Saturday, May 29, 2010

Little Stories: Sedat Pakay on Walker Evans

It was the late 1960s. Walker Evans, a photographer who helped document the Great Depression three decades earlier through his haunting images of the rural poor, was teaching at Yale University in Connecticut.

A young Turkish photographer, who aspired towards filmmaking, convinced Evans to
become the subject of a short film.

“Walker was very modest, very shy,” said Sedat Pakay, the photographer and filmmaker who now lives in Claverack. “I talked him into it.”

At age 21 Pakay had come to Yale to study photography under Evans.

“I was with him for two years,” he said.

During that time Yale didn’t have a separate photography department.

“It was under graphic design,” said Pakay.

Most of the students were graphic artists concerned with magazine work, said Pakay, while he, like Evans, was “obsessed with photography.”

The two men hit it off and it was during this time that Pakay broached the subject of making a film about his mentor.

The first version of the film, completed in 1969, was 20 minutes long and shot on a 16 millimeter camera owned by Yale.

Pakay was living in New York City by then and would edit the film whenever he could find the time.

After the film’s completion there was little interest, he said, due to Evan’s being considered “a has been” at the time, as well as the fact that documentary filmmaking wasn’t popular.

“Documentaries weren’t on anyone’s radar,” he said. “I think I made about 600 bucks from it.”

According to Pakay, it was a time when a number of new feature filmmakers, including Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, were coming to the forefront.

Evans, who was born in St. Louis, Mo. in 1903, took up photography in 1928 and would eventually become part of the Farm Security Administration’s photographic unit.

The FSA was a New Deal agency and under the leadership of Roy Stryker, the photographic unit worked to underscore the need for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s programs as well as document a decade’s worth of national troubles.

According to Pakay, Evans and Stryker had a very tumultuous relationship.

“Stryker didn’t like him and he didn’t like Stryker,” he said.

Evans was living in New York City doing magazine work at the time and considered it a chance to travel and make photographs, according to Pakay.

“It was a major opportunity for Walker,” he said.

Pakay, who loves Evan’s FSA work, believes that the years between 1935 and 1937, when Evan’s was with the agency, were some of his best.

“A lot of artists have shining moments,” he said. “These were Walker’s years.”

By 1938 Stryker and Evans had reached an impasse.

“Stryker would give him an assignment and Walker would ignore him,” Pakay said. “He was doing whatever he wanted to do.”

Pakay said Evans did the same thing when he and James Agee were sent on assignment by Fortune Magazine to do a story in 1936.

“(The magazine) wanted something glorifying American capitalism,” said Pakay, “and (Evans and Agee) chose three families of share croppers.”

The magazine never published the article.

“No one cared,” he said.

The piece was eventually published in 1941 as the book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” and told in words and images the story of three white tenant families from Hale County, Ala.

Pakay said 1,000 copies were printed and a little more than half, about 600, sold.

“There was little fanfare upon its publication,” he said. “Now they’re almost impossible to find.”

The time in which it was published played a large part in its failure to sell, said Pakay. It was on the eve of World War II when America was still reeling from the Great Depression.

Stryker eventually fired Evans from the agency, but according to Pakay, Evans had said on numerous occasions that he caused himself to be fired.

The year Evans was fired was the same in which he was honored with a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the first dedicated to photography.

Evans later worked for a number of magazines and eventually became an editor at Fortune Magazine.

“He left Fortune (in 1965) and went to Yale to teach,” said Pakay.

This was where the two men met. Pakay had gotten a full scholarship to Yale and eventually received his Masters in Fine Arts there in 1968.

As a teacher Evans never gave assignments but would discuss the subject matter of the work. “The clothing, environment and background,” said Pakay.

Both men were interested in subjects that “were very American,” he said.

Pakay’s teacher was much more interested in the subject than the technical aspects of his art.

“Walker didn’t care at all about darkroom techniques,” he said. “Not at all. Zip.”

Evans, he said, was capable in the dark room, but chose instead to have his work done by professional labs.

During this time Pakay was moving towards filmmaking.

“I was already trying to put little stories into one frame of film,” he said, adding that filmmaking allowed him to incorporate “sound and motion” into his work.

Pakay would go on to make two other documentaries. One was a 2006 film on Josef and Anni Albers titled “Josef and Anni Albers: Art is Everywhere.” The Albers were German born American artists, he, a painter and influential educator, she, a textile artist and printmaker.

Another was a short film from 1973 on the famed African-American writer James Baldwin titled “James Baldwin: From Another Place.”

Pakay had met Baldwin in Istanbul, Turkey in 1964 and became the writer’s unofficial photographer.

“I jumped into it with the vigor and ambition of an 18-year-old,” he said of his photography during that period.

Of the Evan’s film, "Walker Evans: America," it would be nearly 30 years before it would reach its final state.

It wasn’t until Pakay and his wife Kathy bought a weekend house in Claverack,NY., two hours north of new York City, in 1984—to which they moved full-time three years later— that the idea for a longer film came to fruition.

Pakay said he approached WMHT, the local PBS affiliate in Albany,NY., about doing something longer.

“I had the goods,” he said of his earlier documentary.

Evans had died in 1975, but Pakay was able to expand the film through interviews with a number of Evans’ friends and colleagues, including John Szarkowski, the former curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, who was living in East Chatham at the time.

A National Endowment for the Arts grant, as well as funding from the Park Foundation, helped get the new version of the film completed in 1999.

The film was eventually picked up by PBS and shown across the country around the same time that MOMA held a major retrospective of Evans’ work.

Pakay said that in the last decade he has returned to photography and has even, tentatively, embraced the digital age.

In 2008 he began working with Emily Upham of Germantown for a book on aging and loss.

He said he bought a digital camera for the project, “a play camera” he called it, but also brought his 35 millimeter film camera along.

The book contains 17 portraits of women authors and artists who have dealt with loss and aging, including Gail Godwin, Erica Jong, Vivian Gornick, Tina Howe and Sharon Olds. The book contains narratives by the artists and interviews by Upham and is due out from Simon and Schuster this spring.

Pakay said that he enjoys the “instant gratification” of digital cameras, but feels that digital prints still don’t match up to traditional silver gelatin prints.

According to him, if Evans was still alive he would most likely be using a digital camera.

When the SX 70 Polaroid camera came out Evans immediately began using one, he said.

“He spent years with it,” said Pakay.


I interviewed Pakay at his home in Claverack one February morning. As I exited my truck I was greeted by two large poodles who came bounding towards me full tilt. On the porch stood Pakay, a smallish man with glasses and a smile that peaked out from the corners of his mouth.

We drank mint tea at his kitchen table and talked and every so often he would get up to let the dogs in or out. "They're obsessed with squirrels," he explained. They would see a squirrel through the kitchen window, go crazy, be let outside to chase said squirrel and then return inside to repeat the entire process.

Besides discussing Evans, we touched upon Pakay's series of photographs that he did of such renowned photographers as Andre Kertesz and Edward Steichen as part of his graduate thesis.

He also photographed Mark Rothko, the reticent Abstract Expressionist for the project.Pakay said it took months for Rothko to finally agree to sit for him. The young photographer met the older and famously reserved painter at Rothko's Manhattan studio, a converted 19th century horse barn.

The resulting image shows Rothko, his mouth slightly open, standing between two of his smaller works that hung in the hallway of his studio.

Pakay was then invited into Rothko's work space where the artist was in the midst of creating the large scale paintings that would eventually hang in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.

Rothko, who was known to consume large quantities of whiskey, offered Pakay his first taste of bourbon.

"I had never tasted it before," he said. "I still love it, even though I'm not supposed to drink it anymore."

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The World She Made: Heller on Rand

Editor's Note: My interview with Anne Heller originally appeared in the Register-Star Newspaper April 30, 2010.

“She was a complex, contradictory character,” said Anne Heller of the writer-philosopher Ayn Rand.

Heller spent five and a half years working on her 2009 biography of Rand titled “Ayn Rand and the World She Made,” published by Doubleday.

Rand, born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, in Russia in 1905 wrote a number of works, including the two best selling novels, “The Fountainhead” (1943) and 1957’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

She was also a philosopher whose ideas, which came to be known as Objectivism, continue to be influential today as a wellspring for Libertarianism and other ideologies.

Heller, a magazine editor and journalist, first began reading Rand after Suze Orman — the financial advisor and best-selling author — sent her a passage from “Atlas Shrugged” about money, as a way of illustrating the point of Orman’s essay that Heller was editing.

“I’m not even sure if she is a fan of Rand,” Heller said of Orman. But the passage was enough to pique Heller’s interest.

“The passage surprised me by defending limitless wealth in a way that was logical, original, complex, and, though somewhat overbearing, beautifully written,” stated Heller in her book’s preface.

Soon she was reading more of Rand’s work.

Heller made the leap to writing Rand’s biography after she began “looking around at the work out there” on Rand.

She said that most of the books were either written by Rand devotees or by authors who “dismissed her out of hand.”

“There was nothing objective out there,” she said.

Heller’s biography is based on original research done in Russia, along with interviews with Rand’s friends and former acolytes.

She said that while writing the book she was surprised to discover how determined Rand had been throughout her life.

“Nothing was a coincidence in her life,” she said. “She knew what she wanted.”

In Heller’s book she describes a well known scene in which the famed Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille meets Rand for the first time. It has been said that the meeting, which helped launch Rand’s career as a Hollywood screen writer, was just sheer luck. But Heller, based on her research, believes the meeting was more than a coincidence.

“Of the people I talked to nobody believed that happened (by chance),” she said.

Another aspect of Rand’s personality that Heller was surprised, and saddened by, was how Rand’s ideas became more rigid as she grew older.

Rand had a wonderful mind that changed decade by decade, said Heller.

She believes this was due, in part, to the cult-like atmosphere that surrounded Rand in her later years.

Beginning in the 1950s, Rand, while living in New York City, was surrounded by a small group of acolytes, whom Heller called “gatekeepers” who kept those who disagreed with Rand away from her.

“She let it happen,” said Heller. “She was charmed by flattery like the rest of us.”

Rand’s philosophy which places the individual good above that of the collective continues to be felt close to 30 years after her death in 1982.

“You can draw a line from Objectivism straight through to Libertarianism,” said Heller.

She said the Tea Party movement has also latched on to Rand.

“People use her a lot,” she said. “I don’t know if what they are doing has much to do with her ... she was pro-abortion and anti-religion, ferociously so.”

Alan Greenspan, the economist who served as the country’s chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, was also influenced by Rand.

“He was a steadfast friend to her until the end of her life,” said Heller.

According to Heller, Greenspan said that Rand put the moral basis in capitalism for him — the idea that capitalism is the only economic system that respects the individual and is determined by the individuals right to produce.

“A couple of years ago,” said Heller, Greenspan repudiated the theory that it was in a business person’s best interest to be honest, a long held Randian belief.

“It’s shocking to me that he lived at the pinnacle of world economics and didn’t realize that people would cheat if they had the chance,” she said.

Rand’s fiction also continues to do well, with close to a million books being sold in 2009. But for Rand there was no line between her philosophy and her novels.

“Rand used her novels as a way of illustrating her ideas,” said Heller. “She always thought that people are much more influenced by stories than by lectures.”