Category Archives: Williamsburg

New York/Civil War Monuments


Jefferson Davis gravesite, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia — © Brian Rose

Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond is the final resting place of Jefferson Davis the president of the Confederacy. His statue is visited regularly, and Confederate flags are often placed around the monument. Elsewhere in the cemetery, John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States, is buried. Staunchly pro slavery he aligned himself with the Confederacy. And there are 18,000 Confederate soldiers buried in the rolling hills of this hauntingly beautiful place perched above the James River. I wrote about Hollywood a few years ago here and here.

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I have mixed feelings about the removal of Confederate Civil War monuments for a number of reasons that have not received much attention in the wake of the the shocking events in Charlottesville, Virginia. And I’d like to explore the subject especially with regard to Richmond, a city I know well. Although I have lived much of my life in New York City, I was born and raised in Virginia, and went to the University of Virginia for two years. My family lived briefly in Richmond, but most of my childhood was spent nearby in Williamsburg, the restored Virginia capital.

First of all, let me be clear. I do not regard Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, or any of the other Confederate leaders worthy of veneration. Whether they were brave in battle or noble in defeat makes no difference. As W.E.B. DuBois wrote about Lee in 1928: His personal comeliness, his aristocratic birth and his military prowess all call for the verdict of greatness and genius. But one thing–one terrible fact–militates against this and that is the inescapable truth that Robert E. Lee led a bloody war to perpetuate slavery.

Many historians and commentators have pointed out that most of the Civil War statues were erected well after the war was over – after Reconstruction – when Jim Crow laws institutionalized segregation and the repression of African Americans. Mitch Landrieu, the mayor New Orleans, gave an eloquent speech just hours before the removal of the city’s Confederate statues pointing out the facts in a compelling manner:

These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.


Henry Ward Beecher, Brooklyn, New York — © Brian Rose

The Henry Ward Beecher statue in downtown Brooklyn honors the leading abolitionist of his day — some called him the most famous man in America. His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But even Beecher’s statue has a problematic element. A supplicant slave reaches up to the great man in gratitude.

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While it is true that these monuments were intended to promote the myth of the Confederacy as a noble cause, they were also an expression of the Beaux Arts movement, which transformed American cities by creating broad boulevards, public parks, and grand classically inspired architecture. The Beaux Arts period, running from 1890 to 1920 corresponds almost exactly with the commissioning of Civil War monuments. In the North, most of the statues, of course, portrayed Union heroes like Ulysses S. Grant or William Tecumseh Sherman. In the South, it was Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. These statues were typically situated in prominent ceremonial places in major cities throughout the United States.

The best sculptors of the time were commissioned to produce these heroic monuments. The most prominent was Augustus St. Gaudens who created the Sherman statue at the corner of Central Park and Fifth Avenue. An angel leads the beatifically rendered Sherman on his path of destruction and victory. St. Gaudens’ masterwork is the Shaw memorial on the edge of Boston Common, completed in 1897, which depicts, in meticulous detail, Colonel Robert Shaw leading a black regiment down Beacon Street on their way to battle.

In the South, the civic goals corresponded with those in the North — to elevate public space with works of grandeur and nobility. Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy best exemplifies the city beautiful movement. A grand boulevard was envisioned west of downtown with designated sites for monuments at major cross streets. The first to be erected was an equestrian sculpture of Robert E. Lee created by the French artist Antonin Mercié, fabricated in France, and shipped to the United Sates, much like the Statue of Liberty.


Washington at Valley Forge, Williamsburg, Brooklyn — © Brian Rose

Henry Shrady was the creator of the Robert E. Lee equestrian sculpture in Charlottesville. The city’s decision to remove the statue led to protest marches by hundreds of neo-Nazis carrying weapons, torches, and Confederate flags. Three deaths resulted. Shrady was also the sculptor of George Washington at Valley Forge, a powerful presence at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn, New York.

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The J.E.B. Stuart monument in Richmond was created by Frederick Moynihan, who produced sculptures in the North and South depicting both Union and Confederate heroes. He and other artists of Monument Avenue were American, but all studied with the leading sculptors of the time in Europe. In Charlottesville, Virginia, the now infamous Lee Statue was sculpted by Henry Shrady who also is responsible for the Grant monument directly in front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. I have no idea if it mattered to Shrady which side of the “War Between the States” he was memorializing.

There were many, however, who understood what Lee represented to the dominant white society of the South. When the Lee monument was proposed in the 1890s, black members of the Richmond city council opposed it. One of them, John Mitchel, the editor of the Richmond Planet wrote: “The capital of the late Confederacy has been decorated with emblems of the ‘Lost Cause,” and the Lee statue represented a “legacy of treason and blood.”


Ulysses S. Grant, Brooklyn, New York — © Brian Rose

The Grant monument on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn was designed by William Ordway Partridge who also was commissioned to create a sculpture of Pocahontas in Jamestown, Virginia. Few New Yorkers know the Grant monument, but the Pocahontas sculpture is popular, and the image of this Native American icon is a fascinating study in itself of American mythology and history.

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That’s where we are today. Richmond, a greatly rejuvenated city of over 200,000 people, about evenly divided black and white, is grappling with the future of its monuments. Ten years ago the city sought to balance the story of Monument Avenue by erecting a statue of Richmond native and former tennis great Arthur Ashe. The statue is awkwardly executed, too small in scale for its site, and comes off as an add-on rather than an integral part of the avenue’s overall ensemble. Are there contemporary artists who can do life-like sculptures worthy of St. Gaudens? Should we even try?

The people of Richmond will decide for themselves what to do, but I see two possible scenarios. One is to keep the monuments, and introduce a serious and comprehensive program to provide historical context, which will require an honest appraisal of Robert E. Lee, one that sets straight the fictitious myth of the noble warrior. The other is to relocate the statues – a major task presenting its own set of quandaries – and the commissioning of new works to replace the old – installations that respect the urbanistic and historic nature of the boulevard, but address contemporary issues and new aesthetic visions.

I agree that maintaining the status quo is no longer tenable. The Confederate battle flag should certainly not be flying from public buildings, and it’s time to acknowledge that the Lost Cause of the South belongs in the dustbin of history. But if it’s possible in the heat of the moment to slow down, let’s consider the options available for our monuments, Civil War and otherwise. In many cases, these are significant works of art that reflect the rebuilding of American cities, North and South, at the beginning of the 20th Century. The wholesale removal of monuments is an erasure of history rather than an attempt to understand it and learn from it.

New York/Williamsburg


Williamsburg, Brooklyn — © Brian Rose (Painting by Damien Mitchell)

Trump unmasked.

Update — a quote from Simon Schama’s piece in the Financial Times. I first came across Schama when living in the Netherlands. His book The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age is highly recommended along with his later Landscape and Memory.

He writes:

The challenge, as with all such imaginative counter-attacks, is the capacity to project the message beyond the halls of college and museum and into the street where it counts. Prints lend themselves perfectly to poster polemics but the most effective challenge may yet come from creative adventures in the digital media, where inspired derision coupled with the defence of truth can go viral. Should that happen, the complacent dismissal of resistance art as the self-indulgent playtime of a defeated “elite” will die on the faces of the powerful. Aux armes, les artistes!

https://www.ft.com/content/0ded5de4-fe6d-11e6-96f8-3700c5664d30

New York/”Freedom Tower”

oneworldtradeflag
Paul Avenue, The Bronx — © Brian Rose

Whatever happened to the Freedom Tower? That is what former Governor George Partaki called One World Trade Center when it was still an architectural concept. And if you wander through the crowds of tourists downtown, you will still hear people refer to David Child’s 1,776 foot tall skyscraper as the Freedom Tower. The Port Authority, however, abandoned that name years ago, and few New Yorkers seem inclined to use it.

One section of my forthcoming book WTC is comprised of vernacular images of the Twin Towers — posters, murals,and graffiti. And there are books and photographs for sale in the street, many of which graphically show the destruction of the Trade Center. It has been 15 years, but helped by constant visual reminders, the Twin Towers remain fixed in the mind’s eye. Images of One World Trade, however, are harder to find.

One World Trade — or Freedom Tower — was envisioned by some as a patriotic gesture, not just real estate. Some might argue that in New York City real estate and patriotism go hand in hand. Whatever the case, One World Trade Center has only slowly begun to achieve the iconic status of its progenitors, the Twin Towers. Maybe it never will. So, I was stopped in my tracks yesterday while walking through the Bronx. There on the ground was a pizza box with One World Trade and an enormous American flag printed in red white and blue. The Freedom Tower lives…perhaps.

And then in Brooklyn — there it is again —  standing tall in support of Bernie.

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North 3rd Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn — © Brian Rose

Please help make WTC possible by supporting my Kickstarter campaign.

New York/Death of Photography (greatly exaggerated)

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S1st Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn — © Brian Rose

Every few years someone or other, usually an art/photo critic, declares photography dead. Or if not dead, then relegated to a quaint sideshow off the midway of progress. I’ve written about it before, way back in 2007, in response to Peter Plagens’ Newsweek article “Is Photography Dead?” An article that ends with the line: “The next great photographers—if there are to be any—will have to find a way to reclaim photography’s special link to reality. And they’ll have to do it in a brand-new way.”

Last August, Stephen Mayes repeated many of Plagens’ assertions in a Time article that keeps popping up in my Facebook newsfeed, no doubt because hundreds of my “friends” are photographers. His article ends by conjuring up the old Elvis meme: “It’s very far from dead but it’s definitely left the building.” Which means, all you losers waiting for an encore should go home because the show is over. It has moved on to a new venue.

The argument for the death of photography generally revolves around how technology has stripped the medium of its claim to veracity. Never mind that photographic reality has since its inception held a tenuous grip on reality — despite the faith placed in it. Mayes believes that the nature of digital capture is fundamentally different from lens based imagery, and touts the infinite arrangeability of pixels as a transformative phenomenon.

No doubt, of course, technology has changed the medium, but Mayes flails about trying to describe what that change might look like. Having just drowned in MoMA’s inchoate “Ocean of Images,” the latest installment of the museum’s New Photography series, I can only conclude that no one seems to know where things are, much less where things are going.

Arrangements of digital data in the post internet image vortex. That’s where we are, apparently.

Lauder4-jumbo
“THE VIOLIN (MOZART/KUBELICK)”
Georges Braque, 1912

There is one paragraph of Mayes’s article in particular that illustrates where his argument about photography goes wrong. He compares the present image revolution as comparable to the period when Picasso, and the other Cubists, deconstructed the traditional way of seeing, which forever transformed the nature of representation. Cubism was definitely a transformative movement in the history of art, but it did not kill off painting.

True, critics have called painting dead, too. And for quite a while, it appeared that the march of art history was essentially reductive — from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism to the grave. But lo and behold, painters have continued to paint, and the medium remains alive and well within the multiplicity of ways that artists approach the task of making art — of expressing the nature of human existence — in the age of image capture.

Photography, and its tenuous tether to reality, will continue to be important to culture, as is music, film, and literature. The digital revolution will not render these things irrelevant. The act of observation, of bearing witness, will not become less important — it may in fact become more important as we increasingly live in a world alternating between the real and the virtually real. Sometimes, going to contemporary photo exhibitions is like experiencing one bad Holodeck adventure after another. I’m mean come on, let’s get real.

Here is a comprehensive list of articles on “painting is dead” vs. “painting is back.” One could easily do a similar list about photography. Actually, I think it’s the “such and such is dead” paradigm that is dead.

New York/Williamsburg

Williamsburg 2011-2015. Four photographs made on the same corner — N 6th Street and Bedford Avenue.  The wall painting changes frequently, every couple of weeks, and life passes by — people dance, compose poetry, make music, and otherwise maintain the cool vibe. But watch out for the baby strollers.

brownwall

poetryman

saxpayer

aboutbrooklyn

New York/Williamsburg

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Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn — © Brian Rose

JE SUIS CHARLIE.

Well, actually a more nuanced perspective. This is something I posted today on the blog Daily Kos as a reply to a diary writer who does not support the kind of provocative satire practiced by Charlie Hebdo. The full discussion is here.

Theo van Gogh

I am coming to the discussion rather late, but want to add some thoughts about another similar incident in the Netherlands, where I lived for 15 years. Some years ago, the columnist/TV personality Theo van Gogh was murdered by an Islamic extremist. Van Gogh was well known for his provocative statements about Islam and just about everything, and he collaborated with Ayan Hirsi Ali on a film that attacked Muslim persecution of women. But it was, in my view, a recklessly inflammatory film.

I considered Van Gogh an odious person, even though there was truth to some of what he had to say. He poured gasoline onto the fire, and didn’t seem to care about the consequences.

However, when he was attacked and stabbed to death in the street in Amsterdam, I was left with no choice in the end, but to side with those who defended Van Gogh’s right to live and to speak out. The attack on him was an attack on all of us. As is the case with the attacks in Paris.

So, while I sympathize with the points made in this diary — and I do not endorse many of the cartoons in question — I have to say, in the end, “Je suis Charlie.”

Sat Jan 10, 2015 at 09:56:43 AM PST

 

New York/Dueling Portraits

My 15 year old son Brendan had a school photography assignment to do this weekend — to make pictures of his family. When given the option to take painting or drawing, or architectural rendering, Brendan thought it would be “easier” to take photography, given that’s what his father does. We had a little time Saturday afternoon to take pictures before guests came over for dinner. So, Brendan and I walked around the Williamsburg waterfront together taking turns shooting with my Sigma DP 1.

Here’s Brendan:

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North 3rd Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn — © Brian Rose

Brendan wanted to take off the cuff pictures of me walking around, and we did some of those. But one of my favorites is something in between. Despite all the development in this part of Williamsburg, there are still desolate areas — some fenced in industrial sites — that will not be there long. I stopped along a chain link fence with the skyline behind me. The light was beautiful.

Here’s Brendan’s photo of me:

skyline-portrait
River Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn — © Brendan Rose

And finally, a snapshot I did looking, more or less, in the other direction.

vespasNorth 3rd Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn — © Brian Rose

 

New York/Brooklyn Panorama

july4panoramaBrooklyn Panorama, July 4, 2014 — © Brian Rose

Before the fireworks on July 4th. Rain and clouds dissipated as a front passed through leaving clear skies and chilly (for the season) temperatures. To the right is One World Trade Center, the Williamsburg Bridge and the chimney of the Domino Sugar Refinery.

 

New York/Williamsburg

dominobridge
The Williamsburg Bridge and the Domino Sugar Factory — © Brian Rose

After visiting the Kara Walker installation in the Domino Sugar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I decided to go back with my view camera and do a few photographs of the factory and the surrounding area. The picture above was taken with my digital camera placed on top of the view camera — so it’s roughly the same composition. Much of the sugar plant will be demolished to make way for a large housing development. The large brick structure at right, however, will be retained as an architectural landmark. While I was there, a crew was already at work, and I could see men climbing through the former conveyors angled between two of the structures.

It was early in the morning when I took the photograph, and few people were around except for dog walkers. There’s a sort of dialogue going on here between the chain link fencing with interwoven diamonds and the criss-crossing steel of the bridge. The top of One World Trade Center can be seen poking up at center left. This view will be dramatically different in a few years.

 

 

New York/Williamsburg

vespucciMetropolitan and Graham Avenues, Williamsburg, Brooklyn — © Brian Rose

A random view of a Williamsburg street corner with pigeon.

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