A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Connectivity, Part 1 by Ron Steinman

A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Connectivity, Part 1
By
Ron Steinman

These are my thoughts about the journalists who pander to everything that is new only because it is new. These are writers who devote their lives to selingl the latest digital device and app as an important experience. They should know better, but they do not. Their goal is to perpetuate a hunger for what is new rather than what is meaningful. If that is not pandering, I do not know what is. Keep your eyes wide-open people, the end might not be near but it is closer than you think.

In the age of The Walkman, I was a runner. I did not carry that small machine because I feared that the sound coming through the earplugs would drown out the noises of the street, its oncoming cars, trucks bicycles, women wheeling baby carriages, dogs barking. Reality. Having my ears plugged could have put me at unnecessary risk when I ran my daily three miles through Rockville Centre, N.Y. where I lived.
I no longer run. Instead I walk everywhere in Manhattan where I now live. I do not own an iPod. I keep myself free of ear buds. The sounds of the street are still very important to me. I actually enjoy hearing sirens, cars honking, people talking. My cellphone is so simple that my adult children chide me for not moving into the modern age with a smart phone. My mobile phone can take pictures, but I prefer a real camera. My phone has no access to the Internet. I do not text.
According to a recent Pew Research Center report, “nearly two-thirds of Americans own a smart phone.” And, Pew continues, usage and ownership is ” highest among younger Americans and those with relatively high income and education.” These are those advertisers want for mobile connections and the Internet. Advertisers are doing everything they can to make these devices better to sell products that probably most people don’t want, anyhow.
Here is something else to ponder. By all estimates there are now more than a billion personal computers in the world. According to eMarketer, it expects that “4.55 billion people worldwide will use a cellphone in 2014.” At the end of the first quarter of 2015, the number is surely even bigger. In the next few years we are likely to see another two billion or more people with mobile, pocket computers.
Unlike so many today, I do not download my favorite music onto an iPod. Of that, I am proud. I would rather listen to recorded music full bore on speakers in the privacy of my home. Think, too, that listening to music and voice through ear buds or headphones to give what you believe is the full range of music and sound will in time ruin your hearing, if not fry your brain. Listening to most pop music today is a waste of time, but that is a subject for another day. For now, social networks and the snare they create to capture what remains of the human imagination is the enemy. More to come in Part 2.

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To Codify or Not. Thoughts on the Documentary Film

To Codify or Not> Thoughts on the Documentary Film by Ron Steinman

Lately I have been thinking about filmmaking based on fact. By that, I mean any use of a sequence of moving pictures strung together to make a story that communicates ideas and, yes, emotion though fact based journalists and filmmakers will deny emotion has a role. However, the filmmaker’s vision, even if suspect, always comes into play. As we know, making a film about something real is more a craft than art. It is infinite in its variety but not nearly so much as is the narrative film.

The films that concern me are independent documentaries usually made for theatrical distribution that often only play on the festival circuit. These, if the filmmaker is fortunate, sometimes find a home on television. We must also consider the quasi-fact documentary often replete with re-enactments produced for cable and sometimes even, sadly for PBS. I include, too, the more intimate or classic TV news story as well as the slightly longer magazine piece that has elements of the documentary but falls short because of length. We would not have had the TV news story had not the classic documentary film previously existed. I will also add that it is impossible to create a documentary, a fact film with depth if there is not enough time on the screen. More about that later.

Today, with newspapers in freefall, the migration of video to the Web is proliferating rapidly. Video by itself is everywhere on the Web, along with multi-media presentations that include stills, video, interviews and natural sound. We find these on those sites that produce news where once only still photographs dominated. As an aside, however, I believe the still photograph is the single most powerful way to tell a story, even stronger than words alone. That instantaneous capture of a moment is unmatched by any medium. I know this sounds like heresy for all those who believe video will replace the still, but video should never replace the still. We should not relegate it to the trash heap of creativity because video seems so exciting. There must always be room for the still photograph. In this respect, I think, too, of the new legion of gurus who believe they are re-reinventing the wheel for telling a story with video. Alas, they and we are not so fortunate to have a single template that fits all. In spite of everything, a wheel is a wheel is a wheel.

Contrary to the way some think, video stories for the Web should not have a language or grammar different from visual stories as they once appeared in newsreels and now appear on television. There are really no new techniques in telling a story with moving pictures and sound if clear communication is the goal. Though we can massage technique with quick cuts, slow dissolves, out-of-focus shots, heavy contrast, extra movement with the camera, nothing replaces the story. Classic elements of all story telling, whatever the medium, must remain. That is not a conservative viewpoint. I speak of broadcast TV, the medium in which I grew up where the unspoken mantra was to communicate, communicate. I learned early that if the reporter and producer had to explain their story twice it meant it did not work. Basically, any approach to storytelling fails if it does not communicate its idea. If the idea or message – and by message I do not mean propaganda — is murky or weak, Web video will be a waste of the valuable and shortened time we have in a world increasingly overloaded with more information than any fertile brain can handle.

It is impossible to codify filmmaking, even for the novice, say, in the manner of grammar and how it affects writing. However, there is a grammar of film that is unavoidable but it is unlike the written word. When you think of writing, you must take into consideration, among others, “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White, “Fowler’s Modern English Usage,” The Associated Press writers and editors guide, The New York Times stylebook and other disquisitions on writing. Discussions about language used to appear with regularity in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, and, today, in other publications, mostly online. Language evolves through time. Though there are many stylebooks, none exist as the last word. It comes from the individual who puts pen to paper. But certain elements of language should never change. As much as some writers and critics may want language to change, and as much as they might want to throw any stylebook out the window, if the writer expects to communicate with his or her audience they had better stick to some tried and true rules.

James Joyce survives because, among other things, he is a brilliant curiosity. Except for his early work, “Ulysses” remains difficult. With patience it is a great read. In much of Joyce’s later work he is impossible to understand. This is evident in “Finnegan’s Wake,” a book that hardly anyone comprehends. Samuel Beckett uses words simply to make us think hard about meaning that is often mysterious. But Beckett does not play with the rudimentary language of writing. He plays instead with the mystery behind the language he uses in his plays and novels. W.G Seabald, genius that he was, used language and images like no one who is writing today. Despite the way he mixed media, he never strayed from his goal, which was to tell a story using written and visual prompts to make his points. Rules for style and the use of language evolve over time depending on the era, the culture, the subject, and obviously, the audience. Yet, in some instances correct grammar varies little, especially if the writer wishes his sentences to make sense.

Filmmakers sometimes do whatever they want in a documentary because of the infinite plasticity of the medium. However, plasticity does not always make for clarity. There are always attempts to systemize how and why of the documentary film. It is here where I return to whether or not we should codifying art. When one tries to write a set of rules, even for a craft such as film — sometimes credited as an art — and as diverse as is film, the result is often the lose of creativity. Filmmakers have history on their side rather than laws to live by. This history is anecdotal and part of the oral tradition. It exists in every film ever made, or at least those films of quality and, again, good story telling. This is not a set of laws, as we know them. Filmmakers have other films to guide them either as a way to remain on the reservation or to find a path that is uniquely their own. We learned early in the 20th Century how to use images, meaning how to mix them and move them around for effect, from the great Russian directors V.I Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein and their individual but often similar theories about montage in the first heady days of film. Simply put, depending on how the director selects his shots, he changes the emotion in any way he wants despite how he originally composed his scenes.

In all my years in TV as a writer, a producer and also a director and writer of independent documentary films no one I know has ever proscribed a list of what to do and what not to do in the making of a news spot, a magazine piece, a feature, or a documentary film. As men and women in TV, call us broadcast journalists, we learned by doing. We had mentors who had done in the past what we were doing in the present and what we hoped to do in the future. Most of what we did was hands on backed by the time-tested oral tradition as old as mankind. We never tried to rewrite how the creative process works. We felt that was for the avant-garde and after all, we were in the business of communicating ideas based on facts, and the experience of others, those whose stories we were telling.

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Several of My Recent Books by Ron Steinman

Here are two recent books of mine that I hope will interest readers. One is, “Survival Manual: A Memoir of Near death, Illness and Survival.” It is available as an e-book on all platforms. The other is “The Soldiers’ Story: The Illustrated Edition,” a new version of the original with many new chapters and more than 200 photographs, maps and illustrations. It is available in hard cover online at Amazon and Barnes&Noble among other venues. Thanks for reading.

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A Rocking Chair Review by Ron Steinman

In a sense, dare I say, welcome to a new way of viewing an exhibition of photos, a new approach to gallery hopping done without leaving your rocking chair. Or is it simply a modern way to look at art without going to a gallery and seeing art or objects in 2D instead of 3D, the mode that defines more deeply what you are viewing.

The Web strikes again as the lazy person’s way to happiness in all things that educate, amuse, titilate and then some, meaning whatever the context, whatever the desire. Many months ago, I could not get to the exhibit of Dennis Hopper’s photos, The Lost Album, at the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Dennis Hopper is the fanous actor, now decesased, who carried a cmaera almost everywhere he went, including the sets of all the films he worked on. I had heard much about his wonderful and quirky eye to make me want to see for myself all the interest.

Time and my schedule did not allow me the freedom to wander through the gallery and enjoy, or not, the photos displayed on its walls. Instead, I went online and because of the Internet, I was able to view, perhaps more intimately and easily with more comfort, an exhibition I originally wanted to see in person. The site did not display every picture found in the gallery. Not too bad when I considered that once in the gallery, if I ever went, not all the photos would interest me anyway.

After having indulged my curiosity, I now wonder if this was a new way to visit a gallery, assuming everything I want to see is on the Web? Perhaps. Is it a better way to view photos? Not necessarily, but it works well if you have the patience and the off-hour time, maybe very late at night. The inability to sleep also helps.

Some of Hopper’s photos are throwaways. Others are, well, just there, seemingly nothing more than an image caught by Hopper’s inquiring eye. Many, though, are of the moment. Hopper composed them with his sharp eye and an understanding of his subject. Overall, many of the pictures are daring and go beyond the simplicity of quick-snaps, usually a fault of the amateur street photographer. Most of the pictures, as well, are natural and rarely posed. They are always interesting and demanding of our attention, no matter how odd the angle or the subject within the frame.

My schedule opened up before the exhibitioon closed and I was able to get to the gallery to see the photos arrayed on the walls as the curator hoped I would see them. Despite the convenience of seeing the photos on my computer in my home or office, nothing beats viewing photos, and I am sure any other art, real and true in a gallery as they are meant to be seen. Final thought says clearly that the gallery experience is still supreme, so take advantage of it whenever you can. Sitting at your computer is not a bad way to view art but it should never replace looking at real art under proper lighting in a gallery setting designed for the best in viewing pleasure. \

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The End of Romance Part 4 by Ron Steinman

This page is intentionally blank. It will remain so until there are readers of the novel. When there are readers for “The End of Romance,” I will post new chapters.

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The End of Romance Part 3 by Ron Steinman

 For the first time since I have known him, the executive producer said to anyone who would listen, he saw a shift in the roles on the set. The previous male anchor was affable, wise, almost the wife, and the one who would compromise for the good of the family. Under these changed circumstances, maintaining that mood might be impossible. The would-be anchor lady — I can’t call her a woman because I am not certain she will accept her birth role, no matter her gender — is powerfully aggressive. She dives in and takes over whenever she sees an opening. That doesn’t always sit well with the new guy. He is supposed to be in charge on the set. Yet, the executive producer, despite his tunnel vision, often a by-product of pot, and Four Feathers whiskey, thinks she will develop into the perfect on-the-air wife who is warm, friendly, kind, willing to do anything, well almost anything, for the sake of peace.

         Despite the problems, the show has a good look and feel, and the audience cannot begin to guess all the tensions. Both anchors are intelligent and talented, but don’t put them in the same sauna together. One of them would not come out alive. When they are in front of the camera, they are nearly perfect. Outside in the real world, they do not speak to each other. They never mix socially which speaks loudly of their distaste for the other. They never go to the favored newsroom saloon even if they know the other is drinking elsewhere. To do so would be weak and potentially pandering to the staff that eats and drinks there daily. One of them might make a surprise appearance and force them to be together, if only briefly. Most on staff care only about their weekly paycheck. They have no involvement is what I call the life of the show. They go home at night, or wherever, and that is it until the next cycle. They love scandal, but most will not take one side over the other, at least in public and blow a good deal for themselves.

         Yet, in this day of budding feminism, here’s a woman, this Sally James, who decides she will no longer be a role player. She wants everything her way and she refuses to be submissive. Rightfully so. Good for her. We, her producers, make the mistake in not realizing that women are the biggest audience we have for the show. The women at home root for her at every opportunity, though silently. They cannot let her know how much they care. That would be giving away much of their power. Sally clearly has other plans. She, as the woman anchor has made a choice and a decision. Her choice is to be more aggressive than she has been in the past, both on and off the air. Her decision is to carve a place for herself outside the path a woman usually takes in broadcasting, especially outside the track normally open to a woman. It seems to me Sally wants to, better yet, she insists on doing more herself. She prefers not to use an assistant to find her guests to interview. Once during the Wisconsin primary she wandered through the set, a massive hotel lobby in Milwaukee, looking for fresh name guests for that morning’s show. We happened to be broadcasting near the restaurant where all the politicians had their morning coffee. Though we were on the air one hour earlier than Eastern Time, enough men and women, political operatives and pundits, were also wandering through the lobby on their way to breakfast meetings and strategy sessions. Sally James had no shame. In her bathrobe and still wearing curlers, she approached people to appear live with her that morning. Many said no. Two said yes. She got what she wanted and controlled her destiny by saying the hell with how she looked. Her public appearance, often the mark of a star, meant nothing to her then. After she booked her guests, she turned them over to an associate producer. Sally took the elevator to her suite, dressed, removed the curlers, did a quick study on whom she booked, and returned to the set for the show opening.”

          Morris did not doubt that Sally James had already decided on her next step. There was an unwritten rule that major interviews would go only to the male anchor. She broke that rule, arranging to interview major figures on her own without consulting the producers. It was unusual because it went against common practice. When she hooked a guest, Sally demanded she do the interviews by herself or she would release the guest to another show, or even to another network. We producers feared we would lose the guest, he remembers, and we let he do what she wanted. In the future, she would control her bookings, gathering and coddling guests, as she wanted. Sally won another major battle. We producers were also afraid she might defect. We could not guess where she might go and what she might do next. The other networks did not yet have strong morning shows. There were only three networks and one had no morning show. We found her possible departure to be beyond our consideration. Sally James had become strong, so strong that she established a lifelong pattern of daring her bosses with direct and implied threats to meet her needs to further her career. Morris confided at the time.

         Sally had a theory that she wanted me to understand. She told me about a gathering of women she got together with periodically. “Scare them into capitulation, and they will go to their knees every time,” she told me she told her friends one night at a party in her apartment. The women would wolf down another bag of Owl potato chips, sip their Rheingold Beer, dabble in sips of Tio Pepe Sherry, gobble quarts of vanilla ice cream and giggle their hearts out feeling that their success would be next. Success is truly heady. She and her friends imagined they would run their own network, men would be subservient to them professionally, and, hopefully, good lovers when off the reservation. Their dreams were enough to get them through the evening without too much weeping. That is what Sally told me.”

Robert Morris stops the tape recorder, rises slowly and goes to the mirror that hangs behind the door in his office. His ex-wife gave him the small mirror with a fake gilt frame so he could make sure he kept his tie knotted properly and his hair, though thinning, in place before he went to a meeting or held one in his office. He still used the mirror though the time of everyone wearing suits and ties was slowly ending. The mirror reminded him of her, her beauty, her charm, a mixture of Deep South from Georgia, and Northern New England from Maine. He recalled her body and her refusal to allow herself, in his words, to be, to let the person he thought she was, enough freedom so the two of them could enjoy what each had to give. But she kept her true self in hiding, choosing to dress like an early 20th Century schoolteacher and also thinking like one. It was a marriage not meant to be, but they were suddenly one sweet day in the spring when everything in the world looked and felt perfect. They had been living together, mostly, though they each kept an apartment. He rarely spent any time in his own one room rental. The inevitable happened. After never mentioning marriage, they thought about it simultaneously, and, as if by osmosis, they said to each other without thinking let us get married. They married in a simple ceremony with a few friends and no parents from either side present. Afterwards they went home to her apartment. Starting what they considered a new life, they rented a one bedroom near work and began what they assumed would be the foundation of a full life. Once they were a couple, it started to fail almost from their first night together. It was a memory that Morris hated to relive, but one that he never seemed to bury. He turned from the mirror and walked to the window of his office that overlooked a main thoroughfare. Enough of that, of her, he thought. That was many years ago. Happily, there were no children. My God, he thought, that would have been a terrible mess. Happily was a word he never thought he would use in describing that marriage.

 Robert Morris in Love.

Lest anyone come to the wrong conclusion, Robert Morris had a life outside the news business. He never stopped thinking about his past. He constantly screwed up that life because he could not satisfy his appetite, always needing to try something new, as long as a woman was part of the experience. He did not think he would find any answers to why he did what he did, but he enjoyed going back in time as an excuse for not facing the present. He was not a masochist despite having had a very messy life.

Robert Morris’ recent love affair had about it the feel of a 1930s romantic movie. It had started slowly because Robert, for all his bluster when with other men, was shy with women. A year earlier, he ended, or, that is, his wife had ended his second marriage. His first marriage, the one from more than twenty years earlier, lasted only ten months with an annulment mutually agreed to because of so-called incompatibility. Incompatibility was a lawyer’s reason for ending a marriage between two youngsters who were running from reality. They had passionately consummated the marriage on their honeymoon, followed by ice cream cones at a shop next to the motel. They seemed compatible in bed, but soon there was trouble. He wanted frequent sex. She did not. That is why the relationship ended. The reason for the annulment, a lie, took place in a Mexican courtroom with neither Morris nor his wife present. New York recognized it, and wiped the marriage off the books. The marriage never had a chance of success because neither person, each barely in their twenties, was ready to share life with someone else.

From his second marriage, he had two children, a boy now six, and a girl now four. Both sweet, charming, and like so many children of well-to-do parents who could give their children almost everything except love, both were very bright. Morris missed them and had little chance to see them because his wife had moved herself and the children to Cleveland, a city he rarely visited to get them out of his glare. The marriage had collapsed, as so many others in the business, for a simple reason — because he was never home. On the road, as with many of his contemporaries, he tinkered with other women, the way a stamp collector dabbled in rare stamps. Robert Morris said he never missed an opportunity to score especially when someone approached him, something he believed happened with regularity. He never would admit that he initiated most approaches. The pass, as he called it, worked because of booze, mutual loneliness and long hours. His divorce did not erase the usual inability he had in his dealings with women, but now that he had formally severed his life from his wife, it made his sex life easier. Now there were no strings in a relationship. But he was getting older and the younger women, those who were the most desirable, often had younger men on their minds. It was not golden as he hoped it would be. All this was typical of any male in his mid-forties who lived in the eighth decade of the Twentieth Century and who worked in TV news. At least that is how Robert Morris rationalized it. That is, until Tina came along.

Tina R. was an elegant woman. She worked at the network in an upscale executive office in Human Relations, what Morris used to know as personnel. Human Relations was a corporate catchall to put a face on the often-inhuman relations management had with its employees, especially those who were in a union. Her office had floor to ceiling wraparound windows that let her peek at the unsuspecting tops of people’s heads in the street below. Tina R. through hard work dressed perfectly and was always ready to do battle in honor of her sex. She had become a living clone of the daily style pages of The New York Times, especially, the sycophantic Sunday charity ball and wedding sections. She looked as if she just stepped out of Vogue. Really, though, if you knew her well, she let you know that she took a different approach to buying clothing. If you followed her, you might see her slyly sneaking out of a fashionable, inexpensive boutique on Lower Broadway or the Lower East Side, where she purchased the latest in styles, and even knock-offs, for far less money. When it came to wearing clothing, style came before her pride.

To an outsider, a voyeur, peeping without shame, who might be spying on her for self-satisfaction, she conveyed an air of perfect contentment. On the surface, she carried herself with an ease she supported with a studied, demanding understanding of her, or so she believed. She possessed enough arrogance to make a difference in what she saw in her face in the bathroom mirror each morning, compared to who she was inside her highly toned body. This illusion of her real self, allowed her, if only for a few hours each day, to be the image of perfection as she made her way through the halls of the network. Each morning after her intensive workout in the gym, she stopped at coffee wagon outside network headquarters. She bought an average tasting coffee with skim milk, and a mass-produced homemade, sugar rich muffin. The Slovakian immigrant put her purchase into a pristine, brown paper bag that she carried to her desk. Though the desk was a mass-produced knockoff, a fake, it looked great to outsiders because of its clean lines. Having a cheap, highly stylized desk saved the company money and gave offices for executives an expensive look and feel.

Tina, who loved food, would eat anything put on plate in front of her, yet she never gained weight. She had more energy that most other women she knew. She was always moving even if she had nowhere to go. She had a hard body from hard work, a silicon look without the injections. Robert Morris found that attractive. Her perfectly formed frame with every muscle in place had little room for additional tissue. She carried no excess weight, thus no fat. Because of her high metabolism, she had the physical ability to expend energy without effort. It helped her stay in shape. She looked like a life-sized poster of women body builders that we find pasted to walls in gas stations, and hanging in gyms and health clubs everywhere. Yet, she did not have the excessively sculptured muscles that came from hours of sweaty, heavy lifting. She was an aerobics queen with the stamina of a cheetah. Her workout clothing was stylish and fit her perfectly. She envied her personal trainer’s sculptured body but she refused, as some of her friends did with their personal trainers, to get involved with a man who lacked anything but the ability to order her around while she grappled with crude, cast iron dumbbells. Her personal trainer was socially fumbling, but genuine for all that his muscle-bound brain bought to each session. It was something she enjoyed in a man, but only on a limited basis. Robert Morris was the exception to her rule, because of his intellect. He rarely worked out. It took too much time and energy. But Tina admired him anyway. He was self- assured and tough-minded. Little did she know how he daily had to shore himself up so he would not fall apart in front of her or the people he worked with. Morris sometimes gave into his frustrations by raising his voice, and by bellowing in front of others to make sure his subordinates followed his orders.

Robert Morris’ sudden fits of temper never worked with Tina. Fortunately, she had a low attention span, which meant she always had something new in view before she completed the task in front of her. It meant that Morris and his moods were temporary setbacks as she moved to something new, fresh during the day at work, and night at play.

Her professional demeanor revealed anyone observing her that she was at peace with herself, and confident with the position she had at the network. However, some people sensed that her permanently tweaked mind had a coat of micro thin, black Teflon that allowed her to escape reality and the responsibility that went with it. Her enemies accused her of using her eclectic taste in clothing as a way to overcome her inability to think creatively. In the decidedly man’s world where she existed, being better dressed than the men around her had always been a distinct advantage in the pursuit of her dream. Tina barreled her way to the top mainly because of her intelligence. She understood a hard-nosed mind was different from a creative one. She never admitted to a few good girl friends after drinks that bedding selected men had also been a major help.

When alone, she often thought about her job description. She knew there was nothing in her contract that said she had to hold hands with someone like Robert Morris, a man she soon realized was needy to the core. After all, she was not a priest, less a nun. Thank you, God, for making me the way I am, she thought. She really had important things to do, she told herself silently, quickly, even nodding her head to reaffirm she meant what she thought. She wanted to get on with her corporate life. Robert Morris had been a good time for her, but with all things, that too had to end. She expected that Robert Morris would not mind. He had too many responsibilities outside the network to attach himself to one person for good. The thought of being one woman for one man frightened her. She refused to accept it as a way of life. Tina R.’s tactics were studied, thus mostly perfect. She knew she had to separate herself from Robert Morris. As usual, she was right. She started zinging Robert to make him feel off balance. She knew she had to soon take the opportunity to say what she really thought, things that she has been saving inside her head all the years she had known him, including the time before they became a couple. She had become weary of his, to her mind, whining, and his self-righteous posturing, especially when he had a few drinks. For her, he had outlived his once amusing and contentious presence. She did not fully understand his anger. She did not fathom his fear. She did not grasp the core of his hostility. As she came closer to ending their relationship, she realized she did not want to understand very much about him. She wondered, too, after the yearlong affair, why she thought of him in those ways: hostile, angry, fearful, self-righteous, no longer amusing. She wondered, but only for a moment. She had to get on with her life. Robert Morris no longer fit her plans. It was time to move on.

Now when he talked to Tina on the phone, Robert could hear her laugh. Recently her laugh had become what he called, thin. Not hearty. Not real. He could not see her wide grin, which would have exposed to him the truth of his feelings. When talking to him, Tina tapped her right foot against the floor very quickly. Her fully exposed leg from the thigh down to the tip of her toe jiggled and bounced in alternate patterns almost uncontrollably. She brushed her hair from her forehead in a circular motion. She twirled and twisted it around her forefinger, repeatedly. She stopped and held a length of her hair in her hand, looked at it, and sniffed it. Bored and distracted. She craved immediate attention from elsewhere, anywhere but from Robert Morris.

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Brassai: Paris Nocturne — Book Review by Ron Steinman

Brassai

Paris Nocturne

By Sylvie Aubenas and Quentin Bajac

Thames and Hudson, Inc

308 pages

Brassai was not his real name. Born in Brasso, Hungry in 1899 as Gyula Halasz into a middle class intellectual family, he took the name Brassai as a tribute to the town where he grew up. He arrived in Paris in 1924 after studying sculpture and painting and working in Berlin as a journalist. He lived in the artist’s quarter of Montparnasse and wandered the streets after dark, often alone. In Paris, he wrote and he drew, until, in 1929, he picked up a camera and started taking photos. His fascination with documenting the underside of Paris at night became his passion. So began what would constitute his most important work and his most creative period.

The finely reproduced black and white pictures in this large format book take us through that important period as an artist when he photographed prostitutes, pimps, brothels, opium dens, drugs, homosexuality, gangsters, transvestites, lesbians, lovers, tradesmen, gypsies, chorus girls, and poverty. Henry Miller and Pablo Picasso were his friends. Miller called him “the eye of Paris,” at least for what he photographed. He was also close to the writers Jacques Prevert and Raymond Queneau. His work reflects his sometime dark vision especially when he focused his lens on a face, people in action, a street lamp, and wet cobblestones.

His middle class background tells us nothing of why or how he became a great photographer with more iconic and oft imitated images to his credit in a the short span of four years than most have in a lifetime. In looking at an artist’s life, we often wonder about the impetus of his or her creativity. Brassai said he was seeking, “The very essence of Paris.” His uncomplicated antecedents seem to be all we know about his apparently normal early life. We will never know what attracted Brassai to the nighttime world of Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. We will never know what drew him to the dark streets and the private rooms and public spaces where people congregated, ate, drank, and spent their lives in the pursuit of pleasure. There is nothing in his background on why Paris after dark became his outlet for creative expression. He did say, though, “I lived at night, going to bed at sunrise, getting up at sunset, wandering about the city from Montparnasse to Montmartre.” He said “ Taking pictures was nothing other than a pleasure for me.” Perhaps this is all we have to know.

The book chronicles the most fruitful period of Brassies’ creativity. All 296 illustrations in the book, including 214 in duotone, come from 1929-1934. The book by Sylvie Aubenas and Quentine Bajac, with a brief introduction and three clear, incisive essays brings together some of the best known images from Brassai’s books, “Paris After Dark” and “Secret Paris.”

By the time Brassai was at work full time on his photos, other photographers such as Germaine Krull and André Keitesg were doing similar work in magazines such as “Voila” and “Vu.” Many photographers in the Paris of the 1920s and 1930s worked on commission and placed their work in hard-edged police procedurals such as “Detective.” No doubt, these photographers fed off each other in ways they never suspected. What Brassai did was not new, but his approach, his soul, and endless understanding of the Paris nightlife set him apart from his contemporaries. He had an understanding how people acted inside the frame of the camera, an important often-subtle distinction from other photographers at that time.

He used a large Voigtlander Bergheil folding plate, drop bed camera, usually with a tripod. That allowed him to take only four or five pictures a night. Using that camera gave him the chance for long exposures. He had great skill and patience working with artificial light. He had an innate, self-taught understanding of the amount of time it took to get his shot and how deep its focus would be with the resultant odd angles found in many of his street photos. Brassai insisted that he was not a slave to technique. The technique he used came naturally to him and it was not until later in his life that he explored its meaning. But his creativity did not stop when he captured the image he wanted. Because his photos often told the story of decadence better than reams of written words, Brassai spent the time he needed to develop his own prints. Thus, he controlled the photo from its conception to its birth.

On occasion, as was typical of the period, he staged people and scenes, especially couples, paying modest fees for their work and their permission to shoot. He often changed his approach as the night progressed until he got the images he wanted. If he could help it, he left nothing to chance, especially when he had a commission from a magazine. But he did not stage everything. He still roamed the underside of Paris, when required being discreet as possible looking for those images that set his work apart. He called what he did a “ voyage to the end of the night.” However, his wanderings were never without problems. Thugs would steal and wreck his equipment. Pimps would threaten his life. No matter, he continued his trek undaunted.

Look carefully at Brassai’s photos generously arrayed before us in this new book. Appreciate his instinct as created various moods through light and shapes and angles. See how he understands depth and contrast, and how his perspective makes some of his streetscapes appear to be three-dimensional. Feel what he felt when he took the pictures. Welcome what your eye sees. In thinking about Brassi, it should only matter how the photo affects your emotions and the story it tells.

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