Off to a good start in my Kickstarter campaign. Please help make this book a success. Here’s my video pitch made on the streets of the Meatpacking District:
Off to a good start in my Kickstarter campaign. Please help make this book a success. Here’s my video pitch made on the streets of the Meatpacking District:
Final Cover Design for Metamorphosis: Meatpacking District 1985 + 2013
In the winter of 1985 I spent several days wandering the streets of the Meatpacking District with my 4×5 view camera. It was different city then. Edgier, less peopled. While the Meatpacking District bustled in the early morning hours as the city’s primary meatmarket, it slumbered, almost abandoned, during the day.
I never printed my photographs of the Meatpacking District, and went on to other projects. But last year I retrieved the box of negatives from my archive and began scanning. I was stunned to rediscover these images, made with little artifice, unforced in their clarity. It was like looking at New York as a stage set while the actors were away taking a break.
In the summer and fall of last year I re-photographed the Meatpacking District repeating many of the earlier images and making a number of new ones. The result is a book that shows the profound transformation of the neighborhood from abottoir to the epicenter of fashion and art.
As I wrote earlier, my book about the Meatpacking District is well underway. Above is the cover featuring a photograph of Washington Street from 1985. It is, in many ways, a companion to Time and Space on the Lower East Side. Metamorphosis will be the same size with similar binding and layout, though we have pushed the graphic design a little bit more on this one.
Time and Space was a complex look at a large neighborhood with many interwoven visual and thematic threads. Metamorphosis is a tighter concept — 18 before/after views and 14 new images of this relatively compact neighborhood, all made with a 4×5 view camera. As before, I shot color film, and have scanned and color corrected the images in Photoshop.
The whole project (aside from the pictures made in 1985) was done in a very short time frame — less than six months — giving the book an immediacy that I think is rare. There is no way something like this could be done with most established publishers, who normally need long lead times and require much collaborative deliberation. Publishers often promote this aspect of book making, and I think overvalue their role in what often should be an artist/photographer’s unmediated statement. It depends, of course, on the circumstances, and many fine photo books have been made with only modest input from the photographer.
That’s not to say that this book was done without collaboration. I worked with Bill Diodato, photographer and publisher, and a small team of technical/design mavens. It has been a fruitful partnership.
As with Time and Space on the Lower East Side I will need to do a Kickstarter campaign to help cover the cost of printing. The economics of doing photo books like this are difficult. The barriers to success, from production to distribution, are high. But this will be my fifth book, and I have a good deal of experience at this point, and know how to make it all work.
Stay tuned for the next step.
There’s been lots of discussion about whether Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen brothers is an Oscar-worthy masterpiece or a dismal failure. Whatever the case, I’d like to briefly touch on the look of the film. The story takes place in 1961 Greenwich Village and the main character wanders the streets and cafes of the area, familiar terrain to those of us who were a part of the folk scene in New York. My participation came much later, the late ’70s and early ’80s, but even today, the look and feel of the place has changed very little.
A scene from Inside Llewyn Davis, East 2nd Street
To my eye, the neighborhood is a richly colorful landscape, in parts beautiful, in other parts tawdry. McDougal and Bleecker Streets where the folk scene was centered remains a tourist district with mediocre restaurants and cheap gift shops. But there’s also Porto Rico coffee, Caffe Dante, and Mamoun’s falafel, places that have survived decades. Even Ben’s Pizza is still there in all its fluorescent and formica glory. Caffe Dante was where I used to hang out with Suzanne Vega and Jack Hardy plotting to shake up the world with our songs. It’s still great for atmosphere, but the coffee at Third Rail a couple of blocks away is on a different level. But I digress.
People have criticized Inside Llewyn Davis for portraying the folk scene as a ghostly shadow of its true self. Suzanne Vega called the movie “brown and sad.” The movie, indeed, is visually muted and dark. The Coen’s obviously filtered the color giving it that old color look–like an Instagram filter.
But the past is only Instagrammed in our minds Or in prints and slides that have faded and color shifted over the years. When Dave Van Ronk–who the movie is sort of, but not really about–and Bob Dylan inhabited the neighborhood in the early ’60s the look of the place was undoubtedly as brightly hued as it is today. My guess is that the Coens and their art director were inspired in part by the iconic photograph on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan where he and Suzy Rotolo walked down the center of Jones Street on a snowy thinly lit day.
One can argue that the Coens wanted to remove their movie from the present and give it a dreamy long ago quality. But at this point, color filters are an overused device. Moody, slanting light streaming through windows, has also become a cliche supposedly evoking the past. Think of Spielberg’s Lincoln.
In my book Time and Space on the Lower East I tried to make the point that the past and present are not mutually exclusive realities. They are part of a continuum of experience. They are both here now in vivid color. And the sky on a sunny day is blue.
My Meatpacking book is now in production, and I’m working with the same publishing team as the last time led by Bill Diodato. It will have 50 images–about 40 of them before/afters (1985/2013) and the rest will be newly made images. The picture above is one of the new ones. Although the original set of photographs made in 1985 were not an attempt at comprehensively describing the neighborhood, they did in fact hit many of the key spots. The High Line, in its two incarnations as the abandoned rail viaduct and high concept park/promenade, will be a strong presence in the series.
The working title is:
Meatpacking District 1985/2013
I am hoping for external funding for the book, and hope to have some idea of that soon. I raised money on Kickstarter for Time and Space on the Lower East Side, and I may have to do it again for this book. Aside from the money, Kickstarter is a good way to generate interest for a project and build momentum. But doing it is a lot of work, and I’d be happy to avoid it this go round.
I’ve been hard at work on my Meatpacking before/after series. Most of the direct then and now pictures are done, and I am continuing to do new views of the area as they present themselves. Many of the 1985 pictures were taken on bleak winter days with minimal sunlight. Lately, I’ve been stuck with crisp and pristine fall days, which sometimes work in my favor, sometimes not.
One shot I’ve been trying to replicate was taken on 10th Avenue where the High Line runs along the street and takes a jog to the west where it then runs mid-block. The original photo shows a rundown tenement with an impressively decrepit “liquors” sign. It was taken in open shade with weak sunlight coming up 10th Avenue from the south.
Today, the basic infrastructure of the scene remains unchanged. The tenement remains, the High Line still hovers above the street, and the immense warehouse building looms behind. But everything else about the former situation has been altered. The unbroken brick facade of the warehouse has been punched with windows to accommodate offices, the tenement is no longer decorated with signage, and a boutique occupies the ground floor storefront. The High Line is, of course, no longer an abandoned rail viaduct, and at this spot, where it crosses 10th Avenue, a window cut into the steel overlooks the street. People are everywhere where few once ventured.
The weather finally worked for me at this location with the sun straining through light clouds. The liquor sign no longer dictated a vertical composition, so I took a wider view showing people peering through the window on 10th Avenue.
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.
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.”
The ghost of Peter Cooper — © Brian Rose
Cooper Union students have taken over President Jamshed Bharucha’s office in the Foundation Building on Cooper Square. They are demanding his resignation in response to the decision made by the board of trustees to begin charging tuition at one of America’s last free colleges.
The president and the board of trustees have failed in their stewardship of this magnificent institution. May the ghost of Peter Cooper forever haunt their dreams.
Sign the no confidence letter here.
New York Times article from this morning.
A few months ago I posted some of my photographs of the Meatpacking District taken in 1985. At that time, the area was desolate by day–the city seemingly abandoned. People have been clamoring for me to do before/afters of the images, and I have more or less decided to go ahead with it, even though it was an approach I largely eschewed when doing Time and Space on the Lower East Side. The changes in that neighborhood were much more complex and deserved a more nuanced investigation. But here in “MePa” the transformation of the streetscape is so gobsmacking that it just seems a necessary thing to do. So, the plan is to repeat about dozen of the images made in ’85, and do various other contemporaneous views as they strike my fancy.
Yesterday, I was on 14th Street with my point-and-shoot camera and made the picture above. Soon, I’ll get out there with my view camera.
As a proud alumnus of Cooper Union, I write the following post with the heaviest of heart.
The quotes below come from the New York Times March 9, 1904, in a tribute to Peter Cooper, during which Andrew Carnegie and others expounded on the responsibility that comes with great wealth. The director of Cooper Union, Charles Sprague Smith, spoke as well honoring the gift of $300,000 by Carnegie that made Cooper debut free “from basement to roof.” He went on to honor Abram Hewitt, son-in-law of Peter Cooper, former mayor, and father of New York’s subway system: “I know that the supreme desire of his life was that Cooper Union should be free. Every part of it is now free in every sense.”
It is no longer.
The values espoused eloquently in 1904 — albeit in self-congratulation — have now been repudiated by the decision of the board of trustees of Cooper Union to charge tuition beginning in 2014. Those who have guided this institution in recent years have failed in their trusteeship of this treasure of New York and the nation.
As I wrote in an earlier post, Cooper Union is too small, too specialized, to survive in direct competition with larger better-funded institutions. The fact that it was a full scholarship — free — college put it in a class by itself. It brought the best students and professors together in an egalitarian community unlike any other in the world.
That unique community of intellect and creativity has been sacrificed. Unless another Andrew Carnegie comes to the rescue quickly, or some other scheme is devised to return the school to its former mission, Cooper Union, in its now comprised state, will not likely survive.
West Street (West Side Highway) and West 10th Street, Greenwich Village — © Brian Rose
Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn — © Brian Rose
Two random photographs walking around town. A few thoughts about movies and photographs.
There are three movies up for Best Picture in the Academy Awards this weekend that have created a swirl of controversy about truth and the telling of stories based on real events. Lincoln by Steven Spielberg will likely walk away with a ton of awards, especially for the masterful performances of Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones. For me, I was most impressed with the staging, the pre-electric gloom of the interiors, and the overall fidelity to detail in costuming and decor. The movie felt authentic.
Throughout the first 2/3 of the movie I was enthralled and believed that Spielberg had finally reined in the populist pandering that infects pretty much everything he touches. But the final scenes leading to the passing of the 13th amendment featuring buffoonish characters cajoling votes out of fencing sitting congressmen, the comically raucous debate in the House of Representatives, and the overtly telegraphed dramatization of the final vote left me deflated, though I still clung to the earlier positive glow. Since seeing the movie, I found out why these last scenes, the voting segment in particular, rang false. The depiction of this well-documented event was manipulated for dramatic purposes.
And then there’s the kerfuffle over “Lincoln,” which had three historical advisers but still managed to make some historical bloopers. Joe Courtney, a Democratic congressman from Connecticut, recently wrote to Steven Spielberg to complain that “Lincoln” falsely showed two of Connecticut’s House members voting “Nay” against the 13th Amendment for the abolition of slavery.
“They were trying to be meticulously accurate even down to recording the ticking of Abraham Lincoln’s actual pocket watch,” Courtney told me. “So why get a climactic scene so off base?”
The screenwriter Tony Kushner defends the changes this way:
…it is completely acceptable to “manipulate a small detail in the service of a greater historical truth. History doesn’t always organize itself according to the rules of drama. It’s ridiculous. It’s like saying that Lincoln didn’t have green socks, he had blue socks.”
The problem is, this easy willingness to distort the facts betrays the thinking that went into the whole enterprise. Small details matter. Maybe not the socks, but the actual votes of congressmen, yes. As Mies van der Rohe, the creator of sublime modernist buildings once noted, “The devil is in the details.”
The other two movies in the discussion are Zero Dark Thirty, which tells the story of the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, and Argo, the story of the escape of six American diplomats from revolutionary Iran in 1980. Both movies make the pretense of portraying actual events exactly as shown on the screen. In Zero Dark Thirty CIA agents use torture to obtain critical information–it did not happen–and the diplomats in Argo make a wild skin-of-the-teeth getaway in the Tehran airport–it did not happen.
The argument in all three cases is that artistic license allows for embellishment, dramatic manipulation, and even making things out of whole cloth. As Manholo Dargis and A. O. Scott write at the conclusion of their tortured article in the Times:
Given some of the stories that politicians themselves have peddled to the public, including the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, such concern is understandable. It can often seem as if everyone is making stuff up all the time and in such a climate of suspicion and well-earned skepticism — punctuated by “gotcha” moments of scandal and embarrassment — movies are hardly immune.
But invention remains one of the prerogatives of art and it is, after all, the job of writers, directors and actors to invent counterfeit realities. It is unfair to blame filmmakers if we sometimes confuse the real world with its representations. The truth is that we love movies partly because of their lies, beautiful and not. It’s journalists and politicians who owe us the truth.
Sorry guys, but this is not how everyone operates as an artist. What I do as a photographer, for instance, is not a “counterfeit reality.” It may not be reality itself–certainly not–but it is a reflection of reality, one that I take great care in preserving even as I make the critical decisions about where to stand, what to show or not, or how to sequence images. The fact that politicians are routinely lying about things like WMD, that teachers are claiming that creationism shares the same legitimacy as science, that right wingers pretend that President Obama is a Kenyan, that paranoid leftists blame the World Trade Center destruction on a U.S. government conspiracy, is exactly the point. We are a society playing fast and loose with the facts, and artists are as culpable as anyone else.
There are lines that need to be drawn and redrawn, despite constantly shifting ground. It is one thing to interpret historic events, to fill in the blanks between things that are known, to speculate on what might have happened when the facts are sketchy. It is another to willfully ignore the tangible, the provable, to fail to see the infrastructure of history and respect the body of knowledge that supports society. It was said that the Bush administration “fixed the facts around the policy” with regard to the war in Iraq. Artists do the same all the time without, of course, the life or death ramifications. Spielberg and Kushner had a climactic scene to their movie, the vote on the 13th amendment. They determined what dramatic sequence of events worked best “artistically,” and then fixed the facts around the policy.
I know it’s just movies, but I take this stuff seriously.
Frank Christian, Somebody’s got to do it — cover photo © Brian Rose
Frank Christian, songwriter and guitarist died on December 24, 2012. One of the mainstays of the Greenwich Village folk scene, Frank was the epitome of cool sophistication and wit. I made this photograph for his first album back in the 1980s. The back cover shows him in his apartment in the Village, and I’ll get that up once I have a chance to scan it.
With Jack Hardy and Frank gone, two of the leading figures of the music scene I was immersed in have left us much too young. Frank was 60. He will be sorely missed by all of us.