the editor’s vision of brian finke
by Luca Marotta
It was about a decade ago that I began my observation of a photographer like none other that I ever come across. Following him through the years, I recognized an undefined power that produced a magnetic grip on the viewer. He portrays life and people in synonyms that make even the tiniest element in his compositions come alive with passionate force. You can almost say that each protagonist in the photo is, in itself, an icon.
A New Yorker, Brian Finke is sort of a documentary photographer and uses the American sports scene to illustrate life in the States. His reality goes beyond the exterior image, and captures how the personages in his photos react: stress, fatigue, virility of the sportsmen, etc., all hit you in the face with the same force as the colors and themes. Sometimes his photos are calm and soft; others are hard and violent. His work often reminds me of the plastic era of American society in the 50s; it gives me the impression that he is a psychic voyeur, exploring and exposing the fabric, drama and trauma of society. What you see is not what is shown; it takes a very insightful extraterrestrial to do this via photography.
When we started MONACO FORCE ONE magazine, I searched far and wide for photos that talked. Brian Finke graciously responded to the challenge and has shared his work with us generously ever since. His clients read like a Whose Who of society: Nike, Heineken, Ikea, the New Yorker, Time magazine, D di Repubblica, are just a few. His awards include the World Press Photo Masterclass Award in 2001; the Young Photo Journalism award in 2003; and the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in 2004.
The entire world now celebrates Brian’s success. You can see his work on display at the Houston’s Museum of Fine Art; Worcester Museum of art, the National Library in Paris, ClampArt, New York, and the Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Art in Japan.
At the end of last year, Brian Finke began a new photo essay that gave the world a chance to see how he does what he does. The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge – known as the toughest rowing race on the planet. Brian usually follows an event from start to finish to get the emotionally charged photos that he shoots, and this proved an excellent challenge to the celebrated photographer.
It is said that more people have been into space than have rowed the Atlantic. Since 1997, this ocean-rowing race has attracted the brave and the intrepid to pit themselves against the elements and race the 2,550 miles from La Gomera, Tenerife, to Port St Charles, Barbados.
In 2013, seventeen teams from around the world will fight for their charities by rowing the route of Christopher Columbus for 40-50 days. The various teams include: an all female team who are looking to break the record in female trans-Atlantic racing; a husband and wife team; a team of 6 rowers who are all veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts; a team of firefighters from Worcester; a father and son duo from Canada, a two-man team from Norway who are raising money for a heart disease charity, plus other altruistic skippers from around the world.
Rowers have to cope with blisters, salt rashes, sleep deprivation and rowing in two-hour shifts around the clock for weeks on end. Boats are seven meters long and just under two meters wide, with only a small cabin for protection against storms. All boats are equipped at the race start, and cannot take any repair, help or food and water during the crossing.
view ESPN The Magazine slideshow.
Essay by Alix Browne
Brian Finke spent two years flying around the world — without any real sense
of destination — logging what must have amounted to hundreds of thousands of
miles, to photograph the lives of international flight attendants both on
duty and off. That he was able to do so in a security delay/lost
baggage/lack of service/post-9/11-world says as much about his ambitions as
a documentarian of contemporary culture as it does about his patience and
charm as a human being.
A previous body of work found Finke trailing exuberant squads of American
cheerleaders and football players — a project for which he no doubt spent a
lot of time on busses. In the flight attendants, the photographer has
discovered another nomadic tribe, distinguished by its own language,
mannerisms, and uniforms. But what struck Finke most were not the
differences between these two seemingly disparate groups, but rather the
similarities — in their efforts to maintain the front of camaraderie, in
their performance of choreographed activities, in their elaborate codes of
The personification of the glamour and promise of a world in which people
soar through the air – a gin-and-tonic in hand – from point a to point b,
flight attendants have long occupied a privileged spot in the minds of both
air travelers and the airline industry itself. The very first stewardesses
(as they were called well into the 70’s) were registered nurses, hired as an
experiment in May of 1930 by Boeing Air Transport under the leadership of
Ellen Church who had approached the company with the dream of becoming a
pilot. These industry pioneers were uniformed to exude a sense of both
caring and competence (hats, capes) and cast as much for their skills as
their physiques—the reasoning for which was, apparently, as pragmatic as it
was aesthetic. Stewardesses had to be tall enough to reach overhead lockers
with ease, yet petite enough to navigate confined cabin quarters and narrow
aisles. They also had to be single enough so as not to elicit calls from
perturbed husbands wanting to know why dinner was not on the table. In those
early days of commercial air travel a flight from San Francisco to Chicago
in a 12-seat biplane minimally retrofitted for human transport could
reportedly take 20 hours and include as many as 12 stops for refueling of
aircraft, crew and human cargo. It is testament to the grasp the dream of
travel by air has had on the popular imagination that people didn’t just
In its heyday, the job of stewardess (with a mandatory retirement age of 35
upheld through the 60’s it could scarcely be thought of as an actual career)
was second only to that of Hollywood starlet in terms of allure. Being a
stewardess was a direct route to broader horizons—like a good marriage. (The
profession in fact boasts numerous models, actresses and Miss America
candidates among its ranks.) Airfares were subject to government regulation
until 1978, and as the industry grew, carriers began to recognize the value
of their flight crews to help distinguish them from their competition.
Uniforms came to reflect fashion trends – miniskirts, hot pants, cat suits –
or were commissioned by well-known fashion designers like Bill Blass, Emilio
Pucci, or the French couturier Pierre Balmain who was hired to update the
look of the Singapore Girl in the early 1970’s. Cheeky ad campaigns like
Continental’s “We Really Move Our Tails For You,” hinted at the level of
service one could expect to encounter in the oh-so-friendly skies.
Women who might have been attracted to the job because of this very image of
glamour, freedom and independence, found that it ultimately served to
undermine their authority and compromise their ability to perform their
duties. The old adage about Ginger Rogers, and how she could do everything
Fred Astaire did only backwards and in high heels, is implicit in the flight
attendants’ plight. As Kathleen M. Barry, the author of Femininity in
Flight: A History of Flight Attendants (Duke University Press), observes,
“From the first job interview onward, stewardesses were expected to remain
perfectly groomed, maintain a willowy figure, and conjure an unending supply
of cheer and concern for passengers.” Fighting for wages commensurate to
their skills and to be taken with a level of seriousness on par with their
professional responsibilities, flight attendants eventually found themselves
at the center of feminist debate. “I don’t think of myself as a sex symbol
or a servant,” went the common defense. “I think of myself as somebody who
knows how to open the door of a 747 in the dark, upside down, and in the
water.” And yet, in one particularly telling image from 1965, TWA
stewardesses protesting for better pay and shorter hours look like an
advertisement for the airline — immaculately uniformed, coiffed, made up —
smiling! — picket signs clutched in their gloved hands.
In a time of both marked increases in security and decreases in service,
modern day travelers are hardly in the position to be picky when it comes to
which airline has the prettiest flight attendants or the nicest uniforms.
The hope is that you, and perhaps even the bag you checked, arrive at all.
Today’s flight attendants remain, by and large, a civilizing force, a
literal reminder to fasten your seatbelt and raise your tray table, but also
a symbolic one that we intrepid travelers are more than just human cargo –
well, at least until the 500-passenger Airbus A380 officially takes to the
skies. In that respect, neither their social role — nor their image — has
changed all that dramatically. Many of the airlines Finke frequented are
from countries that continue to perpetuate the stereotype of the unflappably
glamorous flight attendant not to mention that stereotype’s attendant
nostalgia for the golden days of air travel. Flight attendants from Cathay
Pacific, Air Asia, All Nippon, and Icelandair seem from another era when
compared with those Finke encountered on, say, Jet Blue or Hawaiian
Airlines. The fact that Cathy Pacific had reinstated its iconic red uniforms
in honor of its 60th anniversary might have something to do with this. But
Singapore Air still actively promotes the charms of the Singapore Girl,
lauded for engendering Asian values and hospitality and whom the airline
likes to think of as caring, warm, gentle, elegant and serene.
Throughout Finke’s flight attendant series, there are glimpses of what air
travel has in fact has become. Take, for example, the democratizing attempts
of Southwest Airlines where the class hierarchy has been abolished and every
day is casual Friday. Or the ill-conceived (and thankfully short-lived)
in-flight entertainment concept, Hooters Air, where the uniform of orange
short-shorts and a tight white T-shirt emblazoned with the company logo
brings the idea of casting flight attendants to meet certain size
requirements to an entirely new level. In Finke’s photograph, the Hooters
air-hostess holds the microphone to the public address system as if she is
not quite sure what to do with it. (Somewhat reassuringly, the airline also
employed “real” safety-trained flight attendants who were recognizable as
such by their more modest attire.) A photo of a young flight attendant for
Tiger Airways (a no-frills carrier based in Singapore) practically hurling a
plastic container containing a sad looking sandwich will come as an all too
familiar sight to today’s budget traveler.
Finke’s approach in photographing these women — and the occasional man
— is neither nostalgic nor unduly ‘real.’ He neither glamorizes his subjects
nor does he portray them in the glaring, unforgiving light that many of us
have come to understand as documentary. For the most part, it is the flight
attendants themselves who appear to cling to the glamorous promise of their
profession (there are few beauty pageant contenders here; though one
Southwest flight attendant is a part-time saleswoman for Mary Kay
Cosmetics). We catch these women in their choreographed moments, familiar to
the point of being generic – demonstrating safety procedures, smiling and
waving as if in an advertisement. But Finke reminds us of their
individuality, too. A candid photo of a red-uniformed Cathy Pacific flight
attendant shopping for a toothbrush in a company store, could be accompanied
by a caption ripped from the celebrity tabloids: Flight Attendants — they’re
just like Us!
If, on occasion, a particular image comes across as slightly surreal – and
here the photo of an Icelandair flight attendant in training, perfectly
composed and not a platinum blonde hair out of place as she blasts a fire
extinguisher at an overhead bin comes to mind – it is perhaps because no
matter how commonplace the experience air travel has become, flying is still
something that inspires a certain degree of awe. Finke’s photos contain in
them the every excruciating minute of the18-hour haul from New York to Hong
Kong. And yet, he somehow emerges with his illusions mostly in tact. Even as
we stand by and watch as the flight attendants shop for toiletries or grab a
meal in the company cafeteria, or return home to the lives many of us cannot
even begin to imagine they have, they maintain, in his photos and in our
minds, their quintessential flight attendant-ness. It is as if we, and they,
only exist in that unnatural vacuum-sealed experience, where even as you
find yourself hurtling through the sky 36,000 feet above the earth at 600
miles an hour, time seems to stand perfectly still.
Wired Magazine article.