Monet in Vegas

John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood, 1887

John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood, 1887

Much to report from Sin City, but for now I want to recommend a Claude Monet exhibit in the most unexpected of places — the Bellagio Hotel and Casino. On loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (not without controversy), this collection of a couple dozen paintings gives a good look at the Impressionist’s growth as an artist. I’ve always found Monet a bit overrated (living in Chicago, there is almost always some flavor of Impressionist exhibit running to keep the Chicago Art Institute coffers full). With this collection though, I was struck by his attention to detail (from a distance, his brush strokes blend into almost photo-realistic shading, especially his rare urban scenes) and his penchant for the ephemeral.

The recorded tour points out the Impressionists’s roots in realist painting and everyday scenes, as opposed to the then vogue academy painting celebrating idealized mythological subjects. However, with Monet’s turn to landscape painting, and eventually to his home in Giverny, the artist increasingly shaped the world he painted, relying less on capturing the elusive light of this or that region of France and instead depicting a world created a priori.

Netflix Price Drop

For those still unsure about saying goodbye to DVD rental late fees forever and signing up to Netflix, a recent price drop to $17.99 might be all you need to pull the trigger. Here in Chicago, turnaround that once took 4-6 days three years ago (mailing to/from CA) today typically only takes 2 days. Not bad. If you think you might watch more than 4 DVDs a month, and can live without the pleasure of going to the local video store on a whim, Netflix is a good deal.

For the information junkie, the online rental experience also is rich with cross-referenced recommendations, movie ratings, reviews, trailers, and your personal rental queue and rental history.

And did I mention no late fees?

This price drop is no doubt in response to growing competition, but also falls on the heels of a recent joint development agreement with Tivo for digital content distribution. Netflix has learned early that they aren’t in the DVD business. Studios, broadcast networks, and telcos should be so smart about their own business models.

Millennium Park and The Bean

Bean with Falling Man, 2004

Bean with Falling Man, 2004

A Visit to Chicago’s Millennium Park

I visited Millennium Park today with my aunt and uncle, who were passing through Chicago on their way to Green Bay. It was one of those interesting experiences one has, stepping slightly outside of yourself and your everyday to look in on the place where you live, the city that you call home. We drove down Lake Shore Drive, for the millionth time, but this time pointing out some of the sites — the Drake, Navy Pier, the stout buildings overlooking the beaches, which were humming with cyclists, volleyball games, and runners. As we drove in their rented sedan, a portable GPS device chimed with pleasure that we were “on the green path,” and dutifully following its cheerful yet lifeless instructions. As I went on about “my fair city,” my uncle quipped — “I’ve flown all around these buildings… even flown into a few.” He’s always had a knack to confuse me, to deliver a remark that I’m never quite sure how to take. Was he talking about a previous military career I didn’t know about? What did he mean… into? After a beat, I realized, and he added, that he was talking about simulated flight, from the convenience of his desktop in North Carolina. Of course.

So, electronic frontiers and the lakefront casually blended this afternoon, as we turned toward Wacker… 2 miles ahead, bearing right. It was 5:30pm. Parking in Grant Park Garage and emerging onto Michigan Ave., we caught sight of the Pritzker Pavilion and could have easily missed Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (“The Bean”) had we not been looking for it. It blends so easily into its reflection that, over the sparse treetops and other street-side visual obstacles, you are easily fooled into thinking it isn’t there at all. As we crossed Michigan, people hurried by, some smiling, often to whomever was on the other end of their wireless conversations. Opting to first see Gehry’s contribution to the pricey urban renewal effort, we climbed a few stairs ahead, and as we neared the “firecracker gone off in a tin can” (as a friend, MN, recently described it), we gradually heard the distinct strains of operatic voices and music. Was it recorded? Certainly there wasn’t a performance this early in the evening? Curiosity brought us to the edge of the pavilion and, as we leaned over, we saw the bright red chairs (so new!) and a few folks speckled throughout, joined by others lounging on the lawn behind and beneath the webbed metal and wire stretching from the stage below. On stage, a collection of musicians and vocalists were rehearsing their parts for a future performance. They were dressed casually, no evening attire, especially not in the humid August air. It was a classic Chicago scene — unassuming and beautiful at the same time.

This urban reverie didn’t prepare me for The Bean though — a sublime object that is best approached from the west, looking east, with Michigan Avenue’s cornices and smudged windows lined dutifully behind, in stark contrast to Kapoor’s luminous droplet of pure metal. Both personal, like a prized stone taken from a favorite place, and majestic in its sheer scale and simplicity, The Bean née Cloud Gate speaks to the horizon between public and private, between the miniature and gigantic that Susan Stewart explores in On Longing (no doubt my old U of C professors are thrilled with this city’s latest icon). As I walked beneath its welcoming navel, instinctually looking for my reflection amid the many faces and shapes, I spied others as they pointed their cameras at this curious thing — some with loved ones in the foreground, others within inches of the metal, peering so close. A nearby Latina, impatient with her male companion, broke from her pose and chided him with a smile — “Enough with your artistic shots!”

As I write this, a storm teems outside my windows, bringing welcomed relief from the heat. The neighborhood is eerily quiet except for the whir of my window fan and the applause rising from the macadam. The fan sprays me with tiny shards of rain as I peer out onto the street looking for the life that I felt just a few hours ago. It has gone dark.

On Photography and Memory

Exit Glacier, 2000

Exit Glacier, 2000

Toward a conceptual framework for the Kinogram project.

It is the rare essay on photography — at least in the general sense of photography — that doesn’t touch on, at some turn or another, the unique relationship photography has with memory. Invariably, when one takes a step back and begins to clutch this image or that from the daily stream, perhaps stumbling across some stashed snapshots from years past, a memory is triggered, clear as a bell. So vivid is the recollection, in fact, that the photo can easily shrink to become a sort of footnote, a pointer seizing just one instant in the rush, from which one’s narrative blooms. Those that have shared the represented experience — perhaps they are sitting there beside you, grinning in the sterile wash of the strobe — also share in this reminiscing. And history reigns for a moment. That’s not to say there’s anything at all accurate or exhaustive about the nod back, but it does possess a stubborn pleasure and purpose. That is certain.

There is nothing particularly remarkable about the image above. A glacier — unmoving yet not, witness to and storehouse of millennia — strikes an all too recorded pose. Moments before perhaps someone stood between the photographer and his soon-to-be-subject, then background. Indifferent ice, as it still must be today, almost 4 years later. If you too have made the short trek past the signs indicating Exit Glacier’s relatively brisk retreat (each wooden post driven into the ground marks where the glacier reached at periodic years so that your walk up is also a walk through time), perhaps the image reminds you of your own Kenai adventure. Or, if you’ve never seen a glacier, perhaps it offers a more abstract delight, the sooty meringues reminding you of a frothy pint of beer or sea foam slapping at the shoreline. Maybe you see (remember) both, or neither.

For me, it is an anchor. Through the lens, a chain pulled taut, snagged on the craggy ocean floor of lived experience. The typically produced photograph, the third sign, points to its referent in a most emphatic way, as if conceding that its very existence depended on it. Despite the dozens of rational reasons why one shouldn’t trust a photograph to do anything but mislead, misrepresent, or mis-take the world, our first comments are often: “Where was this taken?”, “Who is that standing there? Cousin Billy? He looks so young!”, “What is that bit in the corner?” I share this digitally scanned image here as both a specimen of my work and as a personal memento of time spent in Alaska on holiday. Nothing very remarkable about that — cameras are among a traveler’s essential accessories — except to say that my reading of the photograph, my pleasure in its nondescript sky and pinched shoulders of ice, cannot escape memory. In fact, it is the anticipation of remembering that likely raised my right index finger to the shutter release in the first place.

Kinogram, a follow-up project to Photomoment that has been in the works for the past four years, off and on, is happening soon. Among other things, the project attempts to reverse (or at least disrupt) the circuitry between memory and photography discussed above. Kinogram sketches the possibility to both reshape memory and shape experience (on the cusp of memory). I promise I’ll have more information soon.

David Revisited

David Revisited, 1987

David Revisited, 1987

The images of Michelangelo’s David above are among the first exposures I ever made. It was the Summer of 1987 and I was just learning how to use a camera. My cousin John had sold me his Pentax K-1000 kit, including a 50mm lens, and I was shooting Tri-X 400 film. You couldn’t get more basic. Later that summer I had the chance to make prints from these negatives onto high-contrast Kodalith film and litho paper. With some toning, the image to the right above was the result.

Years later, I took a course in posterization at the San Francisco Photography Center. The instructor had devised a complicated and labor intensive system of photographing a negative at multiple exposures with different colored filters. The image on the left above is just one of many variations we created by the end of the class. Of course, today one can produce litho-like or posterized images quite easily with a few clicks and adjustments in Adobe Photoshop. Still, both experiences opened up for me the many possibilities of photography, and allowed for experimentation with what were admittedly a tourist’s run-of-the-mill shots.

Double Vision

Mona Lisa

Harvard Professor of Neurobiology, Margaret Livingstone offers new thoughts on the mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile. For more on Livingstone’s theories on the dual nature of vision, go here.

Of related interest, Robert Silver has made a small industry of his photo-mosaics, which are images composed of thousands of tiny photographs. Each collage is assembled by first scanning an original image and dividing it into a grid of “tiles” which are then compared and matched to a database of photographs. The photographs are arranged based on qualities like color, luminance, and texture, but the database sample is typically organized by subject. Examples include:

George Washington made from the faces of world currency.

Babe Ruth comprised of 1,392 New York Yankee baseball cards.

Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother assembled from selected Farm Security Administration photographs.

Marilyn Monroe in her own image.

and of course,

Mona Lisa hidden amid art history’s masterpieces.