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Photographer Profile - John Loengard: "The picture is the moment"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday January 24, 2017

Time isn’t what it seems.

We think of time as an orderly flow of quantifiable instants leading us from a present that is real to a future that is unknowable. Time can seem like a movie, with single frames clicking by at a regular pace, each frame a discrete moment and those moments strung together to form the narrative of our lives. But physicists tell us that time is an illusion, a construct of the human mind. Time, they tell us, has no direction, no tense. This perplexing idea lay behind the recent science-fiction film Arrival, in which aliens arrive on Earth to show mankind that future and past are as real as the present.

Likewise, we often talk about photography as a technology that stops time and captures moments. But that’s illusory in its own way.

“There really is no moment,” says John Loengard, photographer, author and former director of photography at Life magazine. “The picture is the moment.”

In this sense, photography doesn’t capture an instant of time; it creates the instant.

"The world doesn’t happen in moments,” says Loengard. “The camera points at the world and the shutter opens and closes and turns the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional image and the image is the reality you’re dealing with. The picture and the moment are synonymous and can never be repeated.”

Loengard’s newest book, his 10th, is Moment by Moment, a survey of the many unrepeatable moments he has captured over a six-decade career. Loengard joined the staff of Life in 1961, at its apex of cultural influence as a weekly, and became its director of photography during later iterations of the magazine, leaving at last in 1987. Over those years he photographed poets (T.S. Eliot); artists (Georgia O’Keeffe); presidents (John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan); writers (Philip Roth, J.R.R. Tolkien), rock stars (the Beatles) and sex symbols (Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield). Cowboys, prison guards, swans and military school cadets were also among his subjects.

The book is at once a retrospective and a celebration of powerful editorial photography presented powerfully — it measures 10.1 x 12.9 inches, roughly the size of the original Life magazine. Digital technology and the waning influence of print have prompted many photographers and curators to explore the medium as a construct in its own right and as an unreliable source of information. Loengard’s pictures express photography’s imperative force and fundamental ability to define how our world looks. “Something becomes real," Susan Sontag wrote, "by being photographed.”

“Occasionally we are misled by photography, but generally we have good reason to believe it,” says Loengard.

The Strange Power of Pairs

After leaving Life, Loengard became its unofficial historian. Among his books are LIFE Classic Photographs: A Personal Interpretation by John Loengard and LIFE Photographers: What They Saw. His 2011 book Age of Silver: Encounters with Great Photographers featured his own images of many of the most important photographers of the last half of the 20th century, from Richard Avedon and Jacque Henri Lartigue to Berenice Abbott and Annie Leibovitz.

That book also approximated the trim size of Life. “The magazine is where I started professionally. My goal then was to take pictures that would become a page or spread in Life, and I don’t think that idea has ever really left me,” Loengard says. “Life’s photography had some vibrancy for the reader, and size on the page made a difference.”

It took him five years to edit the photographs for his new book. “What is time consuming is the pairing of the pictures,” he says. “The strangest pictures pair together — you might find two pictures with something in the left-hand corner that’s hidden from the eye until you see them together.”

Great photographic moments, Loengard says, become clear to some extent only in hindsight.


“You’ve only got a feeling that you have a picture when you’re shooting,” he says. “All photographers have that feeling — but I think that was particularly so before the digital age. Now you can immediately see what you shot. Before digital you had to go by instinct, which of course was a lot better because you were never sure if your instinct was right so you kept on going and had the chance to shoot something that was much better than you ever expected.”

 One of those moments came when Loengard photographed O’Keeffe on the roof of her home in Santa Fe in 1967. “She was being interviewed by Dorothy Seiberling, Life’s art editor, when I shot the photo,” Loengard says. “My rule of thumb is to never photograph someone when they’re being interviewed, because you get this very awkward mouth; you get someone looking at something outside of the camera. It’s a terrible way to make pictures. But out of boredom I decided to take the most lopsided photograph in history — all the interest is on the left side of the picture, and the rest is blank sky and earth. The reason it worked so well I think is that O’Keeffe is not at rest. She’s listening to questions and is ready to respond. She’s coiled there.”

He paired that picture with one of O’Keeffe’s hands. Hands make wonderful moments, Loengard says, and his book is full of them, perhaps most notably in his 1970 photo of ranch foreman Whistle Mills. “He was a very unphotogenic guy — he was really an ugly guy as a matter of fact — but there he was feeding horses and right in front of me at eye level was his hand, and it was this wonderful, battered hand,” Loengard recalls. “I think the great thing about hands is that they never look posed.”

The Mystery of Bill Cosby

Moments, which is to say photographs, are open to interpretation. Like time, they aren’t always what they seem.

In 1969 Loengard shot a memorable portrait of Bill Cosby during one of the peaks of the actor and comedian's stardom. The photograph captures Cosby in silhouette smoking a cigar and looking, perhaps, contemplative, though his face remains a shadowy mystery. In light of recent revelations about Cosby, the mystery in Loengard’s photo only deepens.

“I think it’s the opaqueness of Cosby that makes it interesting,” says Loengard. He shot the picture as he did because, he says, Cosby was “almost totally unresponsive.”

“It was on a weekend morning and he’d obviously spent a hard night some place. He was very unwilling to approach the camera or do anything for the camera,” Loengard says. “We went outside and I saw something that I’d been interested in since I first came to Los Angeles — these white walls everywhere. To shoot someone silhouetted against one seemed a logical thing to do. And that’s what I did — one frame. What makes the silhouette work is Cosby’s glasses, which are metal and shiny and aren't silhouetted.”

Loengard notes in his book that he once felt he had run out of interesting photographic subjects — when he was a 15-year-old growing up in New York City. “I’d taken pictures of my family and friends and all the neighborhood landmarks,” he writes. His first assignment for Life came when he was still in college at Harvard. The magazine’s Boston bureau chief, who’d seen some of his photos in the college’s alumni magazine, asked Loengard to photograph an Italian freighter, the Etrusco, which had made news by running aground on the shore of Cape Cod.

The experience taught him an important lesson about the profession of magazine journalism.

“What I learned was that even though you think you’ve done an absolutely wonderful job that should be worth six pages in Life magazine, you won’t necessarily see your pictures there,” he says.

 



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