“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”
– Bob Dylan
I was up in the Bronx photographing a Fordham University office space. After that I headed down to Brooklyn with my assistant Chris Gallagher. I wanted to get an image of the Tribute in Light — two focused beams of light symbolic of the Twin Towers.
I’d been thinking of a good location for a while, and decided upon the park just above the Brooklyn Bridge near Jane’s Carrousel. We walked around for about an hour looking for a good spot. The area was swarming with photographers carrying everything from iPhones to zoom lensed SLRs. Unsurprisingly, I appeared to be the only person with a view camera.
I found my vantage point — at a safe distance from the shutterbugs — and alternated shooting with 4×5 film and the Canon 5D Mark III (for those interested in such things) that I’d been using for my earlier architectural shoot. The image above was made with the latter.
It was an exceedingly warm, muggy, and windless night. But good for long exposures with the view camera. Dozens of people took up stations nearby awaiting the lights. As it got darker I became aware of the amber glow from a nearby streetlight being thrown on my foreground. The result has a strange theatricality, almost like the different elements were pasted together.
I’m picking up the 4×5 film later in the day. It will be interesting to compare to the digital image..
Here’s what it says on their “about” page:
Bettery Magazine is an online publication featuring the people, places and ideas that are changing our urban landscapes today. In giving their unique foresights an international stage, Bettery Magazine aims to encourage the creative thinking poised to reshape and revitalize cities around the globe.
Everyone thinks I should do it, so I am working on a series of before/after images of the Meatpacking District. I originally photographed the area in 1985, also venturing uptown into west Chelsea. I had completed the Lower East Side project — which I later came back to — and I had finished photographing the Financial District — with an NEA grant. I had also begun photographing various NYC parks, and later that year I would begin my travels along the Iron Curtain border across Europe. But for a week or so in late winter of 1985 I wandered around the west side of Manhattan and documented the profoundly empty streets, like a stage set with the actors on break. Eventually, as we all know, the people would come.
My experience with photographing New York, however, does not always follow the usual expectations about then and now. And with the Time and Space on the Lower East Side I deliberately wanted to challenge preconceived notions about what change actually looks like on the streets of the city.
New York, even the relatively glittering canyons of Manhattan, remains an often gritty place. The Meatpacking District has become a center of fashion and art, but like Soho before it, it continues to show its utilitarian roots, and is still dominated by late 19th and early 20th century architecture. The Gansevoort Market is still in business under the High Line housing a number of meat purveyors. In the view above of Gansevoort Street, one has to look twice to see the changes. Florent, the famous restaurant from ’80s is gone, and another restaurant has taken its place. The storefront of the small reddish building is now a boutique, but much of the block remains empty — as a Maserati rumbles along the cobblestones.
As is often the case, “after” photographs can be less compelling than “befores.” The factors that led to the first image being made, are no longer present. These can be very subtle attributes, atmospheric, ineffable. So, part of my strategy in rephotographing the Meatpacking District is to look for new pictures, or variations on the originals. The image directly above was made a few minutes after repeating the 1985 picture. It is, perhaps, a better description of the block with the Standard Hotel looming in the background.
I am shooting the new photographs in 4×5 film using a similar camera and lens as in 1985, but then scanning the negatives and working up the images in Photoshop. Some of the images here were taken with my point-and-shoot, which I usually have with me while working with the big camera. As the film gets processed and the images completed, I will replace the digital snaps with the final 4×5 photos.
In a previous post, I wrote about this being the former location of the Mineshaft, an infamous men’s sex club closed at the height of the AIDS crisis just a few months after my photograph was taken in 1985. Now, other sybaritic delights beckon.
The images above are both 4x5s. I made several pictures with the 14th Street Apple store clearly visible on the right, but stepping a few feet forward better duplicated the original image.
When I photographed the area in 1985, Pier 54 was an enclosed building as seen above. At present, only the steel structure of the facade remains. Occasionally the the otherwise empty pier is used for events. A small part of it is open to the public, and while I was there a couple of female skateboarders zoomed about while bicycles and joggers streamed along West Street.
Stay tuned for more pictures.
After almost two weeks of superb weather on Texel, the North Sea Dutch island, we headed for Amsterdam for two days before returning to New York. For many years, both the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum have been undergoing extensive renovations and were closed. Imagine if the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art were closed at the same time for the better part of a decade. This was not a good thing for a city trying to promote itself as a cultural capital — well, at least they had Van Gogh. But the good news is that both museums have reopened.
The Rijksmuseum desperately needed upgrading. It occupied a decorative 19th century building by Pierre Cuypers, in the same style as his Central Station at the foot of the Damrak. It was a worthy home for the superb collection of Rembrandts and Vermeers, among others, but it was hopelessly outmoded as a contemporary museum, and could scarcely handle the ever increasing hordes of tourists hell bent on seeing the Nightwatch and checking it off on their to do list.
The reconstruction of the museum was delayed for years by a controversy involving bicycles — I kid you not. For decades one of the main bike routes through the center of the city passed directly through a passage in the Rijksmuseum. When the architects of the renovation proposed rerouting the bikes, they were met by the fury of the Amsterdam bicycle lobby, a group comparable in power to the military industrial complex in the United States. The solution was elegant — tunneling under the passage — but cost time and an ungodly amount of money. In the photo above, you can see visitors entering the museum through one of the impressive glass enclosed courtyards created by the Spanish firm Cruz y Ortiz Arquitectos.
Once inside, the galleries have been beautifully refurbished by French interior architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte. The art mobs gravitate to Rembrandt’s Nightwatch — seen above — and press in relentlessly to see the relatively tiny Vermeers. But the museum is pretty big, so there are lots of galleries that are not crowded.
Here I am looking at one Saenredam’s architectural paintings made as if he were using a view camera.
And Ruisdael, who in this painting framed the endlessly horizontal Dutch landscape near Haarlem with a near square, the sky taking up 3/4 of the composition.
The first time I visited Amsterdam was in 1985 when I was just beginning my photographic journeys along the former Iron Curtain. The Stedelijk made a major impression on me in that it presented a view of modern art history that differed greatly from the linear narrative of MoMA in New York. It was all over the map, and challenged the idea that art develops as some kind of grand procession, one thing leading to the next, as if it were all inevitable. That said, I’ve come to appreciate the Modern’s effort to organize and make sense of things chronologically and stylistically.
Unlike MoMA, which was housed in a modernist collection of buildings, the Stedelijk was confined to a 19th century art palace with a grand staircase and comfortable, but inflexible, galleries. Like the Rijksmuseum nearby, it had inadequate accommodation for large crowds of visitors and little space for a shop and cafe. With one of the best collections of modern art in the world, it was obvious that something needed to be done.
And here begins a sad tale of political and organizational dysfunction terminating in the “the bathtub” seen above in my quickly stitched together panorama. Read Michael Kimmelman’s Times article for the full story. The new wing of the museum faces the Museumplein, a desultory sward of grass punctuated by paved vectors and shapes, including the infamous “donkey’s ear,” a peeled up corner of the park serving as the entrance to underground parking and an Albert Heijn supermarket — the perfect location for groceries — smack dab between the stately Concertgebouw concert hall and the Stedelijk.
The new wing is mostly diffuse empty space, which will allow the museum to mount the kind of installation art now in favor around the globe. Such an installation was on view in the enormous basement space — a windowless art dungeon — where multiple videos by Aernout Mik were on display set among an intentionally disorienting maze of passageways and spaces. The show was appropriately sponsored by Ahold, the company that owns the Albert Heijn supermarket just out the front door of the museum. See Times review of Mik’s work here.
There are lots of wonderful things to see in the Stedelijk, regardless of the new building. But after everything, the architectural confection of the Rijksmuseum and the empty calories of the Stedelijk, all the hundreds of millions of dollars, coming back home to New York, the one thing that made the most impression on me, was that little Ruisdael painting, just over a foot square, sunlight breaking through the clouds.
After finishing with photography of the Statue of Liberty a couple of weeks ago, I set up my view camera and walked around the perimeter of the island. I was looking, in particular, for views of 1 World Trade Center that might go in my upcoming book WTC. One of the peculiarities of being on Liberty Island is that you can’t get back far enough from the statue to really see it well, and getting it and the skyline of New York together isn’t possible. But I found several views toward the city quite compelling nevertheless.
Two of them were in and around the superintendent’s house on the back side of Liberty Island. Renovation work on the Statue of Liberty was actually complete last October, and the island opened for visitors. For one day. Hurricane Sandy hit New York on October 29th flooding Liberty Island, knocking out power to the statue, and damaging various infrastructure and support buildings, including the superintendent’s house. The cleanup took months, and the statue was just reopened on July 4th.
My understanding is that the house will be torn down — it is part of a small complex of buildings of little architectural or historic importance. I found the house just beyond the contractor’s trailers sitting abandoned and exposed to the elements. I did one picture in front looking toward Lower Manhattan, and another in the living room looking toward a picture window framing a view of the skyline, a ruined piano and couch in the foreground.
Reminders of the vulnerability of New York, natural or otherwise.
Two weeks ago, I photographed the Statue of Liberty on assignment. It was a two-day shoot focused on improvements made to visitor circulation inside the statue’s pedestal, and various other infrastructural upgrades that will be mostly invisible to the public. Liberty Island was a beehive of activity as construction workers sped to complete renovations in time for the July 4th reopening.
At the end of the second day of photography, I got out my view camera and made a number of images looking toward the city and 1 World Trade Center. By 4pm, most of the construction workers had left, and I had the island, more or less, to myself.
The sun, blazing most of the day, became partly obscured by clouds producing a more muted palette — something that suits me fine. Although I use a digital camera for architectural shoots, I still work with the big camera for my own work. Switching cameras was a relief. I slowed down, found a groove, and made several images that I think are potential keepers.
Inside the crown — © Any Warren
Temporarily took down my Statue of Liberty photos, but hope to have them up again soon. They look great, and I had a wonderful two days in and around the monument. Sorry for the interruption. Stay tuned.
Art school, protest, and how I got to Cooper Union
Before transferring to Cooper Union in 1977 I was attending MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art). It was an expensive private art school — tuition is now just over $39,000 per year. I remember the college president telling the incoming class in a welcoming speech what percentage of students would complete their degrees and go on to find careers in art. It was a discouragingly low number.
Previously, I had studied urban planning and architecture at the University of Virginia, and art school was difficult step for me. But my interest in photography had blossomed, and I saw myself becoming a fine art photographer down the road. At first, the diverse course offerings for obtaining a BFA were daunting — I hadn’t done any drawing or painting before — but I became increasingly appreciative of the interconnectedness of the different media, and as I became more confident in my abilities, I began to evaluate the students around me as well as the quality of the professors I was studying with.
It was a mixed bag. Many of the students seemed more enamored of the art lifestyle than the actual practice of art. And many of the professors, especially the entrenched tenured ones, seemed to be coasting as artists. There seemed a lack of ambitiousness all round. A large faculty art show in the college gallery confirmed my suspicions. The work was weak and directionless, and to me, it was insulting to those of us paying a ton of money to attend the school. So, a friend of mine and I engaged in a little guerrilla action, creating a flyer printed in black courier type that panned the faculty show and suggested that our tuition money was going to waste. We taped these flyers up everywhere on the campus — on walls, doors, in classrooms, restrooms, inside drawers and underneath desks. It caused quite a sensation.
I should say here, however, that some of my motivation was simply unearned hubris, and that some of my professors were excellent. Furthermore, not knowing what things are like at MICA in these days, this should not be construed as criticism of the present school. However, I was right about needing a more challenging environment, and as a result, began looking into exchange programs with other art schools. Above all, I wanted to explore color photography. It was 1976, and color was just becoming a viable medium outside of advertising and magazines, and seeing that Joel Meyerowitz, one of the pioneers of color photography was teaching at Cooper Union, I knew where I should go. I did my one semester exchange, hung around unofficially for another semester auditing classes, using my student ID good for a year, and eventually got in as a transfer student. The dean of the art school later told me they accepted four out of 450 applicants for transfer that year.
It had to be Cooper. My parents had pretty much given up on me and my educational wanderings, and had cut off my funding. Cooper, of course, was tuition free, making it possible for me to continue my dream even without parental support. A full telling of the story would describe in detail how life-changing the experience of attending Cooper was. How terrific the teachers were. How brilliant the students were. How it was understood without questioning that we were artists, and would go on to be artists in the real world, in New York City just outside the door, our campus and hometown. And that’s what happened for me. I was able to immediately begin an extended photography project upon graduation, and have been pursuing my dream for 30 years since.
Art School, protest, and (the end?) of Cooper Union
On Saturday I attended both Show Up, the annual end-of-year student show at Cooper Union, and Step Down, the renegade art show on the 7th floor of the Foundation Building just outside the office of Jamshed Bharucha, the college president. As those of you following the news already know, the president’s office has been occupied by students demanding that he and the chairman of the board of trustees resign. The sit-in was precipitated by the decision to begin charging tuition to close a budget gap brought on by financial mismanagement and the lack of imagination and leadership required to fix the problem. This alteration of Cooper’s central mission of providing free education to all, regardless of economic status, threatens to destroy the egalitarian meritocracy that has made this place a unique treasure.
Step Down is an openly polemical show full of anger and biting humor. The work was provided by students, alumni, and friends. I donated my book Time and Space on the Lower East Side with a letter to the students who are leading the effort to save Cooper Union. The letter explains that Time and Space would not have happened without Cooper, and that it reconnects, for me, the gap between the present and that time when I first arrived in New York City. The student protest at Cooper goes far beyond my modest flyer of 1976, but both actions, on different levels, are about the quality and the value of education.
The book is displayed on a table, and you can read my letter below. (Click on the letter for an easier to read view)
The art blog Hyperallergic wrote about Step Down:
…the exhibition Free Cooper Union put together, in only a week’s time, is probably one of the most significant and symbolic shows of the year. …this is an important exhibition, singular in capturing a raw provocation to authority. It’s an endeavor as worthwhile as it is rare.
As I was leaving the 7th floor, I pointed my camera out the window and made the photograph above across Cooper Square. Normally, when a university constructs a major new building it gets named for a prominent donor who helped make it possible. At Cooper the NAB, or New Academic Building, is a grand architectural statement bereft of a benefactor’s name. A large part of Cooper Union’s financial woes are connected to that fact. It was a complex real estate deal so they say, but, in a nutshell, the trustees chose to borrow the entire cost of construction, and now find they are unable to make the mortgage payments. As a result, they have shifted the debt to the students and abandoned the mission as expressed by Peter Cooper that education should be as “free as water and air.”
Now that my exhibition is down, and Time and Space on the Lower East Side is about 2/3 sold, it’s time to shift gears to my next book, another long-term project dealing with New York City. A couple of years ago it occurred to me, almost out of the blue, that I had in my archive enough photographs taken over the years for a book about the World Trade Center. This was not a premeditated project, but something that grew organically, one series of images at a time.
Most of the book is done. It’s just a matter of pulling it together with several images of 1WTC reaching its full height on the skyline, and possibly a few more thematic images that act as connective tissue. Awhile ago I did a walking tour through the St. George area of Staten Island and came across a mural of the Twin Towers and firefighters. I snapped a couple pictures with my pocket camera. On Saturday I went back with my view camera. As is so often the case, the whole situation seemed different–different light, different atmosphere, vehicles blocking some of the sight lines to the wall. But you never know about these things. I found other ways to photograph the same subject. I’ll post the results when the film gets developed.
My son Brendan plays baseball with his middle school team and little league. Fields are hard to come by in Manhattan, and those that are available are usually artificial turf, oddly shaped, and somewhat difficult to get to. This year, we’ve had to go up to Randall’s Island several times. It’s a mess to get to by public transportation. Situated in the East River adjacent to Harlem, it has historically been a place to hide things like psychiatric hospitals and sewage treatment plants. Recently it has become a recreational park with, track and field, tennis, soccer, and baseball facilities.
Randalls Island is crisscrossed by major transportation infrastructure, the Triboro Bridge, famously built by Robert Moses, and the Hell Gate bridge that carries Amtrak and freight trains into and out of the city. The massively built structure passes over the entire island and a bicycle and foot path runs beneath the arches. Here’s an aerial view made some years ago:
The Seagram Building (375 Park Avenue) — photo by Ezra Stoller
A few days ago the Times ran a story about Phyllis Lambert’s book Building Seagram, which tells the story of her role in the selection of Mies van der Rohe for the commission. The Seagram Building (now 375 Park Avenue) is regarded by many as New York’s finest skyscraper of the modern era. Lambert was the daughter of Samuel Bronfman, the head of Seagram, and her zeal for architecture and civic responsibility led her to take up the cause in New York and in her hometown of Montreal. It may sound unlikely, but there is a small connection to Time and Space on the Lower East Side in this story.
In the late 70s at Cooper Union, one of my professors was Richard Pare, who at the time was assembling a collection of architectural photographs for Seagram under the direction of Phyllis Lambert. Those photographs, acquired by Pare, from all over the world, would eventually comprise a unique part of the collection of the Canadian Center for Architecture, another Lambert initiative. Soon after graduating, I began the Lower East Side project with Edward Fausty. After a number of months of work — once we had gotten some momentum going — we contacted Pare and showed him our pictures.
I remember visiting Pare in the Seagram Building on Park Avenue in 1980 bringing a box of 11×14 prints. We eventually sold a dozen or so prints to Seagram, which helped fund the project at a critical time when our money was running low. I also remember meeting Lambert, and attending an event honoring Berenice Abbot, the great photographer of New York City. I’m not sure I appreciated her importance until then.
There were several key funding moments that made the Lower East Side project possible — a New York State CAPS grant (similar to today’s NYFA grants), an unexpected windfall of $10,000 left to me by a deceased relative, and the Seagram/Canadian Center for Architecture purchase. Without those three sources of money, it’s doubtful that the Lower East Side project would have been completed, and my career — such as it is — launched.
Thank you Phyllis Lambert — and Richard Pare.
OMA’s (Rem Koolhaas) public library in Seattle, a fixture of downtown, now almost ten years old. I had seen photographs, which were impressive, but having been disappointed by some of Koolhaas’s buildings in the past, I wanted to see this one in person. The exterior is a bit jarring–wedged tightly into a difficult sloping site–like the nearby city hall. But its origami-esque planes make it a strong, if impersonal, sculptural form, next to the comparatively fussy civic building by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. Inside, there are familiar Koolhaas concepts like the continuous ramp linking the different levels of book stacks, and the industrial metal egg crate railings and cheesy padded acoustic panels are materials he’s used elsewhere. What’s different, however, is the drama of the interior spaces–at times vertigo inducing–but tightly controlled and organized conceptually. What was great was to see this most challenging architectural environment full of people, using it comfortably, reading, lounging, working on computers. But Koolhaas’s buildings never sit cozily, nor play by the rules. Certainly not this one.
Here are some snapshots taken with my point-and-shoot.