Sunday, August 29, 2010

On Songs and Hope

I've been reading the news about the mine in Chile which collapsed on August 5 with 33 miners inside.  On August 22, rescuers contacted them by drilling a 6 inch wide hole to their shelter.  The miners had stayed alive by severely rationing their food supplies.  They had each had a half glass of milk and two mouthfuls of canned tuna once every 48 hours.  Rescuers on the surface will send the men supplies, communications, and encouragement through the 6 inch wide hole until they drill a hole large enough to evacuate the men, probably in about 4 months.

Compare this to one of the worst, most infamous mine disasters in history, the one in Springhill, Nova Scotia in 1955.  The mine was a massive labyrinth of galleries, some as deep as 14,000 ft below the earth's surface.  On October 3, 1955 the mine experienced a large "bump."  (In a masterpiece of understatement, "bump" means an underground explosion.)  The "bump" was so strong that it was felt by people outside the mine.  Rescue teams worked heroically, descending down partially collapsed mine shafts and carving out new tunnels, looking for survivors.  The rescue operation lasted for 8 days.  Out of 174 trapped miners, 100 were miraculously rescued.  The biggest miracle of all was the survival of 12 men trapped in a gallery 100 feet long and only 3 feet high.  The heat was intense, the air dark and  smoky, and the food provisions woefully inadequate.  When the food and water ran out, the men sang songs to keep their spirits up.  Less fortunate than the current Chilean miners, these 12 men they lived on "songs and hope," as described by Peggy Seeger, until they were rescued.

Today, more than 50 years after the explosion, the mine is largely filled with water but still burning, providing a source of geothermal heat.  The tragedy is described in powerful terms in the song "The Ballad of Springhill" by Peggy Seeger.  Here it is sung by U2.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Give Me Those Nce Bright Colors

We have come to an important time in the history of American photography.  Kodak stopped producing Kodachrome just one year ago, in August 2010, after 74 years of production.  The film was loved by many people because of the vibrancy of its colors.  It was especially good at reproducing the color of green foliage, a quality immortalized by Paul Simon in his song "Kodachrome."  (More on this below.)  Photographers liked Kodachrome for its fine grain as well as its bright colors, properties which made it especially well suited for portraits.  The best known photo taken with Kodachrome was a portrait of an Afghan refugee girl with bright green eyes which appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. {Upload}   Some photographers avoided Kodachrome because its development process is exotic, and only Kodak-certified labs could process it.  When production of the film ceased, there was only one lab left that could process the film.  Even in its heyday, Kodachrome had strong competition from Ektachrome and various films produced by Fuji and Agfa.  I remember using both Kodak and Fuji films back in the days when I was a camera enthusiast with a film camera.  Now, like most photographers, I only use a digital camera, but I have sentimental feelings about Kodachrome.

I remember very well the first time I heard the song "Kodachrome."  It was late winter / early spring, the time of year when we get a few spring-like days that make us feel good and then we're plunged back into winter.  I missed greenery so much that I dug up and looked at some of the photos I had taken in summers past.  Then I heard the song "Kodachrome" on a recording I had just bought.  Wow!  I got excited!  Then something else good happened.  A friend called and suggested that we go canoeing at the earliest possible opportunity.  The song "Kodachrome" heralded good times ahead outdoors for me.

Because of Kodachrome's long and renowned use, the last rolls of Kodachrome had to be used in ways that were special.  Steve McCurry, the man who took the famous picture of the Afghan refugee girl, requested and received the last 36-exposure strip.  He spent months planning how to use it.  When he started photographing, a crew of TV cameramen from the National Geographic followed him.  The National Geographic Channel plans to make a one hour documentary of McCurry taking the photographs.  Of course, McCurry asked Paul Simon to pose for a photo, but Simon declined, so McCurry photographed Robert de Niro as a symbol of the world of filmmaking.  Then McCurry photographed the Brooklyn Bridge and Grand Central Terminal.  (Ah, the mind of a New Yorker.)  After that, he made a radical change.  He returned to some of his old haunts in India, where he said that color is culturally important.  He photographed members of tribes which, like Kodachrome, were heading towards extinction.  Finally, McCurry shot his last few photos in Parsons, Kansas at Dwayne's Photo, the only existing lab that still processes Kodachrome.  Of course, McCurry felt under enormous pressure to get great photographs with the very last roll of Kodachrome, so he used a digital camera to help him evaluate composition, light. and perspective.  When McCurry's roll of film was processed, he was happy with the results.

This is a story with a happy ending.  I look forward to seeing the National Geographic documentary early next year.  Right now, I can listen to Paul Simon sing "Kodachrome"and enjoy it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Wagner in Israel?

The controversial film "Dancing in Auschwitz," which I discussed in my previous blog, reminds me of a controversial musical act performed by Daniel Barenboim:  breaking the taboo on playing Wagner's music in public in Israel.

Barenboim is exactly the right person to break this taboo.  His grandparents were Russian Jews who fled to Argentina to escape the Pogroms in Russia.  He was born in Buenos Aires in 1952 to Jewish parents, who started teaching him to play the piano when he was five years old.  Before long they recognized that he was a child prodigy, and they wanted him to grow up as a musician in Israel, among his own people.  They traveled to Israel and settled there in 1952.  Although he grew up primarily in Israel, he was absent for long periods of time as he studied and concertized throughout Europe.  In his own words, he grew up "in Israel with European culture and values."  His multinationalism is evident in his official papers.  He has citizenship in Argentina, Israel, and Spain, and he holds a passport issued by the Palestinian authority.  His feelings towards Israel began to change during the 1960s, particularly after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, when he felt sympathy with both Israelis and Palestinians.  As a talented and acclaimed pianist and conductor, he tried to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together through music.  Along with his close friend David Said, a Palestinian-American, he co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, whose members were young Israeli and Arab musicians. 

Barenboim is well aware of the problems posed by Wagner's music for Israeli Jews.  Wagner was a notorious, vehement anti-Semite long before the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.  However, Wagner's music took on a new dimension when Hitler made it a symbol of Nazism and had it performed at official Nazi ceremonies.  Because of this link with official Nazism, Wagner's music was abhorrent to Holocaust survivors, and an unofficial taboo on playing Wagner's music in public was observed in Israel.  Barenboim, while sympathizing with and respecting the feelings of Holocaust survivors, felt the absurdity of the taboo, especially when he heard some of Wagner's music played as ringtones for cell phones in Israel.  He decided to give his audience a choice about listening to Wagner's music.  On July 7, 2001, after he had finished conducting a concert and one encore, he asked the audience whether they wanted to hear something by Wagner as a second encore.  A 30 minute debate followed, and a few dozen people left in anger.  The great majority of the audience stayed and listened to Barenboim conduct Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod to Tristan und Isolde.  When the music ended, the audience gave an enthusiastic ovation.   Barenboim's experiment with Wagner had no lasting effect.  Israel's unofficial ban on live performances of Wagner's music continues to this day.

Mark Twain once said that Wagner's music is really not as bad as it sounds.  In Israel, it is worse.

(If you want to read about this in Barenboim's own words, see his journal on his website.)

Barenboim has conducted Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod to Tristan und Isolde with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra outside of Israel.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Dancing in Auschwitz

A friend recently told me of a tour that baffled and scared me.  He and his wife, 10 other married couples from his synagogue, and their rabbi had gone on a tour of death camps of the Holocaust.  I told him that I could never go on such a trip.  It would be too sad and scary for me.  He told me that Auschwitz, generally regarded as the worst of the Nazi death camps, had very  little evidence of the horrors thatshad been there.  All that was left to see were an empty crematorium building, some gallows, and some barbed wire fences.  He told me that some of the people on the trip had parents or grandparents who had died in the Nazi death camps, and for these people, the visit was an affirmation of life.
"Dancing in Auschwitz" is a controversial film that really dramatizes the "affirmation of life" theme.  The film made in 2009 by Jane Korman, shows Ms. Korman,  her 89 year old father (a Holocaust survivor), and Ms. Korman's three children dancing at Auschwitz and other former Nazi concentration camps.  Ms. Korman posted a clip of her film on Youtube, and she was surprised at the negative backlash she got for it.  It soon went viral and was re-released on You tube.  I tried to watch it on Youtube, but got a message "This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by APRA."

This photo by AP, taken during the production of the film, shows Holocaust survivor Adolek Kohn and his grandchildren in front of the gate to Auschwitz.

I was brought up in a family which was ethnically Jewish but not religious, and I feel the Holocaust issues very deeply.  I suppose that I would have been horrified by the film if I saw it before my friend told me about the "affirmation of life" perspective.  If I could see the film now, I think it would kick up a lot of deeply rooted emotions in me, but I would probably end up liking it.