Building or jewelry?

.

This is Saul Steinberg’s illustration on the cover of the 1958 French edition Robert Frank’s legendary book The Americans (Les Americains). It’s a satire of the soulless corporate architecture that was starting to take over the world’s cities – graph paper ridicules the alienating grid of International Style skyscrapers.

At about the same time the photographer Ezra Stoller made a picture that resembles it.

 

.

Alienation was not what the architects intended. But what was intended? A building in Manhattan is a case study in the ideology of high modern architecture. Manufacturers Hanover Trust, a bank on Fifth Avenue at Forty Third Street, is a key building of the International Style. Built in 1954 by Gordon Bunshaft of the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the heavyweight champions of modern architecture at that time, it was a showcase of the new ideas of transparency and lightness in corporate architecture.

The construction superintendent described the building as being more like jewelry than buildingand it even features a kind of jewelry in the mural sculpture by the great Harry Bertoia (see gold image below). The building is uncompromisingly modern, facing the street with a sheer wall of glass – an exciting new idea for a bank. The second floor contains an architectural coup, as you ascend the escalator, you emerge as if on a stage elevator into the bright open-plan main hall. The openness, transparency and clarity was very different from the heavy stone banks with their image of security and secrecy.


.

.

These images of the building by Ezra Stoller were made when it opened in 1954. Stoller was the great visual interpreter of high modern architecture. His clarity and precision as an artist perfectly matched the same qualities in the buildings he photographed.

.

I have a copy of the promotional booklet that announced the new Manufacturers Trust bank, published on its opening in 1954. It is beautifully designed in the mid-century style, with illustrations (not photographs) showing off the building. The fifties was a golden age for illustration, only giving way to photography as the main form of commercial representation in the 1960s. Unfortunately, I can’t make out the name of the illustrator.

.

.

.

.

.

Fifth Avenue sport

Fifth Avenue is an addiction. Once you get the drift of it, feel the energy of it, it makes you want to go back again and again, because it’s where life seems to be. How do you become courageous enough, and take the picture out of it, and learn how to confront the oncoming flow of people and insert yourself into it?  Joel Meyerowitz.

Joel Meyerowitz in BBC’s The Genius of Photography

I was showing a class the BBC4 documentary Genius of Photography. In one episode, Joel Meyerowitz is shooting on the street in mid-town Manhattan. He is darting around with his Leica, photographing pedestrians from only a few feet away. This is a particular kind of street photography that he specialised in, a sport somewhere between boxing and big-game hunting.

By coincidence, I was in mid-town Manhattan only a fortnight later (it’s ten thousand miles from where I live) and thought of that scene shot on Fifth Avenue. I’m way too much of a coward to point a camera in people’s faces but I struck on a technique to get around it: I just held the camera discretely at waist level and pointed it in the direction of passers-by. You miss as many as you get and shoot for averages rather than for the masterpiece, but with a digital camera you can just edit them later.

It’s disconcerting not being able to aim through a viewfinder, but it’s also liberating. Chance throws you a lot of surprises you can later claim were intentional.

.

.

.

You see I am here after all

You See I Am Here After All is the title of a new Zoe Leonard project, exhibited in the DIA:Beacon museum in the town of Beacon in New York State. I think it’s the largest single work of (wall) art I’ve ever seen.

The project consists of about 4000 postcards of Niagara Falls, sourced from flea markets and the internet. They are displayed on a long wall of the museum, arranged in grids according to viewpoint and colour. It is a huge, manic effort of collecting, a “collectomania,” vast, and symphonic, as if Phillip Glass had composed a long piece on Niagara Falls and it had somehow been rendered visible. Each passage concentrates on postcards of a particular view, and the repitition and rhythmic variation of tones and compositions creates a soft painterly effect.

Any such giant artwork on Niagara Falls will inevitably recall Frederick Church’s 1857 painting Niagara. At Dia:Beacon, a museum of Minimalist and Conceptual Art, the work also relates to the giant wall grids of Sol LeWitt, which are displayed only a few rooms away.

The title itself is taken from a written message on the back of one postcard and points to the evidential nature of photography and its function in postcards (“This proves I was really here”). It seems also to allude to the ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ motif in art, the idea that death awaits us even in an earthly paradise. The commodification of nature through tourism, and specifically through the postcard is one of the subjects of this work. It “offers a filter for exploring the ways in which cultural constructions have mapped, shaped, and framed the geography and topography of North America over time.” (-Dia Art Foundation press release)

.

.


Art of the Diorama

Another good reason for going to New York (you needed one?) is to visit the Natural History Museum to see the dioramas. These are one of the glories of New York, a city with far more than its fair share, and thety are better than you could imagine. They recreate a lost world of wilderness that is only a few generations behind us. These are my photos of them.

.

.

The museum’s website has a history of the making of these dioramas, describing the field research and amazing physical construction techniques. It rivals Hollywood.

.

Background artist Chris E. Olsen (underwater in diving gear) making “field sketches” in oil paint while on location for the Andros coral reef diorama in the Bahamas (c.1924)

.

Raymond deLucia painting bird droppings on the artificial rocks in the Little Diomede Island diorama in the Whitney Memorial Hall of Pacific Bird Life (1939)

.

Foreground artist Freidoun Jalayer melting away the wax from a model of a saguaro cactus for the Hall of North American Forests (1953)

.

Foreground artists Reginald “Buddy” Sayre and Tomas Newbery reconstructing giant forest trees for the Olympic Forest diorama (1952)

.

Artist Belmore Browne painting the background for the Alaska brown bear diorama (1941)

.

Until the Kingdom Comes

Until the Kingdom Comes at Yossi Milo Gallery was a series of large photographs of animals by Simen Johan. Diorama in scale, they have great moral force in addition to their naturalistic description.

Johan photographs animals in zoos, farms and museums using a film camera then combines the images digitally.  Each one may comprise many photographed elements including landscape. Because of the huge scale of the resulting print, great skill is involved and he manages perhaps only five images each year. He also makes elaborate sculptures along similar lines.

What impressed me most was their extreme gravity, an ambitious, biblical tone such as in the amazing Untitled #100  which shows sinister writhing snakes in the shadow of a ravine. Birds fly freely up in the light, but a snake has caught one in its mouth and the terrified bird is desperately fluttering to escape. It is a manichean image, an illustration of good and evil reminiscent of those didactic Academy paintings of the 19th century.

The facing image in the gallery, Untitled #153, is a profoundly sad picture of a bufallo or bison, lying on the ground amidst garbage, its skin moulting, a mighty, defeated beast, seemingly the last of his species.

.

.

The Reality Effect

One of the recurring themes of photography is the the extreme efforts by some people to squeeze out the maximum “proof-content” of a photograph.

Accident Investigation Site, shown recently at the Metropolitan Museum, is a new take on this idea. It is almost six metres long (19 feet), a one-to-one scale image of a section of the Santa Monica Freeway. The photographer, Miles Coolidge, used a large format digital camera to photograph sections of the road surface then digitally stitched them together to create a facsimile in real size. It looks like a section of road lifted up onto the wall. The detail is impressive, not far off what your eye would see if you got down on all fours. Your eye roams, looking for clues in the vast terrain of the print but all it finds is cigarette butts, leaves and stains but the act of looking reminds you that the surface is abstract a bit like a Jackson Pollock painting.

A photograph is not the thing photographed. That is the paradox of photography. You tend to look through a photo onto the thing that was in front of the camera. The print itself, in a way, is not there, it’s just a window. Obviously, this illusion doesn’t occur with paintings, except momentarily in the case of trompe l’oeil.

This issue of the ambivalent physical presence of the print surface in photography is the subject of Surface Tension, the exhibition where Coolidge’s photograph was shown. The wall label neatly describes his effect: “Resolutely flat yet teeming with detail, the picture stands as a sly monument to the concreteness of the photographic object.”

.

.