Thinking of Joel Rothschild

Joel Rothschild, author of Signals.

Twelve years ago, I photographed Joel Rothschild, author of “Signals: An Inspiring Story of Life After Life.” I found Signals a fascinating read, not only because of the beauty of the story, but for the content. I loved it even before I read Elizabeth Taylor’s testimonial: “I will treasure Signals always…it’s written from the heart.”

I was taken back to the 1980’s when Joel lost most of his friends to AIDS. With the epidemic as backdrop, Joel recounts how his lover contacted him from the After Life, as he had promised, in different ways. Sometimes he would visit in the form of a hummingbird. Once, even though hummingbirds don’t fly after the sun has gone down, one of these beautiful birds came to Joel on a full moon night.

I was so moved by the story that I gave the book to some friends who had just lost their mother. They both read it in a day. Just like me, they couldn’t put it down. Later, while talking to each other on the phone one morning, one said to the other, “You’re not going to believe it, sister, there’s a hummingbird flying right in front of me, looking straight into my eyes.” It was just like in the book. Their mother was visiting. The sister was shocked, “Oh my God! There’s a hummingbird flying right in front of me as well.”

Isaac Hernández, Thinking of Eric Rothschild, oil pastel on paper.

I gave Joel a small oil pastel drawing of a hummingbird and a green full moon that I had made especially for him. Ten years later I had the urge to draw a hummingbird with a full moon, again, this time against a pale moon. I’ve tried to connect with Joel by phone since, to no avail. Perhaps I should pay more attention to the skies and listen to the hummingbirds.

More than 27 million people have died from HIV infection. While you may not hear about many people dying from AIDS in the US anymore, There are more than 33 million people infected with HIV in the world, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. You can help by making a donation to an organization like the International Medical Corps or Doctors Without Borders. According to the RED Campaign, 700 babies are born with HIV every day. By 2015, that number could be close to zero.


Photographing Dan Brown in the Library

Dan Brown going down the stairs into Inferno, his new bestseller. Photo: ©2013 Isaac Hernandez.

With the occasion of Dan Brown’s launch of his new novel, Inferno, which sold 228,961 printed copies in the UK alone in its first week (who says books were dead?), Die Weltwoche in Switzerland contacted me to license a portrait I took of the author in Exeter, New Hampshire. The portrait in the mysterious stairway has a story, which I will revisit here.

When I was first invited to photograph Dan Brown, courtesy of Editorial Planeta, the Spanish publisher of The Lost Symbol, I was clearly told he wouldn’t pose for any pictures; photographs were to be taken exclusively during his interview time.

As soon as Mr. Brown arrived at the Philips Exeter Academy library (New Hampshire), where we were to interview and photograph him, he cordially allowed photographs and video taken of him while he stood surrounded by books, and by Spanish and Argentinian media. I went down on my knees to take a photo from a different perspective than everybody else, and when Dan looked my way, I couldn’t help but lower my head in submission.

Author Dan Brown at the Exeter Library.

He must have liked my demeanor, then and during the interview with Carlos Fresneda, US bureau chief for El Mundo, which you can read here (in Spanish), for he agreed to pose for me, if only for an instant, on his way out for the lunch break. We were to meet at the entrance of the library, but when I saw him taking the stairs, I followed (after all, I’m fond of stairs, and I had taken them on the way up to the sixth floor). There I saw the opportunity for THE photo. “Could you please hold it and look up my way?” That was it! The result was published in the printed edition of El Mundo, alongside a profile photo taken during the interview, shown above.

Dan was so kind, I had to run and buy The Lost Symbol, his latest novel while everybody else was eating lunch. I ran back to the library and, during a break of another one of his interviews, I asked him to sign it for a friend. I was sure to point out I bought it at a small Exeter bookshop, thus supporting not only him, but his local economy. “Thanks, I can put gas in my car now,” he joked.

Thank you, Dan, you’re a true sport.

Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code and Inferno, featured in Die Weltwoche, Switzerland, photo by Isaac Hernandez
Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code and Inferno, in Die Weltwoche, Switzerland, photo by Isaac Hernandez.



Flying with Richard Bach / Volando con Richard Bach

USA. Washington. Orcas Island. Richard Bach, author of Hypnotizing Maria and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, among many other books, with his Beech T-34 airplane. (Born June 23, 1936. Oak Park, Illinois). Photo: ©2013 Isaac Hernandez, All Rights Reserved.

I’m happy to hear that Richard Bach is recovering from the airplane crash he suffered last August, after four months in the hospital. Not only that, but he’s now writing again, and has written a final part for his best-seller, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and just two days ago released Travels with Puff: A Gentle Game of Life and Death.

There’s nothing that Bach loves more than flying. Carlos Fresneda and I visited him in 2009 to talk about his new book Hypnotizing Maria. The story below about my experience with the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull was published in El Mundo on October 4, 2009. I’m posting here both the English and the Spanish versions.
Bach nos recibió para hablar de su nuevo libro, Vuela Conmigo. Aquí abajo puedes leer la historia que publicó El Mundo, el 4 de octubre de 2009 sobre mi experiencia con el autor de “Juan Salvador Gaviota”. La versión en español la puedes leer más abajo.

USA. Washington. Orcas Island. Richard Bach, author of Hypnotizing Maria and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, among many other books, and his Husky A1-B seaplane. (Born June 23, 1936. Oak Park, Illinois). Photo: ©2009 Isaac Hernandez, All Rights Reserved.

“Those Are My Wings”
Above the clouds with Richard Bach.
©2009-13 Isaac Hernández
“Flying is something that you learn in a minute and a half and you spend the rest of your life perfecting,” says Richard Bach, as I tighten my harness cradled in the back seat of his loyal Husky A-1B aircraft. “If you want, you can fly it,” he surprises me.
After a quick lesson on how the control lever works, and checking that everything is in order and that “the engine is happy”, Richard directs the hydroplane against the wind and soon we’re lifting, Orcas Island under our feet turning into a silhouette against the blue Pacific.
I feel like one of the farmers in the Midwest to whom Richard offered flights on his plane for just three dollars, during the 70’s, after writing Jonathan Livingston Seagull. He was continuing a tradition began by returning WWI pilots.
From the hand of Bach and his book I began taking flight as an adolescent. Who was going to think then that three decades later Richard himself would take me to the top of the clouds to let me free with the wind?
“After some time,” points Bach, “the wings become an extension of your arms, and you can even feel the air ruffling your feathers. Those are my wings, that’s my power. You stop thinking that your body is here and the plane is there, you become one and only one creature; a flying creature.”
The metaphor of Jon Seagull becomes reality inside my bones. My teacher is not a “talking seagull”, but the writer that gave life to the book that he had carried inside him.
“Go up to that cloud,” asks my instructor. I pull the lever and up we go. I maneuver at 1000 meters with a smoothness of a seagull. I’m happy that my captain doesn’t ask me to stall and do a nosedive. And I remember the end of the book. “No limits, Jon?“ My race to learn has begun.

USA. Washington. Orcas Island. Richard Bach, author of Hypnotizing Maria and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, among many other books, flying over the San Juan Islands on his Husky A1-B seaplane. (Born June 23, 1936. Oak Park, Illinois). Photo: ©2013 Isaac Hernandez, All Rights Reserved.

“Esas Son Mis Alas”
Sobre las nubes con Richard Bach
©2009-12 Isaac Hernández
“Volar es algo que se aprende en un minuto y medio, y se perfecciona el resto de la vida”, dice Bach según me aprieto el cinturón de seguridad en el asiento trasero de su fiel avioneta Husky A-1B. “Si quieres, puedes pilotar,” me sorprende.
Tras una rápida lección de cómo funciona la palanca de mandos, y comprobar que todo está en regla y “el motor contento”, Richard dirige el hidroplano contra el viento y comenzamos a elevarnos, y la isla de Orcas bajo nuestros pies en una silueta contra el Pacífico.
Me siento como uno de los granjeros del Oeste Americano a los que Richard diera paseos en avioneta por tres dólares, durante los 70, tras escribir Juan Salvador Gaviota. Seguía una tradición que comenzaron los pilotos que regresaban de la Primera Guerra Mundial.
De la mano de Bach y su libro comencé a tomar el vuelo como adolescente. ¿Quién me iba a decir que seis lustros después acabaría él mismo llevándome a lo alto de las nubes para luego dejarme libre con el viento?
“Pasado un tiempo”, apunta Bach, “las alas se convierten en una prolongación de tus brazos y puedes sentir incluso el aire como si te tocara las plumas. Esas son mis alas, ese es mi poder. Dejas de pensar que tu cuerpo está aquí y el avión está ahí, te conviertes en una sola criatura; una criatura voladora”.
La metáfora de Juan Gaviota se hace realidad dentro de mis huesos. Pero en lugar de una “gaviota parlante”, mi instructor es el escritor que dio vida al libro que llevaba dentro de él.
“Sube hacia esa nube,” pide mi maestro. Tiro de la palanca y hacia arriba vamos. Maniobro a mil metros de altura con la suavidad propia de una gaviota. Me alegro que mi capitán no me pida hacer una caída libre, y recuerdo el final del libro, “¿No hay límites, Juan?” Mi carrera hacia el aprendizaje ha empezado…


And the walking man walks

John Francis, author of “Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence”.

After enjoying a private concert by James Taylor, I was reminded of John Francis, the Planetwalker. Francis witnessed the effects of an oil spill in the San Francisco Bay in 1974. He was shocked by the disaster, and he started walking, and he stopped talking. He walked the world for 22 years, 17 of them in complete silence. He was tired of explaining to people why he wasn’t riding in cars, buses or any other fossil fuel-burning method of transportation. He crossed continents and oceans by foot and sailboat.

During that time, he earned college and graduate degrees in science and environmental studies and was appointed  goodwill ambassador to the world’s grassroots communities by the United Nations.

John Francis walked around the world for 22 years, 17 of them in complete silence.

“Walking is the best way to calibrate where you are, where you come from and where you’re going,” says Francis. “One person can make a difference and show others the road less traveled. But each of us must follow our own road: mine was to walk in response to an oil spill. I learned many marvelous things along the way. I learned to listen.”

The children were the ones who understood his silence the most. “Adults would point at me and say, ‘There goes the man that walks,’ as if the normal thing was to go by car.”

He didn’t know how long he was going to keep his vow of silence. He would decide every year on his birthday if he would renew it. When he finally spoke, he did it to promote sustainability and social justice.

“I learned that sustainability is nothing more that how we relate to each other. The way we treat each other is equivalent to the way we treat our environment. While we have oppression, exploitation of others and wars, we can’t advance. We have to make peace with each other to make peace with the planet.”

John Francis walks on by, always carrying his banjo.

He has written two books, Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step at a Time and Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence. He still walks as many as 20 miles per day.


Justin Halpern Portrait

Justin Halpern rests at his home in San Diego.

I was commissioned by Random House Germany to photograph Justin Halpern, author of the bestseller “Sh*t My Dad Says”, and screenwriter of the TV show by almost the same name… Almost, because you cannot curse on TV, so Sh*t becomes $#*!. Go figure. Out of all the photos I took of Justin, the one relaxing under the window is my favorite.

Justin’s dad is a philosopher, with great truths such as: “Everyone thinks their opinion matters. Don’t argue with a nobody. A farmer doesn’tbother telling a pig his breath smells like shit.” And “You got good friends. I like them. I don’t think they would fuck your girlfriend, if you had one.” Or “You screw without rubbers, kids happen. Sorry-you don’t get to have the dog without the dog shit.” Just one more: “Bullshit. War ain’t over till people stop shooting. You can’t say you’re done taking a crap if shit’s still coming out of your ass.” You can follow Sh*t My Dad Says on Twitter to get your regular bits of Dad wisdom.

Halpern recently released another book, “I Suck at Girls”, available online at Halpern’s dedicated site, including more father wisdom.


GORE VIDAL, 1925-2012

Gore Vidal at his home in Hollywood, California, 2008. ©2012

Novelist, screenwriter, essayist, playwright, writer, politician

Vidal, prolific author and critic of American policy, died on July 31st, at his home in Hollywood Hills, north of downtown Los Angeles, where he lived since 2003, after years residing in Ravello, Italy. He was 86.

Early in his career he wrote the ground-breaking The City and the Pillar (1948), which outraged mainstream critics as one of the first major American novels to feature unambiguous homosexuality. Vidal argued that “although our notions about what constitutes correct sexual behavior are usually based on religious texts, those texts are invariably interpreted by the rulers in order to keep control over the ruled.”

For over six decades, Gore Vidal applied himself to a wide variety of sociopolitical, sexual, historical, and literary themes, including more than 20 novels, eight plays, 13 screenplays, and over 200 essays, including the critically lauded Palimpsest: A Memoir. Vidal’s United States (Essays 1952-1992) won the 1993 National Book Award.

His grandfather served as Democratic senator from Oklahoma, which contributed to Gore Vidal’s political philosophy, critical of USA’s foreign policies. He ran for Congress in 1960 (lost narrowly), and ran for Senate in 1982 in California, losing in the primary to Jerry Brown.
Vidal was a member of the advisory board of the World Can’t Wait.


Don Luis Leal (1907-2010)

Ventana Abierta published a double issue remembering Don Luis Leal, “father of Chicano Studies”, illustrated with some of my photographs of Don Luis, and some of Santa Barbara. I met him when he was 102 years old and he was in great shape. A week later he suffered a fall that sent him into the hospital. Not long after, he passed away. I wrote the passage below in his memory, which was published in El Mundo.

Obituary to Don Luis Leal (1907-2010) by Isaac Hernández, as it appeared in El Mundo.

Recordando a Luis Leal (1907-2010)

“Padre” de los estudios de la Literatura Chicana

by Isaac Hernández

Vio, de niño, entrar a Zapata y a Pancho Villa en la ciudad de México. De la mano de su hermanito, fue testigo de varios fusilamientos, cerca de donde ahora está el Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Llegó a Chicago con 19 años, el mismo día que Charles Lindbergh completó su vuelo trasatlántico, el 21 de mayo de 1927. Le siguieron las armas; en la peluquería mexicana a la que iba solía haber un gangster haciendo guardia con metralleta, pues el jefe era también cliente. Durante la II Guerra Mundial tomaría las armas, como soldado en las Islas Filipinas, de donde regresó con gran cariño por su gente, y por la herencia hispana que allá encontró.

En los años 50 y 60 llegó a ser uno de los principales profesores de literatura mexicana e hispanoamericana dentro de EEUU. Ha escrito más de 45 libros y mas de 400 ensayos.

Distinguido profesor en la Universidades de Illinois hasta 1975, se jubiló en Santa Bárbara, donde volvió a hacer carrera en la Universidad de California (UCSB), con tres décadas más como profesor, hasta casi cumplir los 100 años. Antes había enseñado también en las universidades de Chicago y Misisipi y la Emory University.

Compartía, caso raro entre catedráticos, las actividades académicas con las actividades culturales y cívicas de la comunidad: siempre preocupado por la condición de los mexicanos y de todos los hispanos. Su Breve Historia del Cuento Mexicano es un clásico, así como su libro sobre Mariano Azuela, el primero sobre el gran novelista de Los de Abajo. Fue uno de los primeros estudiosos del “realismo mágico” en los años 60 y en los 70, y puso el peso de su prestigio académico en el estudio de la literatura chicana, ignorada cuando no repudia en las Universidades.

En un sentido es el “padre” de los estudios de literatura chicana, los cuales promovió incesantemente. Dada la longitud de su vida y carrera, se podría decir que era el “Decano” de quienes se dedican en este país al estudio del español y de nuestras literaturas.

Aparte de su gran generosidad con estudiantes y colegas, le caracterizaba una gran sencillez e interés por los demás. “Trataba con la misma deferencia y afabilidad a Octavio Paz o a Carlos Fuentes que a una camarera o lavaplatos de un restaurante, quienes solían acercarse a saludar y decirle que le habían visto en uno de los programas culturales de la televisión en español en los que participaba”,  su amigo Víctor Fuentes, escritor español y profesor de UCSB con quien Don Luis fundara la revista literaria “Ventana Abierta”.

Tenía también un gran sentido del humor. Cuando algún chicano le preguntaba el secreto de su longevidad, decía, ‘porque como arroz y frijoles como ustedes’. “Finalmente, al cumplir 101 en la cena de cumpleaños  descubrió tal secreto”, recuerda Fuentes. “‘Es el amor que me tienes ustedes los amigos y yo a ustedes’, claro que en esos amigos implícitamente también incluía a la camarera y al lavaplatos antes mencionados”.