Archive for category: Professional Auteurism

It Came From the National Enquirer

28 Dec 2014
December 28, 2014
John Carpenter and Adrienne Barbeau

John Carpenter and Adrienne Barbeau at the Playboy Mansion, early 1980s. © Jeff Gates

I don’t know what happened to Antonio Bay tonight. Something came out of the fog and tried to destroy us. In one moment, it vanished. But if this has been anything but a nightmare, and if we don’t wake up to find ourselves safe in our beds, it could come again. To the ships at sea who can hear my voice, look across the water, into the darkness. Look for the fog.

—John Carpenter’s The Fog

I’ve had two careers in my life: teacher and federal web wonk. But, I’ve had many, many jobs. McDonald’s garbage man and french fry maker, mailman, wedding photographer — you know, the jobs that often filled in the space and my pockets while I was trying to make a go of it. One of the more interesting fillers was photographing for the National Enquirer. Yes, that National Enquirer.

It was the 1980s. My friend, Donna, a writer who, like myself, was trying to forge her own career (she went on to become a well-respected writer) wrote for the Enquirer. It paid well and kept her on her toes. She often enlisted our group of friends to help out on her inquiring adventures. Oh, there was the rumor that President Reagan’s son, Ron, was a ballet dancer (and, with it, the 1980s innuendo that he must be gay). Perfect fodder for the Enquirer (the first part was true; the second not).

One day, she needed someone to photograph the actress Cindy Williams (of Laverne & Shirley fame) in Cleveland Amory‘s room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Amory, a writer as well as a critic for TV Guide, was also an animal rights advocate. And my friend wanted me to photograph Williams and Amory for a publicity shot for Amory’s Fund for Animals. I was nervous and excited. As an art photographer I wasn’t used to the pressure of getting a good shot for publication. In fact, my artistic sensibility had recently gotten me fired as a photo printer for Joe Weider‘s Muscle magazine in the late 1970s. The images, I was told, were too good and not fit to print.

I got the shot and an Enquirer stringer picked up the undeveloped rolls of film. That was it, except for getting a fat check for an hour’s work. I was hooked. After the shoot, my friend and I went to lunch at a Hollywood eatery. There sitting next to us was actor David Soul. You might remember Soul for his 1976 number one hit “Don’t Give Up on Us.” What!? You weren’t even born yet? Well, maybe you might have seen him on TV Land, starring in that 1970s series Starsky & Hutch.

The Enquirer had just written a story about Soul’s arrest for beating his seven month pregnant wife and my friend leaned over to me and said, “If I can get a statement from him, I won’t have to work for a year!” She walked up to him and asked. Let the record show he declined, albeit with a salty profanity thrown in for good measure. She quietly backed away as she came to terms with having to work the rest of the year.

A few months later, Donna called and said she was going to a party at the Playboy Mansion and did I want to come along. It was work for her and I brought my camera. This is where we came to meet slasher king John Carpenter and his first wife Adrienne Barbeau, star of his horror film (and now cult classic) The Fog. I don’t know why the Enquirer never needed my photos (more than likely, there was no story there). And, going over some of my old negatives yesterday I spied this one of Carpenter and Barbeau. I had never printed it before.

Soon thereafter, my time with the National Enquirer started to fade. They asked me to photograph Sally Struthers (from All in the Family) in front of her personalized license plate that said “Tacky” (because she thought personalized plates were, well, tacky). But, they told me I would have to say I was from some other publication because Struthers hated the Enquirer. I refused. Even as a young turk, I had my ethics. So instead, they told me to go to a pre-school and take photos of children making funny faces. Well, that seemed within my ethical boundaries. I found a Montesori school in upper class Santa Monica but when I realized I was going to have to get permission from every parent, I wondered just how successful I would be. After all, it was the National Enquirer. What parent was going to allow their child to be photographed by that rag? Every parent signed. And, after that job, I called it quits.

I was born in Hollywood and this is my true Hollywood story: not quite film noire nor sensationalist like The Black Dahlia murder mystery. But the fog engulfing my own Hollywood years has lifted.

I Talk to Strangers in Elevators

21 Aug 2014
August 21, 2014
People in elevator

I talk to strangers in elevators. But not just to any stranger. I pick and choose, depending on the elevator, the mix of people, and, of course, if I have anything to say. Our time together is short and there must be some connection to our shared experience riding up or down. Not quite an elevator pitch, but a close relative. Timing is everything.

It might be Monday morning. No eager beavers on Monday morning. “Thank God it’s Friday,” I might say. I’m often the warm up act for the week. And, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a chuckle. Out of complete strangers. Friday afternoons, it’s a virtual party as office after office empties out for the weekend. Everyone is jovial, anticipating two days off, and talk is cheap.

Yesterday, after getting my morning coffee, I was standing in our office lobby waiting to be whisked upstairs. Another woman and I waited as the elevator door opened. Out walked a coworker of mine. As she walked passed me she smiled and asked, in that perfunctory fashion, “Hi, how’s it going?” Of course, my answer was preordained, no matter how I felt. I replied, “Great.”

The two of us, the stranger and I, got on the elevator: me to the 3rd floor and she to the 5th. As we began our assent, I turned to her and said, “I’m really not great. But this is the ‘Truth Elevator.’ You must tell the truth in this, and only this elevator.”

She laughed, but had nothing to say.

My Encounter with Wally

09 Jul 2011
July 9, 2011

Wally Shawn photographed for Time magazine.

This has got to be the worst photograph of Wallace Shawn I have ever seen. What were the editors of Time magazine thinking when they decided to use Peter Hapak’s image for their summer reading feature in last week’s edition? What? You don’t know who Wally Shawn is? I know Wally and this is NOT him. Well, I actually don’t know Wally personally, but I once saw him at a phone booth on the street next to the Whitney Museum, which is the same thing.

You do remember The Princess Bride, don’t you (he played criminal boss Vizzini who kidnaps the soon-to-be princess)? Or, more cerebrally, My Dinner with Andre. THAT was a movie’s worth of the real Wally Shawn.

He is also a playwright, comedian, and, my favorite, an intellectual with an appreciation for popular culture. Look, he played Grand Nagus Zek on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. How much more popular can you get? (Yes, I know Deep Space Nine wasn’t the best in the franchise.)

What will you be reading this summer?

Well, that’s really not anybody’s business, is it? It’s very personal. It’s too personal.

Look at those bags under his eyes and that scowl. Pair that body language with his answer to Time’s first question and his portrait seems quite accurate. But, I can’t believe that’s true. Not my Wally.

When asked to recommend a book for the summer he replies “It’s hard to recommend a book if you don’t know who you’re recommending it to. I could recommend a book to someone who’s quite a bit like me…” Of course! How can you suggest a book or advice if you don’t know who you’re talking with? Popular culture has eliminated that barrier. We’re all close friends, aren’t we? Well, except for Mr. Shawn. He knows the truth and his portrait conveys just that: he’s not my friend and he has no idea why he was asked to be a part of this Time article. He is the token literary curmudgeon of this group.

But just in case I’m right, I think I’ll buy his recommendation, The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant. I may not be his friend now but perhaps there’s hope. Then the next time I see him on a street corner I’ll be able to intelligently engage him rather than gush and stammer like that time at the Whitney. “You’re my favorite pop culture intellectual!” will hopefully be replaced with something, um, more substantial. As long as I can recognize him from his photo.

The Real Reason AT&T Has Exclusive Rights to the iPhone

25 Jun 2010
June 25, 2010
Western Electric Picturephone

A recently discovered magazine ad fuels speculation that Steve Jobs can time travel.

This morning, in an old dusty box hidden in the corner of my attic I unearthed some old magazines. I can’t remember why I kept them. But thumbing through their pages I came across this 1960s ad for Western Electric’s Picturephone ® and something in the shadows caught my eye.

Steve Jobs knew Marty McFly. But more importantly, proof positive why AT&T, the descendant of Western Electric, is the exclusive carrier for the iPhone.

On Talking to Strangers

24 Apr 2010
April 24, 2010

Never say a commonplace thing.

Jack Kerouac

My name is Jeff Gates and I talk to strangers. More on that later.

Ad for Online Security Software

We don’t want our children to be fearful of public engagements. But we want them to be able to understand the risks. Illustration from an ad for online security software.

With one bona fide teenager and a proto soon-to-be teen in the house privacy has been a hot family topic. Well, only their parents seem to think it’s an important issue. The girls seem totally nonplussed. And that’s our point of contention. My wife and I are trying to teach our children about the boundary between public and private space in a world that seems to be working against us. The boundaries are constantly changing and we can’t rely on our upbringings to guide us. There was no Internet when we were kids. Children have unparalleled access to information. But they have no real world experience with what to do with it or how to engage it.

Thursday, Nina Simon, who has written a great deal on the participatory museum (and has just published a book about it) came to the American Art Museum for a talk. Museums are morphing. The old hierarchical authoritative paradigm–we are the experts and we invite you to come to us for knowledge–is changing. In this Web 2.0 world museums are now beginning to engage our visitors in dialogues, not lectures about our collections. Nina has written a lot about this process and her experience is helpful in understanding this challenge. Her topic in a nutshell: how can we talk with strangers who come to our museums and how can we devise situations where visitors can engage other visitors?

I love talking with strangers, both online and in the real world. But I’ve devised some fuzzy rules for these engagements. So how do I reconcile this with my concern for privacy and the education of my girls? The answer is context.

Interestingly, Thursday was a banner engagement day for me. I had two of the most intriguing conversations with strangers within hours of each other. At lunch I was sitting in the cafe at Barnes and Noble sipping a coffee and surfing the net. Sitting next to me was a man on the phone. Being the voyeur that I am I overheard him talking in his Irish accent to an airline, trying to confirm his flight home the next day. When he got off I turned to him and asked if the volcano had stranded him. I mentioned that I had just come home from a conference at which many of my European colleagues were struggling with the same issue. But before I approached him I assessed the situation. He didn’t appear to be threatening; we were in a public place; and I could leave if I needed to. The assessment was cursory (I didn’t ask him for references) but I also relied on my past experience to continue. Let it be known I’m not one of these chatty strangers who will talk with anyone about anything. I have boundaries and I respect others’. He asked me what I did.

He works as a researcher for the Dictionary of Irish Biography, part of the Irish Royal Academy. He was at the bookstore for its free WiFi and a conversation about the Net and the changes cultural institutions like ours are encountering ensued. It was an amazing and serendipitous encounter with a total stranger. And if I hadn’t connected with him on a common ground (the volcano) we would have never had that conversation. And wonderfully we are now in contact with each other.

A few hours later I was grabbing a bite to eat at Starbucks before Nina’s lecture. As I sat down at a long table a man was standing next to a woman talking about mathematics. At first I thought he was trying to pick her up (and indeed math might simply have been his entry into her world). She appeared to be a bit uncomfortable with the engagement, explaining that she had done her PhD on the subject and worked for the National Institutes of Health. It appeared her credentials were her only defense but he ignored them. And when he finally left she was pissed. She immediately called a friend. “Why do men think they know it all,” she said. I listened (hey, it was a public space and I was two feet from her). She was disgusted. And I seriously wondered if I should enter her world. I had something to say in defense of my gender, but should I? I decided to but I was prepared to disengage if it was clear I was adding to her discomfort. Yes, I actually thought this through. I would take a chance but, given the context and sensitivity gender plays today, I was prepared to apologize and leave if need be.

She got off the phone, we made eye contact, and I said: “Not all men are like that.” She sighed and explained the whole encounter. When she was finished I replied: “Perhaps the only thing you can do is to raise a son the right way.” She laughed and thanked me for adding a bit of levity to a situation she obviously faced often.

Two radically different encounters with strangers. Yet each was rich, adding a bit more to all of our experiences in those public moments. Whether on the Net or in a coffee shop, the notion of public and private space is changing. And we’re struggling with it just like our institutions are.

So after Nina’s lecture about engagement, I stood up at the Q and A to ask her to talk a bit about a workshop she’d given to a group of teenage girls on how to talk with strangers. Her reflections on teenage interactions were interesting but my parental experience made me feel there was a piece missing. Nina had provided these girls with tools for talking to strangers (signs and ways to pose interesting questions to query strangers) but I was looking for how to teach teenagers to assess the context of an engagement, just like I had with my fellow strangers.

Nina responded to my concern by stating that most dangerous encounters were with people who knew each other. I agreed with her stat but I still felt uneasy. In October 2002 DC’s sniper John Allen Muhammad used our neighborhood as a random shooting gallery. Experiences like this inform our lives. I just don’t want these to run our lives.

A few years ago my intelligent older daughter opened a gmail account (without our knowledge) and was emailing a “girl” who worked at Cirque du Soleil. Yikes. She was so trusting of basic information without any skill to assess its veracity. This is a learned thing. But how should we be teaching it?

I don’t have a pat answer. But, for the moment, I believe it’s something that will come in time as my wife and I reinforce what I call “healthy paranoia” to our children. Privacy and public engagement are not mutually exclusive. Ten years ago when I started posting online missives about my family I set some rules of the road for posting personal information. These are malleable, changing with each context. We don’t want our girls to be fearful of every public nook and cranny. But we do want them to understand that looking at the context of these engagements is important for their safety and success of these encounters. It’s a calculated risk.

But risk taking is not a science, although I wish it was.

Clearing the Path for Sisyphus: How Social Media is Changing Our Jobs and Our Working Relationships

14 Mar 2010
March 14, 2010

This is the second in a series of essays on the effects of social media on organizations. The first, Confessions of a Long Tail Visionary, looked at how social media is changing our jobs. This piece continues the exploration by looking at how these changes in information delivery are changing our relationships with our co-workers.


Social media is changing the inner workings of our museums. Like many other organizations, our hierarchical structure has historically disseminated information from our experts to our visitors. The envisioned twenty-first century model, however, is more level. Instead of a one-way presentation, our on-line visitors are often interested in having a conversation with our curators and content providers. And many of us are joining our traditional experts in representing our institutions in these conversations. In response, we in new media have been looking for ways to engage our public by designing and using applications that encourage dialogue; however, in order to succeed all of us will need to approach our jobs and our relationships with our co-workers in different ways.

While the early hope of many technorati was that the Web would dramatically change the inner workings of our cultural institutions, new media’s role began as a support for more conventional projects – exhibitions, outreach, and our collections – with their Web-based counterparts. But as new Web 2.0 tools developed and we saw the possibilities for a greater engagement, we often felt like Sisyphus. We heard concerns these new initiatives would take too much time or they would take away from our institution’s core tasks. And just when we thought we had made inroads, the boulder would come crashing down: one step forward, two steps back. Our work was to function within our traditional organizational structure. Yet these first steps were just a prelude to real change.

Social media is now challenging the traditional flow of information throughout our institutions and out into the world. Researchers, educators, new media specialists, and exhibition designers are asking to join marketing and public affairs departments in conveying the mission of our museums to our visitors. Blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, just to name a few social applications, allow for and encourage multiple institutional voices.

But how is this transformation really taking place? Are there methodologies that encourage this shift? And how can we negotiate with our peers a greater role in content creation and dialogue? How can we challenge existing paradigms, yet maintain the support of our coworkers?

Read more →

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