young photographers. They are all pretty good photos that all blend together very well... I don't have any idea how a photographer gets chosen by their merits anymore, I think it is all about have good basic technique and schmoozing, schmoozing, and boozing.

I think Annie Leibovitz was a wonderful journalistic photographer back when she covered news for the Rolling Stone and toured with the Rolling Stones themselves. Once she went the studio - strobe -assistant route towards fame and fortune... not so much, if ever.

And as for transgenders, I used to photograph drag queens. More power to them but I don't know why it is even news. It's really none of our business.

where's the LIKE button......?

Many thanks for making my animus towards Lebowitz at least a reasonable thought. For this I applaud you and continue to have you on the top of my browser menu - your column is JUST that important.

You are a good man, Mike. I wouldn't have touched any of that with a ten foot pole.

Dear folks,

Some observations on privacy and “private business” both in the specific and in the general. We will start with the specific.

Whether or not it would be a good idea or desirable, this couldn't happen “in private.” That was simply impossible. Caitlyn has been a celebrity and a “figure of public interest” ever since the Olympics. Under US law, she has only the most minimal right to privacy. Furthermore, the general public, everywhere, just loves to know what celebrities are doing. There is no conceivable way she could do this privately. Not unless she went to permanent seclusion.

Consequently, there are only two choices available to her, and she knows this because she's known how the star-maker machinery works for four decades. If she tries to make it a private matter it will be ferreted out by others, who will dig for information, dish, and if all else fails simply make shit up so that they can write about it. There will be massive publicity about her transition, but it will be driven primarily by ignorance and will be entirely out of her control.

The other choice, and the correct one, is to act preemptively-- take control of the publicity machinery and direct it the way you want it to go.

There is no door number three. Not in her situation.

John and Mike, I disagree with you on this photo. First, this is a great cover photo for the purpose for which it's intended (which does not make it an interesting photograph, per se) and, second, Mike couldn't make this kind of photo. It's a modern glamour shot. I suspect I dislike modern glamour sensibilities as much as you guys. It's not about us. Trans-folk, just like gays and lesbians, are subject to stereotypes, by and large unflattering, about their physical appearance and mannerisms. Celebrities are judged on their looks. Men to some degree, but women? Nearly entirely. If Caitlyn is going to continue to operate successfully in the celebrity universe, and that is her milieu, she has to look fabulous. By those celebrity glamour standards, for better or for worse.

That's what Leibovitz did. Now, unlike Mike, I'm a pretty big Leibovitz fan, both the artist and the artwork. This isn't anywhere close to a great Annie photograph. It may end up having historical significance in her portfolio, but it's not her most impressive work. But for the job it sets out to do, it does it just fine. Better than fine. I've caught some of the media commentary on the cover, because I was unable to avoid it (TVs and radios not under my control, that sort of thing) and by far the overwhelming sentiment was some variant of “OMG, she's *hot*!”

Bingo! Perfect!

Now I have a few words to say about the “private business” in general. It doesn't work. Not for those of us in the LGBT community who have been told this is how we're supposed to act. Before “don't ask, don't tell,” there was “don't flaunt it” and before that there was “stay in the closet and keep your mouth shut and your head down.” None of them served us well. What they did was get us shunned, ostracized, beaten up, jailed, and killed. That forced us to live in ongoing fear of being outed, because the consequences of that could be any of those things.

We are not going back to that. It doesn't make us safer, it doesn't make us more accepted by the society at large. What does both of those things is having our existence acknowledged, and that means more than just “yeah, yeah, I know you're here, now shut up.” That's what has worked and it continues to work.

Someday, in some utopian future, people really, honestly won't care about any of this stuff. I'll be thrilled by that. But we are not there, not even close.

If that makes some non-LGBT folk uncomfortable, well that's too bad for them, but really, this isn't about them. They're not the ones whose lives are put in pain and jeopardy by a policies of silence.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

+1 for your Annie L. statement. I used to like the "idea" of her back in the day, but since I started looking at work in detail in the late 80's there doesn't seem to be much there. It's like the nicest image of the public relations image of her subjects. I always call her the Philippe Halsman of her day, which really isn't a slam, but she's not going to be the Irving Penn of her day either.

As for the Dolezal thing, the minute I heard about it, all I could think about was Lou Reed singing: "I wanna be black, don't wanna be a white f**ked up college student no more." Is the world regressing? Or is it that we just know we won't be taken at face value or judged on what we can do? Read in the Chicago Trib recently that about 25% of people over the age of 55 are unemployed, can't get jobs, and will probably not be employed for the rest of their lives. In addition, people are applying for early social security in record numbers. I know race isn't the same as lying about your age on a resume, but it's everyone for themselves to try and stay employed and do something they're good at, and her work was far more important to the community than mine is.

Jenner? I might feel I need to know about it based on his place in athletic history, but does he need a glam cover on Vanity Fair...no. Having worked in the photo area of the fashion industry for years, I can tell you there's a real child-like understanding of a lot of stuff, like all those models organizations against breast cancer and the like. These aren't the greatest thinkers in the world, and I can tell you after a couple of years, the stuff you find yourself saying and parroting, well, you have to take a step back and realize you haven't spent time with adults in a while. I'm sure this seemed like the "right thing to do" to those who are involved in those areas. This type of story I don't need to know in detail....

Re Caitlyn (although legally her name is still Bruce) Jenner and Rachel Dolezal:
Welcome to America 2015, reality optional.

Like water off the proverbial duck's back, all things associated with the Jenner/Kardashian clan, Annie Leibovitz and the many shapes and levels of dishonesty are culturally repellent for me. Of course, I am in the minority. As usual.

Having a good friend who also happens to be a very talented photographer "come out" as transgender only days before the Vanity Fair Cover of Caitlyn Jenner got published, I had pretty much processed the whole transgender subject and come to accepting terms with it already.

So, I was more interested as an amateur (enthusiast?) photographer with all the videos watching Annie and her entourage on the day of the shoot. Here she was working with an uber expensive MF digital (Hasselblad, I think) and probably being paid more in a day than most photographers make in a year. But then the result of that cover shot turns out to be a photo of Caitlyn with skin so retouched as to resemble plasticized Pixar "Toy Story" type animation and a background so heavily photoshopped to death that I couldn't help wonder why a more pedestrian 24MP dSLR wouldn't have sufficed for that shoot?

Thank you, Mike. Your commentary was articulate, measured, and astute.


I haven't read the van der Kolk book but if you are interested in the mindfulness and meditation aspects of it, there are books by Rick Hanson such as Buddha's Brain and Hardwiring Happiness. These books discuss how meditation can change neural structure to make you happier. Now, if I could just follow my own advice!

You call Dolezal sincere? Crikey, I'd say the opposite. Would you be happy to date a woman who failed to tell you they were a bloke?

When all is said and done, the emperor still has no clothes.

"..enough locally significant photographers to start bandying generalizations about."

But you have no compunction with "bandying" my name about - as a matter of fact 121 times in the last ten years. I've copyrighted the name, and my solicitors, Sue, Grabbitt & Runne will be in touch in the morning.

Bruce Jenner had his fifteen minuets of fame as an Olympic athlete. Then he hooked on to the Kardashian Klan for a few more minuets. Now Caitlyn is trying for a another 15 minuets. More power to her. Not many people could pull of this Trifecta.

Bo Jackson got more than his allotted fifteen minuets because he was the only athlete to be named an All-Star in two major American sports. He also gained a few minuets from his "Bo knows" Nike commercials. Maybe it's time for a "Bo Knows Caitlyn" Nike spot 8-)

Many magazine covers have a certain look. Terry Richardson and Mark Seliger can deliver this look. So can Annie Leibovitz. Your three year old can't.

I almost met Annie Leibovitz. We were doing interviews for a TV News Magazine. The first interview was with Douglas Kirkland--one of the nicest people you will ever meet. The next was the Leibovitz interview that never happened. When we arrived at the photo studio, she and our producer were having a loud conversation in a back room. About the time we got the lighting roughed-in the producer came over and told us to pack-up. There would be no interview.

I applaud and fully support Caitlyn. That being said, you had no obligation to cover this on TOP. I'm glad you did though because now I can make a photo-related comment and say that this is a very mediocre photograph and imho the best work of Annie's can be found in her book "American Music."

Forget that- I'm trying to find where you wrote about the Stanley cup final. You did write write that, didn't you? :-)

Annie Leibovitz has borrowed the Irving Penn technique of using the tight corner, walled in space for shooting celebraties, A continuum of sorts for the puzzle that is fame and the American fascination with "The Other". Who can forget Truman Capote squirming around in Penn's corner. Master strokes by both artists. Brava!

I think it's easy to forget that the vast majority of professional photography falls into the category of artisanship and not art, and this is true of many famous photographers.

Annie Leibowitz is a consummate craftswoman in a ruthless commercial market. Technically she is unimpeachable but I think we should judge her work, and that of most advertising, portrait, fashion and other such photographers, for its success within its intended market, its ability to fill a brief.

That's not to say such images are free of artistic merit, any more than a well designed piece of furniture can't be sculptural and beautiful. Aesthetics are an essential part of the appeal, but it should primarily be assessed on its comfort.

There is a clear difference of intent. Art is something that directly links the artist with the viewer, unfiltered by any voyeuristic social commentary brief from the art editor of Vanity Fair, or any practical considerations of design, construction and usability. It's as much about what the artist chooses to say as about how they say it.

I might add that I don't find AL's work for Vanity Fair in the least bit interesting either, but I am not the target audience. On the other hand, I greatly appreciate the efforts of some car designers, particularly Ian Cullum (Aston DB7). Typical male stereotype, in other words ;-)

Gotta agree with XM... It's a strong argument that gets to the heart of the matter about whiteness and racial identification. Well said.

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