Closed due to (attempted) coup d’état.
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.
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.
East 3rd Street — © Brian Rose
Inauguration day (and Martin Luther King day) 2013. Just a scary reminder of what could have been had things turned out differently four years ago. The poster above, of course, is Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin, the former vice presidential candidate, now sliding, it would seem, into general dissipation in the mid-winter gloom of Alaska.
I posted a similar picture last year taken with my digital camera. This is a scan of a 4×5 negative.
No to SOPA! Protect artists’ rights, not corporate interests.
While reading the New Yorker I came across a quote attributed to late choreographer Merce Cunningham. From Joan Acocela’s article:
…stories or even themes put the spectator in the position of someone standing on a street corner waiting for a friend who is late: you can’t see the cars or the buildings or the sky , he said, because “everything and everyone is not the person you await.”
Likewise with photographs. If you latch too much onto familiar visual narratives, other meanings, other connections, will not be made. This is true both for the image maker and the viewer.
With that caution in mind, here are six recent images of the Bowery made with the 4×5 view camera. I did them in conjunction with a class I was teaching at ICP, and as part of my ongoing project to photograph the Bowery. The block above includes the New Museum on the left, the Bowery Mission and the Salvation Army building, the tall one in the middle. The latter are vestiges of the Bowery’s skid row past, though they and a couple other organizations still provide services for a more scattered homeless/street population. The gentrification of the Bowery, however, is proceeding rapidly.
Some of the roll-down window gates were recently decorated by artists. This one is by the notable graffiti artist Kenny Scharf.
The townhouse at left is from 1817 and is one of the few protected landmark buildings in New York to have its status rescinded. The owner wants to demolish and construct an office building. From the Villager:
(City Councilwoman) Chin noted that she has supported many landmark designations on the Bowery. “But in this instance, I have to look at the bigger picture and find a balance. There is an opportunity to help the community recover from [the World Trade Center attack], which it hasn’t done. I just hope that the advocates will see my point of view on this and that we will have the opportunity to continue to work to preserve the historic character of the Bowery. But on this building we will have to differ.” Chin said.
The reality, of course, is that the Bowery and lower Manhattan is a boomtown.
It is true that the Bowery exhibits a ragtag collection of buildings from many different time periods. It does not present a unified urban landscape in the way that historic rows of townhouses dominate parts of Greenwich Village, or blocks of cast iron loft buildings define the streets of Soho. Nevertheless, there is much architecture worth saving, though sometimes one might have to peel away some of the layers to get to it.
Another similar sized townhouse from 1785–the Edward Mooney house–a well-maintained landmark containing a Chinatown bank.
It is with great sadness that I note the passing of Vaclav Havel, playwright, political dissident, and former president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. When I traveled the Iron Curtain in 1985 and 1987, Havel and others who resisted the communist/Soviet hegemony of eastern Europe, was always in my thoughts. I skirted the Cold War border from the relative luxury of my rental car while Havel languished in prison or house arrest smuggling out statements and manifestos.
One such fundamental experience, that which I called “antipolitical politics,” is possible and can be effective, even though by its very nature it cannot calculate its effect beforehand. That effect, to be sure, is of a wholly different nature from what the West considers political success. It is hidden, indirect, long-term, and hard to measure; often it exists only in the invisible realm of social consciousness, conscience, and subconsciousness, and it can be almost impossible to determine what value it assumed therein and to what extent, if any, it contributes to shaping social development. It is, however, becoming evident-and I think that is an experience of an essential and universal importance-that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters.
It is becoming evident that even in today’s world, and especially on this exposed rampart where the wind blows most sharply, it is possible to oppose personal experience and the natural world to the “innocent” power and to unmask its guilt, as the author of The Gulag Archipelago has done. It is becoming evident that truth and morality can provide a new starting point for politics and can, even today, have an undeniable political power. The warning voice of a single brave scientist, besieged somewhere in the provinces and terrorized by a goaded community, can be heard over continents and addresses the conscience of the mighty of this world more clearly than entire brigades of hired propagandists can, though speaking to themselves. It is becoming evident that wholly personal categories like good and evil still have their unambiguous content and, under certain circumstances, are capable of shaking the seemingly unshakable power with all its army of soldiers, policemen, and bureaucrats. It is becoming evident that politics by no means need remain the affair of professionals and that one simple electrician with his heart in the right place, honoring something that transcends him and free of fear, can influence the history of his nation.
Yes, “antipolitical politics” is possible. Politics “from below:’ Politics of man, not of the apparatus. Politics growing from the heart, not from a thesis. It is not an accident that this hopeful experience has to be lived just here, on this grim battlement. Under the “rule of everydayness” we have to descend to the very bottom of a well before we can see the stars.
— Vaclav Havel
Some years later I found myself in Prague. It was 1990, one year after the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was meeting up with Suzanne Vega who was playing there and in East Berlin–incandescent performances both of them, fed by the still uncontaminated spirit of liberation in the air. I wrote here about them in my journal. I remember walking from the train station to the central square of Prague behind a group of teenagers singing the dut dut duts from Suzanne’s song Tom’s Diner. Again, years later, I met up with Suzanne in Olomouc in what was now the Czech Republic as she performed Tom’s Diner for Vaclav Havel over a video linkup. Havel was a fan, as he was of the old Velvet Underground and Lou Reed.
Here is, perhaps, the finest tribute to Havel on the 20th years of the Velvet Revolution in Prague on 17 November 2009:
I went downtown yesterday to add more photographs to my ongoing WTC series. I took the 4×5 view camera, which now requires carrying individual holders for the film instead of the pre-packaged paper envelopes that I used for about 15 years. Both Fujifilm and Kodak have dropped those from the lineup, now that digital is pre-eminent, and Fuji has stopped making 4×5 film across the board.
I took the subway to Wall Street and walked a block or two up to Zuccotti Park, the primary location of Occupy Wall Street, the protest movement that has spawned similar actions in other cities across the country. I went with the intention of including the demonstration in some of my photographs, but not to attempt to document it per se. After all, the place is crawling with photojournalists and the media in general. My approach, as usual, is more of a meta-documentation of events as they intersect with my main task, photographing around ground zero and the rising towers, particularly 1 WTC. More than once, other photographers looked at my equipment and referred to me as “a real photographer.”
From across Broadway I could readily see the police presence on the periphery of Zuccotti Park–various barriers and cones directed traffic on the street–which continued to flow unimpeded. Every few moments a double decker red tour bus would pass by the park and tourists’ heads would swivel in the direction of the demonstration. I set up my camera on Broadway and did a photograph looking toward the park with a brilliantly red Mark DiSuvero sculpture towering over it. The new glass buildings in the background reflected sky and each other creating a confusing constructivist composition. Red construction hoists slid up and down 4 WTC as if intended to complement the color scheme.
I only did three or four photographs in and around the park, but I was there about two hours, setting up the camera, and then waiting for things to happen. I talked to a number of people, some active participants, some tourists, others just passing through, but curious to see what was going on. As expected there are plenty of “professional activists,” the people who come to any and every march or protest aimed at established power. So, the casual observer might assume that the crowd is dominated by Marxist anti-U.S. fringe groups.
If this were actually the case, however, this demonstration would have been long over. It’s hard to get a handle on the composition of the crowd, but clearly, it is more diverse than usual for these kinds of things. At one point while I was there a contingent of union hard hats from the WTC construction site paraded through the park carrying an American flag. Another group of perhaps 20 marchers–young people, white and black–circled the park chanting “Stop, stop and frisk!” while almost the same number of NYPD blue shirts strolled along behind pied piper style. This was obviously an adjunct protest to the main Wall Street occupation demonstration. I talked briefly with a construction worker, a British tourist who was concerned about the economic future of Europe, and a person who had come specifically to see for himself what was going on. It’s the interest from outside the core group of demonstrators that seems to give this rolling event momentum and importance.
I set my camera in the northwest quadrant of the park facing Liberty and Trinity Place with demonstrators and the curious in the foreground, and the sky filled with glass skyscrapers in the background. It was particularly satisfying to put my tripod down right at this spot where I had been accosted by security guards a few years ago who informed me that Zucotti Park–while open to the public 24 hours a day– was, in fact, a private park, and tripods were not allowed. The park–really a paved public square–is the product of one of these zoning deals New York City is so fond of. Developers get more height or floor area in exchange for creating a public amenity, often of dubious merit. In this case, the park is definitely a welcome amenity among the forest of skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, and the city sees it as a win-win, since they do not have to take care of it–Brookfield, the owner, maintains the space. So, we have a public square which must be open to everyone round the clock, in which tripods are not usually allowed, now occupied by 500 demonstrators and their NYPD chaperones. The irony of it all is delicious.
Speaking of ironies. The crowd in Zuccotti Park is comprised largely of local New Yorkers, many of whom are undoubtedly Jewish as evidenced by a portable Sukkah to honor the current holiday set up among various other tents and tarps. The right wing talking point that Occupy Wall Street is anti-semitic is laughable. The reason they link a Wall Street protest to Jews is because they are under the mistaken notion that the nation’s banks are run by Jews, which is demonstrably untrue–Goldman Sachs not withstanding.
From Zucotti Park I walked a short distance down Cedar Street and came to Greenwich with its sweeping view of the construction of the WTC. Dozens of visitors were lined up to enter the 9/11 memorial–which requires obtaining a ticket. I had a long chat with a police officer, a young Asian cop assigned to the WTC who was interested in my project. I did a few photos here before finishing for the day. One World Trade Center is now at least 2/3 of the way up.
In the grip of a debt crisis brought on by Tea Party economic terrorism, New York appears placid at the start of the weekend–on the surface. One imagines the agitated garden party conversations out in the Hamptons among the captains of finance. How did the good faith and credit of the United States come to be held hostage by an ignorant rabble? The mind boggles. We all await Monday and the morning bell.
The President was in New York last week in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden. He lunched with firemen from a company that lost men on 9/11 and greeted families of others who died at ground zero. I went downtown on Friday, a couple of days after Obama’s visit, to see how things were going. One World Trade Center appears now to be sixty or more stories high, and the above ground part of the 9/11 memorial and museum is being rushed to completion. Just a few months ago it was a steel skeleton–now it is mostly enclosed. I made several photographs with the view camera in the area just south of Liberty Street near the Fireman’s Memorial. I also snapped a few shots with my digital camera.
Tourists jammed the sidewalk near the Fireman’s Memorial, and possibly because of Obama’s recent visit, there were lots of flowers and pictures placed along the wall of the memorial. There were no such items the last few times I’d been there. A tour guide led a large group of out-of-towers by the memorial and I heard her refer to those “murdered” on 9/11. There was a thinly veiled anger conveyed by the use of the word murder. Yes, it’s true that those killed when the planes were crashed into the towers were, technically speaking, murdered in an act of violence. As are any victims of terrorism worldwide. And what about the innocent victims of unjustified wars? I’m not interested in a moral equivalency argument here. It’s clear enough what happened on 9/11. I just think it is better to tone down the rhetoric.
On the subway heading back uptown, I saw a construction worker from the World Trade Center site. His hardhat was decorated with stickers, one for the 9/11 memorial and an another with a flag and the Twin Towers.
Osama bin Laden killed in Pakistan. Nine years and seven months after 9/11.
Although I share a degree of the elation demonstrated by the crowds that gathered near the White House and at Times Square last night, I’ve lived long enough to know that these moments are all too fleeting. I remember well when the Berlin Wall opened–I was there a few weeks afterwards to photograph its rapid destruction. And I remember the feeling that the world had changed forever, that freedom had won out over authoritarianism. That the long shadow of World War II had finally been lifted off of central Europe.
Twelve years later, Osama bin Laden and his terrorist hit men flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and another shadow descended. September 11th, and our reaction to it, led to an unjustified war in Iraq, torture, and the weakening of our economy–call it Bin Laden’s decade-long victory. Feel free to argue otherwise, but I do not think history will support it. Bin Laden’s death does not end that saga, but it offers, at least symbolically, the possibility that we can move forward again, after falling back.
Undoubtedly, those who were directly touched by 9/11 will feel that justice has been served, though I doubt that closure is an appropriate word to describe their (our) ongoing loss. I think, especially, of my friend Jack Hardy, the songwriter, whose brother was killed in one of the towers. Jack died in March of cancer. Were he here today, I do not think he would find much solace in bin Laden’s demise.
For me, it is a moment of mixed emotions. I have spent a good deal of my life as a photographer focused, by design or by accident, on these two watershed events, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the destruction of the World Trade Center. They are two of the most important events of our time. I have books on these subjects, whole bodies of work. With today’s news I have this rare sense of being momentarily at the center of things, that my work connects to the flow of history. And yet, just as quickly, I feel history rushing forward and slipping from my grasp.
We are awash in gun imagery from Sarah Palin’s congressional crosshairs to the latest Hollywood movie Mechanic. The slogan along the top reads:
Someone has to fix the problems.
While I was talking this photograph an MTA employee walked by and in a stern voice said “You can’t take pictures down here!” I said, “Yes I can.” He just continued walking, but had he stopped I would have been happy to point him to:
Restricted areas and activities.
3. Photography, filming or video recording in any facility or conveyance is permitted except that ancillary equipment such as lights, reflectors or tripods may not be used. Members of the press holding valid identification issued by the New York City Police Department are hereby authorized to use necessary ancillary equipment. All photographic activity must be conducted in accordance with the provisions of this Part.
This is my America, from my heart, and by my heart. I give it now to my children and grandchildren, and to yours, so they will always know what it was like in America when people were free.
–Sarah Palin (from the introduction to her forthcoming book America By Heart)
Delusional and dangerous.
The liberal marxist San Franciso Giants beat the right wing brownshirt Texas Rangers last night in the World Series. Such is the state of our politics on this election day. Somehow, I think we are all going to come out of this election as losers.
The first thing that has to be done is secure the border. . . East Germany was very, very able to reduce the flow. Now, obviously, other things were involved. We have the capacity to, as a great nation, secure the border. If East Germany could, we could.
— Joe Miller, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Alaska
Just in case anyone is confused. The Iron Curtain split towns, divided families, and crushed lives. It was the nuclear trip wire between east and west, the real and symbolic expression of the authoritarian ideology of the Soviet Union and its proxy states. It was designed not to keep people out, but to keep people in.