Friday, July 23, 2010

Leon Levinstein at the Metropolitan Museum

A gift of a large collection of prints by Leon Levinstein is the basis for a very intriguing summer show in the Howard Gilman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum. Levinstein's images appear in anthologies about Coney Island, or vintage (post WWII) street photography in New York, but never in a way that foregrounds his work. One image in particular, a very modernist composition of the back of handball players in the Lower East Side, which has an almost Bauhaus formality to it seems to be the most reproduced, but it gives little indication of the salty character studies which distinguish his images, primarily. The modernist compositions can seem related to the lightning-reflexes of someone like Henri Cartier-Bresson, also the sense of the image passing into a scarily iconic passage which can also border on morbid caricature. & yet unlike Cartier-Bresson in which the remarkable composition seemingly unearthed by the camera has a redemptive, essentialist "Family of Man" aspect - the same skill set in Levinstein's hands reveals a much more misanthropic & isolated social perspective.

Levinstein is much closer to the likes of the Poe story The Man of the Street: looking at others in puzzlement which leads to a journey which reveals nothing, ultimately. A wild goose chase into unknowing. This kind of forlorn &, in 20th century terms, existential confrontation with other-ness is perhaps the ultimate theme of most post WWII street photography. The chaos of the streets, the lack of solution, as it were, for what seems random, endless & jarring, is both the horror & appeal of such work. The closest equivalent I can think of is the work of William Klein, but even Klein has an ecstatic aspect in his expressive printing methods & his dynamic book designs, whereas Leon Levinstein presents a portfolio which reverberates with loneliness & despair, with little redemption beyond that. Perhaps a torso or butt which may excite some erotic intrigue, somewhat. The most appealing (if one needs the images to be appealing) aspects border on figures which may or not be of a somewhat outlaw nature. Levinstein worked from the 1950s through the 1970s & one can see social aspects which are almost nonexistent in pre-1968 street photography: hippies, bag ladies (one of the sickest moments in 1970s pop culture were the cretins who made postcards of NYC bag ladies as comical gross figures), inter-racial relations which would have had a different emphasis before the civil rights movement, figures outside any normative formations - no one in his images is ordinary looking yet all seem utterly an everyman or everywoman.

One can see a pre-gentrified New York City in Levinstein's images which now can read as much nostalgic as they could be conceived of as harsh. Glimpses of this can be seen in films such as The Panic in Needle Park (which was at 72nd & Broadway!) & Serpico. This "olde" New York is always in black-&-white. It reached its apogee in William Klein, Diane Arbus, Sid Grossman, Weegee, Peter Sekaer, Rudy Burckhardt, Helen Levitt, Walker Evans, That's such a small list - there have been recent historical shows such as "The Women of the Photo League" exhibit put together by Kim Bouros at Higher Pictures last year which reveal much wider practices at hand, & a future task for the photo historian.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Housed at the Alice Austen House

The Alice Austen House in Staten Island is the former home of the Victorian photographer Alice Austen (1866-1952), which had belonged to her family & which bears the name Clear Comfort. The house was built initially in the 17th century but was updated through the mid-19th century. It is a "gothic cottage" on a lawn sloping down to New York Bay, just north of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which links Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with Staten Island.

The Austen house is absurdly pastoral & quaint in a city not usually known for such aspects. I walked from the ferry terminal in St. George, which took about an hour, & passed through different communities as well as strip malls, industrial areas & areas of such oblique nature I was reminded of the Rem Koolhaas essay "Junkspace."

At the end of long lonely industrial street I walked there was a short fence & sloping lawns & trees & in the midst there sits the white clapboard house, smaller than I expected. The ceilings are low, & the rooms are kept as a museum of Alice Austen's everyday, although Austen in her lifetime lost her family money in the 1929 stock market crash & died in 1952 in a poor house, called the Staten Island Farm Colony. Austen lived with her companion Gertrude Tate (1871-1962) in the house from 1917 until they were forced to move.

The discreet tact of the term "companionship" between Austen & Tate, the impossibility of knowing its exact nature, yet seeming quite clear as a loving relationship (unconsummated old maids? or a Boston Marriage?) informs a very sweet small show of photographs in the house for the summer, entitled Housed, curated by Joseph Maida & Katie Murray. The two key images in the show are a modern print of an Austen image of 2 girls in masks, lighting a cigarette together, dressed in underwear, which is next to a contemporary image by Catherine Opie of a drawing of a house with 2 stick figure women outside it, cut into her back.

There are thousands of negatives extant from the Austen estate. Many of the images are reportage of Staten Island & New York City. Austen also photographed private events. The images are a curious window into times past & unknown social circles. The images are remarkably candid. I find the party images the most interesting as they show a great deal of spontaneity & also a very direct engagement w/ the camera as a thing, as part of a social practice. Most fascinating of all are her staged images, which the masked girls could be considered part of, as well as a series of Austen & her girl friends dressed as men & posing as such. These are remarkably earthy & casual & seem much more modern than studio portraiture or art photography of that time.

The very subtle exhibit, Housed, touches on the idea of the "home" as a kind of private theater of shifting identities & perimeters. In addition to the Austen & Opie images, the other resonant image for me in construing a theme for the show is one of Peter Garfield's images of a destroyed house flying in the air (falling, I am assuming, like the house in The Wizard of Oz - or in the context of the show, a conventional house rent from its foundation, spinning in the ether). Or perhaps it is Peter Stanglmayr's fashion photo of a "girlie-boy" - a very pretty androgynous boy posing for a knitwear company's catalog. These images all show both a sense of an imposed social order & its transformation, for whatever needs that may arise (& these can remain oblique even if they seem very apparent). This is an invigorating show in a truly wonderful setting. All of us at the opening, sitting on the porch w/ a cooler of chilled rose (thanks to Peter Stanglmayr), with people playing badminton & croquet on the lawns, while ships passed in & out of the bay, below - we all commented that we wanted to live there. The Austen house is truly cozy. I found the house such a generous site & so lovely. It's something to think about. A refuge in the general storm of life.

The simultaneous visibility & invisibility of the Austen/Tate household reminded me of other such examples in the realm of photography. There are remarkable images of the actress Charlotte Cushman by Matthew Brady and Southworth & Hawes which are of remarkable gravity & presence, as strong as any of the other "great Americans" photographed by either firm. What is also apparent is Cushman's self-possession & lack of "feminine" mask. & in the 20th century, while working as a portrait photographer in Paris, Berenice Abbott photographed a remarkable array of "Sapphic" characters from the upper classes & artistic spheres. Abbott herself would not associate herself with lesbian feminist groups in the 1970s when approached for support (& also a sense of historical continuity) - despite her long-term household with the photo historian Elizabeth McCausland. I have heard the same of Djuna Barnes, who is the same generation as Abbott, & also a subject of remarkable photographs by Abbott taken in Paris in the 1920s. & the writer I knew in the 1980s, Marguerite Young, by then elderly & outspoken, would nevertheless deliberately obscure her sexual orientation & in fact criticize others (I recall a conversation in which Iris Murdoch was referred to as a bull-dyke, in an emphatically pejorative moment, & she would use the term fairies to describe some men, while always surrounded by a coterie of gay friends).

My former student L., who defines herself emphatically as a "butch dyke," would say "My kind are invisible, but it's not like we're not there." While not quite a contradiction of the inequalities & prejudices of the world we live in, the Alice Austen Houses of the world show us a much more diverse planet, nevertheless.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

flower power

(in memory of Susan Kleckner, July 5 1941 - July 7 2010)

One evening in the mid to late 1980s (I cannot date it any more precisely than 1986-1989) with my friend L., we went out with her childhood friend, Andy Sherwood, visiting town. L. & Andy had gone to the Grace Church School & the Friends Seminary on E. 17th St. They grew up in lower Manhattan in the late 1950s, early 1960s, which from their descriptions sounded like an entirely different city (L. mentioned running away from home & renting an apartment on Avenue D for $13/month).

Andy had relocated to Paris where he taught harpsichord & he also did some photography. Andy knew my friend C. in Paris. C. left NYC for Nicaragua in 1985, returning to Paris in 1986. Andy detested C. & told me so in emphatic tones, which is how the evening began. "Do you really like this horrible person?!"

Andy took L. & me to a loft on Washington St. in the West Village where a couple, the Harris' lived. They had a theatrical background. On the wall there was a poster for The Angels of Light, which was led by their late son George. The poster for The Angels of Light was from a small theater in Paris, the Theatre Campagne-Premiere, which by coincidence had been owned by my friend C.'s father, Andre. George & Ann Harris mentioned that they were owed money by the proprietor of the theater, which, after the circumstances of my earlier conversation regarding C., I did not mention this further connection to them.

Also framed on the wall was a photo of a boy inserting a carnation into the barrel of a rifle held by a National Guardsman. The boy in the photo was the Harris' son George in 1967, outside the Pentagon at an anti-war rally, before George relocated to San Francisco & incarnated himself as the performer Hibiscus.

My memory is rough about this, but I think George may have modeled at some point. There were numerous photos by L.'s friend Andy of young George in the house.

I hadn't thought of the "flower power" photo in quite a while, but it came to mind reading the blog Amber Waves of Brain.

& then, today, 2 days later, Phyllis Levine, "Communications Director" at ICP, where I work, brought in a luscious print of the Pentagon photo from her archive (the photographer's name is Bernie Boston) for possible identification as no one in Exhibitions knew it. The image is not obscure by any means - it was a nominee for a Pulitzer Prize after it was published in a newspaper (the Washington Star), but it brings to mind others, such as a similar image by Marc Riboud.

While I do not have a belief in a greater significance to coincidence or of a secret cosmic order, these immediate serendipities were still somewhat reassuring: I can appreciate an apparent trace of order in what usually seems random & disconnected. It brought back lives I & others have lived, lost worlds & fragile connections.

& it brings to mind the weird potency of photography, how it embodies both the known & the unknown it its stimuli; it shows us something we didn't see & will never be able to see directly, except as a photograph, &  that experience can permeate our memories, or as Siegfried Kracauer would term it, replace them.

Outside of such harsh reckonings, I can admit a kind of succor in such technological fantasies - found in blogs, websites, magazines, newspapers & paper archives as much as my memories. & while I cannot cite Hibiscus with any authority, what a splendid figure to invoke this week.

My friend S. died this week after 6 years of struggling with cancer. S. was a rebellious character - in the hospital her sister said, "I don't know why she didn't teach fighting - she was certainly good at it - " in consideration of S.' past as filmmaker, photographer, performance artist, writer, teacher, & a non-denominational minister (I'm not quite sure what that means). I think of S. as primarily a teacher & her relentlessness in it - she also taught up until a few weeks ago, getting around with a portable oxygen tank.

S. made the daily papers in 1987 when she climbed the Berlin Wall & took photographs from that vantage point, getting arrested by the Germans. The Berlin Wall itself was not that large physically - what was massive about it was the constant policing it required.

I first saw S. in the mid 1980s when I worked at Film Forum when it was on Watts St. & S. spent a year living in the window at Sohozat which was 2 blocks away on West Broadway, just above Canal. I didn't know her then - we met years later. I recall joking to another friend, in crisis about looking for a place to live, that maybe when the window at Sohozat was unoccupied . . . I never saw any of the films S. made with Kate Millett. There were rumors as to what those included (nudity, sex). S. did a partial reenactment of the Sohozat window in the window of New Museum, as part of the Martha Rosler retrospective held there & at ICP - in this case it became a home office.

In the hospital the other day, while S. lay in a coma, a minister from the hospital came into the room for last rites. The minister was shooed away like a nasty pest; instead a friend of S. enacted a ritual w/ healing waters, which we all passed to one another in a circle, making faint streaks on the palms of each other's hands, while someone else read from a book of anti-war poetry from Vietnam from the 1960s.  The ejection of the hospital minister had a comic aspect otherwise absent in the room as we all sat with S. as she expired. The healing waters & anti-war poetry were also hard to take. It made me aware that even in a group I would be mourning alone.

Climbing the Berlin Wall with a camera does not seem dissimilar to the carnation stuffed in a rifle. How lucky we are to have photos of such acts & to have had any encounter w/ those who would do such things.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Marjorie Cameron

Marjorie Cameron's appearance in Kenneth Anger's film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome as Kali, as the many incarnations of Isis, is a great cinematic presence. One cannot say precisely what she looks like - prominent eyes, prominent nose, prominent lips. In the film given the excesses of make-up, wigs & costumes, the hair color is confused, the the specificities of age are rendered moot. There is a nervous tension which marks her on-camera presence - it does not have the serenity of other stars of the silver screen. Cameron dominates the film, upstaging the excesses of Samson de Brier, who plays Osiris, as well as the various deities portrayed in the film - all of whom convene in a drunken orgy in which the young gorgeous Pan, played by Paul Mathison (sp?) is ultimately torn apart in the frenzy. There is a remarkable passage in the diary of Anais Nin about the making of the film, which also invokes Nin's consternation about being upstaged by Cameron, who remains an enigmatic cipher (& ultimately still having the final last non-word) in Nin's florid account of the film - Nin sees Cameron as a kind of negative to Nin's own glorious positive, shunt aside by the perversities of Anger.

As presences go, Cameron could retire after her performance in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, which was filmed in Samson de Brier's modest but flamboyantly colored Hollywood apartment. The film is a curious convocation of various gods meeting, or as my friend K. quoted one of her students writing about The Bacchae, partying in the woods. Anger is a curiosity in his allegiances: Ostensibly a follower of Aleister Crowley & the OTO, he is also strangely iconoclastic about the role playing & the seriousness of what must have been a rather tiresome practice, more difficult than the protocols of any organized church. There is always a sense of mockery & kitsch overriding the "rituals" of Anger's films, which perhaps gives them more credence than if they were party platforms for Satanism, Inc. Anger's films instead cavort in utter deliriousness. Their unruliness is what gives them a charge.

Cameron was no stranger to the world of organized Satanism, being the wife of Jack Parsons, who was one of the inventors of rocket fuel, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Lab, & also an active leader of the OTO in Pasadena CA. Parsons & his colleague L. Ron Hubbard conduced a series of experiments to invoke "Babalon" - the mythic red-headed Whore of Babylon, at which point Parsons met Cameron & they got together immediately. While Parsons may have regarded Cameron as a semi-deity & also a product of his own sorcery, the fact is she was with us until her death in 1995. Cameron painted, drew, wrote & she appeared in 2 films by Curtis Harrington, The Wormwood Star, & his feature film Night Tide.

In Night Tide Cameron has a small & highly mysterious role as a vaguely European femme fatale of occult-ish origins who addresses the female lead, Moyra, a carnival sideshow mermaid who may possibly be an actual mermaid, living under a curse of her dark ancestry. The scene is cribbed from Jacques Tourneur's Cat People, in which the cat-woman Simone Simon is addressed in a restaurant by an oversexed, fur-clad, exotic woman speaking an unknown language (Serbian? Simone Simon plays a Serbian in the film) as "my sister." A member of the same species addressing her. In both Cat People & Night Tide the female protagonist is fighting an overpowering sexuality. In Cat People it is embodied literally in the transformation into a killer cat, whereas in Night Tide it is revealed to be a hoax, but a hoax w/ fatal consequences, for the hapless mermaid. Cameron makes two appearances in Night Tide - in her Cat People-esque nightclub scene, addressing her "sister" & later, the Dennis Hopper character follows her to the sordid labyrinth of Venice CA (before gentrification), losing her. At the end of the film Hopper inquires about the Cameron figure, of whom no one knows anything - mystery unsolved!

A photograph of Cameron appeared on the cover of the first issue of Wallace Berman's magazine Semina. In Semina 1 there is a rather extravagant drawing of a female figure being fucked doggie-style which had the distinction of being confiscated by the LAPD as obscene material when exhibited at the Ferus Gallery. Given the impossible demands of being "Babalon," (talk about a tall order to execute!) Cameron appears most natural as it were as a bohemian artist, with or without occult trappings. I have a catalog from 2007 from the Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery of Cameron's drawings & watercolors. There is a withdrawn, decadent tone to the work, which touches on both Symbolist themes as well as experimental work such as the drawings that the poet Henri Michaux did under the influence of mescaline, which are more process-oriented.

I am reminded of the art historian Philippe Jullian's writings about symbolism & decadence, of themes incarnating in various forms. One can see these in both high & low art forms. From Gustave Moreau to Barbarella. The yearnings are what matter more so than the manifestations.