Red Hook Community Gardens

Cabrini Green Urban Meadow
Backyard Garden

Today we walked around all the community gardens in Red Hook, of which there are quite a few. My favorites are the Cabrini Green Urban Meadow and the Backyard Garden. The first one reminds me of Gilles Clément's concept of the Jardin en Mouvement, with its meadow of wild flowers. The riotous blooms set a nice contrast against the urban background, particularly the view of the shipping dock with the Queen Mary II. The Backyard Garden is more traditional, with a picnic area, an allotment space with individual plots, and a shade garden, with fragrant climbing roses on the fence. I was tempted to put my name on the waiting list for a plot next year. It's certainly a place where I'd like to spend more time and perhaps grow some vegetables.



Paeonia is named after Paeon, a student of Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing in Greek mythology. Paeon was taught by Leto, Apollo's mother and goddess of fertility, to obtain a magical root from Mount Olympus that would soothe the pain of women in childbirth, thus incurring the wrath of his teacher. A jealous Asclepius then threatened to kill Paeonia, whom Zeus rescued by turning into the peony flower. 

Since ancient times the tree peony has been a favorite flower in China, where it is the symbol of wealth, fortune, luck, prosperity and happiness.  The Chinese name for peony is "sho yu" which means most beautiful. The history of the tree peony cultivation dates back to the Sui Dynasty (581AD-618AD). The Chinese royal family cherished peonies and the tree peony became known as the "Emperor of Flowers." It was introduced to Japan in the 8th century, where it was celebrated as the "Flower of Wealth." It wasn't until 1787 that the peony was introduced to England and the rest of Europe, where it remains a popular flower. In 1820, it was brought to America, where it has been hybridized to a great extent.

The Chinese have so many great legends about the peonies, and my favorite is the story of the Number One Scholar. In ancient China, the Number One Scholar was the person who scored the highest in a national examination conducted by the emperor. As the story goes, a young man, having become Number One Scholar, went back to his hometown to look for a wife. Much to his surprise, his parents had already chosen one for him in his absence. To make matters worse, she was nearly 10 years older than he was. Before he could recover from the shock of the news, an edict came from the emperor demanding his return to the capital to marry the princess, the emperor's daughter. By the Confucian ethics of Chinese feudal society, he could neither disobey his parents' order nor refuse the emperor's edict. Overcome by the impossible quandary, he dropped dead spitting blood. The following year, a tree peony grew out of his tomb whose flowers were the red color of the uniform worn by Number One Scholars. This cultivar became known as the "Zhuang Yuan Hong" (Number One Scholar flower).

There is another cultivar known as the "Queen of Tree Peonies" whose flowers are a beautiful purple color. During the Tang Dynasty (618AD-907AD), an Emperor issued an edict requiring all officials above the third grade to wear purple uniforms matching the flower.

I love peonies for their fragrance and the way the petals unfurl so delicately. I love to catch these flowers just as they open, the slightly ruffled petals still half folded over as though holding some long-held secret. My favorite peonies are the tree peonies (Paenioa suffruticosa), and some of the most beautiful ones I've seen are part of the 9/11 Peonies  Monument, a collection of 300 specimens given to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 2002 by the Japanese town of Yatsuka-Cho.

Spring flowers

Spring is coming to an end, and I am looking back at my crop of images from the season. There is always the desire to do more and the nagging feeling of so many missed opportunities. I only wish I had started doing this years before.

Aurore Janon

Looking at Nicolette's and Sherry's places reminded me of Aurore's house, which has a same spirit. They have been some of my favorite places to photograph, all full of beautiful and fascinating moments I get to observe and keep for myself.


Andy Goldsworthy Rivers & Tides: Working with Time

I saw this excellent documentary on Andy Goldsworthy tonight. It's the best way to experience his work, short of being there with him in person as he makes them. I have always loved his work–the ephemeral quality, the use of found materials, and the lyricism, but now I appreciate it infinitely more. I am also extremely envious of the way he is able to maintain such a primal connection with the landscape. 


Sherry Olsen

Some of my favorite shots from Sherry's place in Berkeley. I want to live in this place, if only for a day or two. It just happens to be right behind the house where I used to live while I was in college. A huge part of me longs to live back in Berkeley, probably because it was the place  I lived when I first left home at 17. A whole new world opened up to me when I stepped on that campus and lost myself among the crowd.
Meanwhile, Sherry's textiles are being produced in Japan, and she has named one of the patterns after me! I am indescribably flattered.

Nicolette Owen

Nicolette Owen is a very talented young florist whose Williamsburg apartment is one of the most interesting places I've seen. It's got more heart and soul than most of the expensively decorated houses that I am often paid to photograph. Nicolette's place, a typical old tenement New York apartment, is full of character, wonderfully romantic, and teeming with plant life. I did these scouting shots and now am wondering how I can convince Michelle to do a story on this place for Elle Deco, which lately has been tending toward the more glossy high end and less of the wonderfully eclectic.
In many ways, Nicolette's apartment reminds me of Sherry Olsen's cabin in the Berkeley Hills. It's no coincidence since both are highly creative women.


Jacques Audiard Un Prophète

Jacques Audiard's new film, Un Prophète, won the Grand Prix at Cannes this weekend. Some say that it should have won the Palme d'Or, but Isabelle Huppert bestowed the prize on her friend Michael Haneke's film instead. I am a big fan of Audiard. Regarde Les Hommes Tomber and De Battre Mon Coeur s'est Arrêté are two of my favorite films, and I am really looking forward to seeing Un Prophète. 


Memorial Weekend has always marked the official start of the summer here in the US, and like clockwork, the wet and cold spring weather we had been having for weeks disappeared just as the holiday started. So on Friday night, we New Yorkers were treated to our first beautiful summer night. The temperature was perfectly mild, the air not yet humid and the mosquitoes still not out in full force. I had dinner alfresco with Jean-Philippe and Corinne in an Italian restaurant in a quiet corner of Williamsburg. We talked through the night and had to drag ourselves out of the restaurant when we noticed that the tables had all emptied around us.  It struck me how Jean-Philippe has managed to remain so quintessentially French and so worldly at the same time, being a celebrated figure of French fashionable society while retaining a critical eye of its denizens. He said he grew up in the atmosphere of a dreamed up past, the literary Parisian past of Proust that had long faded, but he is one of the most modern French men I know. This duality is what makes him such an interesting person. He constantly navigates that precarious fulcrum between past and present, something that France as a nation has not found a way to do properly. His children are growing up in a completely different France. This new generation is more ostentatious with money, and the comfortable bourgeois youth of Paris feels threatened by their more deprived and volatile counterpart from the banlieue. This tension is visibly felt, and as Jean-Philippe observes, has created a more violent culture among even the very young, affecting his 11 year-old son and his friends. 

Jean-Philippe is excited about his coming year in New York.  This city is fertile ground for his work. On our walk back through the thoroughfare of Williamsburg, we both felt completely foreign from the rest of the crowd. But I've always felt that being a foreigner has its advantages. I can always appreciate things about a place without having to commit myself entirely to it. I can be more or less at home in France, England, Vietnam or America without ever being a real citizen of any country.

Jean-Philippe Delhomme

Jean-Philippe just started a deliciously funny blog with a fictitious character, "The Unknown Hipster." Like much of his work, notably the Polaroids des Jeunes Filles series, it's an ironic comment on the snobbism of the art and fashion world. In this post, the fictitious Unknown Hipster goes to Australia for fashion week and fails to get the attention of the Sartorialist and Garance Doré to photograph him in his carefully planned vintage outfit. In his frustration, he asks a random tourist to take his picture instead and posts it on the blog. It is absolutely hilarious. 
The post came to the attention of Garance Doré, who believed that Jean-Philippe was really there in Australia and that she had failed to notice him, completely missing humour of the post. She then did a post in which she expressed her excitement of being drawn by her "god" and said she would have liked to meet him. As a result of her post, Jean-Philippe's blog got an astronomical spike in the number of hits (from less than a hundred–the blog is 3 weeks old–to over 10,000) and a slew of comments. I think there is enough material here for a thesis on the post-modern blurring of fiction and reality in mass communication of the early 21st century.


Paul Smith @ the Chelsea Flower Show

Photograph by Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Paul Smith said that he only recently "reluctantly moved to a digital camera , but only because they make them so nice and small now that they don't spoil the line of your suit." This is obviously an important factor since he also claims to wear a suit everyday. He also does not use a mobile and always carries a pencil and notepad. Looking at this picture, I am struck by how incredibly stylish this man is, which should be no surprise but somehow it is. Nobody I know, with the exception of my friend Serge Girardi, who is a French stylist, can put together this layered look so effortlessly as Smith seems to have done here. I see that he also has a Canon G10, one of the toys I've been secretly coveting.


Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2009

George's work has been accepted to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy this year. It's the biggest open submission contemporary art exhibition in the world. There will be 1200 works, all hung Salon style. There should be more exhibitions like this.


Lily's Typewriter

Julian found a typewriter for Lily in a thrift store while I was away last week. She cannot be any happier. She spends hours in her room typing news reports and notes to us. This one she gave me when I came home Friday night.

L'Heure d'été

I really want to see this film, Olivier Assayas's "masterpiece" about family, memory, and time. Having lived a largely peripatetic life, I am obsessed with the notion of a family home, a place that passes through generations, a repository of memories that ground one's life. As Assayas says of the house in the film, "La maison matérialise les liens entre les personnages et d'une certaine façon, ce qui se perd entre eux, c'est le lien. Génération après génération, quelque chose s'est déposé couche par couche, strate par strate dans cette maison. Avec sa disparition, ce qui réunissait les personnages se défait, disparaît, devient béant. La maison est au coeur du film, en tant que lieu à la fois matériel et identitaire." My dad had such a place, his ancestral home in Hue, which he kept close to his heart and took care to maintain despite not having lived in it for decades. I have no such place. 

On a note aside, the actress who plays the matriarch in the film, Edith Scob, was our lovely downstairs neighbor in the building on rue de Lappe. 


In Praise of Schubert

Schubert Fantasie in F Minor

Lily's been practicing Franz Schubert's Serenade on the piano. It is one of the pieces she will play for the recital in June. It was one of my favorite pieces when I was taking piano lessons in Vietnam. I remember being distinctly frustrated with this piece for I felt I could never do it justice. I could never convey the full dramatic pathos of the piece, no matter how hard I tried. I had my piano lessons with a Catholic nun at a large music school where each of us were assigned an individual practice room. Being fed up with my lack of musical talent, I would often sneak out of my room to listen to a more accomplished student playing Serenade. Although I was only about ten years old at the time, I quite liked the melancholic melody of the piece. Written in 1826, just 2 years before his death, Serenade was one of many pieces of music that Schubert wrote for the piano. When I lived in San Francisco, I listened incessantly to Alfred Brendel's recording of the Inpromptus and Moments Musicaux. Even now, when I picture the apartment where I lived, I can still hear the notes from Schubert's music playing in the background. When I came to New York, a friend gave me a CD of Death and the Maiden, which I played over and over and still treasure today. Lately, my favorite Schubert piece is the Adagio, the second movement of the String Quintet in C (D956), his final instrumental work. Written in the summer of 1828, two month before he died at the age of 31 of complications from syphilis, the string quintet includes two cellos instead of the usual two violas. The pace is unusually slow, even for an adagio, with two plucked notes from the cello punctuating the mournful melody at regular intervals. It is hearbreakingly beautiful.


One of the nicest things I've been able to do recently is to spend more time with friends. On Wednesday I spent a sunny afternoon with Tamar, who had moved into the neighborhood earlier this year. We sat and talked in her garden for a few hours. White petals fell gently from the dogwood tree while the light shimmered around us. I watched the shadows dancing around the red maple tree while Tamar talked, her voice the only sound in that quiet enclosure. It seemed as if the whole world had quietly slipped away, leaving us alone among trees. 


Trillium luteum

Trillium cuneatum

Trilliums are exquisite spring wildflowers whose many species vary greatly, but all have the simple habit of a single stem bearing a terminal flower above 3 leaf bracts. The leaf bracts are the plants' only means to produce food stores. Picking the flower can therefore seriously injure the plant. In some states, including New York, it is illegal to pick or transplant Trilliums from public land without a permit. Such a delicate plant was admired by Matthew the Evangelist, whose gospel describes it thus: 
"Consider the Lilies of the field, how they toil not, neither do they spin, 
And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."
(Matthew 6:28b-29)


Nan Fairbrother

I am reading this classic garden history book by Nan Fairbrother (1913-1971), a fascinating  English writer and lecturer on landscape and land use. Her book is an opinionated account of the history of gardens from the Dark Ages through the early 20th century. Along the way she dispenses her erudite perspective on everything, like the following passage on medieval garden paintings:

"Some of the pathos of these garden pictures comes perhaps from the limitations of medieval art, for whether by intention or from lack of painter's skill, the people of medieval pictures never smile. In the happiest settings they have an air of unshakable sadness, as if life were incurably sorrowful despite its happy incidents. A Madonna sits in a garden bending over her child, who plays with a rose, and her head seems bowed, not from tenderness, but by the sorrows of the whole world. An angle leans his head upon his hand among the flowers, listening to his companion who plays upon a lute, and from the grief in his face we feel his heart must surely break. Botticelli's faces have this same quiet sadness, as if they remembered an old unhappiness which the eager joy of the coming Renaissance can never reach. It gives his Venus a strange mystery which haunts our memory long after we have forgotten the glowing beauties of later painters."

I completely agree with her observation of the Botticelli's faces, but I had not made the connection of their "quiet sadness" with the unsmiling faces in medieval paintings. A few pages later, she discusses the merits of Chaucer:

"Although he died in 1400, we think of Chaucer as the first of the moderns for many reasons, and one of them is that he can smile. Men have always laughed–as children laugh, even when they are frightened–at farce or knockabout or misadventure. And so they laugh in the Middle Ages. But they do not smile. We smile from a balanced state, from security and self-confidence, we smile affectionately at the ridiculous. And so does Chaucer. He is the first great writer to rise above the crippling philosophy of the Middle Ages, to feel confident enough for detachment, to look round at his companions and find them delightful and ridiculous."

And on she goes, quoting everyone from Pascal, Bacon, and Shakespeare to Milton, Molière and LeNôtre while discussing the lyrics from 13th century troubadour songs, the monastery gardens, and Henry VIII's tennis playing at Hampton Court (who was described in a contemporary account as "extremely fond of tennis, at which game it is the prettiest thing in the world to see him play, his fair skin glowing through a shirt of finest texture"), among other things. I had never pictured such a youthful Henry VIII, having only seen his portrait by Hans Holbein, painted in 1536 when the king was already 45 and about to have Anne Boleyn executed. Like everything else in this book, Fairbrother's lively and highly personal take on history makes me see it all with fresh eyes.


More images from La Jetée

Chris Marker's La Jetée

"Rien ne distingue les souvenirs des autres moments: ce n'est que plus tard qu'ils se font reconnaître, à leurs cicatrices."

Chris Marker, La Jetée
("Nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments; it's only later that they make themselves known on account of their scars.")

For some reason tonight, I find myself thinking about Chris Marker's haunting film La Jetée. It was shot on a Pentax 35 mm still camera and includes 1 single moving shot because Marker only managed to get hold of an Arriflex movie camera for one afternoon. It's a classic that has inspired David Bowie and Elliot Smith videos as well as Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys and Mamoru Oshii's The Red Spectacle. Vincent Gallo also paid homage to La Jetée in his first film, Buffalo 66. I love this film because it encapsulates so many of my obsessions: the nature of memory, photography, history, love and nature. The evocative black and white images, like the childhood memory that obsesses the protagonist in the film, are unforgettable. In a simple construction of still images and a voice-over soundtrack, Marker created a beautiful and memorable film, the likes of which had never been done before or since. 


Mother's Day

Lily's drawing of me for mother's day. She did it in French class and put my name in French.

My mom when I was about Lily's age.

It's the most beautiful morning in a long time. The sky is clear and a cool breeze blows through my window. All is quiet but for the birds singing. I woke up thinking about my mom and wish I could put my arm around her soft shoulders. I think about her as a young woman in the Vietnamese resistance against the French, living clandestinely in remote areas, moving around constantly to avoid detection. All her possessions were bundled up in a small bag that doubled as a pillow at night. I have an indelible image of her and my dad moving camps with their colleagues under the cover of night, with the sounds of the ocean waves as their only guide for direction. She tried to tell me all this as an explanation of why it is so difficult for her to be without my dad. They shared a lifetime of such intense experiences, and now she is all alone, clutching her memories like a lifejacket to keep from drowning.  


Northern Parula Warbler

Lily's studying birds at school so we went looking for birds today in the Ramble at Central Park where we found quite a few other birders, most of whom were very friendly and eager to share their knowledge.  A bird photographer pointed out a Northern Parula Warbler, which according to our guide book, usually winters in Mexico to the West Indies and Nicaragua. It was a tiny bird – all of four and a half inches – with a sweet chirpy song.


Brooklyn Designs

"Brooklyn has become a space and a place where the thoughts and the ideas matter."
Courtney Sloane, Alternative Design


Kite competition

Kite Competition
Saturday, May 9th, 2009
Pier I at 73rd Street
Riverside Park, Hudson River

I think everyone should learn how to make a kite! I have the most wonderful memory of my Dad trying to make us a kite one lazy summer afternoon in Vietnam.

Truths and lies

"Ngoc Minh Ngo aime capter l'esprit des lieux. Née au Vietnam, elle vit ensuite à Paris où elle fait des études à la Sorbonne, poursuit son cursus à Florence à l'Istituto dell'Arte, s'envole pour le Japon, puis San Francisco où elle devient photographe. Parallèlement aux intérieurs lumineux et spacieux qu'ell aime portraiturer, elle réalise des natures mortes sur lesquelles plane l'air du temps. Résidant à New York avec son mari et sa fille, dans un immeuble de la fin du XIXe siècle, elle travaille pour Elle Décoration anglais, Martha Stewart Living et Real Simple."

This is my biography in this month's issue of French AD. Although the basic elements are true (except I no longer live in a Beaux-Arts building), it is in many ways spectacularly wrong. I hardly recognize myself in the glamorous portrait it paints of me. There is a whole life left out in between these seemingly blithe travels around the world. But there it is, printed and preserved forever, my life captured in a few brief sentences. It's rather strange.
It reminds me of the conversation last night with George Vellonakis, the embattled designer of the new Washington Square Park. In the hugely controversial re-design of the park, George has been portrayed as the arch-villain, and many falsehoods have been written about him in the press and on the internet. "In 100 years, people will read all that about me and believe it all to be true," said George sadly. It is a real shame because his design for the park is absolutely stunning. Incorporating all the best elements of the park's previous incarnations since 1827, updating all the structural framework like drainage, fencing, and lighting, and meticulously restoring the original fountain, George is giving the park a much needed facelift. Every detail has been carefully researched and thoughtfully designed so that the new park will be a beautiful place that serves a large number of people with many different needs. 

Syringa vulgaris

The last of the lilacs have bloomed.  I couldn't help burying my head in these heady blossoms today. Soon they will fade, and all I'll have is the memory of their perfume to keep me going for another year.