Crossing Over

The Website of Author Marina Budhos

Category: Photography

Henri Cartier-Bresson & India

2017 marks the 70th anniversary of the Magnum Photo Agency, founded by photography greats Robert Capa, Henri Cartier Bresson, David Seymour, George Rodger, William Vandervirt, and others right after World War II. Legend has it that Magnum was named after the magnum of champagne they drank to celebrate the agency, but with Capa one’s never sure. At the time, the photographers ‘divided’ up the world–Capa was somewhat ‘at large’ and Cartier-Bresson took Asia. The result is on display at the Rubin Museum in a rich show of his images of India at some truly key historic moments. Capa always told Cartier Bresson: “Stop calling yourself an artist. Say you’re a photojournalist.”

Surely these images reflect both: A fusion of exquisite sensitivity and composition, coupled with his keen sense of the historical moment: Henri Cartier-Bresson: India in Full Frame.

 

DACA, Dreamers

April 26, 2017

Two items caught my attention today: an undocumented Rutgers student, a Dreamer, asked by ICE to interview at their office and report about how much young undocumented immigrants contribute to the NJ economy–$66 million and it is estimated that they could contribute another $27 million if they could get on with their lives, continue to study and work.

DACA Student at Rutgers Interviewed by ICE Officials.

Report: NJ young immigrants pay $66 million in taxes

I actually believe many people are squeamish about defending undocumented immigrants.  It makes them uncomfortable.  Aren’t they criminals? Didn’t they break the law? Many Americans, in fact, may be uneasy with Trump’s demonization of immigrants, but might have trouble openly marching on their behalf.  Might they secretly wonder: It is too much, isn’t it? Could some of what he says be true? Are they ruining our economy? Taking over our cities, our towns? Aren’t they a drag on our resources?

I say this not because I believe these ideas, but because I believe we must bring out of hiding these shadow thoughts in ourselves.  And the only way to do so is to bring the cold, clear nuggets of facts, such as the ones above.  To hear these stories.  These are young people whom we have already invested in; young people who are already contributed; and who have so much more to offer.  Are we willing to lose that gorgeous hope and possibility?  Because of we shut ourselves to what they can be, we shut down what we can be as a nation.  I believe we are more capacious than this; that our republic, so different than others, has room and room again.  Let us not give into the shadows and fears; let us find a way.

 

On Re-reading Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”

April 13th, 2017:

Last night I taught Baldwin (which the students loved) and the last lines kept resonating as I drove home: “It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are:in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.”

And yet I must confess, that the phrase ‘without rancor’–which is so hard to do–might be also substituted ‘without grief.’ For even as I gained so much strength from Baldwin, I found myself suddenly crying at the latest headline regarding the withholding of Federal funds from Planned Parenthood. The outright cruelty of this move undid me. I was subsumed in grief–for the women whose lives will be affected, poor women, sick women, confused women, determined women. It was a stab to my gut, my own body, a shock.

I only hope in daylight I can muster up the two opposing ideas that Baldwin conjures up for us, his complex light through the tunnel, to see our way into the future.  But right now, my heart heavy, and it requires so much strength to rally forth.

Normality Elusive In Fraught Times–Muslim Teenagers after Orlando

An article in the NY Times today about how the Orlando killings are again snatching away a sense of normality for Muslim teens during Ramadan, a time that should be reflective and celebratory.

Last year, during Ramadan, I spent a lot of time wandering the streets of Queens and Brooklyn for my new novel Watched.  And what I was so struck by–and what is lost in these polarizing times where Islam is equated with frightening headlines–is the way in which Islam, observance, is part of the fabric of life, a rhythm for one’s days.  I watched families hurry to pick up last groceries, stroll and linger on streets before and after prayers,  crowd around tables under the pale wash of florescent restaurant light for the Iftar, the evening meal.  Little children cupped in father’s arms; a man and his wife, their robes blazing white in the dark, rushed off a bus, across a busy avenue.  By one tiny mosque, where the women prayed, jammed next to one another in a narrow basement, prayers voiced in through speakers, little children set off tiny bang-snaps outside, annoying the adults who also forgave them.  It was such a New York, a Brooklyn scene: how many children have been doing that for generations on borough pavements?

Take a look at the beautiful slide show that captures some of this.

First Stop: Barcelona

On August 5th, 2012, Marc, myself and our two boys, Sasha and Rafi flew to Barcelona—exactly 76 years after Capa and Taro when arrived to begin their photo-journey into the Spanish Civil War. Within a few months, Capa would become a world-famous war journalist. Both would reinvent modern photojournalism as we know it today. And in less than a year, the daring Taro would be dead.

We spent nearly three weeks in Spain, tracking, as best we could, some of the key sites and in some cases, visiting some of the exact locales where they shot photographs. Our last research day was in Brunete, where Taro was sideswiped by a swerving tank, and ultimately died in a hospital 30 kilometers away.

In this blog, I’ll be filling you in on our travels, our journey into the story of Capa, Taro, and Chim as we developed this book. Enjoy!

*****

Barcelona, August, 2012: This is the Barcelona I remember from 1983-84 when I backpacked through–and it isn’t. Still the same frilly-edged art nouveau buildings rising off the grand avenues; still the winding streets in the old quarter; and still good Serrano ham and manchego cheese to be found at all hours.

Yet there is a difference. Gone are the old women washing on the balconies, the clamoring parakeets and teeming plants; gone are the old men and women on Las Ramblas benches, the smokey-eyed gypsy children; the seedy, red light district, the dark mouths of nightclubs, where you walked downstairs and were never quite sure what you would find; gone is the morning wake up when we stayed in the old quarter—a bakery where fat-armed women shoved aluminum trays of quivering flan; the men in their slightly ill-made suits and hair wet down; the shoes thicker, sturdier; so much less polish and high-strung tourist sheen as I had encountered in Florence and Sienna. I could feel, in this city, the sense of the peasant, of the rustic.

At that time—28 years ago—my friend and I were at the edge of their lives, observing. Now it is throngs of tourists driving down Las Ramblas who are the center of the action; now they are flanked by shiny stores, tapas places that seem like remakes of the dark wood dives I drank in and ate before. When we reach Placa de la Catalyuna, I feel as if I’m in Times Square. We’ve stopped off at the official FC Barcelona store, where Sasha understands that I am not spending 100 dollars on a Messie shirt.

But we are here for history, and so we oblige, with Alan Warren, our chipper and cheerful guide who is obsessed with Spanish Civil history, knows it down to his bones, and leads tours throughout the region recreating Orwell’s steps, battles, particular regiments.

He has arrived at our large, atmospheric (and slightly odd) Eixample flat in his floppy khaki hat, his folder of images and notes, and marches us past the elegant art nouveau buildings, shows us the Hotel Majestic, which at the time was taken over by the Republican forces, and where long tables of food were served for free. Now it is swathed in scaffolding; I peek through the revolving doors to see the lobby is completely renovated—sleek marble, barely adorned—and intimidatingly pricey in look.

Another doorway is where deserters from the Nationalist side straggled in, along with recruits from abroad. This is the international surge that brought Capa and Taro to Spain in the early days, along with George Orwell, who would immortalize his time in the classic Homage to Catalonia:

“When the fighting broke out on the 18 July it is probable that every anti-Fascist in Europe felt a thrill of hope. For here at last, apparently, was democracy standing up to Fascism.”

Most certainly this is what Capa and Taro felt, back in Paris. Both were refugees from Hungary and Germany respectively; both were Jews who had begun to see the iron hand of anti-Semitism start to choke the political life of their countries. Indeed Capa had already had his run-ins for political activism, as did Taro, which is how they wound up in Paris, mingling among the many artists and emigres who had flocked to the city at this time.

Capa and Taro were also opportunists—in the best sense of the word. They sensed a chance, an opportunity, to make their mark through the growing field of photo journalism. They had met when Taro worked for Maria Eisner, who ran a photo agency, Alliance Photo. Taro helped to groom the scruffy Hungarian so he might better sell his work. Then she too took up the camera. It was only a matter of time before they felt the siren call to Barcelona, to Spain, where already, international volunteers were pouring in to fight Franco.

The Barcelona they would have encountered would have been similar to the city George Orwell described:

“… when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt.”

“The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town were crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night.”

“There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

Certainly, Taro’s photographs during this time capture the revolutionary fervor, the joyous and ordinary ways that residents had taken up arms and were remaking their very city, their society. Taro shot children happily scampering on sandbagged walls, donning anarchist caps like any children playing made-up war games.

She followed Republican militiawomen training on the beach near the city—one of her most iconic a silhouetted woman, crouched, aiming her pistol—a symbol of equality promised women during this halcyon period, a time, as Orwell noted, when people did not address anyone as “Senor or Dona” or even use the formal “Usted.”

My favorites of Taro’s during this period are those of people laughing, relaxing in the August sunshine (Catalonia is indeed hot during those months). In one, a man and a woman lean back in two wicker chairs, heads tilted to one another, exchanging laughter; he casually holds a rifle between them. There’s an easy grace to the photo, men and women as comfortable compadres, as Taro and Capa were themselves.

In August 1936, when Taro and Capa and Orwell arrived in Spain, to join what they saw as the greatest struggle of their generation, they did not yet detect its dangerous and self-destructive undertow, nor did anyone anticipate the terrible destruction that would be unleashed with ariel bombing. (Indeed Barcelona was used as a testing ground for this new technology and the brutal air raids gave way to something called the “Barcelona Effect”—the more a civilian population was bombed, the more they in fact resisted) We pause at the reconstructed Coliseum, which now has a stark black steel memorial in front to memorialize those killed in the dreadful pounding that pummeled these grand streets.

“There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

Yet if anything characterizes the Spanish Civil War, it was the deadly factionalism that would eventually splinter the Left, particularly as the Soviets played a deadly game of suppressing the Anarchists and undermining their hold on the local population.

Less than a year after that optimistic period that Capa and Taro recorded visually, a stand-off between the Communists and Anarchists was taking place: “The word flew round the town that the workers’ buildings were being attacked, armed Anarchists appeared on the streets, work ceased, and fighting broke out immediately.”

Today, we stand in the thronging Placa de Cataluyna to see the Telefonica Building, the tallest building at the time of the Spanish Civil War, a blank modern building that juts up over the teeming plaza.

We press onward, past the fountain where everyone descends after a Barcelona soccer team game (No, we tell the kids, you cannot drink the water), and stand just opposite Café Moka, where Civil Guards were holed up inside. Across the way was the Poliorama, where the P.O.U.M. (the party Orwell fought with and more or less came to support) patrolled on the roof domes.

“I used to sit on the roof marveling at the folly of it all,” Orwell writes. “From the little windows in the observatory you could see for miles around—vista after vista of tall slender buildings, glass domes and fantastic curly roofs with brilliant green and copper tiles; over to eastward the glittering pale blue sea—the first glimpse of the sea that I had had since coming to Spain. And the whole huge town of a million people was locked in a sort of violent inertia, a nightmare of noise without movement.”

The Eyes of The World: Work-in-Progress

Ongoing updates about our work-in-progress, “The Eyes of the World: A Story of a Man, a Woman, & a Camera”, to be published by Henry Holt for Younger Readers in 2014:

Last summer, while sitting at lunch at the Vermont MFA program, chatting with many veteran children’s book authors such as Walter Dean Myers, Leda Schubert, I was suddenly thunderstruck with inspiration: I knew what my next young adult nonfiction book would be–the story of photographer Robert Capa, the less-known Gerda Taro, and their friend Chim, as they set off to photograph the Spanish Civil War and create modern photojournalism–and war journalism–as we know it today.  Nothing like the company of other authors, bubbling with their own ideas, to set one going.

Indeed, given that this is very much a story of a man and a woman collaborating–as equals, as compadres, as artists–it seemed the perfect next book for Marc and I to write.  We had been casting about for a new idea and had touched on the idea of collaboration–various duets in history that have joined forces to create something they could not do on their own.

The story of Capa and Taro had caught my eye a few years ago when I went to an exhibition at the International Center for Photography–“This is War!”–a huge retrospective of Capa’s work.  I’d always been fascinated with the Magnum photographers, and fell in love with those images from the Spanish Civil War–the molded, strong faces staring up at a sky strafed with war planes; children playing see saw amidst rubbled buildings.  At that exhibition, I became acquainted with Taro’s work, which also shared a smaller exhibition space.  I learned that in fact she and Capa were an artistic team–Capa & Taro–and they had gone off together, as lovers, as friends, as co-conspirators in the aim of telling the world about the Republican cause.  Like so many of their generation, they believed that the Spanish Civil War was the war to stake a claim–that if it was not won–Europe would surely fall to fascism.  (And of course they were right in this regard)  Armed with their new, lightweight Leicas and Rolloflexes, they set off, arriving in Barcelona on August 5th, 1936.  Sadly, Taro would not live more than a year, as she was killed during the Battle of Brunete in July, 1937.  This is one of the reasons her work is not as well known–she died very young, just as she was emerging as a daring and canny photojournalist in her own right. Continue reading

Kolkata Return: The Heritage Site

Still jet-lagged and bleary from an over-three week trip to India, I did want to make mention of the inauguration of the heritage site at the Kidderpore Docks in Kolkata, honoring the over 1.5 million indentured workers who left India in the 19th and early 20th century.  This was the same place that a number of us visited 3 years ago, and since then, the project has blossomed into a full-fledged site and potential museum.  While I was unable to attend the actual ceremony, thanks to Gautam Chakraborty of the Kolkata Port Trust, I did take a small boat with my husband and boys, up the Hooghly.  We sat huddled under shawls, sipping cha, squinting out at the diminishing gray winter light, trying to imagine the monumental journey these emigrants took.  Not sure if my sons, in between squabbling, quite understood the import of our little voyage, but it was a start. Continue reading

Welcome to Crossing Over, the blog of author Marina Budhos.

Parkway PlanI grew up in Queens, NY, in Parkway Village, a community built for U.N. families, and a haven for international, mixed, and American families during the ferment  of civil rights and social change.  Over the years I’ve come to understand that this sense of crossing over, of mixture, permeates my way of seeing the world.  And it drives my writing too.  I am an adult author who crossed over into young adult; a  fiction writer who frequently crosses over into nonfiction; and a writer who loves to create worlds that capture these cultural complexities.

But I’m also leery of categories that can be too confining.  To me, that’s the very spirit of crossing over–resisting easy labels.  So, in its broadest sense, Crossing Over aims to capture what all writers do: we cross over into territory both familiar and unknown.

 

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