Binge-Worthy #7: The Learning Tree (Gordon Parks, 1969)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

“I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, and poverty.” –Gordon Parks

An award-winning photojournalist with an unwavering commitment to social justice, Gordon Parks made history in the 1940s when he became the first Black staff photographer for Life Magazine.

In 1969, when he adapted his semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel The Learning Tree for the screen, he broke another barrier: At age 56, Parks became the first Black man to direct a major Hollywood studio film. In addition to directing and producing, Parks wrote the screenplay and also composed the film’s lush symphonic score.

Long overlooked, The Learning Tree has been on my list of films to write about since I began this series, so it’s impeccable timing that the film was just reissued by the Criterion Collection. The Learning Tree is a major motion picture with an independent spirit that explores complex social and racial issues in ways that continue to resonate. In a profile of Parks, Roger Ebert described the film as “a deep and humanistic portrait of growing up black in America.” It’s also a gorgeously photographed and carefully reconstructed period piece that provides a window of insight into 1920s America.

There are, in fact, two young Black men at the heart of the film: Newt Winger (Kyle Johnson), Gordon Parks’s alter ego, and Marcus Savage (Alex Clarke), Newt’s rival. After an early altercation with a local farmer, the two find themselves heading down different life paths. During the first half of the film, Parks cuts back and forth between their two storylines, comparing and contrasting their experiences.

Newt’s parents and extended family are determined to raise him with the right values, and to provide for him as best they can. He experiences first love, and his courtship of the new girl in town, Arcella (Mira Waters), unfolds like a wondrous romance, with long walks, long stares, a picnic in the park, and a magical snowfall on Christmas eve.

Marcus, who fails on his attempt to escape from a juvenile detention facility that same Christmas eve and is brought back shivering with cold, experiences the world much differently. He understands, both viscerally and intellectually, the ways that his race and lack of social status will help determine his fate. He also recognizes the ways in which adult authority figures uphold and abuse this power dynamic. A wonderful, empathetic performance by Clarke provides a window into Marcus’s anger.

Late in the movie, an incident occurs that threatens the delicate social fabric of the town and inadvertently reunites the two of them. Ultimately, Newt must decide whether to stand up for justice when doing so may result in a much greater injustice that will bring pain and suffering to the Black community.

Parks grew up in Fort Scott, Kansas, and he returned there to film the movie, revisiting many of the locations where he spent his childhood. Lensed by Burnett Guffey, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer, The Learning Tree has the look and feel of a classic Hollywood film. Yet, for the most part, its style is naturalistic. And although it’s tinged with nostalgia, it’s also imbued with clear-eyed social commentary. As Hank Willis Thomas points out in one of the excellent features included on the Criterion reissue, many of the themes, such as institutionalized racism, continue to be highly relevant.

The Learning Tree marked a late-career shift from photography to filmmaking for Gordon Parks. Two years later, he captured the Zeitgeist with Shaft, one of the earliest and best-known Blaxploitation movies. A sequel, Shaft’s Big Score!, followed, along with several other features. In the 1980s, he helmed the excellent made-for-television film Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey for the PBS series “American Playhouse.”

Still, for me, The Learning Tree remains the place to start exploring Parks’s filmography. It’s so fully and assuredly realized that it’s easy to forget it’s his directorial debut. The Criterion release includes several features that give insight into the making of the movie. Even more crucially, it also preserves two short documentary films that Parks made around the same time.

The first, “Diary of a Harlem Family,” features a montage of still images from Parks’s 1968 Life Magazine story profiling the Fontanelle family. Parks narrates, and his words illuminate the social issues that they struggle with clearly and poetically. While working on the article, Parks embedded himself with the family, gaining their trust, their friendship, and their genuine collaboration.

The title of his second documentary, “The World of Piri Thomas,” greatly undersells this intense, profound, emotionally devastating, and unflinchingly honest work. Much more than a profile of the famous Nuyorican poet, it gives an insider’s view into daily life in Spanish Harlem. Once again, it showcases Parks’s ability to get close to his subjects, collaborate with them in a genuine and meaningful way, and capture intimate moments off-limits to most outsiders.

“The World of Piri Thomas” is as raw and gritty as The Learning Tree is stately and elegant. Thomas reads excerpts from his work in voice-over, as Parks documents life on the streets and in the housing projects of Spanish Harlem with a 16mm film camera.

Thomas’s dramatic reenactment of his attempt to kick his heroin addiction cold turkey (thankfully successful), combined with long takes of actual heroin addicts shooting up, is truly painful to watch—but vital to witness. The intense, visceral quality of the images on the screen matches that of Thomas’s language.

The films of Gordon Parks shed insight into the challenges and roadblocks embedded in American society. They also add a great deal to the legacy of one of the most important photographers of the 20th Century.

The Learning Tree (directed by Gordon Parks). 35mm film (color), 107 min., 1969.

Book Review: i saw the air fly by Sirkhane Darkroom

Over a decade of brutal civil war in Syria has created a dire humanitarian crisis. The conflict has displaced approximately two-thirds of the population. Of the almost 7 million refugees who have fled Syria, more than 5 ½ million are sheltering just across the border in Southeast Turkey, with minimal access to education, health care, and other resources. As is always the case, young people are especially vulnerable. Those coming of age during this time are at risk of becoming a lost generation.

Published in 2021, i saw the air fly provides an intimate glimpse into the daily lives of some of these young people, from their point of view. Defying expectations, it’s a collective portrait of resilience and joy, wonder and curiosity.

The book compiles over 100 black-and-white photographs that showcase the work of the Sirkhane Darkroom, a photography program for child refugees in the region. The program began in 2017, in conjunction with an NGO called the Sirkhane Social Circus School. Documentary photographer Serbest Salih, a Syrian refugee himself, is the director and co-founder. Children as young as 7 are eligible to participate, and there are a number of Kurdish and Iraqi children in the program as well. (In his afterward, Salih describes the area as a “melting pot” of refugees from around the region.)

The kids are given old compact point-and-shoot film cameras to document their daily lives. Afterwards, they develop and print their images in a small makeshift darkroom on wheels. The project could have just as easily utilized digital point-and-shoot cameras, but Salih wanted the children to experience the process of shooting film and the magic of developing prints. In his afterward, he elucidates how analog processes emphasize the need for patience. There’s no instant gratification, and there’s no disrupting the moment to look at the photos on the back of the camera.

These young people have a great deal of talent and potential, and quite a few of the photos are strong standalone images. Yet, what truly gives this book lasting value is the way that it reveals the kids’ collective resiliency, independent spirit, and playfulness. Amid extraordinarily challenging circumstances, the workshop participants turn their cameras on the fun and joyful moments rather than focusing on the struggles resulting from being displaced, and that’s why these photos are so essential. Such images are almost always missing from the overall story.

Their photos help tell a more complete story of what happens after the bullets stop flying, as people try to pick up the pieces of their lives. As Salih writes in the afterward, “These aren’t the photographs adults expect to see from children who have grown up surrounded by conflict, they aren’t photographs of trauma or sadness. Instead, they are a testament to the resilience of the childhood imagination, the healing power of photography, and the enchanting perspective of childhood.”

Photo by Refai, 12 years old, from Derbasiye, Syria.

There’s something timeless about children playing, and the black and white film approach conveys that sense of timelessness better than digital could. Many of the images tend to be a little rough around the edges, which also adds to the appeal for me. There are tilted horizons, blown-out highlights, soft focus from taking a picture too close to the subject and other “composition errors,” all of which accurately convey the anarchic chaos of childhood exploration, in which there are no rules. And in the process of discovery, the kids take photos that call to mind those of famous photographers who consciously bent or broke the rules as well.

The photos are either printed one per page or laid out across two pages, and most come at you in short, staccato bursts. In one spread, the photo on the left-hand page shows a young girl at prayer in an empty rug-covered room next to a generic plastic chair that is slightly taller than she is. The photo on the right shows a young boy practicing with a hula hoop indoors. It appears to have been taken in the same room—or perhaps a similar room. (The living spaces have a cramped uniformity.) In a few instances, grown-ups (parents and relatives) are pictured, but mostly it’s just kids, in their own worlds.

The circumstances of war are mostly hinted at, found in the margins and a few revealing details. The most direct and compelling depiction appears towards the middle of the book. A helicopter hovers in a grainy, monochrome slate grey sky, situated in the lower middle of the frame. Rendered in silhouette, it has an ominous quality, a signifier of the ongoing conflict.

The photos are printed without captions – only the first name of the photographer along with their age is provided. This is a smart decision—for the majority of images, captions are unnecessary. And while a little more information or context would be useful for the helicopter photo, as a viewer, I can’t help but put myself in the photographer’s shoes, and to try and ascertain what I would be thinking and feeling as a young person in that situation. That’s more valuable than caption information when it comes to understanding these images.

Photo by Muhammed, 17 years old, from Raqqa, Syria.

The proceeds from book sales will help fund the Sirkhane Darkroom. People can also support the program by making a direct donation.

A quick note: When I started this review, Russia had yet to invade Ukraine. Now that the invasion is in full swing, I can’t help but consider the parallels. The flood of images coming out of Ukraine can and will bring about greater awareness and understanding of the tragic situation, counter disinformation, and inspire action. Let’s hope that the toll that conflict takes once the bullets stop flying—especially on the young—does not go ignored.

i saw the air fly by Sirkhane Darkroom. Mack Books, 2021. 160 pages. Paperback.

Binge-Worthy #6½: The Films of Man Ray (Part 2)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

A great deal of ink has been spilled about Man Ray’s third short film, L’etoile de Mer (1928). It’s a rhapsodic Surrealist meditation on lost love that attempts to interweave the lived experience with the dream-state. Fusing cinema and poetry, it’s a more mature work than his earlier forays into “pure cinema” and arguably his most significant cinematic experiment.

Man Ray was inspired to make the film after hearing the Surrealist poet Robert Desnos recite his work “La place de l’etoile.” Marking a departure from his previous films, the process of making L’etoile de Mer was both more collaborative and more planned out. Desnos’s poem provided an outline that Man Ray interpreted visually, and Desnos himself makes a brief cameo appearance towards the end.

Desnos wrote “La place de l’etoile” while in a self-induced hypnotic or trancelike state. In theory, this process, termed automatism, enabled his subconscious mind to compose poetry in an almost automatic way that emphasized spontaneous composition and free association. The idea behind it was to strip away the artifice that one consciously overlays onto the creative process in order to reveal deeper truths via an unmediated act of creation.

Man Ray’s treatment of Desnos’s poem is a much more conscious effort—in fact, this is the first film in which he isn’t simply improvising as he goes along. But it is also a powerful representation of the subconscious state that never appears contrived. Like the poem, it generally follows the stream-of-consciousness logic of a dream.

Yet, as abstract and free of narrative trappings as both the film and the poem are, there is still some semblance of a basic story: A failed seduction between a man and a woman results in the woman choosing to be with another man. While there is a purposeful lack of drama, each moment is highly consequential.

Kiki de Montparnasse, Man Ray’s muse throughout much of the 1920s, appears in “L’etoile de Mer”

Much of the film was shot with a celluloid filter in front of the lens that obscures the male and female figures, rendering them abstract and faceless—archetypes, as opposed to characters. The viewer can’t quite hold onto their images or picture them clearly, much less study their expressions. Nevertheless, the filmmaker provides brief glimpses of them at certain moments, indicating that actual memories are mixing with the dreamer’s subconscious imagination.

The symbolism is purposefully bewildering. Words, images, and gestures all carry oblique, arbitrary connotations that are difficult to pin down. Even the starfish, the film’s central symbol, is an empty signifier waiting to be endowed with meaning (or, rather, multiple meanings). Sometimes the starfish appears trapped in a jar. At several points, it is superimposed over the action. In one sequence, it is part of a classic still life (wine, fruit, a newspaper). In another sequence, it is portrayed erotically as a sensual creature in close-up.

It seems likely that Man Ray intended for such meaning to be created solely within the viewer’s mind. After all, the act of watching cinema involves placing oneself in a kind of trancelike state, as we perceive and interpret the flickering images on the screen. Perhaps thereby, the film’s subconscious explorations enable us as viewers to tap into our own subconsciouses.

Their identities obscured, Man Ray and his photography assistant Jacques-Andre Boiffard roll the dice in “Chateau”

Surrealist touches enliven Man Ray’ fourth and final film, Les Mysteres du Chateau du De (1929). Unlike his previous films, Les Mysteres was a patron-commissioned work. In his 1963 autobiography Self Portrait, Man Ray dismisses the film as a work-for-hire and claims that he saw it more or less as an opportunity for a paid vacation. Yet, despite his disavowel, it is still an important Surrealist film.

The backstory is as follows: The Vicomte Charles de Noailles, a patron of the arts and the owner of the titular chateau, wanted Man Ray to make a film that showcased his contemporary art collection as it was displayed in his mansion. (He had an extensive collection that included several important Cubist works by Picasso and Miró as well as commissioned sculptures by Giacometti and Brancusi, among others.) De Noailles also desired to show his well-to-do guests enjoying leisure activities there, making particular use of such modern luxuries as the covered swimming pool and gymnasium. The film was intended as an addition to his private collection that would be screened for future visitors. De Noailles would go on to finance several significant avant garde films, including Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s groundbreaking provocation Un Chien Andalou a year later.

Within those parameters, Man Ray was given the freedom to pursue his unique creative vision, which he took full advantage of. The Surrealists embraced the notion that an individual’s fate was largely determined by chance, so the film begins with a lighthearted riff on this concept. Two travelers, their faces masked, roll a pair of dice to determine if they will go on a journey to the mysterious “chateau of dice.” The travelers are played by Man Ray and his assistant, artist and writer Jacques-Andre Boiffard, who was working as Man Ray’s studio assistant at the time.  

From there, the film spirals into a twisty, windy tour of the palatial modern villa. At the swimming pool, the bathers disappear, reappear, and move backwards and forwards. These unusual guests sometimes pose or act in ways that resemble Greek gods. Their identities are hidden—or more to the point erased—so that they become interchangeable avatars, with as much agency as a frequently-appearing mannequin hand that holds a pair of dice. Innovative, slow-moving, low-to-the-ground tracking shots (similar to the ones that Stanley Kubrick would design decades later for The Shining) create a foreboding atmosphere as the camera explores different rooms in an otherwise empty villa. To paraphrase Bill Murray, that is one nutty chateau.

Like so much of Man Ray’s work, Les Mysteres is the vision of a truly original and groundbreaking artist. Once again, poetry provides inspiration for the onscreen vision. In this case, the work is “Every Thought Sends Forth One Toss of the Dice” by French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, a lengthy poem that had a great influence on the Surrealists.

There were several attempts at filmmaking after this one, including a potential collaboration with André Breton, but none of them came to fruition, so we are left with only these four short films.

Le Retour à la Raison (1923), Emak-Bakia (1926), L’etoile de Mer (1928), Les Mysteres du Chateau du De (1929).

Binge-Worthy #6: The Films of Man Ray (Part 1)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

It’s something of a minor miracle that all four of Man Ray’s short films are easily accessible online, and in reasonably good quality. Very few visual artists have applied the language of art to filmmaking so directly, and Man Ray was one of the first to do so. Utilizing the alternative photographic processes that he pioneered, he helped lay the foundation for avant-garde filmmaking.

As was the case with a number of early photographers, Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky) initially pursued a career as a painter. Born in South Philly and raised in Brooklyn, he expatriated to France, immersed himself in the art scene there, and launched his career.

In 1915, he learned the basics of photography in order to make reproductions of his artwork. The new medium and its seemingly limitless potential quickly captivated him. As Kim Knowles writes in A Cinematic Artist: The Films of Man Ray, “A fascination with the technological basis of photography and a desire to explore, master and push the boundaries of the medium led to him becoming one of the most innovative photographers of the twentieth century.” As Man Ray himself stated, “I have finally freed myself from the sticky medium of paint, and am working directly with light itself.”

That desire for freedom, and the urge to transcend artistic constraints and limitations, informs both his photography and his filmmaking. In a 1927 essay, the influential Surrealist poet and intellectual André Breton wrote that Man Ray guided photography “towards other ends than those for which it appears to have been created”—high praise indeed.

Similarly, Man Ray saw film as a unique art form with unrealized potential needlessly tethered to theatrical and literary conventions. He worked to detach cinema from narrative much in the same way that he strove to separate photography from straightforward representation.

He learned the craft of filmmaking by assisting Marchel Duchamp during the making of Anemic Cinema, a short avant garde exercise in Dada and Surrealism. For that experimental film, Duchamp constructed a machine with rotating panels that created a smooth, three-dimensional animated effect—a work of art for a mechanical era.

In contrast, Man Ray’s first independent effort, entitled Le Retour à la raison (1923), is chaotic and aggressive, with abrasive textures and syncopated rhythms. In place of Anemic Cinema’s carefully constructed, smoothly executed visual effects, Le Retour features crude stop-motion animation and spontaneously-composed visual cacophony. It was hastily assembled on a short 24-hour deadline. Nevertheless, however improbably, it transcends its limitations to become a significant Dadaist piece.

The three minute long cinematic sketch is largely comprised of camera-less photographic techniques, such as photograms (which he termed, tongue-in-cheek, Rayographs). It’s quite possibly the earliest example of camera-less filmmaking. To watch Le Retour a la raison is to witness the explosive and, frankly, painful birth of a filmmaker—and a filmmaking vision that will begin to mature in subsequent films.

Abstract imagery is constructed over time during this short sequence from Emak-Bakia

Emak-Bakia (1926), Man Ray’s second film, expands on the achievements in his first film—and repurposes some of the footage as well. The 16-minute piece also utilizes techniques found in his still photography (photograms, double exposures, negative images, etc.) but it’s constructed more purposefully and with greater attention to detail.

Photography, painting, sculpture, and more come together to create a powerful, iconoclastic filmmaking vision that showcases imagery and movement. The stop motion is more controlled and effective this time around. Everyday items and ephemera are imbued with oblique and arcane symbolism, Duchamp-esque wordplay appears here and there, and Surrealist touches are prevalent throughout.

In Emak-Bakia, Man Ray utilizes basic editing and cinematography techniques—the language of narrative film—to create a non-narrative visual poem. It’s a textbook representation of “pure cinema,” yet it’s also very much a formative work. While groundbreakingly original, it’s punctuated nevertheless by instances of dilettantism here and there, including a fascination with water reflections that could make even a Beginning Photography student blush.  

Man Ray’s filmmaking process during the making of Emak-Bakia differed only slightly from his artistic process in general. He worked alone, for the most part, except when there were people in front of the camera. And he improvised as he went without the benefit of any type of script or outline, opening the door for spontaneity and chance in his process—essential qualities for Dadaists and Surrealists. However, this approach would change with his next film, a collaborative effort with one of the great, overlooked Surrealist poets.

To be continued…

Le Retour à la raison (1923), Emak-Bakia (1926), L’etoile de Mer (1928), Les Mysteres du Chateau du De (1929).

Best Photobooks of 2021

OK, first things first: My vote for the best photobook of the year goes to Gilles Peress’s self-described “documentary fiction” Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.

I could give that honor just for the title alone. It presents a riddle without a solution, and it perfectly captures the absurdity of war. The book is the product of several decades spent covering war-torn Northern Ireland, beginning with the infamous Bloody Sunday event in 1972, which Peress witnessed, and continuing throughout the 1980s. It’s overwhelming both in terms of actual size (over 1300 photographs, stretched over 1000 pages across multiple volumes) and in terms of content. And it’s of a piece with Peress’s highly influential works Telex Iran and Farewell To Bosnia.

Peress seeks out the human in the midst of the inhumane and elucidates the tragedy of ordinary people trying to survive in the midst of a seemingly endless cycle of political violence. In a recent video, Magnum photographer Alec Soth gives a nuanced and insightful critique of the book and expresses awe and admiration that so many of the photographs hold up — especially when you consider that most photographers struggle to string together 50-100 strong images when compiling a book.

The hefty price tag will cause all but the most fervent and dedicated collectors to balk, but fortunately one of the volumes, entitled Annals of the North, is also available separately. Annals features over 300 images and a great deal of text (by Chris Klatell) that provides context–especially useful for those who aren’t as familiar with the conflict and the issues at stake.

Honorable mention for Best Photobooks of 2021 goes to three books that I can’t seem to stop looking at or thinking about. Jonas Bendiksen’s deepfake fake-out The Book of Veles is a fascinating exploration of media manipulation in the digital age and the technological potential to convincingly fabricate misinformation. On the more traditional end of the spectrum, I loved Mel D. Cole’s American Protest, which largely focuses on the Black Lives Matters protests of 2020. Cole incisively captures the overwhelming tensions and emotions in a divided country via an insightful and visually powerful series of black-and-white images. And finally, I can’t get enough of Gillian Laub’s brave, intimate, visually stunning, and endlessly fascinating work Family Matters. It’s every bit as strong as her previous works, and looking at it has inspired me to push myself a little more as a photographer.

There are many others that deserve mentioning as well. So, before we close the book on the inaugural year of The Parallax Review, we’d like to leave you with a roundup of notable lists of the best photobooks of 2021 from other publications.

A huge thank you to all of our readers, and stay tuned–we have big plans in store for 2022!

Best Photobooks of 2021 Roundup

LensCulture

The New York Times

PhMuseum

PhotoBook Journal

Smithsonian Magazine

TIME Magazine

Just Published: #ICPConcerned

In the interest of shameless self-promotion, I’m excited to announce that a photo I took is included in the new book #ICPConcerned, available from the ICP Bookstore and G Editions. A little over a year ago, I was capturing the scene outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center while votes were being tallied inside–something that ultimately decided the outcome of the presidential election. I was honored to have my photograph selected for the exhibit, and I’m thrilled to see it in print alongside some amazing work by photographers from around the world, collectively documenting the insanity that was 2020.

I’m a little biased to say the least, but I think it’s pretty great. And for those on a tight budget, you can view the entire exhibit online.

Book Review: Ruth Orkin – A Photo Spirit

It’s safe to say I’ve been more than a little obsessed with the Photo League lately. I’ve been spending time diving into the organization’s history and photographic contributions. (As a starting point, I highly recommend the excellent documentary Ordinary Miracles.) I recently wrote a Binge-Worthy column about Photo League members Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin’s classic first film, The Little Fugitive, and I followed that with a review of Engel’s experimental 1960s counterculture film, I Need A Ride To California, which was released for the first time on DVD this year.

Coincidentally, Ruth Orkin: A Photo Spirit, which reproduces over 200 of Ruth Orkin’s photographs, was just published to celebrate the centennial of her birth in 1921. Accompanying a retrospective exhibit (on view at Fotografiska New York  through the end of November), it’s the most definitive collection of her work to date.

The book surveys Orkin’s entire career—tragically cut short by cancer in the 1980s—beginning with her early formative work, made during an epic cross-country bicycle trip from Los Angeles to New York for the 1939 World’s Fair when she was just 18 years old. Orkin had an adventurous heart and a willingness to take risks, and the bicycle trip represents a bold undertaking at the start of a brilliant career.

The appearance of the bicycle trip photos at the beginning led me to expect that the book would be laid out chronologically. However, the next image after that sequence is from 1952. A perfectly composed vertical image shows a solitary figure in silhouette, walking in a downpour, as seen from Orkin’s apartment window. It’s wonderfully atmospheric in a way that’s evocative of film noire. The subsequent photograph, taken from the same apartment during a snowstorm that same year, masterfully portrays a New York winter in bold, abstract, monochromatic strokes.

From there, the book continues to jump around in time. Images are generally grouped together according to a theme or commonality, similar to the way that a photo editor will assemble work for a wide edit before narrowing it down. It’s sprawling and at times a little overwhelming—in the absence of section headers or chapter dividers, the photos just sort of bleed into each other. Images of children at the circus are followed by several taken at a dog show, then several others taken at a parade, and so on. I found the best way to approach the collection was to simply allow yourself to be immersed in it. Approach it like you would a box set of a musical artist that houses every album along with alternate studio takes, B-sides, and excerpts from live performances.

Orkin’s optimism, empathy, and sense of humor shine through in her work. One well-known sequence of six photos, entitled “The Card Players,” dramatizes a card game between three children sitting on a stoop, rendered in soft light and painterly compositions. In the book, the sequence covers four pages. The four photos in the middle of the sequence are printed at half the size of the opening and closing photos, which serve to anchor the story. It’s a highly effective layout. The half-dozen images combine to tell a short story—or perhaps more accurately, play out like a short film—and build to a satisfying resolution as the little girl in the center of the frame smiles victoriously. The entire sequence was included in MoMA’s legendary 1955 exhibition The Family of Man, curated by Edward Steichen, who had by then become a huge supporter of her work.

The Card Players, New York City, 1952

One of the great pleasures of retrospectives is that you inevitably discover something new. There is no shortage of such discoveries in these pages. Adding further value to the book, excerpts from Orkin’s unfinished autobiography are printed at the end. The selections give a great deal of insight into her approach to making pictures and her experience as one of the few female photographers in a very male-dominated industry. Her diary excerpts regarding the making of the instantly iconic “American Girl in Italy,” are reprinted at the end as well.

American Girl in Italy, Florence, 1951

Although it could be a little more accessible to the uninitiated, it’s a gorgeous collection nevertheless and a highly valuable book that should hold immense appeal for photography lovers. And it should further cement Ruth Orkin’s place in the pantheon of great 20th Century photographers.

Ruth Orkin: A Photo Spirit. Edited by Nadine Barth and Mary Engel. Text by Kristen Gresh and Ruth Orkin. Hatje Cantz, 2021. 240 pages. Hardcover.

Book Review: I See a City by Todd Webb

Todd Webb didn’t become serious about photography until he was around 35 years old. At the time, he was working in the Detroit auto industry after stints as a stockbroker, gold prospector, and Naval officer, respectively. In 1945, when he hit 40, he left that job behind and moved to New York to pursue with an almost spiritual conviction what he had discovered, at long last, was his life’s calling.

Upon arriving in New York, he immersed himself in the photography world. Alfred Stieglitz was one of his mentors, and MoMA curator Beaumont Newhall helped arrange for him to have his first solo exhibit, held at the Museum of the City of New York. He shared an apartment with Harry and Eleanor Callahan, became close friends with Berenice Abbott, and hobnobbed with a who’s who of luminaries, all of whom expressed admiration for his work. Yet, despite all of this, Webb has been largely overlooked as a photographer.

That’s a shame, because Webb created a strong visual record of a city on the verge of enormous change. That in itself gives his work value, but what takes it to the next level is how impactful many of the images in I See A City are—visually, emotionally, and intellectually.

One of Webb’s most impressive images is a perfectly executed composite shot of an entire city block along 6th Avenue. The final image is comprised of six separate frames, seamlessly and meticulously lined up and stitched together, well before Photoshop and iPhone camera apps made it easy to somewhat clumsily approximate that process. It’s reproduced in the book as a two-page spread, but it demands to be seen larger, so that viewers can truly immerse themselves in the scene and study the details.

Just as effective is a simple photograph of a horse and buggy parked behind an automobile under the el tracks. The horse is resigned to waiting patiently while the driver makes his delivery rounds. The light and composition guide your eye around the photo to the storefronts, the windows, the train tracks, and more. It’s an elegant depiction of a city in the process of reinventing itself.

It’s also an image created via time and patience. Partly out of necessity, Webb had developed an economical shooting style. As Sean Corcoran explains in his introduction, Webb spent most of his time scouting locations, watching the light, and anticipating the moment. That process paid off in exceptionally strong final images. Webb used large format cameras, notably the Graflex Speed Graphic (popular at the time among press photographers, including Weegee), as well as a 5×7 Deardorff field camera, mounted on a tripod. The image fidelity and perspective control of large format photography give a kind of enhanced veracity to Webb’s urban landscapes and scenes of daily life.

Not all of the book’s 150 black-and-white photographs are as brilliant as these, but they are all interesting. The book was edited and sequenced by Betsy Evans Hunt, executive director of the Todd Webb Archive, and she displays a deep understanding of the photographer’s work. There’s a rhyme and reason behind the sequencing and the variations in the layout. Most of the images are given individual emphasis while working together to create a coherent whole.

To that point, early on, a double-page spread presents a sequence of eight photos, reproduced at equal size, showcasing signs hung in doorways welcoming home returning American GI’s at the end of World War II. Later, towards the middle of the book, a photo of a handwritten note taped to a store window perfectly captures the impersonal, terse, and businesslike side of the city while giving Hemingway’s shortest story a run for its money: “TAILOR IS DEAD. BUT BUSINESS WILL BE CARRIED ON AS USUAL BY SON.” Putting space between these images enables them to be appreciated separately; had she placed them together, it would have dulled their impact and felt too repetitive.

Amsterdam Avenue near 125th Street, Harlem, 1946 (Todd Webb Archive)

Among Webb’s urban landscapes, one photograph that stands out portrays the chaos of midtown traffic on a rainy, overcast day. It evokes a sensation that will likely be familiar to anyone who’s ever experienced a downpour in Manhattan, and it perfectly captures the ways that New Yorkers behave in such situations.

Webb’s captions are generally limited to the place and year (His rainy day shot is captioned “Sixth Avenue and 48th Street, 1946,” for example), and that’s really all the information that’s necessary.

Times Square, New York, 1946 (Todd Webb Archive)

After seeing the city, Webb traveled extensively. In 1949, he moved to Paris for a few years, and in 1955, under the auspices of a Guggenheim fellowship, he trekked cross country–on foot, no less–taking photos. Todd Webb In Africa, a book of color photos made on assignment for the United Nations in the 1950s, was published by Thames and Hudson earlier this year.

Originally published to coincide with a retrospective exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York (the same museum where Webb had his first solo show), I See A City is a book for those interested in New York City’s history as well as street photography. It should hold a special appeal for those who harbor a sense of nostalgia for that particular time. And it’s for those who have yet to add Todd Webb to the pantheon of great American photographers.

I See A City: Todd Webb’s New York by Todd Webb. Essays by Sean Corcoran and Daniel Okrent. Thames and Hudson, 2021. 176 pages. Hardcover.

Binge-Worthy #5½: I Need A Ride To California (Morris Engel, 1968)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

Photography is front-and-center in Morris Engel’s recently restored, previously unreleased, and somewhat abstruse 1968 feature I Need a Ride to California. The film, which centers around the East Village counterculture scene, is a departure of sorts from the trilogy of movies he made in the 1950s.  Nevertheless, Engel’s filmmaking approach remains largely consistent with his earlier body of work. Ultimately, it’s a footnote rather than a major addition to the canon, but while the whole may not be more than the sum of its parts, a few of those parts are revelatory.

The film begins with the main character, a free-spirited young bohemian (Lilly Shell, playing a fictionalized version of herself), stonily explaining the premise of the film to several friends: “It’s about a girl who comes to live in the East Village, just like the way I have…and she goes through all these different scenes that I’ve gone through,” she tells them. Her somewhat rambling explanation serves as both a preamble and a manifesto, alternately explaining and advocating for Engel’s neorealist, quasi-documentary filmmaking approach. True to Lilly’s word, the purposefully unstructured narrative closely hews to the way life naturally unfolds, as she meanders through a handful of relationships and life events. At times, it veers close to stream-of-consciousness storytelling.

There are cameras present in practically every shot. Lilly spends the bulk of her days wandering around Manhattan with a 35mm Pentax slung around her shoulder. She is herself an observer of life as it unfolds and a street photographer who often focuses her lens on children playing. (This is a Morris Engel joint, after all.) Additionally, one of her boyfriends, a handsome Black man named Rod (played by Rod Perry), works as a professional photographer.

Engel’s love of photography shines brightest during an extended dialogue-free montage, as Lilly and her friends explore Manhattan. People stop to photograph the coterie of young people in hip fashions. Lilly, in turn, photographs the city, and Engel focuses almost as much on the act of photographing as he does on the characters themselves.

These young bohemians are as wide eyed, innocent, and childlike wandering around Manhattan as Joey was wandering around Coney Island in The Little Fugitive. For the most part, Engel presents an idealized and sanitized portrayal of the counterculture. Although he belongs to an earlier generation, it’s clear that, as a politically progressive artist, he empathizes with and admires the 1960s counterculture.

Engel’s tender portrayal of Lilly and Rod’s barrier-breaking interracial love affair becomes the heart and soul of the film, and the movie is never sweeter than when exploring their relationship. (Perry is especially magnetic in his supporting role.) These characters communicate a great deal implicitly while staying true to the ways people actually interact and avoiding the pitfall of overly literal and heavy-handed dialogue exchanges.

As in Engel’s earlier films, the cinematography (co-credited to Max Glenn) takes its cue from still photography to excellent effect. One of the strongest elements is the visual aesthetic—all the more impressive considering it marked Engel’s first foray into color filmmaking. There are moments when the movie resembles a magazine spread on the counterculture that suddenly sprang to life.

The candid and evocative moments captured in a number of cut-away shots, such as the two below, are much more reminiscent of street photography than cinematography. These shots have little to do with our main characters (although at times, they obliquely or analogously reflect their lives and interests) and everything to do with the world they inhabit.

As a viewer, it’s a pleasure to immerse oneself in the worlds that Engel portrays in his films. His daydream vision of the East Village is just as enticing as Coney Island was in The Little Fugitive.

However, Lilly is self-admittedly naïve to the ways of the big city, and as a result, the last half hour takes an unpleasant turn. She begins making questionable decisions and encounters the flip side of her seemingly idyllic lifestyle. In the process, she discovers that other people don’t often live up to your expectations, share your values, or even play by the same set of rules.

Towards the end, an overly-literal “flower power” montage of a barefoot Lilly handing out flowers to her non-hip East Village neighbors provides the setup for a shocking climax. The ending sneaks up on the viewer and shatters the pleasant spell that the film has cast, puncturing Lilly’s rose-tinted idealism—and the audience’s by extension. It’s raw, controversial, and effective.

Fortunately, Engel lets the final moments play out without interruption. Earlier, at different points, Engel chose to insert shots of the small film crew, and of Lilly herself watching the daily rushes, calling attention to the conditions under which those scenes were created. There’s a seed of a great idea in observing Lilly as she observes herself reenacting events from her life. However, Engel’s attempts at metatextuality don’t quite function as intended. Instead, he winds up dissipating the scenes’ emotional impact and undercutting his actors’ performances. Nevertheless, such instances of self-reflexivity, along with the film’s experimental narrative structure, help make I Need a Ride… a significant example of early postmodern cinema.

After years of collecting dust, Engel’s long-lost film was restored by MoMA, and it had its debut screening at the museum in 2019. It has just been released as part of a DVD box set via Kino Lorber, and it’s available to stream on Kino Now.

I Need A Ride To California (directed by Morris Engel). 35mm film (color), 83 min., 1968.

Binge-Worthy #5: The Little Fugitive (Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, 1953)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

“I’ve always felt that to be a good movie maker, you should do still photography first. And I’ve always felt that to be a good still photographer, you should do movies first. Now, of course, the question is which to do first—I don’t think it matters too much, but in the history of photography, there haven’t been many people that have done both.” –Morris Engel

At the start of the 1950s, husband-and-wife team Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin made an independent feature film called The Little Fugitive for $30,000, shooting clandestinely among the crowds in Coney Island with a small, custom-built portable 35mm film camera.

Their unassuming and charming debut as filmmakers went on to have an unexpected and considerable influence on the film world. It directly inspired the 1956 French classic The Red Balloon as well as François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), and was a major influence on John Cassavetes as well.

The bare-bones plot is easily summarized: A seven-year-old boy named Joey is tricked by his older brother Lennie into running away from home. Joey hops on a subway train and takes it to the last stop on the line, which happens to be Coney Island. When he doesn’t come back, his older brother Lennie desperately tries to track him down before their mother finds out. But for most of its runtime, the film follows Joey around as he enjoys everything that the Nickel Empire has to offer—the games, the rides, the food, and the beach.

Of course, the setup is basically an excuse for the filmmakers to send Joey off on a day’s adventure in Coney Island. Yet, the opening moments also give the viewer a glimpse into the working-class Brooklyn neighborhood that Joey comes from—a world that wasn’t really depicted in American cinema at that time. It’s a world of concrete and bricks, empty side streets and vacant lots littered with broken glass bottles. The two brothers are being raised by a single mother who is struggling to provide for her family as best as she can, and the family’s situation is portrayed honestly and empathetically.

At the same time, the opening also offers an unvarnished and decidedly unsentimental look at the casually cruel ways that kids often interact, as Lennie and his friends pick on Joey. All of this occurs in the first 15 minutes of the film, via an effectively spare, no-frills approach to storytelling.

The film remains grounded in reality even as Joey lives out a dream scenario in Coney Island. Much of the dramatic action is rooted in ordinary moments, such as when the script calls for Joey to lose at a boardwalk game or spill a cup of water. It’s a reminder of—and a reflection on—how in real life, and especially for children, the significance of such seemingly inconsequential events can be greatly magnified.

During the making of the film, Engel often allowed scenes to play out naturally in front of the camera, rather than constructing them in advance via storyboarding, blocking, and other such methods. Engel gave minimal direction to Richie Andrusco, the young boy who played Joey, encouraging him to have fun and be himself during the early Coney Island sequences.

As a photographer, Engel had traversed the beaches and boardwalks himself many times, taking some of his most well-known images there.

Man lying on sand, Coney Island, NYC, 1938 (Morris Engel Archive)

Born in Brooklyn, Engel was a street photographer and photojournalist specializing in photo essays, a number of which focused on the lives of families and children. A member of the Photo League, he had been mentored by Aaron Siskind and Paul Strand, among others. He began to branch out into film after assisting Strand on the documentary Native Land.

Following his experience shooting segments for Strand’s film, Morris decided to ditch the heavy tripod, pare down the equipment to the bare essentials, and find the closest possible equivalent to the unobtrusive approach that he used for street photography. He and a friend designed a small, portable 35mm motion picture camera that enabled him to move around while at the same time remaining inconspicuous. (They chose 35mm over 16mm for the picture quality.)

Handheld and strapped against his chest with a neck support for added stability, the camera gave Engel the ability to be almost as mobile as his lead actor. That element is noticeably at work when Joey wades through the throngs of people on the beach, none of whom were extras and all of whom were probably unaware a movie was being made to begin with. The camera also enabled Engel to be more creative and spontaneous while shooting, whether standing inside a batting cage or capturing a POV shot from the legendary Parachute Jump ride.

Engel and Orkin took their cues not only from street photography but also from the Italian neorealist films of the 1940s. (I personally believe that neorealism is the nearest cinematic equivalent to street photography, but I’ll save that argument for another time.) 

Ruth Orkin learned to edit movies while working on The Little Fugitive, and the way she assembled and sequenced the somewhat unconventional footage is a major reason why the movie succeeds. Orkin was also an established photojournalist and street photographer, best known for her iconic photograph “American Girl In Italy.” She had grown up in Hollywood and was initially interested in pursuing a filmmaking career before gravitating to still photography. After moving to New York, she met Engel through the Photo League and they officially tied the knot while in post-production on the film.

The Oscar-nominated screenplay is largely the contribution of Raymond Abrashkin (working under the name Ray Ashley), also credited as co-producer and co-director. Abrashkin was a writer and editor of children’s fiction whom Engel had befriended while they were both working at Ralph Ingersoll’s progressive newspaper PM.

Behind-the-scenes production still from The Little Fugitive (Morris Engel Archive)

Engel and Orkin’s equally charming if less influential follow-up, Lovers and Lollipops (1956), utilizes the same filmmaking techniques, albeit in a more polished and professional way. It tells a more complex and nuanced story as well, focusing on a young girl’s conflicted feelings about her widowed single mother getting engaged. This time around, the main characters travel to a variety of New York destinations, including MoMA, the Statue of Liberty, and Rye Playland (subbing in nicely for Coney Island). As in The Little Fugitive, the filmmakers employ a street photography approach at these locales, but Lovers corresponds more closely to the photo essays that Engel was producing in the 1940s which quietly observed the lives of families and children, mostly in domestic spaces.

A film critic for the New York Times referred to Lovers and Lollipops as a “picture film,” clarifying that Engel and Orkin “use their actors almost as models for individual photographs, as it were, which are put together with very little of the usual cinema punctuation to tell a ‘picture story,’ much as it would be done with a series of still photographs in a picture magazine.” This insight applies equally to The Little Fugitive, and I couldn’t have phrased it better.

Both of these films have been restored by MoMA and reissued by Kino Lorber as a DVD box set, along with their third feature, Weddings and Babies (1960), which rounds out the trilogy of features they made together over the course of a decade. Kino Lorber has also included their short films and documentaries as well as Engel’s previously unreleased 1968 feature I Need a Ride to California, which is centered around the Greenwich Village counterculture scene. I’ll take a look at that later work for the next installment of this series.

The Little Fugitive (directed by Morris Engel & Ruth Orkin). 35mm film (black and white), 80 min., 1953.