Saturday, February 28, 2015

REMEMBRANCE: Leonard Nimoy, visionary

In remembrance of stellar actor, photographer, poet, philanthropist and visionary Leonard Nimoy, I'm posting a 2007 article I wrote for the Jewish Ledger newspaper, about a photography workshop he taught at R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, MA. I love this photo, with the Vulcan salute in one hand, and a water bottle in the other! It was a splendid event.

Beyond Spock: Photographer Leonard Nimoy's visionary art
© Judy Polan November 2007

photo credit: Seth Kaye
 A keen group of admirers and fellow artists enjoyed the rare opportunity to hear Leonard Nimoy discuss his life as a photographer, and his spiritual journey as a Jew, when the celebrated actor/director visited Western Massachusetts last week to begin a four-day series of events hosted by R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton. Following his Friday afternoon gallery talk, he was fêted at a public reception and book signing on Saturday night, honoring his 2007 release The Full Body Project. He stayed on in town for two more days, shooting portrait photos for his upcoming book about "secret selves".
A distinguished actor in films, theater, and television -- and holder of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame -- Nimoy is perhaps best known for his role as the unflappable Mr. Spock in Star Trek. He is the Boston-born son of Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from Russia. He grew up in a kosher, Orthodox home; he now belongs to a Reform synagogue where his wife Susan’s cousin is the rabbi. ("It’s a schlep to get there," he joked, "but we just love him.")
These days he considers himself to be "mostly retired" from acting; his life for the past decade or so has centered around photography. His 2002 Shekhina Project – a compelling and controversial photographic exploration of the womanly aspect of the divine presence – gave voice to the manner in which his Jewish identification and his photographic artistry are inextricably linked.
Pure poetry
In his November 2 gallery talk, Nimoy exuded a fascination with all things visual, and a haimish presence that immediately put his somewhat starstruck audience at ease. His presentation was accompanied by a slide show that traced his artistic development from the time he was around 13, when he became enamored of the family camera (a bellows Kodak Autographic) and learned how to develop prints "in a 15¢ solution kit and three soup bowls". During his teenage years in the 1940s, he "always had a camera loaded and ready to go." He studied at UCLA in the early 1970's under the tutelage of famed photographer Robert Heineken ("the most influential person in my photographic life") and later received an appointment as an artist in residence at the American Academy in Rome.
Throughout his worldwide travels, he has continually been on the lookout for an interesting form or texture. "I have always loved photography," he commented, "and now I have the privilege of spending most of my time thinking about and shooting pictures." He acknowledged a preference for working in black and white: "I love the pure poetry of this medium. In fine art photography, color can be a diversion."
Nimoy displayed a number of photographs of hands placed in the position used in the blessing of the Kohanim, representing the shape of the Hebrew letter shin. (This letter is often used as a symbol for one of the names of G-d; it is an abbreviation for the name Shaddai.) During the priestly blessing, the Shekhina – a Talmudic term for the visible and audible manifestations of the deity's presence on earth – is said to enter the sanctuary, casting a blinding light from which all eyes should be averted.
He first saw this gesture when he was eight years old, attending an Orthodox service with his father. "It struck a chord in me," he said. "The men were chanting –- shouting, really -- and praying. The whole thing was very passionate, very theatrical. I found it chilling, and the aura of that intensity has stayed with me." Nimoy confirmed that it was he who introduced to the Star Trek cast the shin-shaped gesture that became known as the "Vulcan salute".
Nimoy discussed the intention behind his Shekhina Project, and the public reaction to it. This photographic series depicts a number of alluring women, some wearing prayer shawls, others wrapped in tefillin and posing "in all their naked glory. The work was viewed as transgressive by some," Nimoy commented. "There were people who were offended by the mingling of sexuality and spirituality. Others, though, saw the work as sensual and revolutionary."
A departure
Always eager to take on the next challenge, Nimoy followed up his Shekhina photo series with the one that was to become his newly released book, The Full Body Project. This photo series comprises nude images of full-bodied women, all members of a burlesque troupe called the Fat Bottom Revue. The photos are a departure for Nimoy, as his previous work focused on svelte women who epitomized the societal norm of beauty. In The Full Body Project, the women are "fleshy and proud -- irrepressible, unabashed, joyous."
Nimoy describes his work on this project as "consciousness-raising." He had never before thought about "what a huge issue body image is in our society. A gigantic, multi-billion dollar industry has sprung up to capitalize on this: diet pills, surgery, workout programs … This obsession is endemic in our culture. People are always telling you that you don't look right."
At first, Nimoy felt uncomfortable shooting the Full Body photos; he had "never worked with this kind of figure before, and I didn't want to do the women some kind of injustice." As the shoot went on, though, he grew more comfortable, helped by the presence of his wife and the high spirits of the women. He found sculptural and spiritual magnificence in them, an attitude that is strongly conveyed through the work. "I think they're beautiful –- don't you?" he asked the audience, smiling.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

UPDATES: Grand reopening of Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House, by guest blogger Joemy Wilson

Frank Lloyd Wright's stunning Hollyhock House, built in Los Angeles is 1921, recently reopened to the public for guided tours following a 4-year, $4.3 million renovation.
Originally intended as the residential section of an experimental theater campus, the home
has been named a Unesco World Heritage site -- an honor awarded to
a select group of iconic architectural masterpieces around the world.

Mad for Mod's West Coast correspondent Joemy Wilson was on the scene
for the festive grand reopening. She filed this report.
•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •
All the Wright Angles in Los Angeles
text and photography by Joemy Wilson
On February 13, 2015, the City of Los Angeles and the Barnsdall Park Foundation held a 24-hour open house. And not just for any old house, but Frank Lloyd Wright’s extraordinary Hollyhock House, which has been closed to the public for renovations since 2008. And not just any 24-hour period, but from 4:00 pm on Friday until 4:00 pm on Saturday afternoon. New York may be the City that Never Sleeps, but for this one night at least, Los Angeles could claim the same. Driving through rush-hour traffic, I managed to get there, and finally park, at about 4:00. Plenty of other people had the same idea.
 The press was out in force for the grand reopening. 
(Griffith Park Observatory is in the background.)

Southern Californians and Wright aficionados everywhere have been anticipating the reopening with great excitement. In 1919, oil heiress and arts patron Aline Barnsdall hired Wright to build the house, part of an extensive arts complex on Olive Hill, a stunning 36-acre site with 360-degree views of Los Angeles and the Hollywood Hills. However, the notoriously difficult architect was seldom around during construction, directing his attention primarily to the Imperial Hotel he was building in Tokyo at the same time. Costs got out of hand. Barnsdall fired Wright and hired the project manager, Rudolph Schindler, to finish the job.  Barnsdall never lived in the house, and in 1927, she gifted the property to the city.

Upon my arrival, I joined a seemingly endless, unmoving line behind the house and estimated that my own entry would occur at about 2:00 am. Or maybe dawn. Or never.  I’m not good at standing in line, especially when I don’t know what’s going on, so I asked the friendly folks behind me to save my place and confidently strolled into the park area in front of the house to find out why we weren’t moving.

Because they weren’t opening right at 4:00, of course. Four o’clock was when the opening ceremonies began. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti; Jeffrey Herr, Curator of the Hollyhock House; Linda Dishman, Executive Director of the LA Conservancy; and other dignitaries were holding forth from a platform in front of the house. I edged up the fence surrounding the audience and had a fine view of the proceedings.

Mayor Eric Garcetti and Aline Barnsdall’s granddaughter cut the ribbon

Around 5:00 PM, just when the light was so gorgeous it was almost unbearable, Hizzoner and Aline Barnsdall’s granddaughter cut the red ribbon, and the Hollyhock House was officially opened. Spirits were high. “Who’s going to be here at three am?” a speaker asked. 

Half the VIPs raised their hands. Another said, “When Aline told her friends that Frank Lloyd Wright was designing her house, they told her that she’d have to sleep out in her camper every time it rained. Well, I can tell you that this roof will never, ever leak again!” (After a $4-million renovation, let’s hope not.) Everyone praised each other and his or her staff for doing an amazing job. The announcement that the Hollyhock House had just been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site elicited a roar of approval from the crowd. Everyone was grinning from ear to ear as the sun gradually set and the house gave off a golden glow. 

We were motioned up to the porch to don booties and allowed to enter in groups of 20. I was fortunate to be in the fourth group, because initially it was still possible to move around. When I had to turn in my booties at the exit, there was barely enough room to bend over to pull them off. But it was all worth it.

 Living room

 A niche in the library. Wright was working on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo contemporaneously with the the Hollyhock House, and many details in the home 
reflect Japanese influence. An alcove such as this, serving as the focal point of a reception room with a simple but exquisitely balanced arrangement of objects, 
is a common feature of traditional Japanese homes. 
The space  is called tokonoma, or simply toko.

 View near dining room entrywayshowing restored 1920s hardware on doors

View of the courtyard from inside the entry foyer

Link here to NY Times interview with the Hollyhock House curator

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

ODD BITS: Great mod moments from Downton Abbey: To bob or not to bob?

One of the shockers on this week's Downton Abbey was Lady Mary's attention-grabbing decision to ... astonished pause ... go thoroughly mod and bob her hair! This blunt-cut hairstyle, favored by flappers, vamps, gun molls, actresses and other women of ill-repute was first introduced in 1915, when ballroom dancer and famed performer Irene Castle decided to cut her hair "for convenience". It was quickly adopted by free-spirited women of the era, whose rebellious change of hairstyle was just the beginning of a major shift in social norms -- especially as they pertained to women -- seen during the Jazz Age. As hair got shorter, so did hemlines.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "Bernice Bobs her Hair" appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1920. In it, sweet but frumpy Bernice is convinced by her glamor-puss high society cousin that her life will improve substantially if she simply submits to the shears. The story created a sensation, and soon tens of thousands of women were bobbing their hair.

Actress/"America's Sweetheart" Mary Pickford before and after she bobbed her hair in 1928.
This act proved to be transformational for her, as she previously had been known as
"the girl with the curls". "I'm not going to be a little girl any more," she said.

The kerfuffle over bobbed hair lingered into the mid-1920s. Preachers sermonized that 
"a bobbed woman is a disgraced woman". Doctors warned that the "shingle bob" style 
could cause severe headaches. Men divorced their bobbed wives. 
Schools and department stores threatened to fire employees
 who sported the nefarious hairstyle.

By 1927, the straight, severely geometric bob had evolved into a softer cut
that introduced waves and spit curls to create a more womanly look.
Women had made their statement, and understood that
strength and femininity could coexist.

Link here for a brief PBS video about Lady Mary's daring new "do".

Oh ... and I mustn't forget my favorite bobbed TV character,
Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) of the "Miss Fisher Mysteries".
She's dazzling!