Vintage Providence – a Photographic Journey on Weybosset Street

I have many fond memories of exploring downtown Providence during my art school days at the Rhode Island School of Design. It was somewhat decayed and run down and I liked that aspect.  I already wrote about historic buildings and personal memories of past haunts on Westminster Street, in an earlier and more comprehensive blog. The oldest street traversing downtown Providence, Weybosset Street curves along its length, intersecting with Westminster at the northeast end. The origins of Weybosset date back to the Pequot Indian Trail, which originally traversed the southern edge of Weybosset Hill at its northeast end. A bluff existed on the narrow eastern end of Weybosset Neck at the current site of the Turks Head building. The name used by Indians for the crossing point in the Providence River between the east and west sides was Waubosset, which means “at the narrow passage.” In the 18th to 19th centuries, various parts of Weybosset (especially from Dorrance to Chestnut Street) were called Broad Street, however, by 1893, the entire length was known as Weybosset. Until 1964, Weybosset curved north to meet Westminster in front of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. The western portion of the street was closed to create the Weybosset Hill Redevelopment Project parcel. And in 1978, the Westminster Center Project transformed the street into a uniform width from Mathewson to Dorrance Street, while creating a park like area on the street’s north side.   The Arcade, 65 Weybosset   Built in 1828, the Arcade is the nation’s oldest indoor shopping mall featuring Greek Revival columns, granite walls, and classic facades. I found a few charming trade cards from Arcade businesses, pictured in the above gallery. The Arcade is a commanding presence on both Westminster and Weybosset Streets. It was designated a National Historic Landmark…

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Connecting the Past to Present in NYC Photographs

Over the last two years, I have scanned black and white negatives and a few color slides I shot in NYC between late 1976 and 1980 when I was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. My older sister lived in various apartments in SoHo and Greenwich Village and I visited every chance I got on school breaks. I enlarged and matted about 25 of these photos and took them with me when I moved to Rotterdam, the Netherlands in July 1980. I never printed any of the other photos, so scanning them provided an avenue of rediscovery of my own youth and a gritty NYC that no longer exists. This project summoned an array of emotions and memories about this “coming of age” period in my life and the inevitable passage of time.     In 1981, I showed these photos in Rotterdam and got some press, one of which was a little critical and missed the point of my photographs. The critic said that my photographs lacked the social commentary of Bruce Davidson’s work. Although I admire Davidson’s work, it was never my intention to emulate his socially conscious photography. A few select photographers informed my early photographic work – especially those who worked for the Farm Security Administration, such as Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Jack Delano, and the great photographer Berenice Abbott. Today, my photos have far more meaning than they did back then because they picture a NYC that no longer exists due to gentrification, over commercialization, and greed disguised as progress. NYC in the 1970s I was a little astonished that I ventured into areas that were considered dangerous back in the 1970s, as evidenced by many articles written on this dark and turbulent era in NYC history. Yes, the city was edgy and…

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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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