Friday, August 31, 2012

Eero's Arch

Gateway Arch, 2012

The great Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen was commissioned in the late 1940s to design something for St. Louis that would commemorate the city’s history as a jumping off point for westward exploration. No doubt there were many who were expecting a “monument” or, worse, a “memorial.” Efforts to create such a commemoration had moved in fits and starts for many years.
What Saarinen gave St. Louis is better than a mere monument. Calling it a memorial seems insulting. It was a gift, a structure as elegant, timely and conceptual today as it was when it was finished almost fifty years ago.
Saarinen’s gift was an arch, and not just any arch.  It’s a soaring arc of steel more than sixty stories high. Saarinen said that he wanted the arch to be "transcending in spiritual and aesthetic values…one central feature: a single shaft, a building, an arch, or something else that would symbolize American culture and civilization."
According to The New York Times architectural critic of the day, Saarinen also wanted the national park around the base of the arch to be "be so densely covered with trees” that it would not only separate the arch from the noise and chaos of a busy downtown, but also convey a feeling of the uncharted wilderness into which settlers departed when they headed west from St. Louis.
Like any kind of unexpected artistic expression, some local citizens initially resisted Saarinen’s arch concept. They wanted a monument, after all. There’d been long standing disagreement over the merit of even having a monument at all. So the idea that they’d resist something as modern and conceptual as a stainless steel arch isn’t surprising.
The design wasn’t the only tricky part, though. It took fifteen years just to figure out how the arch could be built without toppling over before the keystone section could be installed at the peak.
Today visitors can ride a little tram to the top of the arch and peek out narrow windows. “Little” isn’t an exaggeration. The compartments—it’s probably safer to call them capsules because they actually hang from a track—are smaller than the inside of a Mini Cooper and take between four minutes or so to creep and clank up the inside of the arch. Being claustrophobic, I wasn’t about to get into one. Besides, the views of Illinois and Missouri from the top of the arch are broad and flat. (You can probably see the other side of each state from there, but who cares?)

For me, the fascinating discovery about this monument is that it takes on different shapes depending on where you’re standing. From an aerial perspective or from a distance, Saarinen’s symmetrical arch is obvious. (Both the width and height are 630 feet.) But the closer you get the more it takes on a seemingly infinite number of other shapes. This, for me, is the symbol of opportunity that awaited those brave enough to leave the comforts of the East behind, stake their claim and take their chances on life in the American West. 

Gateway Arch [section], 2012
Gateway Arch [section], 2012
Gateway Arch [section], 2012
Gateway Arch [section], 2012

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Seconds Just Before and After

People of Surf - 1016, 2012

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been concentrating lately on photographs of people. I took a workshop earlier in the summer that loosened me up a lot so far as approaching strangers is concerned. Once you start looking at each person as a potential portrait subject vast new fields of photographic content are open for harvest.
I thought I’d conquered the worst of my fears when I became more comfortable approaching people. It’s really not that hard, and the more and more regularly you do it the more fluid you become at doing it. But it turns out that was only the beginning, because after you’ve engaged with a stranger you have to decide just what you’re going to do with them.
Most of us take pictures of people because they were doing something that interested us or because they had an interesting look or expression or body language. There’s nothing wrong with that. The workshop I took, though, concentrated on the difference between photographing people in the act of being themselves and photographing them through the photographer’s eyes.
If you’re not accustomed to telling people how to stand, where to look and what to do with their hands and chins and eyes, photographing them “through the photographer’s eyes” is a lot harder than it sounds. We’re not talking about dull headshots here, the ones you see in newspapers and corporate photos.
The compromise I’ve struck with myself is that whenever it makes sense I want my subjects to be at least looking into the camera. Portrait painters know that when you have someone looking directly out from the canvas you just can’t ignore looking at their eyes. It works the same way in photography. It’s hard to look away from a photograph of someone who’s looking right into the lens and, by extension, at you.
In the process of learning to be not only ready, but also more intuitive in knowing what to do with strangers once I’ve engaged with them, I’ve learned that one of the downsides of asking people if you can photograph them is that they want to pose. This isn’t unusual. After all, the experience most of us have of being photographed is being asked to pose for a picture. Even though I tell people I don’t want them to pose or, especially, put on their best smile, unless they’re professional models that’s their first inclination. Smile for Daddy!
To get around this, I’m learning to mine the seconds before and after that pose takes place. (This means having your camera settings already fixed so that you don’t have to spend time metering or focusing.) When I asked the young man shown above, for example, if I could photograph him he started to straighten his posture and put on a smile. He has nice teeth and a beautiful smile. But how interesting is that?
I took a couple of pictures of the young man smiling. But the pictures I liked more and that told me more about his story are the ones I took on either side of the smile, just before he put on the smile and just after he got tired and stopped smiling.

Monday, August 27, 2012

People of Surf

Parents Crowd the Shore, 2012
[Click any image to see larger]

I remember the first East Coast Surfing Competition, which is probably not something I should be bragging about since the 2o12 ECSC, as it’s come to be known, is the fiftieth anniversary of this event. In its early days the ECSC was mostly a local affair. There have been surfers in this area since at least the 1940s, riding waves on what today would seem like monstrously large and heavy wooden boards.
Surfing reached into the mainstream in summer of 1966 when the movie “Endless Summer” was released. Surfboards were being made from fiberglass by then, making them not only lighter and cheaper but also accessible to people who lived far from the waves.
 The thrill of surfing can be hard to describe to someone who’s never done it. There you are, sitting out just beyond the breakers with nothing but the swell and energy of the mighty ocean underneath you. As you head out over the crest of the wave and down its front you feel the rush of being simultaneously in and out of control.
Pre-Gaming, 2012

Over the decades, stymied only by the years when there were no waves to speak of, the ECSC became a more meaningful competition and attracted an increasingly national array of competitors.
The popularity of surfing goes up and down. But wherever there are waves there are dedicated surfers of all ages who take to the water whenever they can. They come from all walks of life, but all are equal when they get out on the ocean. They pass their love of the waves along to their children as soon as the little ones can swim. Women have become a much bigger part of the surfing scene these days.
Adolescent Scrum, 2012

Surfing is still the center of the ECSC. But like a lot of festivals and competitions these days, it’s become as much a business of retailing and brand reinforcement as a celebration of wave riding. This past weekend the crowds in the vendor area were, if anything, larger than the number of people out on the beach watching the surfing. Middle schoolers lined up at retail tents for free temporary tattoos, flavored water, t-shirts and hats adorned with the names of popular surf-oriented brands. Corporate sponsors put on competitions of BMX bikers and skaters. Bands played and beer tents opened at night for aging Baby Boomers anxious to rekindle a few memories of those old days in the sun of the endless summer.
Getting the Picture, 2012

Friday, August 24, 2012

No Mysteries in the "Show Me" State

Shower Scene, 2012

So this week we’re hearing from some cockamamie congressman from Missouri who believes women who are raped “legitimately” don’t have to worry about becoming pregnant because, to simplify things, they’re too scared to ovulate?
It used to be that when I did marketing research on controversial topics—e.g. stem cell research or xenotransplantation—we’d go to Kansas City to get a feel for what “middle America” thought about such things. Inevitably someone out there would remind me that “they don’t call Missouri the ‘Show Me’ state for nothing;” that they’d have to be shown that something that seems unusual or creepy isn’t either, but is, rather, just the result of new science.
I also used to work with a PR guy who grew up in Missouri. Whenever someone would say something the least bit unusual, Hank would tilt his head to one side in an expression of disbelief.
Like those people in Kansas City, Henry didn’t take anything at face value. “Well, you know,” he’d say. “They don’t call Missouri the ‘Show Me’ state for nothing.”
I mean, really. Have you ever heard anyone in the course of normal conversation explain themselves by saying, “Well, you know they don’t call Virginia the ‘Old Dominion’ for nothing” or “Well, you know they don’t call Pennsylvania ‘the Keystone State’ for nothing”? 
I’m puzzled by the cultures of some midwestern states. I’m convinced that Ohioans, for example, have to be warned about every upcoming bend in the road. Why else would there be all those signs indicating upcoming curves, or complaints when they have accidents because they didn’t know there was a curve ahead? (I swear, I read that in a newspaper story in Cincinnati back in the 1980s.)
Midwesterners are nothing if not practical. If they weren’t how would you explain these dispensers in the shower of my St. Louis hotel? If I had to guess their history, I would speculate that they’re the result of some cost-savings brainstorming. Some bean counter at the hotel company probably said, “You know, those little containers of shampoo and conditioner are killing my bottom line.” The next time the hotel manager went to a hotel convention he probably saw this little trio of dispensers displayed in the “portion control” section of the exhibit hall and the rest, as they say, is history.
Note to Missouri hotel manager: Unless you want us to be reminded of roadside rest stop bathrooms every time we step into your shower, how about showing me some little containers of shampoo and a bar or soap or two.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Window Education

Louis Vuitton, Soho, 2012

It’s funny what you can learn from just looking at store windows. I took this picture in New York recently. It’s the luxury retailer Louis Vuitton’s Soho store. I was intrigued by the undulated polka dotted “leaves,” or whatever they are. (Don’t they look like something that would grow on the bottom of the sea?)
One of the nice things about New York City stores is that many of them haven’t completely lost the art of visual merchandising. Unlike suburban stores, where everyone either drives by or, in the case of malls, has bare brick exterior faces, there are lots of people walking in New York. Shop windows are important real estate for merchandising.
Last week one of my Flickr contacts posted a picture of a store window so familiar to the one shown above that I wrote to ask if it was the same one. He answered that it was another Louis Vuitton store in New York.
Then, just a few days ago, I happened to be leafing through some recent issues of The New Yorker magazine that I hadn’t gotten to yet and saw an ad for an exhibit of the work of the Japanese artist Yoyoi Kusama.  I’d never heard of Yoyoi Kusama. But I recognized the polka dot motif immediately.
It turns out the Whitney Museum is doing a retrospective show of Kusama’s work and that Louis Vuitton, under the direction of creative director and designer Marc Jacobs, is sponsoring the exhibit. Hence the Kusama, or at least Kusama-inspired, Vuitton window displays.
Jacobs is a fan of Kusama’s work and wanted to give her an opportunity to return to New York in style. Kusama, who was born in Japan, was big on the New York scene during the 1960s. She hung out with Warhol and Lichtenstein. She was known for her provocative art “happenings” and her obsessive use of polka dots. She described polka dots as “my medicine.”
Unfortunately, as most of us know, dots can be fun, but have little actual medicinal value. Whatever restorative value they’d had on Kusama waned, as well. She suffered a mental breakdown during the 1970s and retreated to Japan, where she is said to have lived in a mental institution ever since. According to an account in the Daily Beast:
“For her triumphant return to New York, Kusama, a diminutive woman, wore a Technicolor red wig, a black dress splattered with red dots, polka-dot sunglasses, and myriad other dotted accessories from Vuitton. She has a reputation for being unreliable and inscrutable, but she can also be endearingly earnest. She is alternately admired for using art as a means to understanding her mental illness and accused of using mental illness to make her art that much more tantalizing.”
All this, just from having looked at a store window.