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Metropolitan Museum of Art

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


Painters in the Sky

Painters from Colossal Media at 20th Street

Painters from Colossal Media above the High Line at 20th Street

An amazing creative act is taking place right now on the High Line. If ever there was a reason to leave your desk and head out to the park, this is it. But go now, because it’ll be over soon.

Painters from a company called Colossal Media are working on a scaffold at 20th Street to paint a large ad for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I took a walk in the park yesterday, starting at 30th Street, where I immediately encountered a perfectly gorgeous mural on the side of an apartment building. This is the same wall where the artist JR did a huge pasting of Brandon Many Ribs from the Lakota Tribe as part of the Inside Out Project a year ago.

What’s so unusual about this Met ad is its richness and texture. I wanted to crawl over the railing and touch it, to see if it was real. It’s mesmerizing because it looks it like an actual painting, but it’s not hanging in a museum: it’s outdoors, painted on brick, concrete and a bit of glass (the windows of the building). You can see brushstrokes. It’s downright painterly. I stood there wondering: in this day and age, would anyone really paint an ad on a building?

Farther south I found my answer. Colossal Media — which includes its logo in the work — is painting a second piece for the Met, this time a beautiful seascape that looks like a Hokusai. They’re still at it this morning, but they’re about halfway through.

Colossal Media is an advertising company that specializes in hand-painted work. I found a short film by Malcolm Murray (watch it here on Vimeo) in which an old-timer and a few current employees talk about the unusual craft they practice. One guy gives a perfect explanation for why the effect is so startling. Regular advertisers, with their printed billboards, “can’t print what we paint,” he says. “They print in pixels, they mix colors optically, little dots. You know, blue and yellow together makes green. But we paint green, so we can make it a lot richer.”

The men speak about the apprenticeship behind the craft, a two-year process in which the young painters are commanded to watch and absorb. One describes how he wasn’t allowed to paint for two full years. Today, he aspires to become both a good painter and a good teacher.

They talk about how difficult it can be, when the wind blows hard and the entire rig sways 30 feet to one side. “It takes so much work that it’s kind of ridiculous,” one guy comments. But “It’s the way Michelangelo did the Sistine Chapel: he made patterns, used charcoal, mixed his own paint. There’s no easy way to do it, it’s just the way it is.”

The Met's Painted Billboard at 29th Street

The Met’s Painted Billboard at 29th Street, by Colossal Media

So right now you — I mean, really, right now — you have the opportunity to see this act of creation live. It’s just fascinating; they stand on the rickety scaffold, brush in one hand and an image of the work they are copying in the other. Perhaps this was a common sight in another century. Look up as you walk through the city streets and you’ll see the faded lettering of old hand-painted signs everywhere. In this neighborhood, around the High Line, you tend to see a lot of ads for printing and lumber companies, which were once prevalent here. A building on the north corner of 11th Avenue and 20th Street was recently torn down and above the rubble what suddenly appeared? An old hand-lettered sign. They are everywhere, hiding in plain sight.

Watching these men at work yesterday made me think the world would really be a better place if every advertisement were hand-painted. As I’ve said before: Run, don’t walk.


Colossal Media Painter at Work, 20th Street

Colossal Media Painter at Work, 20th Street