April 29, 2010

Friends With Differences: Lange and Adams at the Oakland Museum of California

When you are researching a topic, somehow relevant stories seem to appear all around you. So it was with this Wall Street Journal story today, on two photography sections in the newly renovated Oakland Museum of California. One is on the work of photographer Dorothea Lange, and one on Group f/64, a group of Bay Area photographers that included Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham.

The two exhibitions highlight two opposing currents in the fertile Northern California photographic scene in the first half of the twentieth century. Lange, who learned her craft as a studio photographer, was radicalized by the poverty she witnessed during the Depression and the migrant farm workers she photographed for the Farm Security Administration. She viewed herself as a documentarian; technique was secondary to her attempt to honestly portray the dispossessed.

Adams and his group argued for a move beyond the romantic, gauzy Pictorialism of the nineteenth century, and for photography as a pure art form. It could be abstract, reflecting the modernist themes emerging in the fine art world at the time, or realistic depictions of nature that, like Adams’ work, reflected the timeless and the sublime through subtle and exact calibrations of framing, aperture, light and developing techniques.

William Meyers’ Journal article discusses the sometimes prickly friendship between Adams and Lange, described by Sandra S. Phillips, the senior curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as “a friendship with differences.” These differences were most obvious in Lange’s and Adams’ treatment of the World War II California concentration camp for Japanese Americans, Manzanar. Lange portrayed the sorrow, loss and injustice of the mass imprisonment (an example of her work above, left), while Adams (portrait from Manzanar, below)fashioned a positive image of the Japanese as “loyal Americans” displaying their mettle through obedience and elevated by the majesty of their high desert surroundings.

Meyers notes that the differences between the two photographers live on in their treatment of their photographic legacy. Lange wanted to make the personal archive she donated to the Oakland Museum—including 6,000 prints and 25,000 negatives—available to the public. Adams’ archive is held at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, but is tightly controlled by the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

Although Adams donated his Manzanar photographs to the Library of Congress, he omitted several iconic images he took on his Manzanar trip: Winter Sunrise, The Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine California 1944 and Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California. These images had become a valuable source of income that Adams sought to protect.

In 1944 Adams published a cheaply printed, two-dollar paperback book of his Manzanar photos, Born Free and Equal. Featuring 64 photos and text he wrote himself, it was among the top-ten books sold in San Francisco that year, although it was poorly distributed beyond the Bay Area. In his later years, Adams claimed that the military had confiscated a large number of copies and destroyed them because of its perceived anti-Americanism. At the time of publication, some critics praised Adams for his moral courage while others vilified him for sympathizing with the enemy.

Perhaps as a result of the criticism received by Born Free and Equal or to keep the highly lucrative Adams’s legacy free of political taint, the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust refused to approve the re-publication of Born Free and Equal in 2002 by the small California press Spotted Dog. This caused much anguish for publisher Wynne Benti, who recalled that the months she fought to complete the project as among the most difficult of her life. “I remember being at the UCLA book festival,” Benti told me. “People walked away and refused to buy the book because it was not approved by the trust.” In the end, Benti was forced to leave out Born Free and Equal’s powerful nature photographs.

Stay tuned. I am putting the finishing touches on my piece on Adams, Lange and Manzanar prisoner/photographer Toyo Miyatake and hope to make it available soon!

April 25, 2010


We loved our dinner at Takashi tonight, a tiny new new yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurant in the West Village that hails from the whole animal school of cooking. All the beef comes with a pedigree: Dickson Farmstand, Kansas’ Creekstone Farm via Pat LaFreida, and Japanese Premium Beef’s Oregon washugyu. In addition to some of the best short rib and ribeye we’ve had in recent memory, Chef Takashi devotes a whole section of this cow-only restaurant to horumon, or innards, including three different stomachs and the large intestine.

A charmingly illustrated blackboard that wraps around half the restaurant explains how to cook your meats on the high-tech tabletop grills and extolls the virtues of horumon: “The horumon team, working to help ladies get and keep clear, beautiful skin.” The musky/spicy pickled sesame leaf wrapped around rice balls in the bakudan "rice bomb" is touted as a “super veggie, great scent, chock full of alpha linoleic acid, which can prevent hardening of arteries.”

The smokeless, super-hot grills make browning the meats a fast operation. After a trio of complimentary Korean-style small dishes (left), our favorite sides were a very crunchy spicy cucumber dish, edamame bathed in sesame oil, salt and lot of black pepper and simmered ramps. For horumon, the kitchen had run out of hearts but still had cheeks, which were tasty but sinewy, what with all that skin-enhancing cartilage.

After the hot grilling, the house-made Madagascar soft-serve vanilla offered some refreshing coolness. Topping choices include shiratama (rice flour dumplings), kuragoma kinako (black sesame and soybean flour), and azuki beans. As I am a big fan of any Japanese dessert, I was happy to find another source in my neighborhood.

Takashi is a young third-generation Korean-Japanese from Osaka who’s cooking from his grandmother’s recipes. Judging from tonight's hour-long wait and the quality of our dinner, he is doing his obaachan proud.

Takashi, 456 Hudson St, (at Barrow St), New York, NY 10014, 212-414-2929

April 21, 2010

Why you should sign up to be an organ donor today

Today New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center’s kidney transplant program staged a big shindig to celebrate its three-thousandth successful transplantation. Over 600 donors and recipients and their friends and family members attended the event at the 168th Street Armory, three of whom had been transplanted over 30 years ago.

It was a joyful event, with press and PR photographers snapping a huge group picture of donors and recipients, speeches by New York Presbyterian-Columbia’s dream team of crack surgeons, and an appearance by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to proclaim today Circle of Life Renal 3000 Day.

The first kidney transplant at New York Presbyterian-Columbia took place in 1969. In those early days of transplantation, only identical twins were considered viable transplant donor-recipient pairs, and the success rate was only 50 percent. Today, the success rate is 95%, and leading centers like Columbia’s are experimenting with what is known as ABO-incompatible transplantation, which neutralizes the problem of incompatible blood types; desensitization (removing antibodies to foreign tissue from a potential transplant patient’s blood), and paired kidney exchanges, multiple transplantations that occur simultaneously in one center so matching kidneys can be distributed among strangers. In one particularly impressive kidney swap, Columbia performed 12 simultaneous surgeries, giving six renal patients a new lease on life.

I was in the audience because in 2006, I became the two-thousand-and-something person to be transplanted at Columbia. Sitting at my table were the father-daughter team of Dennis Cronin and Kelly Jarer (pictured at left; Kelly donated a kidney to her dad), one man who had received a kidney off the donor registry after a year-and-a-half long wait, and two women in matching pink suits, white blouses and necklaces. They were Joann Lemons and Patti Moreno from Connecticut. Joann and Patti (below) met on a bus trip to New York City sponsored by the Red Hat Society, a social group for spunky over-50 women.

Joann and Patti had known each other only three years when Joann told Patti she had polycystic kidney disease and needed a transplant. Because potential donors in her family were also affected by the genetic disease, Joann needed look beyond her family circle for a donor. Patti passed the battery of tests required and donated a kidney to Joann. Just like that. Patti can’t understand why more people don’t donate, and says were she given a do-over, she’d make the same decision in a heartbeat.

The only thing missing on this special day was my sister and selfless donor, Julie, who lives in California and is doing just fine.

Although the event was largely celebratory, the one urgent message was this: we need more donors! In New York State, only 13 percent of those eligible are registered to be organ donors in the event of their death, very low compared to other states. There are barriers to registering in our state, such as the inability of potential donors to give electronic consent, and having to opt into the registry instead of consent being presumed. Legislation is pending to remove those barriers. Until that happens, however, 500 New Yorkers will die each year waiting for a compatible kidney donor.

So look for your state’s Donate Life program, and register to become an organ donor! In New York State, you can download the registration form for the New York State Donate Life Organ and Tissue Registry here.