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.
I have been fascinated with the Triangle Fire tragedy since I was around 8-years-old. I first read about this disaster in a book entitled, Portal to America: the Lower East Side 1870-1925, edited by Allon Schoener. I paged through this book endlessly, honing my drawing skills by copying the photos of poor immigrants by Lewis Hine and others. Although there are just two pages on the Triangle Fire and one photo in this book, there are quite a few photos of garment workers and sweatshops that enthralled me as a child. I didn’t experience this depth of sadness again about the immigrant experience until I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle when I was a teenager. The hardships suffered by these immigrants and their remarkable resolve in a strange, foreign land was incredibly poignant to me, even as a child. I forgot about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire for many years and I am not sure what renewed my interest, but I delved into the subject like never before about 6 months ago. This is a tragedy of almost unspeakable sadness – one that still grips the imagination and attention of thousands of people every March 25, and forever in the hearts of relatives of victims and survivors. In preparation for my September 2013 NYC trip, I did as much research as possible – with the goal of writing some type of article and creating a collage as homage to the 146 souls who lost their lives more than 100 years ago. Tragically, these workplace disasters are still occurring today, especially in underdeveloped countries. Much has been written about the Triangle Fire and I do not endeavor to duplicate the efforts of others. I only hope to infuse it with something artistic, meaningful, and that does justice to the memories of the…
It’s a great place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. That is what one of the many intriguing characters I met in NYC during my 10-day trip said about Chicago. I guess I feel the same way about NYC, but I have to say, it is easier to engage in discussion with people in the Big Apple. Everybody wants to tell you his or her story. This makes for great conversation and good memories, but is ever so fleeting. You could be talking to somebody really interesting on the subway … and a few seconds later, poof – they are gone without even a goodbye. John and Alfred How delighted I was upon returning from a day uptown on the first Monday of my stay, when my daughter said, “There’s John Lithgow with some other guy walking down the street in our direction.” Of course she always sees celebrities, including Hugh Jackman, who goes to her health club, but for me this was a treat. Turns out they were shooting scenes for Love is Strange starring Lithgow, Alfred Molina, and Marisa Tomei, who unfortunately was not in these scenes. This shoot literally took place half a block away from my daughter’s apartment. After we went back to her apartment, I dropped off my stuff and went back out to shoot pictures with the other gawkers gathered on Seventh Avenue. The actors seemed bemused by all of this and I got some good shots.
I love NYC, but I wouldn’t want to live there. This sentiment was further cemented into stone when I stayed with my daughter for eight days this past December. The saga begins with my trip via shuttle from Laguardia Airport to Manhattan on a rainy Monday night. NYC Airporter purports to go to Penn Station, but in fact it drops you off at Grand Central where you wait endlessly for another shuttle to Penn Station which stops at countless hotels in between. After waiting 25 minutes in a misty rain outside Grand Central and rudely being told to move by an abrasive shuttle driver, I decided to take the subway downtown. Unfortunately, there was no escalator at the station and I had to drag my suitcase down 30 or so stairs. I took a train that was nowhere near my target location and had to walk eight or so blocks West on Houston Street. My daughter came running down the street to meet me about four blocks from her temporary digs. We had not seen each other since August 1, so it was a warm reunion, to put it mildly.
Just before I lost my high level position as director of communications for a national medical association in mid-June 2011, I read Just Kids by Patti Smith. In the darkest days after losing my job, I found inspiration and salvation in Patti Smith’s words. Just Kids also sparked a rediscovery of her groundbreaking music, but with a more appreciative, mature ear than I had at RISD when my freshman roommate played Horses day and night. Her cutting-edge punk rock music was a bit too hard for me back then, but listening to it some 30 years later made me fully comprehend the sheer genius and depth of her musical poetry. Below is a collage I created in homage to Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe that I exhibited in a group show at Studio 659. During my depths of despair, I played several Patti Smith songs over and over as if I was once again a young adult coming of age. Well, I guess in essence I did go through a rebirth of sorts spurred on by losing my high-paying job. Having more time on my hands enabled me to get back to my fine art and exhibiting my work. Gloria, Dancing Barefoot, People Have the Power, and the brilliant Horses among other songs inspired this burst of creativity … that continues to this day. While I haven’t had a major solo gallery show, I feel promise looming on the horizon.
As an impressionable young woman, I journeyed to fabled Manhattan from my relatively sheltered life as an art student at RISD in Providence, R.I. Upon alighting at Penn Station for the very first time, there was a bit of a glitch. My older, worldlier sister who had already been living in the Big Apple for 3 years had not given me clear instructions on where we were to meet. Those were the days before cell phones – there was no way to get in touch with her. I was an innocent 18-year-old in New York City wondering what the hell had happened to my sister – after about 40 minutes or so I decided to go search upstairs and there she was … my street-smart sister nearly as frantic as I. For a good part of this visit I was on my own – marveling at the gritty, wonderful streets of NYC. Camera in hand, I attempted to summon the spirits of dead immigrants on the Lower East Side, admired the Art Deco lines of the Empire State Building – imagining King Kong and Fay Wray at the top, and prowled Canal Street for Vintage. A longtime admirer of the photography of Bernice Abbott, Jacob Riis, Walker Evans, and Helen Levitt, I too desired to capture a moment in time in “The City that Never Sleeps.”