Back to the Met

Like many of the world’s great art galleries, NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has such a massive collection that it is impossible to do it justice in a single visit. And then there are the temporary exhibitions and the fact that the public collection is spread across three locations Manhattan locations …

During our early January 2018 trip, we had the opportunity to take in “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer,” sculptures by Rodin, a David Hockney retrospective a survey entitled “Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, 1950–1980,” and a curation of items from The Met’s permanent collection called “Reimagining Modernism: 1900–1950.”

The Michelangelo exhibit was impressive not only for the sheer scope of the art works and periods covered, but also for the amount of technical detail on how he went about conceptualizing and creating. As was (and is, I suppose) common with other major artistic figures with a prolific output, Michelangelo (1475–1564) became most active as a draftsman and designer overseeing the work of craftsmen who made his ideas a reality. He was the CEO of a design shop and factory. I have known for a long time that this was the case, but to see the evidence up close—annotations to workers, evidence of the use of tools and drawings to create templates that could be used over and over—was fascinating.

Many of Rodin’s (1840–1917) best-known sculptures were on display—Le Penseur attracted a lot of attention in a crowded hallwaybut what was most interesting to me was the opportunity to see how he evolved as a draftsman over the course of his career. And the rough-hewn bases of his statues made me wonder whether his creations were emerging from the stone or sinking into it.

  Le Penseur , Auguste Rodin

Le Penseur, Auguste Rodin

The David Hockney retrospective spanned the years between 1960 and the present day, with many works on display. It was a rich exhibit as much in quantity as in the quality of the colours of a consistent palette that Hockney has favoured throughout his career. The canvases are lush and pastel, and seem to illustrate an idealized world that is close to, but just beyond this one. Throughout, you can sense an almost sub-tropical warmth in the paintings, whether in Californian swimming pools (where you’d expect it) or in Yorkshire landscapes (where you wouldn’t!). Hockney’s persistent vision of the attractive world he inhabits artistically colours even his portrayal of his homeland.

“Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, 1950–1980” starts with the question, “Can postwar art be understood as an exercise in calculated insanity?” The exhibit looks at irrationality in art following WWII in so many categories that is doubtful that the works of the 60+ artists would have been displayed together before now. The principal idea is that each of the artists represented responded to a modern world that seemed to them absurd and lacking in coherent meaning. “Delirious” is reactive rather than proactive—it is a response or witness to absurdity (or an accusation?) but none of the selected artists offers a prescription to a confused and hurt world. The works on display span 30 years in the previous century, but are we any better able to make sense of the world we live in today, apart from totalizing narratives of power and commercialism?

According to The Met’s write-up, the curated display of modernist works we saw “reinterprets and presents afresh the Metropolitan’s holdings of modernist paintings, sculpture, design, photography, and works on paper.” The pieces were arranged according to seven themes—Avant-Garde, Direct Expression, Abstraction, Bodies, Work and Industry, the Metropolis, and Retreat—and I found the grouping helpful in putting together an interpretive frame. The museum is proud of how much “vistas and sight lines owe to the building of new walls and the reconfiguration of existing walls, which inject new life into these spaces” and I agree with this completely. More than once, I rounded a corner only to be stopped in my tracks by the power of art works arrayed beautifully—it was a kind of visual treat. It made me think of the power that museum and gallery curators have: to show a work in a flattering or unfavourable light and to influence the viewer’s interpretation of a piece by controlling the context around it.

 Constantin Brancusi,  Bird in Space , in front of Pablo Picasso’s  Nude Standing by the Sea  and Burgoyne Diller’s  Second Theme

Constantin Brancusi, Bird in Space, in front of Pablo Picasso’s Nude Standing by the Sea and Burgoyne Diller’s Second Theme

Of all the shows we visited in the gallery, “Reimagining Modernism” engaged me the most and I am not sure what to make of that. Perhaps I am responding to a romanticised idea of the modernist period, or perhaps it is the combination of bold, coherent ideas, beauty and function coupled with confidence in progress—a narrative that we now know can lead just as easily to advancement for humanity as it can to totalitarianism.

  Coffee Service  1934, by Helen Hughes Delany (1885–1968), stainless steel and bakelite.

Coffee Service 1934, by Helen Hughes Delany (1885–1968), stainless steel and bakelite.

A Trip to the Whitney

My family and I took a quick break in New York City in the first week of 2018 and arrived just in time for a major snowstorm, after driving through hours of snow squalls on our way from Ottawa. (And we didn’t know it then, but we would also drive the eight hours home through yet more snow squalls.)

 

We had never visited the Whitney Museum of American Art so it provided an ideal activity for a day when the weather was miserable. The collection is housed over several floors in a new building with plenty of space for taking in the work, especially for larger-scale pieces in the ‘mid-career’ survey of work by Laura Owens (born Ohio, 1970). Owens’ work can appear deceptively simple but I found it helpful to view all of her exhibit before making too many judgements. Her paintings and installations do indeed contain simple elements, but they are often layered with text and texture, digitally-manipulated photographs and even other paintings to create more complex and sometimes humorous work.

I left this exhibit with a sense of quiet enjoyment of light, and life and colour.

 

If Owens’ work showed flashes of humour, “Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World” contained a strong mix of humour, satire and the absurd. Durham (born USA, 1940) worked as a political organizer for the American Indian Movement in the 1970s and his commitments are present throughout his work. He consistently draws attention to the impacts of the colonisation of the USA but probably manages to do it without alienating the people who most need to hear his message. To my mind, Durham use of humour and satire to communicate serious messages make him a trickster of sorts (although some contend that his claims to be Cherokee are false and that he is taking the trickster role too far). Cherokee or not, he draws on found objects to create works that draw on traditions of North American Indigenous art but clearly show their postmodernist and technological origins.

Mad props

Well, not all of them are mad, but a few looked a bit tired. Some shots from a quick visit to the National Arts Centre's properties warehouse this morning. It was fascinating to take a peek behind the curtain and know that these odds and ends—with the right lighting and the right cast—create magic.

Fujifilm X-E1 at ISO 3200 with 18–55mm f/2.8–4.0 zoom

Three exhibits at the National Gallery of Canada: land and landscape

On November 5 I visited three new photography exhibits at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. In one way or another, all three were tied to the Canadian landscape whether in the past or currently.

For Canadians who were old enough to read books in 1976, the exhibit Between Friends is a reminder of a book of the same name published as a gift from Canada to the U.S. on the occasion of that country’s bicentennial. For this exhibit, photographer Andreas Rutkauskas revisited many of the locations along the 8,891 km border between the two countries. While much of the geography has not changed, the exhibit contains reminders that crossing the border has become more difficult and formal in recent years because of the rise of protectionism and isolationism in the U.S., and the new geopolitical reality throughout the world. The pictures are subtle and often beautiful and the boundary they point to can seem an artificial and arbitrary one. Why should the living situation of people leaving a couple of hundred metres apart be so different?

A similar theme is evoked in Frontera, a drone’s-eye view of the U.S.’s southern border with Mexico. These pictures, however, do not contain the open spaces and lightly-patrolled woodlands seen in Between Friends. The Mexican border is lined by a steel scar that runs across the landscape for many hundreds of miles through inhospitable wild places, sometimes broken by poor settlements on one side and wealthier communities on the other. More often, though, it is difficult—if not impossible—to tell which side of the frontier is which: the land is the same and it is a political negotiation that has traced a line through it. Looking at many of the pictures by Mexicans Pablo López Luz and Alejandro Cartagena, Canadians Mark Ruwedel and Geoffrey James, Swiss Adrien Missika, American Kirsten Luce and German Daniel Schwarz, it is easy to imagine that one day the land will absorb the border and all human traces will be forgotten.

The third exhibit, Gold and Silver: Images and Illusions of the Gold Rush, provides a photographic record of the stampede for California and Yukon gold in the late 19th century. While we cannot help but wonder at the bravery and greed that drove men and women to seek their fortunes in unforgiving locations, it is impossible to miss the impact on the environment that was the result of unchecked exploitation. Many of the worst cases—deforestation, slag heaps and diverted watercourses—are still there to be seen. The collection is a fascinating set of posters, daguerrotypes and tiny, vintage contact prints but, while image-making technology has moved on, it seems our care for the land has not evolved at the same pace.

Cold evening at the marina

Mucking about down at the Aylmer Marina while doing some visual exercises for school. It's mid-November and I shouldn't be surprised if ice is forming in the water of the Ottawa River. But there is. And I am.

Like I am every year.

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A rainy evening, 1922

Well, not really. But close.

I took a few days off this week and used a couple of them to visit Prince Edward County in Eastern Ontario. Although the early fall weather wasn't the greatest, the mini-trip gave us some time to see more of this region that is rapidly building a reputation as a wine-producing centre and destination for economic development.

The town of Picton is the largest community in the county and many of its buildings shows their small-town Ontario origins. The Regent Theatre, opened in February 1922, is one such building. Here it is in all its glory on a rainy evening:

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Start creating, like a thief

A quick plug for Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon.

I bought this book on someone's recommendation, without giving it much thought. It was so small and cartoonish when it arrived, however, that I assumed I had made a mistake. As it turned out, I enjoyed it. I found it simple but not simplistic. If your goal is to create, the brief lessons in the book could help you to jump-start your creative juices and get moving on actually making something. Or you could find a longer book that you will never finish and be happy to have an excuse not to make a start.

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Learning, one portrait at a time

Over the last few years I've tried to include more people in my pictures. I've always taken shots of my children, but that's different. Everyone does that. 

Portraits, however, are a different ballgame. They make me nervous because I am not yet comfortable posing people for pictures that they have to like. So, I have a choice: I can continue to feel awkward or I can practise, learn and grow in confidence.

This weekend I practised with my wife, Jackie, who was looking for a new headshot. And we're both pleased with the results. She likes the colour and I like the black and white. See what you think.

In the meantime, I'll keep practising. 

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Fujifilm X-E1 with Fujinon 56mm lens

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Fujifilm X-E1 with Fujinon 56mm lens

Toronto. At night. In the rain.

I always try to fit in a little photography when I travel and my recent trip to Toronto was no exception. The weather wasn't great, but I've learned that my little Fujifilm X100T will stay fairly dry if I tuck it under my palm as I walk (having the camera on a wrist strap makes this fairly easy). And rainy nights in a city give means lots of mist, reflections and vivid colours.

Here are a few shots in those conditions taken around Toronto's City Hall at Nathan Phillips Square.

The Louvre: from Mona to Marianne

What could I say about the Musée du Louvre that hasn't been said often and better by others? The scale of the collection is staggering and it is impossible to take everything in in a single visit. I soon found myself trying to move through rooms too quickly, aware of how much more there was to see. After a short while I realized that I was doing the gallery a disservice by rushing and decided to slow down again. Better to see fewer things well than to consume the art of the centuries like fast food. For the remainder of the four hours of my visit I wandered at a comfortable pace.

And I found that not all the sights were on the gallery walls: I also found it fascinating to keep an eye on my fellow visitors who were there in their thousands. You can learn a lot about human nature from the way people act in crowds—some of it touching, some of it puzzling, some of it comical.

I would have to place people's behaviour around the Mona Lisa in the 'puzzling' category. By the time I had followed the signs to the gallery where da Vinci's famous piece hangs behind protective glass, it was obvious that I was going to visit a celebrity. Few works in the museum have their own signposts so that you can find them from several galleries away. I could have waited my turn in the long line to see the painting from a couple of metres away, but it seemed to me that the crowd itself had become the story. I could not believe how many people, having queued up to see the painting, immediately turned their backs on it so that they could take a selfie.

I understand that people want to document their experiences, but many of them spent no time at all contemplating one of the world’s most famous pieces of art. They were oblivious to the object in front of them, which seemed to have little or no significance of its own. Instead the work was there to validate their importance or experience. It didn't point to anything grander, more beautiful, nobler, more challenging or universal than… me.

So, a short series of images of guys and galleries at the museum, starting with Mona and ending with Marianne ... and a tired fellow visitor.

Paris: Day 2

Day 2 wore me out. But in a good way. I spent about nine hours walking and standing, starting the day in the famous and overwhelming Musee du Louvre (more on this in another posting) and ending it off with a visit to the Sainte-Chapelle.

Sainte-Chapelle is not one of the bigger churches I have visited, but it is far and away the most memorable. It is extravagantly beautiful. Many of the cathedrals of Europe impress because of their rich histories and associations with the pious and powerful. Some churches, like Reykjavik's Hallgrimskirkja, capture attention because of their unique architecture. Other houses of Christian worship are notable for the purity and simplicity of their vision. But, again, Sainte-Chapelle is extravagantly beautiful.

I expect that many medieval churches were more beautiful in their day, but now we see only their bones with the plaster and decorative painting removed. Even so, how many churches of the period had the stained glass treasures that Sainte-Chapelle still enjoys? So much of the wall space is devoted to glasswork that the ceiling is supported by little more than light and dancing colours.

Built by France's King Louis IX (later canonized as Saint Louis) between 1238 and 1248, the church has now been annexed and partially absorbed by offices of the Palais de Justice de Paris.

But nothing can hold a candle to those windows. 

 

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Paris: Day 1

I have taken advantage of the fact that I am between assignments at work to spend a few days in Paris. Although the city has the reputation of being very grey during the month of February, I seem to have lucked out with a forecast that calls for a sunny week with temperatures of 10 - 12C. Just a bit warmer and less snowy than the Ottawa Valley at this time of year.

So here I am with only my Fuji X-E1 and X100T for company in a city that is a photographer's dream. I've got some ideas for a project but the challenge, as always, is to say something visually that hasn't been said in Paris a million times before. I'm here for a break, though, so I may just let the challenge go and enjoy myself. We'll see.

Here are some night shots from my first evening in the city. All were taken handheld at ISO 3200 beside the Canal de la Villette in the city's 19th arrondissement. 

 

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At the sheepdog trials—windy and wonderful

It's not often that I get to attend a sheepdog trial. Ok, let's be more accurate: I had never been to see sheepdogs put through their paces before this summer. But mid-way into our house exchange with a couple from Kirkmichael, Perthshire, we learned that the Strathardle Sheepdog Trial was being held in nearby Enochdhu.

This was not our first trip to Scotland, so we were open to doing more local things off the usual tourist trails and weren't looking to spend a lot of time in the bigger centres. A sheepdog trial promised to tick all the boxes. And it did.

Watching the shepherds and dogs work together was a wonderful experience. I was surprised at the intelligence of the dogs, the lack of intelligence of the sheep, and the unbroken chain of shouted and whistled communication—even when it broke down. Done well, herding sheep with a dog is a delight to watch.

The shearing competition was probably more fun for the audience and judges than it was for the sheep (some of which were clearly nicked), but you have to admire the strength and skill of the men and women who make a quick and clean job of it. There may not be a lot of room for sentimentality in farm life, but a deft hand is to be respected.

These were clearly real contests, not demos put on with a wink for tourists (apart from a family from Belgium, we were the only tourists there). The competitors obviously knew each other and seemed to be on on friendly terms, but they were all there to win in their categories, from beginner to old hand. The sky threatened and the wind never let the refreshments tent have an easy minute, but the roll and sausage was hot and the whisky was welcome.

All in all, a glorious afternoon out in Highland Perthshire.

All pictures taken with the Fujifilm X-E1 and 18-55mm and 55-200mm lenses.

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RRS Discovery in Dundee

After the colours of fall it's time for a return to some black and white... and time to clear some of the backlog from our trip to Scotland this summer!

One of the sights we had the chance to visit was the RRS Discovery at Discovery Point in Dundee.

RRS Discovery was the last traditional wooden three-masted ship to be built in Britain. Designed for Antarctic research, it was launched as a Royal Research Ship (RRS) in 1901. Its first mission was the British National Antarctic Expedition, carrying Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton on their first, successful journey to the Antarctic, known as the Discovery Expedition. It is now the centrepiece of visitor attraction in its home, Dundee.
[source: Wikipedia, accessed 16 October 2016]

Visiting the restored ship in dry dock is a fascinating trip to a not-so-distant time when the poles were being explored in masted ships by men outfitted with gear and clothing woefully inadequate for the climate. Scott, Shackleton and their crews were truly brave and hardy souls, and some of them paid for their courage and determination with their lives.

The sharp lines and textures of the ship (as well as the bland, grey skies) cried out for a monochrome treatment, so that's what you see here.

All pictures taken with a Fujifilm X-E1 with Fujinon 18-55mm lens.

Inside fall

I live two steps from Gatineau Park, a region renowned for its natural beauty -- especially when the leaves change colour in the fall. All the same, I've grown tired of taking the same pictures autumn after autumn. This year I wanted to do something a bit different, so I aimed for something less literal. Instead of simply taking pictures of beautiful trees and leaves, I wanted a more abstract effect that would give a sense of the play of fall colours on the senses. These pictures are my attempt at doing just that.

All shots taken with the Fujifilm X-E1 and 35mm, 56mm or 55-200mm lenses

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Sunset in Tadoussac

My youngest son recently had a day off school, so we decided to make a long weekend of it in Tadoussac, Quebec on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. Tadoussac is about 700km from where we live so it made for a lot of driving over the three days.

And it was well worth it. Situated at the meeting of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence Rivers, Tadoussac is probably best known as that starting point for whale-watching tours in the St. Lawrence Estuary. The town is touristy but not overly so and the whales (Fin, Minke and Beluga) and seals did not disappoint. The three hours we spent in an open zodiac with fresh air and brilliant sun on a surprisingly smooth river were wonderful. We couldn't have asked for a better late-September afternoon and everything we'd heard about the magnificent marine mammals of the estuary was true.

But the evenings surprised me. The lingering sunsets in Tadoussac's harbour are beautiful and the long stretch of rocky coastline seems tailor-made for landscape photography. (And although I've been casting furtive glances at the new Fujifilm XPro2, my X-E1 continues to deliver results that please me.)

This is just a little of what I saw. I hope you experience some of the enjoyment that I did.