Posts Tagged ‘media


Sam Holden, The Gonzo light is out, but the fire burns on.

Sam Holden with his Hasselblat

Sam Holden with his Hasselblat

By Charles Cohen

The fact that Sam Holden was a studio photographer in a smudgy newsprint world immediately distinguished him from the photojournalists who dedicated their lives to capturing life in motion.


But Sam wasn’t interested in lucking or timing himself into a great image. He believed that the image lies within or below the surface, and he was going to pry it out one way or another.  Sam Holden entered a room big, a loveable Bluto carting a massive case, holding not one, but two Hasselblad cameras. His Hasselblads were the size of a V-8 carburetor and about as heavy.  No one used a Hasselblad in the field.  But Holden was into plying the sacrilegious road as a way of searing his own art.  He worshipped at the altar of style as many a modern artist from Miro to Warhol understood, as advertising geniuses also knew and even photojournalists recognized but would rarely admit.


Not only did Sam wield the German box camera, but he’d haul in lights, stands, reflectors and hanging globes, threatening to commit the cardinal sin of swamping a story with yourself. But somehow, Holden showed up big but sat quiet …. for at least awhile … as I would scribble and blather away. Then he had enough, “Cohen are you done,” and not waiting for an answer he’d heave himself up and take over, click clacking the gear together like a machine gunner taking the hill under heavy fire. Truly his setup was amazing to behold.


Normally mobile studio photographers with such outfits in tow have to scout a place out, demand a half an hour to set up, and then still go into an anxiety jitter fit when the remote sensor goes ballistic. Holden had his shit together. He prided himself on this and no doubt like a good grunt practiced the drill at home. Within minutes he’d have a room, a warehouse, a mechanic’s shop transformed in the classic three point lighting system, lights blinking and the power packs doing that sci fi winding. Holden was a master of presentation. Could Holden have taken a picture with a 35 mm Canon with a removable flash? Hell, yes. But he wasn’t looking to snap an image; he was looking for transformation. This kind of utterance would never spill from his grinning pumpkin slit mouth.  But there can be no denying when you were standing at the receiving end, holding his taekwondo stance, all in black biting down as if some kind physical convergence was about to ensue. If that wasn’t enough surely the inappropriate comment would put you on notice


Whether it was a down-and-out homeless vet or a CEO of Legg Mason, sooner or later the F-bomb would explode. Could you put your ass against the wall.  Fuck yeah. That’s great. Hold it. Hold it.


This was shock technique similar to that of the 80s New York photographers who would throw balls at their subjects to slap them out of their world. In most cases, Holden’s subjects would follow, sometimes uncomfortable, and that’s because his tone would suddenly ratchet down to a tenderness, hold it, hold, eyes right here man, that’s it, beautiful and they got it. This was no glossy in the making.


But getting the shot is only half the equation. Sam saved his wizardry for the dark room, as he told Mary Rose Madden for The Signal, “You are standing inside my darkroom and to look around here you are kind of like inside my soul.” Even as early as the 90s, newspapers and magazines were using developing machines hooked up to Macs. Holden for the most part was doing his alchemy by hand — a mad scientist of color saturation.  Much has been detailed on the web/Facebook eulogies about his rock esthetic where he uncannily grabbed the glory of the jell lights and infused his images with lava pushed color saturation. He loved rust and corrugated steel or maybe just an excessive spew of white paper. Anyone who has ever pushed their way up to the stage to gaze dreamily at their hero got Holden’s patented hue-heavy style immediately. The reds, greens and cobalts of black room clubs swirling in smoke is what dreams are made of.


At their best, Sam’s portraits worked as landscapes, the colors were not visual adjectives, but pieces of nature, life forces.  Faces in big lens detail picked up the tone the way a gritty building picks up the last shards of sunset, their eyes glinted with the hunger of the stage or with lust or madness. (Holden’s website)


When critics write about artists, they like to study their environs — the French countryside or Hopper’s Chicago rail yard patinas. Well, in Holden’s case his natural palette was no doubt the Indian summer gloaming of Baltimore. Apparently piss poor air quality does wonders for an orange splash fest across over West Baltimore. Case and point for me was when he did a cover shot of a chess hustler on the verge of becoming a grandmaster. As a rule, I tried hard not to see his photos before they hit the press so I could enjoy the rush of seeing it the box. I was shocked when I saw how he not only captured this guy–sweat on the brow, a maniacal killer from his shades –but he was swimming in a crazed burning orange around him. This cover came out during a heat wave and like any acutely released publication does, the cover needs to reflect both the pages within and the world it’s entering. The New Yorker carved out its foothold by doing this.  Holden relished the impact, but moved on his never ending list of cool shit he was doing.



I rode shotgun with Holden in his oversized Suburban  then Tahoe for a solid six years when he was my assigned photographer for a City Paper column. It didn’t take long to realize that we were having one of those cop car relationships. Just like the clichés we’d both talk about dreams. But unlike 99 percent of us in this pathetic mulch pile that is print journalism, there was no stench of little lives of quiet desperation in his plans. He put out his plans like nails waiting for a hammer, and how he went at it. I watched him jump from a decent studio on Fort Avenue to a massive space that could easily play as a stage set. It was a brazen move, borrowing heavily just as the city was approaching its third Renaissance that would see the rise of Harbor East.  Holden had to get those big accounts pronto to pay for that studio, which he was opening just as Baltimore’s major advertising agencies were shutting down, due to the first heave of the digital revolution of the late 1990s. But he fortified his move by saying that if you wanted to be nationally recognized – hell internationally known– then you must set yourself on a top tier.Sam Holden Hasselblat


The first sign of Holden’s gambit could actually work was that his buddies were stepping up for him. He and his father did all the work they could themselves, and a slew of artisans filled in the detailed stuff. His eye for sparse design was apparent when he retrieved stainless steel medical cabinets from Church Hospital, the place were Edgar Allan Poe died, as it shut down for demolition. This he used for well paying food photography gigs.


Sure enough, Holden did bring in the top talent from Ray Lewis to shooting Iggy Pop, but he always kept his one foot local, driving with me to City Paper gigs.   He used to rip me at times for chattering like a runaway organ grinder monkey and I’d counter by calling him a superstar who didn’t know whether he wanted to be behind or in front of the camera. The fact is, Holden uniquely pulled off this non-negotiable edge being both a gonzo character as well as an observer.  He’d do the LA thing, but also dug deep roots that sprouted way beyond Baltimore but always felt local.


No doubt Holden aspired for the large as in Annie Leibovitz large, but the truth is his amazing network reveals his homeboy connects ran deep. His Facebook page shows the widest range of folk who bypass posting the usual sympathies, instead offering testimony of how an interaction with him imprinted their lives. There is a lot of “I knew him when”  at play, but this is out of the desperate yearning to keep someone like Holden around for just a little bit longer. Sam Holden was a kind of force that propelled us all.





Rolling Stone Freelancer upsets the Journalistic status quo


Gen. Stanley McChrystal on the job or posing for a photo-op?


The fallout from the Rolling Stone article that cost General Stanley McChrystal his job has since calcified into a debate over what’s inferred when a journalist creates trust with his/her subject. 

And that’s a good thing.

There’s no doubt that Gen. McChrystal is one of the few people whose arrogance actually cost him his job. More times than not  arrogance bullies over objection and consequence. To be such a frat boy, giving the finger etc. trashing the Prez, McChrystal, a four star  general like any CEO should have known better. But then again, whose really surprised by such boorish behavior by a general. His biggest sin was his poor gamesmanship letting the pen be mightier than the sword.  So McChrystal’s behavior isn’t what stirring the pot. Instead we find ourselves deciphering the reporter Michael Hastings’ true motives and thanks to him running his mouth we’re got some clues.

He needs to learn the powerful lesson illustrated from his own Rolling Stone article and mind his words.

He starts up spewing safe journalism 101 patter that, ” I went out to try to tell the best story that I could and write what I saw, I heard and thought. And I had really no control over, you know, the aftereffects,” he told  CNN’s Howard Kurtz (transcript provided).  Um actually he did. He had control in choosing those volatile snippets and vignettes out of days worth notes and reams of paper. He chose to lead the article with a built up story that ends with Gen. McChrystal giving the finger, which basically set the tone for the entire article, an article that pretends to be a discussion on the counter insurgency, which apparently was why Hastings was there in the first place. For example, Hastings could have embedded himself further on the front lines of counter insurgency, capturing antidotes of the obstacles of winning “hearts and minds” as a way of converting the Afghans to US thinking.

Hastings is being disingenuous when he says, he didn’t think it was a matter of McChrystal and company letting their guard down. It’s time like these when people reduce life to a  one deminsional transcript of what was said, what wasnt’; Hastings offfered this:  “I mean, it’s not much of a mystery. If someone tells you something is off the record, I don’t print it.” …. but back to real 3-D life, actions speaks louder than words and if you are with a bunch of people and the conversation turns into  bull session and some volatile stuff starts flying you as a reporter know right then that the quotes are verbal plastic explosives. Right there, I believe is the true test of character. Should you stash it away like a sneak and go back and try to illicit more goods from aids to brace the  juicy quotes you now know will make some hot type? You know right there that your subject’s guard is down.  Is this all kind of chess game, or contest where you take advantages of loop holes? Or do you inject a little bit of honor and remind the General that the record is rolling here.  If the general really didn’t care than he’d just shrug him off.  But  Hastings didn’t say anything …. why … because he wanted to keep the good quotes flowing.

Again much is revealed in Rolling Stones actions or their non actions to include any of the damning material in their 30  fact checking questions sent to the brass, obtained by the Washington Post.  In addition, Hastings reveal his philosophy in his interview with CNN when an article he penned for GQ Magazine displays his  demeanor and perhaps his objectives.  “You pretend to be friendly and non-threatening. And over time you build trust, which everyone knows is an illusion. If the time comes, if your editors calls for it, you’re supposed to (EXPLETIVE DELETED) them over.”

Wow. Editors have power but I didn’t know they called in hits  on people. Actually reporters and editors are usually engaged in what is suppose to be a constructive power-play over stories. The reporter supplies the goods, which basically means ferreting through notes building a case with one quote followed by antedate  making the outcome obvious even to an editor. 

Definitely not all reporters don’t see building up trust as an illusion. I mean you can be friends with a cop, hang out, drink, but you might think about reminiscing about crimes gone by or buying drugs in the bathroom while he’s sitting there. The same with befriending a reporter.  So in my book, the relationship isn’t an illusion, but it is dubious. A cop shouldn’t be making friends in hopes of catching someone and reporters shouldn’t be building trust so they can hang them by their own words. 

This conundrum has certain been the gauntlet that divides the new bread of freelancers from  Afghanistan beat reporters who look like Army Lackeys by failing to include McChrystal’s sored behavior in their dispatches. Witness the outrage spewing from CBS Chief Foreign Corespondent  Lara Logan when challenged by Kurtz who says,” He’s suggesting that he did a job that the regular beat journalists have not done.” Logan responds with, ” I think that’s insulting and arrogant, myself. I really do, because there are very good beat reporters who have been covering these wars for years, year after year. ”

In fact Hastings article’s crass depiction contrasts the  puff being so blatant offered in past profiles. When do you included, the negative, the awkward that seems to break from the paint by number profiles that we find even in the supposedly more critically thinking journals.  The answer comes down to the central theme of the article. The Rolling Stone article at times seemed trapped between two places as illustrated by the cover. No not Lady Ga Ga. But the headline on the front: Obama’s General, Why he’s losing The War, which  convays some analysis as the  controversy that is blaring from  the article’s title, “The Runaway General”

Yahoo’s Media writer, Michael Calderone made good hay with New York Times David Brooks’ criticism saying that “by putting [McChrystal’s] kvetching in the magazine, the reporter essentially took run-of-the-mill complaining and turned it into a direct challenge to presidential authority. He took a successful general and made it impossible for President Obama to retain him.” 

The second part is beside the point and shouldn’t be of Hastings’s  concern as he tweets, “David Brooks to young reporters: don’t report what you see or hear, or you might upset the powerful.”

But then Hastings couldn’t resist taking a self-righteous swipe, ” Question 2 to Mr. Brooks: how much time has he spent listening to the troops kvetch in a war zone, just askin.”

So the  merits is defined by time spent on the lines? Then  should Hastings be ranked against  senior war correspondents, the same ones who would treat such Kvetching as off the record. Then how does Hasting’s real war experience, who gets to fly home and enjoy yapping about his time in the media, compare to the soldier?

This same privileged attitude, which let’s face it is one of the few vitriol thrills that journalist can lord over people, was put to Hastings by Logan. “I mean, the question is, really, is what General McChrystal and his aides are doing so egregious, that they deserved to end a career like McChrystal’s? I mean, Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has. ” 

Being too close to the action doesn’t give you the entire story and you got to wonder how good is Hastings all access pass to the front is worth these days. Who knows he might find himself sitting back here with the rest of us grunts.


Gen. McChrystal Ambushed by Rolling Stone or Gonzo General undone by Gonzo Magazine


Yup the Baltimore boy is going national with this. For a long time I’ve been chomping on some national issues but believed it was beyond  this  blog’s scope and if this was in a typical print publication then that thinking would stand. But hey I’m in blogland where anyone with a keyboard can make an impact.  The individual can now be a media giant and this medium is all about the little guy weighing in on big issues, so rather than creating another blog with a big reaching title, I opted to  reveal my vantage point from chair in Baltimore and thereby comment that really you don’t have to be an insider or  politico geek to throw down an opinion. Therefore, on occasion I’m gonna comment when I see a void in the public discussion. Here’s my first foray:

When I saw the Smack  Quotes coming out about Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the Rolling Stone article that had yet to be published —  questions marks started to fly in my head. First, what was the Four Star General thinking or snorting?  He had to know such low brow  childish chest pumping is gonna force a beatdown that even he can’t win. The insanity behind the news never fails to amaze. But then as a reporter, I started questioning Michael Hastings methods. Based on Web info, Hastings at the meek age of 30 (ck) has already paid some dues reporting from battle lines in Iraq, like the in the trenches story where he follows the Louisanna National Guard. See www.

For Rolling Stone, He was basically allowed to shadow McChrystal, on his day to day. I don’t know. I may just be a bloke from Baltimore but I would bet that many a discolored quotes would be popping around a General in the field of battle. I’ve seen my share of War movies. I know. Actually, I’ve done my share of stories with cops, with politicians, drug addicts, hustlers with regular folk to know you’re gonna hear some rancid shit under certain conditions. I mean I’m doing a story about Baltimore Barbershop culture and a few times when the discussion turns to women or race …. let’s just say I have to put the tape recorder on pause. Seriously, a reporter, I believe, needs to set the tone  with his/her subject. On any given story even ones that seem about as dull and boring as it can get, say about a talent show at a mall, there will times when off the wall comments is dispensed and as a reporter you could easily just glam on to that and in fact come up with some must read copy for once for the local weekly throw away. But you don’t whether you’re in the locker room with the Ravens or doing a story on an ex-drug slinger trying to go mainstream. Not at first. Not if you aren’t a snitch or an ambitious asshole cut throat. You let the first miss-step  roll by, but if it gets to be a pattern, if it starts dominating the moment then, of course you as a reporter have to judge whether the attitudes being expressed define the story unfolding before your eyes. For example, when the General’s getting ready to chow with the French Dignataries and he’s blowing off steam and says something, “I’d rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people  than go out to this dinner.” as a reporter, knowing right there how this would play, you might wanna show that he’s on the record. Sometimes I show the subject that yes I’m taking notes or even say, Hey General are we still on the record here?” And what do you think his answer would be? “You print that and I’ll shove that notebook up your ass.”

At some point the reporter has to set the tone. Early on during those interviews when the loose talk starts flying, the reporter needs to ask are we on the record? This way the subject knows what he’s dealing with, what kind of environment he’s has to tread. It’s only fair. The subject will then see oh we’re dealing with a starchy by the numbers reporter than all candor and down to earth talk will cease and everything would turn in a professional dull exchange. Not what we want. We want some semblance of reality. And based on Hastings previous impressive work with Newsweek where he seemed to thrive on being in the action, see his article, “The Battle for Haifa Street”
  — the General made the fateful mistake that Hastings had earned his stripes, he was one of them and he could talk freely. Did Hastings infer this when he was establishing his relationship? Did he encourage this, by laughing  and playing the part of one of the guys, signaling that he’s in on the joke? 

From Hastings Newsweek Article


Reporters are always complaining about being smothered by handlers, PR flacks practically forcing the story to come out as a sorry piece of boredom. Real reporters fight for reality, get off The Campaign Bus, hang with the grunts — why  — to get some semblance of truth. McChrystal story now stands as total validation for the overpriced Public Relations Industry. Now any firm can hold up the Rolling Stone cover  featuring Lady Ga Ga wielding guns, bare assed BTW –and say Don’t let this happen to you.

Of course, Rolling Stone and Hastings could counter by saying this is about the bigger good. Sometime the journalist has to sacrifice himself and his hard earned status with sources for the greater good. This is a true and tough situation, where you as a reporter might find you become basically a scumbag  and sell out your source for the well-being of US  readers. And it seems, based on the Rolling Stone’s headline, The Runaway General,” they seemed to be making this insinuation, that we have an out-of- control cowboy  in Afghanistan. And if this is Rolling Stone’s case, there’s still a major problem with the magazine article perhaps even graver mis-step  than the suspected violation of trust between reporter and subject for glory of juicy quotes —  and that is the fact checking:

Gen. Stanley McChrystal at Airbase


According to the Washington Post, Rolling Stone fact checkers offered 30 questions, but never went over  the controversial

Even here in the “deviled details”  of reporting there are questions with the fact checking  process. For example, according to the Washington Post article, McChrystal’s Military Flack had issues with Rolling Stone’s depiction of McChrystal expanding the morning briefings to include thousands of officers. The Military PR suggested over 400. And the military had a problem with the magazine’s depiction of McChrystal  “Situation Awareness Room”  being modeled on New York’s Mayor Bloomberg’s offices. McChrystal’s people said the room wasn’t modeled but was similar. Rolling Stone took none of the responses to heart.  

These are nit-picking crumbs, perhaps, but they also speak to the larger issues about the decision NOT to float the incendiary quotes by the General or the flack , according to what is offered in the Washington Post. And what is the rationale? Perhaps the RS editors just felt that McChrystal would obviously deny them. That he would realized he’d violate the old military adage, “Loose Lips sink ships” and claim his rants were taken out of context. But there were those second source quotes, the most controversial in the articles that you’d think the editors would want to check. Second hand info can be dubious and if it’s gonna be damaging to the subject than just out of self-preservation, you might wanna float those. For Example the quote about Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, “The Boss says he’s like a wounded animal.” And Rolling Stone isn’t going to check that? Think about how the reporter got that quote, he talks to a bunch of Ballsy Soldiers and sooner or later someone’s gonna say something non too wise. 

Again why not run these quotes by someone? I know as a reporter when I get something that’s obviously going to detonate a commotion, I prefer running the quote myself even before the fact checker so I can say to the editor I did so. This is out of self-preservation rather than courtesy. Because editors are removed from the story, they may be quick to delete such inflamatory diatrab, some don’t have the stomach for taking on such flack. Plus the fact checker is normally unknown to the writer, many are interns and have power to change something. Publications are notorious for break downs in communications and a major contributor to  good chunk of misakes that find their way in print. But most editors I would figure would want a sampling of fire-storm that’s sure to follow and test one of these hot comments out there to see if  the story. Hastings isn’t even a Rolling Stone staffer.

Rolling Stone's Cover


Based on the layout, you got to figure that maybe Rolling Stone see the noise it would get from this article, which turns out probably the magazine’s biggest in decade(s). 

Hence; The cover is Lady Gaga, then headline, Dennis Hopper final days and then down below in small print “Obama’s General why he’s losing the war.” This cover seemed to be in place before the media went nuts with the story. Colbert showed it before it hit the newsstands. 

Still from my prospect as a consumer who picked up his copy at the Port Authority, you got to wonder if Michael Hastings, a freelancer was throwing down his card, going snitch for the cause. Was it to protect America from a renegade General? Please. Who wouldn’t figure a General who emerged out off the ranks Special Forces wouldn’t think that he alone knows all — that he’s surrounded by Asses. This just in: Four Star General anoints himself King. Instead of an important article debating the merits the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, which by the well  is pretty well done in the article, we have “gotcha ya” scandalism dictating public policy.


I’m no basher of the media as some left wing junta pulling strings. Hell, I cut my teeth on Rolling Stone and watched it go glossy, shrink in power and size not just on its politic impact but even on the music front which they (and everyone else it seems) can’t get a handle on anymore. That’s why I was surprised when I first heard of  The General Rukas was brought to you by  Rolling Stone and was bemused  when the New York Times, didn’t mention them by name higher up in their articles. What a comeback for the Gonzo mag. but at what cost? Check out