Friday, April 11, 2008

Vik Muniz: Drawing from Memory (from Life)

Vik Muniz (warning: irritating flash site) is a contemporary photographer (he was born in Brazil, currently lives in New York City). He's done a lot of fascinating things over the years -- explore his site for samples -- but one thing he's done (one of his early projects, from 1989) which I've never quite seen adequately presented (it probably was in a gallery show, but I haven't seen it) are his "memory renderings" from his series, The Best of Life. Here, from an interview with Peter Galassi, is Muniz's own description of his project:
The Best of Life Series, for example, are drawings of very famous photographs made entirely from memory. When the drawings were good enough to look like a bad reproduction of the original image, I photographed them and printed them with the same half tone pattern we usually see in these images for the first time in the papers. In these works I tried to find out what a photograph looks like in your head when you are not looking at it. They carried the structure of the famous news pictures but they were in fact very different.

The obvious way to show these drawings, it seems to me, is to show them side-by-side with the original photographs, so that one can see the similarities and differences. But while examples of the Muniz memory renderings -- and the famous originals -- are all over the web, I've never seen them paired. And since I live to serve, here we go. (Actually, showing first the memory rendering and then the original would probably be better. But there are limits to the blog format, and to my energy and time.)

In each case, click on the image for a larger version -- really, do: it's only worthwhile if you can see it.

Photograph of a kiss in Times Square on V-J day (August 14, 1945) by Alfred Eisenstaedt, and memory rendering of it by Vik Muniz. Interestingly, there seem to be a lot of claimants to be the sailor portrayed in this photograph.

Photograph of astronaut Buzz Aldrin by Neil Armstrong, 1969, and memory rendering of it by Vik Muniz.

Photograph, "The Unknown Rebel", taken by AP photographer Jeff Widener in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and memory rendering of it by Vik Muniz.

One interesting thing going on in these pairings are the left/right reversals. Note that each of those three images are reversed horizontally: the tanks slope high left to low right in Muniz's memory, but the other way (and not as much) in Widener's photograph; Muniz remembers Aldrin's right arm, not his left arm, being bent up; and the kissers bend to the left not to the right. I wonder what's going on here (is there a cognitive scientist in the house?)

Photograph by Nick Ut (aka Huynh Cong Ut), taken June 8, 1972, showing Phan Thị Kim Phúc running after her clothes had been burned off by a South Vietnam/US Napalm attack.

By the way, while we're on the subject of that last, famous photograph: Kim Phuc's history, according to Wikipedia, is really fascinating and quite wonderful:
After taking the photograph, Út promptly took Kim Phúc and the other children to a hospital in Saigon where it was determined that her burns were so severe that she would not survive. However, after a 14 month hospital stay and 17 surgical procedures, she returned home. Út continued to visit until he was evacuated during the fall of Saigon, 3 years after the picture was taken...
She then grew up, served as an anti-war symbol for Vietnam, spent some time in Cuba, converted to Christianity, went to Canada where she got political asylum; she now is a Canadian citizen and lives in Ontario with her husband and two children. There's a biography of her called The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War, by Denise Chong. Oh, and:
In 1996, she gave a speech at the United States Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Veterans Day... One Reverend John Plummer, a U.S. Vietnam War Veteran, had seen the photo and believed that he had a part in co-ordinating the raid with the South Vietnamese air force. He met Phúc briefly and she publicly forgave him.
From this page here, here are two photographs of Nick Ut and Kim Phuc together, first, from right after she got out of the hospital:

And, second, from a reunion of the two many years later, in London:

What can I say? I'm a sap: I love happy endings.


Vik Muniz said...

Very cool post. It's been a while since these pictures caught the attention of anyone and it was interesting to see them paired with the "originals". for some reason, I have never tried to compare them after their making for the fear of confronting my own inability to remember them properly. I was surprised by the amount of reverse images. I must consult a neurologist friend of mine to see if he has a clue of why I remembered backwards.

Thanks for writing about them and sorry for the over-designed site,

Vik Muniz

Stephen said...


I'm delighted you found your way to the post, and that it interested you. If you get any answers on the left-right reversals, I'd be interested to hear them (it's interesting too you'd never noticed).

In case you're still reading, allow me to say that I've seen a fair amount of your work over the years (such as your show at the Chicago Art Institute), and enjoyed it tremendously. In particular, your self-portrait after Bas Jan Ader is one of my very favorite photographs (my father, who is a collector, owns a copy). So thanks for all the pleasure your work has given me over the years.

(Image link for those who don't know the picture I'm referring to -- although you can't really get even a sense of it's greatness from so small a thumbnail: it's all in the details, really.)