Monday, June 8, 2009


Untitled, San Francisco, January 2009.

New York City photographer viggo asked this interesting question about the man pictured above in the rain: "What is it about umbrellas that is so endlessly captivating?"

Umbrellas seem to hold their own in any image; rain may set the mood of a picture, but the umbrella is a character in it. Gene Kelly memorably had a pas de deux with one. In Umbrellas of Cherbourg, umbrellas pass briskly in the rain-drenched tryst between Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo like the gathering storm in the couple's lives (video below). It is fitting that when Mary Ellen Mark shot a portrait of Deneuve in the French Alps, she was carrying the very object that she turned into an icon.

Like a versatile character actor, the umbrella changes roles in every picture with chameleon-like ease. In the snapshot of Fred Astaire and Richard Avedon (shooting Funny Face),
its role is strictly utilitarian; to protect Avedon's camera from getting wet. In André Kertész' 1968 Tokyo picture, homogeneous umbrellas are a lemming-like organism, moving in unison towards a pointed direction. In my picture above of a rainy San Francisco afternoon, they meld unobtrusively into a motif of rippling concentric circles. The umbrella disappears altogether in Henri Cartier-Bresson's Pieta-like portrait, but casts a giant shadow over mother and child.

It's remarkable how such a simple object can do so much to evoke a plethora of moods. The umbrella, held aloft by an invisible hand in Burt Glinn's Macy's Parade picture, conjures a high-wire act performed by a clown, giving the image a circus atmosphere that is perfect for the happy occasion. The blurry windswept umbrella in Édouard Boubat's 1952 Parisian picture makes the storminess palpable; in his 1974 portrait, it obscures a child's smiling face but evokes a mood that is unmistakably Japanese. Catastrophe looms over Martin Munkacsi's 1927 picture of a flooded Sicilian street (below); time has slowed down to the tempo of a dirge and the umbrellas feel heavy in the sombre procession. But in his fashion picture for Harper's Bazaar, the parasol has taken center stage, and it is flippant and light as air.

Umbrellas appear with remarkable frequency in some photographers' works. In Chinese photographer Fan Ho's lyrical vision of Hong Kong, it is ubiquitous as both subject and metaphor. Markéta Luskacová's umbrellas accompany portraits of despair and childlike innocence, and in many images, ritual and death itself.

Perhaps no other photographer captures the magical quality of rainy days -- and umbrellas -- than Portuguese photographer Rui Palha. Many of Rui's pictures are taken from the Centro Cultural de Belém, but they may well take place in a rain-soaked courtyard of the imagination, where solitary men in long coats, bearing umbrellas, trudge along surfaces that glisten with light.

Fan Ho

Markéta Luskacová

Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Mary Ellen Mark, Catherine Deneuve, French Alps, 1969
David (Chim) Seymour, Richard Avedon and Fred Astaire on the set of Funny Face, Paris, France, 1956.
André Kertész, Rainy Day, Tokyo, 1968.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Calle Cuauhtemoctzin, Mexico City, 1934.
Burt Glinn, Balcony overlooking the Thanksgiving Day Parade on Central Park West, 1992.
Édouard Boubat, Sevres-Babylone, Paris, France, 1952.
Édouard Boubat, Kyoto, Japan, 1974.
Martin Munkacsi, Harper's Bazaar (detail), July 1935.
Martin Munkacsi, Palermo, Sicily, 1927.
Fan Ho, Waterfront (detail), 1965.
Fan Ho, Daily Routine, 1961.
Markéta Luskacová, Commercial Street, 1978.
Markéta Luskacová, St. Patrick's Mountain, 1972.
Markéta Luskacová, Sumiac, 1973.


  1. other objects that i noticed are bicycles and small boats. they always look good in photos.