Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Tyrant Is a Person In My Neighborhood

This shameful address is about a half block from the building where I live on E. 56th Street. Walking past it you'd think it was a derelict waiting for a wrecking ball. The street level windows are either blacked or covered in chipped reflector sheets. I've never seen anybody go in or out.

On the dark strip above the blank facade, it says "Republic of Zimbabwe" in letters so faded and worn that it looks like the real sign was taken down years ago and all that's left is the outline of the letters. All in all, it's just the sort of place where you'd expect to find the consulate of a government that has to wear a bag over its head when it goes abroad.

The "Republic" of Zimbabwe is one of the sad places in our world where an entire people is held hostage by its so-called government, a corrupt and barbaric entity consisting of the so-called president, Robert Mugabe, and his loathsome clique of military, police, and their favored private sector cronies, all feeding greedily on the resources of the land and its miserable occupants.

The world doesn't pay much attention because the regime does its brutal best to strangle news about what really goes on there. Among the tools it uses is a national law that gives authorities the right to control and suppress the few news organizations that manage to operate in Zimbabwe, both domestic and foreign.

Rather than accept the terms of the statute, AP decided many years ago to close its bureau in Harare and cover the country with a combination of courageous local freelancers and listening posts in neighboring countries. That hasn't stopped the regime from hounding those journalists, especially at election time, with home invasions, detentions, searches, brutal interrogations and threats of worse.

There are certainly blacker holes on the planet. The Mugabe evils are routine and familiar, made more so for me by this closed fist of a building that I often pass on the way to enjoy the flowers in Central Park. I was doing exactly that earlier this month when I encountered these people, the first sign of life I've ever seen around the place.

They were protesting the arrest, detention and torture of 45 people in February for the crime of watching videos of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. In places like Zimbabwe, information is sedition.

I snapped my picture and went on about my business feeling inadequate. Lines from the James Russell Lowell poem "Freedom" came back to me from school days:

True Freedom is to share
All the chains our brothers wear,
And, with heart and hand, to be
Earnest to make others free.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Retail Recreation

This stately madhouse is the lobby of what used to be the Williamsburg Savings Bank in Brooklyn, at one time the borough's tallest building, though it's in Boerum Hill, not Williamsburg.

The people who commissioned those lofty arches and gilded mosaics certainly never foresaw that one day the space would be harboring a flea market every weekend, but they probably should have. The urge to go shopping strikes me as the biggest single explanation for human aggregations larger than clan-size, and any space large enough to accommodate a market is eventually destined to become one.

It Science is still trying to pin down what distinguishes us from the other beasts, maybe they should consider the will to haggle and trade as uniquely human traits, although it's an astonishing world and I wouldn't be surprised if there are other primates or maybe even some obscure tree frogs or wasps who discovered the joy of buying and selling before we did.

Call it recreation, call it therapy, call it wealth creation, call it a way of life, it's what we do. In a big city, most of your street level surroundings and the visible comings and goings concern facilitation, pursuit and execution of retail purchases. Love is very nice, but it doesn't make the world go 'round. It's the urge to acquire more stuff that keeps things moving.

I was first struck by how urgent and primal the shopping instinct is many years ago when I had to organize a small editors' conference in Sumter, SC. I was told the agenda shouldn't be so tight that it couldn't accommodate some free time for retail therapy.

Sumter was tiny, and the only place to go for that was a shabby strip mall at the edge of town, anchored by a grocery store. But people packed a couple of shuttle vans for the chance to browse the fabrics and notions, greeting cards, pet supplies and hardware that were about all you could buy there. They returned only mildly disappointed, which told me they weren't expecting much to begin with but just needed to do it.

When you're younger, it's about the stuff. You imagine when you've bought it, you and your life will be transformed in some way. Later you realize that this isn't true, but it's too late, you can't quit.

Paul McCartney sang it best: 'Buy, buy' says the sign in the shop window. 'Why, why' says the junk in the yard.

That's from "Junk" on his debut solo album "McCartney." If I ever see it at a flea market, I'm gonna buy it.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Death Porn

The International Center of Photography is exhibiting its Depression era Weegee collection again, surely the largest one-man aggregation anywhere of gabardine-clad dead guys with shiny shoes and blood running from their nostrils.

Why do I keep going back to look at this ugly stuff?

The text blocks on the wall suggest a number of high-minded reasons for appreciating Weegee's body of work, or vice versa if you prefer. He pioneered crime photography, documented a side of life few people witnessed for themselves, produced images in a style as direct and brutal as their subject matter. All true enough, I suppose, but not the real draw.

As a former newsroom manager, I do take my hat off to Weegee for being so accomplished in the skills that make for outstanding news photography, the ones that have nothing to do with working a camera. The key to making consistently great news photos is getting to the right place at the right time, which takes an unusual combination of instinct, guile, grit and luck.

Weegee lived in a squalid little room across the street from the police lockup where high profile perps were taken, and he monitored a police radio more or less full time so he sometimes reached murder scenes even before the cops arrived. Some of the photos in the exhibition show him posing with evidence, and the captions suggested he became such a fixture around the chalk outlines and bloodstains that he often helped officers look for clues.

Leaving the subject matter aside, nobody could deny the passion Weegee brought to his work. He seems not to have had an awful lot of competition for the kind of pictures he became known for, but he was driven nonetheless. I saw a lot of news photographers on the job in my working life, and the best of them were predators when it came to chasing the magic moment, though none I knew were as single-minded as Weegie.

But I don't think any of the above explains why Weegee's pictures still draw crowds. I think people come for the same reason they slow down to look at traffic accidents. Nobody any longer knows or cares who these toes-up people were, and the ICP curators don't even bother to explain why they might have gotten whacked.

Doesn't matter. The photos are as crisp and sharp as they'd be if the victims had been gunned down yesterday, and all you need to know to enjoy looking at them is that they used to be real live people and they aren't you.