06 October 2015

American History Digitized

For a period of ten years (1935-1945), the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) hired photographers to document American life, particularly in areas hit the hardest by the Depression, and to show the effects of the government’s relief programs. The result was some of the most iconic images of the 20th-century, many taken by photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Gordon Parks. 

Stored at the Library of Congress, 170,000 of these images have recently been digitized by a group at Yale University and uploaded to Photogrammar, an archive site that allows for easy searching and viewing. It also includes an interactive map that shows the location of roughly 90,000 images.

These are just a sampling of some of the images I found when I looked up New York City.

"Strike pickets, New York, New York" Arthur Rothstein (1937)

"42nd Street and Madison Avenue, Street hawker selling Consumer's Bureau Guide, New York City" 
Dorothea Lange (1939)

"Grand Central Terminal, New York City" John Collier (1941)

"New York, New York. Dancing and music on Mott Street, at a flag raising ceremony in honor of neighborhood boys in the United States Army" Marjory Collins (1942)

"New York, New York. Drinking fountain in Central Park" Marjory Collins (1942)

 I could spend hours looking through these. To check out Photogrammar, visit here.

24 September 2015

Happy Birthday, Scott!

Today is the birthday of one of America's greatest writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was born on September 24, 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was a bright boy who showed an interest in writing from an early age. At Princeton, he wrote for school groups and publications but neglected his studies. When he dropped out, he joined the Army, expecting to be sent overseas to the War. He never made it but while stationed in Alabama, he met his future wife and muse, Zelda Sayre. 

Determined to be a successful writer, Fitzgerald worked hard at his writing. In 1920 he achieved his goal when Scribner's published his first novel, This Side of Paradise; it was a huge hit and he became famous over night. Fitzgerald would go on to write four more novels, a play, and numerous short stories and articles that chronicled his generation. 

He and Zelda lived extravagantly and partied long into the night; newspapers reported their exploits, and they became the Jazz Age's golden couple. Even the birth in 1921 of a daughter, Scottie, didn't seem to slow them down. 

But by the 1930s, alcohol and financial problems along with Zelda's increasing mental illness were taking a toll on Fitzgerald. He died in 1940 at the age of 44, believing he was a failure. 

Oh, how wrong he was. Fitzgerald wrote some of the most beautiful prose in the English language. If you haven't read The Great Gatsby in a while, read it again and revel at passages like this:

"The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor."

It doesn't get much better. Happy Birthday, Scott!

23 September 2015

Autumn Arrives

"Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower."—Albert Camus

Today is the first day of autumn or fall (however you like to call it), which means my favourite season has begun. This is the best season—the vibrant colours, the foods (pumpkin, apples, warm drinks), the donning of jackets and boots, the myriad of cultural events, the weather (usually), and the only time of the year when one's obsession with cemeteries and ghost stories is deemed acceptable. Welcome, autumn. Please pull up a chair and stay a while. 

09 September 2015

Long to Reign Over Us

As of today, September 9, 2015, Queen Elizabeth II becomes the longest reigning monarch in Britain's history, passing her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, who sat on the throne for 63 years and 216 days.

The irony is that the longest reigning monarch was not even supposed to be queen. Born on April 21, 1926, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary is the eldest daughter of Prince Albert, Duke of York, the second son of King George V, and Elizabeth, Duchess of York. When her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated the throne to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson in 1936, her father was crowned King George VI and Elizabeth moved to the top of the line of succession. She became Queen at the age of 25 when her father passed away on February 6, 1952.

During her six decades on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II has watched her kingdom shrink in size from its days as a colonial empire, had 12 prime ministers (the first of whom was Sir Winston Churchill), and weathered the rapid changes of the 20th century. And through it all, she’s kept the promise she made during a speech she gave on her 21st birthday “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” God save the Queen.

29 August 2015

Ingrid Bergman Centennial

Today marks the 100th anniversary of Ingrid Bergman’s birth. Born on August 29, 1915 in Stockholm, Sweden, Bergman was orphaned by the age of 12. She later said of herself, “I was the shyest human ever invented, but I had a lion inside me that wouldn't shut up!" Interested in acting from a young age, she won a coveted spot at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theater School but left after a year to take a chance with the movies.

Her first on-screen speaking role came in 1935 when she played a maid in Gustaf Molander’s Munkbrogreyen. A year later she made Intermezzo with Molander. Her performance, as a piano teacher who has an affair with a famed violinist, caught the eye of producer David O. Selznick who brought Bergman to America to make an English-language remake of the film.

Bergman was like a breath of fresh air in Hollywood. Refusing to submit herself to the makeovers most new actresses went through, she said no to changing her name, plucking her eyebrows, capping her teeth, or losing weight. She shunned make-up and high fashion off screen and indulged in her favourite discovery, American ice cream.

Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942)

Bergman’s dedication to her craft won her the admiration of her peers—Selznick said, “Miss Bergman is the most completely conscientious actress with whom I have ever worked.”—while her natural beauty and talent won over American film audiences. She would go on to star in some of the top films of the 1940s including Casablanca (1942), For Whom the Bells Toll (1942), and Gaslight (1944), for which she won the first of three Oscars. She also made two films with Hitchcock at this time, Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946), my personal favourite. Bergman’s wholesome image, which was cultivated by the studio publicity machine, was cemented in the public’s mind when she played a nun in The Bells of Saint Mary (1945).

In her private life Bergman, who was married to Dr. Petter Lindström and had a daughter, Pia, conducted extramarital affairs including one with photographer Robert Capa. But it was her involvement with Italian director Roberto Rossellini that would change her career and life. Having seen a couple of his films, Bergman wrote a letter to Rossellini that said, "If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French and who in Italian knows Ti Amo, I am ready to come and make a film with you." She travelled to Italy to make Stromboli (1950) with him. During the filming the two fell in love and Bergman became pregnant. When the news broke the public turned on her, and she was even denounced on the floor of the US Senate.

Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini with their children at their home in Rome. Photo by Chim (1956)

After divorcing Lindström, Bergman and Rossellini were married in 1950. In addition to their son, they would have twin daughters, Isabella and Isotta Ingrid. Bergman continued working with Rossellini, making five more films together, but their marriage didn’t last and they divorced in 1957. Bergman would later marry Swedish theatrical producer Lars Schmidt (they remained married for 17 years until their divorce in 1975).

In 1956 Bergman returned to American screens in Anastasia playing the part of Anna, the woman suffering from amnesia who may or may not be the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia. The film was a hit, and she won her second Oscar. Bergman's Hollywood exile was officially over when she appeared at the 1959 Academy Awards and received a standing ovation from the audience.

Bergman would continue to act in both films and on stage, winning a third Oscar in 1974 for best supporting actress for Murder on the Orient ExpressIn 1978 she made Autumn Sonata with the acclaimed director Ingmar Bergman. It was to be her last film. In 1982 she played her final role—Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in a television miniseries. She passed away later that year on her birthday. 

Ingrid Bergman. Photo by Richard Avedon (1961)

Ingrid Bergman's centennial is being celebrated in a variety of ways. Her image was chosen for the official Cannes Film Festival poster, there is a new documentary, Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, and a book Ingrid Bergman: A Life in Pictures. Here in New York, MoMA is screening a selection of her films August 29-September 10, with many of them being introduced by her children (for more information, visit here). Over in Brooklyn, BAM is presenting a selection of her films September 13-29 and on September 12, Isabella Rossellini and Jeremy Irons will give a theatrical tribute to Bergman (for more information, visit here). 

22 August 2015

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Parker!

Today is Dorothy Parker’s birthday. Born on August 22, 1893 in Long Branch, New Jersey, she grew up to become one of the great American wits of the 20th century. A member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, this quintessential New Yorker was a poet, playwright, essayist, screenwriter, and champion of civil rights (she also loved dogs). The woman who once said “I'd like to have money. And I'd like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that's too adorable, I'd rather have money” is one of my favourite writers and a role model. 

To celebrate her birthday, I went on a walking tour of her Upper West Side haunts led by Kevin Fitzpatrick, author of multiple books of Mrs. Parker and the Round Table. During the tour we stopped at 310 W 80th Street, where she lived as a teenager, and sang “Happy Birthday” and enjoyed a specially made birthday cake by Dandy Dillinger. It was a great way to spend her birthday.

So raise a glass wherever you are and say, “Happy Birthday, Mrs. Parker!”

19 August 2015

The First Portrait

"Self Portrait" Robert Cornelius (1839). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Today is World Photography Day. To honour the occasion, I’d like to look at an important photo in photography history—the first photographic portrait. 

The oldest known surviving photograph dates from either 1826 or 1827 when a Frenchman named Nicéphore Niépce took “View from the Window at Le Gras,” which depicted the view of his property from an upstairs window. After his death in 1833, his business partner, Louis Daguerre, continued their work and in 1839 announced to the public the creation of the daguerreotype, which would become the main photographic process used for the next 20 years.

In America 30-year-old Robert Cornelius, who specialized in silver plating at his family’s Philadelphia lamp manufacturing company and had an interest in chemistry, became interested in this new invention. A few months after Daguerre's announcement, Cornelius set up his own camera (whose lens was taken from a pair of opera glasses) behind his family’s store and took a self portrait. He wrote on the back, “The first light Picture ever taken. 1839.” He had successfully taken the first portrait of a person with a camera.

In the image Cornelius is off center and his hair is a bit of a mess but it’s a pretty good first attempt. (Sidenote, is it just me or does he not look like actor David Morrissey?) It’s also striking how modern Cornelius looks or maybe that's from seeing so many daguerreotypes of old Victorian men.

Cornelius continued to hone his skills as a photographer and opened the second photography studio in the US with chemist Paul Beck Goddard, who would improve on Daguerre’s process by adding bromine to iodine, which lessened exposure time. Yet after a couple of years Cornelius gave up photography and returned to the family business where he created new inventions including the first kerosene lamp. 

Only a few dozen of Cornelius' photographs are known to still exist. Luckily his self portrait is one of them. 


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