Miles Ladin's blog

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Foto-Gestalt 2019

published in the February/March 2019 issue of Aufbau magazine

Medium in Crisis: Narcissus in the Pond

At the age of 17, photography provided me with a license to actively engage with the world in a revelatory manner previously unknown to me.  I was taking a summer course with noted photographer Larry Fink in Martha’s Vineyard and hungrily ate up every pronouncement explicated from this charismatic beatnik.  According to Fink, the medium was about experience and empathy, not about passive voyeurism. It was not about being a hunter and souvenir gatherer, but about the exchange and interplay between photographer and subject. The camera was a tool for learning and self-knowledge, however the photographs, once exposed, might result in more questions than answers. The camera’s revelatory power was that it could be used for discovery rather than the facile and propagandistic purpose of proving a point. From the photographic adventure, there was the possibility of bringing back something others might appreciate, but that was a bit beside the point. This philosophy was a paradigm shift that transformed the way I considered the art making process and put me on my life’s path. 

The almost spiritual nature of the medium’s potential as explained to me on that New England island in 1985 still seduces me and engages my picture making today. The years that followed, however, have radically changed the way that photography operates in the world. The journey that I have personally taken from student to practitioner to teacher has been colored by radical developments in both the culture and the technology of the medium.  The Digital Age has brought both wondrous benefits as well as disappointing transgressions to the art form, as well as to my personal practice. The idealistic vision of photography touted to me in my youth can still be found in the work of some contemporary artists, but overwhelmingly, the mainstream culture has moved away from this humanistic impulse and taken the medium into the void of narcissism.

Digital technology has been wondrous in the resulting democratization of the photographic medium.  Not only do more individuals have access to the art form of photography, but mobile cameras are now being used as a simple and useful tool by large numbers of the population. Like any man-made tool, however, its use depends on its user. Just like the pen, a shopping list, love poem, or declaration of war are all options. Commonplace in our current day-to-day experience of photography is the pervasive selfie. On the street, on the subway, in the elevator, I notice this impulse everywhere. A child of social media, the selfie can be seen as Narcissus not only looking at his reflection, but falling into the pool. Related to this repetitive capturing of the self is the monotonous recording of things and moments. Rather than heightening an experience and using the camera as a tool to go deeper, this activity usually appears to be performed as a stand-in for actual experience. Thinking more about the posting and bragging, the present moment is lost and the trophy is hollow. Food, concerts, clothes, and travel are all fodder for the self-reflexive posting obsessed.  

This past New Year’s Eve, for example, I found myself on a NYC rooftop with friends and strangers. Rain and fog skewered the midnight fireworks display. But despite this, the revelers that surrounded me held up their mobile devices to desperately try and document the barely visible light show located beyond a tall building that further blocked its full recognition. Behind me in the dark, two 30-somethings preened in various poses taking selfies to prove they were there. Holding up a panda umbrella at various angles and then a Champagne glass, smiles were mandatory.  

The selfie has become a bragging rite that often showcases the aspiration or attainment of fame or wealth. This mode of photography is quite different from the casual family snapshots or hobbyist photography prevalent decades ago with film photography. The snapshot modality for the most part was bearing witness with a certain casual intimacy. The selfie more often than not reflects vanity at a level never before captured in the visual culture. This type of photography is certainly a very far cry from the Socratic impulse still espoused by Larry Fink, a professor at Bard College. When I myself recently taught photography, I had to work against the students’ assumption that a selfie reflects the goal of portraiture. When teaching studio lighting, students initially camped the same preening poses used for the typical toothy selfies. My goal in teaching portraiture is to lead the students of today towards an appreciation that a true portrait goes beyond the superficial vanity and disposable value of the selfie.  

The monolithic intrusion of social media selfies upon the way we function and perceive reality is a result of a 20-year journey through a digital revolution. In 1991, I entered an MFA program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. The then recently-launched graduate program in Photography and Related Media was founded by Charles Traub, who had the foresight to make digital photography a signature focus. As an educator, Traub was ahead of the curve; the programs at Yale and RISD were at that point still solely film based. Photoshop had only just been released in 1990 and I was part of the first generation to take a course on the software. After the class, however, I promptly rejected digital. Unlike some of my fellow students, who used the floppy disk based Sony Mavica cameras as well as Photoshop, I was decidedly Luddite. At least for the moment.

A decade later, in 2000, I found myself drawn back to Photoshop when producing the first of three limited edition artist’s books, in which I converted film negatives in order to output the images as digital pigment prints. I was using the technology to control the means of production and distribution.  I found that the technology actually gave me more control of image manipulation and printing quality than I had experienced in the traditional darkroom. In addition, I could use beautiful fine art paper for my images, which was not an option in traditional photography.  

I was still shooting film, however, and it wasn’t until 2004 that I started experimenting with my first digital DSLR camera.  I found the results lackluster, though, and continued to use film. Since starting assignment work for The New York Timesin 1992, my editorial work was focused on capturing famous individuals at A-list events. This work crosses the line between the commercial and fine-art spheres. It was due to this particular sensibility that editors still allowed me to shoot film well into the millennium, when most other photographers were shooting digitally. In fact, I was able to shoot film for my multi-page features of New York Fashion Week for Women’s Wear Daily’sprinted magazine The Collectionsthrough 2010.  

By then however, it was clear from the publishing landscape that I would need to shift if I wanted to stay viable as an editorial photographer. So I pitched my editor at WWDa digital version of my coverage. I would shoot digitally (using a new mirrorless camera that suited my needs) and upload multiple posts throughout fashion week while including a first person written account of my observations. He loved the idea and confided that my pitch was prescient, as the printed magazine was folding and everythingwas now to be online. 

Although this arrangement was highly successful and resulted in eight more seasons of work, it was for me the end of an era. I had come of age in a time when print magazines hired photographers to create dynamic visuals in a variety of styles. The publications could be superficial for sure, but they could also be highly engaging. W Magazinehad hired me for two years in the 1990s to create a series of pictorials satirizing the rich & famous. This was pretty subversive stuff from a publication that otherwise fawned on socialites and wealth. In 1996, John F. Kennedy Jr.’s magazine George, commissioned me to photograph President Bill Clinton’s run for his second term as President. The writer was Norman Mailer. The publication hired us even though neither of us were traditional political journalists. Other publications such as the New York Times Magazinecould be equally as progressive. Larry Fink recently referred to those days as a golden age for photographers, and I agree.

Although the 1990s provided stellar opportunities for subversives such as Fink and myself, the importance that publications held in the culture had actually been in steep decline for decades. The picture magazine had actually reached its zenith in the mid-20thcentury. At that time publications such as Look, Life, and Harper’s Bazaarwere on the cutting edge of showcasing creative photography. In 1940, when fascism was taking hold of Europe, PM Weeklypublished a series of photographs depicting decadent bourgeoisie lounging in Nice, France. This seminal body of work was shot by Fink’s mentor, Austrian emigre Lisette Model. Later that decade, Lifemagazine published an eye-opening picture essay by Gordon Parks depicting a Harlem gang leader. The pictorials that were showcased in picture magazines brought a world on the brink into people’s living rooms. By the mid 1960’s television was bringing nightly coverage of the Vietnam War into people’s homes and the picture magazine became obsolete. In 1978, Life magazine went from a weekly to a monthly and currently only remains in special editions often dedicated to dead celebrities. 

The current celebrity-focused incarnation of this once legendary photojournalistic news magazine should, in another way, come as no surprise. From at least the 1950s through the digital era of today, fame seems to have grown exponentially as a cultural obsession. In the 1990s as digital photography was developing, so was a cultural construct of reality as captured for television. MTV’s Real World series launched in 1992 and ignited a society that not only watches The Kardashians, but wants desperately to have the same kind of fame that this family achieved through the weekly broadcasting of their vacuous reality. We need only look at the current American President to see the end game of our current obsession with fame and its depiction.

For me to lambast the current state of celebrity culture might seem a bit hypocritical. After all, I’ve made a career and an artistic body of work based on this phenomenon.  The fact, however, is that I made the pictures as a form of social commentary. My ambition has always been to try and elevate society by holding a mirror up to its decadent excesses. At the present moment, the opportunity to make such pictures for public consumption have all but disappeared. Those with fame exerted their growing power and insisted on release forms and other methods of control. Publications and journalists for the most part acquiesced. Editors in turn seem to want images that are easily digested by their audience. Flattering, toothy, front and center shots of the celebrity that are the equivalent in psychological depth to any selfie found on Instagram.  

Although today I rarely see images that interest or provoke me in mainstream publications, I often see pictures on social media that certainly cross the line. When studying with Larry Fink, it was explained that while we photographers were in fact invading someone else’s personal space with our cameras, if we were committed to utilize the art form for a higher purpose we could transcend any possible transgression. Although I can’t quite recall any conversations about respect for the subject and decorum, I feel like that would have been an obvious if unspoken expectation. Not so anymore, it seems. A few years ago, I noticed on Facebook a rather disturbing post by an acquaintance. She had used her phone to photograph an Amish couple who were sleeping on an Amtrak train. The image had no pathos but showed them, disheveled, mouths open and unaware. The litany of comments on the post were both for and against this particular documentation of reality. The acquaintance freely admitted to knowing full well that the Amish, as a rule, do not allow themselves to be photographed. Despite this she felt it was her right to lean behind her seat and take the picture. I found her way of thinking problematic at best and certainly a sign of the times. 

The medium at this moment is multi-faceted for sure and, as always, in flux. As a society we are still looking to balance the freedom of expression with the right for privacy. I still believe photography is an immensely powerful tool for Socratic investigation. Along those lines there is still some wonderful work being made by important voices. In 2010, Rosalind Solomon along with 11 other internationally acclaimed photographers, spent time making pictures in Israel and the West Bank for a project entitled This Place. Solomon spent 5 months photographing many individuals in many locations and of all faiths. Carrying her trusted Hasselblad camera on this new adventure, she “saw and felt…informed by the unexpected.” The resulting images published in her 2014 monograph THEM, tap into the psyche of her subjects. This octogenarian, who is another former student of Lisette Model, still to this day shoots her work in film. Larry Fink on the other hand, has gone digital. Acclaimed for his square medium format flash-infused dramatically lit images, he has put his flash away and embraced the incredible light sensitivity of the recent generation of digital camera sensors. Photography is dead…long live photography.  

Saturday, December 9, 2017

My Profile on Photographer Lisl Steiner for the Swiss publication Tachles

It’s the eve of Lisl Steiner’s 90th birthday and the photographer is headed with friends to celebrate at the Sacker Hotel’s legendary Blaue Bar in Vienna. Whether or not she will be blowing out that many candles from atop the hotel’s famed Sachertorte, it would come as no surprise to see this vivacious senior and self described “Scheherazade of Photography” dancing on the tables and reminiscing about some of her famous subjects. They have included Fidel Castro, Nat King Cole, and Indira Gandhi to name but a few. Other subjects including Leonard Bernstein and The Kennedys have actually stayed at the Sacker. Perhaps these former hotel regulars will be there in spirit, raising a glass, and listening with rapt attention as Steiner tells her tales of dictators and maestros…ninety years in the making.

When I first meet the Austrian born Steiner at her current residence in Pound Ridge, New York, I am greeted by an exotic 89 year old seductress wearing (literally) the mask of Mona Lisa! The enigmatic smile of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous subject is in a way apropos for Steiner who often seems both savvy and naïve at the same time. She described herself to me as “open” in regards to the political leanings of her famous subjects as well as life in general. Whether or not this is a pose, it has faired her well in a life of making portraits of notable figures on the world’s stage. Having been a celebrity photographer myself, I know very well that gaining access and confidence are of primary importance to the vocation. Steiner’s pragmatic non-judgement attitude has assisted her in gaining the trust of her subjects and allowing her entrée through the doors of both the Oval Office and soccer stadium locker rooms alike.

It is also this temperament that has allowed her to stay grounded, jubilant and most surprisingly of all without cynicism. Talking with Steiner, I don’t notice any of the battle scars or bitterness that one would expect from a member of her generation who was displaced from WWII Europe, lived through the era of South American authoritarian rule and witnessed first hand the America of Nixon. Steiner has had a truly fascinating journey of a life that has taken her from Europe on the eve of war to Peron’s Argentina and to a United States ravaged by assassinations and political machinations. She has borne witness through the lens of a camera and more recently with her storytelling of tales both tall and small.

In 1938, the year Germany invaded Austria, Steiner’s Catholic father and Jewish Mother took the family and emigrated from Vienna to Buenos Aires. Her memories when looking back at that time seem idyl and sheltered. The grim reality of being Jewish in 1938 Vienna would have certainly been of concern to her parents and despite Steiner’s child-like explanation would have most probably precipitated the move. As a teen she was relatively insulated from the reality of what was happening in Europe. Into her 20’s Steiner studied art and was involved with the Arte Madi movement that championed Geometric Abstraction as well as other art forms such as dance.

It was in 1945 that Steiner started an eight year period working for the Argentine film industry in the creation of 50 film documentaries. While working on these “historical” films as Steiner refers to them, she assisted the German film producer/director Karl Ritter. Before emigrating to Argentina, Ritter had been responsible for many Nazi propaganda films and was an important member of the National Socialist Party. His anti-humanistic philosophy while filming for the Third Reich was bleak: “"My movies deal with the unimportance of the individual—all that is personal must be given up for our cause.” When I asked Steiner if this former Nazi ideologue shared with Steiner his creative philosophy while they were producing Peron’s state sponsored cinematic propaganda my question fell on deaf ears. Instead, the recollection she did share evoked a possible film scene cut from Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” where Steiner’s character covertly helped Ritter pick up some contraband film equipment from the airport. One of many tales told with bravado and her seductive Mona Lisa smile.

Having been perhaps restless with the limitations of creating this sort of government sanctioned filmmaking, Steiner’s headset of being “open” allowed her to grab hold of a fortuitous opportunity which was the starting point for her exciting career in photojournalism. In 1955 a military coup overthrew Juan Peron’s regime and saw General Aramburu become President of Argentina. Solely on a tip, the 28 year old Steiner followed Aramburu with her Leica to a fishing trip to Ushuaia. The extraordinary photographic capture of a military general and state president at leisure wowed the editors at Henry Luce’s Time and Life magazines. Steiner was on her way.

Assignments from the powerhouse publisher’s South American offices soon followed as did freelance work for US publications including Newsweek and The New York Times. Her career has included being a staff photographer for the Brazilian illustrated weekly magazine O’Cruzeiro and having her work distributed by the esteemed Keystone Press Agency. During a time that was still during the heyday of magazine publishing, these illustrious mastheads provided the credentials that allowed Steiner to document a large swath of 20th century movers and shakers.

Possibly the most famous subject that she photographed on multiple occasions was Fidel Castro whom Steiner refers to as “My Revolutionary.” Not considering him a dictator or viewing his Cuban subjects as being repressed, Steiner’s photographs are full of adulation and portray Castro looking quite heroic. Her most reproduced portrait of the leader was also a happy accident in the making. On the day of the shoot, before Castro was scheduled to arrive on the scene, Steiner had inadvertently placed back into her camera film she had already exposed. The resulting picture has a dreamlike quality which places the main subject in a space that seems to be both indoors and outdoors. The leader is seemingly spotlit and surrounded with a multitude of apparitions whose flickering visages come into view thanks to the double exposure. Steiner described herself to me as an autodidact and a technical naif in regards to the photographic medium and this tale bellies the point but also celebrates the idea of synchronicity and accidents within the creation of her art.

The unplanned Magic Realism aesthetic created in the Castro image must have appealed to Steiner when photographing another famous subject, the writer Jorge Luis Borges. This giant of 20th century literature was a brilliant but blind curmudgeon. Upon first meeting Borges, Steiner brashly requested the author write a new poem about children for a project she was creating. Besides famously hating soccer as well as tango, Borges was no fan of children either and bruskly rebuffed the request. Upon a second visit, he asked Steiner to read to him “Battlefield at Hastings” from a book of poetry by Heinrich Heine. Her eloquent recitation had Borges in tears after which he succumbed to her previous request and on a third visit handed over the verse:
Not a day passes but that a child discovers the world, even as Adam did. Let us do our utmost to make him feel that he is in paradise. 

The poetic contribution was for Steiner’s long term project “The Children of the Americas”. A respite from photographing the famous and powerful, her children pictures join a larger group of ordinary folks such as cleaning ladies, chimney sweeps, and hotel receptionists that Steiner has also documented throughout her life. This magnum opus showcasing the indomitable spirit of children throughout North, South, and Central America has yet to be edited and published. This is yet another milestone for the artist to look forward to in the hopefully not too distant future.

The 1960s brought Steiner to the USA and the tumultuous times of American Civil Rights and other upheavals. She was able to photograph both Martin Luther King Jr. and later Jackie Kennedy attending his 1968 funeral. The days for photojournalists were much easier; a credential whisked Steiner into the White House and a polite smile allowed her upstairs to the Carlyle Hotel in NYC where she was able to candidly capture Robert F. Kennedy greeting a visiting group of children from Ireland. She was a regular at the United Nations and unlike today access was easy.

The Nixon Years (of which “Tricky Dick” was also humorously documented in pictures) coincided with the early years of her 25 year long marriage to medical psychoanalyst Michael Meyer Monchek. In 1992 Monchek suffered a stroke and Steiner decided to film with video the six week dying process as it was happening. Being married to someone who helps those with neurosis and herself being extremely well adjusted, must have allowed Steiner to have had the courage to film his demise as well as inhabit the removed gaze that is to some extent necessary to make any kind of art. This fascinating if perhaps morbid piece is currently being edited and is another project waiting for its audience.

Other film work has included shorts for the Caramoor Music Festival in Katonah, New York, where she was their Chronicler-in Residence for many years. This position of honor included not just the creation of films but drawings which have been an important part of Steiner’s oeuvre since her student days in Argentina. Music has always been central to this artist’s life and it was first encountered at Buenos Aires’ Colona Opera House. It was there that she sketched ink portraits of notable classical music conductors including Arturo Toscanini, Erich Kleiber, and Otto Klemperer. 

Another famed conductor whom Steiner sketched at the Colona was conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler. This controversial figure who was the subject of the play and film “Taking Sides” also ended up being the best man at Steiner’s first wedding. Although others in her generation heatedly judged Furtwangler for his purported participation and collaboration at a handful old Third Reich concerts, Steiner stays out of it stating “Of this period I didn’t judge.”

When talking about Furtwangler or other subjects it was very rare for Steiner to let her guard down and offer an opinion or political assessment. In fact her mantra of “I don’t judge anything” is one in which she repeats again and again. There were a couple instances however when the Octogenarian did at least for a moment drop her Mona Lisa smile. When looking at her 1976 photograph of Henry Kissinger she angrily declaimed that “if he went to Europe they would put him in jail…he’s a criminal… Nelson Rockefeller made him and he only had a PHD!” Later in a more zen like posit the current US President was assessed: “Donald trump is not only a narcissist but a crazy guy…but people are not crazy all the time, he makes sense some of the time and reaches all these people who thinks he’s doing great stuff.”

Although a photo shoot with Trump is probably not in the works (to our chagrin), Steiner has a lot more to celebrate than just her upcoming birthday. In the last few years there have been accolades and accomplishments showcasing her photographic works and the anecdotes surrounding them. She’s just returned from Bratislava, Czechoslovakia where her latest exhibition opened. The show includes 60 photographs from collection of the Austrian National Library. Recent displays of her work have included participation in the “Expressions” group show which included the prominent installation of her Fidel Castro portrait in Vienna’s Judenplatz. In 2015, an impressive 224 page monograph titled “Lisl Baby” by the Austrian publisher Edition Lammerhuber was released bringing her work to a wider audience. The tome includes the artist’s musings about her life and work as well as self-portraits, sketches, and plenty of her photojournalistic treasures. As for the future, a long-term documentary film on the artist is wrapping up and will feature the artist weaving together her 1001 tales or at the very least a strong 90!

Miles Ladin has photographed celebrities for over 20 years for publications including The New York Times, W Magazine, and WWD.  Although he has yet to meet a dictator he's certainly shot a lot of A-listers who have acted like one!

Fidel Castro, 1959 by Lisl Steiner

Leonard Bernstein, 1963 by Lisl Steiner

Erich Kleiber by Lisl Steiner

Wilhelm Furtwangler by Lisl Steiner

Lisl Steiner, 2017  by Miles Ladin

Lisl Steiner as Mona Lisa, 2017 by Miles Ladin

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Monday, November 10, 2014

PR release: The World of Mr. Somebody & Mr. Nobody

Monday, November 3, 2014

at the Miami Design District, December 1 - 15th, 2014

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)