In 1868, just a few years after the end of the Civil War, novelist John William De Forest published an essay in The Nation, a political magazine that had been founded in July 1865 in Nassau Street, Manhattan. His contribution was titled “The Great American Novel.”
The author, a former Union Army Captain, composed his essay with the intention of identifying a “canonical” work that encompassed America’s diversity and energy, whilst reflecting its national character (at a time that for many of his countrymen “America” was still a vaguely determined concept). In search of that narrative De Forest referred to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) as a possible candidate, but he eventually concluded that the Great American Novel had not been written as yet.
Both the Trump-like slogan and the ambition to create that fictional work would occupy authors for at least a century (Henry James shortened the phrase to the initialism GAN in 1880). The idea of the perfect narrative was obsessively pursued by authors, publishers, and readers. GAN was a cultural constituent of the American Dream.
The concept came under attack from emerging modernist writers. In 1923 William Carlos Williams published a limited edition of The Great American Novel at The Three Mountains Press in Paris (run by expatriate William “Bill” Bird). In an experimental narrative, the author mocked the reliance on past models in American fiction, both in form and content. His attempt did not turn the tide. To discover a new “Great American” contender kept reviewers intensely alert, until it eventually deteriorated into a running joke that was killed off in 1973 by Philip Roth when he produced a slapstick novel on the nation’s preoccupation with Major League Baseball. He named his story The Great American Novel.
From a wider perspective, notions such as perfection and eternity – once loaded with artistic significance – became discarded concepts in aesthetics. In art and society value systems had changed. The pompous ambition to create a “perfect” work no longer motivated the artist, but that still leaves a question: is there such a thing as an exemplary work of art?
In his 1959 introduction to Robert Frank’s magnificent book The Americans, Jack Kerouac wrote that the photographer had “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.” The description is accurate. The photographic narrative of the book is as meaningful today as it was then.
Photography is a universal language and a telling photo is a forceful means of communication. Etymologically, the word means “writing/drawing with light.” Many images have become iconic, even some that date from the early stages of technological development. Julia Margaret Cameron was a member of the Photographic Society of London. Her 1867 close-up of Angelo Colarossi, an Italian immigrant from the Abruzzo village of Picinisco, unshaven and brooding, remains one of the finest portraits in the annals of photography.
In more recent history there are numerous photos that have stirred our minds, haunted our memories, and/or compelled us to act or respond. There are, for example, Dorothea Lange’s evocative memory of a “Migrant Mother”; Lawrence Beitler’s disturbing image of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Virginia, on August 7th, 1930; Bob Jackson’s encounter with Jack Ruby gunning down Lee Harvey Oswald; or Charlie Cole’s take of the lone Tank Man at Tiananmen Square. Photography is a silent but potent witness and recorder of humanity. Each photograph is a historical document.
Every photographer, either professional or amateur, yearns for the “Epic Shot” in which the unique blending of chance, artistic alertness, and technical skill produces an image that gains instant entry into the hall of pictorial fame. Few practitioners have experienced that privilege.
Born in October 1919 in Iowa, Donald Honeyman studied at his State University for a degree in photography. Ambitious and enterprising, he entered a national competition and won the grand prize – a job with Vogue in New York. On graduation in 1940, he was employed as assistant to famed photographers such as Horst P. Horst and Edward Steichen. By 1941 he was photographing celebrities and fashion shows.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Honeyman enlisted as an US Army Cameraman in Combat Photo Unit 10, serving in the South Pacific until the end of the war. Several of his short films that were made in the heat of hostile engagements have later been used in historical documentaries. In February 1945, he produced hard-hitting front-line footage of the cruel month-long Battle of Manila which resulted in the total devastation of the city and the tragic death of over 100,000 civilians. He was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for bravery in combat. Back in civilian life in 1947, Don was assigned to reopen the once fashionable Vogue studios in Paris.
After a few months in the French capital, he met a remarkable lady. Gitta Sereny was born Gitta Serényi on March 13th, 1921 in Vienna, the only daughter of an Hungarian aristocrat who died when she was two years of age. Her actress mother would later re-marry the Austrian sociologist Ludwig von Mises. Gitta was educated in Vienna and studied at the Sorbonne from where she fled from the Nazis in 1941 to join her mother and stepfather in New York. In 1945 she returned to Europe to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency.
Don and Gitta met again and married in January 1948. Living in Neuilly, just west of Paris, Honeyman received an invitation to join British Vogue in London. The couple settled at Pembroke Studios, Kensington. In 1952, Don was recalled to New York. Gitta liked living in the city and wrote her first book The Medallion there (published in London in 1957 by Gollancz), but Don felt ill at ease in the New York fashion world. After six years the couple returned to London, eventually re-occupying their Kensington home.
Honeyman opened his own studio in 1963, reducing his work load by focusing on advertising and freelance projects. He would become involved with Gitta’s activities as an investigative journalist for the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Times magazines.
The Capote Treatment
On November 15th, 1959, Truman Capote read an article in the New York Times about the murder of a family of four in rural Kansas. Two drifters, Perry Smith and Richard “Dick” Hickock, were arrested in possession of a radio, a pair of binoculars and a handful of dollars. The novelist was intrigued and traveled to the location of the crime. He would spent six years there researching his novel In Cold Blood, compiling 8,000 pages of notes.
After their conviction, Capote held personal interviews with both men. Having spent five years on death row, they were executed by hanging just after midnight on April 14th, 1965. It was only after their execution that Truman considered his project completed and ready for publication. His book pioneered a new literary direction labelled as the “nonfiction novel.” It was praised as the “first” systematic attempt to enter the criminal mind.
Capote abhorred the misuse of the pen as a vehicle for preaching or moralizing. He aimed at being “clinically” direct (the medical metaphor had been introduced into literature by Émile Zola in order to specify his own stylistic approach) in the portrayal of human beings as driven by urges. Without making judgements, the novelist sought an accurate and documentary presentation of events. His concern was a socio-psychological profile of two murderers; his aim was to delve into the disturbed psyche of America’s underclass of the 1950s.
Gitta Sereny adopted Capote’s pioneering approach in her work. Her coverage of the trial of eleven-year-old Mary Bell who in 1968 was convicted of killing two boys aged three and four, produced The Case of Mary Bell (1972). As a reporter she listened and recorded, challenging readers to evaluate her findings for themselves. Her mandate was neither to condone nor condemn, but to make an attempt at understanding and communicating.
In 1970/1 Sereny spent seventy hours of interviews in a Düsseldorf prison with Fritz Stangl, the Austrian-born commander of Treblinka extermination camp who had been convicted of co-responsibility for 900,000 murders. In 1995 she published Albert Speer, his Battle with Truth. The book had taken two decades to complete. She was haunted by questions of conscience. Were great malefactors capable of remorse? Was redemption still possible for them? Not the ‘what’ but the ‘why’ of evil spurred her research and writing.
After her release in 1980, Gitta persuaded Mary Bell to co-operate in Cries Unheard: the Story of Mary Bell (1998). It provided a compelling account of the prolonged childhood abuse Mary had suffered at the hands of her prostitute mother. From childhood she had been forced to engage in sex acts with her mother’s clients. The book created a storm of moral indignation as Gitta was accused of displaying “sympathy” for her subject.
While Gitta took much of the limelight, Don Honeyman was quietly proceeding with his studio work and photography. He had been experimenting with a process of solarisation (tone reversal) as a way of making fashion images and portrait photographs more exciting and communicable.
Athena & Guevara
In 1964, Norwegian businessman Ole Christensen set up the retailer Athena, a firm that specialized in the sale of poster reproductions of paintings by Toulouse Lautrec, Claude Monet, Alphonse Mucha, Salvador Dali, L.S. Lowry, and the Old Masters. He opened his first outlet in Hampstead which soon became an essential port of call for swinging Londoners of the mid-1960s and early 1970s, attracting the same crowd as did Habitat and Biba.
Don Honeyman was approached by representatives of Athena. Would he be able to apply the process of solarisation to poster production? His negotiators were particularly interested in one image, a portrait picture of the Argentina-born Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, taken on March 5th, 1960 in Havana by Alberto Korda, Fidel Castro’s personal photographer.
Known as “Guerrillo heroico,” Korda made a single print only which decorated his studio. The portrait caught wide attention when it was used on the cover of a reissue of Che’s book Guerrilla Warfare in 1967 – the year of his murder in Bolivia. Soon after the world was in turmoil. Student protests in Paris and other European capitals; the Prague Spring; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy – the image captivated a global audience and became the world’s most reproduced photograph.
Honeyman’s experience in glamour photography turned out to be useful in transforming the photograph into a poster. Applying his technical know-how in image manipulation, he completed Che’s poster in 1968. It was an instant bestseller. Guevara’s beret-capped face adorned the wall of countless student rooms; he stared at passers-by from murals in Naples to New York, from Amsterdam to Havana; and boosted the sale of t-shirts for many years to come.
The poster took on a life of its own, creating an odd combination of rebellion and celebrity. The image became associated with “martyrdom.” Guevara’s revolution may have been a blood-soaked failure, but his devotion and suffering were inspirational to millions of people, even if few would have subscribed to or have been aware of his authoritarian views. The precise details of his exploits were soon forgotten, but the iconic power of the image came to represent an abstraction that could serve almost any cause. Guevara became a symbol of revolution without specific context or theory.
Thanks to Honeyman’s manipulation, Alberto Korda’s image reminded observers that a great photograph is so much more than a mere document in its ability to transport us to unseen or unsuspected worlds. In her writing Gitta Sereny thrived for a documentary style from which all personal “involvement” would be excluded in order to highlight the complex and “hidden” criminal psyche of her subjects.
The media of expression between these two partners may differ, but the powers of narrative lift their work to an elevated level of achievement. Both artists were able to catch and express the mood of the moment. It is that quality that makes their creations stand out.
Illustrations, from above: The Great American Novel; Iago, Study from an Italian, 1867 (Iago is a villain Shakespeare’s Othello) by Julia Margaret Cameron; 161st Signal Detachment with Don Honeyman (second from the right); Honeyman’s portrait of Gitta Sereny (1996); Alberto Korda’s iconic picture of Che Guevara taken on March 5th, 1960, in Havana.