Bill Cunningham, street photography and freedom in freelancing

“Bill Cunningham’s on the Street: Five Decades of Iconic Photography” goes on sale Tuesday. This book will soon be among my photography books.

This The New York Times remembrance of the Cunningham and his contributions to street and fashion photography includes colorful stories that reveal traits that made him both a talented artist devoted to doing what he loved and a difficult personality who apparently could drive editors to drink. As someone who has tested the patience of editors to pursue a story, to interview the right source, to not interview a hack, I delight in knowing that.

I also admire his independence; his unwillingness to be an employee after freelancing for several years is something I can relate to.

It’s important, when we are young professionals, to work for other people and big employers. I wish I’d been more aware of that as I started my journalism career, it wouldn’t have taken me this long to allow those experiences to sink in and to learn from them.

As I’ve gotten older, however, especially after about a decade of freelancing, I’ve realized I’m simply not built or interested in working for a corporation, an organization or an institution.
Some days, the freedom to run my life as I see fit is liberating and exciting. I do what I want, pretty much whenever I want. That includes taking assignments I want and not taking others because I want to take an afternoon to take a training, run errands, see an exhibit.
Other days, that freedom is frightening. I’m still learning to prioritize my time and tasks. I’m my safety net, I’m my only 401 (K), and, at the moment, access to a good health insurance policy is prohibitive. I often have to remind myself how lucky I am to be healthy.
Now and then I’ll take a moment to remember that many don’t have the freedom I have, that, to some degree, I’ve had the privilege to make that choice. That that freedom, which in my case includes roaming the back roads of Texas taking photographs on a workday and taking a leap of faith to make a documentary film, is priceless and demands a high level of responsibility and a strong work ethic.
Cunningham understood that.

Passports and my dad

When you walk through security at a federal courthouse, you can feel – you know- that what happens there is serious business. At the Dallas federal courthouse, where I go to for hearings and trials now and then, there’s no chit chat with people on the elevators; even the employees who know one another keep work-related exchanges to a minimum.

But there are moments that add some levity and joy to the elevator ride to the courtrooms, where what transpires is often dark, bad and sad. For me, those lighthearted and happy moments happen when I see children who are going to get their passport.

To know me is to know I love to engage with children. So yes, I start asking questions: is this your first passport (often it is), where are you going, are you excited (always yes).

The little boy I chatted up today was sweet and shy, though he did answer my questions. He was getting his passport to see his grandmother in Vancouver.

I love to see children excited about their passports, a document that is loaded with the promise of adventure, and who doesn’t love that?

I’ve had the privilege of traveling since I was a practically a newborn. Wasn’t even a month old – I was 23 days old, to be exact- when I was issued my first passport. And I know that because I have it!

My dad, with whom I was very close, kept every passport I had as a minor. I didn’t know that until after he died and noted he was the only parent who signed them. It may be that only one parent needed to sign them, but in my mind, it’s a reflection of the presence he had in our lives against the absence of my biological mother, and perhaps more broadly, an indication of the fractured marriage he had to my biological mother and our equally fractured family life.

Herewith, my favorite anecdote about passports and my dad.

We needed to get our passports renewed and, as usual, he was running late. The film processing shop in Guatemala City he liked to go to to get his passport photos taken only took and developed them till early afternoon and we weren’t going to make it that day. No worry!, he said. We’ll get them taken around the embassy.

Turned out that there were people who had set up makeshift photo studios and darkrooms in garages in houses surrounding the U.S. embassy. And it was in one of those convenience stores-makeshift photo studios where we went to get our picture taken.

I was horrified. These places, with their bed-sheet like curtains that separated the convenience store from the photo studio and lab, reeked of illegal activity. But they were, in fact, legitimate businesses.

What we were given were mug shots. In those photographs, we look like criminals. But not petty criminals. Bombers, cocaine traffickers. I was nineteen, but looked much older. (See picture lower right, above.)

No way we’re going to be able to travel with these pictures, I argued. We’re going to get stopped at the airport all the time. Let’s get our passports on another day.

But my father insisted the pictures were fine and off to the embassy we went. We got our passports and never once were we stopped at an airport for questioning. We should’ve been, because those photographs are awful.

I still have that passport – and the tale of at least one adventure to go with it.

 

 

Nearly 5 out of 10 Guatemalan children under 5 suffer from malnutrition

Nearly half of Guatemalan children under 5 suffer from malnutrition, according to a report from a U.S. federal agency that provides international aid. That is a startling statistic because, among other things, the country grows nearly every fruit and vegetable under the sun and markets and groceries are stocked with locally grown produce.

But the poverty in Guatemala is stark and that troubling statistic is one of many that underscores the income and education inequalities that have held the country back for decades.

USAID’s nutrition profile for Guatemala says there are places in the country where nearly 70 percent of children under five are malnourished – including the department of Huehuetenango, where farmers grow some of the best coffee in the world. The coffee I brew every morning for my cappuccino comes from there.

Although I’ve known this for years, I seldom think about it. Frankly, I’d rather not. Because it is disturbing and painful. But now and then I’ll read a news story or hear a radio dispatch that reminds me of that and forces me to reflect on that troubling reality.

Today, it was a news story on PRI.

The Latin America expert interviewed for a story about the immigrants arriving at the border from Central America said that the U.S. didn’t have a crisis at the border, but that Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras each have a crisis and that their crises are driving immigration to the U.S. In Guatemala, corruption and malnutrition among children, she reminded us, are just two of the country’s major problems – and have been for generations.

The report reminded me of an essay my father wrote about the way malnutrition affected Guatemalans. It was his essay that made me aware of the problem, how it impacts people throughout their lives, and how little the country’s governments have cared to help generations of children live healthy and productive lives.

The link to it no longer works, but in digging through an old email account, I found what may be the final draft of the column and have pasted it below. It was published by the Miami Herald just weeks before he died, and he titled it “Chains and Stools.”

Chains and Stools

By Enrique Martín-Hidalgo

It has been over twenty years since I worked in one of the towers of what was then a new and modern shopping mall and office complex in the new business center of Guatemala City.

I usually arrived early, and many mornings, after going to my office and dropping off my briefcase, made a quick run to buy pastry and coffee at a bakery. It was the only store open in the mall at that time; the others opened at nine.

My trips to the bakery gave me the opportunity to take a brisk walk through the empty mall. To make the most of it, I walked up and down the three stories of the shopping area. While walking through the dimly lit corridors, I paid little attention to the surroundings, thinking instead of the many things I had to do. But one morning something caught my attention.

Passing by the storefronts, I noticed that each of the large glass doors had a stool hanging by what looked like a bicycle chain, which was in turn wrapped around the door handle. The variety of bicycle chains and stools amazed me. The chains were plastic coated, of many sizes and colors. The child-sized stools were made of bright-colored wood, metal or plastic. I came to think of these unusual arrangements as works of art, which I selfishly believed had no other purpose but for me to admire and enjoy.

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Enrique Martín-Hidalgo

My trips to the mall during working hours were rare, but one day, shortly before 9, a co-worker asked me to tag along with him for a short trip to the bank at the mall. When we got off the elevator on the third floor and walked down the same corridors I knew only in another dimension, the first activity of the day was unfolding: the opening of the doors.

At each storefront was a person removing the bicycle chain, or separating it from the stool or stepping on the stool to reach the doors’ upper lock. It was like watching a ritual, but what I was observing were the stages of a process that was a daily drama.

It was a rude awakening: the practical and only purpose of those chained sitting stools was to overcome a physical handicap.

The glass doors, with their lower and upper locks, were designed for a world where people are much taller than the average person in Guatemala. But these chained sitting stools revealed much more.

They were a symbol, at least to me, of serious problems that affronted Guatemalan society: lack of teamwork and leadership.

Though shopkeepers used the same method and equipment to solve a shared problem, they didn’t band together to do it as a group. United, and with a minimum amount of leadership, I thought, they could have bought and shared a few step ladders, which would have been a safer and more practical way to get the job done. Yet individualism prevailed.

The stools also pointed out another serious problem that I was made aware of by a friend to whom I confided my experience. The average Guatemalan didn’t have the means for proper nourishment and was physically underdeveloped.

That was over twenty years ago.

Several years ago, an article published in one of the two local newspapers, mentioned a recent study by an international group that looked at the age, weight and size of average Guatemalan children revealed nutritional problems that lead to the physical underdevelopment of the majority of the population, making Guatemala a country of midgets. Another article stated that poverty related nutritional problems have created a subspecies of physically underdeveloped Guatemalans, who make up the vast majority of the population. According to data from UNICEF, 21.3 percent of children in Guatemala suffer from chronic malnutrition, and 60 percent of Guatemalan households don’t make enough money to cover the cost of basic foodstuffs.  

A society that is still lacking in teamwork and leadership cannot solve a problem of undernourishment.

That’s why the stools are still there, hanging from chains at that aging shopping mall and everywhere in Guatemala one sees stones, crates or whatever is at hand, used to help people reach up.

 

Old buildings tell story of our heritage

One of the things that drives me crazy when I go home to Guatemala City, is seeing the signs of retailers that have English-language names. This has been true for years, but the proliferation of these names in the last decade has been impressive.

It is yet another indication, in my mind, that it’s largely a society ashamed of its heritage. The Spanish-language has plenty of words (and then some) to describe services, clothing, housewares. But English sounds more contemporary, cooler, hipper – but perhaps more important, it evokes a culture that is more desirable than the European or indigenous cultures that make up the fabric of that country.

I was reminded of this today while reading Robert Wilonsky’s recent column about endangered buildings in Dallas. Both cities share the same ethos, described succinctly by Mark Doty, the city’s historic preservation officer:

“We want it to be something else rather than appreciate it for what it is.”

I’ve made Dallas my home for almost 15 years and take joy in learning about the “the commonplace buildings” sprinkled all over the city. Because those office buildings, warehouses, gas stations and homes tell the story of people who left their mark in Dallas in big and small ways.

A few years ago, after selling our home in North Dallas, my husband and I moved into South Side on Lamar, known to many generations here as the old Sears building. We relish living in this grand, old warehouse that may be more solid (and is certainly more interesting) than the shiny luxury skyscrapers going up just north of us. One of my favorite things to do during our annual cookie party is taking the children around the building and telling them about its history.

Here’s to hoping Dallas will do what Guatemala City hasn’t done: honor its past and take pride in its heritage.

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Ballpoints, rollerballs and fountain pens

Today, over breakfast, I read the recent The New York Times story about fountain pen enthusiasts. The opening scene in the story is at a Lamy boutique in Manhattan, and later, we learn more about the history of the pen maker that for more than half a century has been the cool-kids pen maker.

Cool kids who love pens, anyway.

The Lamy reference brought a smile to my face.  Decades before the store opened in SoHo, Guatemala City boasted a Lamy boutique.

I remember going there often with my dad when I was a teenager, if nothing else to look at the pens. He didn’t need a new one, but maybe he did? Mostly, he delighted in looking at well-designed pens. And so did I. (That’s when my appreciation for Lamy pens was born. I still have a broken red Safari ballpoint that I’ve kept for sentimental reasons.)

I love a well-designed pen, whether it’s a ballpoint, a rollerball or a fountain pen. As any pen aficionado will know, you need a variety of pens to satisfy your mood. For instance, you never know when you want to write with a Retro 51 or a Faber-Castell.

My fountain pens range from inexpensive to fancy. My mother gave me one of my father’s DuPont fountain pens after he died. I also have an antique fountain pen I bought from a local reporter at a pen show and a Pelikan.

But, frankly, my favorite are my plastic Safari fountain pens, which are among my everyday pens. I own three: one for black ink, one for blue ink, and one for green ink. Because, you know, you never know when you may need green ink.

Now, I’m going to have to get a TWSBI.

 

Stumbling on Bonnie Cashin

As I frantically searched for tips to remove the musty smell of my 1990s Coach bag, a recent score on ebay I was determined to keep, I stumbled upon photographs of 1960s handbags designed by Bonnie Cashin, a pioneer of American women’s and designer for Coach. I was blown away by the tan mod sling bag, a collector’s item that fetches princely sums from those lucky enough to find and afford it. The bag is stunning because it is functional and understated and timeless in its design.

I knew nothing about Cashin when I came across her clothes and handbags, but knew enough to know she was an important figure in American fashion history. As I often do when I want to learn more about a deceased icon, I immediately searched for her obituary in The New York Times.

The more I learned about the awesome contributions this woman made to modern fashion, the more appreciation I had for the design of the Coach handbags I own. Her influence permeates the brands whose lead creatives, unlike her, have nothing to do with the accessory that may be peddled as the next “It” bag.

A design prodigy from an early age, Cashin was a keen observer of the ways we use everyday items and the way we move; for Cashin, freedom of mobility and function were as important as modern design and her creations reflect all of that.

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For instance, a Times’ appreciation in the wake of her death noted that she incorporated a bag into clothes as a result of her experiences hiking in the Hollywood Hills: she wanted her hands free when carrying her art supplies. The brass turn lock that has sold millions of handbags for Coach — and captivated my teenage self enough to resolve to own the brand’s iconic briefcase — was reportedly inspired by fasteners on her convertible’s rag top. (I grew out of the briefcase, but own the Willis bag.)

After nearly 10 days, several baking soda-filled bags, hours of sun exposure and a 24-hour treatment with dryer sheets, the musty smell in my brown Legacy bag is gone. I can’t wait to use it again; I had once but the musty smell was too pungent. It may become my new favorite handbag.

I bought the Legacy because most of of my handbags are black, and I needed to break up the single-color palette. Among my inventory is a black Marc Jacobs with an industrial-style gold-toned zipper around the bottom. Now that I know, however, that Cashin introduced industrial zippers into her designs in the mid 1950s, I’ll never look at that bag the same again.

It’s another piece in my closet that reminds me that her legacy — a passion for modern design and innovative creations, motivated in part by giving women the freedom to move and express their empowerment — endures.

Reflections on “McQueen”

Yesterday afternoon,  my husband and I gathered with friends to see “McQueen,” the documentary on the late designer Alexander McQueen. As we learned about his innate creative genius and craftsmanship, about the childhood trauma that he drew upon for his collections; his respect for women; the intensity and passion he brought to his designs and tailoring, the tragedy of his loss hurts deeply. McQueen died by suicide in 2010. He was 40.

The film includes interviews with friends and collaborators who loved him, whose creative limits were pushed and nurtured by McQueen, and who miss him greatly. Through their stories and the archival footage, we can feel the energy he brought to his work and environment — and we are left thinking we should all be so lucky to work around a creative visionary, someone whom we don’t want to disappoint, who inspires us to do better for ourselves and for a greater purpose. In this case, it was fashion as art and political commentary.

McQueen was an artist with a lot to say about the demeaning ways women have been treated throughout history. But with his designs, he also highlighted their strength and celebrated their beauty and empowerment. In reading a Vogue profile on his successor, Sarah Burton, I learned she has strived to maintain his admiration and respect for women with a softer, more peaceful spirit.

Several of McQueen’s friends and his mother have said he was a sweet and sensitive man; we do not, however, see that in his designs. But in pulling his vision out of the darkness out of the darkness that tormented him and was a signature of his designs, it appears Burton has kept his legacy alive.