Downtown Providence – A Nostalgic Stroll Down Westminster Street

When I was an art student at the Rhode Island School of Design, I loved exploring downtown Providence and taking photographs. In celebration of the 40th anniversary of my RISD graduation on May 24, 1980, I’ll be posting a series of blogs looking back – featuring historic photos and postcards. The first blog is about Westminster Street and some of the wonderful landmark buildings that still exist. Also included are now-defunct businesses I encountered during my RISD years, as well as long-forgotten ones from the late-18th to early 20th centuries. I fondly remember walking on Westminster all the way past downtown to Olneyville to buy jewels at Wolf E. Myrow. During my RISD years, the portion of Westminster in downtown Providence was a pedestrian mall and closed off to vehicles. I loved the somewhat seedy quality of downtown Providence and would likely bemoan its gentrification if I returned. Department Stores Woolworth: Located at 185 Westminster in a five-story building from 1920, I would buy things at this five and dime now and then, but it didn’t have the charm of my favorite Chicago Woolworth store.     Thom McAn: I remember this retail chain on Westminster since it was near Woolworth, but I never went inside nor purchased shoes from this brand. Their retail stores closed in the late 1980s after being bought by K-Mart and subsequently Sears, who still sells this brand – that doesn’t bode well, although I think Walmart also sells them. Lerner Shops: Located in the former Wilkinson Building (mentioned separately later) at 210–216 Westminster, I never shopped here, nor at the location on State Street in Chicago. Founded in 1918 by Samuel A. Lerner and Harold M. Lane in NYC, New York & Company purchased the company in 2004 and they’re still in business.   …

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Jack Delano – Working on the Railroad All the Live Long Day

I’ve long admired the photography of Jack Delano, one of many talented photographers hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Works Progress Administration to document America, but knew little about him. When I discovered his masterful railroad photographs of Chicago, this provided inspiration to dig deeper. Born Jacob Ovcharov in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) in 1914, he immigrated with his parents and younger brother to the U.S. in 1923, settling in NYC. In addition to his photography, he was a prolific music composer and wrote children’s books with his wife Irene. When he was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1928-1932, Delano won a Cresson Traveling Scholarship. During his four-month fellowship in Europe, Delano bought a tourist camera, sparking his interest in photography. It’s also at school, during a beer-soaked party, that his classmates convinced him to change his name. A female friend suggested her own – Delano, while Jack had been adopted earlier in honor of the boxer Jack Dempsey. In 1941, he was sent on assignment to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands by the FSA. This had such a profound influence on him, he moved there in 1946 after serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a photographer in the Pacific and South America. Soon after moving to Puerto Rico, Delano became the official photographer of the government, chronicling the island’s transformation from agriculture to industry.  The book Photographic Memories was published by the Smithsonian shortly before his death in 1997. In it, Delano was quoted, “Light, color, texture and so on are, to me, important only as they contribute to the honest portrayal of what is in front of the camera, not as ends in themselves.” During his long career, Delano photographed coal miners, sharecroppers, railroad men, and Puerto…

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10 Female Artists I Didn’t Learn About in Art School

I’ve been reading old Art in America issues and it hit me like a ton of bricks that I learned only about a handful of female artists at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). I do remember the visiting artist Jackie Winsor talking about Eva Hesse and Ana Mendieta. On the other hand, we were introduced to many female authors and several famous ones gave lectures. I met Elaine de Kooning, who was a guest lecturer during my art history class with Baruch Kirschenbaum freshman year. She showed us photos of the sketches for her commissioned JFK painting, among other pieces. It made sense that she was invited to RISD – apparently she was tight friends with Lee Hall, then president of RISD. Hall would betray her good friend four years after de Kooning’s 1989 death from lung cancer in her book, Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage / The Lives of Willem and Elaine de Kooning. By all accounts, this was a salacious, tell-all, shoddily researched book with mediocre writing that was butchered by critics. I think the reason we didn’t learn about more female artists was tied to the era in which I went to RISD, 1976 – 1980. Moreover, many female artists who later gained fame were virtually unknown when I was in art school. So in honor of Women’s History Month, here are 10 trailblazing female artists I’m glad I learned about – better late than never. This list barely scratches the surface, but it’s a start.   Grace Hartigan (1922 – 2008): I certainly was aware of Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, but somehow didn’t know anything about Hartigan until recently. Interestingly, she was the first female Abstract Expressionist to gain fame in 1950, when art critic Clement Greenberg and art historian Meyer…

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A Visual Tribute to Barber Shops

As a fine artist and photographer, I’ve always been obsessed with barber shops – visually. I don’t particularly like going to beauty salons to get my hair cut. I think barber shops are far more interesting and less snooty. After graduating early from high school, I would go on outings with my mom (who is also an artist) on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, where I photographed interesting storefronts. Even back then I was drawn to barber shops. My admiration of a few select photographers informed my early photographic work – especially those who worked for the Farm Security Administration, such as Walker Evans and Russell Lee, as well as the great photographer Berenice Abbott. All of them took wonderful photos of barber shops.     Back when I was an art student at RISD, I photographed quite a few barber shops in Providence and NYC. Unfortunately, I didn’t note where the NYC barber shops were located, however, I do remember one because of the circumstances. The below barber (on Lafayette Street) came outside when he saw me photographing the exterior. He volunteered to pose, which seemed nice enough. Nobody else was there and after he made a few suggestive comments and asked inappropriate questions, I high tailed it out of there rather quickly.     Many barber shops are still decorated with really cool ephemera and antiques that add to the appeal of getting your hair cut. An example is the JMC Barber Shop, which I stumbled upon last August in Elmhurst, Ill. I have never seen such a visual explosion covering every imaginable wall space – you couldn’t possibly get bored when you get your hair cut here!   While I prefer my vintage late 1970s black and white shots, I have taken color photos of barber shops when…

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One Picture is Worth a Thousand Words … or a Little Less

  Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, or at the very least, a few hours of sleuth work. When I saw this wonderful Vivian Maier photograph, circa August 1960, the first thing I saw was Donald Koehler, once billed the world’s tallest man at 8 ft. 2 inches tall. I love the two ladies standing in the middle of the sidewalk – both appear to be looking at and talking about Koehler. I can almost hear them clucking their tongues in amazement. A fellow standing against the light post also appears to be looking at him from afar. Koehler was days away from his 35th birthday when Maier took this photo and she had turned 34 on February 1. Photographer and subject were exactly 5 months apart in age to the day.     I wrote briefly about Koehler in my first Lincolnwood blog. I remember seeing him get up after dining and walk through the aisle past my table at a little coffee shop on Cicero just north of Devon. I was very young, but an incredible visual sight like that tends to stay with you forever. His dad owned the card shop on Cicero, just north of Devon, in the same little strip mall as the coffee shop. The Koehlers didn’t live in Lincolnwood, but close enough in West Rogers Park. Believe it or not, Koehler had a twin sister who at a mere 5 ft. 9 inches tall was 29 inches shorter than her famous brother. He started growing abnormally at age 10, although it’s unclear when he was diagnosed with acromegaly, the pituitary disorder that results from excess growth hormone. This is the same disease that afflicted Sam Kappel, owner of Howard Clothes, who I wrote about in this blog.     Koehler won…

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New York City – Then and Now Photo Essay

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 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.

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Seeking Francesca Woodman – Retracing the Past

It Must be Time for Lunch Now, 1979

“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.

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Creativity Rules in the Lives of These Renaissance Celebs

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.

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Reflections on a New York City Christmas

WashingtonSquare Park - Christmas 2012

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.

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Ahead of Her Time – Jessie Tarbox Beals Paved a Path of Innovation for Female Photographers

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.

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