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In May 2007, in the middle of my four years living in the grand city of Chicago, my life course shifted a bit while walking through the Chicago History Museum in its new building at 1601 N. Clark Street.  http://www.chicagohs.org/.  I spent a fair amount of time at this museum during my years in Chi-town.  And, as I will do in any city in any country (Israel, France, Netherlands, England, Mexico, all around the United States, Canada), I will go out of my way to revel in black-and-white photography of cities and famous/infamous/ordinary people, architecture, sculpture, shapes and images, shadows and light.  In this May three years ago, I chanced upon an exhibit that honored a Chicago resident and internationally renowned photographer, character, and all around sweet guy.  “The Essential Art Shay: Selected Photographs”.  During this exhibit I saw the length and breadth of Art’s oeuvre.

I’ll share comments from my journal at the time, experiencing the exhibit.

“It’s midway through the exhibit.  I’ve worked through the first several rooms — very Walker Evans, this Art Shay man-of-the-street documentary style.  Art had a twinship and friendship with Nelson Algren that seems inevitable as one examines these images.  Algren’s words (if you know them) and Shay’s pictures installed here (many of handsome Algren himself) combine seamlessly.  Algren and Shay capturing the poor, the rich, the famous, the powerful — the people who live in and visit this fabulous city in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s …. ”

“There are some surprises.  Simone de Beauvoir bareback (well bare from the back) as she stands primping in a bathroom mirror.  An image of Elizabeth Taylor — 1960 or so — at a table at the Pump Room, Ambassador East — at the height of her luscious early middle age.  Waiting to light a cigarette.  In this picture of Elizabeth looking off to the side, perfectly composed .. we feel her life has been full, so full, of so many similar events.  Calm, collected, poised.”

“And the Bowery bums and 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention street images.  And then .. several ambling rooms in .. a room of entertainers and culture figures.  From left to right around the room (with year and ICHi numbers) —

  • Joseph McCarthy, 1950. 50576
  • Richard Daley and President Truman, 1960.  50553
  • President Eisenhower, 1954.  50554
  • JFK and Native Americans, 1960. 50585
  • Diana Ross and the Supremes, dressing room (looking sullen), 1963. 50581
  • Marlon Brando and dog, 1950. 50580 [image used on cover of Album for an Age]
  • Judy backstage at Arie Crown, 1962 [mislabeled 1963 on the tag]. 50579
  • Marcel Marceau, 1978. 50562
  • Liberace and Chicago Bears wives.  [pretty hysterical if you consider subtext] 50571
  • Mohammed Ali in trunks, 1964.  50570
  • Ernest Hemingway, 1944.  50563
  • Simone De Beauvoir, 1954.  50556.  [clothed!]
  • Saul Bellow, 1973.  50537
  • James Jones, 1952. 50561

In extraordinary company, Garland shines with raw human energy and JOY.  Between Marceau and Brando — mimic and consummate unique acting presence — she pops off the wall.  The first time through this room, I stop and gasp.  For this long time Garland fan and owner of countless biographies and related materials, this is a new image for me.  I stand immobile in front of the image for a full five minutes.

The wall label as posted follows.  I soon learn that this is a version of the text that appears in Art’s book Album for an Age: Unconventional Words and PIctures from the Twentieth Century (2000), accompanying this same image.  Shay took the picture while working as a stringer for Time magazine.  Another image from the stage at Chicago’s Arie Crown theatre November 7, 1962 appears in the November 16, 1962 Time issue article entitled “The New New Garland” — see http://tinyurl.com/2a8nlqc.  From the museum wall text:

“Judy Garland before a concert at the Crown Auditorium.  Garland got herself together in no time, smiled though her skin was breaking, playfully kicked  a leg into the air and asked, ‘Do you want to direct me in a scene or just let it happen?’  An echo, I guessed, of many another picture in her life.  ‘When I’m finished singing, I’ll come down front and sign autographs.  Should be good for Time.’  She knew her audience.”

For the next several months I was on a personal mission to find out how to obtain a copy of this image. At that point I would have been happy with a good xerox copy.  Conversations and connections later (Chicago like any other place is a small town once you access a corner of it), I am introduced by email by a woman who knows Art well.  Art and I meet several times, including at a reception at his wife Florence’s vintage book shop for Parisian gallery owners who have exhibited Art’s work.  And we become friends.  Adorable man.  I purchase FOUR original prints  from Art of this session, in a sequence, two leading up to the published image and one after, all signed and one specially inscribed.

These images move from Chicago to Philadelphia … and now occupy a place of honor in our new Manhattan home.  [In an intentionally fuzzy photo of our newly installed friends — the previously published image is in the bottom left corner … the images flow in sequence from top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right.]

For more about Art Shay’s photographs refer to his representatives at Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago.  Here on their web site you’ll find some information about their 2007 Art Shay exhibit timed to coincide with the Chicago History Museum show: http://tinyurl.com/24mh7f3

© Martha Wade Steketee (August 21, 2010)

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On a midweek, mid April, midday in midtown Manhattan, whiling away a few hours before returning to Philly after a visit to what will be our new town, I dropped into the International Center of Photography, 6th at 43rd, to see what photographic entertainments were on.  And I chanced into two wondrous and intellectually (and aurally and sensually) simulating exhibitions.

In the first floor galleries I greet the work and equipment of a photographer new to me.  Miroslav Tichy traveled through his Czech home town as a familiar and an outsider — a 1950s countercultural character who eschewed conformity.  Rude instruments captured images — cardboard formed the structures, toothpaste polished lenses.  Willfully ad hoc equipment.  All part of the story.  To my eyes, the observer writer’s eyes, he embodies the necessarily detached observation stance perfectly.

“Like the Parisian Surrealists of the 1930s, Tichy approached urban space on foot: he was a walker in the city.  All of his photographs … constitute a running documentary record of off hand observations on his daily walks.  [his shooting quantity] corresponded to the time and duration of each passing day.” [wall plaque]

So we have paced observations.  A flaneur / walker / observer.

“He was drawn to the spontaneous, the marvelous, and the unexpected as he passed through the streets.” [wall plaque]

“Tichy’s exploration is public and secular.  LIke a gleaner he moves through the city, collecting the small moments that others might ignore or overlook.  Taken together, these small moments offer a panorama of everyday social life….  [H]e devoted himself to recording that level of daily life that for most others was simply too unremarkable to consider.” [wall plaque]

Comparative art impressions according to Martha: the photograph above, taken with Tichy’s intentionally raw and rude instruments immediately made me think of this image [“Boys Bathing”, 1896, Edvard Munch] to which I was introduced in February 2009 in a fabulous exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago entitled “Becoming Edvard Munch” http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/Munch/index

Downstairs in the lower level exhibit space is the twilight world of the surrealist photographers and their familiars (and a few artists inspired by them).  Film projected by Bunuel, Dali, Jean Renoir.  Photographers Man Ray, Georges Hugnet, Josef Breitenbach, Atget, Brassai, Kertesz, Ilse Bing.

Images projected and hung.  French in the air to hear and to see.  One wonders whether the smells of the city streets, at least coffee roasting and bread baking, might have been appropriate to add to the milieu.

A side gallery features a collection of photographs that some might argue that are related to the rest of the exhibit only in the French language of the photographer (here a Montrealer) and in the twilight world the photographer inhabited.  Alan B. Stone, who photographed and published under the Mark One Studio label, published male “beef cake” … non pornographic body focused shots of men in swim suits and otherwise extensively exposed.  A Rebecca Solnit quotation provides a sweet context for the images presented as well as for a life closely observed, in any context:

“The places inside matter as much as the ones outside.”

for the full scoop on what’s on at ICP:
http://www.icp.org/site/c.dnJGKJNsFqG/b.1196903/k.692/Current_Exhibitions.htm

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I am sidling up to a new home town.  I spent several days in the mother ship, mother New York City, earlier this week while husband is settling into his new job and we continue our navigation between Philly and New York.   Perched in our apartment at one end and hotel room at the other.  Neither any longer or quite yet is home.

On this particular trip I did what I always do in Manhattan — museums, photography architecture, theatre.  And this trip we added a new experience for this gal who has been visiting Manhattan for 40 years — we visited some actual rental properties on the Upper West Side, hosted by agent Sam.  Who for some reason I kept calling Patrick.  No winners uncovered yet but beautiful buildings explored and blocks wandered and a real feeling that the Upper West Side could be a comfortable home indeed.

Tuesday I wandered over to Lincoln Center because it’s not far from the modest hotel we’ve been using lately, and was mesmerized by jazz and photography.  The jazz was both recorded and live.

W. Eugene Smith, photographer and New York City character, lived at 821 Sixth Avenue (between 28th and 29th)  from 1957 into 1965.  There he shot 1,447 rolls of film representing some 40,000 pictures and made 1,740 reels of tape representing 4,000 hours of stereo and mono recorded evidence of parties and jam sessions and other events in the loft space.  At one point these archives were uncovered (for more about the details of finding and cataloging, read through the web sites below).  Now there is a book and an exhibit and documentary interviews … and I’m here to tell you, I was transported.

[The exhibition web site:http://www.jazzloftproject.org/?s=exhibition.  The  project itself:http://www.jazzloftproject.org/.  You will find a play list of music snippets here: http://www.jazzloftproject.org/?s=sounds.  Fire ’em up!]

Pictures on the walls were often taken from the fourth floor loft windows, and more often of the loft guests and hangers on.  Secret, public lives of people who live and work and wander in New York City.  Spinning in the air are rifts of jazz improvisation — muddy and melodic.  Drum, piano.  Jazz.  tuneful and tuneless and quietly driving .. somewhere.  Recorded in this loft, some of the 1,740 tape reels pictured (boxes covers with scrawled cryptic notes about the contents within) — on banners and placed beneath glass in display cabinets.

Harold Feinstein, a photographer and Smith friend and sometime assistant, made the following reflections about his pal and the stance of photography as practiced by Smith.

“They say all photographers are voyeurs.  So part of it is to look; part of it is to eavesdrop.  And I also think Gene had a sense of history.  There’s always a major project in the back of his mind.”

So here we have an artist, a life, an archive created out of the detritus and recordings of this professional photographer and family man who left all that and became ..  what?  a Beat?  Whatever he was, whatever sense we make of it, this exhibit in its visual and aural wash creates a temporary and evocative testament to a life of observing and recording.

After viewing the exhibit I spied a flyer for a free concert about an hour hence in the Bruno Walter Auditorium (down the hall) featuring “The Gotham Jazzmen”.  (Some names: Ed Bonoff on drums, James Lincoln Collier on trombone, Lee Lorenz — known as much for his art editing of The New Yorker as for his delightful cornet playing, Dick Miller on piano, and several others.)  I wandered in with a few minutes to spare, found an aisle seat down front, and men on piano, cornet, trombone, and drums to start, soon augmented by bass and guitar, swung and whispered their way through jazz standards.

  • Just You, Just Me
  • If I Had You
  • Broadway
  • Coquette
  • Did I Remember (and here I got to the church of happy/sad memories, as I often do while listening to jazz, recalling mom and dad and how much jazz was a part of our lives as children, with spare instrumental melodic treatments of standards like this one)
  • Easter Parade (with righteous New Orleans volleying rhythms; the pianist strikes exquisite tingles stomping stride riffs)
  • “A Blues for John Bunch”, 88-year-old jazz man who died the week before [New York Times obit: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/02/arts/music/02bunch.html].
  • Mean To Me
  • “Some Other Time / So Happy To Be Me”
  • Lady Be Good
  • Black and Blue
  • Sweethearts on Parade
  • Everybody Loves My Baby

The audience featured a heavy helping of alert retirees and some tourists but mostly locals who knew of this treasure of a free treat, was conversational and respectful.  During some tunes there was low chatter audible as if we were in a brightly lit club, adding to the atmosphere.  I found it a bit charming to be honest.

And all of this, as just a fragment of this several day visit,  underscores to me yet again .. and again .. and again .. how much I love New York and jazz and how much we have to commit ourselves to preserving our history.  Personal, professional, cultural, institutional.

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philly light

our philly apartment. image: martha wade steketee

I have been staring and consuming and testing my new town with alternating intensity and timidity.  Holding the whole experience in my embrace, then at arms length.

30 oct 2009. frank exhibit. the met. image: martha wade steketee

I wandered through the Robert Frank exhibit at the Metropolitan a few weeks ago (“Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans) and found some words to live by on almost every exhibit wall. Whether printed image or words pasted or projected.  These words came early in the exhibit:

“I am always looking outside, trying to look inside, trying to say something that is true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what’s out there. And what’s out there is constantly changing.” (Robert Frank, 1985)

I don’t know what is true, but occasionally I’m taken out of my judgmental reverie to revel in the simple play of light across painted surface and the chance reflection of a long owned print.  Smiling.  Saying something for that one moment that might be true.

© Martha Wade Steketee (November 19, 2009)

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