Saturday, March 15, 1986

The Real MacWeeney

I wrote this for a short-lived magazine called Vis-à-Vis in, I think, 1986. It's still true. 

Despite the automatic respect given to anyone who says he’s a writer, photographers almost always see more in a given situation.  They are more flexible, more inventive, better at getting what they want—most have a splendidly gentle impudence.  Writers work at home; the photographer’s rule is, “Get closer.” They are generally better at talking to people, for the writer is not by nature gregarious. Their equipment’s vulnerability gives them a sixth sense of physical instinct that most writers, even the finest journalists, often lack.  All writers hunt for explanations in thickets of words—a photographer knows to look at the face and the landscape, where truth is more evident.

I speak in such ideal terms because I’ve had the good luck to work with the superb Irish photographer Alen MacWeeney on numerous assignments, throughout the Caribbean, the Middle East, and the South Pacific, and I haven't stopped learning from him. Small, finely-made, with white hair, a doubting eye, and an unflagging sense of humor, he is a man of infinite resourcefulness. In Bahrain I saw him flap his arms like a bird to demonstrate to an astonished Arab that we were looking for some falconers. In Oman he kept his cool in terrible heat when we were completely lost in the Empty Quarter, and got us out alive. On Dominica, among the last of the once-cannibal Carib Indians, he so charmed that reluctant tribe—who simply wanted us to leave them alone—that we ended up being given a house.

"The problem," says Alen,“always is convincing people that your need to do the picture is greater than their resistance.” Difficult, though, to get sent to a place for a month, sometimes a week, and be expected to get under the skin of remote people who only want to see your back. Alen has always shown great patience, persistence, and humor—his famous photographs of the Irish tinkers were made after six months’ association with those gypsies without taking a single picture. This care seems to result in photographs of a rare candor and generosity—people revealing themselves without the photographer in the way. You never feel Alen in his pictures.

On a recent triple project in the South Pacific I saw him faced with several difficulties of different sorts. Tramping the Milford Track on New Zealand’s South Island—a place that is to the vegetable world what New York is to the concrete—the problem was to make its often bland beauty ("A green hell for a photographer”) stand out. Part of the solution was to approach it as many different landscapes, not one. On the Cook Island of Rarotonga he convinced half the timid island to let him take their pictures by asking to join an outrigger canoe race. His boat went round in circles, but he got all the photographs he needed for the next two weeks. And he saw in a shy island girl of sixteen a potential model who became absolutely riveting when photographed—it took several meetings with her parents to get photographic permission. (In the end, the travel magazine balked at using those shots; perhaps they were too sensual. The lesson of writing or taking pictures for magazines is that generally one’s best work is never used.)

His stroke of genius, though, was in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. There we were to do, as part of a town portrait, an interview with a local celebrity called the Wizard, a truly brilliant man who is garbed like Merlin, declaims every day in the city square, and is part William Blake, part stand-up comic—though the comedy masks a deep and original thinker. Everyone who reports on Christchurch talks to the Wizard; he is a dream interview, but he's also on the cover of the phone book, and hardly news. What was there new to find in the Wizard?

Alen knew. “Do Wizards have mothers?”

That's how great portraits are made.

That’s what a great photographer is made of.

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