Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reader feedback on Walker Evans and the Depression

One of my last posts was about Walker Evans and his book (with James Agee), Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The American Classic, in Words and Photographs, of Three Tenant Families in the Deep South. One of the blog readers sent me a link to more of the story. I didn't realize there was lingering bitterness at the exposure of their poverty, and anger that they never received compensation.

There was even a subsequent book, a retracing with re-photography of the children now grown up titled, And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (a title drawn from the same passage of Ecclesiasticus) by journalist Dale Maharidge and photographer Michael Williamson. This book even won a Pulitzer in 1990. I don't know if the families received any compensation this time around.

However, this is an American saga. Three generations removed from the poverty of Mills Hill, the grandchildren are set to go to college. According to the Fortune article, The Most Famous Story We Never Told, they don't share their father's lingering resentment, they feel pride in the struggle of their fore-fathers/mothers.

I would agree with them. For many years I have had a framed photograph, ordered from the Library of Congress, of Allie Mae Burroughs (shown below). I keep Ms. Burroughs in my kitchen. When I drink my daily morning coffee, she reminds me to be strong and to endure.

Note: Photographs are from the Library of Congress Farm Security Administration collection.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Pictures at an Exhibition

Another confidential from school, the New York Academy of Art. An Exhibition in the downstairs gallery hung like the Louvre. Hmmmmm.....

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Mermaid Parade 2009

Admittedly it was pouring rain, the light was flat, rain drops kept blurring my lens, I was sick with a bad cough, and I couldn't decide how I was going to shoot the event. The die-hards and exhibitionistas kept me going (as well as a dry hat thanks to Brooklyn Lager and the promise of a dog at Nathans). The best comment I heard about the costume design was, "Well...you think of anything and then you mermize it." Here's a smattering of the 3000 plus, now weeded down to approx 140 photographs. The Coney Island Mermaid Parade lives on!

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Oyster Shucker

The thing about making art or taking photographs is that history sits on your shoulder. When I was having dinner (dozens and dozens of fresh oysters) at Casamento's in New Orleans, I took a simple photograph of the guy who was shucking the oysters. As it turned out he is a speed champion shucker,with the medals to prove it, who turned out perfect clean oysters even at warp speed.

There were two photographers "sitting" with me that night: August Sander and Walker Evans.

August Sander was a german photographer who started a project around 1910. His aim was to catalogue German Society. His portraits of individuals often show them in their working clothes and sometimes in their work environments, and are captioned by occupation. The Nazis banned his portraits in the 1930s because the subjects did not adhere to the ideal Aryan type. They are powerful and stark (and are vastly better than my snap).

The Walker Evans photographs that came to mind were those documenting the effects of the depression while working for the Farm Security Administration. He worked in large-format emphasizing the plight of the American public during this period of economic unrest. You can see lots of his photographs and even buy prints of the at the Library of Congress online archive. I surf the archive frequently, there's lots to of interest and the search is very good. I love his photographs, own several and have his "Studio" photograph on my studio wall. One truly great facet of the archives is that you can request the "neighboring call numbers" for any image. This gave me insight into how photographers like Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and Walker Evans worked. You can see how Evens moved into a shot, or switched lenses, or even his editing process. I think the ones with circular holes may be meant to exclude them from ever being printed. Although given what we know about Bellocq, they are actually sort of cool. But I digress, below are two of his portraits of men at work and below a screen capture of one of the search pages with sequential call numbers.

In 1941 Walker Evans and James Agee published the ground-breaking book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The American Classic, in Words and Photographs, of Three Tenant Families in the Deep South This collection of photos is a deeply moving portrait of rural poverty.

Last thought, you know how obsessed I am with "product placement" and rampant American consumerism, so here is another of my favorite Walker Evans. The irony of the Coke ad blinding us to almost anything else in the scene shows he was definitely on to it in the 1930s. Author Naomi Klein, in No Logo covers this point saying that a documentary photographer like Evans was a "hard-core culture jammer" photographing advertising posters and billboards "in their actual habitat: hanging surreally over breadlines and tenements." So you see, a simple snap, simultaneously a warm handshake and a waltz with history...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Old Ways

I paint in both oil and acrylic, recently mostly in acrylic since I haven't saved up enough to put a first rate air exchange system in my new studio. I am still painting in oils though since I am taking a flesh eating, oops, make that flesh painting class at the New York Academy of Art. I decided to add to my repertoire and take some very traditional classes. I am also studying at the Educational Alliance Art School, in the "reminds me of graduate school" continuing in the class taught by the wonderful abstract painter, Cora Cohen.

At the Academy we use the old techniques. In Alyssa Monks class, we started by coating the canvas (which was supposed to be triple-oil primed linen) with a mixture of an earthy red and greenish earth and linseed oil. We then wiped, scrubbed or brushed off paint to reveal the figure defined by it's lights. It is a forgiving way to work since you can really move the paint around. We then mixed a palette using only dark red, cold black and white creating fifty tones of warm, cold and neutral to start. Now we are painting the flesh using very small brushes and laying in tiny areas next to each other to build out the figure. Luckily we have two more weeks to complete the figure completely covering the "Night of the Living Dead" underpainting.

This type of methodology is a hard challenge for me. I like to speed paint, throwing myself into the process and attacking the canvas. I love big canvas, big movements and at least a two inch brush. I typically think about my paintings for a long time before I start but then try to paint them as fast as I can so the gestures have a freshness even to myself. It follows that I love the work of Louise Fishman.

Below is a new painting done in the same week as the above. Seems silly, but I get a charge out of doing both. I love the process no matter what I'm producing. Of course, they do refer to an artist's life work as having a studio practice.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Cautionary Tale...

This imposing bronze statue of statesman William Seward (1801–1872) at 23rd and Broadway, was created by the artist Randolph Rogers (1825–1892). The sculpture was dedicated in 1876, and Seward is said to be the first New Yorker to be honored with a monument in the city. Seward earned it. He was secretary of state during the Civil War, a typical New Yorkers appetite for a stressful job. However, he is best remembered for his purchase of Alaska from the Russians ("Seward's Folly")

The story I heard was that his statue of Seward was nothing more than a new head added to a sculpture of Lincoln that Randolph Rogers had already made. The size of Seward’s body appears too large, and the proportion of the head to body seems at odds. Also, the original subscription effort to fund the memorial, which began in 1873, faltered, and to save money as the story goes, its organizers asked Rogers if he could cut some corners. Rogers supposedly offered to sculpt only a head of Seward, which would then be affixed to an existing body, laying around his studio, of Abraham Lincoln. Seward is depicted seated with pen and parchment at hand perhaps the Emancipation Proclamation.

In 1904, a writer to The Times referred to the “great saving of time and labor to decapitate the Lincoln model and place the head of Seward on it;” that writer added conspiratorily, “I know whereof I speak.” Each time a revelation like this surfaced, rebuttals would appear. One writer to The Times quoted Seward’s son, Frederick, who called the story “unfounded and absurd.” The letter writer went on to point out that the committee that raised the money for the statue published a detailed accounting of its financial records and activities in 1876, which apparently makes it plain that the statue’s $25,000 cost was paid in full by 250 donors, among them General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) and Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1843–1899).

The only conspiracy at work here seems to be Rogers’s lack of imagination, and perhaps his poor eye for proportion. When I saw the orange caution tape drifting across the statue, I just couldn't resist. Just say no to bad sculpture!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Motherlode

Last week, I went to buy some Damar Medium at Soho Art Materials. It's on a block that is in the process of neatening up, upgrading and all the new, new. I was struck by one old building that deserves NYC landmark status due to its extensive motherlode of varied graffiti. Here are just a very few of the images I collected that morning (including one with a poster by...Shepard Fairey):

Monday, June 22, 2009

Cosmic Connections

My friend Sara believes in cosmic connection, I was thinking about it yesterday because of these uncertain times. It's an advantage to believe that everything has a purpose and all things will come right in the end. This "cosmic" connection led to my meeting Sara. We both have sons, adopted from Korea, who are approximately the same age. We discovered that we have in common many other things, among them a connection to Francoise Gilot and Picasso.

Sara was once married to Claude Picasso, the son of FG and P. On myside a thinner connection—I met Francoise when I was a young girl. Francoise liked my watercolors and so invited me to her studio in Paris. I went for tea——imagine a 12 year old budding artist in a real studio, Picasso's paintings mingled with Francoise's. I think I made my career decision that day.

Francoise thought I was a sad girl, similar in temperament to her own youngest daughter. She gave me a print of Aurélia so I wouldn't be lonely and would have a sister spirit. I hang it in my studio to inspire me in my artistic life.

When I was in New Orleans recently, I came across an exhibition of some of Francoise's paintings and prints. The painting in the window of the gallery is one of hers. It was a lovely exhibit and I realized how much she must have struggled to find her own hand as a painter in the midst of such august company (think Braque, Chagall, Cocteau, Matisse and Picasso.) I love too that she drew and painted her children. I have painted mine and done paintings of requested subjects for them—to mixed results. I show no signs of stopping so I imagine it will be a life long process.

Sara is not my only peripheral connection to Francoise. In the game of Cosmic 6 Degrees, Conrad, a life long friend, who I met in Paris some 6 or 7 years after I met Francoise, used to date Joan, who was a White House fellow, and who helped to expedite my son (the one the same age as Sara's) travel to America. Joan also received a Mac Arthur foundation fellowship, went to brainstorm at the Salk Institute, run by Jonas Salk (vaccine inventor), who was married to...Francoise Gilot.

Francoise Gilot still shows worldwide and continues as my muse and inspiration.