I had gone to the Strand in search of a book on esoteric symbols to use in a photo shoot with an artist colleague of mine. I knew what I wanted and was prepared to search it out, but the dollar stacks outside always call me, and the slight drizzle was wetting the books on the end, so with a slightly pumped up sense of alarm, I permitted myself a quick scan.
Almost immediately I found an unexpected treasure, lying on top of the stacks, probably rejected by another browser: photographer Jacques Lowe's document of the Shah of Iran's giant self-glorifying celebration at Persepolis in 1971, Celebration in Persepolis. I knew about this book, but I don’t remember seeing it. If I had seen I probably wouldn’t have bought it—certainly not for its original price of $20—since I viewed it as the histrionic gesture of a has-been. But the passage of time had placed it in a wholly new light.
I had met Lowe around 1995 when he came to New Orleans to do the "definitive" portrait book on jazz. Knowing nothing about the subject, he had consulted with Winton Marsalis, who had given him all his favorites. A pianist friend of mine directed him to me for the New Orleans scene, and I helped set up two shoots with local players, and got myself included in one of them, so I'm in the book.
I was fascinated with Lowe. He had been JFK's official photographer and had published the definitive book on him after his death. He knew and disliked Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of my idols, and told me why. He had been the official photographer for Britain’s financial district, the City of London. With a solid reputation as a court photographer, the Shah called on him and two other photographers to cover his immense party, celebrating 2500 years of Persian history. I remember when it unfolded. Though we were still in the depths of the Vietnam War, it assembled "more heads of state than had ever been gathered under one royal tent," presumably more dignitaries than came to DeGaulle's memorial the previous year. Of course it celebrates Iran, the country's ethnic diversity, longevity and significance in history, which the Shah, in reality a US puppet, who modernized the country but violently suppressed dissent with his infamous SAVAK secret police, presented himself as the culmination of. And the world's political notables had no compunction about adding to this dictator's glory—and being entertained in grand style. It's an incredible document of its time: Tito of Yugoslavia was there; Agnew (!) was there; the crown heads of Europe (Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Greece, even Juan Carlos before he ascended the Spanish throne at the death of Franco in 1974) were there; Imelda Marcos (the shoe addict) came, so did that tyrant Suharto of Indonesia; the USSR sent Podgorny; France sent Chalban Delmas. It was an amazing piece of self-glorification. He dressed his military in a wide range of historical costumes, so we can imagine what the Greeks confronted when Xerxes invaded, or what the Seljuks or Ottomans saw when they tried to annex Persia. And he made a grand gesture of serving "informal" meals to his guests—a regular guy after all, the Shah (who could pilot his own Boeing 707 out of Iran at the ignominious end of his reign).
Lowe had told me about his experience there, particularly one embarrassing moment when he was photographing the dignitaries' advance as he was backing up, and he stepped into a bucket of caviar. He kept right on backing up, and presumably no one noticed the somewhat odd taste of some of the caviar.
Lowe died in May of 2001 (he still has a website, presumably run by his daughter), and tragically, his trove of negatives was destroyed when the World Trade Towers collapsed.
But this book, which I bought for $1, is our contemporary version of Erich Solomon's invaluable chronicles of diplomatic life on the eve of the Second World War. This plucky Jewish photographer managed to insinuate himself everywhere diplomats gathered in their tuxedos and metals. His most famous photograph shows Aristde Briand, the French diplomat, smiling and pointing to him, saying "Le voilà, le roi des indiscrets!" I have the book, called Portrait of an Age. Solomon was killed by the Nazis.
Solomon's book chronicles the ineffectual negotiations of an elite that would soon be swept away by the tsunami of war. Lowe's portrays an equally smug set of notables before a series of crises replaced them and the various repressive orders they represented, sometimes by more repressive orders, sometimes by chaos, sometimes by democracy (as in the case of the Philippines).
Now, with the exciting events in Egypt and Tunisia, we seem to be on the eve of another cleansing shift in history (and my daughter tells me she's divesting herself of all her books, to replace them with Kindle downloads!), when hopefully the dictators, tyrants, and oppressors of the Middle East—all Mubarak boosters—will soon be a thing of the past.
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
For all the inconvenience of not being able to get around, the ice storm here in northern New Jersey left some beauty behind. Of course, my daughter Molly in Cambridge, Massachusetts, tells me everything up there has been covered with ice for weeks. So I put on my boots, grabbed my photo equipment, including tripod and closeup lens, and set out, intending to reach the woods about 0.15 miles from my house.
I got as far as my back yard—there was already so much beauty. And here it is.