Tuesday, May 31, 2011
'Lunch atop a Skyscraper (New York Construction Workers Lunching on a Crossbeam)'  - Charles C. Ebbets
Regarded as one of the most famous images of the 20th Century, 'Lunch atop a Skyscraper (New York Construction Workers Lunching on a Crossbeam)' is a famous photograph taken by Charles C. Ebbets during construction of the GE Building (30 Rockefeller Plaza) at the Rockefeller Center in New York City on September 29, 1932. Before I begin my analysis I would firstly like to state the difficultly in finding information on both the image and the photographer. At the time, Ebbets photographs were used mainly for articles in newspapers and, like Vincent Van Gogh's work, did not hold any popular culture significance until after his death.
The image shows eleven men sat on a girder on the 69th floor, hundreds of feet above New York City's skyline, eating lunch and comes at a time in which sixteen of the city's eighty-two tallest buildings were constructed. The image is one of many depicting the construction of New York City's skyscrapers but not all, including this image, match the daily lives of the workers who participated in the construction of skyscrapers between 1920 and 1935. The cloud like mist in which the buildings in the background peer from shows the sheer height in which the men are sitting. America has always been a country in which bigger was better and in this case the mist represents the process in which America attempts to reach for the heavens. There is a debate concerning this images authenticity, is it real or is it a photo shop fake? After researching as much information as I could on the image, I believe it to be real but staged. It is believed that Ebbets' photographs were taken in order to denounce the obvious dangers that faced the workers and this image does just that by depicting the workers as happy, chatty and smoking and so at ease with their surroundings. However, there is one gentleman in the image that stands out, the one of the far right. He is not involved with the others discussions and is not smiling. He looks at the camera with a slight fear in his eyes and grasping on to what looks like a bottle of alcohol. Is the alcohol an essential for this worker to pluck up the courage to sit on the edge, hovering above the busy streets hundreds of feet below? The fact is that many workers did fall to their death during the construction of Manhattan's skyline and as a result again shows Ebbet's intention of diminishing the common belief that this task was far too dangerous for those creating the iconic American image. It also emphasises the great lengths many had to go through during the Great Depression as many risked their lives in order to put food on the table and clothe their families.
More on the GE building, its distinctive Art Deco design and its famous murals can be found at: http://www.rockefellercenter.com/art-and-history/history/1930s/
Saturday, May 28, 2011
I picked this image because I found the painting particularly striking. What most interested me was the fact that the image is not reminiscent of the ‘typical’ or conventional portrait. While the main subjects are obviously the family, the room itself acts as a fourth character. The man and woman, dressed predominantly in black, are dull amidst the vibrant colours of the room’s fabrics. The room, and its objects, tell us a great deal about the family. John Davis suggests that the family “…are as much defined by their relationships to each other as by their relationship to their surroundings.” (1)
While more can be learnt about the people by their clothes and activities, it is interesting that even more information is provided by what they own. The typical American value of consumerism as a defining element to a person’s character is worth noting here. (Consider when we read ‘Sister Carrie’ in year 2 and the notion of a person being defined by what they have, not who they are.)
The most obvious and striking aspect of this portrait is that the family are from a wealthy background. Johnson was criticised when he began to paint a series of similar portraits which all featured well-off New York families in domestic situations but as John Davis argues, these paintings are now commonly thought of as ‘classic Johnson’.
(1) Davis, J., 'Children in the Parlor: Eastman Johnson's "Brown Family" and the Post-Civil War Luxury Interior', p.53
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Known as 'Whistler's Mother', Martha Tedeschi stated that alongside paintings such as Wood's 'American Gothic' (see week 1) Whistler's portrait of his mother has, 'achieved something that most paintings—regardless of their art historical importance, beauty, or monetary value—have not: they communicate a specific meaning almost immediately to almost every viewer and successfully made the transition from the elite realm of the museum visitor to the enormous venue of popular culture.' Like American Gothic, Whistler's mother is looking away from the audience and is dressed in Victorian clothing. This, along with the date, gives the impression that James Whistler is still highly influenced by European art. This image was not well received in England due to its lack of flamboyancy and colour, its description of being 'anti-Victorian simplicity and so creates a feeling of mourning within the image. What I found interesting was that this image is rarely displayed in the United States, only displayed in special exhibitions now and again. Most importantly, this painting was used as an image of national and even worldwide pride on postage stamps during the Great Depression in order to 'thank the mothers of America' in 1939. It has also been parodied heavily in greeting cards, magazine, and by cartoon characters such as Donald Duck.
The image that I have selected is a portrait of John F Kennedy painted by William Franklin Draper. Based on an oil sketch for which Kennedy posed in 1962, this portrait underscores the youthful vitality that was such an important part of Kennedy's charisma. It, like the many photographs taken by Cecil Stoughton hides the fact that his health was never as robust as it seemed, Kennedy being plagued by recurring ailments including back difficulties that were the source of frequent and severe pain.
This is a perfect example of the issues of accuracy and recognition within portraits. Whilst the image is an excellent likeness of Kennedy, it is arguably not an accurate representation of him as is focuses purely upon the positives of the man. Although, as Kennedy is sitting in the picture it is possible to argue that there is limited scope to show his ailments yet the fact that he is sitting and not standing can be read as significant.
A more representative form of the control of the vocabulary of the pose would be to associate Drapers portrait to Cecil William Stoughton's behind-the-scene pictures of John, Jacqueline and their children in their public and personal life. These were pivotal in shaping the public's view of the U.S.’s first family. His primary role was to capture iconic relatable images which would both endear and empower the President to the American people highlighting his youth and vibrancy whilst hiding his chronic and recurring heath issues such as the afore mentioned crippling back pain.
The success of this campaign is represented by the main source of grief over Kennedy's death being the loss of the eloquence and idealism that he had brought to his presidency and that made him, in the eyes of many, the embodiment of this country's finest aspirations. This applies these images of Kennedy to the issues of reading of the national history and social and historical illumination through portraiture and art. As all the images were commissioned they were closely and carefully controlled to present exactly the image that they were meant to be it natural or as in the case of Kennedy’s images fake hiding Kennedy’s faults and failings and portraying him as the embodiment of wholesome America.
Whereas traditional formal art forms such as fine art existed as an icon and signifier of personal wealth and aristocracy, it is photojournalism and photographic portraiture that seeks to uncover and reclaim a sense of "truth" in the artistic community.
I believe that Altman's images manage to capture a balance between the purposes of photographic portraiture, he certainly intends to capture a sense of reality and documentary - however it retains an aesthetic appeal. For example in the above image "You", Altman was taking a picture of two people at the summer of love (the initial intention of documentary), yet the image's composition with the young girl being bathed in light versus the older man's darkness certainly entertains aestheticism.
Furthermore the individuals who are the subject of the image act passively to the camera with indifference - they do not relish in the significance of having their picture taken, as opposed to the laboured subject of a portrait.
I believe that the use of photography is of great importance to art, in that when cultural phenomenons such as the "Hippie" movement surfaced there was an immediate ability to capture its highly stylised cultural memory, allowing the photographer to immerse themselves and absorb its importance. Altman even said "my camera became my passport" - a way of transcending through the social barriers of pretension associated with artists. The camera is informal and unobtrusive and ultimately more personable than painting, it captures and immortalises a moment - rather than the arguably warped and licenced realm of fine arts and portraiture.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
I haven chosen this 'landscape' photograph by Alan MacLean for its stark representation of the taming of the American wilderness. America is famous for its frontier mantality and desire to tame that frontier. Interestingly when the fromtier was ofically declared closed at the end of the 19th Century, America had to find new frontiers to tame. One of those frontiers became nature. Las Vegas Nevada is built inside a natural basin which is full to capacity, as illustrated within the picture that is not enough to hinder Americas drive for progress and the basin walls are now being cut and levelled to provide more room for more identical houses that in the current climate no one can afford to buy.
This image is a simple and posseses no trick photography as used by photographers such as James Gibson and Alexander Gardner who manipulated their photagraph of the civil war to provide greater effect, nor does it intentionally hide elements to provide a false image such as leaving a car park out of a nature shot. What this image does is highlight a realism of American culture in a stark and honest way. Alex MacLean has been described as being 'like batman with a camera.
Except he flies around and takes photos instead of saving people.' The meaning in this likening is that he, like fellow environmental photographer Richard Misrach, uses photagraphs to highlight issues within America and American culture. Another interesting picture taken by MacLean shows a desert storage fascility full of expensive millitary bombers, approxemately fifty eight are visible with signs of many more existing out of shot, mothballed wing tip to wing tip. these images highlight Americas culture of excess and by highlighting metaphors in the land, signify the apparent issues with the potential unmaking of America through continuing and unsustanable growth.
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
John Gast's 'American Progress' represents the American people quest of their of the Manifest Destiny and ultimately the American dream. Manifest Destiny was the belief that the United States has the right to expand and spread freedom and spread Christianity westwards.
The central focus of the painting is the angel like woman who is leading the way along the Oregon trail which is represented by the wagons. The right of the picture represents the industrialised East with steamships and cities which indicate civilisation whereas the darkness of the left represents the wilderness in which the people sought to conquer. The native Americans, bears and buffalo flee from the Americans as they are pushed back as these 'civilised' people take over a great part of North America.
This landscape painting was used as propaganda to encourage people to go West in search of a new and enriched life. It also seeks to persuade the public that their actions in regards to the Native Americans were right as they would either settle somewhere else or be enlightened and convert to Christianity and therefore be saved. This leads to the question of whether the American people should be proud of this painting as it not only depicts them moving West and conquering the wilderness and the native people but the beginning of their imperialist mission in the name of freedom and democracy.
The Washington University newsroom also comments on Deal’s works, saying that:
“Rather than celebrate a sublime landscape ostensibly untouched by human intervention, Deal focused on the tensions between the built environment and nature, often choosing sites and views that conventionally were considered not worth capturing with a camera[.]” (2)
Looking at Deal’s work, I think these comments are accurate. His landscapes do not have the majestic quality that is found in many 18th/19th century paintings, in which the frontier and the taming of the wilderness were celebrated. At first glance, many of his photographs are rather non-descript, often lacking objects of interest in the foreground which would create depth and detail. However, Deal was one of a group of photographers who were part of the ‘New Topographic Movement’. This movement concentrated on creating photographic images that presented American landscapes less romantically and more ‘realistically’. (This term is used very loosely and will be challenged later on.) Rather than celebrating the beauty of America, these images concentrated on critiquing the human impact on nature. (3)
It is difficult to find accurate information about when ‘Indian Bingo’ was taken. Although several sources date the image to 1974, which would be consistent with the time that Deal’s work was featured in the Topographics exhibitions, the Indian bingo halls were not built in this area until 1983. Today, the Morongo reservation has developed into one of the largest casino and spa resorts in the US, which covers over 35,000 acres of land and cost over $250 million. However, in spite of this obvious sign of consumerism, the Morongo Indians still strive to remember their roots, and to educate others about it too, as is demonstrated on their web site. This information, and the photograph itself, shows how Native Americans struggle to survive in modern society while still preserving their heritage and history. (4)
The most striking aspect of the photograph is how man-made objects overlap and conceal the natural landscape in the picture. The overheard power lines, the ‘Indian Bingo’ sign and the buildings behind all suggest a disregard for the natural environment. This in and of itself is a puzzling notion when associated with the Native Americans, who are known for their love and respect for the land they live on.
Therefore, this photograph does not only demonstrate how humans have impacted on the natural landscape of America. It also represents the Native Indians’ struggle to be recognised and appreciated within their own country. The only way that they can be noticed, and survive financially, is to conform to the traditional white American values of consumerism. To preserve their heritage they have to in fact go against their beliefs. The fact that the information about their heritage is on the Internet, for example, is very telling of the balance between traditional values and modern technology that the Morongo Indians must endure.
When asked to describe his photography, Deal likened his images to the work of a survey photographer. By imagining a grid when composing a shot, Deal’s approach to photography has become regarded as precise and scientific. His images often have an almost clinical feel to them, which contrasts greatly with the richness of landscape photography by others such as Ansel Adams. (5)
This grid-like composition can also be related to the idea of the rule of thirds, which is a popular way of framing images in photography and other forms of art in which the image can be split into three distinct sections. Following this rule is believed to make images more aesthetically pleasing. With ‘Indian Bingo’, however, the division of the sky, background and foreground instead emphasises just how imposing man-made objects have become. The barbed wire in the foreground indicates that the ground is no longer lush and safe to walk on. The mountains are blocked from view by the sign which promises greed and gambling and the sky is obscured by the overhead cables. All this reiterates the idea of human products encroaching on nature
As a result of this, and the photograph being a closed-in shot, a sense of claustrophobia is created. Rather than America’s landscapes being a place of freedom and vast beauty, Deal’s views represents the landscape as if it is shrinking and being swallowed up by man-made objects.
Finally, many argue that photography presents a far more realistic image than a painting or drawing ever could. A photograph of a landscape, compared to a painting of the same area, may look incredibly different. Traditionally, it is thought that landscape paintings create a sense of romanticism, a nostalgic and positive view of America. Photography, in contrast, was believed to reveal the truth about a particular piece of land. In the same way that early cinema is often regarded as realist, photography is often seen as a reliable and accurate source of visual information.
However, this is rarely the truth. As has already been mentioned, ‘Indian Bingo’ has been carefully composed in order to create the most visual impact possible. The image is constructed and therefore does not represent a true image of that landscape but rather an impression or interpretation. While it can be argued that Deal’s photography is more ‘realistic’ than the romantic landscape paintings, it should not be forgotten that every image – painting or photograph – is a construction which has been created based on the artist’s perspective and opinions.
In conclusion, Deal’s work was part of the new Topographic movement, which rejected the traditional landscape images of such photographers as Ansel Adams. Instead, Deal’s photographs aimed to show the American landscape affected by man-made objects in order to demonstrate how the natural beauty of the land is slowly being destroyed. ‘Indian Bingo’, however, could also be read as a critique of the treatment of Native Americans, and how they struggle to maintain their heritage while also making a living in a society that has become obsessed with consumerism.
Thursday, May 12, 2011
Diane Arbus struggled with depression throughout her life, and committed suicide in 1971. Her personal struggles are carried over into her photographs, which often show people at their most vulnerable. It has also been suggested that she had a fascination with outsiders and figures that struggled to fit in with society’s mainstream ideals. Blogger user ‘anythingofinterest’ comments that “[a]ll her photos have a sort of disturbing/unsettling quality to them. She had an uncanny knack for managing to capture people just as they allowed their masks to slip for a moment.” (1)
This comment raises questions, however, about how any photograph should be viewed. The famous phrase, “the camera never lies”, is itself a falsehood. The moment that light is exposed to a film a singular moment in time is captured. Viewed out of context, any photograph can be misread, therefore producing a variety of meanings which may be far from the photographer’s intentions. For example, the man and woman may have been smiling moments earlier. Rather than “allowing their masks to slip”, Arbus may have waited until the man and woman’s facial expressions changed in order to create a far more provocative image.
In spite of this, the photograph should still be read and analysed in the context in which it has been presented to us. ‘King and Queen of the Senior Citizen Dance’ features a man and woman who appear unhappy with their circumstances. There is a stiffness to their poses which suggests discomfort and the space between them emphasises the awkward situation. Most interesting of all, however, is the age of the man and woman, and how their clothing does not fit in with the era in which the photograph was taken. In particular, the woman’s glasses and shoes are reminiscent of the fashion of the 1950s. The man, similarly, could easily be dressed for two decades earlier. The photograph could therefore be a critique of the representation of senior citizens in America. Chosen as king and queen of their dance, and then dressed in regalia, the photograph imitates the traditional ‘prom king and queen’ found at American high school dances. They were not voted in, however, but rather had their names selected at random. The attempt at an imitation of their youth, and the evident unhappiness it has caused, suggests that there is no room for the older generation in 1970s society. While the woman still dresses as she did twenty years ago, American society is advancing and senior citizens are being left behind.
Finally, a museum guard, who Jesse Kornbluth discussed Arbus’ work with, had the following to say about the photography:
“[A]s I spent more time with the pictures, I saw what she was getting at. I got that these people were beautiful. That Arbus loved them. That she in no way exploited them. These pictures celebrate the freak in all of us." (2)
The rather cynical reading of the photograph I have made may then be ignoring an important element of Arbus’ photographs. Her troubled life is evident, and is reflected in the despondent expressions on the senior citizens’ faces. Her emphasis on the unusual and the outsider could also be read as a cynical representation of the ‘true American’, one who is unaccepted within society because they do not conform to the American ideal. However, as the guard’s comments suggest, her photography also reminds us all that no one is ‘normal’, and that these irregularities and eccentricities should be celebrated, not shunned.
(1) http://anythingofinterest.blogspot.com, 1st April 2005
In the early decades of the nineteenth century, landscape paintings were very popular, especially as urban and industrial areas began to invade the rural, and many American people reminisced and sought out the stunning natural scenery the country had to offer. Thomas Cole, an English-born American artist, founded the Hudson River School art movement in the mid-nineteenth century – a movement known for its realistic and detailed depiction of American scenery and wilderness, and took advantage of the American taste for native scenery, to create the beautiful landscape painting ‘The Oxbow’ (1836). Titled in full as 'View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow', Cole's painting is laden with symbolism. The ordered and peaceful land at the left of the painting - a clear representation of the settled areas of rural America - juxtaposed by the dramatic storm clouds and dark, untamed wilderness at the right might be read as the future potential of the American landscape as a pastoral settlement and the perceived notion of order over chaos (order being the control man has over the landscape, chaos the uncontrolled wilderness.)
According to the website Picturing America, “On the hillside beyond the oxbow, Cole left a hidden message: the word Noah is roughly incised in Hebrew letters, a code that read upside down spells out Shaddai, the Almighty. Is Cole suggesting that the landscape be read as a holy text that reveals the word of God? If so, wouldn’t any human intrusion be a sacrilege? On the other hand, the artist’s careful division of the landscape implies that civilization drives out the danger and chaos inherent in the natural world. Perhaps the painting itself embodies Cole’s ambivalence.” The painting here is ambiguous in its message.
Cole himself is visible in the painting (the small figure in the center, atop the mountain looking over the idyllic scene – sketching materials at hand) a few yards away from a red and white striped umbrella firmly jutting out of the ground, pointing toward the other side of the river. The umbrella here might symbolise a flag, with Cole having planted it to claim the wilderness as American territory; perhaps, as the threatening storm clouds above the wilderness suggest, Cole recognised that the wilderness was a threat to civilisation that should be dealt with – however the painting could also be read as an admiration of the natural landscape and how civilisation is encroaching upon it (note the number of small fires in the settled areas, and what looks like a blasted apart tree trunk on the right.) Cole's painting is a perfect example of the conflicting ideals and landscapes of America in the nineteenth century, as many other artists showed in their work.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
The protest was planned to take place on October the 5th 1969. It is estimated that over 30 million people in American took part in the demonstration and Universities all over America cancelled classes in adavance of this ,or were forced too close because of the sheer amount of students taking part in the protest.
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
American Gothic by Grant Wood (1930), painted at the beginning of what would be the Great Depression, shows a farmer and his spinster daughter standing in front of their house, which is built in a Gothic style. It is described on the Art Institute of Chicago's website as, 'an image that epitomizes the Puritan ethic and virtues that he believed dignified the Midwestern character.' This painting became an important image during the Great Depression as life on the land represented the strength of the American past and provided an image of renewal. James Michael Newell explained this notion as an attempt to “interpret in pictorial symbols the important historical forces that determined the evolution of western civilisation.” The woman's clothing is clearly imitating colonial Puritan America. The man is unmistakably a farmer and symbolises the Puritan work ethic in which they believed that their dedication to hard work would increase their own wealth and power. This notion immediately became embedded in American virtues and ultimately the American dream and so encouraged many to return to the foundations of American civilisation in order to pull themselves from poverty once again. This kind of art therefore allowed people to become more aware of the places in which they lived and the attitudes and lifestyles they shared, creating a sense of pride concerning their place of birth and heritage (in this case Eldon Iowa and the Mid-Western United States). As a result, regional identity and American identity as a whole is created.