Remembering Bert Stern, commercial and celebrity photographer

I just read about the death, two days ago, of Bert Stern (3 October 1929 – 26 June 2013), the commercial and celebrity photographer who made his name in the 1960s as being one of a group of photographers who revolutionised commercial photography from being merely illustrative to being a valid form of conceptual art.

stern_smirnoffOf his commercial images, a shot of a martini glass with an inverted image of the Pyramid of Giza showing through the glass, done for a Smirnoff advert, remains one of his most enduring commercial images.

A self-taught photographer, Stern’s style was generally clear and uncluttered. His best-known work was probably his 3-day shoot (for Vogue Magazine) with Marilyn Monroe shortly before her death in 1962. The shoot resulted in some 2500 images, including some of the most enduring images of the iconic actress. (Years later, he did a similar session with Lindsay Lohan, trying to replicate the success of his Marilyn images, but these were widely criticised as being exploitative and tawdry.)

He also photographed many other famous models and actresses from the 1960s onwards, another of his most recognisable images being an evocative portrait of 13-year old actress Sue Lyon posing with a red lollipop and heart-shaped sunglasses – this became the poster-image for Stanley Kubrick’s controversial film version of Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’.

lolita_kubrick_film_cover

Stern’s work is featured in the International Museum of Photography, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Chewing gum, barcodes and conspiracies

It’s 26 June, and it was on this day 39 years ago that an inconspicuous little pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum hit the spotlight, to become perhaps the most famous packet of chewing gum in modern history – it became the first barcoded product to be scanned in a supermarket, fundamentally changing the way we shop.

A testbed barcode system was installed in a supermarket in Troy, Ohio (near the factory producing the barcode scanning equipment), and at 8:01 on the morning of 26 June 1974, an unsuspecting shopper, Clyde Dawson, presented a packet of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum to the supermarket teller, Sharon Buchanan, who successfully scanned the product’s Universal Product Code (UPC). Sadly for Dawson, he never got to eat his chewing gum – the pack of gum, together with its receipt, is now on display in the Smithsonian Institute, representing the first commercial appearance of the UPC. (I can only assume he was well compensated for this special little item.)

A barcoded pack of chewing gum - it may be a common sight today, but in 1974 it was special enough to end up in the Smithsonian Institute. (© All Rights Reserved)
A barcoded pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum – it may be a common sight today, but in 1974 it was special enough to end up in the Smithsonian Institute.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The introduction of barcode scanning at the supermarket checkout introduced a number of benefits – it simplified the job of the teller, who no longer had to key in the price of each item, it reduced human input errors, and it captured a lot more sales information for the shop, thus allowing them to to achieve greater responsiveness to customer needs and buying trends. Barcodes on products have also significantly reduced the price tag swapping technique of shoplifting.

Shops in the US converted consistently over time, and by the early 80’s, 8000 stores per year were adopting the UPC. Adoption soon spread internationally, causing a fair amount of consternation among conspiracy theorists, who considered the barcode a visible and intrusive example of ‘big brother’ watching and monitoring their personal shopping habits.

From the retail sector the use of barcodes has spread to a wide range of application domains – healthcare centres and hospitals use it for patient identification and medication management. Postal services use it to track and trace mail. It is used as part of ticketing at events and transportation services. Barcodes have even appeared in art, for example Scott Blake’s Barcode Jesus.

It is certainly impossible to imagine modern life without the familiar little striped strip that appears on almost everything we deal with in our daily life, except perhaps for fresh produce. But times change, and slowly but surely so do the barcodes we see around us. These days more and more products are appearing carrying so-called Quick Response (QR) codes – probably the most popular 2D (or matrix) barcode – which can represent more data per unit area.

But that, as they say in the classics, is a story for another day…

Winter solstice in the South

It’s 21 June, it’s Winter Solstice here in the Southern Hemisphere, and at just after 5pm in the afternoon in New Zealand, the shortest day of the year is already dwindling fast.

And what a winter solstice it has been for the country – some of the worst snow storms in recorded history covering much of the South Island in a thick white blanket, while other areas are bludgeoned by extreme tropical storms. Over the last two days, the capital Wellington has been one of the worst hit areas, with flooding and winds of up to 200km/h.

A chilly winter solstice down south. (© All Rights Reserved)
A chilly winter solstice down south.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Scary stuff, but then again, winter solstice does kind of give one that feeling that from here it can only get better – longer days, increasing temperatures, new growth, new life…

And if nothing else, crisp winter mornings are just the greatest for some amazing frosty photo opportunities all around us. That’s the joy of photography – no matter how cold, or how extreme the conditions, there’s always something amazing to photograph (often the more extreme, the better, in fact!).

To everyone in the southern hemisphere, enjoy the opportunities the cold bring. And for my northern friends, have a great summers day (hard to imagine down here, I have to admit)!

Finding beauty all around us on Nature Photography Day

Today, 15 June, is Nature Photography Day. Originally started by the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) to “promote the enjoyment of nature photography, and to explain how images have been used to advance the cause of conservation and protect plants, wildlife, and landscapes locally and worldwide”, I am sure it is a day that most photographers, amateur or professional, will have some affinity for.

Nature Photography Day was first celebrated in 2006, and it has been enthusiastically adopted around the world. As stated on their website, “NANPA encourages people everywhere to enjoy the weekend by using a camera to explore the natural world. A backyard, park, or other place close by can be just right. Walking, hiking, and riding a bike to take photos are activities that don’t lead to a carbon footprint. And fresh air can do wonders for the spirit!” And how true that is – nothing like spending some time in the fresh morning air, camera in hand, to capture the majesty of the natural world around us.

(© All Rights Reserved)
(© All Rights Reserved)
Whether it's a majestic vista or a tiny bit of natural magic in the corner of the garden, there's beautiful subject matter all around us for Nature Photography Day. (© All Rights Reserved)
Whether it’s a majestic vista or a tiny bit of natural magic in the corner of the garden, there’s beautiful subject matter all around us for Nature Photography Day.
(© All Rights Reserved)

And you don’t have to go far to discover something wonderful – an attentive eye is all that is required to find beauty all around us – plants covered in early morning dew, insects busily at work around the garden, animals small and large, birds of all shapes and sizes.

While Nature Photography Day is first and foremost a day for personal enjoyment, meant to bring each of us closer to nature, NANPA is also hosting a Nature Photography Day Facebook Page, where anyone is invited to upload their images – the only ‘rule’ being that all photos “must be taken on June 15, 2013, within walking (or biking) distance of wherever you are.”

By the time that this blog entry is published, I will be spending some time in New Zealand’s majestic Tongariro National Park, and I sincerely hope I will be able to capture some moments of natural beauty. Irrespective of the results of my photographic endeavours on the day, however, I am first and foremost hoping to have fun doing it – after all, that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Celebrating two innovative photographic artists

Today, 11 June, is quite a big day in photographic history – it is on this day that we celebrate the births of two great photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron (11 June 1815 to 26 January 1879) from Great Britain, and the American Jerry Uelsmann (born 11 June 1934).

Cameron and Uelsmann operate in very different photographic domains – while Julia Cameron was a groundbreaking portrait photographer, Uelsmann is known for his fantastical darkroom creations, and is considered the forerunner of the photomontage technique.

Portrait of the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor Sir John Herschel, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867. This portrait illustrates Cameron's trademark tightly cropped, soft focus style, and her uncanny ability to bring out the character of her subjects.  [Public domain - copyright expired]
Portrait of the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor Sir John Herschel, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867. This portrait illustrates Cameron’s trademark tightly cropped, soft focus style, and her uncanny ability to bring out the character of her subjects.
[Public domain – copyright expired]

Julia Margaret Cameron was a key figure in the development of the modern portrait style. Her influence in this field is particularly significant if one takes into account that her photographic career only spanned eleven years – she only took up photography at the late age of 48 when she received a camera as a present from her daughter. She took to the discipline with great vigour and had an obvious knack for photography, quickly becoming a prominent member of the Photographic Societies of London and Scotland. In her short career she photographed many famous celebrities and historical figures, and she is also known for allegorical works featuring religious and literary themes.

One of the innovations Cameron brought to portrait photography was cropping her portraits much more tightly than was the norm at the time. Another interesting technique she used, was to photograph her subjects intentionally slightly out of focus, and using long exposures, thus creating images that also contained motion blur. While this led some of her contemporaries to ridicule her work, she remained extremely prolific, leaving behind a very comprehensive portrait library for her time.

Besides her technical and artistic innovations, Cameron also brought her innovative nature to bear on the business side of photography – she registered each of her photos with the copyright office, and kept detailed records of all her work. This careful bookkeeping has resulted in a large number of her works surviving today.

While Cameron is an influential figure in portrait photography, her influence only came to bear long after her death – as mentioned before, many of her contemporaries found her soft-focus, closely cropped portraits ridiculous and unacceptable. Things have changed, though, with many claiming her to be one of the portraiture greats – Imogen Cunningham said “I’d like to see portrait photography go right back to Julia Margaret Cameron. I don’t think there’s anyone better”, while Getty Images have stated “Cameron’s photographic portraits are considered among the finest in the early history of photography”.

Untitled (Tree House), by Jerry Uelsmann, 1982. It is quite unbelievable to think that Uelsmann's photo montages were done using film negatives in the darkroom, without any modern digital processing.
Untitled (Tree House), by Jerry Uelsmann, 1982. It is quite unbelievable to think that Uelsmann’s photo montages were done using film negatives in the darkroom, without any modern digital processing.

Unlike Julia Cameron, Jerry Uelsmann’s interest in photography started at the much younger age of 14. While still at school he started landing a few minor photography jobs, and after completing his tertiary studies in photography, he took up a job teaching photography at the University of Florida in 1960.

From early in his career Uelsmann developed an interest in darkroom image manipulation, creating composite images from multiple negatives. Some of his creations, done using his large archive of negatives, were amazingly intricate, often requiring him to work with multiple enlargers during the same session. Referring to his works as “allegorical surrealist imagery of the unfathomable”, he never cared about the boundaries suggested by the photographic realists of hie time. Instead, he opted to use components of a number of different photographs to create and share the images he saw in his mind, thus developing the photo montage technique to an amazingly advanced technical level.

What made the impact of his work even greater was that he created his photo-fantasies at a time when such montages weren’t at all a common concept – photos were essentially considered realistic documentary interpretations of scenes and events. As such, Uelsmann’s avant grade photographic visuals helped to greatly expand the boundaries of photography as an art form.

To this day, despite the proliferation of digital processing tools and techniques, Uelsmann continues to use traditional equipment and his almost magical darkroom skills have resulted in works of breathtaking intricacy – a visit to his website to look through some of his works from the past decade (and earlier) is well worth your time.

Like Cameron, Uelsmann’s work was initially not looked upon kindly by his contemporaries. Like Cameron, however, Uelsmann’s work has stood the test of time and is now being acknowledged for their groundbreaking disregard for the styles, norms and trends of the time – as such playing an important role in advancing the art of photographic.

Both Julia Margaret Cameron and Jerry Uelsmann have succeeded, in very different ways, to move beyond mere photography to create original works of art – in Cameron’s case, vividly personal, yet almost impressionistic portraits, and in Uelsmann’s case, surrealistic visions from the mind of their creator.

Inspiring stuff!

Half a ton, and counting…

Yesterday the Sciencelens blog reached a bit of a personal milestone – 500 followers!

After feeling quite chuffed with myself for a bit, I started thinking about what it means, and I guess it’s really one of those numbers that’s neither here nor there. A year ago, when 100 followers still seemed a distant target for me, I saw another blogger commenting about reaching the 400 follower mark, and thought it was amazing. On the other hands, many blogs I read regularly count many thousands of people among their signed-up followers.

So yes, its many, but at the same time not that much.

There's always something worthwhile photographing or writing about.
There’s always something worthwhile photographing or writing about.

For one thing, reaching this landmark is definitely enough to inspire me to keep going, to keep looking for amusing topics to write about, striking things to photograph, and wacky events to celebrate.

So, to use a popular phrase of the Hash House Harriers (one of my favourite global running institutions):
On-On!

Think before you eat, and help save the environment!

It’s 5 June, which means it’s World Environment Day again. Last year the theme was “Green Economy: Does it include you?”, and I wrote about it here. This year, the focus moves from money to food, with the theme for 2013 being “Think.Eat.Save”.

The Think.Eat.Save campaign is an anti-waste and anti food-loss campaign. The message is that we should all take responsibility to reduce our ‘foodprint’ – the amount of food we unnecessarily waste in our daily lives. The latest stats from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) shows that no less than 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year. According to the UNEP website, the quantity of food wasted worldwide is equivalent to the total amount of food produced annually in sub-Saharan Africa. That is scary, and given the number of people in developing countries suffering from undernourishment and malnutrition (more than 20,000 children under the age of 5 die daily from hunger), the figure becomes truly horrendous.

Grow your own food - it tastes better, it's lighter on your pocket, and it's better for the environment! (© All Rights Reserved)
Grow your own food – it tastes better, it’s lighter on your pocket, and it’s better for the environment!
(© All Rights Reserved)
…and if you happen to grow too much to eat, think about ways of using your surplus stock effectively - preserving, for example, allows you to enjoy your homegrown veges long after they were taken out of the ground. (© All Rights Reserved)
…and if you happen to grow too much to eat, think about ways of using your surplus stock effectively – preserving, for example, allows you to enjoy your homegrown veges long after they were taken out of the ground.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The Think.Eat.Save campaign “encourages you to become more aware of the environmental impact of the food choices you make and empowers you to make informed decisions”. While it’s easy to point the finger to big companies who waste loads of food catering for corporate events etc, escaping the blame is not that easy – reducing the global food wastage begins with each of us, at home. By putting a little thought into your food regime – thinking about what you eat, thinking about how you use the left-overs, etc, you can save loads and eat much more efficiently.

As an example, eating processed food involves much more wastage than eating freshly produced local fare.

According to UNEP, “the global food production occupies 25% of all habitable land and is responsible for 70% of fresh water consumption, 80% of deforestation, and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. It is the largest single driver of biodiversity loss and land-use change.”

By thinking before you eat, and making informed decisions about food usage (selecting foods with less environmental impact, buying locally, growing your own food, effectively using left-overs) you can do your bit to save your environment.

Reduce food-loss – one bite at a time!

An uplifting tour through earthquake-ravaged Christchurch

While photographing the annual conference of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) in Christchurch recently, I had the privilege of going on a tour through the earthquake-ravaged city. It has been more than 2 years since a devastating earthquake hit Christchurch on 22 February 2011, killing 185 people, and fundamentally changing the lives of many, many more.

The funky, innovative dance-o-mat - a boom box built into an old laundromat washing machine - simply pop in a $2 coin and you can host your own dance party in the middle of Christchurch, right where the main restaurant strip used to be. (© All Rights Reserved)
The funky, innovative dance-o-mat – a boom box built into an old laundromat washing machine – simply pop in a $2 coin and you can host your own dance party in the middle of Christchurch, right where the main restaurant strip used to be.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The face of the city has changed completely – many areas that used to house shops, restaurants and more, are now flat, empty land, used mostly as car-parks. Even residents who knew their city by heart, get lost among the open spaces that have appeared in the inner city where well-known landmarks used to be. Amongst these ugly, industrial-looking spaces, however, the most amazingly innovative use of urban space is emerging – dance floors with a twist, temporary performance spaces, mini-golf courses made from rubble, and much more. For more info on the great initiatives taking place throughout Christchurch, visit the Gap Filler website.

One of the holes of the earthquake rubble mini golf course, spread out throughout the devastated Christchurch inner city. (© All Rights Reserved)
One of the holes of the earthquake-rubble-mini-golf course, spread out throughout the open spaces in Christchurch’s inner city.
(© All Rights Reserved)
The Pallet Pavillion - a temporary performance space for musicians and other performers, built on a demolished building site. (© All Rights Reserved)
The Pallet Pavillion – a temporary performance space for musicians and other performers, built on a demolished building site.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While a tour through the city is a harrowing experience, it is also an uplifting one, testimony to the human spirit and the commitment of a population to making the most of its circumstances. The city has a long way to go to regain its former glory, but given the tenacity and positive spirit of its residents, I have no doubt it will emerge an even greater city than before.

A special experience indeed!