Becoming a Photographer

In 1973 I became a photographer.

I started the year with a Yashica Electro 35 G, a non-interchangeable lens range finder camera that had some automated features but still required me to learn focusing and the use of the aperture.

At first I was taking basically snapshots, a sort of visual notebook.  But then I took my camera to our group session down at Stanford.  When I got the prints back some were better than just snap shots, they showed a point of view and documented something that would otherwise vanish into mythology.  Even today I have only to look at those photographs to know that I was part of a group that was far more diverse than the mythology paints us as being.

In early 1973, Jan and I went to Hollywood. She went because she was getting implants.  I went to accompany her and to see Hollywood. Of course I took my camera.  Being stuck with only one lens meant I couldn’t get what I saw or rather saw in my mind’s eye.  I had serious Nikon envy for Jan’s Nikon F, a big bulky camera with the large boxy metered viewfinder.

On that trip I met some sisters and visited some very seedy drag bars on Cahuenga Avenue.  I made some friends and started coming to LA to hang out with them and photograph them.

That spring I broke up with my boyfriend, Jerry.

Shortly after that I went camera shopping.  First I bought a Nikkormat FTn and a 50mm f1.4 soon after I added an 85mm f1.8,  a 24mm f2.8 and a 135mm f2.8.  I also started carrying a small rangefinder everywhere.

I plunged into documenting an intense scene as a participant/observer.  I was studying the work of Danny Lyon and other “street photographers.”  I was taken by the work of the members of Magnum Agency and the war photographers who had covered the war in Vietnam.  The unforgettable work of Nick Ut, Eddie Adams and Philip Griffiths.  I was looking at the depression era work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.

I was too late for Liberation News Service, the protests against the War in Vietnam were mostly over but LGBT and Feminist demonstration were in full swing.  So was shooting rock and roll.

I took photography seriously right from the start.

I shot available light, pushing my Tri-X to the max to squeeze even the highlights on to the film.  Friendships meant I was able to shoot things I couldn’t possibly trust to a straight lab and so I took my film to Harvey Milk’s camera store in the Castro.

From Robert Capa I learned the importance of getting close to my subject.  From Henri Cartier-Bresson I learned about the decisive moment. From Ansel Adams I learned about exposure and the print. From the FSA depression era photographers and the people who shot for Life Magazine I learned the importance of empathy.

From Annie Leibovitz I leaned that you didn’t have to be a man to be a brilliant photographer.

In 1974 I moved to LA.  I had an apartment near Sunset and Fairfax, in the Villa Rosa.

I turned my cameras to the streets of Hollywood, the Pride Day Parades, the gay and lesbian demonstrations.  The feminist demonstrations.

Eventually I became a photographer for the Lesbian Tide.

Somewhere along the line I learned that women who are photographers not only have to be vastly better than male photographers, they have to be extremely fortunate in their timing in order to become the token woman photographer.

While the passion was there I never managed to turn my art into a profession.

The passion for the arts is still there the love of photography the getting people to see what I see is as strong as ever.

Lately I’ve been reading about some of the members of the Magnum Agency.

Recently there were a couple of articles in the Nation.  (I posted teasers for these articles below this piece.)

Thursday evening I saw a documentary titled, Which Way is the Front Line From Here?, about Tim Hetherington, a war photographer who was killed in Libya (2011).

The documentary is on HBO and is available on demand.

On Saturday when Tina and I went to the Earth Day Event I carried one of my film cameras and took pictures in black and white.

My So-Called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters

From The Nation:

Deborah Copaken Kogan
April 9, 2013

My latest novel was just long-listed 
for Britain’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, formerly known as the Orange Prize. I cried when I heard. Then I Googled it. Here are a few things I learned: it was founded in response to the 1991 Booker Prize, whose nominees were all men; it is frequently modified by the adjective “prestigious”; and it is controversial. Why do we need a separate prize for women, ask the columnists, year after year, in one form or another, following the announcement of the nominees.

“The Orange Prize is a sexist con-trick” posited a prize-winning male novelist in 2008. “The past is gone,” he wrote. “Get over it.”

The 2012 VIDA statistics have been out for some time now, so I won’t linger over the current and quantifiable inequity—yes, even in this magazine—in the frequency with which male and female writers are reviewed today, five years after the past was deemed “gone.” It’s a proven fact, backed by simple math even my first grader can understand: the number of reviews of books by men is greater than the number of reviews of books by women; the number of male reviewers is greater than the number of female reviewers. Men, in other words, are still the arbiters of taste, the cultural gatekeepers, and the recipients of what little attention still gets paid to books.

What I will do, however, is open my kimono and make it personal, though I’ve been warned not to do this. It’s career suicide, colleagues tell me, to speak out against the literary establishment; they’ll smear you. But never mind. I’m too old and too invisible to said establishment to care. And I still believe, as Carol Hanisch wrote back in 1969—when I was having my then three-year-old feet forced into stiff Mary Janes—that the personal is political.

So. Let’s rewind and take a look at my so-called post-feminist life in arts and letters.

Born in 1966, I came of age at the dawn of a revolution. The past was gone; we would move on and get over it! Except getting over it, as it turns out, takes more than an ashcan full of bras and access to the pill. It takes years—decades even. My whole life, in fact, and still counting. Nixon signed Title IX in 1972, when I was 6, but only the girls born many years after me got to reap its rewards. Who knows? Instead of a novelist, I might have become a really short, nebbishy soccer player.

Fast-forward to 1988: I am raped by an acquaintance the night before my graduation from college. The next morning, before donning cap and gown, I stumble into the University Health Services building to report the crime. I’m advised not to press charges. “They’ll smear you,” I’m told by the female psychologist assigned to my case. I don’t want to be smeared. I’ve got a life to live. Twenty-five years later, while watching CNN lament the effects of the Steubenville rape on two promising lives—the rapists’, not the victim’s—I’ll hold two competing thoughts: nothing has changed; I wish I’d been braver. I decide to Google my rapist’s name, something I’ve never done in the quarter-century since the crime. His promise, I note, has been duly fulfilled. He’s successful. He’s married—to a woman who recently spoke on a “Lean In” panel with Sheryl Sandberg.

Because life’s like that.

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Recalling a Chronicler of Combat as It Is

From The New York Times:

Published: April 17, 2013

The British-born photojournalist Tim Hetherington starts and stops, groans and grimaces, as he tries to explain why he’s made a career of taking his cameras as close as possible to the places where men are killing each other. He manages to get out, “The important thing for me is to make work that is connected to people,” before shaking his head in disgust: “Blah blah blah blah blah.”

A good portion of the film “Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington,” to be shown Thursday night on HBO, is taken up with the question of what drove him to document war zones in Africa, Afghanistan and finally Libya, where he was killed by a mortar round in 2011 at age 40. Family members, friends and colleagues talk about his need to understand the world, his habit of immersing himself in a subject, his wish to get at the truth about combat.

But is it a question that really needs an answer? The simple truth seems to be on display in the videos here, some shot by Hetherington and others featuring him, in which the complementary desires to witness and to be where the action is result in a giddiness and fellowship that the journalists share with the soldiers they’re documenting.

“Which Way” was made by Sebastian Junger, who with Mr. Hetherington directed the 2010 Afghanistan war documentary “Restrepo,” which was nominated for an Academy Award. The new film is a touching tribute, if perhaps a bit more solemn and funereal than necessary, with some unfortunately sentimental choices in music.

It’s consistently animated, though, by Hetherington himself, seen in excerpts from interviews. He’s larger than life, with leading-man good looks and a seriousness that’s earnest without being annoying. And the real revelation is his still photography, a body of work that’s been in the shadow of “Restrepo.” Less interested in chaos and graphic violence than other war photographers, he favored quiet, reflective, classically composed images; among his most celebrated photos was a series of portraits of American soldiers sleeping in their bunks.

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Chim’s Eye: On Photography and Politics

From The Nation:


It’s a strange photograph, something like a class portrait from a school under siege. In it, the pitted walls of an air raid shelter frame a dozen or so children and their caretakers behind them, peering out of the darkness. A naked light bulb casts a dim glow over the students as they stare at the photographer, hands resting at their sides. Their gaze draws the viewer into and down the shelter’s length. Do their faces betray fear, or a wary concern over the disruption of their daily routine?

Even though it doesn’t show maimed bodies or stiffened corpses, the image is a war photograph. Taken on the Mediterranean island of Minorca in December of 1938, it is a strikingly humanizing missive sent from the short-lived Second Spanish Republic’s battle for survival against Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his fascist forces. More generally, it shows what war was like for much of Europe’s peoples in the 1930s and 1940s: random periods of defenseless waiting, sometimes terminated by deaths of varying duration. The photographer was a 27-year-old Polish exile shooting for a large European audience, and the children’s collective stare turns him into a medium for an intense identification between Spain’s afflicted and the world beyond the shelter’s spot-lit darkness. Why did this 
photographer—working in a distinctly heroic partisan aesthetic tradition—focus on civilians rather than soldiers at the front?

Part of the answer has to do with the world he was photographing. In the course of his transformation from Dawid Szymin, the son of a publisher of Yiddish and Hebrew books; to Chim, committed photographer of French Popular Front politics; to David Seymour, citizen of the United States and veteran of its army, two conflicts had played themselves out across the globe, successively more grotesque in their technologies of killing and annihilation and the industrial scale on which they were used. Europe was in ruins at the end of those wars. Chim perceptively adapted his camera eye to the changed circumstances, and his best images offered possibilities for empathy that are distinctly original.

An exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York City, on view through May 5, showcases Chim’s photography and surveys the magazines that were so central to his practice as a photojournalist. Negatives recovered in 2007 from the long-lost “Mexican Suitcase” [see “A Secret Archive,” January 24, 2011], along with never-before-seen color prints, add to the wealth of images culled from the collections of Chim’s extended family and the ICP. (The Minorca image was a gift to the center from Eileen Shneiderman, Chim’s older sister, and her son Ben.) Although Chim’s stylistic approach to his subjects changed over the course of the tumultuous wartime years, the heart of his work, a palpable and singular identification with ordinary people and their experience of violent upheaval, remains hauntingly consistent.

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Op-ed: ‘Freaking’ Cis People

From The Advocate:

Riki Wilchins ponders why she would even want to be a cisgender person if they can be so cruel.

BY Riki Wilchins
April 12 2013

One of the pleasures (and occasional pains) of writing a column online is reading the comments complete strangers leave. It wasn’t even in response to something I’d written, but rather to another commenter, that Rufus Rufushy Ulrik wrote the two-word imprecation I can’t get out of my mind: “Fucking cispeople.”

Only that. Nothing more.

To my ear, it’s even more effective than Danah Gaz’s “Die Cis-scum,” which has an over-the-top edge of goth hostility to it, a take-off on a Ross Meyer 1960s trash flick, “Faster, Cis-Pussycat! Kill! Kill!”

But “fucking cispeople” resonates with me in ways I’m still coming to grips with, right down to its note of plaintive resignation. No exclamation point, no caps. More of a sigh than an expletive. It crystallizes something I’ve been feeling for a long time but couldn’t put into words.

You see, I have struggled with my fair share of those twin demons of all despised minorities who have the misfortune to be nomadic, wandering in search of a cultural heritage and a geography of acceptance: shame and self-loathing.

There is, after all, no transgender section of any city. Even in New York City, I can find people like me, but unlike other minorities — Lubavitchers, African-Americans, gays, Italians — we have no place we can call our own, where we are the norm, where we see ourselves constantly reflected in eyes of others. So I wander through other people’s lands as Other. Even my presence within the LGB and sometimes T community is remains highly contested.

And before my status as trannie, there was transition. Practically the first thing my doctors did was make sure I really wanted to be a cisgender woman, because what other kind of woman could I want to be? I couldn’t very well tell them I wanted to be a transgender woman or a genderqueer one. Being a “true transsexual” was defined  by the very act of wanting not to be one.

When I was prompted to explain that I felt “like a woman, trapped in man’s body” (thanks, no, I’m just trapped in the wrong culture) I was explaining that my deepest identification — the one that had driven me to give up family and lover and jobs and, yes, body parts — was with those whom I was not: cisgender people.

Having established that I wanted to be a cisgender woman, my doctors then rushed to assure me that I could not be one.

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Puberty blockers: my son’s life perserver

From The Times Union:


My son got his period at age 12 and a half, and we both cried. We both had dreaded this day and hoped to avoid it altogether. It’s true my son had the physical parts of a girl and was born my daughter, but I discovered when he came out as transgender he was actually my son. What boy wants to grow breasts and get a period? None that I know wish for this; in fact it was torture for him.

 Him getting his period was a reminder to him that he wasn’t physically a boy,  that he was very different indeed. We had an appointment in the fall to see an endocrinologist in our area but that appointment couldn’t come soon enough as his period began in May. My son became more and more despondent and depressed and, as when he first told me he was transgender, I feared I would loose him. He was drowning, and I had to find a way to save him again.

I often think of being a parent of a transgender child as your child is constantly drowning and you are always trying to find a life preserver. He’s in deep water and sinking. I am there trying to hold his head up, screaming for help. People walk by and see him struggling. They comment on how brave my son is to swim in deep waters and how I am a good mom to try to save him, but they don’t jump in to help. They fear they aren’t a good enough swimmer to help or they simply ignore us and walk on by as if they never saw it. I keep trying to pull him to safety, but he’s weighted down. His legs are being held down by the weights of people’s ignorance, fear, insecurity, and judgment. The weights are heavy, and as hard as I try I can’t free him from the weights. I want to scream as loud as I can to the world, “If you can’t help my son live, please don’t push him under, please allow me to bring him to safety.”

I look for any life preserver I can find along the way and one appears: hormone blockers. Puberty blockers freeze the child’s natal puberty and place them on hold. By giving my son puberty blockers his “female” puberty would cease. It would stop his period and stop his breasts from growing larger. This helps pull his head up out of the water so he can breathe, and in turn so do I.

It’s important to know that children who are transgender do NOT have sex change surgery at a young age. I’ve had more than one person say to me when I say my son is transgender, “Does that mean he now has boy parts and had surgery already?” Please know transgender children are not undergoing sex change surgery; they begin their transition by socially transitioning.

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Is It Time for Off-the-Shelf Birth-Control Pills?

From The New York Times:

Published: April 20, 2013

WHEN a federal judge recently ordered the Food and Drug Administration to make the morning-after pill available to women of all ages without a prescription, the ruling was a political embarrassment for the Obama administration and unleashed protests from abortion foes and abstinence advocates. But that controversy may look like a tempest in a teapot compared with a broader and no less heated discussion that is roiling the medical community: should birth-control pills of any type require a doctor’s prescription? Or should they be available, like Tylenol, on pharmacy shelves?

Last December the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released an official position paper concluding that the time had come for birth-control pills to be sold over the counter. It was the first time the group had endorsed such sales, concluding that scientific evidence suggested that the practice was safe and calling it “a potential way to improve contraceptive access and use, and possibly decrease the unintended pregnancy rate.”

After all, oral contraceptives have been available in the United States for more than half a century, and few medicines have been so thoroughly vetted. Despite some catchy new brand names, the pills I took 25 years ago are essentially the same as those my daughter takes today. If anything, pills have become safer because they contain lower doses of estrogen.

While oral contraceptives bring with them some tiny risks, especially if used improperly, they arguably pose fewer dangers than many other medicines bought freely at the pharmacy, experts say, including nonsteroidal pain pills like Motrin (which can cause stomach bleeding) and decongestants like Sudafed (which may raise blood pressure). With a simple packaging insert about proper use and precautions, women would be fully capable of using them safely, the gynecologists’ group maintained.

“Nonsteroidal medicines kill far more people than birth-control pills,” said Dr. Eve Espey, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of New Mexico, who was involved in writing the position paper. “For most women, the absolute risk of taking the pill is far less than the risks incurred in pregnancy.”

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