My love for NYC goes back to when I was a teenager and visited my older sister, who at the time was living in her first dive apartment, a 3rd floor walk-up on Sullivan Street north of Houston. However, it was during my four years at RISD, from 1976-1980, that I became immersed in NYC. I have written about this before, in Reflections on a New York City Christmas, Own a Small Piece of Vanishing New York – Vintage 1970s, and The Times Square of My Mind. I have photographed the gritty streets of NYC going back to my RISD years. Every time I return, another small or large chunk of my youth slips away, swallowed up by gentrification and cookie-cutter commerce.
“The work she produced in her short life is 100 times better than anything you have created or could ever create!” Those were the cruel, harsh words that were hurled at me from my 20-year-old daughter’s insolent lips in 2007. The occasion was a visit to the Tate Modern in London and the discovery of an Artist’s Room dedicated to Francesca Woodman. It was hard to process everything I was feeling when I saw those photographs. Difficult because my daughter’s post-teenage angst overshadowed what became a trip from hell, but also because I had somehow forgotten about Francesca in the context of my four years at RISD. I am not sure why it has taken me so long to write about this – perhaps I needed the distance and perspective of the passage of time. Or the sheer volume of online content could have dissuaded me – 567,000 Google hits on Francesca as of April 2015, and counting.
There have been many short articles about celebrities who also happen to dabble in the visual arts. But I have to say, with the risk of sounding like an art critic, that many of these folks are not very good visual artists. Come to think of it, some of them are considered mediocre at their primary pursuit – whether politics (guess who?) or acting, while others are considered pure genius. In either case, the best of their fine art would be considered the work of somewhat talented amateur hobbyists by anyone who is a trained fine artist or art critic. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is wonderful for anyone to pursue the visual arts – what I object to is when famous people who are art hacks gain renown for mediocre work simply because of their celebrity status. The purpose of this article is to shed light on a few special celebrities who have not been heralded as much for their visual art, but in my opinion, deserve to be. Viggo Mortensen This strikingly handsome actor who made many hearts melt as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is quite the Renaissance man. In 2002, Viggo Mortensen founded the Perceval Press to publish the works of little-known artists and authors. In addition to being a talented actor, Mortensen is a gifted photographer, painter, jazz musician, and poet. As far as I can ascertain, he is self-trained in the fine arts. This site has a lovely description of his visual art talents.
I have been experiencing a wave of nostalgia – it comes with age and recent losses of dear friends and our beloved little kitty Pepper. For me, the holidays seem to inspire reflections on the past – thinking back to how much New York City used to mean to me at Christmas. I have been digging up wonderful Christmas-related NYC photos from the Library of Congress and decided to delve into my own archives to see what I could find. When I was a child and up through about 2004, my parents would visit NYC every December for an annual psychiatric meeting at the Waldorf Astoria. While my dad was attending lectures, my mom would go window shopping with some of her friends. As children, my sisters and I always looked forward to my parents coming home with intriguing presents. My dad would also visit Russ & Daughters and purchase obscene amounts of candy that he had shipped home. Chocolate covered coffee beans, pastel chocolate mint lentils, and chocolate covered raspberry rings are the candies that I remember most. He would tell me stories about buying pretzels and roasted chestnuts from street vendors, shopping at B. Altman, Gimbels, and other now defunct stores; telling me tales that made it sound so magical.
Twenty-eight years before the great female photographer Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio on July 17, 1898, a pioneering documentary photographer named Jessie Tarbox Beals was born on December 23, 1870 in Hamilton, Ontario. While Abbott has long been a favorite of mine along with the wonderful female photographers Helen Levitt (1913-2009) and Ruth Orkin (1921-1985), Beals was not on my list until recently. I readily admit this oversight with remorse and humility and she is now the subject of my devotion and fascination. While the aforementioned photographers may have possessed greater cache in the art world during their lifetime and post-death, and perhaps more bravura technique, Beals overcame more insurmountable odds due to her place in time. All three of these photographers are synonymous with capturing New York City life … and all of them surely had to encounter the challenges and prejudice of working in a male-dominated field. Abbott was influenced greatly by the French photographer Eugene Atget, whose artistic goal was to document all of the architecture and street scenes of Paris before these cityscapes succumbed to modernization. She moved to NYC in 1918, but left for Europe in 1921 to study sculpture and painting in Berlin and Paris. It wasn’t until 1923, when Man Ray hired her as a darkroom assistant at his Parisian portrait studio that she realized photography was her calling. She returned to NYC in 1929, reportedly to find an American publisher for Atget’s photographs, and it dawned on her that she had to capture the city’s ephemeral landscape much as Atget had done in his beloved Paris. I cannot find any mention of this, but surely Abbott had to be aware of Beals’ work.
This is for kindred spirits who have read this blog, and in particular the articles on photography and the vanishing urban landscape. And for souls like me that bemoan the disappearance of vintage NYC and appreciate its rich visual history. I have been photographing the gritty, graffiti-etched surfaces of NYC since 1976. As a young photographer, I was particularly inspired by the work of Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Ruth Orkin, and Weegee. I had two exhibits of my NYC photographs in the Netherlands in the 1981, and an art critic commented that I should have endeavored to document social injustices like Bruce Davidson did in his East Harlem series, or like my personal favorite Lewis Hine did in his harrowing photos of young, poor immigrants. But I have always been true to my vision – one that goes back to when my dad gave me my first camera at age 13. And that is to capture and preserve the ephemeral urban landscape – highlighting aspects of consumerism and pop culture before they vanish forever. Sometimes people enter the picture, but they are an integral part of this landscape rather than the primary focal point – with a few exceptions.