from VANITY FAIR, JANUARY 2001
For the summit of Iwo Jima to Hitler’s Germany to the Hollywood soundstage, pioneers of a new profession created the indelible images of the 20th century. For a portfolio of 18 of photography’s most enduring masters, now clicking into their 80s and 90s, David Friend gets the likes of Joe Rosenthal, Yousouf Karsh, and Cornell Capa to recall the days when their art was young and the stories — the Depression, World War II, the space program — were big.
With new portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
They are in their 80s and 90s now, master photographers all. Some are photojournalists, some portraitists; some have specialized in fashion, others in news or sports or space. But they are of a breed, and of an extraordinary era. Each came of age in the 1930s or 40s, when grave and epic events ‑a depression and a World War‑ demanded to be witnessed by an urgent, accessible medium. At the time, photography was benefiting from a technological golden age that lent it increased flexibility and immediacy. Innovations included the portable 35‑mm camera (1925); the commercial flashbulb (1929), which replaced flash powder; and the Associated Press wirephoto (1935). “It was a very short period,” recalls photographer George Silk, now 84. “In the wave of a wand, here was photojournalism. [Few] professionals anywhere were using miniature cameras. Then [combat photographer] Bob Capa broke the dam, covering the Spanish Civil War in 1936. The public was being shown the world in a whole new look. Amazing.”
It was a time increasingly attuned to the medium’s power. The advertising boom and new printing techniques were dispersing photography ever more widely. The picture magazine, a product of 1920s Germany, became a cultural watershed in America with the birth of Life in 1936. And documentary photography was on the rise, thanks in part to the patronage of the Farm Security Administration, which dispatched a corps of photographers to cover the travails of rural Americans. The craft, it seemed, was acquiring a modicum of respect‑or at least losing its sometimes unsavory status.
“In the 30s,” says Carl Mydans, 93, a veteran of Life and the F.S.A., “when you told someone your son or daughter was a photographer, generally they were not impressed. A writer was important. The perception was that a photographer wore a fedora with a police card in it. He was not very well dressed. He walked beside a handsome, articulate writer. And every now and then the writer would say, ‘Shoot that.’ Suddenly, when Life started up, photography became an important profession to the general public. Even glamorous.” Mydans’s cohort Gordon Parks concurs. “Around that time of the F.S.A.,” says Parks, 88, “the photographer became the star, showing poverty and affecting people. Dorothea Lange. [Margaret] Bourke‑White. Walker Evans. [Marion] Post Wolcott. How could a writer compete with Arthur Rothstein’s Dust Bowl photo? The writer followed the photographer around.”
Nearly three generations later, many of the medium’s most august figures are still at it. Irving Penn, 83, shoots regularly for Vogue. Marty Lederhandler, 83, chases the news four days a week for the New York bureau of the Associated Press. One of Japan’s deans of the image, Hiroshi Hamaya, is 85. Mexico’s Manuel Alvarez Bravo is 98. Luminaries such as the influential “street photographer” Helen Levitt, in her 80s, continue to exhibit their work, as do masters like aerial photographer William Garnett, 83, documentarian Wayne Miller, 82, architectural savant Julius Shulman, 90, and Ruth Bernhard, 95, known for her nudes and still lifes. (Two slightly younger colleagues seem indefatigable. Lennart Nilsson, who made his name photographing the human fetus, is still active at 78; fashion‑and‑portrait giant Richard Avedon is only 77.) One wonders if there isn’t something intrinsic to the profession that encourages longevity ‑maybe an elixir in the waters of the darkroom stop bath. “A lot of photographers go to a ripe old age,” notes Helmut Newton, who turned 80 in October. “Photography. Maybe it helps keep you virile.”
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Some medical experts insist that creative types in general tend to live longer. “Look at [Edward] Steichen’s The Family of Man,” says Dr. Gene Cohen, a specialist in geriatric psychiatry who often studies art and aging. “At 75, Steichen curated what many consider the greatest photo exhibition in history. Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt, published [when Alfred Eisenstaedt was] 86, is a classic example of this.”
In fact, the photographic act requires stamina, sensory acuity, the ability to make snap judgments and to handle equipment that can be delicate as well as bulky. These mental and physical demands, according to researchers, challenge both brain hemispheres and lengthen pathways between brain cells; this, in turn, may promote longer life. “You can infer from brain‑science findings,” insists Cohen, “that older photographers would be high on the list of beneficiaries of brain activity because of all this left‑ and right‑side stimulation. And a new study, selecting for older ‘couch potatoes’ who were [also] engaged in creative pursuits, suggests that activities of the kind photographers are drawn into seem to give a positive boost to the immune system. Which means better overall health and increased longevity.” Photographer Slim Aarons, 80, puts it another way: “A writer can make it up, sitting at his desk, boozing. A photographer has to be on the front lines. Your adrenaline is going. You use everything you have in your body and somehow it translates later on [in life].”
There may be something deeper still. Photographers have perspective. As a rule, they capture events or scenes that occur only once, for an extremely short spell. Yet their images allow others to share snippets of wrested time, for eternity. The best photographers have a gift for rendering the infinite within the instantaneous. “Everything I do before and as I click the shutter,” says portraitist Arnold Newman, 82, “comes from a lifetime of thinking and observing. I would like to think that it results in a richer, fuller, more perceptive life. I savor moments.”
Today, photography is in flux. Never has the image played a more ubiquitous role in popular culture. Never has photo “content” been a more attractive currency, as media companies snap up photo rights, and collectors vie for vintage prints and picture archives. In fact, a new format (the digital camera) and a new medium (the Internet) could have as profound an effect on photography as did the portable camera and the picture magazine more than half a century ago. Say cheese long enough and even film itself may be no more. “The drama of it all does not escape me,” asserts Hollywood photographer Phil Stern, 81. “I no longer have brown fingernails. We no longer use wet chemicals in the lab. I use a computer mouse and Photoshop. The only thing wet now is the cold drink at your computer. I envy the younger guys who have all this at their disposal.”
Each year, however, we lose a few more seers. Celebrity photographer Jean Howard, portraitist Gisèle Freund, Life‘s Ed Clark and John Florea, and Nat Fein, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his Babe Ruth “farewell” shot ‑- all in their 80s -‑ passed away in the last 12 months. Graciously, they leave behind their distinct visions for all time. Their peers are pictured here: elder lensmen whose art, thankfully, still flourishes, helping us appreciate our time, and time itself.