Monday, August 27, 2018

Ben Stein

Ben Stein, Toronto, June 19, 2008

I HAVE VERY NICE MEMORIES OF THIS SHOOT. Which is worth noting, because I don't have a lot of good memories of my last year at the free daily. It was an anxious time; my editor (and friend) Jodi Isenberg had been pushed out by management and the direction of the paper was doubtful, so a few people who I'd worked with closely for years had left or were preparing to leave. I ended up having to cover a lot of bases, including more combined shooting/writing gigs - like this one, interviewing and photographing Ben Stein, who was in town promoting Expelled, a documentary he'd co-written and hosted.

I didn't see Ferris Bueller's Day Off until a few years ago, so most of what I knew about Stein came either from his years in the Nixon and Ford administrations as a speechwriter (I have been fascinated by Nixon since the Watergate hearings preempted my favorite afternoon TV shows as a boy) or from Win Ben Stein's Money, which ran in syndication when I was watching a lot of TV while writing a daily column for the free daily. I mostly remember his thinly-concealed distaste for Arianna Huffington, one frequent guest, and a just as thinly concealed crush on Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan.

Ben Stein, Toronto, June 19, 2008

It would be an understatement to say that Expelled was controversial. A documentary defending Intelligent Design and asserting that Darwinism was ideologically complicit in the rise of eugenics and the Holocaust was going to piss off a lot of people. I personally think Creationism is ridiculous but I was impressed by Stein's willingness to get behind the film and its thesis, even if I didn't agree with most of the message.

(For the record, I consider the theory of evolution is broadly correct, but that it's going to see a lot of revisions in the decades to come, as more evidence is uncovered and research is done. A hundred years from now our current understanding of evolution will probably seem as basic and misconceived as public health was before germ theory and antibiotics. Which is why we shouldn't treat it as dogma.)

I was open about my opinion, but told Stein that I supported what he was doing as a free speech issue, and we ended up agreeing that academia in particular (and the media in general) had become remarkably hostile to anyone challenging conventional wisdom and the status quo. We got along so well that Stein asked his publicist if he could just blow off the next few interviews and keep talking with me. Naturally, this made him a more pliable subject when it came time to take my photos.

By 2008 it had been four years since Jodi had pushed me back into portrait photography. By then I had cautiously begun to imagine myself as a professional photographer again, and years of regular work had forced me to search for a new style. The portrait of Stein at the top was a stab at that, formed in the circumstances in which I'd been working for the last few years - hotel rooms like this one at the Royal York, where I had to look hard to find my light and my background and discover something usable, fast.

The result was something a lot more artless than the work I'd been doing a decade earlier at NOW magazine - direct and symmetrical and somewhat clinical takes on the subject in front of my camera. I was shooting with something in mind beyond what would run in the paper a day or a week later, and the shots I'm posting now are probably a lot closer to what I had in mind on that day. Not necessarily flattering portraiture, but I'd finally let myself downplay that obligation, which felt a lot stronger when I started shooting again for the free daily.

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