21 February 2014

The Complete Hitchcock

A screening tonight of Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959) at Film Forum marks the start of "The Complete Hitchcock," a five-week long series devoted to the films of the master of suspense including the "Hitchcock 9," his surviving nine silent films that were recently restored by the British Film Institute. I plan on seeing as many as I can although I'm trying to put some restrictions on myself (for example, if I own the film on DVD and have seen it on the big screen then maybe I should pass). I can't think of a better way to ride out the rest of this miserable winter than watching some classic films (especially the ones with Cary Grant) at my favourite cinema. Have a wonderful weekend and see you at Film Forum.

20 February 2014

Carson and Rita

"Carson McCullers and Rita Smith, Nyack, NY." Henri Cartier-Bresson (1947)

While writing my Carson McCullers birthday post yesterday, I was looking at images on the web and came across this one of Carson with her younger sister, Margarita “Rita” Smith.

It must have been difficult living in the shadow of a famous, talented big sister yet Rita managed to carve out her own place in the literary world. She was the fiction editor of Mademoiselle and later contributing fiction editor of Redbook. She also lectured in English at Columbia University and taught at the Writers’ Workshop at the New School for Social Research. Like Carson, she wrote short stories; one of them, "She Shall Have Music," appeared along with a story by Carson in the O. Henry Prize Stories of 1943

In addition to her noted sister, Rita is remembered for helping launch the career of Truman Capote. She was working as an editor’s assistant at Mademoiselle when one day a precocious 21-year old Truman showed up to see if the magazine would be interested in one of his short stories, “Miriam.” Impressed with his submission, Rita convinced fiction editor George Davis to publish the piece. She went on to introduce Truman to Carson and together the two sisters helped him to find an agent and became friends with their fellow Southerner. After Carson’s death in 1967, Rita became co-executor of her sister's literary estate and wrote an introduction to a posthumous collection of Carson’s work, The Mortgaged Heart. She died in 1983 at the age of 60.

But back to this photo—how much do you love it? Carson is the image of cool with her white collar and over-sized coat while Rita is so modern looking. Can't you see her sitting in a cafe on the Lower East Side or riding on the subway next to you? 

19 February 2014

Happy Birthday, Carson McCullers!

Happy Birthday, Carson McCullers! Born on February 19, 1917 in Columbus, Georgia, McCullers' tales of love and loneliness filled with an assortment of misfits and eccentric characters, including The Heart is the Lonely Hunter and Member of the Wedding, became some of the most memorable works of Southern Gothic literature. Although plagued with ill health for the majority of her life (the result of a bout of rheumatic fever when young), McCullers managed to write four novels, a novella, short stories, poems, and a play before dying at the age of 50.

When I was a teenager McCullers was one of my favourite writers; I even kept a photo of her on my desk in college for inspiration. Today's anniversary reminds me that it's time for me to revisit some of her work. I recommend that you do so as well.

17 February 2014

Presidents Day Stroll

With a stressful week ahead, I decided to clear my head by taking a long stroll around the neighbourhood today via the High Line, a park built on an old elevated rail line that runs along the West Side. The air was brisk as I head out into the streets of Chelsea, which were lined with piles of snow. 

Passing by the Episcopal Seminary, I noticed icicles hanging from the rooftops while the snow in the garden was undisturbed. Come springtime, the grounds will be filled with beautiful blooms but today there was just a blanket of white.

Up on the High Line, the combination of pine trees, holly, and snow lent a Christmas appearance to some sections while the surrounding buildings offered up interesting sights from graffiti art and old ghost signs to glimpses of the Empire State Building and lovely green trim on a classic brick building.

Back down on the street, I ran across a memorial to soldiers and sailors from Chelsea who fought in World War I, a fitting symbol on this day that celebrates two presidents associated with two of our greatest wars. Hope everyone had a relaxing Presidents Day.

Photos by Michele.

14 February 2014

Happy Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone! I must confess that I've never been a big fan of the holiday but this year a piece I wrote, "Celebrate Valentine's Day, Dorothy Parker Style," was posted on Marie Claire's site (for a while today it was even number one on their "the list: your daily must-reads") and so I've been having a pretty lovely day. Please check it out here when you have a moment and let me know if you ended up celebrating the holiday Dorothy Parker style.

10 February 2014

Capa in Color

Photographer Robert Capa is renowned for his black and white images of war, which helped to define photojournalism. Yet few people know that starting in 1941 this master of black and white routinely shot in colour. Most of those photos were never published, being passed over for black and white images by the leading magazines of the day. Now for the first time “Capa in Color,” a new exhibit at the International Center of Photography (ICP), showcases some of these images in all their glorious colour.

In 1938 while on assignment in China to cover the Sino-Japanese war, Capa wrote to a friend at Pix, his New York Agency, requesting 12 rolls of the fairly new colour film, Kodachrome, and instructions because "I have an idea for Life." Only four of those images survived but Capa continued to experiment with colour film.

He pressed magazines to publish his colour images and encouraged other photographers to shoot in colour. In a letter to Magnum stockholders from 1952 (Capa founded the agency in 1947), he wrote that magazines needed colour images and counselled that, "We have to shoot far more color also far more color stories on any subject. This again should not be indiscriminate but on subjects which demand color."

Some fellow Magnum photographers followed suit (one member, Henri Cartier-Bresson, famously disliked shooting in colour) but black and white was cheaper and faster to process, and easier for publishers to edit. As the years passed, black and white film became associated with photojournalism, and Capa's colour work was ignored.

Walking into the ICP the other morning and seeing the walls covered with bright, colourful images was like rediscovering Capa all over again. The exhibit is broken up by subject starting with World War II and moving on to the USSR (which he visited with John Steinbeck), Hungary, Israel, the Alps, celebrity friends, the Jet Set (Deauville and Biarritz), Paris, Rome, Norway, Generation X, film locations, and Indochina.

Capa shot in colour at the beginning of World War II but pretty much abandoned it for black and white until after the war was over; the time constraints and conditions under which he worked made shooting in black and white easier. Yet the colour images from the war bring a different feel to the events; the airmen look so contemporary and "real" while certain details are much more vivid in colour like the chemical foam on a plane.

While Capa may have been the ultimate war photographer, he also had time away from the dangers of combat, photographing his celebrity friends, fashion shoots, and the wealthy at play at the top resorts in Europe.

In 1941, Capa spent time with Ernest Hemingway at his home in Sun Valley, Ohio. The images show Papa with two of his sons, Patrick and Gregory, and his wife at the time, Martha Gelhorn, hunting, having a picnic, spending time together. The shot of Hemingway with his youngest, Gregory, is even more touching in colour.

The 1948 images of Pablo Picasso with his family in the South of France are particularly charming as we see Picasso relaxed and having fun. One of the images from that shoot, of Picasso holding an umbrella over the head of his partner, Françoise Gilot, would become famous but in black and white; both Look and Illustrated were "disappointed" with the Picasso colour images, which seems crazy looking at them now.

Other celebrities are seen on film sets: Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre on the set of Beat the Devil (1953), Ingrid Bergman filming Viaggio in Italia (1953), and a beyond beautiful Ava Gardner applying her lipstick for The Barefoot Contessa (1954). While they are nice to look at, images of a Lapp family in Norway are just as interesting.

One section is devoted to photos from a Magnum project about post-World War II youth, for which Capa coined the term "Generation X." In 1953, Holiday published the three-part series that featured 24 young people from 14 countries on five continents who were photographed by various Magnum photographers and asked to answer a detailed questionnaire. The only colour images printed in the magazine were those shot by Capa including the French girl Colette Laurent of whom it was said, "Her life is superficial, artificial on the surface and holds none of the good things except the material ones." 

"Skiers and the Matterhorn, Zermatt, Switzerland" Robert Capa (1949-50)

Some of the best though are Capa’s images taken on the ski slopes of Europe. These brilliant shots pop off the walls, the women looking as fashionable as any woman today. There is a wonderful brightness and detail to the snow with none of the flatness that one so often finds. In a January, 1952 article in Holiday, Capa let readers in on his secret, advising them that when shooting snow to "shoot against the light." 

The final group of images in the exhibit I must admit, I avoided. Taken in Indochina (Vietnam), these were the last photographs taken by Capa while covering the French Indochina War as a late minute replacement for a Life photographer. It was there that he stepped on a landmine on May 25, 1954, and died shortly after. He was carrying two cameras with him at the time; one loaded with black and white film, the other with colour.

In addition to Capa's photos, there are images of the man himself: a case contains a few images of Capa including the only known colour image of him, skis over his shoulder, the familiar cigarette dangling from his mouth. There are also letters he wrote on display. In one to his brother, Cornell Capa, dated August 1, 1941, he complains about the colour being off in some of his prints and notes, "I am a great photographer!" In another letter written from London to his brother and mother dated June 4, 1942, he writes that he's glad to be back at work and comments that Scotch is "hard to get" and promises "I will not gamble too much." And in multiply letters to family and colleagues, he mentions money, often how much they should ask for his work. 

The ICP houses 4,200 Capa colour transparencies (35mm, 120, 3x4, and 4x5)  in their collection. Using digital technology, the museum was able to restore the faded Ektachrome images while the Kodachrome ones turned out to have retained almost all of their brilliant colour, needing little work save for the ones that had been incorrectly processed in England in 1941-42. The resulting beautiful prints look like they were shot yesterday.

"Capa in Color" is at the ICP through May 4, 2014. I plan on going many more times. For more information, visit here.

05 February 2014

New York in the Twenties

A dear friend recently sent me a link to a 1961 episode from Walter Cronkite’s documentary series The Twentieth Century. Entitled “New York in the Twenties,” it features some amazing footage including Helen Morgan singing and George Gershwin rehearsing. There’s also a candid interview with Marc Connelly who discusses Dorothy Parker along with other members of the Algonquin Round Table. There are a few dry bits but try to watch the whole thing; it's worth it. 

04 February 2014

Mrs. Parker's Town

It's inevitable when you live in New York that there will be days when it feels like the city has it out for you. When this happens you get angry, ask, "What did I ever do to you?" and start wondering if maybe you should be somewhere else. But then something, like taking a walk through Central Park, will remind you why you moved here in the first place. 

Dorothy Parker explained it best in a January, 1928 piece she wrote for McCall's called "My Home Town." Here are a few excerpts.

"It is sentimental or presumptuous or too, too whimsical, according to the way you look at it, but my feeling for New York is maternal. I know it is a bad, headstrong selfish brat, and will undoubtedly let me die in the poorhouse; I know its manners are, at best, but company ones, and its ways have been picked up from no companions of my choosing; I have for it all the futile exasperation of the clinging, jealous, bewildered mother. I know it's faults, backward and forward and all around. And nobody but me is going to say anything about them while I am in the room!"

"It occurs to me that there are other towns. It occurs to me so violently that I say, at intervals, 'Very well, if New York is going to be like this, I'm going to live somewhere else.' And I do—that's the funny part of it. But then one day there comes to me the sharp picture of New York at its best, on a shiny blue-and-white Autumn day with its buildings cut diagonally in halves of light and shadow, with its straight neat avenues colored with quick throngs, like confetti in a breeze. Someone, and I wish it had been I, has said that 'Autumn is the Springtime of big cities.' I see New York at holiday time, always in the late afternoon, under a Maxfield Parish sky, with the crowds even more quick and nervous but even more good-natured, the dark groups splashed with the white of Christmas packages, the lighted holly-strung shops urging them in to buy more and more. I see it on a Spring morning, with the clothes of the women as soft and as hopeful as the pretty new leaves on a few, brave trees. I see it at night, with the low skies red with the black-flung lights of Broadway, those lights of which Chesterton—or they told me it was Chesterton—said, "What a marvelous sight for those who cannot read!" I see it in the rain, I smell the enchanting odor of wet asphalt, with the empty streets black and shining as ripe olives. I see it—by this time, I become maudlin with nostalgia—even with its gray mounds of crusted snow, its little Appalachians of ice along the pavements. So I go back. And it is always better than I thought it would be."

"London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it. There is excitement ever running its streets. Each day, as you go out, you feel the little nervous quiver that is yours when you sit in the theater just before the curtain rises. Other places may give you a sweet and soothing sense of level; but in New York there is always the feeling of "Something's going to happen." It isn't peace. But, you know, you do get used to peace, and so quickly. And you never get used to New York."

To read the full piece, grab a copy of The Portable Dorothy Parker.

03 February 2014

Would You Like an Adventure?

Michael Llewelyn Davies dressed as Peter Pan, the character whom he inspired.

 "Would you like an adventure now, or shall we have our tea first?"—Peter Pan

There's something so alluring about the word adventure. It conjures up all sorts of images: being on safari, speeding across a foreign country on a fast train, flying off to Neverland and battling with Captain Hook. Maybe because I haven't been traveling as much as I used to or because it's been so cold and dreary in New York, I've been dreaming about a new adventure. I'd love to take a trip to another country where I've never been but as that's not possible at the moment, I will have to settle for some smaller adventures like walking down an unknown street and exploring a new neighbourhood. How about you, dear readers. What adventures would you like to have?

P.S. The photo above reminds me that I should write a piece one day about the heartbreaking story of the Llewelyn Davies boys who were befriended by and served as inspiration for Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie. 

01 February 2014

The Year of the Horse

Yesterday saw the start of Chinese New Year and the year of the horse (or the wood horse). Associated with the elements of wood and fire, the year of the horse could turn out to be particularly explosive yet also a good time for travel and adventure. My travel this weekend is going to entail moving about the city while avoiding large swaths of Manhattan that have been taken over by people (and security) in town for the Superbowl (sorry, not a football fan). So have a good weekend everyone and Xin Nian Kuai Le! 

Image from here.


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