Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

Art and food together. “Is this heaven?”

February 6, 2008

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Last Saturday night we went to Chicago’s first ever Slideluck Potshow, held at the spacious Madron Gallery. As the event’s name sort of implies, it’s a combination potluck dinner and slideshow. At first blush, this sounds like something the Moose Lodge in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, might put on to liven up a long winter night, with everyone oohing and aahing over the multiple green bean casseroles and Ed’s 827 slides of the Alaskan cruise he and his wife Doris took, “when was it now, two years ago… three years ago?” Or as my Brooklyn Buddy Ronnie Ann put it, “Now wait a minute… people willingly go to watch slide shows without having committed a crime?”

Except the slideshow was art—very current work by Chicago artists. The crowd was an entertaining mix of mostly artists and hipsters. The food was plentiful and, for the most part, really good and interesting—this was not the kind of event where you show up with a bag of Doritos or a green bean casserole. And there was even a potluck dessert table and a potluck bar.

For our contribution, we brought a nice bottle of California sparkling wine, and Marion made a heaping bowl of the delicious soba noodle salad she posted on Blue Kitchen last week. The latter was an especially big hit—had the bowl been scraped any cleaner when we picked it up at the end of the evening, we could have just put it back on the shelf.

After the crowd had sufficiently fed, imbibed and networked, we all settled in—mostly sitting on the floor [and feeling fairly collegiate, I think] for an amazing show.

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Slideluck Potshow is the brainchild of advertising and editorial photographer Casey Kelbaugh. It began in his backyard in Seattle back in 2000, when he invited friends and colleagues to bring slides and food. He told me Saturday night that the first shows really were slideshows, with artists loading their slides into carousel trays and projecting them onto the screen: “Click-click… click-click… click-click…” Now it’s all gone digital [of course], with images being set to music and the whole show being run from a laptop to a projector.

Kelbaugh did a number of slide show parties in Seattle before moving to New York in 2003. He wasn’t sure how the idea would fly there, but he gave it a shot and hosted his first New York Slideluck Potshow in his East Village apartment in 2004. According to a New York Times article, “He was surprised when 120 people arrived, obligingly toting home-cooked dishes as well as images of their work. The event mushroomed into a kind of open-mike night for photographers and other artists, who would show up with trays of slides or CDs to show.”

As Slideluck Potshow’s own website says, “Slideluck has become something of a global phenomenon, as they are now taking place everywhere from Berlin to Minneapolis, Mexico City to Washington, DC.”

And now, Chicago. Chicago’s show was heavy on the photography—no surprise, since Kelbaugh is a photographer. The work was a real mix of images, ranging from beautiful to compelling, disturbing, amusing, lyrical and sometimes just plain strange.

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Particularly moving was a series of paired images by Chicago Tribune photographer Scott Strazzante. He began visiting an Illinois family farm 13 years ago, taking thousands of pictures of the husband and wife, their land and their animals. In 2002, the farm was sold and became a subdivision. Last year, he returned to the area and began shooting the new life there. He was surprised by what he discovered when he did. “I just started to watch and to shoot and I began to realize that there were so many similarities in what I was shooting to what I had shot,” Strazzante said. “When I think about it now, it’s really eerie.” Here’s a link to a Tribune piece that includes more of his wonderful photographs.

As with any group show, there were a few clunkers in the bunch. But they were greatly outnumbered by real gems. At the end of the evening, we left happily sated, our bellies and brains equally full.

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Borrowed milk, butt bumps and poetry

October 24, 2007

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The small ad agency where I work has a full kitchen, complete with—quite improbably—gas stove. Mostly, though, people use the microwave, the coffee maker and the big, communal fridge.

The other morning my colleague Matt asked if he could mooch a little milk from me for his coffee. He then said he was always doing that, borrowing stuff or even occasionally filching it [the former is fine with me, the latter drives me nuts]. I told him our styles were just different. When he brings food in, his philosophy is “what’s mine is yours.” I never take him up on it, though, because, as I told him, my philosophy [at least regarding communal fridges] is “good fences make good neighbors.”

That led to a discussion of the Robert Frost poem I had referenced and Matt had picked up on, Mending Wall, which of course led to us looking it up online and reading it. It was as wonderful as I’d remembered it to be. I’ll include it in its entirety below, so stick around.

The poem talks about two different ways of looking at life—one open, the other private, turned inward. It also talks about the walls we put up between ourselves and others. When the narrator of the poem questions the need for the stone wall he and his neighbor are repairing between their rural New England properties, the neighbor simply answers, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Besides reminding me yet again of the simple beauty of Frost’s writing, the poem also got me thinking about how, on some levels, “good fences” make urban living work as well as it does.

I live in Chicago and, like in New York, our subways and els can be packed, especially at rush hour. Once my brother was visiting me from small town Mississippi, and he took the el with me down to my office one morning. He expressed surprise later that all these people were crammed shoulder to shoulder on the train and nobody spoke to anyone else. Living in a place where everyone says “Hey” to people on the street—sometimes even people they don’t know—it seemed cold and unfriendly to him.

To me, though, it is just creating one’s own private space in very crowded conditions—and respecting the privacy and boundaries of others. And it’s what makes this kind of situation work. Riders adopt the 1,000-yard stare or read or pop in the earbuds and the “good fences” go up. Even in this most public of situations, they can retreat into their own privacy—precisely because their fellow riders have, for the most part, signed off on the same unwritten contract to respect those fences.

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And it’s not that people never speak or acknowledge one another. Delayed or stopped trains will start a buzz, for instance. I’ve gotten into conversations over what someone was reading. And once, when a fellow passenger took the whole privacy thing a little too far, hauling out an electric razor and shaving, another passenger made eye contact with me and mimed brushing his teeth, causing us both to smile, nod and roll our eyes. But all these are moments of genuine contact, however fleeting and casual, rather than enforced cordiality. I have spent a lot of time in small towns, watching relatives offer up a friendly “Hey” to someone passing by in the name of small town politeness, only to follow it up with a muttered scurrilous aside to me about that person’s character, lack of good sense or some other grievous shortcoming.

The subway isn’t the only place “good fences” come into play in urban living. A friend was recently in Shanghai for work and was amazed by the constant crush of people everywhere and the attendant reduced personal space. If you were walking too slowly on the sidewalk, someone would gently touch your shoulder, a sign to move aside and let that person pass. This scene is repeated thousands of times a day, and no one gets upset or takes it as an invasion of privacy. Nor is it cause for greetings or conversation—it is simply how this many people get where they are going in such a confined space.

And in New York, with its astronomical real estate prices, stores are typically designed with narrower aisles. As a New York magazine article on the Duane Reade drugstore chain put it, New Yorkers are more tolerant than most people of the “butt bump”—someone brushing past you in a crowded space.

Which is not to say the fences don’t come down, even in the big city. On one visit to New York, Marion and daughter Laurel were in the Sephora store on Broadway on the upper west side. I was standing outside, enjoying the cool morning air and the passing scene. I had my can of Diet Pepsi in one hand and Laurel’s Coke in the other. A young woman hurrying by glanced my way, made eye contact and smiled. Pointing at the soda cans, she said, “So which one tastes better? Haha! Just kidding!” I smiled back and nodded, and she continued on her way. It all happened much faster than the telling of it, human connection for just an instant. I’ll take that kind of connection over an enforced “Hey” any day.

And now, the Robert Frost poem that sparked this whole diatribe.

Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me—
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

 

About photographer Travis Ruse

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In December 2004, New York photographer Travis Ruse began what he planned as a one-year project, to photograph his daily subway commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan and post one photograph of each day’s commute on his blog. With occasional breaks here and there, he actually continued the project into June 2007, posting 684 images in all. Together, they form a glorious mosaic of New Yorkers and that quintessential daily New York experience, riding the subway. Ruse’s project has been written about in the New York Times and exhibited at Redux Gallery in Manhattan. It has also caused my inner New Yorker countless pangs of longing.

“Stare.”

May 9, 2007

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An interesting thing happened on my way to what I thought I was going to write about this week. Kristen over at Gezellig Girl did a quick post on the WPA—the Works Progress Administration, which later became the Work Projects Administration. Whatever you call it, it helped put a lot of Americans back to work during the Depression. And it helped strengthen the country’s infrastructure, building highways, streets, public buildings, airports, utilities, small dams, sewers, parks, libraries and more.

It also put a lot of artists to work, primarily in the creation of murals for all these public buildings. And that got me thinking about another of the New Deal programs, the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and one of my favorite photographers of all times, Walker Evans.

Evans was one of the photographers hired by the FSA to document the struggles of the rural poor and migrant agricultural workers during the Depression. He worked mainly in the south, creating sensitive portraits of the dispossessed and perfectly capturing a time and place. In the process, he pioneered the documentary tradition in photography.

sprott_ala.jpgFor me, his photographs of commercial architecture and scenes—shot formally and usually head on with an 8×10 view camera, but somehow often feeling almost matter-of-fact—just grabbed me by the lapels the first time I saw them, gave me a good shake and said, “Everything’s important. Everything’s worth taking a second look at. Pay attention.” I’ve been trying to do that ever since.

And we all own these photos. How cool is that? The photographs done for the FSA are now in the Library of Congress. Which means we Americans own them. Over the years, I’ve ordered a number of prints made from Walker Evans’ original 8×10 negatives for a very nominal fee—I think 24 bucks or so for a black and white 8×10 last time I bought one. They’re not vintage prints made by Evans or even printed on fiber-based paper—they’re made by photo technicians at the Library of Congress, printed on resin coated paper. But they’re still photographic prints, his images made from his original negatives. By now, they may be doing them digitally—seventysomething-year-old negatives need protecting, after all.

If all this gets you as jazzed as it does me, you can find out more at the Library of Congress online photography catalog.

And as it happens, one of my favorite photographers of all times is also the author of one of my favorite quotes of all times. Here it is.

“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” —Walker Evans

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