Archive for the ‘This is interesting … right?’ Category

The FBI, organized crime and more

January 6, 2008

frank-siantra.jpeg Frank Sinatra 


Picturing the scene of the coming funeral of Salvatore “Bill” Bonanno here in Tucson, Ariz., on Monday, I can’t help but imagine the possibilities.

Members of one of the most infamous crime families in American history will be sitting among friends at the service, huddled in the back or spread throughout the church. Law enforcement will be there, too, noting who appears. The suited individuals in the back row could be FBI agents, watching every step.

The FBI has a history of tracking citizens, notorious or not. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, which allows for the disclosure of government documents upon request, a collection of files on individuals the agency has monitored is available online and can be viewed at the agency’s Electronic Reading Room.

If you’re interested in gangster files, there are 10 sets of records, including documents on Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde. But there are also files on other famous figures, including Albert Einstein, Lucille Ball, the Beatles, Martin Luther King Jr., Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. (Of the 16,659 pages of files on King, only about 1 percent are available online.)

There are 2,403 pages on Frank Sinatra, who “socialized with organized crime figures,” the Web site says. Sixteen hundred pages explore what might have been behind 15 animal mutilations in New Mexico in the 1970s — UFOs? Satanic cults? “Pranksters”? There’s also a 131-page file on the baseball star Jackie Robinson, though according to the Web site, he was never the subject of an investigation; his name “came to the attention of the FBI as a result of his National Association for the Advancement of Colored People membership.”

The file on Tupac Shakur, who was killed Sept. 7, 1996, in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, includes several reports suggesting that he had been involved in an extortion scheme that ensnared the rapper Easy-E. It also has numerous newspaper, magazine and Web clippings documenting Shakur’s life, time in jail and death. (It is interesting to note the prominence of media reports in the federal police enforcement file, including an 18-page New Yorker article from 1997 about Shakur’s death.)

The files may not provide any conclusive insight into the lives or struggles of these figures, but they are nonetheless an interesting written history from a fascinating American institution.

— James Wagner

W. Eugene Smith’s photography

January 5, 2008


W. Eugene Smith’s photography

(Jose R. Lopez/NYT Institute) 

I’m sure if I called myself a frustrated photographer I wouldn’t be doing the art justice. I am by no means an expert photographer or photojournalist, but I deeply admire the art. Anyone can take a photograph, but only a few can make it truly good.

On Friday, the students of The New York Times Student Journalism Institute were given a tour of the photographer W. Eugene Smith’s archive, most of it original prints, at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.

The students stared intently at the photographs, often lingering for several minutes on a frame. My personal favorite: a photograph of the Battle of Iwo Jima. It shows soldiers crouched in the corner of the foreground behind a mound of mud. But in the distance, behind the barren trees and smoke-covered ground, an enormous dark cloud — an explosion — draws the viewer’s eye.

It is one of those photographs I never truly understood was real. I envisioned it as a fantasy, a barren land formed only from my experiences watching gritty war films like “Paths of Glory” (1957) or “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930). But it was real, and the photograph made it so.

Smith draws the viewer directly into the photo and frames the fragility of the human body against the destruction of the explosion. This level of access, risk and realism encompasses true photojournalism.

And it makes me jealous.

— James Wagner

What’s in a name?

January 4, 2008

U.S. Propaganda Poster from 1940s 

Dozens of people in the United States have the last names “Hitler” and “Stalin” — 22 and 60, respectively, according to Do these people face interesting challenges day to day? Do they withhold their names when they introduce themselves? Were they born with the names, or did they actually choose them? (Adolf Hitler’s half-brother emigrated to the United States in the 20th century. Joseph Stalin’s daughter moved to the States, married an American and had a daughter.)

This is a story idea I’m working on that could provide an interesting look into the lives of these people. Do you have any interesting names: first or last, or even middle?

— James Wagner