Friday, June 28, 2013

Juilliard Jazz Ensembles

This article was originally published on December 11, 2012

Last evening's Juilliard Jazz Ensembles at Paul Hall was a pleasant performance of low key jazz standards from Hoagy Carmichael's The Nearness of You to Frank Perkins' Stars Fell on Alabama.

All was polite and proper, though I'm not sure that's what jazz was ever intended to be. Before the music began, the Artistic Director, Carl Allen, came out to introduce the musicians and thank everyone for coming. The students, clean cut and in jacket and tie, were all so earnest that they were impossible not to like. In the first half, 16 year old Beka Gochiashvili stood out both for his arrangements and his piano playing. The two ensembles had obviously rehearsed as hard for the occasion as any big jazz band from the past.

If there were any shortcoming, it was that the music was played too reverently, as though it had already been consigned to a museum. All the pieces had been so meticulously arranged that one longed for one extended riff or improvisation even from musicians as young as these.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Midsummer Night Swing: Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

Opening night for the annual Midsummer Night Swing at Lincoln Center at Damrosch Bandshell was a beautiful evening yesterday with clear skies and warm temperatures. Although access to a professional dance floor was available for a $17 admission, this was basically a free concert for the Lincoln Square neighborhood where anyone could dance on the plaza pavement or else sit on ledges along the plaza walls and listen to the live music.

The concert began at 7:30 after an hour of ballroom dance lessons.  The music was big band swing from the 1940's and 1950's era.  It featured such music as Benny Carter's arrangement of All of Me and his original composition Again and Again written when he was age 88 according to an announcement from the stage.  Surviving members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra were on hand to play that composer's classics as well as pieces made famous by Count Basie.  The performance of music by the late bandleader Tito Puente added a Latin flavor to the proceedings.

This was a casual fun evening when everyone got to relax and have a good time while listening to great jazz musicians, including the legendary Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, as they performed popular masterpieces from a bygone era.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Egon Schiele Exhibit at Galerie St. Etienne

This article was originally published on December 7, 2012

Yesterday, I went to view the exhibit Egon Schiele's Women currently on view at Galerie St. Etienne on West 57th Streeet. The display of roughly fifty drawings and watercolors spans Schiele's entire career and demonstrates the development, not only of his art, but of his relationship to women as well. This as the role of women in European society itself changed dramatically in the years immediately preceding World War I.

Egon Schiele, of course, died tragically young at age 28 in the great flu pandemic of 1918. Consequently, there is no "mature" body of work by which to judge the evolution of the artist. The directions which Schiele may have explored in later life can only be inferred from the body of his youthful work. 

What most caught my attention yesterday was the artist's uncanny ability to capture the entire personality of a given model in the briefest desciption of her expression. In even the most graphically sexual works, at least those where the model's face is shown, what dominates the image is not the erotic pose but rather the eye contact between model and artist. Time and again, it was the eyes that Schiele detailed rather than the nude figure itself. As the catalog notes:
"The girls' forthright stares challenge the primacy of the male gaze, blurring the boundary between subject and object that had heretofore been central to the genre of the nude."
There can be no doubt, after viewing these works on paper, that Schiele's great gift was for portraiture. Without knowing anything of his models, we have only to glance at a drawing to perceive immediately the entire temperment of the sitter. This psychological intimacy elevates the erotic works beyond the mere display of carnality to a penetrating study of individual character.

The exhibit continues through December 28, 2012.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Met Orchestra Performs Beethoven and Stravinsky

This article was originally published on December 3, 2012

Yesterday's matinee by the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall was one of the longest concerts I've attended in recent memory. A full two and a half hours, it began with a 2007 piece by Sofia Gubaidulina entitled In tempus praesens. From the Latin title on, this violin concerto was much too self indulgent. Most particularly, contemporary composers should realize they need not include every known instrument when orchestrating a given piece. In this case, I believe a smaller ensemble would have much better served Ms. Gubaidulina's stated intent. As it was, the work was redeemed by the excellent playing of concertmaster David Chan.

A quarter centuy ago, one could not go through a season without hearing at least two performances of Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto in E flat, Op. 73. If ever there was a warhorse, it was this finale of the composer's heroic period, complete with rousing martial music. In the past few years, though, this same piece, perhaps because it has become overfamiliar, has not been played nearly as often. Yesterday, Yefim Bronfman gave a sturdy run through backed by Fabio Luisi's fine conducting. While the performance may have revealed nothing new, it was a pleasure to once again hear this old standby.

At 5:00 p.m., when a two-hour the concert normally would have ended and members of the audience were beginning to leave, the orchestra launched into Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. The program noted that the 1945 version played by the orchestra retained "the most material from the ballet." Considering that this was a youthful and somewhat derivative excursion by the composer, that may have made it a dubious choice in spite of the work's historical importance.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Met Museum: Punk: Chaos to Couture

The current exhibit at the Met,  Punk: Chaos to Couture, is one of the museum's more frivolous attempts to find filler to put on display for the summer season.

At base, the exhibit, as its title implies, explores the conundrum faced by fashion designers when forced to create extremely expensive couture fashions patterned after originals that were largely DIY inspirations made from worn cast-off tee shirts and slashed  jeans.  As one might expect, the exhibit abounds with such catchphrases as "bricolage" and with references to Duchamp's "readymades."  In contrast, the Punk ethos itself is reduced to window dressing for the fashions shown.  All the raucous elements of rebellion and youthful angst have been thoroughly sanitized.  There is none of the vulgarity that characterized Punk expression or the violence that underlay it, and any references to controversial figures such as Sid Vicious have been carefully avoided. The viewer is left to wonder what the movement was all about in the first place.

The elegant fashions lined up one beside the other - with wall size photos of such Punk archetypes as Johnny Rotten enshrined at each end - are definitely fun to view, though they appear quite uncomfortable to actually wear.  The most successful, including a long black gown by Moschino complete with black leather gloves, are those which seem to have the least to do with Punk.  Others, such as voluminous skirts made from plastic trash bags, appear more academic exercises than actual clothing.  A viewer can only speculate to what functions the designers envisioned their fashions being worn.  They are hardly the couture one expects to encounter at opening night at the Met Opera.

The exhibit's greatest success is its own design.  It eschews authenticity in favor of style.  The recreation of CBGB's bathroom, no matter how exact, is unrecognizable without the stench of urine that permeated the original.  The music that plays in the background is never loud enough to be intrusive.  The dim lighting pays hushed reverence to fashion by suggesting the darkened interior of a church rather than the grimy setting of a rock concert.  Any apropos suggestion of obscenity or violence has been carefully excised.

The exhibit continues through August 14, 2013.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Whistler in Venice

This article was originally published on December 1, 2012

Palaces in the Night: Whistler in Venice by Margaret F. McDonald is a fascinating look at the period in the artist's life that immediately followed the infamous Ruskin trial. Bankrupt and with his reputation as an artist seriously damaged, Whistler was forced to leave England for a sojourn in Venice where he sought to fulfill a commission from the British Fine Arts Society for a series of etchings depicting the famous locale. Though he had originally planned to stay in Venice for only three months, he eventually remained for more than a year and then brought back to London a stunning assortment of graphic works and pastels.

It is one of art's great ironies that Whistler is today known in America primarily for his almost photo realistic portrait of his mother (originally titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1) and not at all for the revolutionary style of painting he introduced in his nocturnes nor for his accomplishments as a graphic artist. This book goes a long way to correct that misapprehension, not only by lavishly reproducing the Venetian work almost in its entirety, but also by providing insight into Whistler's work habits and the actual methods he used in creating his art. This includes a detailed exploration of the etching process itself. 

Whistler's work in Venice had a profound effect on pictorialist photography, most particularly upon the work of Alvin Langdon Coburn as well as Stieglitz' Photo Secession. As Eric Denker notes in his review of the Corcoran exhibit Whistler and His Circle in Venice:
"Whistler's approach to Venetian subjects also had an important influence on photography. The American photographer Alfred Stieglitz admired Whistler's work and took an interest in his re-definition of Venetian subjects. Stieglitz visited Italy in the summer of 1887 and returned to Venice seven years later in 1894. His photographs of this period demonstrate a clear understanding of Whistler's interest in the picturesque canals and abstract formal elements of Venice. In several cases, the Stieglitz photographs bear an uncanny resemblance to Whistler's formats and presentation."
Palaces in the Night, of course, only deals with one particularly productive interval in Whistler's life. Anyone interested in the entire tumultuous career of this irascible artist might first want to read Stanley Weintraub's excellent biography. As for Venice itself, John Julius Norwich in Paradise of Cities writes engagingly of the time spent there in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by a wide array of eccentric figures, including Byron and Wagner.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Juilliard Quartet Performs Beethoven Op. 131 and 132

This article was originally published on November 27, 2012

Years ago, I attended a faculty recital by the Juilliard Quartet at Alice Tully featuring Bach's Die Kunst der Fugue and couldn't believe how lucky I was to have heard such an incredible performance for any price, let alone for free. I had the same feeling yesterday evening as I heard the Quartet perform two of Beethoven's greatest pieces of music, the Op. 131 in C sharp minor and the Op. 132 in A minor

I first came to know these pieces through the Guarneri Quartet's recordings and live performances in the 1980's at the Met Museum. I also have Leonard Bernstein's dramatic recording with the string section of the Vienna Philharmonic of the Op. 131, based on an arrangement by his mentor Dmitri Mitropoulos

As a non-musician, I cannot even begin to describe these quartets' complexity or the extent of the composer's innovations. I can only sit transfixed by the sheer lyrical beauty of Op. 132's third movement, the long section where Beethoven confronted his own death and gave thanks for his recovery from a serious illness. As for the Op. 131, I can do no better than quote the appreciation written by Wagner for the centenary of Beethoven's birth:
“Tis the dance of the whole world itself: wild joy, the wail of pain, love's transport, utmost bliss, grief, frenzy, riot, suffering, the lightning flickers, thunders growl: and above it the stupendous fiddler who bears and bounds it all, who leads it haughtily from whirlwind into whirlwind, to the brink of the abyss - he smiles at himself, for to him this sorcery was the merest play - and night beckons him. His day is done.”
As for the Juilliard Quartet itself, this is a time of great change for a group that originally formed in 1946. After having added Joseph Lin as first violinist only last year, the group is now celebrating its final season with violist Samuel Rhodes who first joined the quartet in 1967.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

NY Philharmonic: Brahms and Dvorak

This article was originally published on November 25, 2012

If nothing else, Antonin Dvorak should be remembered as the first serious composer to recognize the contributions of Afro-American and Native American music to American culture. Perhaps because he was only a visitor here, his European sensibilities were not blinded by the racism that even today keeps Americans from an appreciation of these sources. Certainly, in his 9th Symphony, Dvorak did not hesitate to quote these influences in his sweeping tribute to the "New World" just as he had previously incorporated elements of Bohemian folk music in his Slavonic Dances. And his music is all the richer for that. Very few other orchestral works capture so well the American spirit as does this piece, which was premiered by the Philharmonic under Anton Seidl at Carnegie Hall in 1893.

I had never previously heard of Andrey Boreyko and was, quite frankly, not expecting too much from a holiday replacement. (Alan Gilbert had originally been scheduled to conduct yesterday's Saturday matinee.) But though Boreyko's style on the podium was a bit mannered, he led the orchestra through an extremely sharp and rousing performance of the Dvorak that was among the best I'd heard of this particular work. I'm looking forward to hearing him conduct again, whether with the Philharmonic or another orchestra.

The opening piece, Brahms' Op. 34, the Piano Quintet in F minor, was well served by members of the Philharmonic and Emanuel Ax, this season's artist in residence with the orchestra. I have an incredible recording of this work by the Guarneri Quartet with Artur Rubinstein that I play often and that serves me as a benchmark in evaluating other performances. The Philharmonic members, if they did not quite attain this level, still came very close, anchored by the formidable musicianship of Glenn Dicterow on first violin and ably assisted by Sheryl Staples, Cynthia Phelps and Carter Brey. Ax, though never my favorite pianist, was yesterday quite excellent in his accompaniment.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Chinese Gardens Exhibit at Met Museum

This article was originally published on November 23, 2012

The Asian pavilions at the Met Museum are oases of quiet amid the bustle. A feeling of serenity is cultivated that makes the viewer forget he is in NYC. The Chinese Gardens exhibit currently showing fits perfectly into this atmosphere. As the museum's description notes: 
"Artists were called upon not only to design gardens but also, as gardens came to be identified with the tastes and personalities of their residents, to create idealized paintings of gardens that served as symbolic portraits reflective of the character of the owner."
The paintings themselves depict a romanticized world where the sublimity of nature dominates and men appear only as tiny incidental figures, if at all. In a work such as Yuan Jiang's The Palace of Nine Perfections, from the Qing Dynasty, mythic palaces are placed among highly stylized mountains to create an effect of transcendental beauty. This painting is actually a series of hanging scrolls which, when placed side by side, becomes one of the largest works on display. 

Where the exhibit really excels is in the section described as "Secluded Temples and Rustic Retreats" which contains stunning examples of Song Dynasty landscape painting, many on handscrolls. When looking at low key, almost monochromatic works such as Summer Mountains or Conversation in a Cave, the viewer is able to enter into a trancelike world that becomes almost a form of visual meditation. This tradition is carried on by later painters such as Dai Jin in Returning Home through the Snow from the Ming Dynasty. 

The exhibit runs through January 6, 2013 and must be seen by anyone with even the slightest interest in Chinese landscape painting.

Friday, June 14, 2013

George Bellows Exhibit at Met Museum

This article was originally published on November 21, 2012

Anyone with a love of New York City should rush to see the George Bellows exhibit now showing at the Met Museum. Along with fellow artists in the Ashcan School, all pupils of Robert Henri, it was Bellows who best captured the teeming life of the tenements and city streets. This was as far as one could get from the mannered work, imitative of European classical painting, that had hitherto defined American art. Here instead was a muscular American realism that found its nexus in the slums of the Lower East Side and in Manhattan's fight clubs. There was no sentimentality in paintings such as Cliff Dwellers (1913) nor any explicit critique of social injustice, just a gritty depiction of everyday life as poor New Yorkers lived it. The prizefight paintings evoke perfectly the excitement of the crowd and the sweat and hard punches of the boxers themselves. Even a studio painting of an older model disregards the genre's classical motifs to display the sagging breasts and veined flabby legs of a middle aged woman. There is no glamor here, only the depiction of another poor person's work day.

The Met exhibit is extensive, even if it fails to include several signature works, and happily emphasizes Bellows' graphic work as well as oils. In fact, it is the lithographs that more fully capture the life of the city. There is also an attempt to chronicle the artist's lesser known work. But the World War I propaganda and the studied studio portraits are unconvincing and do not rise to the same level as the street work, perhaps because they were done from commercial motives alone. On the other hand, Bellows' paintings of the sea, completed in Maine, are excellent and rival the work of Winslow Homer in this genre.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Galerie St. Etienne: Face Time

Although it may seem unduly academic to begin a review of an exhibit of Expressionist works by first defining the term itself, I have encountered at least two exhibits (the one under discussion and an earlier show at the Neue Galerie) in recent months where the term "Expressionist" seems to have been applied much too broadly.

The Wikipedia article on Expressionism begins as follows:
"Expressionism was a modernist movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists sought to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality."
Without entering into a detailed discussion of the origins of Expressionism in Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) and Die Brücke (The Bridge) schools, the above would seem as good a working definition as is needed to differentiate the style from other movements in modern German art.  It is clearly distinct, for example, from both the Viennese Secession and the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), both of which had entirely different aims and methods.

The problem I had at both the Neue Galerie exhibit and the current exhibit at Galerie St. Etienne is that a number of the works shown seem to have been indiscriminately placed under the Expressionist umbrella when they in fact have little or nothing to do with that movement.  More specifically, while such works as Klimt's pencil drawing Woman in a Kimono (1914) and Schiele's early (1907) charcoal Portrait of a Lady are well worth viewing in themselves, I see in them no connection to Expressionism as I understand it.

The actual focus of the current show, no matter what its appellation, is the work of Marie-Louise Motesiczky, a member of the Hapsburg aristocracy who was forced to flee to London in 1938 following the German Anschluss.   Ms. Motesiczky was an extremely talented artist and her Psychoanalyst (oil on canvas, 1962), a masterpiece of Expressionist painting, is rightfully used as the exhibit's avatar.  Likewise, the artist's portraits of her mother, shown in all her obesity, are fascinating.  I think, though, that Ms. Motesiczky would have been better served by a solo show rather than by placing her portraits alongside such works as Schiele's Standing Male Nude (1912) with which it shares no stylistic affinities nor any other apparent connection.

The guide which the gallery has prepared to accompany the show is itself an exercise in frustration.  The placement of the works is completely out of sequence with the numbering provided in the guide.  Moreover, the numbered works listed in the guide end at #70 (where the printer ran out of space) while there are several works on display which are given higher numbers and for which no attribution or technical data are therefore provided.  In addition, #70 itself (Vision, a posthumous portrait of the composer's wife), a rare example of Schoenberg's artistic endeavors that I had been anxious to view, is not on display.  I was told it was currently hanging at Art Basel.

The exhibit continues through June 28, 2013.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Noir Style

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on November 19, 2012

The Noir Style by Alain Silver and James Ursini is a seminal book for anyone interested in creating atmospheric photographic lighting and should be part of any photographer's library, most especially those who still shoot with black & white film.

The book consists of publicity stills, largely taken from the golden age of Hollywood film noir. The authors carefully analyze each photo to show how lighting is used to create an atmosphere of dread and suspense. Along the way, the book pays tribute to the masters of noir lighting, particularly the great John Alton, whose contributions have not received nearly the credit due them.

As anyone who has read Cornell Woolrich knows, there is an existential component to noir as it follows its protagonists down a rabbit hole, watching as they are pulled from their everyday lives and entrapped in a senseless world of crime and violence. Almost always, this fall takes place in a big city environment where individuals are reduced in size among towering skyscrapers that symbolize the megalithic forces threatening to crush them. And the action is almost always set at night in order to better emphasize the protagonists' distance from the sunlit workaday world where all is neat and in order.

The photographs included in The Noir Style are definitely not a nostalgic tribute to the big stars of Hollywood's studio era. Most of the films were intended as "B" movies and star character actors whose hardened features are hardly flattered by the films' harsh lighting. This is entirely appropriate since noir films were never intended as escapist fare. Instead, they show the underside of the American dream and the ease with which an ordinary person can slip off track into a milieu where murder takes the place of law.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Juilliard Orchestra Performs Barber, Britten and Beethoven

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on November 17, 2012

One of the best kept secrets among music lovers is the series of free concerts and operas available during the school term at the Juilliard School at Lincoln Center

Yesterday evening, Jeffrey Kahane conducted the orchestra in two rarely heard pieces of twentieth century music. The first was Samuel Barber's First Symphony, Op. 9, a relatively short piece with a huge debt, as the program noted, to the music of Sibelius. The symphony is a world away from the more romantic and much better known Adagio for Strings, even though both were composed at roughly the same time circa 1935. 

The second piece was Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto, Op. 15, and featured Stefani Collins as soloist. This is a beautiful piece, much more romantic than most twentieth century music, and deserves to be heard more often. From its haunting percussive opening, the melodic music holds the audience spellbound. As soloist at this performance, Ms. Collins was wonderfully adept and appeared totally at ease playing even the most difficult passages.

There's not much that can be said about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony that hasn't already been said a thousand times before. This is probably the most famous piece in all classical music. To his credit, Jeffrey Kahane led a vigorous performance that adhered to the composer's original metronome markings and fully evidenced just how revolutionary the piece must have sounded at its premiere.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Met Opera: Un Ballo in Maschera

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on November 13, 2012

In an interview in the program notes, David Alden, the director of the new production of Un Ballo in Maschera at the Met Opera, asks: "But do people know what this opera really is and the madness within this piece -- the danger within it, and also the almost schizophrenic layering under the realistic surface?" While I give Alden every credit for sensing the madness that underlies many of Verdi's great operas and also for removing this particular work from its ridiculous Boston locale, I think he has gone too far in his attempt to uncover these schizophrenic layers. The disparate expressionist elements which he has created have in the end little to do with Sweden, Verdi or even each other. The opening of Act I seems to be set in the lobby of midtown bank while the first half of the third act appears to have appropriated a leftover set from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In the end, especially in the final masked ball scene with its crazily tilting floor, these elements become more a distraction to the audience than an enhancement to the production.

But in opera the staging is always secondary to the music itself. And Un Ballo in Maschera, no matter what its setting, is one of Verdi's great operas. He wrote for it some his most haunting arias, both for solo and multiple singers. The music for Act II is among the most beautiful he ever composed. And, of course, there is throughout his mastery of the chorus that would reach its apogee in Otello.

In the performance I heard last evening, the music was well served, not only by Fabio Luisi's able conducting, but by the lead singers as well. In particular, Sondra Radvanovsky, was wonderful in the role of Amelia and repeatedly drew thunderous applause from the audience. The Argentinian tenor Marcelo Alvarez was every bit her equal in his performance as Gustavo. And Dmitri Hvorostovsky, whose baritone has anchored so many of the Met's productions, at times threatened to steal the show as Anckarstrom. Certainly his knife thrust at the finale was convincingly real.

Friday, June 7, 2013

American Darkness at Danziger Gallery

The show American Darkness currently on display at the Danziger Gallery is a joint exhibit of photography work by O. Winston Link and Gregory Crewdson.  According to the press release, Crewdson claims to have taken the title of the exhibit from a film review of Blue Velvet by Pauline Kael.  It definitely is a catchy title but has little to do with the work shown other than in the most literal sense.

Of course, it is the work of Link that is of most interest in the exhibit.  These consist of black & white 16x20 prints of elaborately staged photos of old time railroad locomotives taken in the 1950's at various points along the train tracks where the Norfolk and Western Railway intruded on Virginia and West Virginia suburbia.  As such, they possess great interest simply as pieces of vanished Americana.  But they also represent a tour de force of off-camera flash lighting using an enormous number of primitive flash bulbs.  I have never encountered a technical explanation of why Link made this choice since, to the best of my knowledge, the more easily controlled "strobe" lighting was even then available (Speedotron had set up shop in 1939).  As it was, the overpowering lighting used enabled Link to stop down the lens on his 4x5 view camera to achieve maximum depth of field at high shutter speeds.  Not only are the trains frozen in place but every detail in the frame is in sharp focus.

Although no technical information was provided, the gallery attendant informed me that the prints shown had been made by Link himself in the 1990's.  If so, he was exceptionally talented as a darkroom technician.  These prints are incredibly accomplished and display a mastery of printing technique.  The glossy paper he used has the look of Seagull which was an extremely popular choice among photographers during that period.

The works by Crewdson are also elaborately staged.  They consist of oversize digital prints of moody low-light scenarios apparently intended to emulate snapshots taken on the "wrong side of the tracks."  The low key lighting is well handled and unobtrusive.  I do not have any details regarding post processing.

Unfortunately, I was not able to view the entire exhibit because the "Project Room" where a number of Link's photos had been hung had been closed without notice for private use.  I do not know when or if full access to these photos will be restored.

The exhibit continues through June 14, 2013.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Spiritualist Photography

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on November 12, 2012

At the end of last month, the Guardian Blog posted an article by Ranjit Dhaliwal on nineteenth century spiritualist photography. It was an appropriate subject for a Halloween post. 

Spiritualist photography is best known in the U.S. through the work of a William H. Mumler, who was publicly exposed as a charlatan in a sensational trial in NYC that featured testimony against Mumler by showman P.T. Barnum (whose own Wikipedia entry describes him as a "scam artist"). Probably Mumler's greatest claim to fame was his photo of Mary Todd Lincoln with the "ghost" of Abraham Lincoln by her side. This, like all his other photos, was faked.

In the U.K., the best known practitioner of spiritualist photography was William Hope. Although he too was exposed as a fraud, this time by psychic researcher Harry Price, Hope continued to have many supporters, including Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle who hoped to communicate with the spirits of his dead wife and children.

Several years ago, the Metropolitan Museum had a fascinating exhibit of spiritualist photography, with accompanying catalog, entitled The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult. What's fascinating is that one of the curators who put that show together, Pierre Apraxine, gave the impression in a NY Times interview at the time that he was more open minded about the existence of the spirit world than might have been expected. Although he described himself as "a noncommitted observer," he also stated at another point in the interview: "I believe you can see a ghost, but that doesn't mean I believe in ghosts."

Coincidentally, the Met Museum is now currently hosting another show in a similar vein, this one entitled "Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop." The current show, which I have not yet had a chance to view, "traces the history of manipulated photography from the 1840s through the early 1990s." It primarily concerns itself with the use of manual techniques, rather than digital, to manipulate the content of a photograph.

All this brings to mind the quote by photographer Lewis Hine: "While photographs may not lie, liars may photograph."

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Joel Meyerowitz Exhibit at Howard Greenberg

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on November 10, 2012

I went yesterday to a retrospective of Joel Meyerowitz' work at the Howard Greenberg Gallery on 57th Street. It was a large sprawling exhibit (there were photos on the floor and on shelves as assistants and curators ran among the visitors moving works about) and probably as complete a view of the photographer's oeuvre as we are likely to get.

Meyerowitz is known primarily for his early adoption of color for use in street photography. But there's much more to his work than the use of color. A native of the Bronx, Meyerowitz' love of NYC can be seen in almost every shot. Seeing his photos placed side by side, the viewer becomes more aware of a gentle sense of humor and irony that pervades his highly personal photography. He's also done important work, as can be seen in Legacy: The Preservation of Wilderness in New York City Parks, in documenting and helping to preserve the beauty and wildness still to be found in public parks in NYC. Meyerowitz also photographed the aftermath of 9/11 and, according to the Wikipedia article, "was the only photographer allowed unrestricted access to its 'ground zero' immediately following the attack."

As far as street photography, Meyerowitz literally wrote the book. His 1994 Bystander: A History of Street Photography, written with Colin Westerbeck, is really the seminal study of its subject. In it, the authors display a deep understanding and sympathy for the work of the photographers shown. 

In looking at the work now on display, I was drawn to the black & white photos from Meyerowitz' early career. A curator confirmed for me that these were all vintage prints with only two exceptions. Unfortunately, those two are the most iconic photos shown. One is the photo of a woman smoking a cigarette at a lunch counter and the other of the movie ticket seller whose face is obscured by a round speaking grill directly in front of it. While it's understandable that vintage prints for these photos could not have been located after so many years, I think it would have been more appropriate to have made prints in a wet darkroom from the negatives rather than having resorted to the use of digital printing.

Due to Meyerowitz' enormous output of the years, the exhibit at Howard Greenberg is in two parts. The first, covering the years 1962 to 1977, will be on display until December 1, 2012. The second half will be shown from December 7, 2012 through January 5, 2013. A handsomely produced two-volume limited edition catalog, containing a signed print, accompanies the exhibit.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Artist and the Camera

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on November 5, 2012

The Artist and the Camera: Degas to Picasso is, in spite of its often abstruse text, a fascinating look at a number of late nineteenth century artists who interacted with the relatively new medium of photography and whose work was thereafter strongly influenced by it if not totally transformed. Based on an exhibit held in 2000 at the Dallas Museum of Art, essays by several scholars trace the revolutionary impact photography had on the nineteenth century art world. The stories of several of the most prominent artists, such as Degas, Rodin, Brancusi and Picasso are already well known; but the influence photography had on a number of others, such as Moreau, Munch, Khnopff, Mucha and even Gauguin, has been more obscure.

What's most interesting is the artists' almost unanimous insistence that photography was not an art form in itself but merely a mechanical means of reproduction that could assist traditional artists in the development of their own work and document it more thoroughly than had hitherto been possible. This was true even of artists, such as Degas, who vigorously pursued photography for its own sake and built up a considerable body of work. What comes across here is the fear these artists had that photography could one day supplant their own processes to offer a more faithful vision of the world about them. Perhaps the best known case is that of Rodin who began by totally distrusting photography only to arrive at the conclusion that use of the medium by a great photographer like Steichen could result in a collaboration that would create new levels of meaning to those who viewed both his sculptures and Steichen's photographs of them. Certainly, Steichen's nighttime photographs of Rodin's Balzac are masterpieces in their own right. The gum bichromate and direct carbon printing techniques that were used in creating the original prints are incredibly complex.

The reproductions of both artwork and photographs in the book are of high quality and present their arguments much more forcefully than does the accompanying text. Unfortunately, many of the essayists, while no doubt quite knowledgeable on the subject at hand, write in a forced academic style that can be quite difficult for the general reader to follow. This is a shame because so many of the ideas presented are of interest not only to scholars but also to photographers and artists who wish to learn more of the interaction between early photography and other forms of artistic media.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Henry Fox Talbot Exhibit at Hans P. Kraus Gallery

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on October 31, 2012

I had not previously visited the Hans P. Kraus Gallery on Park Avenue. When I went there this past Friday, Photo Expo was still continuing at the Javits Center and I expected the gallery to be packed with photographers eager to see the original work of Henry Fox Talbot. After all, academic quibbles aside, these represent the very first photographic negatives and prints ever made. To my astonishment, I was the only person present during the half hour I spent there. 

This was the experience every exhibit should create and none ever do. As I moved about the small gallery space, I was able to take my time and to give each piece the attention it deserved. It was even possible to imagine myself a nineteenth century guest at Lacock Abbey and to realize how startling these ancient faded images must have appeared to those who had never before seen a photograph. Most of the negatives and prints on display were familiar to those who have studied the origins of photography. There were views of Lacock Abbey itself as well as landscapes and photograms of leaves and other objects. I felt sympathy for the long dead figures in some of these photos who had been forced by the slowness of the calotype process to hold a stiff pose for an uncomfortable length of time. One great advantage for any darkroom enthusiast was that several negatives were paired with the "salt prints" which had been made from them.

One component rarely mentioned in a review of any art exhibit is the quality of the catalog which accompanies it. It can be extremely difficult to appreciate art when one is compelled at the same time to wade through pages of scholarly text that is almost incomprehensible to the layman. At this exhibit, the level of writing was excellent and the illustrations were also of the highest quality . The text was by Larry Schaaf who, together with the late Helmut Gernsheim, must be considered the leading authority on early photographic processes and who writes with a facility equal to his knowledge. I already own Schaaf's books Out of the Shadows and The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot and have found both to be invaluable resources for the study of the first years of British photography.