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The Father of Us All

Today the Metropolitan Museum of Art opens “Monumental Journey,” a show featuring the work of the most famous photographer you never heard of, Frenchman Girault de Prangey. In the 1840s Girault traveled throughout the Eastern Mediterranean with over 100 pounds of photographic equipment, plates and chemicals; he returned with more than 1,000 daguerrotypes, the brand new visual medium he would help define at the very moment of its birth. His images, which the Met has curated in a gorgeously designed exhibit — the galleries have been darkened and the works lit from behind to minimize glare from the glass plates — are the earliest surviving photographs of Greece, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jerusalem. Many are historically important because they capture lost details and architectural elements: graffiti on Pompey’s Column in Alexandria, long since erased; the top tier of a minaret at Khayrbak Mosque in Cairo that disappeared shortly after his visit; a Frankish Tower in the Acropolis, demolished in 1875.

Aleppo, Viewed from the Antioch Gate, 1844; Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. John A. Moran Gift, in memory of Louise Chisholm Moran, Joyce F. Menschel Gift, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 2016 Benefit Fund, and Gift of Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler, Theresa Sackler and Family, 2016

Girault was the first photographer to document the built environment, and like so many Romantic artists he was attracted to ruins: the Parthenon; Temples of Artemis, Castor and Pollux, Vesta, Vespassian, Nike; Hadrian’s Villa; the Roman Forum. He captured close-up details, like the capital of a column from an Egyptian temple, and also created larger landscapes like the stunning Roman Forum, Viewed from the Palatine Hill (1842):

Girault de Prangey (French, 1804–1892) Roman Forum, Viewed from the Palatine Hill, 1842 Daguerreotype 3 3/4 × 9 11/16 in. (9.5 × 24.6 cm) Harry Ransom Center, Univ. of Texas, Austin


This photograph is a work of art that shows Girault’s two great loves: architecture — note the dual domes in the middle ground and a little ruin in the lower right — and botany: observe the magnificent cypress tree that cuts a diagonal through the entire composition and connects those two worlds, natural and built.

Stephen C. Pinson, the curator in the Met’s photography department, noted in the press conference that Girault saw intuitively something we all take for granted nowadays: how to see the world photographically. It’s hard to conceive how stunningly new this vision was in the 1840s: people saw, in his images, the first camel, the first person at the Wailing Wall, the first photograph of a Bedouin woman. Pinson observed that Girault’s contemporaries were experiencing innovations that compare with today’s experiments with virtual and augmented reality. He quite literally changed the way people saw the world — their own (see the the plant study below, from his garden in Paris) as well as strange, exotic lands that were previously unimagined.

One of my favorites in the show is Plant Study, Paris, 1841, a close-up in which Girault exhibits his obsession for plants: their textures, shapes, and the way they insinuate themselves into the built world, in this case against a stone wall. You can’t actually see the green on that veined leaf but it’s so realistically, and so vibrantly, presented in this daguerrotype that you can hold the color in your mind as you gaze at it.

Plant Study, Paris, 1841; National Collection of Qatar, Bibliotèque nationale de France, Paris

Today the High Line, like every public space, is filled with “photographers” who reach into their pockets to pull out a little computer — it weighs less than a single bottle of mercury, whose vapors Girault used to develop his images — and shoot the striking array of architecture that lines both sides of the park: new and old, industrial and hi-tech, commercial and residential. Often we frame our shots with horticulture to show not only the juxtaposition of the built world with the natural one, but also the narrative of this place: how it emerged, from the railroad era via landscape architecture and horticulture, into a great public park.

The story of the High Line is as much a tale of photography — it was Joel Sternfeld’s powerful images that jump-started the restoration effort — as it is of adaptive reuse. It’s worth a trip to the Met to see where, and with whom, it all began. Below are a few random shots I pulled from my database that in some way owe a debt to Girault de Prangey. There are zillions more in the ten years of posts on this blog and my book, On the High Line. [As always, click an image to enlarge it.]

Railroad tracks, iron pipe railings, prairie grasses

The viaduct with Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’

The Coach Building, just completed, at Hudson Yards, with magnolias

General Theological Seminary, Empire State Building, Art Deco railing, Silphium perfoliatum

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The People’s Opera

The Mile-Long Opera, 14th Street

This week in Paris the Opéra National is celebrating its 350th anniversary. Trumpets will play the opening bars of Berlioz’s “Marche de Troyens,” there will be a parade of young ballerinas, gala parties, and of course music, including productions of an opera that had its flashy opening in 1836 (Meyerbeer’s “Les Huguenots”) and a recently completed one that will be having its premiere performance this week (Michael Jarrell’s “Bérénice”).

In New York we are being treated to our own very different but equally exciting opera moment: the deeply affecting “Mile-Long Opera” being performed this week on the High Line by some 1,000 singers from across the city. Their text was a collaboration too, assembled from interviews with New Yorkers about what 7pm means to them. As you walk through the park you pass the performers, a choral group as diverse the city itself. They are old and young; black, brown, white; every gender; professional and amateur. Some stand on little boxes, others sit. All their faces are lit, some by mobile devices, some by very cool baseball hats with LEDs under the visor.

A performer in the Mile-Long Opera

One of the most striking things about this opera is how quiet it is. No trumpets here; no instruments at all, in fact, just the voices of our neighbors, here to tell a simple story. As you walk you hear phrases: I put on my makeup; funny how money changes everything; funny how money changes nothing; everything reminds me of my mother; sometimes he comes home drunk. As you proceed through the park, some phrases repeat themselves in a new singer’s voice. I was powerfully struck by how many of the performers made direct eye contact with me as I passed, forcing me to slow down and listen.

That, for me, was the real power of this event, and it’s something we should all probably do more of. We don’t need trumpets; we have plenty of those. What we need is our neighbors, friends, colleagues, and utter strangers, sharing their stories, looking us in the eye, singing to us as we walk by on a beautiful October evening.

[update: you can now experience the Mile-Long Opera online in the “350 degree video” here. For more information about the creative team behind it, go here.]

The Mile-Long Opera, 22nd Street

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The Data Behind the Noise, Dust, and Glare Next Door

Sometimes words needs a holiday too.

Here’s a picture that captures what’s happening in New York City right now, courtesy of the Building Department’s recently launched, data-fueled online mapping tool.  It gives new meaning to phrase “built environment.”

NYC Dept. of Buildings Active Major Construction map

I’d like to thank the DOB for giving my words a much-needed rest.

You can check out the map and get details about the active projects going on in your neighborhood. But it might be better to watch Netflix instead.

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Goodbye, Lumberyard

During the era of the Industrial Revolution, the way-West Side of Manhattan was exploding with enterprise: ironworks, grain elevators, lard refineries, stockyards, abattoires, printing presses, candle factories and manufacturers of everything from cigars to pianos. The trains of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad rumbled up Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues, carrying many of these goods north along the Hudson River towards Albany, where they eventually connected with the newly-laid tracks of the Transcontinental Railroad and would make their way to towns and cities across the country.

The machines of the Industrial Revolution ran on steam, and in our neighborhood there were acres of lumberyards with steam-powered sawmills. One of the most common sites, as described by a New York Times reporter who made an excursion through the ‘hood in 1883, was “endless piles of lumber.”  He observed that “the Leaning Tower of Pisa has been copied as nearly as possible in the architecture of these piles.”

In my book about the High Line I described this area as “New York’s Lumberyard,” and there was a factory just half a block from the park on West 22nd Street. I’ve written about ghost signs before on this blog, and the one for “kiln-dried lumber” on the side of a condo known as the Eagle Building has long been one of my favorites. When I moved here a decade ago there was a short, nondescript, brick building occupied by the Balenciaga fashion company. A neighbor on the block used to stand on the loading dock and hurl a tennis ball up the cobblestoned street — then basically (blissfully, I should say) free of vehicular traffic — for his dog to fetch.

542 W. 22nd Street in 2012, © Google Maps

That low-slung building was recently torn down and the lot is now an active construction site. I’ve been photographing the old ghost sign over the past few months as the floors of the new building rise to cover it. Which, floor by floor, they now have done:

542 w. 22 Street, site excavation, July 2017

542 W. 22nd Street, June 2018

542 W. 22nd Street, July 2018

542 W. 22nd Street, 3 days later in July 2018

542 W. 22nd Street, August 2018

Adieu, friendly ghost sign.

 

 

 

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Consolations

The ubiquity of construction along the High Line and all its attendant noise, fumes, shadows, blocked views and dark spaces have been disconcerting for some years now. New projects large and small have transformed this once quiet, meditative place into an alley of incessantly loud, commercial energy. Real estate, New York City’s oldest business, is flourishing everywhere you look. The little surprises that made the High Line such a delightful place have slowly faded into the background of shiny, zesty new architecture.

But every so often you get lucky, and it happened to me this evening. It was a crazy windy day in New York. There were little waves on the Hudson River — a surfer’s paradise for small, watery creatures. On the High Line, which is always windier than street level, it was like being in a rainless squall. I was walking toward Gansevoort Street and just as I emerged from the 14th Street Passage there was a wonderful cacophony coming from the construction site at 40 Tenth Avenue. It was a little orchestra of clanging tones generated haphazardly by the the metal ends of those straps that hang from ceilings in construction sites nowadays. They were flailing around, hitting each other and making little bell-like sounds, sometimes in unison, sometimes in crazy rhythms that you might hear in a jazz club. This video captures just a moment or two:

There’s a story about Dave Brubeck that Stuart Isacoff tells in his book A Natural History of the Piano. Brubeck was famous for his improvisations in unorthodox meters, and according to Isacoff, his childhood experiences growing up on a 45,000 acre ranch were the source of his weird time signatures. When “your father sends you to fix a fence or start an engine, you are alone,” Brubeck recalled. “The sound of those little gas engines—Chu Chu Chu! Gitcha! Gitcha! Bu Ah Uh!—you never knew what they were going to do next. And when the horse would bring me somewhere, there was no one to talk to. So I became aware of the gait of the horse.” Isacoff says “He simply tuned in to all the rhythmic play going on around him.”

Somewhere in New York City, now that the sun has set and the night is young, a musician is channeling the weird beauty of a construction site along the High Line.

That’s a consolation.

 

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Marching for Their Lives — in 1908

One hundred and ten years ago 500 children “no bigger than the flags they carried” marched against a danger to themselves and helped make life safer for other kids.

The march was held on Saturday, October 24, 1908 in response to the gruesome death of a 7-year old named Seth Low Hanscamp. According to the Times, he was playing “Follow My Leader” with a group of friends, climbing on and over the cars of a freight train that had stopped in the middle of 35th Street and 11th Avenue, in violation of city law. Neither the conductor nor the brakemen were in their proper places when the train started up again and Seth fell beneath the wheels and was crushed. Nevertheless, the city coroner exonerated the train crew and blamed the accident on the child. According to one report, 198 young people were killed by trains on Tenth and Eleventh Avenues — collectively known as “Death Avenue” — over a ten year period beginning in 1888. During the darker afternoons in November, December, and January, there were on average three deaths of school children per month. According to the New York Times, many of them were crossing the train tracks in order to carry dinner to their fathers at work.

That night in 1908 the kids marched mostly in silence and carried placards demanding that all freight trains be prohibited from their city streets.

The effort to completely remove street-level trains from Manhattan would take another four decades, and it began in earnest with Robert Moses’ 1920s plan for the West Side Improvement. That master scheme included construction of the High Line, the elevated freight viaduct that was designed, in part, to get those long, dangerous trains off the street. It operated from 1934 to 1980, and is today a world-class park.

Young Seth was named for a New York City Mayor, Seth Low, who held office between 1901-1903. His promising life was cut short in a tragic accident, but his friends rallied in the streets to bring major change, resisted by legions of grownups, that would end up saving the lives of scores of other children after him.

It worked.

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