Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Grey Villet on the NYT Lens Blog

Stephen Crowley's NYT Lens Blog has a superb essay today on the life and work of Grey Villet, citing in particular the photo essay I have long raved about, "The Lash of Success."

You can see more of Villet's work in this slideshow from AOL Pixcetera.

Over the weekend, I checked out the classic book Great Photographic Essays from Life, which is where I first encountered the story in college in 1978. In fact I read or re-read several of the essays, including one on heroin addiction (also cited by Crowley) that was photographed by Bill Eppridge and written by James Mills, that is just as powerful today as when it was published.

What I didn't quite see then, perhaps, is that these essays were very much a matter of planning, team work, research, careful selection among hundreds of photos shot, and a fine sense of storytelling drama in the way photographs are cropped and arranged.

The team in the case of "The Lash of Success," which focused on a true Type A businessman named Vic Sabatino, was a writer, Barbara Cummiskey, and Grey Villet, who met during this assignment and later married.

Barbara got Victor to talk about himself, his dreams, and what drives him, and he let her and her photographer into his own stressed-out world.

Using 90mm and 180mm telephoto lenses, Villet clicked away, bent on bringing back images that were "as real as real could get." Here's how the book describes Villet:

He never said a word, just watched and shot everything. He is a big man, six foot four, but with a surprising ability to melt into the woodwork, particularly with Barbara upfront doing the talking.

Consequently, when Vic went after a hapless Chicago employee, Villet was able to shoot right over Vic's shoulder, his camera becoming Vic.

Sabatino understandably thought that appearing in Life Magazine as a model of success was the culmination of his dreams. What he didn't know was the kind of model he would represent: the winner at work and the loser at home.

He surely didn't know how Villet's images would poke through his mask, or that his words would come back to haunt him. (He refers to himself as a hawk and customers as chickens. Speaking of his wife and daughter, he says "I tell myself sometimes that I was doing this for Lillian and Donna, but I knew it wasn't so." He would eventually lose both of them.)

Barbara Villet, the stalwart champion of her husband's legacy, explained to me (as well as Crowley) in a letter that the story "was the outcome of a trilogy I wanted to do called Fame, Success and Wealth."

By the way, if the partnership between Barbara and Grey clicked as well in life as it does on the page, then I can see why they stayed together until Villet's untimely death in 2000. Barbara writes with just the kind of merciless honesty the subject demanded.

For the last few years, she has been putting together a retrospective book of her husband's work.

"His work must not disappear," she said in a recent e-mail. "I miss him."

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