The more I’ve thought about the Dutch Seen exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that the city–the ostensible subject of the exhibit–is largely invisible. Yes, sure, there’s some street photography, some interiors of restaurants, and lots of multi-ethnic faces. But these are not the images that make the strongest impression.
Walking into the exhibition one is confronted first by Hendrik Kerstens’ stunning portraits of his daughter Paula, each a 3/4 view, mimicking 17th century portraits by Vermeer and Rembrandt and others of the Dutch Golden Age. Paula, is presented as a New Yorker, wearing various bits of costume–a plastic bag, a napkin, a Yankee cap, beaver fur. The various headgear are at once immediately recognizable for what they are, but unmistakably evocative of the hats seen in period paintings.
Like the original women of Golden Age paintings, Paula is depicted as both idealized and specific, self-assured and intelligent–lost in thought, a mysterious cipher. In these photographs we are taken back to the early days of Dutch settlement in New Amsterdam, when to a significant extent, the character of the city was formed. That’s the premise of Russell Shorto’s book Island at the Center of the World. Shorto also contributes a short elegantly written introduction to the exhibition catalogue.
Paula is a grand conceit, richly ironic and humorous. She is a Dutch cosmopolitan in a savage landscape, glimpsed obliquely just beyond in the next gallery in the photographs of Misha de Ridder. De Ridder searched for vestiges of the world Henry Hudson found when he sailed into New York harbor. He photographed thick tangles of forest undergrowth, a fallen tree trunk, a sweep of beach at Sandy Hook.
In his beach scene, a wave crashes on shore as a shaft of sunlight breaks through a dark sky, caught momentarily in the salt spray, shimmering, iridescent. It is an expression of the chaotic wildness that confronted the Dutch when they arrived, which they sought to tame and exploit, as the Dutch tend to do even today. It is also the one moment of pure serendipity in the show–a miraculous discovery, if you will–the kind of thing photography has always been about.
There is much more substantial photography to take in beyond Kerstens and de Ridder, but in a way, it all seems beside the point. I loved Charlotte Dumas’ anthropomorphic portraits of New York shelter dogs, and I enjoyed the cutting glance of Danielle van Ark’s photos of art gallery openings. And I was mystified–in a sort of positive way–by Erwin Olaf’s black on black interiors of a fictional African American upper middle class home.
The brilliant beach portraits of Rineke Dijkstra seem stranded here–they were, after all, made 10 or 15 years ago, and I can’t help but think they were included because of some obligatory nod to her reputation as an icon of recent photographic history. Likewise, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin’s transparently stylish celebrity portraits seem gratuitous.
Despite all the visual skill and conceptual high mindedness on display, there is a puzzling shortage of fresh discovery here–in an exhibition presumably about the Dutch rediscovering New York–at least nothing that approaches the epiphany of Misha de Ridders crashing wave, or the piercing eyes of Hendrik Kerstens’ ridiculously sublime Paula.
Neither Kerstens nor de Ridder, of course, show even a glimpse of New York City.
The layout and simple design of the exhibition is beautiful overall, and the newly refurbished galleries look great. I especially liked the orange title scrim hanging in front of one of Kerstens’ prints. Different framing or mounting throughout the show helps give each photographer his/her own identity. And unlike so many museum shows I’ve been to recently, the photographs are well lit. The museum has never looked better.
The existence of numerous photographs showing American torture of detainees held in Afghanistan and Iraq is an established fact. The release of those photographs is being held up by the president and by others in government who believe that it might incite violence against American troops stationed in those places. Today in the Times Lindsey Graham, conservative Republican senator from South Carolina is quoted saying: “Every photo is a bullet for our enemy.”
In other words, the fact of torture is not what incites our enemy, but the image of torture. We can talk about the acts portrayed in those images–similar to those already released of Abu Ghraib–but we cannot see or show the facts.
They are bullets–bullets aimed at us.
Aimed, ultimately, at those who conceived the policy of torture, those who rationalized the legal/moral grounds for using torture, those who gave the orders to use torture, those who transferred the orders to use torture through the chain of command, those who then tortured detainees in the field, those who covered up and continue to cover up knowledge of torture, those who excused and continue to excuse the use of torture, and those who seek to prevent the truth in all its sordid aspects to see the light of day.
Photographs are bullets. No photography allowed.
Went to the opening of Dutch Seen: New York Rediscovered at the Museum of the City of New York. Large, lavish show funded by the Dutch government and others. Panel discussion moderated by Kathy Ryan of the New York Times Magazine. Hundreds piled in for the reception afterward. The discussion was not particularly edifying, though Misha de Ridder’s explanation of how he found the locations for his photographs was interesting–maps and historical references to early Dutch settlement. Hendrik Kerstens could only manage to say that his work was about Paula, his daughter, which is superficially true, but not true in any larger sense. I’ll write something about the exhibition once I’ve had a chance to go back for a longer look.
I ran into John Bartelstone, and Danielle van Ark, who is one of the photographers in the show. John is coming out with a book of his photographs of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the former shipyard, now an incubator of all kinds of businesses and creative ventures. I photographed them in front of one of Danielle’s photos of gallery openings. Seemed appropriate.
The High Line opened to the public on Tuesday. I went up late in the day, showers threatening, but it stayed dry as dusk approached. There were hundreds of people walking the former rail viaduct, but it was not uncomfortably crowded. That could change if the weather is good this coming weekend.
First impression–the High Line does not disappoint. The designers (James Corner Field Operations with Diller Scofidio & Renfro) have struck a balance between preserving this vestige of New York’s industrial past and creating a new, urban dreamscape. The plantings evoke the wild opportunistic growth that emerged from the thin layer of detritus that accumulated over years of neglect–seen in Joel Sternfeld’s beautiful photographs–but they are more diverse.
There are two experiential aspects of the High Line–the promenade itself with its greenery, structures, and event spaces, and the view of the city seen from above street level, the traffic and pedestrians flowing beneath. The photographs I managed to take as daylight faded primarily describe the latter.
Nicolai Ouroussoff in this morning’s Times: ” It is one of the most thoughtful, sensitively designed public spaces built in New York in years.”
Vergara exhibition at the New York Historical Soceity — © Brian Rose
A few thoughts on seeing Harlem, Photographs by Camilo José Vergara 1970-2009 at the New York Historical Society:
This is not a photography show in the traditional sense,” Vergara says during a stroll through the New-York Historical Society gallery. “I’m really interested in issues, what replaces what, what’s the thrust of things. Photographers don’t usually get at that—they want to show you one frozen image that you find amazing. For me, the more pictures the better. (Smithsonion Magazine)
The problem is the photographs are presented as if they were stand-alones–traditional c prints matted and framed with small neatly printed text panels. Vergara’s project would be greatly enhanced by a more immersive experience.
There was one low resolution video screen tucked off to the side in which successive images of different scenes ran in a loop. Otherwise, framed prints are stacked one above the other or in groups, the bright white mattes jumping off the warmed-toned walls and taking up too much space between images. I had to bend way over to see the lowest images.
Vergara exhibition — © Brian Rose
I’m not suggesting that Vergara’s work should be presented as a multimedia three-ring circus. But I don’t understand the traditional look of the NYHS exhibit. Vergara’s website, which contains the Harlem project along with his similar documentations of Camden, New Jersey and Richmond, California attempts to be interactive and less gallery-like, but the website is yet another of these tedious flash based sites–tiny text, tiny clickable squares on contextless maps.
Invicible Cities, Camilo José Vergara website
Harlem storefront, Camilo José Vergara
I think of my photographs as bricks which when placed next to each other give shape and meaning to a place. I see the images of neighborhoods arranged according to time and location, linking the hundreds of stories that are a place’s history. This is the way photographs can tell how Harlem evolved and what it gained and lost in the process.
Vergara exhibition — © Brian Rose
Vergara admits that he comes from the street/documentary photography aesthetic (Bresson, Levitt, Evans, etc.), but he insists that his work not be regarded as art photography, rather a sort of photographic sociology or anthroplogy. What I would like to see, however—regardless of where one places Vergara’s brand of photography—is a more rigorous approach to the medium. Most of the pictures have been made with small cameras despite his interest in architecture and landscape. The graininess undercuts the intention to convey information and detail, and many of the compositions of static subjects seem unnecessarily slap dash, made on the run.
Harlem door, Camilo José Vergara
Vergara exhibition — © Brian Rose
The image grouping above is meant to illustrate the encroachment of security and surveillance in the public realm. In this case, Harlem. Vergara gives us a close-up view of one of NYPDs mobile observation towers, a metal door with padlocks, a menacing dog in a window, a close-up of a pole festooned with video cameras, and a high gated turnstile similar to those seen in subway stations all over the city.
This is photography as show and tell.
Harlem panorama, Camilo José Vegara
For me, the most interesting pictures are the panoramas taken over a number of years. Seeing the way in which blocks change–either losing buildings or gaining new ones–sometimes the changes are very subtle.
Two storefronts, the classic breadmaker Vesuvio, now closed, awaiting its fate. And the Apple store, once a post office, built in the days when government buildings conveyed civic virtues. Within two blocks of each other on Prince Street.
As I walked across lower Manhattan on my way to pick up my son from school I passed by Sonia Sotomayor’s apartment on Bedford Street a little west of Sixth Avenue. Sotomayor, of course, has been nominated by Barack Obama for the Supreme Court.
Sonia Sotomayor’s building on Bedford Street
© Brian Rose
I’ve walked by here dozens of times, and attended the songwriters exchange at Jack Hardy’s apartment directly across the street dozens of times, and it turns out that the probable new Supreme Court justice has been living quietly in our midst for years. Today, as i walked by, there was a coterie of photo journalists loitering on the sidewalk in front of her building awaiting her appearance.
A picture sent to me by Chris Gallagher of Friday’s opening. That’s his dog Murphy on the floor. That’s me, back to the camera, on the right. Art Presson in the blue shirt at center, Cervin Robinson to his right. No pictures, unfortunately, of my song performance, which came later in the evening.
The gallery will be open the next two weekends — Fridays 5-8pm and Saturday and Sundays 4-8pm. Come by and say hello. I’ll be gallery sitting most of the time.
The opening and performance at the gallery in Williamsburg went well. Scroll down for more information about the show and gallery hours. A decent crowd considering it was the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend. I performed a batch of my songs after the reception, the first time I’ve played in public in several years. I did around eight songs, some early ones from the late ’70s, and a few from recent years. I was happy to see Cervin Robinson, the architectural photographer, as well as music friends Greg Anderson and Jim Allen.
A few additional comments from the New York Photo Festival. I think the most provocative work in the show was by Danish photographer Jacob Holdt, a sort of outsider artist, whose work has generally escaped notice in the art world. A couple of years ago his photographs made in the early 1970s while traveling around the US were published by Steidl. But his work has not been seen much on this side of the pond.
Photo by Jacob Holdt
Hitchhiking around the country, Holdt hung out with and lived with people of all walks of life, but particularly the down and out. His photographs show the squalor of urban and rural life in the ’70s, violence, guns, racism. He even befriended member of the KKK, and photographed cross burnings. Holdt presents his work as political activism, and in fact, he has given lectures and slide shows for years since making the photographs. At the festival his slides were shown on several old-fashioned carousel projectors, their fans whirring, the slides click clacking into place.
Photo by Jacob Holdt
There is zero art gloss to his photographic method–the images are crudely powerful. Disturbing. And although I think the attention he is now getting is legitimate, I am somewhat suspicious of the high culture assimilation of his work. By all means spend some time on his website. Where does work like this fit into the history of photography and social documentation?
Photo by Jacob Holdt
William Ewing, one of the curators of the festival, argues that the photo history canon of the past few decades needs to be shaken up. That older photographers like Holdt have been overlooked, and that younger photographers from all corners of the globe aren’t getting the attention they deserve. I am sympathetic to his curatorial quest, but remain uncertain where to place someone as strange and insistently didactic as Jocob Holdt. Perhaps, he is best left outside the canon. Someone to be dealt with on his own terms.
This evening is the opening of my exhibition, Journal, based on this blog. I spent most of yesterday hanging the prints–54 11x14s and one 40×50. The space, which is a storefront gallery, is beautiful, has good lighting, and looks especially nice after dark from the street. After the reception, at 8pm, I will be performing songs, old and new.
The gallery is in Williamsburg and is easy to reach from the L train Bedford Avenue station.
One of the strongest pieces in the show curated by Jon Levy was a three panel video installation by Tim Hetherington showing sleeping soldiers juxtaposed against a tense and emotional exchange on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Unlike so many video pieces that seem designed primarily to test one’s patience, this montage of images, still and moving, gets to the point powerfully in a relative handful of minutes.
I had limited time to see the festival, so I moved quickly through curator Jody Quon’s exhibit, which deals with female identity. The other major exhibit of the festival, which I did not see, also dealt with sexual identity, gay males. These are very familiar contemporary art themes, the kind of thing I seem hardwired to resist. But, of course, dismissing whole exhibits may not be fair to individual artists, so I try to wade through anyway. Although I don’t go for Carlos Ranc’s blurry manipulations of Playboy models, I do like Katy Grannan’s carefully posed work very much. I’ll have to write about her some time in the future.
Within five minutes of arriving at the New York Photo Festival I ran into Bill Ewing, one of the curators, walking down the street. I know Bill from a long time ago when he was the curator at ICP. He was the first person to show my Iron Curtain/BerlinWall photographs. A short time later I ran into Bob Walker, a Canadian photographer who for years has been densely compressed, layered, street photographs.
Recently, however, he has been photographing flowers and plants with the same tightly packed energy. The color hovers between naturalistic and hyper real. They are beautiful images, but without the softness or sentimentality so often associated with the subject.
The New York Photo Festival was held for the second year last weekend in Dumbo, the atmospheric neighborhood under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges in Brooklyn. My visit was fairly short because of a busy personal schedule, but I managed to see two of the main exhibits, and ran into several old friends and met a some interesting people. More on that later.
Walking around between the venues, it seemed that there were several photo festivals taking place simultaneously. One of them inside the galleries, and the other out in the street where dozens of camera wielding, badge wearing, visitors were taking pictures of Dumbo–and each other. I was one of these.
Another smaller group of photographers were paying no attention to us, or to the exhibits. They were photographing formally dressed brides and grooms on the gritty cobblestoned streets with the bridge towers and spans soaring overhead. Incongruous as it was–tuxedos, gowns and limos interspersed with the usual raffish New York photo crowd–it lent a surreal theatricality to the scene.