Hole in the Clouds
Aug 1, 2011
The Windy City has a new statue: a cast-aluminum Marilyn Monroe, 26 feet tall, in her Seven-Year Itch subway-grating pose, skirts afly. God and everybody can see her underpants, and tourists on Michigan Avenue can look up at her from between her legs. She'll be there through next spring, we're told, though the installation is called "Forever Marilyn."
Meanwhile, across the sea, in the Norwegian cruise ship port of Haugesund, a bronze more-or-less-lifesized Marilyn Monroe sits harborside, dressed in what appears to be a very short, very wet little cocktail dress with the straps slipping down off her shoulders. Like her Chicago cousin, she is wearing glimpsable underpants, and she's got one shoe on, one shoe off.
The town of Haugesund claims Marilyn on the theory that native son Martin Mortensen was her father. He had emigrated to America in the early twentieth century and married Marilyn's mother. But the couple divorced in 1924, two years before the birth of baby Norma Jean Mortensen, and he had abandoned the family years before that. It seems to be widely believed–except, of course, in Haugesund–that Marilyn / Norma Jean was fathered by somebody else.
On the mythological level, however, the Norwegian connection works. The overall character of Marilyn's short, sad life seems to reprise her mother's story, which ended in a state mental institution, to which she was committed when Marilyn was a baby. Maybe her mother, in her last troubled years, had attempted to reconcile with Martin Mortensen, just as Marilyn in her last days had been planning to re-wed Joe DiMaggio.
A couple things are clear. One, she wasn't really a blonde. And two, American exceptionalism does not require Marilyn Monroe's underpants in the public square. Both statues, but especially the oversized Chicago version, are creepy. At least the Norwegian Marilyn is sad and bedraggled, much as we remember the real star. But the Chicago Marilyn is comic-book iconography, the sexuality so outsized and the sexism so aggressive that the painted smile doesn't hide a thing.
Creeps me out. Obviously, I'm an old fuddy-duddy.
Norma Jean Mortensen
(Haugesund photo: Andrew Petcher)
(Chicago photo: Katrin Maldre)
Aug 2, 2011
When I asked the kids across the street how come they were all dressed up, I got giggles for an answer. But when I asked if they wanted their picture taken, I got this pose.
Aug 3, 2011
In hopes of maintaining secure communication with its ships and submarines at sea, no matter what, the U.S. Navy maintains arrays of thousand-foot-high Very Low Frequency transmitter towers at three locations around the world. This is the Navy's Cutler array, the largest and most powerful radio installation in the world, with 26 towers located on a peninsula at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in downeast Maine, near Machias.
Cutler, constructed in 1961, is 100 percent Cold War technology: no GPS, no internet, no cellphone network. The biggest towers in the world were built here because this station services vessels in the Arctic Ocean as well as the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and naturally occuring electromagnetic pulses in the Arctic–the Aurora Borealis–can interfere with all but the most powerful radio signals.
The transmitters here run on power generated on-site and distributed to the towers by underground wiring. Underground wires also extend far offshore under the ocean, to maximize communication with submarines. There are no naval personnel working in Cutler; a civilian crew maintains the site, which sends out encrypted signals generated at a base in Norfolk, Virginia.
Although this shaky picture, which was taken with a handheld camera on a dark and cloudy night, suggests a somewhat haphazard string of towers, they are actually arranged in two identical clusters, which can operate separately or together. Each cluster can be shut down as necessary for maintenance. There's a problem, however, in the part of the installation around the power plant, where the two clusters are so close to one another that the electromagnetic field can be hazardous to humans, even when one of the clusters is shut down.
This area of the installation is called the Bowtie. People doing maintenance try to work as little as possible in the Bowtie, because even if they are working on towers that have been shut down they may still be exposed to dangerous electrical radiation from nearby still-active towers.
Because the Navy requires that at least one of the Cutler clusters must be functioning at all times, the towers in the Bowtie area of the installation have seen little maintenance over the years. In particular, they have never been painted, and they are now fifty years old. The civilians onsite requested a four-month shutdown of the entire array to complete the painting, but the Navy said no.
I predict one of two probable resolutions: either they'll run out of money for the paint job and just let the salt and snow do their thing on the thousand-foot towers, or else they'll redefine the safety standard for electromagnetic radiation so that working in the Bowtie magically becomes safe.
Can you get cellphone service on submarines?
Aug 4, 2011
North Philly mural.
(Image credit: Bradley Maule)
Aug 8, 2011
A South Phily mural features Francis Lazarro Rizzo Sr., Philadelphia's longtime police commissioner and two-term (1972-1980) mayor.
For those among us who've never heard of this Rizzo person, or who have tried hard to forget him after all these years: he was a bad guy. He emerged on the national scene when his police officers raided a Black Panther house in the middle of the night, dragged the occupants outside onto the sidewalk, and proceeded to strip search them in front of the TV cameras.
When protesters raised the issue of police brutality, he threatened them with police brutality. "When I'm finished with them," he told the press, "I'll make Attila the Hun look like a faggot."
His hatred roiled Philadelphia, and his corruption pretty nearly robbed the city blind. He stripped city utility companies of valuable assets and ran them into the ground for patronage and personal gain. He perfected a notorious means of double-dipping, still with us today, enabling favored city employees to "retire" and start collecting their pensions, even though they actually remained in their old jobs, at full pay.
In the end, he tried to change the city charter so he could remain the mayor forever and ever. But he'd made a fool of himself once too often; the last time involved a corruption probe in which he loudly proclaimed his innocence, called his accuser a liar, and demanded a lie-detector test. Rizzo failed the test, and his accuser passed. He died within a few months of leaving office.
Rizzo's mural visage looms over the Italian Market on 9th Street, in the neighborhood he grew up in, which is now represented on the city council by his son.
Aug 9, 2011
In 1910, most of the excavation work for the new Michigan Central railroad station in Detroit was still being done with the loathesome short-handled shovels. In the background of this photo, however, we can glimpse the excavators of the future: smoke-belching job-killers, aka steam shovels.
The men are wearing hats, but not hard hats.
The Michigan Central Station survives today, I'm told, "if just barely." Short-handled shovels, too, are still around, in real life but more spectacularly in the blues.
Michigan Central Station
(Image credit: Detroit Publishing Company via Shorpy)
Aug 11, 2011
In recent years, gentrification in many Philadelphia neighborhoods has been characterized by construction of new rooftop decks on top of old rowhouses. This view is from a rooftop elevated above the elevated train in the Kensington neighborhood; the rooftop has not yet been completely deckified, but the view is as good as it's going to get.
(Image credit: Bradley Maule)
Aug 12, 2011
Very soon, if you go to Nepal, to the village of Ghandruk, you may be able to arrange to stay in this new inn, the Hotel Magnificent. It was almost complete, as you can see, when we were there this past March.
I have not been inside the Magnificent, but I can tell you what it is like because all the trekking hotels in the Annapurna region of Nepal are very nearly identical.
The rooms are cubicles separated from one another by partitions of particle board, sometimes unpainted, sometimes covered by a single coat of paint that has been so watered down you can read the ISO number stamped on the particle board right through the color. The beds are thin mats laid on wooden shelves--magnificently comfortable after a day on the trail.
There is a single lightbulb in the ceiling, and no other electrical outlets. Western tourists, of course, have brought along various electronic thingamajigs that need to be charged, but there's no way to take care of that in the bedrooms (unless you have invested in a kind of adapter we heard about, which screws into a light socket so your precious whatever could recharge itself while dangling down from the ceiling, and while you sit in the dark waiting to put the lightbulb back in its socket . . . ). Sometimes the people running the hotel will let you charge your stuff in the dining room, for a fee.
Also in your room is a window with a magnificent view.
There is a bathroom with a kind of fixture that is basically a hole in the floor There may be a sink for washing your face, either in the hallway or outside in a courtyard. Out back somewhere may or may not be a shed with a cold water shower. The water tap in the shower is labeled "USELESS;" we eventually figured out that the label was actually a directive to "USE LESS."
There is a restaurant, usually outdoors on a deck. The food is heavy and filling. Nepalis never order anything on the menu; they eat lentils for every meal.
There is no heat in the rooms. This was not a problem, since the porters had brought along our bags containing fleeces and coats and hats and gloves.
Some of the dining rooms are heated by a bucket of coals placed underneath the table. Blankets are pinned around the sides of the table, hanging down to the floor to keep the heat in. Stick your feet under the blanket. Scrunch up that blanket so your knees also are in the warmth. Magnificent.
One restaurant had a big woodstove in the middle, surrounded by a wooden railing. Nepalis pulled up benches so they could sit leaning forward, arms resting on the railing, holding mugs of steaming tea. Westerners wearing heavy coats sat at dining tables far off in the cold reaches of the room, near the windows, drinking lukewarm tea and talking about the magnificent view.
The new Hotel Magnificent is many hours' walk uphill from the nearest road. All the bricks, all the particle board, the tin for the roof, the buckets of blue paint–everything had to be carried uphill–up thousands of rock steps–strapped onto the backs of donkeys or humans.
And they only charge $2 or $3 a night. Pretty magnificent.
Aug 13, 2011
We saw several of these egg trees in Nepal; the eggshells are emptied out and then stuck on the ends of the tree branches. We never did learn what they are all about.
Aug 14, 2011
The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.
The original building, designed by Toronto architects Frank Darling and John A. Pearson, opened in 1933. The new wing, by American architect Daniel Libeskind, who also designed buildings for the Denver Art Museum and the Jewish Museum in Berlin, opened in 2007 and is referred to as the Crystal.
(Image credit: Sam Javanrouh)
Aug 15, 2011
I've done my due diligence on this; "Richie's photo is 100% legit," says Michele, the photographer's wife. No Photoshop.
The signs were posted at the corner of Madison Avenue and 81st Street in Manhattan, one block east of the Met. "Only in New York," observes Richie, the photographer–but I beg to differ. Traffic is all screwed up everywhere nowadays, as is politics and the economy, and if you know which way to go, don't even bother trying to tell me because I can't believe anybody any more.
New York City
(Image credit: Richard Manno)
Aug 16, 2011
"Lee, Brian & Jeff making dinner," notes photographer Rich Durant, who snapped the picture of the men at their campsite along the Lorillard River in Nunavut. The Lorillard flows across tundra and bare rock of the billion-year-old Canadian Shield to enter Hudson Bay near the latitude of the Arctic Circle.
Where was Rich standing when he took this shot? It doesn't really matter; he had flown the camera up into the sky by hanging it from a kite and was using a remote control mechanism to operate the shutter while remaining safely on the ground.
The men were canoeing down the whitewater of the Lorillard; as you can see, they had stowed their gear in drysacks and waterproof boxes. The sacks and boxes don't look particularly bear-proof, however, and it's not clear what kind of arrangements they might be making to keep their food away from bears and other critters.
Whatever they were doing, it apparently didn't work out too well. The pictorial record of the expedition–called "Lorillard River Briefly"–includes photos (taken from the ground) of wolf tracks and big white bears, and then . . . a tent and foodsack trashed by something big and hungry.
(Image credit: Rich Durant)
Aug 17, 2011
History has not recorded the name of the first person to light a fire in the little grotto behind the waterfall in Shale Creek gorge, now part of Chestnut Ridge Park recreation area in Erie County, New York, near Buffalo.
Despite the name of the place–Eternal Flame Falls–neither the flame nor the waterflow is perennial. Shale Creek is an intermittent stream, drying up to a trickle except during snowmelt and days of very heavy rain. The methane gas that fuels the flame is always present–it is produced by rotting vegetation trapped in the shale, and it bubbles up through fissures at several places along the creek, notably into a natural alcove large enough to keep the flame dry behind the watery curtain of the falls. But the flame does go out sometimes, if the wind is gusty or the waterflow especially drenching.
The greenish-gray rocks here are part of a formation called Hanover Shale, roughly 380 million years old. Where this shale is at or near the surface, as here, any gas it contains will simply ooze out into the atmosphere, making it economically worthless; in places where the Hanover Shale is buried deep underneath other rocks, however, its gas is trapped under great pressure and may be worth drilling for.
Chestnut Ridge Park
(Image credit: Carl Crumley)
Aug 18, 2011
Natsumi Hayashi calls herself the Yowayowa Camera Woman, yowayowa being a Japanese word for weak or feeble. "Since I'm yowayowa," she says, "it's really heavy to carry SLR cameras around."
She lives in Tokyo with two cats and is devoted to her art: photography, "mainly levitating self-portraits." Levitating self-portraits done the way Hayashi does them are not easy to pull off. The levitation part is straightforward enough: she jumps. But catching herself on camera mid-jump, in a pose that looks levitation-like, floaty and non-jumpy, requires a little technique and a lot of patience.
Hayashi says she puts her camera on a tripod and composes the shot, setting the focus for where she plans to do her jumping. Her shutter speed is very fast, to freeze motion. Her camera can be set for a ten-second delay, allowing her ten seconds to run from the tripod to the jump location; at precisely the right fraction of a second, just before the shutter clicks, she leaps into the air.
Then she goes back to the camera and does it again till she gets it right. Her internal clock must be pretty damn good by now, after working on levitating self-portraits for more than a year, but even so, it is hard to predict exactly which part of a jump the shutter will happen to record, and perhaps hard to anticipate what that part of a jump will look like, composition-wise.
Also, after all that jumping, if her legs were once a bit yowayowa, they are surely yowayowa no more.
(Image credit: Natsumi Hayashi)
Aug 19, 2011
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 30,000 feet.
Aug 22, 2011
One of the masterworks of early American art, Asher B. Durand's massive 1853 oil painting "Progress (The Advance of Civilization)," has been sold privately to an unknown buyer, perhaps Bill Gates, and has disappeared from public view after almost half a century on display in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The sale price may have been in the range of $50 million.
The details of the painting, which are very difficult to make out in this digital reproduction, utilize landscape to represent time. There is wilderness in the foreground, where Indians stand on the rocks looking way off into the distance. The middle distance is pastoral: fields of grain, country roads, a horse-drawn wagon. Far off in the background is a new railroad trestle and a train, its engine belching smoke. The Indians are still standing in the forest primeval, but already, they and their paradise are so last week.
I remember writing a paper on this kind of symbolism in college, as did a million other students. It all has something to do with a new American way of looking at nature: Old World artists painted romantic landscapes in which the ruined stones of ancient buildings were being reclaimed by the forest, whereas in American landscapes, fresh civilization was intruding into nature. Either way, the story was somehow sad.
The story of what happened to the Durand painting this year is also sad, and the lesson it illustrates could be taken to implicate both nature and civilization: i.e., human nature.
About fifty years ago, Jonathan "Jack" Warner, the wealthy owner of Gulf States Paper Company in Alabama, started collecting art, mostly American art. He bought original Audubon prints and put them up in the company cafeteria. He bought paintings by Winslow Homer, Georgia O'Keefe, Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Mary Cassatt, James Whistler, Edward Bierstadt, Gilbert Stuart, and dozens of others; he kept many of the paintings at home but decorated the walls of corporate headquarters with many others. Eventually, he built a museum for the collection.
The museum was open to the public, but it was still a private collection, funded in large measure with corporate money. Warner had a good eye for art and also apparently a good nose for a bargain, and eventually the art collection came to represent many tens of millions of dollars of corporate assets. He set up a foundation to manage the collection, but ownership remained substantially with the company.
And he turned over corporate leadership to his son. "That was a huge mistake," he said recently. "I think about that every day."
Warner's son, Jonathan "Jon" Warner, remade the family business, changing its name to Westervelt Company, selling off its paper mill and focusing on forest management and renewable energy. Early this year, plans were announced to build a plant in west Alabama to manufacture wood pellets for export to Germany.
Building the wood-pellet plant will cost about $50 million. The Durand painting may have fetched that much, even in the somewhat depressed art market that has lingered since the financial crisis and recession.
In fact, the recession has made the painting much more valuable to a corporate entity like Westervelt. One of the provisions of the 2010 Stimulus Act provided for a one-year capital-gains tax break for companies selling assets not related to their core business.
The Warner collection curators say they came in to the museum one Monday morning and found blank spots on the wall where many of the paintings had been. Westervelt's board of directors had voted to sell the art.
Jack Warner did manage to keep a large part of his collection intact, and he has created an organization called the Tuscaloosa Museum of Art to eventually display it. In the meantime, several dozen of the paintings make up a traveling show that has been exhibited in London and is now at the University of Pennsylvania's Ross Gallery in Philadelphia.
Speculation as to the buyer of "Progress" has focused on two deep-pocket collectors who are known to be interested in American art: Alice Walton, of the Wal-Mart fortune, and Bill Gates. Jack Warner's wife personally called Ms. Walton and was told that no, she did not buy the picture. It has also been reported that Gates has denied the purchase, but some sources say that he always issues denials and that it is exactly the kind of painting he would want.
Gone with the wind, our Progress is.
Jonathan (Jack) Warner
2010 Stimulus Act
machine in the garden
Asher B. Durand
Hudson Valley School
Aug 23, 2011
One evening in 1910, this man got off the train at the station in Ann Arbor, Michigan, picked up his coat and his briefcase, put on his hat, and headed up the hill toward home. It is possible, of course that what I referred to as the man's briefcase may actually be a salesman's sample case or a traveler's overnight case–but overall, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
(Image credit: Detroit Publishing Co. via Shorpy)
Aug 24, 2011
Area of Refuge is a technical term associated with the Americans for Disabilities Act, identifying places where people in wheelchairs can wait for extra assistance during an emergency.
For example, say there's a fire in a multi-story elevator building. In response to the fire alarm, the elevators stop operating normally, and able-bodied people have to exit via stairwells or outside fire escapes. People in wheelchairs are supposed to follow illuminated signs to an Area of Refuge on each floor, usually near the elevator or stairwell, where extra fire resistance has been built into the walls and extra communication equipment is available. Once comunication is established, first responders can locate people in the refuge and rescue them, by overriding the elevator stoppage if possible or by carrying people down the stairs if necessary.
It makes sense, but for reasons unknown to me, Area of Refuge signs are seen very rarely; they're either not there at all in most buildings, or they're so inconspicuous I never notice them.
In fact, this sign in the Double T Diner in Annapolis, Maryland, is the first I've ever seen, which is why I took the picture. I had no idea what it meant and speculated that the worried look on the face of the guy in this picture might suggest he is desperately seeking his own personal place of refuge.
Now that I've studied up on this stuff, I'm still a little confused. The Double T Diner is a one-story, ground-level-only restaurant. What's the need for a Disability-Act area of refuge in a one-story building?
Double T Diner
Aug 25, 2011
Sadly, this is a "before" picture: the big American Elm tree in the courtyard of Shiloh Baptist Church in our neighborhood has been diagnosed with Dutch Elm Disease and is about to be cut down.
I'm told this tree made a cameo appearance in The Sixth Sense, a Bruce Willis movie shot in the neighborhood, but I can't confirm or deny. There's a pivotal scene near the end of the movie in which the boy and his mother sit talking in the car, which is stopped near the scene of an accident; there's a tree outside the car window on the boy's side, but all the camera shows of this tree is its lower trunk, which is not sufficient for a positive ID.
Anyway, the church building and probably also the tree date back to the 1860s, when the Church of the Holy Apostles was built to serve a neighborhood rapidly filling with immigrants from Ireland. Numerous annexes and additions were required, as the parish exceeded 10,000 by 1910. But by 1940, descendants of the Irish immigrants were leaving the neighborhood, and descendants of African slaves from the American South were pouring in. The church complex was sold to a Baptist congregation and renamed Shiloh.
Today, Shiloh's congregants have mostly left the neighborhood, replaced this time by newcomers who mostly grew up in middle-class suburbs; one long-time resident described the new neighbors to a newspaper reporter as "white people with big dogs." Churchgoers who've moved away return to Shiloh on Sunday mornings, causing traffic jams and parking conflicts. There is no church parking lot; for the church's first hundred-plus years, people got there by walking.
The congregation is shrinking fast and is already far too small to maintain the huge church complex. The elm will come down in the next few weeks; the building, designed by the iconic Philadelphia architect Frank Furness, may not be far behind.
Shiloh Baptist Church
Dutch Elm Disease
(Photo credit: L. Blanchard)
Aug 26, 2011
A fruit picker falls asleep on the tangerines in Lahore, Pakistan.
For more images of people settling down for naps "surrounded by stuff" from all over the world, look here.
(h/t: JJ Stein)
Aug 27, 2011
He is "Le Grand Van Gogh," cast in bronze by sculptor Bruno Catalano.
Aug 28, 2011
Well, I didn't know there really was such a thing as the Big Rock Candy Mountain, but here it is, rising above a resort with the same name along Highway 89 near Marysvale, Utah.
Volcanic explosions, followed by magmatic intrusions, followed by twenty-odd-million years of erosion and hot-springs-type chemical interactions have streaked the mountain with colorful mineral deposits. The reddish rocks contain iron-based minerals, including hematite and pyrite, while the whitish rocks contain potassium-based minerals, notably including kaolinite, a valuable white clay used to make paper glossy for magazines or photos.
The mineralization of Big Rock Candy Mountain acidifies runoff water, leaving the soil here relatively inhospitable to vegetation. Nonetheless, ponderosa pine are hanging on, especially near the ridgetop.
It's hard to imagine that in the 1930s there would have been anything about this part of the world that was hospitable to hoboes, either. No lemonade springs, no lakes of stew and whiskey too, no cigarette trees, nothing but more of the longing and aching that inspired Harry McClintock's song.
(Photo credit: Ray Boren)