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December 7, 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."

December 7, 2005 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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You should catch the John Yang video that the Times did as well.


Posted by: James oenkirk | Dec 14, 2005 12:57:48 PM

Utterly fascinating. Thank you!

Posted by: Mattp9 | Dec 7, 2005 9:10:11 PM

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