Category Archives: Photo Essay

Cathedral Contradictions

I can’t quite grasp the relationship between the glorious monsters on the outside and the glorious light and space and soaring of the inside

And I still cannot quite comprehend how stone can take this character of massive weightlessness, how anything so heavy and solid can delicately soar and continually unfold into mystery

This narrow Norman arch has stood here here supporting the roof for 800 years. Of course, it was once a wood roof, probably very similar to that of Westminster Hall  with its capitals of strange creatures and frightening angels…perhaps resolving some of the contradictions, but raising others. I want to know their stories, but fear them to be long gone. And while I love stumbling across the green man, I do not buy much of the crap written about him. So it is all wonder and mystery, this combination of such immense human skill, love, and imagination

Southwark Cathedral stands at the lowest point of the Thames, the old ford and today’s Tower Bridge, for long the only entrance to the City of London. You can see the remains of the Roman road alongside the cathedral, along with a statue of an ancient hunter god. There has been a church here since at least 606 AD…

[And the priests and staff inside are incredibly friendly and informative without being overwhelmingly so. And the incredible Burough Market is immediately next door.]

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The Monsters of Southwark Cathedral

They crouch beneath the eaves, bright proud glances and power full grown

They claw their way out through cracks in the flint and the stone of the walls. Emerge slowly, heavy lidded and weary as from a womb, their taloned limbs still to grow into the promise of their massive heads.

They mourn their sunlit exile from the river’s dark waters, their reduction to mere channels and spouts and perches for pigeons

And there is madness, tucked into cornered arrays of angles and planes and nothing means anything but the torrent of water that rushes through its vessel paying no mind to the vacant staring eyes

Endlessly, violently relieved of the weight of memory and ages by the mighty rushing of waters, relieved even of the precise crags of their own face.

Bridges

So I heard a fascinating lecture by David Gilbert (London Holloway University of London) the other day, on London’s Hungerford Bridge. Also known as the Charing Cross bridge…it was a look at the symbolic significance of the prosaic, not the splashy and fanciful architectural feat. In fact, Hungerford was long considered the eyesore of London, there’s an amazing little illustration from Punch magazine showing a devil staring at the bridge titled ‘The Spirit of Ugliness’. The name of the talk in fact, but I don’t want to steal the thunder. Here is an image of it as it is today, the prosaic and ugly metal railway bridge now hidden by the pedestrian walkways:

It is beautiful. And even its ugliness was painted many times, its metal disappearing into the mist of the Thames…

What I loved most about the lecture was how it made me think. Bridges are fundamental elements to the city, but often unsung (with the exception of those towering examples of technical steel and beauty, or history). They are spaces of connections, flows, and movement, as opposed to walls which contain. They are a kind of unique public space, a meeting place of difference, they have constantly changing rhythms depending on the time of day, and they open up vistas of the city in ways nothing else does. And I’ve always loved bridges, so I went to my flickr page to pull photos and meditate on this love.

Apparently I primarily love what is found under bridges. How extraordinary.

Perhaps it’s the years in LA where bridges are somehow none of these things, but have been distorted and twisted into something entirely different. Here many of them are built so that you can never cross them on foot. It is true that you can cross one or two of the bridges that span the river, but that is the division between East and West, one of the hardest LA divisions to step across in every sense. For most bridges, their function is to move as many cars as possible as quickly as possible through a landscape controlled and despised by its occupants.

Here poverty and resistance send people under the bridges. Into spaces that fill you with rage at what can be done to a city, spaces that give you that undeniably pleasant feeling of mixed tragedy, beauty and danger, that thrill of the photographer that I always try to keep a close watch on…

These bridges built over the pulverized skeletons of a destroyed community, and supporting freeways that divide L.A. into its terrifying sections of racial segregation and despair, it is underneath them that new communities grow, communities that break your heart

And the beauty?

Where everyday resistance has taken them back, reclaimed them, like Chicano Park in San Diego

And this

And so even when I lived in Glasgow I seemed to keep my eyes down, though the view was untouched by pain

Maybe I shall think about trying to photograph what is on top of bridges, and what can be seen looking outwards…without ceasing to spend time underneath.

Legally Underground

I love being underground, I love dark, close places. And dark massive airy places of course. And while London is undergirded by miles of tunnels, bunkers, culverts, sewers, abandoned underground stations and etc, can you legally get into any of them?

No. But Graham and I did our best.

We started in the Cafe in the Crypt, St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields. A copy of American Colonial architecture, which is really just a variation on a copy of traditional English architecture…and they sell decent coffee and quite delicious currant buns in a warm, dry, well-lit brick vault that a self-respecting ghost would never be caught…in.

They have an art exhibit on now, Cartooning and Conflict, international takes on the situation in Palestine/Israel. Some of them were good, some of them ridiculously simplistic. Of course.

So coffeed and fed, we started on the quest for the (now underground) Tyburn river. On foot. And wandered past St. James Palace just as a marching band was scheduled to appear (!), line up in front of the palace, play, salute, and head out again. It made no sense at all, but the tourists did like it.

I just love the incredible feeling of being fortuitously in exactly the right place at the right time…even if it’s only to see a marching band. We passed Truefitt & Hill, London’s oldest barber shop established in 1805. They say that:

Men deserve the best in everything they do. If you are looking for the finest in men’s grooming, we are confident you will find Truefitt & Hill’s unmatched product quality and prestigious tradition extremely compelling.

And looking in their window I believe them, almost makes me wish I were one

And so we wandered on. And in another blinding moment of fortuitosity, I mentioned we were looking for Davies Street and Graham realized we were on Davies Street, and so a moment of awed silence for such mad luck…

On Davies Street you can find Gray’s Antique Market, full of beautiful and very old things. But you actually want to turn the corner, head down the back for Gray’s Mews, because you head down into the basement there and you will find a section of the (famous) Tyburn River. Actually, I don’t think the river is famous, but the spot where they used to hang people certainly was. The river runs in culverts below London, until it arrives here, where it is neatly channeled and full of gold fish.

We couldn’t quite work out the mechanics of it, both of us thinking that the Tyburn river should be larger, dirtier, primeval. Possibly behind thick glass, certainly not staid and well-lit and mechanically aerated. But it was quite extraordinary all the same. And Gray’s Mews? Beautiful. You can see at the bottom the fabulous vintage clothing and jewelry store…quality gorgeousness, Chanel and proper furs and etc etc, long cigarette holders, old compacts that I could have conceivably afforded…it is the kind of place that is most dangerous, in that it has beautiful old things at the top of my price range (but still within it. Hence the danger.). Many other stores were shut up, sadly, like the shop below with the pair of dragon-bearing elephants that I truly desired:

It was a day of desire really, walking back down Bond Street we passed this store full of silver, and all of it beautiful

We were filled with a sense of satisfaction, of vague melancholy, of…thirst. So we stopped at the Iron Duke for a pint, a most satisfactory pub with a very interesting wall covering and scrumpy jack on tap:

From there we wound our way back down to a pub previously-spotted and tagged for a return. But once more on St. James we decided to wander into the cigar store, James J. Fox & Robert Lewis. And discovered that not only can you smoke a cigar inside (lit for you by use of a small, insanely impressive blow torch), but there is also a museum. In the basement! Underground once again, and happy because look at this:


And I discovered that, like Winston Churchill,

I am a [wo]man of simple tastes, easily satisfied with the best.

The Queen Mother had her account here as well…I like to think of her kicking back and smoking a fine cigar or two. This place is packed with phenomenal things, an old register you can flip through, Oscar Wilde’s account, fur covered cigar cases, Cigars that are two, maybe three feet long, a tin of “Potter’s Asthma Smoking Tobacco”, this letter to the company from Churchill once again:

Dear Sirs,

Confirming our telephone conversation, Sir Winston Churchill would be much obliged if you would send a box of 25 cigars of good quality, but not quite as good as the Romeo and Juliet, and of medium size, to his grandson for his birthday on October 10…

Highly recommended. Though we couldn’t afford cigars at the time. But we will be back, the humidor at the end of the room was extremely impressive. And I have never seen anything like this:

But I tore myself away.

So we found our way to the Red Lion, a small pub and the second oldest license in the West End. The oldest license? No one could say. That’s a quest for another day. But a good mix of people, Graham believes that many were masons, I accept their cover story of a funeral. The lad with the red trousers? Well, there’s no excuse for that sort of thing of course. And there were china plates lining the piece of wall between the wood paneling and the ceiling, I loved that. We had laid down the one pint per pub rule, this being an exploratory excursion, so we headed out. We passed the Golden Lion. Sadly closed. And then we found a second Red Lion. A slightly larger pub, with beveled and engraved mirrors

And as buns weren’t quite enough to support this kind of effort and quantity of drink we went in search of food. I hadn’t prepared an underground location for this, so we ended up with pizza. Probably the most delicious pizza I have ever eaten but we all know that’s because I was drunk. Drunk on the magic of London at night

From Soho we headed to embankment and a martini at the Buddha Bar. That was planned, the Buddha Bar is in the old tram tunnel you see, though of course you’d never know. We weren’t dressed for that kind of poshness of course, so most of the waitresses were rather dismissive and politely rude. Our waiter was awesome though, redeemed the whole place for me beyond any doubt.

And then still not quite ready to go home, we made a last stop, sort of underground once again, in the Coal Hole, “famous for coal-heavers and cartoonists”. Great little pub too, according to the menu (always a supreme source of local history), it was one of the last informal clubs of the Victorian era. Gillray and Rowlandson used to haunt this place! And I dearly hope they still do…Gilbert and Sullivan used to show up from time to time as well, but I’m not so fussed about them.

What a day, what a city, what a cousin. Joy.

Living Architecture: The Bonaventure Hotel

If you sit very still and stare at downtown L.A. from the window of the Bonaventure Hotel’s cocktail lounge, this is what you will see:

The slowly revolving floor shifts the gorgeous view before your eyes. But apart from saving up for the drinks, how do you get here?

It’s public of course, but that does not make it easy to find. There are three entrances to the Bonventure, but none of them are your traditional grand salon entrance. And two of them are from those secret sky bridges of LA, the one we took joins the hotel to Hope Street past the YMCA. You enter what feels like a back door onto the fifth floor of a dark and massive tower with spiraling stairs and pillars, and street signs to direct you to where you want to go:

Not all elevators go to the top you see, neither do the escalators. In fact, I don’t think there were any escalators on this floor. You have to find the red elevator, the red one! (The vertiginous ride in the glass elevator up the outside of the building for 35 floors and all of Central LA laid out beneath you? Highly recommended.) Any other colour and you will be lost in this vast echoing space.

It has its own stores, its own running water far far down below, it even has its own track and exercise machines where you can sweat in full view.

Built by John Portman and opened in 1976, it is an iconic building. And wandering through it, I couldn’t help but think of Frederic Jameson’s comments in an essay called Postmodernism and Consumer Society. He writes that the Bonventure has no main entry because it does not wish to be part of the city, it wishes to replace it. That it puts you into such a vast space so full of stuff you can no longer get a measure of just how big it is, you lose just how much emptiness is enclosed by these enormous walls of glass. The building toys with your perspective.

He writes that this is a space that takes vengeance on those walking through it, one that forces you to lose your bearings. It transcends us as human beings, and makes it impossible for us to find ourselves within such a context.

Me? I thought it an incredible building, but it did make me feel very small, very lost, very much in desire of a nice drink. So I set off in search of the red elevator, and thought about architecture and its impacts on how we live and see ourselves in the world. And this one almost cathedral-like in how it humbles you, God replaced by wealth, retail, and facilities for showing off while working out…

[also posted at http://www.drpop.com]

Odilon Redon, Honore Daumier and assorted monsters

Odilon Redon…I saw him for the first time (that I remember) today at the Chicago Institute of Art, and found him extraordinary. Born in France in 1840, he created these beautiful works in black and white, charcoal and lithograph, strange combinations of human and plant, animal, and insect. This is the one I found

chimera

This was called Chimera…and more, but I didn’t write it down and the light was terrible, the images blurry. Redon kept to himself, remaining almost unrecognized until the end of his life although he heavily influenced surrealism. He only became generally known after being mentioned in a cult novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature. Which sounded intriguing, but I believe I have read enough novels of decadence for the moment, it might have inspired Oscar Wilde but was influenced by Schopenhauer and he certainly isn’t one of my favourite philosophers.  So. Another image from google because I love these…

367px-Redon_spirit-forest

Tree man. Additional information is slim, he’s one of those artists to learn more of…as is Honore Daumier. There are a couple of brilliant little satirical sketches and this truly amazing collection of  miniature sculptures

They capture the spirit of the individual with a delightful intensity and quickness, it must have been even more impressive in his own day knowing the politicians and public figures so captured. My favourite:

As far as big names go, there are plenty of my favourites here, and a whole room of Toulouse-Lautrec! But today I most enjoyed the hidden, the weird, and the wonderful…no flash allowed so my apologies for quality

Who knew Delacroix had ever drawn anything like this? It’s called Marguerite’s Ghost

margueritesghost

They had one print by Durer, who fills religious paintings with the most fantastic creatures

And this sculpture by Jean-Joseph Carrie

Frog Man. I have never seen anything like it. And this shield from an assorted saint facing the devil

And time with my family, a great day.

Where LA’s stolen water comes from, the wonder of Owens Valley

The Coso Mountain range to the east of Owens Valley is a line of volcanoes that erupted again and again, spewing out massive flows of black basalt. The whole area was a center of volcanic activity, creating a landscape of wonder framed against the Eastern Sierra Nevadas

To the north is an incredible cinder cone of deep red, gases and minerals forced violently up from the earth’s core through the hole they blasted in its crust. It reminds you that we mindlessly bang around atop a layer of earth floating above a seething bubbling mass of magma and gas. And only 500,000 years ago it swelled from below, shot upwards, rebuilt the landscape. And here I stand simply marveling at it.

There used to be a lake here, and a river. The river ran down the valley, and when a new lava flow sent it coursing across the black basalt, it sought out weaknesses and devoured them, it polished hard surfaces smooth, it carved amazing forms as it fell forty feet down a basalt shelf, and created one of the more amazing things I have ever seen

I tried, and admit I mostly failed, to capture its beauty and the strange fascination of it. Heat radiates from the rocks, flows about them in eddies and swirls as water once did. This place burns your palms with a deep tingling life as you climb into it, it cuts your skin with its razored lines of grace. And from every angle you discover new shadows and curves, a dark unfurling of stone.

There is no water here now, it was stolen, and the land lies arid and dry as you see it, though abounding with life in gorgeous color.

The land itself was stolen from the Paiutes, they irrigated small farms here from a fast running river, and collected obsidian. When first soldiers and then the homesteading act opened up the land to white settlers, small farmers and prospectors moved here, side by side with land speculators.

Frederick Eaton became mayor of Los Angeles in 1898, and appointed his friend William Mulholland as head of the new Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Together they started what are now fondly known as the California Water Wars. Especially to those who have forgotten that they are ongoing.

LA required water to become the sprawling sucking metropolis that it is today, and the two saw that the Owens Valley had water in abundance. Remember Chinatown? Eaton was a close friend of the agent working for the Bureau of Land Reclamation, who was there to build a network of irigation canals to help small farmers. He bought up much of the land (it all ended up belonging to LA), and Eaton got Teddy Roosevelt to cancel the irrigation project. By 1905 the city of LA had enough land to build the aqueduct through tactics that were varied, creative, and often nefarious. As icing on the cake of venality, the initial run of water went to the San Fernando Valley to water the fields of another close friend, and turn worthless real estate into an agricultural gold mine overnight.

By 1913 the aqueduct was built (it now carries 315 million gallons a day to LA). By 1924 the lake was dry. And in the despair of 1924, 40 men united to dynamite the aqueduct

OwensVly1924

6 moths later residents seized the Alabama Gates spillway and released the water back into the lake. But that was the end of even small victories until the 1990s. The uprising failed as US uprisings always seem to do.

In 1972 LADWP built a second aqueduct, draining surface water. The original vegetation died, and even now the alkali meadows continue to expand. There are salt beds where water used to be, and the wind picks up their dust of carcinogenic nickel, cadmium and arsenic to fling it across the valley. The EPA stated that when the wind blows across the lake bed, this valley becomes the single largest source of particulate matter pollution. In the 1990s and again in 2003, local activists, the Sierra Club and Inyo County won an agreement that a tiny percentage of the water must be diverted back into the valley, but it is tiny…for more on what is being down today take a look at the valiant Owens River Committee.

And read Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner for the whole story, this is obviously a most horrific simplification.