| 10 February, 2018 14:04
There's a small stretch of the once mighty Lincoln Highway that I drive each day through the Chicago Southland; usually very early, before working people's alarms have rung, or their children have risen to dress for school. When the only souls about appear suddenly illuminated in headlights - monochromatic, menacing jaywalkers aimlessly stepping off curbs and zig-zagging across the lanes - their apparent death wishes are well known to those of us who tend to their emergencies in the hospital up the road.
After my workday, sometime well into or past the rush hour, the community congregates outside the Liquor-Groceries - the only retail establishments that remain on this span of Route 30. In the parking lots a bustling trade of loosie cigarettes and the initially friendly consumption of paper-wrapped beverages begins. Any more inviting taverns have long since been bricked up. After a time, some persons exit the Lincoln Highway for its residential side streets with small white plastic shopping bags in tote. Cheetos, Porkrinds, Beef Jerky - the "Grocery" portion of their transactions.
For several years I've sped along, looking through my window with truck driver's eyes - for a safe filling station, a diner for breakfast and a friendly cup of coffee, or a tavern with an open door and a jukebox inviting me in for a little cheer. Indeed there are remnants of such places - now enigmatic signs advertising "Package Goods and Mixed Drinks," and the names of failed restaurants and businesses that crumble like ancient frescoes. Even a strange and lovely municipal mural - today as inexplicable as an excavated cave dweller drawing. Some industry stubbornly survives in varying stages of operation - wares not readily apparent to passers-bye. The street's dominant Ford Motor Stamp Plant offers the obvious metaphor - its water tower displays the once illustrious Ford logo barely discernible for rust.
But occasionally my routine is altered, and I find myself driving the Lincoln Highway when sun streams uninterrupted through bulldozed blight to cast long shadows and transform drab painted bricks to vibrant patina. Like Sunday mornings, when half a dozen storefront churches are filled with worshipers in their Sunday best, and long, brilliantly waxed Cadillacs are parked conveniently in the vacant lots that occupy almost every corner. Or once on a weekday afternoon when a school bus pauses traffic in both directions twenty cars deep. Those who can see it wait patiently while a man - a father - lifts from the bus a small child with mangled legs and carries him tenderly up on his shoulders and then in his arms, eventually exiting the Lincoln Highway for a street lined with gray row houses. A white plastic shopping bag dangles from his wrist.
Please visit images in the Lincoln Highway Gallery
| 24 May, 2017 19:46
In this season of commencements I’ve revisited a picture I made last fall – the Browning Amphitheater on the Ohio State University campus. Constructed in 1926, it originally served the Browning Dramatic Society – an all women’s troupe with a special interest in Shakespeare. I’ve never been quite happy with the composition though, trying a variety of crops but always returning to the full frame version – largely because of a name chiseled in the foreground stone that I was reluctant to lose:
James J. Tornes ’53
It seems this inscription for me, to use an explanation from Roland Barthes’s book The Camera Lucida, provides the punctum - that element of a photograph “which wounds me,” and is separate from the more obvious symbolic meaning of the picture overall, which Barthes calls the stadium. I thought perhaps I could alleviate myself of this needling requirement to include Mr. Tornes in my picture with a cursory Internet search of his name.
Indeed, Mr. Tornes graduated from OSU majoring in Horticulture and Landscape Architecture in 1953, making his name on this lovely if neglected amphitheater apropos. Lucky for Jim, the Korean War would end by summer, and the rising US standard of living seemed to have no limits for a young college man. Can’t tell if he put this college training to work or made some other career altogether, but his Facebook page proudly features three boys he raised here in Ohio. What seems to have kept Mr. Tornes busiest during his later years however, were the 50 marathons he ran between the ages of 49 to 79 – once clocking a PR of 3 hours flat. This I learned from a YouTube interview. Charming, eloquent, and handsome at 78 – he appears a good twenty years younger. I didn’t find much other information (don’t like to get too creepy with this kind of stuff), but he seemed to me a good citizen and a good father – a man who fulfilled the promise of that Class of 1953 – at least in the eyes of whoever sprung for this amphitheater inscription.
So I asked my daughter Sophia, who will graduate from Jones Middle School this Friday:
“Honey, which picture do you like better?”
“This one, because it’s got this guy’s name here.”
| 17 May, 2017 18:27
Our first visit to the Motor City – we arrived early enough Friday evening to enjoy the splendid view of Grand Circus Park from the David Whitney Building’s Aloft Hotel, followed by a visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts to see, in addition to Diego Rivera’s amazing Detroit Industry frescos and the museum’s stunningly diverse collection, the Photo exhibit “Detroit After Dark.” Curated by Nacy W. Barr, the included pictures from the 1950’s to the current day depict urbanite delights (inspired architecture, night life, live music) and disenchantments (alienation, social inequity, blight). For historical context, included are some the museum’s collected works of Paris and New York after dark – cities whose early 20th century bursts of modernity paralleled the camera’s improved ability to capture their dazzlingly lamp-lit streets. Kertesz and Brassai in Paris. Stieglitz, Abbott, Weegee, and DeCarva in New York.
The Detroit image makers further exploit the evolving technology of nighttime image capture: faster film for handheld work in low light, digital sensors with ever-increasing ISO sensitivities, and high dynamic range composites whose surreal results have us questioning the very time of day. Some of my favorites were Jon deBoer’s In Between, 2014 – a sliver of the elegant Penobscot Light peaking between the back sides of two tagged brick buildings of questionable habitability. Jenny Risher’s Mr. Porter, 2015 – he sits contemplatively beneath a hoodie on the steps of a peeling white clapboard church. Dusk? Dawn? Good? Evil? Can’t tell. Or Russ Marshall’s E. Larned St, 2000 – the smoke rising from the manholes reflected off the rain slick street – that’s how I think I’ll remember Detroit.
After dropping a kid with a sick tummy back at the Aloft, I stepped out to try making a few of my own. Still finding my way around my first mirrorless camera, its discrete size and crazy-high light sensitivity were well-suited for the task. By morning the kid had rallied, and we made our way to the Dime Store for breakfast, shopped at Third Man Records, and explored the remarkable Henry Ford museum. Thankfully, my wife had done her homework and brought me to shoot at the abandoned Michigan Central Station before she scored last minute tickets for the 70’s Soul Jam at the Detroit Opera House.
"You gotta lose your mind in Detroit Rock City"
- P. Stanley
| 20 November, 2016 19:44
He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat
A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn't what I need him
Sep 21, 1934 - Nov 7, 2016
| 25 August, 2016 22:50
Walking through the neighborhoods of Montreal, one is struck by the ubiquitous use of external staircases leading to the second floor units of the city’s predominantly stacked residences. They elegantly curve and twist their way from the sidewalk in all manner of shapes and design, from organic art nouveau curves to Bauhaus-inspired austerity.
For a town that finds itself covered in a dense sheet of ice for much of the year, the stairs indeed seem a curious choice. A quick bit of “research” provides several plausible answers suggesting some combination of immigrant preference and an economic answer to early twentieth century building codes. It was the Scots who apparently brought their tradition of stacking residences from cities like Edinburgh. And before them, French-Canadians had long utilized external staircases attached to terraces for their country homes. When building codes mandated greater building setback from the street, the potential loss of livable space that would have been required of interior staircases was avoided with external ones. And hence the design of the Montreal “plex.” But alas, the Scots didn’t know about break-ass winters…
The discovery of this kind of vernacular architecture is one of my great joys when traveling. If I had the time, these staircases would have made a nice photo project. As it turned out, they’ll provide a reason to go back.
| 11 January, 2016 22:51
I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlour
Drinking milk shakes cold and long
Smiling and waving and looking so fine
Don't think you knew you were in this song
January 8, 1947 - January 10, 2016
| 10 August, 2015 22:41
Lee Russell was probably surprised in 1941 when he came upon an affluent black Chicago community while on assignment for the Farm Security Administration. Although its original task had been to document the plight of impoverished farm workers in the rural US, by the 1940’s the FSA had fixed its gaze on the conditions of America’s cities. After documenting the squalor much of Chicago’s African Americans lived in at the time, Russell found on these blocks a prosperous black middle class looking particularly sharp on Easter Sunday.
I was similarly surprised to find Russell's iconic image of five boys posed on a car (FSA editors titled it "Easter Sunday in Black Chicago") now posted over a blighted building on Garfield and Indiana. One morning, it just appeared. As the actual picture was shot not far from here (Grand, now MLK Boulevard), I wondered if maybe a senior version of one of these kids was still kicking around the neighborhood. Soon there were other vintage images posted: Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong on the flanking storefronts, a handsome family portrait beneath the remains of Platinum Plus Records, and other jazz scenes on E. 51st and MLK over a shuttered sandwich shop. I suppose I could have just called SECC to find out what they were up to – but I was kind of charmed by the mystery of it all. Realizing that I’d composed the frame to include him, the young man in my picture graciously held his pose until I finished shooting. We chatted for a minute – first about cameras and then about Russell’s picture. Turns out he was a photographer too – waiting for the bus to bring him downtown to art school.
| 31 October, 2014 13:26
The call came well after midnight – by this time Monday, October 25th. Young Dr. Daniel Cohn calling from The Statler Hotel. Not their usual man, and in my opinion a bit too excited for this late hour – he told me of his famous patient, the entertainer known to the world as Houdini. I’d read in the evening paper before retiring that Mr. Houdini had arrived in Detroit to open his run at the Garrick yesterday, and that the magician was somewhat off the mark for his performance. Well, Cohn’s diagnosis of appendicitis would perhaps explain some clumsy conjuring on Mr. Houdini’s part. I was to meet them at the Statler, as Houdini could not be convinced to admit himself to Grace Hospital. Appendicitis, unless peritonitis had ensued, I could readily cure - especially in a man as strong as Mr. Houdini. And yet by my estimation he must be at least fifty by now. But if he were to do poorly - well let us not think about that.
Dressing quickly, I arrived at the Statler by three in the AM to make Mr. Houdini’s acquaintance. His face I recognized instantly, familiar as it must be to every man, woman, and child in America (and likely the world) from posters featuring his dare-devil escapes, his moving pictures, and the recent newspaper coverage of his attacks on fraudulent spiritualists. Clearly ill, his nightshirt was widely open at the neck and soaked with perspiration. Shaking with rigors, he managed to overcome his distress for the moment of our introduction – even attempted to rise and shake my hand – humbly apologizing when he could not. A gentleman through and through.
The history was perplexing. A student in Montreal had tested Houdini’s said abdominal strength with a series of blows to the lower abdomen some seventy-two hours before. Houdini explained that he was at the time reclining, nursing an ankle fracture suffered in Albany from a cable malfunction while performing his famous Water Torture escape, and wasn’t prepared for the suddenness of the student’s attack. Confusing things further was the claim from Mrs. Houdini’s nurse (who had been traveling with them, tending to her ptomaine poisoning) that Houdini had been complaining of abdominal pains well prior to the blows.
Examining my patient, his temperature was 103 degrees, his pulse bounded at 130, and his abdomen, remarkably trim for a man his age, showed the board-like rigidity of late peritonitis. But what diagnosis? Cohn insisted on appendicitis – ruptured from the student’s blows. Possible, but certainly not in line with the understood pathophysiology of inflammation and rupture by obstruction of that organ's lumen – by fecolith, or lymphatic hypertrophy, or from the Devil’s own finger! But from the trauma of a fisted blow? I’d never read in any text or journal of such a thing. More likely the cecum would burst in accordance with Laplace’s law (I had seen this once), or a mesenteric rent and hematoma resulting in ischemia of the small bowel. Regardless, one thing was clear: only a successful operation could save this man.
Yet Mr. Houdini, pleasant and respectful of my opinion as he was, insisted that we first contact his man in New York, a Dr. William Stone. When finally reached, Stone’s sleepy response was sensible enough: he told Houdini in no uncertain terms of what awaited him if there was any further delay. Yet the ambulance I called for was refused, and Houdini didn't arrive by cab at Grace until sometime after four in the AM. I was embarrassed to learn there was only a double occupancy room available for him, and ordered the head nurse correct this situation by whatever means necessary. Overhearing our ruckus, Mr. Houdini interrupted and with a smile insisted that the double room would do for him.
There are those who suspect Houdini of possessing supernatural powers – perhaps even the secret of dematerialization. Seeing him perform as a boy, these popular ideas indeed took hold in my own imagination, germinating over the last twenty or so years to unnervingly resurface at the most inopportune moment as my scalpel hovered over his abdomen. Silly of me, for the thin trail of bright capillary blood that next appeared in the blade’s wake, and the copious purulence that spilt from the opened peritoneal cavity assured me in an instant just how mortal was the man lying before me. I opted for a midline incision instead of McBurney’s due to the diagnostic uncertainty. Exploring, I found the tissues markedly inflamed, adherent, and edematous from a process well advanced. With some difficulty I discovered the appendix – a great long affair beginning where expected in the right pelvis but looping across the midline into the left lower quadrant, where it was indeed perforated. While closing the abdomen, I mentally prepared a statement for the waiting reporters – appropriately grave but not altogether devoid of hope. My countenance before brother Theo (professional name Hardeen) betrayed this attempt at optimism, and so I confessed to him my belief that Mr. Houdini would not recover.
The following day LeFevre had been called in, prescribing some homeopathic concoction of his invention. I wasn’t pleased to learn of it, but honestly there was little that could worsen the prognosis of advanced peritonitis. And yet, whether from some efficacy of LeFevre’s serum, or more likely from removal of the septic appendix, the temperature did diminish to 99.4 degrees, and the pulse to 100. Houdini remained remarkably alert for the next two days, during which my fondness for the man grew large. No attendant so much as mopped his brow or brought a sip of water without recieving from Houdini a smile and expression of thanks. Hundreds of telegrams, letters, and bouquets arrived. Also another brother Nathan and sister Gladys. Mrs. Houdini remained unwell, slow to recover from her poisoning and now the added strain of her husband’s illness. A curious woman, we wheeled her to the bedside only for short visits.
Cohn and I took shifts attending to our patient until I discovered him feeding Mr. Houdini something they called Farmer’s Chop Suey – Houdini had a yen for it and Cohn dutifully fetched some from the deli across the street. The fool! From then on I stayed at the bedside always. When Houdini wished to converse, it was mostly about magic or spiritualism or other philosophical concerns. I confessed that as a boy, I had (as probably did every youngster who ever saw him perform) dabbled with the idea of following in his footsteps. Amused, he reciprocated a deep admiration for the medical profession – said he’d always wished to be a surgeon, to actually help people. When I protested, reminding him of the thrills he had brought to countless persons around the globe and referred to myself as an ordinary dub of a surgeon struggling on through life – he would have nothing of it.
By Friday he was again quite ill. Ileus had prevented all but minimal hydration, but now even the gastric secretions were being regurgitated with regularity. I contemplated the wisdom of another surgery; already there was laudable pus from the wound, but perhaps there was another injury suffered from the blows that I missed at the initial exploration, or an abscess in need of drainage, or an obstruction to be lysed. I knew I’d be chastised – by my mentors and by strangers alike. But for those of us who were there, the most famous man in the world dying before our eyes, we felt that tending to some correctable problem in the abdomen was his only chance. Informing Houdini of my recommendation, he deferentially agreed: “You are the doctor, go ahead.” Yes, I am the doctor I thought – but the words had the sting I recalled from the day I was first addressed as such by my great mentor – myself just a hapless intern at the time and without the faintest idea of what to do next for the injured patient before us. Leaving room 401 for the operating theater, he took Mrs. Houdini’s hand and told her to be prepared if anything happens. It was the only time he’d acknowledged some inkling of his doom.
More pus. As is written in every surgical text, this time frame is quite impossible and frankly dangerous for re-operation – the tissues thickened, adherent and friable, more likely to create worse problems than to solve any. But I assured myself there was at least no fecal contamination - and performed the best irrigation of the cavity I could achieve. Regardless of what my critics would say, I would sleep knowing that I had done all that I could for my patient.
By noon Saturday it seemed it would be only a matter of hours, but his strength saved him through another night. Quite delirious by morning and with markedly labored respirations, he managed a lucid moment to turn to brother Theo (Houdini called him Dash) to say that he couldn’t fight anymore. It was incongruous that a career made of defying death would end here in my little hospital in so ordinary a manner, of streptococcal peritonitis. Ashamed of the tears I felt running down my eyes, I excused myself from the family and left the room, only to be called back less than an hour later - moments before the time of death, 1:26 PM October 31st, 1926. Mrs. Houdini was in his arms.
As I expected, the newspapers for a time had their way with me. Friends were even kind enough to mail clippings from the more sensationalist New York papers. From the Evening Graphic: “Death was caused by surgical gauging and overtreatment.” Don’t know if the overtreatment was LeFevre’s serum or Farmer’s Chop Suey, but the gauging - I guess that would be me. Others called Houdini’s death “an unpunished crime” and demanded an investigation. That I knew better made the situation no easier for me; at the time I was quite a young surgeon and Houdini had been my boyhood hero – surpassing in my esteem even the great Ty Cobb. I took some days leave from my clinical duties, wallowing in that graveyard each of us who have entered this calling of surgery tends for himself and visits from time to time after certain of our failures. But during my last night away I received a most remarkable and restorative visit - one without secret code or the medium’s tamborines and trumpets. And in retrospect, perhaps it was I who needed to hear from him most - more than the séance crowd that still gathers each Halloween eve – so that I may set things right in my head and in my heart, and carry on with my own life’s work.
| 09 March, 2014 22:27
The Clash, London Calling 1980, Purchased 1984
“A man's life work is nothing but a slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”
- Albert Camus
For a kid coming of age in the 1980’s, long before he would have any first-hand knowledge of those things that would become his life’s work, it was rock and roll – his “detour of art” – that would provide a vision, a start for his imagination: of political consciousness when he couldn’t be bothered to read a newspaper, of sexuality before he had a clue, of disenfranchised youth and adult abandonment, addiction, and despair. But also in rock and roll were great and enduring visions of hope and beauty, of courage and love. Images a young heart first opened to in song – they demanded a look beyond the family “hedge back home in the suburbs.”1
These records were freshly exhumed after twenty years of storage when the opportunity of that most quintessential suburban architectural feature – the basement – allowed space for a turntable and the liberation of their warm analog sound. Many had been replaced over the years with CDs, iPods, and now Spotify playlists – each a step further removed from the LP as objet d’art. But it all comes rushing back to me now: the teenage thrill of outrageous cover artwork, the pouring over of liner notes at midnight, the smell of vinyl dusted with a velvet brush, the gentle (or harsh) drop of the needle. And the time required in turntable preparation, it practically demands the whole album side (not just one measly track) be played – so that its sequence becomes eventually etched somewhere in our brains where it mysteriously survives the effects of time, alcohol, and disease that steal at our lesser memories.
These "portraits" were made in celebration of rock and roll vinyl. Each was shot while the album loudly played, (and then re-shot due to noise-induced camera blur). The titles reference both the album release date and their date of purchase (some separated by quite a few years) - thus documenting the photographer’s unique rock and roll journey. The reproduced lyrics are those which grabbed me by the throat upon first listening, and haven't let go since.
1The Clash, Lost In The Supermarket; Strummer, Jones, Simonon, Headon
Please visit images in Rock and Roll Vinyl Gallery, and Gallery Music for accompanying Spotify playlist
| 31 July, 2013 16:36
The visual discoveries to be made when preparing for a move can be both startling and sentimental. More so the longer you’ve been at an address, I suppose. An excavation reminiscent of Tel Megiddo may be uncovered upon moving a 200 lbs cabinet from its place of seven years in the childrens' playroom – layers of fallen and lost articles telling a story of how those children have lived and grown. Flashcards to teach colors, animal names, and numbers covered by more recent home-made ones of multiplication factors. The earliest efforts at writing - successive layers of lengthening words, sentences, even a foreign alphabet – buried beneath more contemporary cursive compositions of exquisite penmanship. A toddler’s large plastic beads progress to tiny rhinestones and crystals – dropped by the same, but now more dexterous, jewelry-making hands. A stray father’s day card from 2009 – How could I have been so careless?
This photograph was made a few days after the girls had already moved away, when only I and a crew of movers remained to crate up our belongings. Taking the last of the books from their case, these lovely pressed maple leaves were discovered. I can remember clearly the day that the girls prepared them - one autumn, years ago – a time when they still had an interest in things other than iPods. It seems that their leaves had sadly been forgotten. Even the bulky unabridged dictionary that hid them, a sun-bleached outline of which can be discerned on the wooden shelf, is now a useless relic to girls whose spelling assistance has gone completely digital. I shot the picture with an iPhone, and forwarded it to them in a text message.
| 02 July, 2013 19:07
The Astronomical Museum and Planetarium of Chicago opened to the public in 1930, the result of Chicago businessman Max Adler’s investment in a public facility that could dramatically replicate an illusion of the night sky with an optical projection device designed by the Carl Zeiss Company of Jena, Germany. Using light produced by an intricate machine at the center of a hemispherical room, images of celestial objects were projected onto the inner surface of a dome. As explained by Philip Fox, the first Planetarium director, “It could show the naked eye stars, Sun, Moon, and planets, all in their proper places for any instant of any year of any century for any terrestrial position.”
Mr. Adler explained his intent at the Planetarium's opening:
“The popular conception of the Universe is too meager; the Planets and the stars are too far removed from general knowledge. In our reflections, we dwell too little upon the concept that the world and all human endeavor within it are governed by established order and too infrequently upon the truth that under the heavens everything is inter-related, even as each of us to the other."
It is interesting to consider that when the Planetarium opened in in 1930, the beginnings of the great space race and dramatic new discoveries in astronomy that now make up the institution’s principle exhibits were some three or more decades away. Moreover, the Mark VI Zeiss Projector that had been in use at Adler since 1967 has only recently been replaced with a new digital projection system developed for military flight simulators. Although many planetariums had already gone digital, their overlapping projectors bled light – compromising the effect of a pitch-black night, and necessitating a shift to more motion-oriented digital productions. The Adler upgrade allows for a stunning return of the original starry night.
This photograph, made on June 23rd, 2013, shows a “Supermoon.” Astronomers call this phenomenon a "perigee moon" – a full moon that occurs when the moon is closest to Earth each year.
| 02 June, 2013 00:25
My Great Uncle Mel passed away a few weks ago. Our family patriarch – he was also to me a grandfather figure. Taught me how to fish. How to light a pipe. How to appreciate classical music. Accidently provided my first peek at a Playboy centerfold. In this portrait, made Thanksgiving Day 2011, he holds another portrait made in 1926. He is the infant on my Great Grandfather's knee. My Grandmother Bertha stands to the far right.
As a younger man he was renowned for his tool collection, but as an older man, it was for his jokes. They were never cruel or putdowns - rather they always left his audience feeling a little bit lighter about things. He told me with great pleasure how his urologist greeted him at each appointment: “Mel, have you got a joke for me?"
This joke, one of his favorites, was shared by his daughter Aviva at his funeral. He told it with a Yiddish accent:
In the tiny town of Pinsk, there was a very bad man by the name of Hershel. He was a thief, a liar, a bully. He was cruel to his wife. There was even a rumor that he had killed a man.
So this man, Hershel, dies. And the Rabbi, of course, decides that Hershel deserves a proper funeral like anyone else. And Pinsk, tiny as it was with so little else going on - the entire town turns out.
The Rabbi makes the Kaddish, then looks around at the congregation and asks: "Is there anyone among you who has anything good to say about Hershel?" And they all look to each other and shrug. Again, the Rabbi asks: "Anything? Anything at all, before we send this man to his eternal rest?" Again, silence.
Until, finally, little Schmulie, from the very back of the shull, makes his way up to the bima - and looking out at his fellow townspeople says:
"His brother was worse.”
| 09 February, 2013 18:59
The "Armory of the 124th Field Artillery, Thirty Third Division, Illinois National Guard" is located at the northeast corner of Washington Park at 5200 South Cottage Grove Avenue. The Unit’s motto, “Facta non verba” – Latin for “deeds not words” is inscribed high on the north wall. Today the Armory is known as the "General Richard L. Jones Armory," in honor of African American Brigadier General Richard L. Jones who commanded the 178th Regiment from 1947-1953. Sculpted figures designed by Fred Torrey represent the warrior through the ages - from ancient Greece to the World War I “doughboy warrior” depicted here. Fifteen feet tall, he’s remained unblinkingly vigilant since put on sentry duty in 1929. Perhaps this young American soldier imagined he’d be at his post for only a short while -commissioned as he was during the peaceful promise that followed the Great War’s end. But “the war to end all wars” was but a prelude to the bloodiest century in modern history. And so the doughboy remains here at his post. Perhaps it was the cruel weather upon him on the day this photograph was made, but he strikes me as sadly weary, still awaiting his relief.
| 30 January, 2013 22:41
Catching the earliest ferry from Battery Park to Ellis Island before the masses of similarly minded tourists arrive allows a privileged viewing of a relatively empty and quiet Main Arrivals Hall. Yet it’s easy to imagine the deafening chaos that was routine during this facility’s years of peak operation - the daily arrival of hundreds of new immigrants, simultaneously brave and hopeful and fearful and uncertain, struggling with exhausted crying children and awkwardly bundled belongings. Families already separated for lack of travel funds now threatened further by lack of proper papers or infectious illness requiring quarantine or even forced return passage. Add to the confusion the din of languages from all corners of Europe and beyond.
Americans who visit Ellis Island today all have some personal family immigration narrative that, whether or not beginning in this Main Arrivals Hall, unites us in an understanding of that greater American narrative of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” For my family, it was escape from the pogroms of bloody Russia in the early 1920’s and, unbeknownst to them at the time, the murderous German Police Battalions that would soon follow. For my wife’s family, it was leaving an economically stagnant United Kingdom and India some fifty years later for an equally unimaginable life in New York City.
Visiting here today, it seems that our family narrative has come full circle. Our two young daughters run around this great empty hall both aware and playfully unconcerned of the Island’s story - charmed more so by the booming echo of their own footsteps and laughter than by the imaginable echoes of history. I believe I made this photograph for them – a family snapshot, empty of persons yet loaded with symbol - so that they can know of the brave and hopeful journeys across continents and oceans that allowed for their own arrival, both in this world and on these shores. For when considered in the context of twentieth century history, it is indeed a miracle that these two lovely girls exist at all.
© 2013 Scott A. Brill, MD.
| 13 December, 2012 23:20
The view from my forth-floor room overlooking Rue de la Verrerie was pleasant enough. A café occupied one corner, several shops on the other. People going about their Saturday afternoon business. After I'd watched them for a time, a young woman in a black A-line dress appeared from one of these shops and turned to enter the building across the street, opening a dark green wooden door that seemed ridiculously large for the passage of her small body. My eyes idly ascended the building’s façade, guessing to which window she belonged. When I’d all but given up, she reappeared in one of the tall attic windows, the rest of which were blacked out. Hers had a sash of rich maroon fabric draped elegantly across that blew gently now that she’d thrown it open. And there she stood – smoking a cigarette. Her chest heaving softly from the climb up the stairs. A little sunshine upon her face. It wasn't a beautiful one. Rather plain – somewhat moonfaced, actually. From this distance it seemed she wore a bold red lipstick. Her hair was shiny and dark and mostly straight - worn simply down her back - a meandering part slightly off center and artfully coiffed bangs. She was lovely.
Perhaps she’d noticed me by now. Maybe not. Just a young woman smoking a cigarette and gazing out her window on a Saturday afternoon, but I had an unusual and sad feeling that I was watching the most beautiful moments of her life pass. And that maybe she realized this too, and was secretly glad that another human being, even a voyeur from the hotel across the street, was there to bear witness.