December 6, 2013
The real “Most Interesting Man in the World” didn’t sell Dos Equis; Eliot Elisofon took pictures. And yes, Elisofon was allowed to touch the artwork in the museum, because he gave it to them. He also put the Brando in Marlon. And strippers kept photos of him on their dressing tables.
His Latvian last name (accent the first syllable: EL-isofon) so confounded General George S. Patton that the commander simply called him “Hellzapoppin.”
The most interesting man in the world didn’t think of himself as a good photographer, but rather as the “world’s greatest.” And while ceaseless self-promotion was his game (he hired a press agent and a clipping service), the output of his camera can be measured: The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art boasts more than 50,000 black-and-white negatives and photographs, 30,000 color slides and 120,000 feet of motion-picture film and sound materials. In addition, the photographer collected and donated more than 700 works of art from Africa. Hundreds of other images are owned by the Getty Archives, and his papers and materials are housed at the University of Texas at Austin.
Beyond his prodigious photographic output, his life was a whirlwind of travel, food, wives (two marriages ended in divorce) and celebrity friendships. His good friend the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee kept his photo on her vanity table; he helped establish the image of Marlon Brando in 1947, photographing the rising star in his role as Stanley, kneeling in disgrace before his wife, Stella (Kim Hunter), in the Broadway production of Streetcar Named Desire. Elisofon’s passion for travel was interrupted only by occasional home visits to his New York apartment or his Maine beach enclave. He would later claim that he’d traversed as many as two million miles in pursuit of his art. Painter, chef, documentarian, filmmaker, art collector and connoisseur, and naturally, the most interesting man in the world knew how to drink and dine on the go.
“I am having some Brie and crackers and a scotch and water. I know how to get Brie exactly right,” he once said. “You have to carry it on a TWA plane, get the Stewardess to place it in a bag of ice cubes, then in Tel-Aviv leave it in your room overnight, then keep it for two days in the ice-box of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem—it’s too hard anyway. From Tel-Aviv to Bombay keep it under your seat—well wrapped in plastic—One night in the Taj Mahal Hotel room and a short plane ride in Keshod—and it is just right, not too runny but it would be if left in the single small refrigerator they have in the Guest House.”
While Elisofon’s portfolio includes everything from celebrity homes in Hollywood, to soft-coal mining in Pennsylvania, cocaine trading in Bolivia and Peru, the King Ranch in Texas and the North African Theater during World War II, his most enduring and significant work would come from the nine expeditions he made to Africa. Beginning in 1947, when Elisofon crossed the continent from “Cairo to Capetown,” he became the first Western photographer to portray Africa’s peoples and traditions without stereotype or derision.
Recently, a retrospective of his work, “Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon,” went on view at the African Art Museum in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the donation the photographer made of his images and art works to the museum. “Elisofon’s breathtaking images,” says director Johnnetta Betsch Cole, “capture the traditional arts and cultures of Africa and are simply unparalleled. The enduring brilliance of his photographs expose a new generation to the breadth, depth and beauty of Africa.”
Elisofon was a staff photographer at Life magazine from 1942 to 1964, and one of the first freelancers at Smithsonian magazine when it began publishing under former Life editor Edward K. Thompson in 1970. In fact, an Elisofon image, one of the most requested photos from the museum’s collections, graced the magazine’s January 1973 cover and features a Baule woman of the Ivory Coast holding two ceremonial chasse-mouches, or fly whisks, made of gold-covered wood and horsehair imported from the Sudan. His accompanying story tells of his visit to meet with a Baule chief, the Ashanti ruler in Ghana and other West African peoples.
“Among the crowd that day, I saw seven men dressed alike in brilliant red cloth with gold tablets covering the tops of their heads,” Elisofon wrote. “Each tablet was decorated with intricate designs in wrought or beaten gold. . . . No one—traveler, anthropologist, art historian—has made any reference that I have been able to find to these tablets, yet they were clearly centuries old, their edges worn away by use.”
“Elisofon used his brains and his talent to lay his hands on the world,” says former Smithsonian editor Timothy Foote, who worked with the photographer when they served together at Life.
“For generations foreign photographers had misrepresented Africa as a mysterious or uncivilized continent full of exotic animals, backward peoples and strange landscapes, “ wrote curator Roy Flukinger for a 2000 exhibition of the photographer’s work at University of Texas at Austin. “The limitations and/or prejudices of many ‘objective’ documentary photographers and writers had discolored the entire portrait of a vibrant land and its myriad cultures. Elisofon’s social consciousness and inherent humanness would not tolerate it. He held that ‘Africa is the fulcrum of world power’ and he sought to have America ‘wake up to that fact.’ ”
“Photo historians,” says the shows co-curator Bryna Freyer, “tend to stress his technical achievements. As an art historian I tend to look as his images as a useful way of studying the people and the artifacts, because of his choice of subject matter.”
He photographed artists at work, she adds, “capturing the entire process of the production of an object. And he photographed objects in place so that you can see the context of masks, their relationships to the musicians and to the audience. I can use [the image] for identification and teaching.”
“On a personal level, I like that he treated the people he was photographing with respect,” she adds.
The exhibition on view at African Art includes 20 works of art that the photographer collected on his trips to the continent, as well as his photographs, and is complimented by a biography section composed of images of his exploits.
The photographer as the subject of another’s lens can sometimes be regarded as insult, and for Elisofon it was injury added to insult. In 1943, Elisofon was aboard a transport aircraft that crashed on takeoff, but he managed to escape the burning wreck. Grabbing his camera, he somehow lost his pants, he went straight to work documenting the scene before collapsing in exhaustion. Later, his frustration was described as titanic when the images he shot that day were not selected by his editors back in New York. Instead, they chose an image that another photographer got of Elisofon shooting the scene in his boxers.
The focal piece of the exhibit is a classic photo of Elisofon on location in Kenya, with Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance hovering above the clouds like a mythic spacecraft. The image taken by an unknown artist depicts the peripatetic adventurer as “explorer photographer” says the show’s co-curator Amy Staples. “For me that image is symbolic of the title of the show, Africa Re-Viewed, which is about the role of photography and constructing our view and knowledge of African arts, and its cultures and its peoples.” Another highlight is a documentary film, Elisofon made of the Dogon people of Mali, carving a Kanaga mask, which is used in ceremonial rituals that are regarded as deeply sacred.
Born to a working-class family and raised on New York City’s Lower East Side, Elisofon earned enough money as a young entrepreneur to afford tuition at Fordham University. Photography would be his hobby until he could make it pay. And he would ultimately rise to become the president of the highly prestigious Photo League, where he lectured, taught and exhibited his work. The young photographer would also pick up a brush and prove his talent as painter and artist. In the nascent days of color photography and filmography, he would eventually apply what he knew about the intensity, saturation and hue of color as an artist in Hollywood. Serving as a color consultant in the motion pictures industry, Elisofon worked with John Huston on the 1952 Academy Award-winning Moulin Rouge.
Several of his illustrated books, including the 1958 The Sculpture of Africa, co-authored with William Fagg, have become iconic. And the photographer was on location for the arduous shoot when Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn were filming The African Queen. He would shoot dozens of other film stars, including John Barrymore, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Rudy Vallee, Natalie Wood, Kirk Douglas, Ira Gershwin and Rock Hudson.
Yet some time prior to his death, in 1973, at age 62, of a brain aneurism, Elisofon would become circumspect about his wildly diverse career, reining in his earlier bravado.
“Photography is too personal a medium with which to achieve greatness easily. I’m too diverse a man to be a great photographer. I have discipline, motivation. I’m a good photographer. But I’m a writer, painter, editor, filmmaker, too. I’m a complex human who needs to satisfy human needs. You can’t be great without giving everything you’ve got to a single art,” he said, and perhaps this is where the real life “Most Interesting Man in the World” departs from the man of advertising fame.
“I haven’t done that,” he said, and then he added, “I’m also a talker.”
“Africa Reviewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon” is on view at the African Art Museum through August 24, 2014.
November 28, 2012
Steven Spielberg’s extraordinary new film Lincoln is dominated by the penetrating performance of Daniel Day-Lewis. The facet of Lincoln’s character that shines across the screen again and again, and that Day-Lewis captures so remarkably well, is his ability to interject storytelling as a means of unifying his “team of rivals.” The film closes with Congress passing the 13th Amendment, the Civil War ending, and ultimately with the president’s death at the hand of John Wilkes Booth.
Booth was the least-talented son born of a 19th-century acting dynasty headed by patriarch Junius Booth and featuring older son Edwin Booth, who earned fame as the greatest Hamlet of the age. Edwin Booth was a stellar enough presence that his career survived his brother’s ignominy and continued to flourish. In 1888, he founded The Players, a club located in his Gramercy Park townhouse and dedicated to actors, painters, writers and patrons of the arts.
Just before Thanksgiving, I attended a star-studded event at The Players as the club celebrated one of America’s greatest portrait painters by naming a room in his honor. For several decades, artist Everett Raymond Kinstler has portrayed the iconic figures of America’s life and times—political leaders (including presidents), cultural headliners, and the nation’s greatest performing artists. The Players has been a showcase for his work, and its walls are enlivened with his depictions of such luminaries as John and Lionel Barrymore, Alfred Drake, Jason Robards and Katharine Hepburn. As of November 18, there is a handsome plaque declaring one of the club’s central gathering spots to be the “Everett Raymond Kinstler Room.”
At heart, Ray Kinstler is a storyteller. He began as an illustrator for paperback books, and learned the importance of telling stories as he painted covers for books by Agatha Christie, W. Somerset Maugham, and D.H. Lawrence. Learning his graphic trade, he also painted record album jackets and comic books during “the golden age of comics” in the 1950s. Then he became fascinated by the idea of painting people—of digging and probing personalities, of going beneath the surface to paint portraits of simplicity and strength. This is where Kinstler perfected the art of telling a story that has become his hallmark.
The National Portrait Gallery is a major repository for Kinstler portraits, with over 180 paintings and sketches of his work. Their range illuminates his vast grasp of the American experience and includes Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon, artists James Montgomery Flagg and Howard Chandler Christy, movie stars James Cagney, John Wayne, Paul Newman, and Gregory Peck, performers Tony Bennett, Yo Yo Ma, and Placido Domingo, and writers Ayn Rand, Arthur Miller, and Tom Wolfe.
Ray’s portrait of Katharine Hepburn—the painting she termed her “favorite”—was the centerpiece of an exhibition I curated in 2007 to celebrate the centennial of the actress’ birth. His stories about painting Hepburn reflect the delicate balance an artist has to maintain with sitters who can be, shall we say, strong-willed and opinionated. Luckily, Kinstler is a rollicking raconteur who can weave his experiences into stories that resonate as easily in conversation as they do on his canvases.
The Players’ event dedicating the Kinstler Room was also a celebration for the unveiling (“vernissage”) of his new portrait of Christopher Plummer, the Oscar-Tony-Emmy-winning performer who is one of the greatest actors of our time. To the lively personalities crowded into the Kinstler Room, Plummer described why he admires the artist’s work so much: “Unlike many artists today who wrap themselves in life’s glumness, Ray relishes discovering what inspires a sitter. His work reveals hope, humor, and the joy of living.”
Plummer was right on the mark, and captured why a Kinstler portrait engages attention and evokes pleasure and understanding. There is something wonderful going on with his brushstrokes–an energy that is palpable, and a dynamic sense of character that reveals with a flourish.
Most of all, it’s about the story.
July 30, 2012
The new Visitors Guide & Tours app, created by the editors of Smithsonian magazine and Around the Mall was released today in the Apple Store, an Android version was released in Google Play last week. The app, which is a 99-cent download, simplifies the overwhelming and vast choices to be made when touring the Smithsonian’s 15 Washington, D.C.-based museums and the National Zoo
The new app includes ten customized tours, a list of this summer’s must-see exhibitions, easy-to-use floor plans, a Google map of the National Mall, and more than 100 “Greatest Hits” artifacts and Smithsonian treasures that should not be missed. We designed the tour with everyone in mind, not just families, but for nature lovers, science geeks and history buffs, plus a specialty tour for those who have only three-hours to see it all.
For the Around the Mall team, the Smithsonian is our playground, and we’ve become accustomed to being the go-to guide for visiting guests and families. We’ve scribbled out plenty of quick lists, taking into account the special interests of our mothers (Hope Diamond and Katharine Hepburn’s Oscar), our fathers (Archie Bunker’s chair and the Wright Flyer), our friends (the cool beaded kicks over at the American Indian museum.)
But for all of you others, we know that when facing down the idea that there are 137 million objects, specimens, artifacts and works of art that are contained within the 19 different Smithsonian museums in D.C. and New York, you just need a little tour guide in your pocket to help you find you’re way.
Our favorite part about the app?
A postcard feature that allows you to snap photos of yourself or your friends wearing the Hope Diamond, walking the stegosaurus like it was dog, hanging out with the Zoo’s orangutan, or finding your way around D.C. with Lewis & Clark’s compass.
We’ll be continually updating the app with the latest exhibitions, crafting new tours and selecting more of the Smithsonian’s treasures to profile, all while keeping you abreast of the latest happenings Around the Mall with Twitter feeds and push notifications.
To those visitors and DC residents who have failed to visit the Smithsonian museums for fear of not knowing where to start, you just ran out of excuses. Buy the app here.
April 24, 2012
This post is part of our ongoing series in which ATM invites guest bloggers from among the Smithsonian Institution’s scientists, curators, researchers and historians to write for us. The National Portrait Gallery’s cultural historian Amy Henderson last wrote about the real-life stories of American socialites who married into British nobility.
Recently, I gave a talk called “Going Gaga: Media and the Rise of Celebrity Culture,” in which I began with George Washington and ended with Lady Gaga. Outrageous? Yes, but early American culture embraced role models who evoked “character,” while later the emergence of a mass media culture shifted our focus to “personality.”
When I give talks like this, people often ask me what characterizes a role model in today’s celebrity culture? Not the notorious figures of tabloid headlines, but iconic figures people want to emulate and who somehow encapsulate “stardom”—movie stars like Gable or Hepburn, dancers like Baryshnikov, rockers like Springsteen. It is a difficult thing to explain, except that we know it when we see it. Last week, for example, I saw the New York City Ballet dance a Gershwin medley with choreography by George Balanchine, and I was transported. Gershwin’s wonderful music and Balanchine’s magical movements transmitted sheer, heart-thumping genius. No other music, nor any other choreography, could have combined to create this unique sense of something extraordinary.
Similarly, when I was growing up my parents played a lot of Louis Armstrong LPs, and even as a child, I understood that Armstrong was “special.” I certainly didn’t know about his role as a pioneering jazz figure then, but I knew I liked the sound of the ebullient personality that came through in his gravelly voice and, of course, in his astonishing trumpet-playing. They would have been overjoyed at the news of a fresh Armstrong recording being discovered and released this spring!
On January 29, 1971, Louis Armstrong played his trumpet in public for what is believed to be his last recorded performance. The occasion was the inauguration of a fellow-Louisianan, Vernon Louviere, as president of the National Press Club. Keeping with a Louisiana theme, Louviere was sworn in holding a bottle of Tabasco sauce instead of a Bible, and the dinner in the Ballroom featured such New Orleans specialties (and Armstrong favorites) as red beans and rice, and seafood gumbo. The evening’s emcee was the witty British television journalist David Frost, newly-knighted by the Queen and popular on both sides of the Atlantic for his high-on-the-radar interview programs.
Armstrong’s performance at the black-tie gala was recorded on a limited edition LP of 300 copies. The original liner notes by Ralph de Toledano explained that the 69-year-old jazz legend had been in such poor health that his doctors warned him not to play for more than ten minutes, but the crowd’s warmth and cheers stretched his performance to half an hour. De Toledano reported, “He played, he sang, he scatted.” Joined by longtime band-mates Tyree Glenn and Tommy Gwaltney, he showed no frailty as he rollicked through such favorites as “Rockin’ Chair,” “Hello, Dolly,” “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” “Mack the Knife,” and a never before recorded “Boy from New Orleans,” a musical autobiography that he sang to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Today, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings made this historic performance widely available. Listen to his rendition of “Hello Dolly” here.
Released as part of the Smithsonian’s 11th annual celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month, “Satchmo at the National Press Club: Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours” is the culmination of a multi-year collaboration involving the Press Club, Folkways, and the Louis Armstrong Foundation. Press Club executive director William McCarren explained that although his organization is known worldwide for news and history, it is also “a venue for music and the arts and a forum for entertainers of all kinds.” That “one of the world’s great entertainers found his way to our stage. . . is a pleasure to tell,” and the Club was happy to help make this “great gift to the world” available to all.
The album’s subtitle refers to how Armstrong often signed his letters—“Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours.” Nearly three dozen of his favorite Louisiana recipes are included in the recording’s liner notes, as they were in the original pressing. Now, you too can feast on such Armstrong favorites as shrimp mousse, Louisiana caviar, or Walter McIlhenny’s “Frogs a la Creole.” Where else will you find Armstrong’s version of “Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane Punch” or his real-deal “Sazerac Cocktail”?
Armstrong died five months after his Press Club appearance. This newly-released 58-minute recording includes not only his historic performance, but tracks from a tribute concert that Tyree Glenn and his band performed at the Press Club shortly after Armstrong’s death, featuring such classics as “Mood Indigo” and “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.”
The recording will be released on CD and digital download via Folkways as well as through such retailers as iTunes and Amazon. According to D.A. Sonneborn Armstrong, the associate director of Folkways, the recording has “a wonderful live quality. Armstrong was in fine form that evening. We all wish we could’ve been there, and now we can!”
February 14, 2012
This post is part of our on-going series in which ATM invites the occasional post from a number of Smithsonian Institution guest bloggers: the historians, researchers and scientists who curate the collections and archives at the museums and research facilities. Today, Amy Henderson from the National Portrait Gallery weighs in on celebrity stars and history. She last wrote for us about food at the Portrait Gallery.
Usually, the Grammy Awards ceremony is a thunder-and-light show that celebrates the year’s best performers in recorded music. This year, the death of Whitney Houston on the eve of that much-anticipated honors ceremony cast a giant pall over the event. The sudden death of such a blazing star delivered an electric jolt to our collective fantasies of the celebrity as a creature beyond-the-pale and larger than life. It is always disconcerting to find that they are, like us, all too human.
Our relationship to celebrities is complicated. We love them, and we love to trash them. We copy their “look”—hair, clothes, body type—and relish the endless gossip the media churns out for our delectation. In our heart-of-hearts, we like to think of celebrities as being just like us—except thinner, more glamorous, and from a universe sprinkled with stardust. Because I study media and celebrity culture, I’ve been lucky enough over the years to cross paths with some of these iconic creatures. I met with Katharine Hepburn in the late 1980s and early 90s to discuss obtaining a painting that Everett Raymond Kinstler did of her in 1982 for the National Portrait Gallery. American History Museum curator Dwight Blocker Bowers and I interviewed Ginger Rogers and gleaned priceless tidbits and back story for our exhibition on musicals, “Red, Hot and Blue.” Gregory Peck came to see that exhibition, and Dwight and I somehow managed not to faint as we toured that great American actor through the show.
On February 1, I was wowed all over again when Clint Eastwood appeared at the American History Museum to help celebrate the opening of the newly-named Warner Bros. Theater. Eastwood entered the museum gliding through a bank of dazzling lights and across a specially-installed red carpet. Goodness, he is tall, I thought. And thin. He glows! For several minutes he paused and smiled in front of a wall of historic Warner Bros. artifacts as news photographers and iPhone owners blazed away. It was “magic time.”
This magic happened because Warner Bros. has a profound understanding of its own history. Warner CEO Barry Meyer told the reception crowd that his studio—founded in 1923 by brothers Albert, Sam Harry, and Jack Warner—has fostered a “rich legacy of entertaining audiences for almost 90 years.” Today, it stands at the forefront of film and television production and worldwide distribution of movies, cartoons, DVDs, comic books, and brand licensing.
In its new collaboration with the Smithsonian, Warner Bros. Entertainment has provided funding to renovate the American History museum’s 46-year-old auditorium into a state-of-the-art facility with HD and 3-D film and digital capability, along with a fabulous new sternum-rattling Dolby surround sound system. Dwight Bowers, the museum’s project director for the Warner Bros. Theater initiative, called this partnership a superb way “to increase public awareness of film as a vital part of the American Experience” both through festivals showcasing classic feature films, and with displays of remarkable treasures from the Warner Bros. archive.
Outside the theater, museum walls are lined with cases displaying eye-popping artifacts drawn from Warner’s history: costumes that Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman wore in “Casablanca,” the houndstooth suit Lauren Bacall wore in “The Big Sleep,” and Jack Warner’s personal address book, opened to the ‘D’ section to reveal phone numbers for Bette Davis, Cecil B. DeMille, and Walt Disney. This remarkable partnership between the museum and Warner Bros. is being inaugurated with a films featuring Clint Eastwood Westerns, such classic early sound films as “The Jazz Singer,” and movies that focus on the Civil War, including “Gone with the Wind” and “Glory.”
At the opening reception, Eastwood received the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal in recognition of the six decades he has spent capturing American life and culture on film. The American History Museum’s interim director Marc Pachter spoke eloquently about how films are integral to our daily lives: “Our notions about history, heroes, explorations, fears, and dreams are formed and transformed by the way we make movies and the way we watch them.”
The museum’s Warner Bros. initiative strongly affirms the role of film in nurturing the shared culture that lies at the core of the American experience. The wonderful irony is that a medium built on fleeting images and simulated reality has been able to capture so fully the stories and moments that chronicle who we are. Because of that, Pachter believes that movies are as significant as any artifact in the museum’s collections: “The best films, and of course, the best actors, remain timeless in our hearts and our imagination.”
Stars only die in real life. On film, they’re ours forever.