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Film-based Photography

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To tourists at least, the city of Amsterdam is best known for its historic urban core of 17th- and 18th-century townhouses set along a grid of concentric and radial, tree-lined canals, and for its supposed openness and tolerance, its red-light district and easy availability of drugs.

Stereotypic legends of the population of Amsterdam’s inner city are no less the stuff of guidebook hyperbole: free-spirited hippies and revolutionaries, rough-and-tumble but lovable Dutch proletarians, sardonic barflies, and Jewish market workers, cigar makers, and diamond-cutters.  In reality, however, 90% of Amsterdam’s Jews were murdered during the Second World War; the inner city’s Dutch proletariat out-migrated to suburban new towns during the post-war decades; sardonic barflies yielded way to “cool” cafe-goers; and counter-cultural “Provos” of the 1960s were replaced by heroin addicts, urban “pioneers,” and, ultimately, by well-off gentrifiers.

My own favorite neighborhoods of Amsterdam were far from the historic center and closer to the urban edge.  Late in the 19th century, the municipality of Amsterdam began a process of urban renewal and clearance of overcrowded slums.  First, new tenement neighborhoods were constructed, modern in terms of the time, and parks and green-spaces were laid out.  Then, during the early decades of the twentieth century, housing estates and apartment buildings were built farther afield, many financed and constructed by cooperative movements formed on the basis of political affiliation, labor union membership, and/or religious confession.  The signature architectural style of the such cooperative housing was Dutch Expressionism, aka the Amsterdam School, a style that featured rounded corners and curved lines, garden-gnome-like sculptural ornamentation, hints of Jugendstil and Bauhaus, cream-colored brick facades rather than the traditional Dutch dark-red, and windows that were tiny in comparison with those of older townhouses.

The center of Amsterdam embodies nostalgia for a mythologized Dutch “Golden Age” but the apartment buildings and cooperative housing complexes of early-twentieth-century neighborhoods such as Amsterdam-South represent a forward-looking vision and a socio-political dream: a commitment to social and economic equality and the development and perfection of the individual, this animated by a spirit of cooperation, and shaped and nurtured by a built environment designed with that very purpose in mind.  I wonder from afar whether today, a century after the development of Amsterdam-South and in the wake of waves of demographic change, decades of post-war prosperity, and the transformation of housing from social infrastructure to commercial commodity, anything of this ethos survives or is even remembered in the streets in which it once flourished.

The Photographs

At the top of the page: the dedicatory inscription at a corner of an apartment block in the early-1920s socialist cooperative housing complex De Dageraad (The Dawn). (For excellent architectural photos of the complex, see the entry for De Dageraad in the Dutch-language Wikipedia.) Below: An early-20th-century municipal sculpture alongside the Amstel river.  Both photos taken during the early-1980s on color positive film using a Rolleiflex f3.5 Tessar twin-lens reflex.

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Further to my previous post on the Dutch seat of government, the city of The Hague, a visual footnote:

In the 1970s and 1980s, the old downtown core of The Hague was in limbo. 17th- and 18th-century townhouses were neglected and underutilized, providing low-cost space for marginal and low-overhead businesses that had not yet fled to more modern, automobile-friendly quarters in newer high-rise neighborhoods and industrial terrains; fledgling restaurants geared to the cuisine and tastes of new immigrants, Turkish and Chinese mostly; “red-light”-related enterprises; drug “culture;” and dwellings up for squatting.  Still, the characteristic tone of the The Hague prevailed.  In the photo above: a stark window display embodied The Hague’s no-nonsense approach to commerce, its contents stacked precariously and its sans-serif letter-press signage true to the spareness of the city’s aesthetics. In the photo below: the wryness of the city’s understated sense of humor comes to the fore in a cartoonish, delightfully innocent-looking, street mural portrait of — of all people — American LSD guru Dr. Timothy Leary, with random defacement and senseless graffiti further augmenting its whimsicality.

Both photos were taken on 120-size diapositive (slide) roll-film using a Rolleiflex f3.5 Tessar medium-format twin-lens reflex camera.

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S’Gravenhage, Den Haag, The Hague: Three names for a single Dutch city, the seat of government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, set behind the sand dunes of the North Sea coast.  I lived and worked in The Hague more decades ago than I care to admit to, and for long enough to have observed the city over the course of a generation.

The Hague stood out from its better know neighbors, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, in its seeming ordinariness.  Unlike Rotterdam, The Hague did not possess a busy deep water harbor nor exaggerated memories of hard-working stevedores, and was left relatively unscathed by bombing during World War II.  Unlike Amsterdam, The Hague was neither a commercial nor  manufacturing center, nor a center of learning, nor a wellspring of labor activism and progressiveness, and it also lacked Amsterdam’s contrived, self-promoted cachet for openness and the avant-garde.

In the years I knew it, The Hague was a city of government ministers and bureaucrats, high and low, of the military and of aged ex-colonials.  The Hague was the base of Royal Dutch Shell and its far-flung petroleum and petrochemical empire, and of the myriad engineering firms that catered to it.  It was home to a middle-class that managed its service sector and to a working class, Dutch and immigrant, that did the heavy lifting and filled repetitive entry-level jobs.

On the surface at least, The Hague was outwardly conservative, staid and quiet, its streets deserted after nightfall.  Socially and economically, The Hague was near-Byzantine in its stratification, its residents segmented and corralled according to finely-drawn class distinctions that defined one’s place and prerogatives: the neighborhood in which one lived, the accent with which one spoke, the way one dressed and combed one’s hair, and the education and work paths and prospects that were open to one or barred.

Still, The Hague had a poetry of its own.  It was a city of greenery and of parks in which the salted scent of the nearby North Sea was ever-present.  In  summer sunlight and the grayness of winter, the sky over The Hague seemed to hover low enough to touch.  The city’s eerie near-silence in off-hours revealed subtle sounds:  the occasional rhythmic slaps of shoe soles on sidewalks, the soft whoosh and rattle of bicycle  tires on rain-soaked brick-paved streets, the distant metallic grind of street-car wheels against  tracks, and the calls of ever-present seagulls.

Calvinist city to the core, The Hague was uniform in outward appearance and minimal in its decoration. Its fashions embodied a preference for a subdued, intentionally near-dowdy, elegance.  Architecturally, The Hague was a city of red brick, repetitive patterns, ornamental restraint, and subtle emblems of class — a sparseness that I’ve come to appreciate in hindsight.

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The photos above were taken in the late-1970s or early-80s on medium-format color transparency film, using a Yashica Mat 124G or a Rolleiflex Tessar f3.5 (I forget which) both of which were equipped with  fixed 75mm lenses that gave a tad more of a wide-angle view than the 80mm focal length usually considered visually “normal” in perspective for 6x6cm photographs. (Photographing architecture in 6×6 format has always been a delightful challenge, as was the requirement for absolute precision in measuring and setting exposures when using transparency film.)

The image at the very top shows how even the defining flamboyance of turn-of-the-20th-century Art Nouveau was toned down and tamed to fit the conservatism of The Hague, and rendered subordinate to the city’s traditional red brick exteriors and Neo-Baroque  gabled facades.

The second image portrays a row of late-nineteenth-century town houses built for the upper-middle-class wealth, a study in uniformity and announcement of status.  At the time the photo was taken, many of these buildings had been subdivided into single-story apartments or rooming houses.  I assume they have been gentrified and reinstated as single-family dwellings in the decades since.

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One summer, a little over twenty years ago, I took to wandering the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria late in the evenings, with a medium-format camera and a light-meter slung over one shoulder and a heavy tripod balanced on the other. At the time, I was entranced by the interplay between strong artificial streetlight and the textures of well-worn building facades and the way it registered on high-contrast black/white film pushed a stop or two beyond its rated sensitivity.

Among my favorite subjects, then as in recent years: balconies.  As I’ve mentioned in previous postings, Sofia was and still is a city of balconies: wrought iron, wooden, concrete, and plaster.  Two decades ago, however, just as today, most of Sofia’s balconies appeared empty, even on springtime and summer evenings.  Life had turned inward, so it seemed, and had yet to reemerge.  The social function of balconies as an interstice between the private and  public realms had ceased, with nobody observing public life from balconies nor conducting  their private lives in view of  neighbors or passersby.  Instead, a sharp, albeit invisible, dichotomy arose between public and private and indoors and out.

The source of this dichotomy is by no means a mystery. Factors include a rise of urban anomie in general, a search for privacy and an over-reaction against the pressures and intrusions of the public realm during the communist period, and the absence of social cohesion and trust in the time since.  The replacement of physical interaction and neighborhood connections by internet-based social networks also plays a part, as does the out-dated confusion of gated isolation with status.  For an in-depth examination, both of the history of Sofia and matters of public vs. private space in general, I recommend urbanist Sonia Hirt’s excellent book, Iron Curtains: Gates, Suburbs and Privatization of Space in the Post-socialist City, which I have been savoring chapter-by-chapter over the past year.

Two views from a balcony on a cul-de-sac street in the Tepebaşı quarter of Istanbul, anno 2013. The buildings: Row houses built a century-and-a-quarter ago when the neighborhood was populated by Istanbul Greeks; the narrow frontages of the buildings  dictated by late-19th-century regulations issued in the aftermath of fires that had swept gutted swaths of the city. Even day, these balconies continue to form an interstice between private and public space, serving as mini-terraces, extensions of domestic space, and perches for observing street life, chatting with neighbors, or just enjoying late day breezes.

The photo above was taken in 6X9 cm format on 120 color negative roll film through a 55mm Rodenstock lens (viewpoint equal to 24mm on 35mm film or “full-frame sensor” digital formats) mounted on a Toyo folding field camera.  The photo below was taken with my customary APS-C format Fuji X100 digital camera (a “full-frame” equivalent of 35mm).  The negative of the image at the top was scanned but, otherwise, not processed further. The sharpness and optical accuracy of the Rodenstock lens and the delicate colors of negative film stock are inimitable.

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Two images of non-monumental structures, each with monumental tales to tell…

Both photos were taken in the late-1980s on 6×4.5cm transparency film using a light-weight, fixed-lens, wide-angle (28mm-equivalent) Fuji roll-film camera which featured manual focusing by estimation of distance and depth-of-field and a very accurate built-in manual light meter, so accurate, that when using it, I almost never bracketed exposures, not even when the camera was loaded with low-dynamic-range, transparency film. I miss the camera and I miss the 3:4 format ratio of its output.

Above: The one-time Corfu Diner on 10th Avenue and West 18th Street in lower Manhattan, a stereotypical Greek-owned, railway-car inspired diner, and a hangover from a past age when the Hudson River docks still flourished and provided work and ample venues for heavy-eating and hard-drinking to stevedores, truckers, warehouse workers, and others.  I haven’t walked down lower 10th Avenue for many years and have no idea if the Corfu Diner still stands, whether vacant or open in a new incarnation. Any updates are welcome, thus. (Note the slogan on the orange-painted truck parked to the background at the left side of the photo: “Schleppers, Moving Storage, Never a No Show.” The 1980s saw the rise of  independent non-unionized moving companies in New York.  Many, like Schleppers — Yiddish for “draggers” or “carriers” — and Moishe’s were owned by recently arrived Israelis, legal and illegal, and staffed by their compatriots, mostly young, strong, and well pumped-up for long hours of lifting and carrying with liberal rations of cocaine.  Other independent movers provided women with entree into this formerly all-male domain.  The memorable name of one of the first such  company: Mother-Truckers!)

Below: The last of several World-War-II-era US military recruiting booths (this one, if I am correct, originally built for the Navy, per its streamlined art deco take on the bridge and stack of a ship, and later transferred to the Marines) that stood on the Fordham Road overpass spanning the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.  (In the background, the Wagner Building, a 1930s office block, one of a piece with the many great art deco apartment and commercial buildings that line the Concourse from 161st St. northward).  From the early-1940s on, generations of neighborhood young people — Jews, Germans, Italians, Poles, and Irish, followed by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and African-Americans — volunteered at this and the other booths to fight America’s wars, just and cynical, against enemies real and invented. Some volunteered out of idealism and others for adventure, to avoid prison, or to escape into the larger world and begin life anew.  Many returned alive, be it unscathed or maimed; many others, however, had their lives cut short.

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Spolia, Seljuk Mausoleum, environs of Eskişehir, Turkey, 1997. Scan of print of b/w negative, Rolleiflex T Tessar f3.5. Click to enlarge.

Spolia embedded in the facade of a Seljuk-era mausoleum, environs of Eskişehir, Turkey, 1997. Scan of print of b/w negative, Rolleiflex T Tessar f3.5. Click to enlarge.

Two examples of spolia, the re-use of architectural building and decorative elements outside of their original contexts.  At its most basic, appropriation and utilization of spolia provided ready sources of materials and a seeming dedication to recycling.  At a deeper level, however, use of spolia usurped and appropriated the might and worth of  rulers, donors, and civilizations who originally built the monuments from which spolia elements were taken, and imbued new structures with added significance.

Hellenistic builders appropriated spolia from ancient monuments in Egypt and the near-east, Romans did the same, Byzantium appropriated spolia from Romans, Greeks, and their predecessors. The Ottoman empire, in turn, harvested spolia from Byzantium and its predecessors.  In Istanbul, for example, free-standing obelisks and columns columns supporting the porticoes of great Sultanic mosques were taken from ancient temples and public buildings throughout the span of lands absorbed by the Ottomans.

Spolia at its most prosaic

The photos above and below portray the appropriation and application of spolia at the smallest of scales and at its most random and utilitarian.  In the image above a pastiche of non-monumental classical elements adds a bit of decorative “pizazz” to the entrance way of an otherwise sparse Seljuk-era mausoleum. ( Whether the spolia elements were emplaced during the original construction of the mausoleum or after-the-fact is beyond my competence to assess.)  In the image below, an inverted Byzantine capital is re-purposed to serve as the base for a garden-variety, hand-powered water-pump, itself re-purposed as a spout — an unintentional symbol of the triumph of the needs of small-scale basic craft over Byzantine grandeur (nb. the pump/capital ensemble is set in the courtyard of a Han designed nearly half a millennium ago by the great Ottoman architect Sinan, but occupied over the past century by the no-frills ateliers of independent metal workers).  In both cases, the utility of spolia, and maybe even a drop of pride at its display, trumps any pretense of design.

Liberation from the terror of design

Subjectively, the (non-)aesthetic of such utility and pride in the display of the the recycled resonates deeply for me.  Decades ago, I spent years living and working in the Netherlands, a country in which strict, linear, minimalist design ruled and constrained life in the public and private realms.  Building facades, both legacy and new, were characterized by uniformity of height and materials and by an absolute minimum of decoration.  In the field of graphic design, tiny type-faces and eschewal of serifs ensured that the covers and pages of Dutch publications were geometrically beautiful … but highly unreadable.  For the Dutch, so it seemed, form trumped content and, as often as not, utility as well. During my years in the Netherlands, one of the leading design practices was an Amsterdam firm, Total Design, a name tastelessly similar to “total war,” Germany’s slogan in the final years of World War II for complete commitment of resources to the ruthless and murderous pursuit of victory — an apt, albeit tasteless, metaphor for the compulsory imposition of uniform aesthetic dictates on all aspects of life.

I find the seemingly arbitrary aesthetic of spolia far more compelling.  The combination of random elements taken out of their original contexts transcends uniformity, negates original aesthetic and pragmatic dictates, generates spontaneity, and creates profound (and even humorous!) mergers, not only of materials, surfaces, and patterns, but also of times, spaces, cultures, and intents.  In short, it enables continuous rearrangement and represents a triumph of accretion and serendipity of the imposition of design.

Spolia, inner courtyard, Rüstem Paşa Hanı (aka Kurşunlu Han), Perşembe Pazarı, Istanbul. Print of b/w negative, Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, 2002. Click to enlarge.

Spolia, inner courtyard, Rüstem Paşa Hanı (aka Kurşunlu Han), Perşembe Pazarı, Istanbul. Scan of b/w negative, Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, 2002. Click to enlarge.