Terrible Beauty

"Silver Lake Operations #12, Lefroy, Western Australia, 2007"
Edward Burtynsky

I am fascinated with Edward Burtynsky's work on the global impact of oil, currently on view at Hasted Hunt Krauetler Gallery. For nearly a decade, he criss-crossed the globe photographing oil fields and refineries, new car lots, and massive freeways, all of which  are presented in large-scale lushly colored prints. Some of the landscapes are rendered almost abstract, like the one above, which looks more like a painting and recalls the work of the painter Richard Diebenkorn. 

"Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada"
Yann Arthus-Bertrand

In a similar vein, the picture above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand touches on the subject of oil. While both images depict the disastrous ecological price we pay for oil, they are indisputably beautiful. As Arthus-Bertrand said of his photograph, "What you're looking at is essentially poison and pollution, yet the shot has great beauty." In both cases, what is striking at first glance is their compelling pictorial beauty. Both contain an astonishing level of detail– in Arthus-Bertrand's photograph, you can see pink flag-like devices, which are placed to prevent birds on fatally landing on the spot. It's only when you realize what you are actually looking at that the full impact of their message becomes powerfully clear. We, as consumers of oil, are implicated in these ravaged landscapes. What both Burtynsky and Arthus-Bertrand have remarkably achieved is to make such beautiful images while avoiding the trap of rendering them too aestheticized that one loses sight of their more terrible content.


Relics from my trip to Beacon two weeks ago.


Requiem for a Friend

A friend of mine passed away a few days ago. I'm still incredulous as I write these words. He was a good, generous soul and a very good friend to me. He had faith in me as an artist even when I have none myself. I wish I could cross the ocean to pay my last respect to him tomorrow at his funeral. I would tell him how much I appreciate all the things that he had so generously given me, how much he had touched my life, how I had taken for granted that I would have all the time in the world to tell him this. Franck, je regrette de ne t'avoir jamais dit tout cela. 

There has been so much death in my life of late. I am reminded of a poet's words about life, "A wisp of fog betwixt us and the sun."


Serge Girardi

The New York Times T Blog "The Moment" has a post on Serge Girardi, the French stylist extraordinaire. I'm so glad that he is getting the attention he deserves. Serge has to be the most stylish man I know. He manages to look good in anything. He even looks chic just weeding in his garden.


iPhone Camera

I've decided to make more use of the camera on my iPhone, and I took this picture at Battery Park today. The signature Piet Oudolf plantings look so wildly beautiful on this windblown, lead-grey day. 


High Line

Sunrise on the High Line today. Piet Oudolf's plantings for the park just get better with time.

Acer palmatum

Today's collection of Japanese maple leaves, which come from the Transit Park across from my local subway station.


Prospect Park

This is the closest I came to taking a walk in the woods today. Julian and I meandered around Prospect Park in the afternoon, trying to make the most of the autumnal sunshine. The trees are at their most majestic right now, especially when bathed in the slanting afternoon light. Flocks of kinglets and warblers were just as happy roosting around these trees as we were happy walking under them. I thought of the architect Cedric Price's conceptual metaphor for our current thinking about city and nature being more like a scrambled egg, as opposed to the 18th-century take on the two domains being completely separate. There is certainly more nature in our urban centers, and major cities around the world are leading efforts in sustainability. I do occasionally miss the wildness of the country, and I certainly welcome the way we are bringing nature back into cities.



It's a crisp brilliant autumn day. The light flooded my apartment as I got up this morning, and all I wanted to do was to go for a walk in the woods. Since I wasn't able to do that, I happily settled on photographing my collection of autumnal treasures.


Beacon Landing

My field trip to Beacon for a school project today.


6:50AM today


Sally Mann's Proud Flesh

Semaphore, 2003

"I look, all the time, at the people and places I care about, and I look with both ardor and frank, aesthetic, cold appraisal. And I look with the passions of both eye and heart, but in that ardent heart, there must also be a splinter of ice."
Sally Mann, Artist's Statement

Was Ever Love, 2009

Ponder Heart, 2009

Today I went to see Sally Mann's stunning show Proud Flesh, a series of nude studies of her husband, to whom she has been married for 40 years and who has muscular dystrophy. It was a project that the two of them had talked about for 6 years. Speaking of the images in an interview, she said, " No one's done anything like this before – and I think only a woman could have done it. Pictures of women taken by men tend to have a sexual element; with these, there's a tenderness. Men usually like to appear strong and powerful, particularly if they're going to take their clothes off; and most homoerotic pictures show men as sex objects, looking very potent. I don't think Larry looks impotent, but he definitely looks vulnerable." And indeed he does look vulnerable, in many of the pictures. An extraordinary sense of intimacy and trust comes through in these pictures, in which he allows the unflinching gaze of the camera to explore every inch of his afflicted body. Not that Mann emphasizes any manifestation of the terrible disease, but it is there, albeit in the most unobtrusive way. As she wrote in her artist's statement, "Larry and I both understand how ethically complex and potent the act of making photographs is, how freighted with issues of honesty, responsibility, power, and complicity, and how so many good images come at the expense of the sitter, in one way or another. These new images, we both knew, could come at his." The work is a hauntingly beautiful and tender testament of their love, of what comes of loving someone for 40 years, of the complexities of such an enduring relationship between a man and a woman. But it is also a courageous act of looking. As she explains, "Within traditional narratives, women who look, especially women who look unflinchingly at men, have been punished. Take poor Psyche, punished for all time for daring to lift the lantern to finally see her lover." Mann looks at her husband's body with indescribable tenderness, but also with unblinking honesty. There is such an emotional intensity in these photographs that at times is almost painful.

Hephaestus, 2008

My favorite picture is the one above, named after the Greek god of blacksmiths. Here he poses in a classical god-like stance, his head cropped out at the top of the image and his body seemingly balanced on the strong fingers of his left hand, spread out decisively on the table. A large metallic crackling pattern – a serendipitous effect from Mann's signature wet-plate collodion photographic process – slashes across his torso, dividing it into light and dark halves, shattering the Olympian bearing, just as Hephaestus was exiled from Olympus.


Shades of Autumn

A brilliant autumn day at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I am back on deadheading duties in the Rose Garden, happy to be among trees under a bright blue sky with busy little kinglets for company. These tiniest of songbirds, of the genus Regulus ("little king"), got their name from the ancient legend known since the time of Aristotle and Pliny of the election of the King of birds. In the story, the title of King would be bestowed on the bird who could fly the longest distance. The eagle, who had outflown all the other birds, was actually beaten to the title by a small bird who had hidden in its plumage. The "smallest of birds" then became the King of birds.

Hockney flowers

More David Hockney iPhone paintings. I especially like the last one.


Spent peony

At the flower market, Nicolette found gorgeous coral colored tree peony flowers from New Zealand. I wonder about the carbon footprint of transporting flowers all the way from New Zealand just so we can have peonies in October, but I couldn't help admiring the way they look after all the petals have dropped.  

Hockney Sunrise

David Hockney, who now lives in Bridlington, England after decades spent in California, has taken to painting using the Brushes application on his iPhone. The software has enabled him to paint dawn scenes outside his bedroom window without having to get out of bed. As he explains:

"I've always wanted to be able to paint the dawn. After all, what clearer, more luminous are we ever afforded? Especially here where the light comes rising over the sea, just the opposite of my old California haunts. But in the old days one never could, because, of course, ordinarily it would be too dark to see the paints; or else, if you turned on a light so as to be able to see them, you'd lose the subtle gathering tones of the coming sun. But with an iPhone, I don't even have to get out of bed, I just reach for the device, turn it on, start mixing and matching the colors, laying in the evolving scene."

He sends out his dawn studies to friends in California, who have the fortune of waking up to his Bridlington dawn renderings.



7 AM at the Brooklyn Bridge Park yesterday. The Manhattan skyline stands muted under a pale blue sky. A burst of golden light bounces off a glass building, burnishing the Brooklyn Bridge. Orange ripples cut across the river. A lone man is doing tai chi, matching his movement with the rising sun. Unfamiliar bird calls ring the air. I look up and find a brilliant gold finch on a branch, contemplating the same scene as I. Ripe red berries hang from the trees – just one of the many  reasons the migrating birds have made this place one of their favored destinations. Like them, I love the Brooklyn Bridge Park. It's the only place in the city where I can stand at the shoreline, that ever moving border between land and water, with all the trees rustling behind my back and the glimmering river flowing out to sea ahead of me. While I listen to the murmur of life teeming around me, I think about my friend Daniel, who is laying his father to rest.

I love early mornings, those fleeting moments when the day has yet to unfold and all its possibilities lie open. They offer a chance to start afresh no matter what happened the day before. I live my life haunted by a line I once read: "Tous les matins sont sans retour." One can say the same about life: an inexorable march to nothingness with no turning back. But while the march is on, life can offer an overwhelmingly rich palette – mornings like yesterday, a quiet talk with my daughter at night when I put her to bed, my mother's smile, all the colors of autumn blended seamlessly in a single leaf, and countless other indescribably beautiful things that I keep close to my heart. 


Irving Penn

Irving Penn's Studio in Paris, 1950

Irving Penn died today. He was 92. He was an amazing photographer whose iconic images were achieved without much fanfare. As he wrote in his book Passage, "Using simple equipment and daylight alone is for me a pleasure and a replenishment." 


My friend Daniel's father passed away earlier today. From across the ocean, his words appeared on my computer screen,  so brief but heavy with pain, "Papa est mort il y a une heure." They remind me of my own when my father died, "Dad passed away peacefully tonight." There is nothing in life that can prepare you for the death of a parent. It's like losing a huge chunk of yourself, a loss that alters you irrevocably so that nothing is quite the same afterwards. 

In Hamlet, as the ghost of his father takes leave of the Danish prince, his parting words are "Adieu. Remember me," to which Hamlet replies:
Remember thee? 
Yea, from the table of my memory 
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!

All we can do is remember.


Hearts & Minds

This Saturday I went to see the long-awaited Robert Frank show at the Met. Frank's seminal book The Americans is one of a handful of photography books that I know so well, having looked at it so many times over the years. The show, entitled "Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans" was nonetheless revelatory. Included are letters written from the road from Frank to Walker Evans, one of which giving a detailed account of his arrest in McGehee, Arkansas. There was also a beautiful little book that Frank had put together for his first wife Mary, in which tiny prints of scenes of Paris were interspersed with his own writing. In the dedication, Frank quoted St-Exupéry from Le Petit Prince: "L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux, on ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur." 

To me, this is power behind Robert Frank's work.  The images have an emotional potency that seems to come directly from his heart. In one of the most personal and touching photos, which he put at the end of the book, is an image of his wife Mary and son Pablo, eyes half-closed, looking exhausted in the car by the side of an empty desolate road. By photographing them from outside the car, Frank seems to acknowledge his separateness from them and the demands  he makes on his family in the pursuit of his art. 

His work after The Americans, made in Nova Scotia where he lives part of the year, is even more directly personal and unflinchingly raw.

Sick of Goodbys, Mabou, 1978

In the words of Jack Kerouac, who wrote the introduction to The Americans (the writer's first and second drafts are included in the show),  "Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world."

Having filled my head with Robert Frank, I found myself looking at the pictures of another photographer, Robert Polidori, whose work is poised at the other end of the spectrum. Taken with a large format custom-designed camera, Polidori's photographs, from the crumbling grandeur of Havana to the destruction of war and flood to the immaculate preservation of  Versailles, are celebrated for their seemingly dispassionate details. As Polidori stated in his book After the Flood , his acclaimed series of images of the aftermath of Katrina, "When images are soft, they just remain evocative, or in your imagination. You get a mood, and it remains on the emotional level. The viewer has to put more of him or herself into it. When there is more detail, it's like that old expression : There's no fiction stranger than reality. Reality will compose the most extreme paradoxes and contradictions and adjacencies, which can't be understood." So no grainy, black & white, moody shots for Polidori. Instead, every detail – whether it's a crumbling ceiling or a wall marked with bullet holes – is vividly present.

Senora Faxas Residence #1, Miramar, Havana, 1997

Disdainful of the title "architectural photographer," he calls himself  a "habitat photographer," claiming, "I'm interested in the way people use buildings, how society transforms them, even over time."  Being a very cerebral and erudite photographer, Polidori often references Old Master paintings in his work. This image of Versailles, for example, clearly alludes to the work of Vermeer and other 17th-Century Dutch painters. 

Ancien Réchauffoir, rdc, corps central, Château de Versailles, 1985

In another of my favorite photograph, the walls of a building in Beirut, destroyed by war, recall one of the most beautiful and spiritual works of art, Fra Angelico's The Annunciation, a fresco in the Convent of San Marco in Florence. 

Samir Geagea Headquarters #4, Rue de Damas, Beirut, Lebannon, 1994

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation,  1438-1445

But Polidori's work is not an empty exercise in recreating great works of art. What his work shows, more than anything else, is man's impulse to build and to destroy, almost in equal measure. While Robert Frank shows us how to look with our hearts, Polidori demands us to look with our minds.