December 07, 2005
'The past isn't dead. It isn't even past.' — William Faulkner
John Yang is a 72–year–old former architect who lives in New York City.
After he retired in 1978 he devoted himself to photography.
Between 1990 and 1993 he took photographs (above and below) of the carved faces on the facades of Manhattan tenements and row houses.
"The heads, dating from the 1840s to around 1900, are made of sandstone, which was soft and workable straight from the quarries of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York," wrote Robin Pogrebin in a story which appeared in Sunday's New York Times.
A show of Yang's work, entitled "Over the Door: Stone Faces from a Disquieting Age," is now up at The Urban Center Galleries in New York City, through January 25, 2006.
A book of his work, entitled "Over the Door: The Ornamental Stonework of New York," was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 1995.
Here is the Times piece.
- In Search of the Venus of 37th and Madison
John Yang doesn't make a searing physical impression.
Dressed in a button-down flannel shirt and khaki pants, his glasses dangling on a string around his neck, he looks more like a New England professor than an intrepid New York photographer.
If you spotted him pointing his Leica at the carved faces on the facades of Manhattan's tenements and row houses, you probably wouldn't break your stride.
And while he majored in philosophy half a century ago at Harvard, he insists that the big thoughts should be left to great thinkers.
But clearly Mr. Yang has a few of his own.
To him, the evocative heads and decorative pediments he spent three years recording on the streets of Manhattan speak volumes about a turbulent era in the city's history.
His mission is less to save them than to capture them, in all their eerie eccentricity.
"It wasn't because I wanted to document these things before they all disappeared, or anything like that," Mr. Yang, 72, said during a recent rainy-day interview at his studio in a brownstone in Midtown Manhattan.
"It had to do with the wonderful things they were - and in some ways they were so wonderful because they were ephemeral."
"You can make your comments about preservation, change, time, memory, who the craftsmen were, who made these - immigrants from Northern Europe and the British Isles at the turn of the century in New York," he said.
"And then you can talk about the portraits themselves - the expressiveness of the portraits - and to me, this was primary, this is why I took them."
The photographs, shot between 1990 and 1993, are now having their first formal exhibition, a show at Urban Center Galleries titled "Over the Door: Stone Faces From a Disquieting Age," organized by Mr. Yang and the Municipal Art Society, which oversees the gallery.
The exhibition dovetails with the society's walking tours around the city, which focus on architectural details.
But Elizabeth Werbe, the society's coordinator of programs and exhibitions, said she viewed the photographs as more than mere illustrations. "These really are portraits," she said.
"Whether they're mythological characters or animals or cherubs, they all seem to have a lot of personality."
It was that sense of human emotion - suspicion, hostility, humor, stoicism - that led Mr. Yang to spend three years documenting those ornaments. (Until 1990 he had mainly photographed panoramic views of gardens and golf courses, pictures that were shown in the late 1980's at the Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery in Manhattan.)
It was the first time Mr. Yang had turned to New York itself for material, though he has lived there since 1939, after growing up in China and a brief sojourn in England.
Roving the city with his 35-millimeter Leica in search of a theme, he found his attention drawn to a head with flowing hair and an open mouth.
The face was on the keystone of the arch over the front doors of an apartment building on Manhattan Avenue uptown near Central Park.
He was struck by "how you could just read expressions, although they were just marks on stone."
After that, he scoured Manhattan to seek out heads, busts and faces in bold relief. Exploring different neighborhoods, "I systematically went through the streets," he said.
"I chose one area and then I just covered it."
He kept a crude scribbled map to record his travels - April 1991, Greenwich Village; May and June 1991, the Lower East Side; July to September 1991, Hell's Kitchen; May and June 1992, Harlem.
Often his frame was interrupted by obstructions - a lamppost, a leafless branch - which Mr. Yang sought to incorporate rather than work around.
To capture his landscape photographs, he slowly revolved with his panoramic camera.
For the stonework, he took the faces full on, looking up at them from below.
The heads, dating from the 1840's to around 1900, are made of sandstone, which was soft and workable straight from the quarries of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, Mr. Yang said.
He included some of this history in "Over the Door: The Ornamental Stonework of New York," a book published by Princeton Architectural Press in 1995.
"This is a very personal selection of faces - and reliefs, from tenements to decorative architectural embellishments - that I found interesting," Mr. Yang said.
"But primarily the faces - the stone faces."
They are faces of distress, contemplation, anguish, disgust, surprise.
He didn't try to capture every one he saw, only those that intrigued him, that moved him, that had been through something.
"I think I wouldn't have been interested in taking them if things hadn't happened to them," Mr. Yang said.
Like the face on which years of accumulated salt residue had left a pattern, the face with a repaired eye, or another with a new painted mustache.
"So you have this element of people adding their own contribution to what's there," he said.
In the appendix of his book, Mr. Yang quotes among others John Ruskin, who wrote in 1880: "The greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, nor in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity."
For Mr. Yang, the subtle gradations of human emotion are conveyed mainly through the sculptures' eyes.
Some are ornate - for example, represented as a swirl - and others almost completely obliterated.
Some bulge in an alien way.
Although they are made of stone, "they have great depth," he explained.
He pointed out a photograph of a bearded man in a Viking helmet from a building on West 83rd Street.
"There's a melancholy in that one," he said, "Certainly the downcast eyes."
In another, a face from Madison Street, on the Lower East Side, he remarked on the "haughtiness and a little surprise."
He was never interested in the terra cotta figures used in commercial buildings, Mr. Yang said, because they were generally cast in replicable forms.
So he stuck mainly with sandstone, and the occasional pediment, typically made of pressed sheet metal, that topped entryways.
"I found these just fascinating," Mr. Yang said.
"The inventiveness and the imagination."
Born in Suchow, China, the son of a doctor, he left the country with his family in 1937, and spent two years in London before arriving in New York.
He spent the summer after his freshman year at Harvard studying with the renowned photographer Minor White at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco - now the San Francisco Art Institute - and earned an architecture degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1957.
Mr. Yang bought his first camera while serving in the Army in Germany and remained in Europe to take photographs after his discharge.
Back in New York, he took up architecture, eventually becoming a partner in a firm that designed public housing and institutions like a United States embassy, schools and correctional institutions.
He always photographed the buildings he designed, and pursued photography in his spare time.
In 1978, he retired as an architect to devote himself to photography.
After wrapping up the series of stone faces, Mr. Yang worked from 1994 to 1998 compiling "sepulchral portraits" in Mount Zion, the Orthodox Jewish cemetery in Maspeth, Queens - miniature portraits that were once placed on many of the cemetery's tombstones.
Since 2001, he has been photographing John Boyd Thacher State Park, a prominent ridge southwest of Albany that includes the Indian Ladder Trail, which once connected the Mohawk Valley to the highlands above.
During his stone-face period, Mr. Yang would return now and then to reshoot some of the faces, and to see how they were doing - in a sense, to visit old acquaintances.
But he said he never grew overly attached to a specific ornament, or felt compelled to influence its fate.
"Some of them will be different, and some of them you may be interested in photographing again, and some of them you may not," he said.
And someday, "your subject won't be there anymore."
Note: In the left sidebar of the Times story is a direct link to a two–and–a-half minute video interview with Yang, in which he talks about his work and what inspires him. Most interesting.
The Urban Center is at 457 Madison Avenue (51st Street); 212-935-3960. Gallery hours are 11 a.m.– 5 p.m. daily (closed Thursdays and Sundays). Admission is free.
The quotation heading this post is from Faulkner's "Requiem for a Nun."
Napoleon Dynamite Lip Balm
From the website:
- There was nothing more disheartening than when Napoleon's lips "hurt real bad" and Kip wouldn't bring his lip balm to school.
Don't fret, this will never happen to you again.
You can have your very own Vanilla flavored Napoleon Dynamite Lip Balm.
This lip balm offers quality moisture and protection, not to mention, the vanilla flavor is Flippin' Sweet.
What Giorgio Armani and I have in common
For me it's been since forever; for Armani I cannot say.
"Giorgio Armani is a fanatic for Agraria's Bitter Orange and last year had Aedes perfume his runway show with it."
Aedes would be Aedes de Venustas ("temple of beauty" in Latin), a wonderful store in New York City whose catalog may be the most beautiful I've ever received.
Burr wrote that Aedes is "the most exclusive perfume shop in New York."
I had occasion to chat on the phone with one of the two owner/proprietors one day a few years ago when I was reordering Bitter Orange potpourri.
I mentioned how elegant and exquisite their catalog was and asked who designed it: "We did" (meaning he and his partner), he replied.
Burr wrote that in the decade since its founding in 1995 Aedes has become "a bit of a cult."
Once you page through the catalog you'll understand why.
I always take along a box of Bitter Orange potpourri when I travel, along with a few small plastic containers with lids.
I put out potpourri in various corners of my hotel room soon after entering.
Then, every time I return to my room and open the door it's as if I'm coming home, after a fashion.
Smell is a reptilian sense, striking notes deep within the midbrain and amygdala as its neuronal message traverses the warp and weft of our synaptic network: along with it course associations long since forgotten yet, somehow, still resonant.
Ferrari Enzo FXX
Ya know, I got to thinking, after reading about Cartier's new tank watch, with its exclusive numbered and limited edition and all, that 100 watches is just too many.
I mean, anyone with $28,000 lying around can up and get one.
That's not what I'm about — you know me far better than that.
So I had the crack research team look around for something a bit more luxe, with a tad more panache and exclusivity.
They did the job they're paid to do.
Above and below, Ferrari's new Enzo FXX, just out.
Only 29 will be made.
But that's not the best part — not even close.
$1,755,000 (£1,014,000; €1,500,000) — before taxes.
Now before you say, "What?," have a look — and listen, as the sound of that engine is to die for — at this very cool video of the car being put through its paces in Monza, Italy on October 12/13 of this year.
'Overdosing on Choices'
Jim Sollisch, a writer in Cleveland, wrote a superb short Op–Ed page essay for this past Sunday's Washington Post.
He cut to the heart of one of the things that creates an illusion of plenty but actually does the very opposite — the abundance of possibilities open to those in the First World.
In fact, as he pointed out very eloquently and succinctly, we usually lose when we choose.
We lose time, we lose patience, we lose interest.
Time, patience and interest are prerequisites for a life that has value to its possessor.
Here's the piece.
- Overdosing on Choices
I know this has happened to you.
You're (a) madly in love or (b) madly confused about love when a song comes on the radio with words that seem to be written not just about you but to you.
Suddenly the world makes sense.
You are not alone.
In the minutes that follow, you find yourself using words like Fate and Karma.
You have just experienced the random kindness of the universe, a phenomenon that's getting tougher to come by in this world of iPods and TiVo.
Take my teenage kids.
They love the word "random," possibly because so little in their lives is actually random.
Every song in their iPods, for example, was selected from their playlist.
Each song represents a choice.
They never listen to the radio -- too random.
And it's not just kids.
Technology asks us to make countless trivial choices.
Pick your desktop background.
Program media sources to send you only the news you want.
Design the options packages on your car.
Click here to vote for your favorite (fill in the blank).
Even the big three TV networks are moving toward commercial-free programming on demand.
ABC recently announced that it will offer episodes of "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" on Apple's new video iPod service.
And then NBC and CBS said they, too, would make certain shows available to some satellite subscribers with DVRs.
It's enough to make me shout, "I WANT MY OLD TV."
I watch TV strictly to waste time.
My goal is to make no decisions, no commitments.
I flip channels at random, waiting to be surprised by something.
By contrast, the future of TV offers me the chance to turn TV-watching into a job.
To use my powers of reasoning to determine which shows I want to commit to.
I'll get to compare and contrast, use hierarchical thinking, make value judgments, plan ahead.
The only problem is, I don't want all this control.
I want someone else to choose the options packages for my car. I want my news unfiltered.
I like to wander through bookstores.
Frankly, I'm insulted when Amazon thinks they know the next book I'll buy.
I don't even want to know the next book I'll buy until I find it.
I want less control over my life.
I am not the best person to design clothing or furniture.
Let someone else make the choices.
I'll do the buying.
There must be some other purpose for technology.
When did progress and success become tied to how many choices you get to make?
A few of my successful friends have recently built custom houses.
Which basically means they have made more than 400,000 relatively useless choices.
They have spent a year of their lives deciding which cupboard pull is the right one.
My house, built in 1922, came complete with cupboard pulls.
And the best part is someone else chose them.
Let's put this discussion into philosophical terms.
Let's assume that the number of choices a human being can reasonably make in a day is finite.
Then every trivial choice reduces your capacity or inclination to work on other choices, more important choices such as whom to vote for or which charity to donate money to or what to do with your life.
Don't get me wrong.
I'm no Luddite.
I just fear that technology is keeping us so busy controlling the minutiae of our lives that we have no time left over to devote to the things that really matter.
And that doesn't seem much like progress to me.
It has occurred to me that one of the reasons people like bookofjoe is precisely because of its seemingly random choice of subjects.
If you want tech there are tech blogs; art, art blogs; fashion, fashion blogs.
Medicine, science, sports, design, music, there's a blog for everything under the sun.
But what, pray tell, is mine about?
Everything and nothing, is what I'd reply off the top of my head — but that one's already taken.
Cartier Tank à guichets Watch
Introduced this year, the Tank à guichets (above) is actually the 21st–century reappearance of a model from the company's archives.
"... It has two apertures, one for jumping hours in the upper part of the dial and, below it, a slightly larger slot through which... minutes can be seen," wrote Nick Foulkes in the December 2 Financial Times.
A limited and numbered series of 100 have been made.
Details from the website:
- 18K pink gold, jumping hours and continuous minutes complication with apertures.
18K pink gold octagonal crown set with a faceted sapphire.
Hand-sewn full–grain alligator strap.
18K pink gold adjustable deployant buckle.
Workshop–crafted mechanical movement with manual winding, calibre 9752 MC.
Thickness: 4.4 mm.
Bridges decorated with the interlocking Cartier double-C motif.
Water–resistant to 30 meters/100 feet.
£16,100 ($27,909; €23,855).
I must say that if I were forced to wear either the new ultra–luxe version or a classic tank (below)
I'd opt for the classic.
Wired for Books
Well, here's one of those mother lodes you stumble on every now and then online.
From the website:
- For many years, most of the best writers of the English language found their way to Don Swaim's CBS Radio studio in New York.
The one-on-one interviews typically lasted 30 to 45 minutes and then had to be edited down to a two-minute radio show.
Wired for Books is proud to make these important oral documents publicly available for the first time in their entirety.
Listen to the voices of many of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.
My jaw dropped when I went to the page listing the authors whose interviews are there for the free listening.
Brian Aldiss, Anthony Burgess, Joan Didion, John Fowles, John Irving, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Barbara Kingsolver, Amy Tan, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. — I could go on but I think you can see that there's an unbelievable wealth of listening pleasure here.
I count roughly 550 authors.
Mirror Puzzle — 'The coolest puzzle ever?'
From the puzzle's website:
- Infinite Possibilities
Puzzles can be a lot of fun to assemble, but after all the excitement of putting it together, the picture is always the same.
Enter the Mirror Puzzle: Instead of an unchanging static image, the Mirror Puzzle displays an image of whatever happens to be reflected at the moment – use it as a centerpiece or experiment with thousands of other possibilities.
Comes with a Lucite top and base.
15" x 15".
[via Steve Mallory]