Friday, April 16, 2010

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Checking in on the skyline of Lower Manhattan

With the reconstruction and redevelopment of the World Trade Center site well under way (lots more on that later), I think it's important to take a look at another skyscraper going up downtown. I've become fascinated by one in particular that I don't seem to read much about in the news. But I've kept my eye on it every single day over the past 10 or so months, since I moved to the southeast edge of Chinatown. I'm talking about Frank Gehry's Beekman Tower, aka The Beekman. At 867 feet (76 stories), the building is the 8th tallest building in New York City (the WTC, including spire, will be nearly twice that at 1,776 feet). To be in the Top 10 in New York City is a big deal. To say it's the 29th tallest building in the USA sounds less impressive. But if the Beekman was going up in Los Angeles it would be the 2nd tallest building there (in Chicago, it would rank 9th). But I digress. My point is that the building is somewhat of a monstrosity, a "skyline-shaper" if you will. Especially from where I view it every day, looking down Madison Street from Market. It just seems to lord over everything else around it. It's really the first building that I instinctively check out to determine atmospheric haze, air quality, even height and density of low-hanging clouds if it's raining.The building has been topped out for several months now and will soon be completely wrapped in its unique wavy/curvy exterior facade. I'm by no means an architectural expert, but I have to think that this building cannot have been designed without some sort of "WTC-as-backdrop" consideration. In other words, to me at least, it seems to have been designed with the idea that it will stand as a "lead-in" to the WTC (especially when viewed from the east, with the Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground). A lot of people, including myself, have bemoaned the fact that we don't have a rebuilt or even topped-out WTC yet. But nobody can argue that we've finally reached the decade in which we've started to see the new Lower Manhattan emerge.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Charles W. Cushman

I recently discovered a photographer whose work has made an indelible impression on me. I am talking about Charles Cushman, a talented amateur photographer whose 14,500 Kodachrome pictures (or three cubic feet) from the late 1930s through the late 60s are held at the Indiana University Archives. As part of the University's Digital Library Program, the Cushman Archive has been digitized and organized into a keyword-searchable database and can be found in its entirety here. While I've only viewed about a third of the entire archive, I'm pretty sure there isn't much I can add to what's already been written about the man and his work. Here's one line from the project's descriptive text that I feel really nails what the work is all about: "The Charles Cushman collection mirrors the tradition of significant amateur or modest commercial photographers who contribute to the canon of serious photography." I recommend you read Rich Remberg's analysis of Cushman's work in the context of other documentary photographers, and Eric Sandweiss' account of the growth of urban America, as seen through Cushman's Contax. Speaking of his Contax, you can view his equipment here. (Above: "Oct. 6, 1942, The Angelo's Bakery, 58 Mulberry St., early morning." Image number P02700)"

Born in 1896 in Poseyville, Indiana, Cushman enrolled at Indiana University in 1914 and graduated in 1917. The following year he enlisted in the United States Navy Auxiliary Reserve Force, which put him in Chicago. In 1924 he married Elsa Jean Hamilton, who was a first cousin of John Steinbeck. Cushman held various jobs over the next couple decades. Very little is known about his career after 1944, when he worked at the War Department (a precursor of the Department of Defense). It was said that Cushman enjoyed attending the opera and the theater, and presenting shows of his slide collection. After moving to San Francisco sometime in the 1950s he would enjoy having a five o'clock drink while overlooking the ocean. Cushman died in 1972. (Right: "May 22, 1964, Salzburg, Austria." Image number P13231)

Since the Cushman archive was posted on the web in late 2003, the work has spread around somewhat and a bit has been written about him. I discovered Cushman's pictures on Flickr while researching something else. The first ones I came across were taken in New York City, mostly in the Financial District and the Lower East Side. But it didn't take long to discover that Cushman had photographed all over the world. For the purposes of this entry I simply want to post imagery from New York. (Below: "October 4, 1942, Lower East Side, crowd gathers in front of Red Cross station during salvage collection." Image number P02680)
There is just a ton of material on the site, including his notebooks in which he recorded not only location and date of photographs, but shutter speed and aperture for each and every frame exposed. More from the explanatory text: "The earliest photographs in the collection consist of approximately 1,400 black-and-white photographs that Mr. Cushman stored in albums. However, the most startling and significant aspect of his work relates to the photographs he began shooting in 1938, two years after the introduction of Kodachrome. Between 1938 and 1969 Mr. Cushman shot nearly 18,000 Kodachrome slides, documenting his travels throughout the United States and Mexico and, to some extent, countries in the Middle East and Europe. His legacy is a remarkable photographic document of American social history in the twentieth century. Where other works of this nature and caliber each focus on one community during a narrow period, Charles Cushman's slides cover thirty years, in color, including a time when most photographers were working in black and white. Although the black and white photographs are of high quality, the most significant portion of the collection is the color slides, due to the size of the collection, the rarity of early color, and the urgency to preserve these images." (Below: "Oct. 7, 1942, Chinese store windows, New York." Image number P02708)
A friend asked me recently about my influences in photography. I replied, with Cushman squarely in mind, "More and more, it's the people nobody has ever heard of. I love coming across lesser-known photographers who worked more or less anonymously, for the simple joy of photography." I love it when I can look at a photographer's work and not sense any "ego" involved; humble and evidentiary photography with no gimmicks or reliance upon technical trickery. In this sense, Cushman reminds me of photographers Robert Otter, Fred Herzog, and the more recently discovered Vivian Maier, just to name a few. Another photographer who is definitely more well known than these, but yet remains still somewhat obscure, is William Gedney. In fact, the way this Cushman archive is set up reminds me quite a bit of the William Gedney archive at Duke University, (which I featured on my other site several years ago).

Another conversation I had recently with a different friend dealt with our own evolving tastes in terms of what we find ourselves photographing. For me, it used to be all about people, crazy characters in particular (and still is to some degree). But now I find myself making a lot more of an effort to just photograph The City: straightforward shots of the skyline, perhaps certain intersections that have a good energy, etc. I've written about Bowery and First quite a bit. Ten years ago it used to be a muddy lot used for parking by rental van companies. It was also a satellite drop-off location where you could ditch your U-Haul, as I did, after making my one-way drive to NYC in 2000. Here is the corner of that intersection (Below: "Oct. 4, 1942, S.E. corner of 1st St. and the Bowery." Image number P02697)
Perhaps it's because this summer I moved to a new neighborhood that is a lot closer to the Financial District and I just sense the pull of downtown a lot more than I used to. Therefore I find myself photographing the changing Lower Manhattan skyline in a much more straightforward manner. Making the skyline the subject instead of just the backdrop. I began sensing this change in my approach right around the same time I discovered Cushman's work. Here is another example of what I'm talking about. Again–simple, straightforward shots of locations, the kind of pictures Cushman made regularly, and I thank him for it. (Below: "Sept. 27, 1941, The old Fulton Market, Manhattan's Lower East Side." Image number P02516)
But I would be remiss if I didn't link to several other shots in Cushman's archive (all links open in new windows, as usual). One evening I spent a couple of hours clicking through his work. At times I laughed out loud, especially when comparing this image to this image. I have taken a lot away from his pictures, especially his San Francisco images. He even got a little bit of the Haight-Ashbury scene. This one caught my eye. Some are straight forward and show only streets, traffic, architecture. Some got a little more into how a street photographer shoots (in some cases even catching some flak for it).

And we can't forget about Chicago, where Cushman called home for many years. A very different Chicago than the one I'm used to (check out this ghostly image of the skyline). Here are some guys fixing an "old" Cadillac. Many are found moments, like this military medical student posing his fiancé on a tree for a snapshot in front of a lake. For some reason I forget that it's color pictures I'm looking at, until I see shots like this girl in a bathing suit. There's this oddity from a Gay Nineties parade. And you must check out this great shot of two young kids looking out their window, part of Cushman's series from Chicago's South Side that looks nothing like this today.

There's some great stuff from Austria including this bus stop scene and this (scanning mishap?) and this incredible balloon situation and this one that has a very timeless appeal. Clearly Cushman was a lover of architecture. Sometimes I felt as if I was seeing him come back to recurring themes, the same shot here and here.

I could go on and on linking to pictures of his, but more than anything I'm just thankful for Cushman's "egoless" approach to photography. It seems his style is only that he has none. I can envision him standing in any given location writing in his notebook, recording street names, camera settings, etc. His work only confirms what I find more and more to be my own guiding M.O. in photography. And that is not to depend so much on my own "cleverness" or "wit" to make a picture, but rather to just find a quiet and steady, disciplined patience that trusts and finds reassurance in a society's perpetual need to look back at itself and its cities, in photographs. (Below: "Sep. 27, 1941, Lower Manhattan from Jersey City ferry boat Lower Hudson, with Manhattan's skyscrapers." Image number P02513)
All images copyright Charles Cushman Collection, Indiana University Archives. With special thanks to Bradley Cook, Curator of Photographs, Office of University Archives and Records Management.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Question for Charles Gatewood

This is a triptych of images, all taken in front of the New York County Supreme Court building at 60 Centre Street in Lower Manahttan. On the left is the original, a fairly well-known Henri Cartier-Bresson picture from 1947. In the center is an image taken some 30 years later by the photographer Charles Gatewood. Gatewood's image appears in his 1984 limited-edition book titled "Wall Street," which I bought in 1998 or so. Look at how the pillars line up in both images, and in particular the gaps in between the pillars. Although Gatewood is shooting with a wider lens, he is clearly standing in the same exact spot as HCB. My question for Gatewood is, was this intentional or purely coincidental? An homage or entirely happenstance? I noticed this early 2001 and within a few days had my own version of the scene from nearly the same spot (far right).

Friday, September 4, 2009

"Always New York" group show at Lunasa

I'm happy to announce I'm participating in a group show at Lunasa, 126 First Avenue, starting this coming Tuesday, September 8th. The opening is from 6-9, so stop on by. It's an all black and white show, so I'm anxious to see what everybody hangs. The show, which is presented by the Lunasa Photo Series, is being curated by Bryan Formhals, who is the driving force behind La Pura Vida Gallery. Looking forward to meeting all the other photographers.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Two Bridges

It wasn't until about two months ago that I first heard of the neighborhood known as "Two Bridges." Well, I knew of the neighborhood, I just never knew it went by that name. It was early June and Yvonne and I had just looked at an apartment there that we really liked. That night as I was checking out the neighborhood on Google Maps I was surprised to see the neighborhood labeled as such.

I'm happy to report that we ended up taking the apartment. And so at the end of June, as the world was glued to the Michael Jackson story, we were in the thick of our move. But all throughout July we still had access to our old apartment (on Allen at Delancey), so there were of course a few odds and ends that I put off moving until a few days ago (processing equipment and other random stuff). It wasn't until yesterday that I dropped off the keys to the old place. So it's "Goodbye, 285 square feet of gridlocked traffic and carhorns at Allen and Delancey" and "Hello, 510 square feet of subway cars rumbling crossing the Manhattan Bridge." (Trust me, I'll take the latter any day).But back back to the neighborhood. It's always interesting when somebody asks where we live. To people I've just met, I say "Lower East Side." If they ask where, I say, "Way down, it's Chinatown near the Manhattan Bridge." Telling people that we live at Market and Madison rarely offers any help, but if I say "It's near the East Broadway F train" people instantly get it. A couple times people have clung to the words "Under the Manhattan Bridge" and said "Wait, you moved to DUMBO?" I've already started telling people, "Okay, so next time you are flipping the channels at night and see David Letterman doing his opening monologue, look at the miniature skyline behind him. That's our neighborhood, Two Bridges."What's really cool is that a 15-minute walk puts us squarely into the South Street Seaport and Financial District. That same walking time starting at our old place would have gotten us to Tompkins Square Park or Astor Place. So even though we're still in the same general vicinity as far as Manhattan is concerned, being further downtown and a lot closer to the waterline gives the place a very different vibe.

In a retail sense, the neighborhood is largely unchanged over the past however-many years. There are a lot of printing businesses and other light industrial shops, a ton of inexpensive Chinese restaurants with bare florescent lighting, mom and pop laundromats, etc. There are absolutely no bars or high-end clothing boutiques, and only an occasional internet cafe. I haven't heard any clever new real estate acronyms yet. It's the southern edge of Chinatown so I wouldn't be surprised to see something with "SOCHI" in it. We're truly in the DUMBO of Manhattan, but I'm pretty sure we'll never see it called "DUMBOOM." Just playing around in this vein, I also came up with "B-BAMB" for Between Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, which inevitably lead to the dreaded "BAMBI" for Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges Interchange. (Here's a shot from the Manhattan Bridge looking west toward the Financial District. Our rooftop is not visible from this angle because it's a short building, but it's directly down beyond where those two white plastic coat hangers are dangling).
On a more photography-related note, I wonder how any of this might affect my picture taking. I can definitely feel the lure of Lower Manhattan, and the World Trade Center site looms large, a mere 20-minute walk from our front door. I suspect once One World Trade Center eventually is topped out we'll be within its long wintertime shadow. But I have to say, it's all about the bridges down here. Just living within 100 feet of the Manhattan Bridge has its own unique gravitational pull. I've been comparing the bridges a lot lately. I wrote a Twitter update a few weeks ago: "Contrasting three NYC bridges: Brooklyn = gothic stone cathedral. Williamsburg = rugged Sherman tank. Manhattan = elegant ocean liner." The Manhattan Bridge is the youngest of these three, and in fact (you read it here first) turns 100 this year, on New Year's Eve.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Best Portfolio at FHPW-Marcella Brooks

Every summer for five days in July it is my great honor and privilege to work with high school students at the Flint Hills Publications Workshop in Manhattan, Kansas. I just finished my 12th year teaching photography at this workshop. Usually we have about 25 kids enroll in the class, but this year we had about half that. I just wanted to give a quick shout out to Marcella Brooks of Kapaun Mount Carmel High School in Wichita for winning the annual "Best Portfolio" award at the workshop. I've selected two images of hers to post here, the first of which (top) was the very first image I saw from anybody at the entire workshop. The picture has a simplicity to it that I find very appealing. It ran lead on the center spread double truck in the workshop's newspaper, The Kedzie Krier. For another picture, taken at the all-workshop dance, she used the DJ's strobe lights to take the relatively mundane setting of a Holiday Inn banquet room and make it look like some ultra-chic nightclub.

Marcella will be the photo editor for her yearbook this coming fall and I wish her the best. I sent her an email asking for a little back story on how she got into photography: "My photography story isn't particularly inspiring but it really started with some of my dad's old yearbooks that I came across while cleaning my attic a couple of years back. Every single picture was filled with colorful expressions that made you forget that the picture was taken in black and white. The photographer had captured all these great moments that otherwise would have been forgotten. From that moment on, I wanted to be the person to take those pictures that immortalize everyone's high school years."