Random images from the past few days.
I heard recently from a friend looking for a photograph I had taken years ago during a recording session with Suzanne Vega. So, I dug back into my archive, found the film, and began scanning the negatives. I remember that it was difficult lighting, and I didn’t want to use flash in the studio. So, it’s grainy film pushed in processing to get a little more speed out of it.
It was the end of 1989, and she was working on her third album, which would be called “Days of Open Hand.” One of the songs, “50/50 Chance,” included a string arrangement by Philip Glass. Present in the studio were Glass, Vega, producer Anton Sanko, and a string quartet.
Stephen Holden of the New York Times later wrote:
This song about an attempted suicide, a pop-minimalist answer to a Sylvia Plath poem, has a simple, lovely string arrangement by Philip Glass that underscores the sparseness of Ms. Vega’s language. It also sets off the emotional flatness of her vibratoless singing, which maintains a deadpan objectivity even in the words ”I love you.”
At one point I handed the camera to Suzanne, and she took the photo above. Here is the finished song from the album:
My son and I are in Atlanta for a baseball tournament. Many of the best travel teams for 16 and under have gathered here for what is billed as the national championship. We’ve done okay, but will definitely not be winning the tournament.
I’ve never been to Atlanta before, though I have family roots in the area (see my recent post about the Confederate Flag). As a New Yorker, it is difficult to comprehend cities like this that are so dependent on the car for just about everything. The traffic is daunting, the summer heat punishing, but people are friendly, and as one gets around and sees things, it becomes a more comprehensible, even livable place.
Here are two aspects of Atlanta — anecdotal — but representative of the extreme contrasts evident throughout.
Buckhead, Atlanta — © Brian Rose
In many ways it’s a forbidding place, Co-op City behind Harry Truman high school in the Bronx. Tall housing blocks sprouting from nondescript parkland. The school is an architectural horror from the 1960s, and the housing towers are not much better. Co-op City may be home to tens of thousands, but to me it all feels cold and dehumanizing.
Nevertheless, as my son’s baseball game came to a close, a freshening breeze swept away the day’s clammy humidity, the sun broke through, and this place — so desolated much of the time — took on a certain presence — call it beauty, perhaps — in the fading sunlight as coaches and players drifted off the field.
It is zero hour at Cooper Union.
Peter Cooper’s mission discarded:
Just two years ago, chairman of the board of trustees, Mark Epstein, announced that Cooper would cease being tuition free — for the first time in the school’s 156 year history — and Jamshed Bharucha, the recently installed president, was tasked with the “reinvention” of the school. The financial crisis that led to the imposition of tuition was caused by mismanagement, incompetency, and possible criminality, on the part of the board and the administration. The construction of the New Academic Building, among many other miscalculations, saddled the school with staggering debt. When questioned about the financial condition of the school, chairman of the board Epstein, showing stunningly poor leadership, blamed the alumni for not giving enough.
Students occupied the president’s office for weeks, only leaving when it was agreed that a working group would examine the school’s finances and propose a way to avoid tuition. The working group proposed a budget that called for sacrifice from everyone, and included greatly reducing Cooper’s bloated administrative costs. That proposal was rejected by the board of trustees, who seemingly did not understand the ramifications of their decision.
The Cooper Union community, students, faculty, alumni, and others, remained steadfastly opposed to the reinvention of the school, which, aside from tuition, involved creating new revenue generating programs. A carefully researched lawsuit, enumerating past abuses, and accusing the board of violating the charter of the school, was brought to trial with a decision from the judge still pending. The alumni association was marginalized by President Bharucha, kicked out of its office on campus, denied access to its electronic mailing list, and for a time, not permitted to meet on campus.
The imposition of tuition immediately affected the school’s ability to attract the quality of students who had applied in the past. Admissions numbers plummeted. Prospective students began choosing other colleges over Cooper, some offering better financial incentives, and many offering far better amenities — factors that were not part of the equation before.
The administration and board lurched from one bad decision to another, at one point hiring the firm of Bo Dietl, a right wing blowhard, to take over the security of the campus, which included body guards for the increasingly paranoid president. Recently, the administration announced that it would begin charging for academic credits above a certain threshold — essentially a stealth increase in tuition. Confronted with protest, they withdrew the plan.
The Attorney General steps in:
Due to the lawsuit and the continued pressure put on by the Cooper community, the New York State Attorney General Eric Scheiderman began an investigation of Cooper Union, now teetering perilously on the brink. Members of the board of trustees began leaking misinformation to the press — most prominently, Daniel Libeskind and Francois de Menil — and the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal, in the process, further lowered its journalistic standards. In recent days, President Bharucha and his chief academic officer, Teresa Dahlberg have vanished from campus, and we now wait breathlessly for the next shoe to drop.
What is at stake:
Thomas Jefferson wrote the epitaph for his gravestone with several brief phrases:
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia
Jefferson regarded the creation of his university one of his greatest achievements. It was, as he called it, an “academical village,” a place set apart where students and teachers would come together in the free pursuit of knowledge. Peter Cooper, a self-made inventor and entrepreneur, founded Cooper Union as his legacy, the gift of free education to the working class, the men and women who, in many cases, lived in the teaming slum neighborhood adjacent to the Foundation Building on the Bowery and the square now named after him. Unlike Jefferson’s rural village in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Cooper’s institute was set in the heart of urban New York City.
Over the years, as the United States prospered and New York became one of the great cities of the world, Cooper Union became a more rarefied place, a free school open to all, but accepting only the highest qualified. Over the years, it has produced a notable share of the outstanding designers, builders, engineers, and artists in the city’s history.
The value of free:
Kevin Slavin, Cooper alumnus and MIT professor, has written eloquently about what free means in an educational context, a concept that those of us who attended Cooper Union understand intimately. Slavin writes:
“We went not because of the financial value of free — that is, zero tuition — but rather, because of the academic value of free. Free for everyone meant that the students who were there were beholden to nothing (nothing!) except their passion, talent, hard work, and brilliance. This unique, very particular sensibility — that, more than any other thing they could build, hire or install — this was the experience of the institution.”
Rebecca Mead writes in the New Yorker about Cooper “that It also grants a student the freedom to go in whatever direction her or his intellectual inclinations lead, without regard to the ultimate economic utility of the course of study. That learning should not necessarily be linked to future earning power is an ideal increasingly under siege in institutions of higher learning. Simply by embodying and demonstrating an alternative paradigm, Cooper Union benefitted even those who were not members of its student body.”
The end or a new beginning
Cooper Union’s future now hangs in the balance. The school’s current financial condition is grave and some doubt that it can survive as a tuition free institution, even were it to regroup and follow the working group’s plan. But it’s clear to me that it cannot survive with tuition. Cooper Union has no meaning, no purpose, beyond Peter Cooper’s vision of a school ” free as air and water.” It cannot compete with the juggernauts of American education, the Ivies, the well-endowed technical schools and art schools. Cooper’s survival depends on remaining what it was, free.
I am convinced, as of this writing, that an intervention by the Attorney General is the only way the school can be saved. It will require a reorganization of the school, a reaffirmation of the charter and founding ideals, and it will require some kind of grand bargain that will relieve the financial burden of debt that years of mismanagement have wrought. If that grand bargain cannot be reached — in this moment of New York City financial ascendency — I fear that Peter Cooper’s great educational gift will be squandered and his legacy forever dishonored.
I will be doing a slide talk at the New York Public Library Mid-Manhattan branch on Tuesday, February 17 at 6:30pm. I’ve done two programs there before — one on my Lower East Side photos, and one on my World Trade Center pictures. It’s free, and everyone is invited. Hope to see you there.
Metamorphosis: Meatpacking District 1980 + 2013
with Brian Rose, Photographer
Tuesday, February 17, 2015, 6:30 p.m.
455 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY, 10016
A recent 4×5 film photograph of the Meatpacking District with the High Line and new retail space below. The previous techie gas station, which was also tucked under the rail viaduct, was great, but unfortunately, I do not have a photo for comparison. I think this is supposed to be “moderne.” But who knows.
The Atlantic’s CityLab, a web journal about urban issues. An article about Metamorphosis, Meatpacking District 1985 + 2013, and an interview. This is one is definitely worth clicking through to.
From the interview:
Manhattan is now about the nexus of money, technology, and the arts. In the old days, you could come here without a firm agenda—a dream was enough. Now you need a business plan.
Another article and interview. This one a British design and culture web magazine.
Interview in Cool Hunting. Takeaway quote:
But in 1985 you could stand alone in the middle of Washington Street surrounded by this all encompassing decrepitude, almost post-apocalyptic in its emptiness, and you’d find yourself saying, “This is fantastic. This is unreal.” There was a kind of perfection in that moment. But at the same time, you knew that it was a lie. That people were dying of AIDS, people were strung out on drugs, and buildings were crumbling.
A lengthy interview in American Photo. Kind of rambling all over the place, but maybe in an interesting way in that I occasionally veer off from my usual talking points. I describe waiting for something to happen on the street while doing the “after” view of Washington Street and West 13th.
You go back here and you stand in the same spot and you think—okay, this looks kind of antiseptic compared to the way it did before. I would just camp out for 15-30 minutes and just kind of watch the flow of what is going on. When you are standing there for a period of time, there is constant flow of people, so the sense is that it’s busy. When you do a little slice of time it can actually seem empty. You only have one half a second and you just catch a few people. A lot of times you have to wait for things to happen to activate the frame a little bit. This is another one — I was there for 15-20 minutes and wasn’t too excited about what I was getting and the suddenly this car comes screeching around the corner with these guys in sunglasses and this vintage top down convertible and it just screamed at me: “This is who we are now. This is what we do now.”
But the best takeaway from the interview, perhaps, is this:
I think the sense that people have of then and now is too easy a way of trying to understand places…. You start to understand that there is some other kind of space between then and now. There is another kind of landscape that is out of time that I’m looking for. I’m looking forward and backward at the same time. I’m not a sentimental kind of photographer. I don’t really go for that kind of thing. I wanted to stay away from doing a nostalgia book. I wanted it to be a book about now and where we have come from.
Bob Hill from his blog I Fear Brooklyn:
Brian Rose has done the same for the Lower West Side with Metamorphosis that he and Edward Fausty previously did for the Lower East via Time & Space. Both exhibits ooze sweet melancholia, reminiscent of a scene from Season One of Mad Men during which department store heiress Rachel Menken explains: “Utopia – the Greeks had two meanings for it: eu-topos, meaning ‘the good place,’ and ou-topos, meaning ‘the place that cannot be.’” Time and again, Brian Rose has done an exemplary job of negotiating a 30-year difference between the two.
Metamorphosis is now available on my website, and I will be getting the book into stores soon. Most of the Kickstarter books have been sent out. The exhibition at Dillon Gallery runs through August 15.