Russian Self Portraits



Remembering David Attie

When I was thirteen, my father thought I might enjoy spending part of my summer, working as an intern for David Attie, a commercial photographer. Dad was an art director for IBM, and hired David many times for his projects. He loved David’s creativity, both behind the lens and in the dark room and David and his wife Dotty, became close friends of our family.

My father wanted me to experience working in a photo studio, and to work with someone he considered one of the best would be great and perhaps the beginning of a career for me.

As a thirteen year old, I had not formulated what I wanted to do. I liked the arts, and enjoyed sketching, and photography, but I was young and uncertain like many my age.

I remember my time at the Attie’s brownstone, in Chelsea, New York City. Coming from the suburbs of New Jersey, I had trouble sleeping. I was not used to the loud sirens and horns throughout the night. I woke up each morning groggy, and struggled to make it through the days.

During the day, I helped David in the studio. Unfortunately for me, it was a slow period and there was little going on in the studio. I spent most of my time organizing files of slides, contact sheets, and model tear sheets. The studio was not the neatest, with stuff everywhere. I did deliveries to a few nearby clients, then back to the studio. After a long day, we had dinner then to bed, with no TV.

Some work came in, and we did a shoot. Nothing memorable, and all the films were developed in the studio by David. I remember the distinct smell of dektol and photographic paper, always in the air. I worked in the dark room, did some developing, but mostly clean up work.

Work slowed again, and so my time at the studio ended only after about a week.

Little did I realize how much of an impression that brief time spent would have on me today. David had passed away from cancer a dozen-plus years ago and how I wish I could speak with him today. I admired his work in those early days, and over time realized how great his work really was. If he were alive today, I’m convinced without question, his name would be up there with all of the greats. I know there are still people who knew of him that will attest to his genius.

A Legacy
David Attie, along with his corporate, commercial stuff, did work for many major publications of the time, including Vogue, and Esquire. He was published several times in interviews and produced a few books. Most notably, Russian Self Portraits, and Portrait Theory.

Russian self portraits was produced as a cultural exchange program with the Soviet Union. We were at the height of the cold war with Russia, and to go there, I’m sure, must have been dangerous. David traveled to the city of Kiev, no in the Ukraine, for the shoot.

The book was simple. David setup his view camera equipment and invited ordinary Russians to come in snap their own picture. He wanted them to play an active role in their portrait.

They were given an instant Polaroid print, and David retained the negatives. The interesting thing is, he was not permitted to keep the negatives per agreement with the authorities. Perhaps due to disorganization or confusion, he was able to retain the negatives. The book was produced and published in the U.S. in 1977. It’s filled with wonderful, full-length self-portraits by each subject, and a wonderful account of the experience by David.

A snapshot of time in the lives of individual, now indelible in print. The expressions, most of them melancholy, one or two dared to smile, some playful, one or two flirtatious. And my favorite (and David’s), the little girl on the cover who dared to curtsey.

It’s a wonderful, must-have rare book for photographers, long out of publication. But you can find it used on Alibris, or click here

A second book, confirms David’s talent as amongst the best in photography, is a series of essays and photographs on Portrait Theory. Contributing writers/photographers include: David Attie, Chuck Close, Robert Maplethorpe, Jan Groover, Evelyn Hofer, Lottie Jacobi, James Van Der Zee, and Gerard Malanga. The essays and photographs are fascinating and must have for any serious photographer.

Portrait Theory – Click Here

I have fond memories of David Attie, and appreciate his work now more than ever. I wish he were still with us today.


Decoration or Design

Thinking about all my years as a creative director and a photographer, design is embedded in me. I may not always succeed, but I know when it’s right and why. By definition, design means problem solving. Communicating an idea through visual means. Not to be confused with art. Art is self expression.

As a fan of Paul Rand, the legendary designer, I’m reminded of how he loathed the direction design had taken when the personal computer took the world by storm in the early 90’s.

Rand was teaching at Yale when he wrote several papers on this very topic. Young designers took to the new medium and began to explore it’s potential. The outset of that exploration was a lot of bad design, still happening today unfortunately. The principles were quickly forgotten in lieu of a filter that would produce “a cool effect”.

Design became less of a problem solving discipline and was turning into mere decoration. Colors, textures, swirls, mixtures of fonts, various sizes and weights… the list goes on. In a short time, trends would develop, and various filter effects and styles would come and go.

The designer was becoming a decorator. Little thought on how, why or for what purpose, just merely to choose a font or apply a filter, was good enough. Worst yet, clients bought it. Design standards lowered.

Paul Rand so eloquently expressed his displeasure with this new direction in a piece that I recommend all creatives should read:

Confusion and Chaos

More about Paul Rand here:

In recent years, I have re-invigorated my passion for photography. I have observed some parallels in photography with design. Brought about by the advances in computer technology today, things like high dynamic range (HDR), tilt shift, and pre-sets and filters to achieve painterly effects, are all employed.

I understand the need to explore and try new ways of self expression. But I can’t help feeling that we are entering the trap of becoming decorators again.

At what point is it art? I suppose if there’s a large enough audience that appreciates the aesthetics, you could call it art.

But, is it? I have some thoughts I’d like to share.

A good composition, to me, is far more important than any decoration or filter applied to it.

When the filter or effect becomes the dominant focal point, it detracts from the composition.

As for originality –

The French painter, Claude Monet invented a new style that was never done before. Called Impressionism, Monet was an original. No painter had ever expressed their work in this way before. However, despite his new technique, Monet’s compositions were spectacular.

Pablo Picasso used Cubism. Another original.

Georges Seurat was famous for Pointillism. His technique, composition and style are unmistakable.

These painters did something new. Not always liked by the masses at the time, but new and evocative.

All these painters developed forms of self expression we know as original art. But make no mistake, their compositions were exceptional.

That brings us to today. I find it hard to imagine what Georges Seurat would have thought of the Pointilist filter in Photoshop.

The styles and techniques were original. I suppose if someone creates a style or filter that is truly original for a particular photo application, that can be considered art.


I’ve seen some astonishing work by some young, and original artists/photographers. Just visit the galleries in Chelsie, NYC, and you’ll see for yourself.

But one must be so careful not to get caught in trends, filters, effects, and and lose sight of overpowering a beautiful composition with mere decoration.

Go ahead and experiment, and explore. It’s fun and it’s how we discover new things.

Just remember what Paul Rand said about mere decoration.

Don’t let the effects over power. The original intent will be lost.


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