Thursday, July 17, 2014

my Robert Frank article appearing in the May issue of the Swiss magazine Aufbau

Robert Frank: Zurich to New York

“Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.”
--Jack Kerouac, introduction The Americans, 1959


The Artist Robert Frank, best known for his influential body of work The Americans, was born in Switzerland, lives in Canada, and although canonized by institutions such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC,  has always positioned himself as  an outsider.   His unease with the status-quo  has been due to both personal circumstance as well as sensibility.    Although embraced with open arms in his country of origin  Switzerland and later in his adopted home America,  these bastions of 20th century freedom never let Frank completely  forget that he was both an immigrant and a Jew. 

Frank was born  in 1924 Zurich to Jewish parents who created an affluent upper middle class environment.    His father, by being a foreign national from Germany, placed his son’s nationality in limbo, despite his mother’s citizenship.  This caveat combined with the simmering European anti-semitism that was palpable even in Switzerland, created in Frank a sense of being different and “other”.    Despite this undercurrent, he was completely integrated into the nationalistic youth culture of the day which included boy scouts and the Swiss Alpine Club.

In 1941, the  decree by Hitler that denied citizenship to all German Jews, placed both Frank and his father’s safety in jeopardy.  In order to acquire official Swiss citizenship, Frank was asked in written form  to prove  that he was both fully assimilated and had absolutely nothing Jewish left to his character.  Seemingly safe in neutral Switzerland,  the reality of being stateless during WWII, kept the family constantly fearful until the documents were finally issued, days before the war’s conclusion in 1945.

While waiting for those papers Frank decided to apprentice at various photographic studios throughout Switzerland, much to the chagrin of his bourgeois father.  Photographs that he made in his early twenties, show an embrace of  nationalistic sentiment and perhaps even the propagandistic impulse of the time that attempted to cushion the  growing threat of Nazi Germany.  Although these early pictures of parades, festivals, grape pickers and landscapes fail to anticipate  the formidable mature vision that would, a decade later, be able to dissect an entire society,  they do at times display flags,  a subject that would become an important leitmotif throughout his later work,  The Americans.   

After the war and once borders were re-opened, Frank had a desire to view the world beyond the “Enge” of his native country and has stated “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted but I sure knew what I didn’t want”.  The conformity of his early life based on materialistic concerns of his wealthy family and the insulated culture of a Switzerland that had been geographically surrounded by genocide, had contributed to the realization that his destiny would be other than constricted and prescribed.   He traveled  first throughout Europe to witness the aftermath of the war’s destruction and then to the New World, America.

In 1947, Frank’s immediate feeling upon seeing  New York City was ebullient:
“Dear Parents,  Never have I experienced so much in one week as here.  I feel as if I’m in a film…Life here is very different than in Europe.  Only the moment counts, nobody seems to care about what he’ll do tomorrow.” 
Indeed, his first visit to the skyscraper clad metropolis must have seemed both cinematic and  a whirlwind.  The famed  art director of Harper’s Bazaar,  Alexey Brodovitch snapped the young talent up within the first month of his pounding the pavement.    Shooting for Bazaar,  it was around this time that Frank purchased his first Leica 35mm camera.  Moving away from his trusted 6x6 cm twin lens Rolleiflex, it was this proportionally elongated  hand-held format that would become the signature of his mature vision.

After a few months of employment within the world of fashion and magazines, Frank wrote home his observation about America: “The only thing that counts is MONEY.   I now understand people who, after the war, despite the success they had in this country, returned to Switzerland to live.”   Just as the young artist had rejected his father’s wealth based reality,  he equally felt disdain towards the fast paced world of American consumerism.   During this first period in New York,  Frank was beginning to feel the isolation and alienation inherent in the materialistic machine that was postwar America.  This realization would soon enough become a major theme in his series The Americans. 

Although a  dream come true for many photographers, both then and now, Frank resigned from Bazaar,  six months after starting,  choosing instead to pursue a path of greater artistic freedom.    During the next two years,  Frank photographed in Latin America and Europe, focusing on making pictures for personal intent.    Around this time, he met his first wife, the artist Mary Frank, whom he would marry upon his return to New York in 1950.  After which the photographer would continue to travel for another few years, between Europe and America.  While still shooting freelance assignments for magazines,  Frank was creating personal work and honing his distinct vision that would become both critical of conformity and lyrical with humanism. 

In 1954,  Frank applied for a Guggenheim fellowship and was the first European to be given the prestigious award.  His intent as stated in his grant application was to create  a  “… record of what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere.”    Crisscrossing  America, with his wife and two young children,  in a used Ford Coupe, the pictures he made document an exploration of  the social landscape, on Main Street as well as out-of-the-way locations.  With camera in hand, Frank shot every strata of society on the street, at the diner, and all places in between.   At a time before iPhones and global tourism, Frank must have appeared strange with his  small Leica and pronounced accent traveling around in remote and regional locales.  He was often looked on with suspicion and on more than one occasion outright hostility.  He was even put in jail,  first in Detroit and then in Arkansa:  “I remember the guy [policeman] took me into the police station, and he sat there and put his feet on the table. It came out that I was Jewish because I had a letter from the Guggenheim Foundation. They really were primitive.[The sherrif said,] “Well, we have to get somebody who speaks Yiddish. They wanted to make a thing out of it…They put me in jail. It was scary. Nobody knew I was there.”

    Despite some inhospitality and anti-semitism, Frank while on the road, managed to create an epic tome, unique and expansive in it’s unflinching attention to the  melancholic dichotomies found in the America of the time.  Racial divide, economic disparity, and the existential crisis of the individual were themes covered by Frank in a stark but poetic language never before seen.   The body of work was published in 1958 as Les Americains, by the French publisher Robert Delpire.  Frank initially faced  difficulty finding a US publisher due to the seemingly critical revelations in these American pictures,  at a time when the remnants of McCarthyism still lingered.  Grove Press, the famed alternative imprint,  agreed to publish the US edition in 1959 and included an introduction by the beat writer Jack Keroac.

Although initially criticized as being too bleak in both sentiment and artistry, The Americans soon enough became a seminal classic both in the history of art and with students of the photographic medium.    Having achieved what he felt at the time was completion in his desire to make still images, Frank turned his attention towards filmmaking.  Included in his cinematic oeuvre,  is the influential work Pull My Daisy, a tour du force of beatnik artistry, improvisation and collaboration.  Perhaps as infamous is the later film he created for the Rolling Stones that is rarely screened due to lawsuits stemming from the scandalous nature of the finished work. 

By 1970, Robert Frank had notoriety if not fame in a variety of circles, both as a still photographer and filmmaker.  Perhaps feeling the unease of becoming part of the establishment he retreated with his second wife, artist June Leaf to Mabou, Nova Scotia, Canada despite already having dual citizenship in  America and Switzerland.  Several years later, personal tragedy (the death and mental illness of his children) cemented his desire for a partly hermetic life in that rural seaside community.   His art, including Polaroids and large format prints, became more self-reflexive and less worldly but nevertheless equally as arresting as his earlier work.

Throughout his life, Frank has always felt in conflict towards the status quo;  from his early experiences in Switzerland, through his visual exploration of postwar America, and the brutal family tragedies he has endured.   Despite being hailed as a maestro of his chosen mediums, Robert Frank has willfully  continued to embrace the mantle of “the outsider”, that was originally thrust upon him during WWII.  This particular pose, however  has served the artist well in allowing him to continue making an art based on an intense observation of his world as well as the continual reinvention of his craft.  In 2006, I was able to attend a rare interview with the reclusive artist at the New York Public Library.   I was struck that  this much lauded and influential photographer still had an aura of the renegade and seemed to relish his long term ability to create a life away from the noise that his esteemed reputation awards.   At age 89,  Robert Frank, the consummate outsider,  continues to be the artistic visionary and tragic poet of our times.  







Friday, March 14, 2014

Ascalon Design Family by Miles Ladin ……………. published in the Swiss Magazine, Aufbau


Three Generations of Industrial Designers
Bridge Their Vision From Art Deco to The Contemporary

This past January,  New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue transferred their sacred scrolls of the Torah from their old Amsterdam Avenue location, one block south into the city’s  first newly built synagogue in fifty years.  The scrolls now sit in not just any ark, but one  designed by a family design team whose elevated vision connects  the modern Israeli decorative arts movement of the 1930’s with contemporary aesthetics.

Ascalon Studios has taken advantage of three generations of visionaries to create a remarkably  meditative focus within the main sanctuary.   Modern and light with blond wood  and a full bank of windows, the room avoids visual representation with the important exception of the Ascalon’s bronze ark doors.   The doors as well as the actual ark structure were conceived and created by David Ascalon and his two sons Eric and Brad.  A bronze sculpted olive tree adorns the doors and harkens back to  the Ascalon family patriarch, Maurice Ascalon whose bronze menorahs of the late 1940’s popularized the olive branch motif in the decorative arts of Israel. 

This is not, however, Maurice’s first time around the block waiving an olive branch at the citizens of New York.  Nearly 75 years ago,   at the age of 26, Maurice created a monumental relief sculpture that adorned the façade of the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  Titled “The Scholar, The Laborer, and The Toiler of the Soil”, this copper repoussé work comprised of three figures measuring 14 feet high.   It was also a monumental moment, as the pavilion and sculpture introduced Americans to the burgeoning modern Jewish state, a decade before the official state of Israel would come into existence. 

This impressive sculpture, which now resides in Chicago’s Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, symbolizes the Promised Land while combining the traditions of archaic art with the stylization of the Art Deco movement.  Ascalon first experienced the  Art Deco aesthetic while studying art in Western Europe.   Growing up in a Hungarian shtetl where his early artistic aspirations were shunned by the  ultra-religious Chasidic culture, Maurice decided to leave  home at the early age of 15.  He ended up studying  at the prestigious Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels before heading to Milan.  There he partnered with  Giovanni Rosa and  designed some of the early mannequins for La Rosa Mannequins, a company  well known for creating  sophisticated figures for couture designers.  In 1934 Maurice decide to emigrate to the British Mandate of Palestine, where on a recent visit he had met his wife and would start his family.  This decision was extremely prescient; Mussolini would enact the Italian Racial Laws in 1938 and many of Ascalon’s relatives living on the continent would not survive the impending Holocaust.

In Tel Aviv, Maurice realized his desire to create decorative metalwork for the masses and founded the Pal-Bell Company. Their wares included  bowls, pitchers, vases, and ashtrays as well as  menorahs and other Judaica.   Purchased by  locals and tourists, the objects were also exported to well known department stores in Europe and the US.  According to seasoned Judaica collector Aviram Paz, the  designs Ascalon produced for his  Pal-Bell company earn him the esteemed title of “father of modern Judaica Art Deco”   At  times the styling looked towards European decorative artisans such as René Lalique but the brass and bronze utilitarian objects also convey a unique aesthetic, perhaps  reflecting the new found freedom of the Promised Land.   

Their most well known design that showcased this aesthetic was their 1948 “oil lamp” menorah decorated with twin olive leaf branches,  the symbol for the new state of Israel.   One of these iconic menorahs resides in the permanent collection of New York’s Jewish Museum.   Another hallmark of the  company, came about when Ascalon developed a chemical process to mimic the green patina that art objects traditionally only achieve with age.    Through Ascalon’s experimentation and application,  this chemically induced look known as “verdigris”, became an important stylistic look in the modern Israeli decorative arts movement.   Both the olive branch motif and the “verdigris” look were soon adopted by rival designers with varying degrees of success.

After spending two decades in Israel producing his designs as well as participating in the Israeli War effort by having his factory  both design and produce munitions,  Maurice decided to emigrate with his family to the United states in 1956.  In the next two decades, while in New York and Los Angeles, Maurice became a master silversmith creating Torah crowns and other objects for synagogues.

He also spent these years passing down his knowledge to university students as well as his own children.  His son Adir was a well respected surrealist painter and sculptor who collaborated with the famed Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros.  But it was Maurice’s son David who chose to follow in his footsteps,  creating sculpture, mosaics, and stained glass for houses of worship and other public institutions.   The stained glass, that David has been producing since he partnered with his father in the founding of Ascalon Studios in 1977, are modern and for the most part abstract.  These designs often accentuate the spiritual by creating  especially  ample streams of light that flow  through the colored glass. 

Like his Father, David Ascalon is also a  sculptor,  creating both small table top art objects and larger pieces.  The larger installations include memorials such as the iconic Holocaust memorial he created in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  The 15 foot sculpture that was installed along the Susquehanna River in 1994, consists of  a series of stainless steel poles entwined with a rusty-looking serpentine shaped form that references barbed wire.  The power of the piece is singular, due to the form as well as the specific contrast in metal materials.

A decade after its installation, the memorial became the subject of  heated controversy within the community of Harrisburg as well as the American arts community.   Due to an underhanded supplier of the original rust colored material, the barbed wire aspect of the piece was substandard and needed replacement.  Instead of allowing Mr. Ascalon to do the necessary repairs on his work of art, the Harrisburg Parks and Recreation Department, through the advice of a contentious lawyer,  decided to have a third party restorer do the work.  Besides replacing the barbed wire aspect with a shiny silver metal that detracted from the original artist’s intent, Ascalon’s signature was burnished off. 

The incident prompted Ascalon Studios to assert the U.S. Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, a federal copyright law allowing artists to protect their work from neglect or destruction based on what is called “moral rights”.  David’s son Eric, who had recently retired from practicing law, in order to run his father’s business,  acted as co-council in the litigation.    The case was settled out of court resulting in the appropriate restoration of the work by David Ascalon as well as restored credit.  This case, one of only a handful of VARA lawsuits on the books, is still studied by law experts and through online seminars. 

Besides the business and legal acumen Eric Ascalon brings  to Ascalon Studios,  he often contributes in the  development of concepts for the various commissions.   This was the case for the Lincoln Square ark, where he joined his father David and brother Brad in the creation of  perhaps the first innovative liturgical industrial design object  that celebrates  21st century Jewry.  The ark doors seamlessly slide open into the larger curved surrounding structure.  Besides the bronze doors, whose material was used in the Tabernacle of Moses,  the structure combines Jerusalem stone as well as Cedar of Lebanon, a wood used in the First Temple. 

Brad Ascalon’s contribution to the ark is substantial and no surprise due to his own rising star in the contemporary industrial design scene.  He specifically conceptualized and engineered the curved form of the ark.  Although Brad collaborates on some  Ascalon Studios projects, he has his own eponymous studio and a resolute commitment to contemporary furniture design.    Brad currently  has a chair produced by Bernhardt Design, a company whose exhibit at next month’s International Furniture Fair in New York is highly anticipated.   Amongst his impressive accolades, he is one of  only two Americans ever to have designed for the upscale French furniture brand Ligne Roset.  In addition, his  “Atlas” tables are carried by Design Within Reach which also carries his  Carrara marble menorah, a modernist nod to the legacy his grandfather Maurice (who died in 2003)  has provided .  Whether looking at this minimalist sculptural  form, his father’s evocative stained glass, or Maurice Ascalon’s hammered copper 1939 masterpiece,  it is clear that the design genius found in the work is truly a family affair. 

(author's note: this article was written in 2013)


Monday, November 26, 2012

W: The First 40 Years



My image Fashion Clique
(John Galliano, Steven Meisel, Herve Le Bihan, Michele HIcks, Amber Valletta, Domenico Dolce, Victor Alfaro, and Linda Evangelista at 7th on Sale, 1995)
has been reproduced in the new coffee table book: W: The First 40 Years

Prints of this iconic image are still available for purchase.  Contact Miles for details.



Thursday, November 15, 2012

"Garry Winogrand Shot My Father"

Article that I wrote,  which was published in the Swiss magazine Aufbau, June 2012.


GARRY WINOGRAND SHOT MY FATHER & I SHOT BACK
  
In 1955 my 21-year-old father was taken to the legendary New York nightclub El Morocco by his millionaire uncle.  While they were clustered around one of the iconic zebra striped banquettes a performer completed  a dramatic pratfall, landing face first right at their feet while balancing a cocktail on his head.  Although some of the jaded regulars were surely amused , my uninitiated father was utterly transfixed.  And just at that very moment, a young  Turk photographer named Garry Winogrand snapped the scene.   Looking back, one can be sure Winogrand had little inkling that he would one day be canonized by the medium he had only recently embraced.  It is equally probable that my young father could not have supposed that his future son would not only himself become a photographer but also one who would be profoundly influenced by that man with the camera.

More than half a century after my father was immortalized by Winogrand and in anticipation of next year’s retrospective of his work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I pause to consider this influential artist.  He is certainly important within the history of photography, but for me he is also important in defining my own history, and even pre-history if I look back at that serendipitous moment in 1955.  My own career has focused on capturing  the romp of the rich and famous through New York nightlife, and I like to think that my father’s brush with Winogrand somehow rubbed off and onto my own DNA.

As much as I love the chic photograph  capturing my young father transfixed by the metaphor of a surprising future,  it was not until the photographer explored the full potential of the New York street during the 1960’s  that  he became a fully formed artist.  Moving from pictures of performers and daily life shot for publications, to personal images on the street, the artist’s vision shifted from being  slightly romantic and humorous to images full of  stylistic discombobulation and emotional irony.    This new vision was ideal to explore the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis and was why celebrated curator John Szarkowski called Winogrand  the central photographer of his generation.

Although he would make pictures at various locales including zoos, airports, and parties, on the city street is where he was most famously able to utilize and explore unconventional perspectives vis-à-vis the 35mm Leica camera and the wide angle lens.   It is this body of work that made Winogrand synonymous with the title “Street Photographer.”   He extended a tradition fixed by the French photographers,  Eugène Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson, by integrating the surrealistic aesthetic of those photographers with a new idiom of pictorial space inherent in the radical forms found in mid-century life as well as art.    Influenced by Robert Frank’s book The Americans,  released in the U.S. in 1959, Winogrand pushed the envelope by exploring  the physicality of the photographic act.  When he was working on the street,  his camera became a direct extension of both his body in motion and the momentary dramas that would be moving towards him.    While making pictures in this manner,  horizon lines, perspective, and figures all appeared and disintegrated in a way never before captured.   At times, the action of taking pictures is as much the subject as any dramatic element before the lens.   Winogrand himself famously said “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”  

John Szarkowski , former Director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art,  highlighted the importance of  Winogrand’s work in a seminal 1967 exhibit titled “New Documents”.  The show also included two other photographers that helped define post-WWII America, Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander.  These artists made pictures that  moved photographic representation away from the lyrical into new ways of seeing that were more in keeping with the volatile times of the 1960’s.

It is interesting to note that all three photographers, like myself,  were of Eastern European  Jewish descent.   Working in the wake of a war that confiscated the freedom of the street and the revelry of  everyday experience, these artists recovered what European Jews tragically lost.    Winogrand  himself was even quoted as saying half jokingly that all the best photographers were Jewish.  In his assessment he intimated that  perhaps even Atget was of the faith but he must also have been thinking of his hero the Swiss Jewish photographer Robert Frank.   

The exhibition opening next March at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will be Winogrand’s first retrospective in 25 years.   For this newest appraisal that considers Winogrand’s finished & unfinished work as well as some under-edited earlier film, the SFMoMA has engaged photographer Leo Rubinfien to curate the exhibition.  Of special note is an up until now unseen  cache of images from the 1960 Democratic National Convention  that  Rubinfien has discovered.   From this historical shoot, only one image from the more than 5,000 exposures is known to have ever been previously printed or published. 

Learning of Winogrand’s exploration into the social space of politics at the 1960 Democratic National Convention,  I was reminded of my own foray into the political arena, photographing both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions for George Magazine in 1996.   Like Winogrand in 1960, I was enthusiastic, hungry, and ambitious but still relatively optimistic about politics.  It was Bill Clinton’s reelection year and he was my John F. Kennedy.  In fact, JFK Jr. was my editor-in-chief  at George.  On the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago,  I remember a loud pop going off.  I turned and saw several offspring of Robert F. Kennedy wince briefly in shock.  For a split second,  I was sent back to the time immediately following the jubilant 1960 election,  an era of disbelief marked by assassinations and paranoia.   My own world would shift irrevocably after the start of the new millennium.   But back at the conventions of 1960 and 1998, both Winogrand and  I still viewed the political process as open and full of potential. 
In the aftermath of the 1960 Democratic National Convention,  Winogrand’s optimism would wane.    The photographer stated in his 1963 Guggenheim grant application “Our Aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty.  I read the newspapers, the columnists,  some books, I look at the magazines (our press).  They all deal in illusions and fantasies.  I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves, and that the bomb may finish the job permanently, and it just doesn’t matter, we have not loved life. “  This pessimism, one that I currently share, was in part his reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 .  He was able, however, to channel this anger into creating his most accomplished imagery shot in the 1960’s and through the 70’s.  
In 1978,  Winogrand moved to Los Angeles,  where his shooting became manic in quantity and quality.    Whether as an artist he was burnt out or trying to develop a new vision, this ongoing assessment of his late work will be part of Rubinfien’s task  in next year’s retrospective at SFMoMA.   For me,  Winogrand’s  later years are the conclusion of an artistic  trajectory that brought him from being  the romantic young man shooting at El Morocco,  to  the unique ironist helping to define his generation, to ending up a desperate nihilist unable to focus his vision.  Shooting without editing or even developing the film, at the end, his talent became a beautiful impulse completely out of control. 
As a photographer following in  the footsteps of Garry Winogrand, my own images have been influenced  by  his  keen sense of irony as well as his sophisticated manipulations of  the picture plane.   I have integrated into my own work his most radical visual invention, tilting the horizon line, and hopefully made it my own.  Truth be told,  Winogrand was the master of this revolution , a brilliant perversion that intuitively captured the chaos of a new American era. 

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Miles Ladin is a photographer born, raised, and working in New York City.  For 20 years he has shot nightlife and people of privilege for publications including The New York Times and W Magazine.  In 1996 he photographed the American presidential race for  two features written by Norman Mailer and published in George Magazine.  In 2009 his work was displayed in a solo exhibition at Miami’s Wolfsonian Museum.