A Failure Of Our Reactive Media
Saturday, August 29, 2009
I took the photograph above of architect Arthur Erickson as he entered "his" VAG when it was inaugurated in 1983.
For two months I taught two photography classes at Focal Point on West 10th avenue in June and July. My classes were from 2 to 5 and from 7 to 10. What was I going to do for those two hours between classes? My friend Abraham Rogatnick lived around the corner so I suggested we meet somewhere to eat something light and chat. Abraham suggested a place oddly called T Room Bakery and Kitchenware on 4445 West 10th Avenue.
Abraham would walk with his sturdy cane the one and a half blocks (a steep climb coming) and we met around 5:10. We soon found out that the T Room had a garden in the back with chairs and tables with awnings. The female Chinese owner had lived for man years I Brazil and not only spoke Portuguese but excellent Spanish. We soon felt at home and Abraham had a fondness for the flaky palmiers (the dark ones were his choice) while I enjoyed the eggplant sandwiches and the delicious and strong Kemba tea from Africa.
We would chat until the T Room would close at 6 and we would slowly walk back to Abraham’s house where we would continue with our conversation until around 6:45 when I would head for my class.
In one of our meetings Abraham brought architect Bruno Freschi whom I had never had had the fortune to meet. In that meeting and in several ones after Abraham told me, “I would like to get this off my chest and go public before I die." I did not know then that he knew he was going to die soon. He wasn’t kidding. I told him I would see what I could do.
Abraham believed that our VAG in its present location was at an ideal location. It is the city’s centre. It is in the back steps that political manifestations are held. Robson Square is there even in its reduced form and now covered in tarps and with work that few know what its purpose might be.
Abraham taught art history and history of architecture at UBC for many years. Some of his students include Bruno Freschi, Henry Hawthorn, Bing Thom, Paul Merrick, and many more including one odd one, Glen Clark! With his background and his two Harvard degrees (one in architecture) Abraham had the credentials for sound opinions. It was his opinion that from the middle ages art galleries and centres of learning were always placed in the centre of the city. He cited the Louvre, the National Gallery in Washington DC and the Metropolitan in New York. “It would be cuckoo to move a gallery from that centre,” he said to me, gesticulating and using that favourite word of his, cuckoo. He explained how E.M. Pei had gone underground at the Louvre and beautifully combined the old building that was the old National Gallery with a modern extension in concrete that was almost seamless in its transition from marble to the concrete. Since I have been to those two museums and to the Metropolitan I was able to agree with him and to further agree that to dig down on the Georgia Street side of the gallery was a good idea. “There is lots of room down there. We don’t have to have a Pei glass pyramid there but it would be a marvelous opportunity to get rid of that awful rock fountain.
That rock fountain was Arthur Erickson’s bête noire. Erickson hated it (I do too!) and was never able to convince anybody about it. Last year I asked him about the equally ugly Olympic countdown clock. His one word was, “Awful.” Abraham told me that he only heard Erickson swear once since he had met the man back in 1955.
Abraham said that the two proposed sites for the VAG were equally cuckoo. The whole city block that was the old Greyhound Station was too far from the centre and too close to the theatre district in his opinion. Abraham wanted to install West End type housing (families without children as no schools are near that area) and a large park and shops. He had even done some sketches based on topography charts he had obtained from Bing Thom. The other site at the Plaza of Nations has land that is still settling. As a matter of fact ex-mayor Sam Sullivan’s office is there and he has noted how his office has been sinking. Bruno Freschi, our Expo 86 architect confirms the land is unsuitable.
I decided to do some research and talked to Max Wyman and architect Henry Hawthorn. In what seems to have been separate planning meetings as Wyman and Hawthorn were not in the same room plans were discussed which included the incorporation of at least two floors of the Cesar Pelli Simpson Sears building (ex-Eaton’s) and its linking to the VAG by either underground escalators or elevated walkways.
“Surely, these would be cheaper solutions to the alternative of starting from scratch somewhere else,” Abraham told me with a luxury of detail that has no place in this blog.
I made this list:
1. CBC, On The Coast
2. Studio 4, Fanny Kiefer Show
3. Bill Good Radio Program
4. David Beers at the Tyee
5. The Editor-and-chief of the Vancouver Sun
6. Two columnists, Fiona Morrow and Tom Hawthorn at the Globe.
7. Paul Grant the arts reporter at the CBC was retiring at this time so he was never an option.
And this was the result of my efforts:
1. The CBC was a maybe and then I heard no more.
2. Studio 4 told me that the VAG was too Vancouver and not enough BC.
3. Bill Good never responded.
4. David Beers of the Tyee did respond to tell me he would keep it as an option when the VAG did become an issue.
5. The Editor-in-Chief responded to say she had forwarded my communication to the Editorial Page Editor.
6. There was no response from the Globe writers.
It soon became evident to me that our conventional media as it is today in Vancouver is a reactive media. Few will take the chance on being first in blowing the whistle to a future issue or problem.
For a while I suspected that Abraham's stance on the VAG was to defend the legacy of his friend Arthur Erickson and that of Francis Rattenbury. "No, no, no!" he angrily told me. "It is about its location. It is in the middle of the city. That is where it is and should be. I would be a folly to move it."
As Abraham got worse I understood that the TV or radio was no longer an option. Ex counselor Gordon Price and Max Wyman both suggested that an OpEd at the Vancouver Sun would be the most likely vehicle for Abraham Rogatnick’s proposal. I told Abraham that the best possibility of success was to write the OpEd and submit it. I was ready to take dictation on a computer. But Abraham’s health deteriorated quickly and nothing was ever written down.
I wonder if there is anybody in Vancouver willing to pick up the fallen baton.
Abraham Jedidiah Rogatnick Switches Off - 1923 - 2009
Friday, August 28, 2009
The web can make you feel smart. Sometimes in its very shortcomings it can help you learn.
A few days ago Abraham Rogatnick (he was in hospital and not well) and I were discussing a favourite architect of his, the Venetian Andrea Palladio (1508-1580). I had brought him a book (Rosemary’s) called All-Italy – The Book Of Everything Italian. I showed him the page that featured Palladio. It was a majestic photograph of Palladio’s church Il Redentore on the bank of the Grand Canal in Venice. After Abraham looked at the picture he began to trace his fingers on the façade, ever so gently, as he carefully explained (it took about 30 minutes) why this church is one of Palladio’s most famous buildings, “He hid the buttresses on the side, like this and you almost do not notice them.”
I returned the next day having done my homework by looking up Palladio on the internet. “Abraham,” I asked him, “does the name Andrea di Pietro della Gondola ring a bell?” “That’s a well known Venetian name, but that particular one does not ring a bell at all.” I triumphantly felt I had finally caught Abraham at something I knew that he didn’t know. “Abraham, that’s Palladio’s real name.” Abraham looked at me and smiled. He then said, “That may have been his real name but that was not the name that defined him. The name Palladio was given by a patron. It comes from Pallas Athena the goddess of wisdom. His patron thought your Andrea della Gondola was a wise man and so gave him, my Palladio his nickname.” I felt a tad ashamed and suddenly a bit smarter.
Months before, Abraham had explained to me how Palladio had influenced Francis Rattenbury in his two most famous BC structures, the current Vancouver Art Gallery and our House of Legislature. It seems that Palladio’s country homes for the Italian rich had a central structure and two wings. One of the wings would have the chickens and the goats and the other perhaps the kitchen. With a twinkle in his eyes and without telling me more Abraham left me wondering and to figure out for myself which side of our legislature housed the chickens and the goats and which the kitchen.
Yesterday Thursday was my last day at school. My final lesson with Abraham began when I called him at four, “Bring me a Globe
if you can find one at this time of the day.” On my way to the hospital I bought the last copy of the Globe at the 12& Cambie Safeway. Before I even gave the Globe to Abraham I got rid of the business section and the life section. Abraham had no use for them. As we chatted for an hour I had no way of knowing that the last Safeway Globe would be Abraham’s last Globe.
Death to Abraham as he told me, “It is as easy as the light switch on that wall. One moment it’s on, the next it’s off.”
This morning I got a call from Lynn Zanatta and Sam Sullivan that Abraham was not responsive. When I got there, the man on the bed was no longer the Abraham I had loved and known. It was the light switch in an almost off position. I spied a tear under his left eye. It would have to make do for the tears I have not been able to shed since I learned that Abraham died today in the afternoon.
I picked up Rebecca (my 12-year-old granddaughter) at noon and told her that Abraham was going to die today or tomorrow. “Do you think I should go to see him?” she asked me. I wasn’t sure and did not answer. When I got the call from Lynn that Abraham had died I told Rebecca that it was best that she remember him when she saw him last, holding court from his sofa some weeks ago in the presence of architect Bruno Freschi and poet George Bowering.
Last year when I took Rebecca to visit Sam Sullivan at his office (he was still the mayor) we were joined by Abraham who was going to give Rebecca (naturally!) an explanation on Art Deco architecture. Rebecca looked at Abraham and said, “It occurs to me that you and Obama have something in common. You both hold a degree from Harvard.” Abraham looked at Rebecca and with that endearingly cocky attitude of someone who is very sure of himself loudly countered, “We are different, too. He has one Harvard degree but I have two.”
Rebecca and I did celebrate Abraham’s life in our own way. We walked in the garden. I tried not to look at the English Roses. I had taken some to the hospital. Abraham had particularly liked Rosa
'Abraham Darby'. Then Rebecca dictated to me the essay on how to get children to garden for the American Hosta Society Journal. We went to town and had Indian food at the India Gate on Robson. From there we enjoyed a wonderful, cerebral and melancholy film called Moon
. Without having to talk, both of us were aware that having known Abraham has been good not only for our hearts but for our brains. It was that fine balance, between brain and heart that made Abraham Jedidiah Rogatnick the unique person he was.
The Last Thursday For The Thursday Girl
Thursday, August 27, 2009
There is something quite nasty called a wit of omission. Someone will come up to you and tell you, “I could say this but I am not going to.” You are left not knowing what you are missing. A bit of this will transpire in today’s blog. I will tell you that I took some very interesting photographs but that I really cannot show them. But I did take a few with the express purpose of placing them here today.
Because I am leaving my studio at the end of September I sent an e-mail to the Jo-Ann, The Thursday Girl (we only shoot on Thursdays) telling her that time was short to take our pictures in the roof of my studio which is on the corner of Robson and Granville. The view from the roof is interesting because most all of the buildings that surround it are taller. Access to the roof is through a narrow outside fire escape type metal ladder in which you hope you are not afraid of heights.
The idea was to take some nude photographs on a very hot and sunny day to imitate in our own Vancouver way the roof nudes that Edward Weston took of Tina Modotti in Mexico City. These are the pictures I cannot show you here. We took the photographs today and it was indeed a hot day.
Before we left I asked Jo-Ann if the Thursday picture sessions would continue. It seems that her day off will no longer be on Thursdays but the "Thursdays" will continue. This self portrait that Jo-Ann took of us represents the end of an era for me. Henceforth I will shoot at home, in the garden or somewhere else.
Paul Anka, Peggy Lee, Diana & John Wayne
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
I'm so young and you're so old
This, my darling, I've been told
I don't care just what they say
'Cause forever I will pray
You and I will be as free
As the birds up in the trees
Oh, please stay by me, Diana
Paul Anka, 1957
In 1982 I landed the lucrative job of taking the publicity stills for the Paul Anka Show produced by the CBC and performed in the cavernous Studio 40 of the corporation’s then pretty snazzy Paul Merrick
building on Hamilton and Georgia.
If someone had told me this back in 1957 I would not only have been incredulous but I would have uttered, uncharacteristicaly, several four-letter words. Uncharacteristically, as in 1957 I was a fairly saintly and correct boy in a Catholic boarding school in Texas.
For a short while our very large neo-Gothic dorm (50-plus boys in bunk beds) was invaded by a love struck boy who was assigned an upper bunk next to mine. I believe he must have been sent to the boarding school by his girlfriend’s parents who must have given the boy’s parents a grim alternative, send him away from their girl to the Catholic boarding school or a shotgun.
Such is my effort to forget the whole incident that in spite of my extremely good memory I cannot remember the boy’s name or face. I can remember he did not cease to talk about her and that her name was Diana. He insisted on playing a song, Diana
, over and over, loud on the his 45RPM record player. Diana was my introduction and my first intimation of an intense dislike for a young Canadian called Paul Anka who was the composer. How was I to know then that Anka and Canada would one day be part of my life?
Somewhere below I will make the connection between Anka and Frank Sinatra. I loved Frank Sinatra’s films but I have always been selective about the song of his I like. Most of the ones I like are the ones he sang with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. I absolutely hate the very big band Sinatra songs with him holding a microphone. For me he was an early version of the Las Vegas I have avoided most of my life. I need not add, but I will, that I cannot stand New York, New York
and My Way
There is no room here for my opinion (it would be a long venomous diatribe) on Paul Anka’s (You’re) Having My Baby
So in 1982 for a whole spring I shot stills of Anka’s CBC variety show almost every day. He would open most shows with New York, New York
(I will never know why he chose this song since he did not write the lyrics or the music). I became de-sensitized to the song but when Anka would sing Diana
every once in a while I became a staunch Catholic all over again, believing, without a doubt, in the existence of hell.
Anka had clout and he was able to get many American celebrities to come to his show as guests. Two are permanently inscribed in my memory. One of them was a 21-year-old Wayne Gretzky
the other was a permanently high/low (but mostly low on downers) Peggy Lee who had a special assistant who held her purse and handed her pills every time she asked for them. Lee’s volume was so low that the CBC sound engineers must have been having babies while adjusting the frequency response of their recording equipment.
I tolerated Peggy Lee (I am an Ella Fitzgerald and Annie Ross fan) as a singer but unfortunately my taste for her had been ruined by the parents of my friend Robert Hijar, back in the Mexico City of 1962. His parents were operatives of the CIA and they had a back garden little coach house-like structure where they kept their massive and costly reel-to-reel tape recorders. In their leisure time (how busy would CIA operatives have been in a Mexico run by the institutional party the PRI?). Robert and I listened to 60s West Coast Jazz (Mulligan, Getz, Bud Shank) the Modern Jazz Quartet, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. He would occasionally make me listen to his parent’s collection of Peggy Lee and Henry Mancini. If any who read this have ever seen the film Hatari
(Howard Hawks, 1962) with an out-of-his-element in deepest Africa John Wayne (which proves how genetically apart a horse is from a zebra) you will understand why I am not going to lambaste Mancini’s odious Baby Elephant Walk
. There was no meat to this film. Elsa Martinelli was all beautifu bones, but bones, nonetheless.
David Charvet - A Sensitive & Kind Young Man
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
When I received a call from Entertainment Weekly Magazine in June 1995 I had no idea what the magazine was about ( I soon learned they paid very well) and I had no idea who the young man, David Charvet was that I was being assigned to photograph. I heard the word Baywatch but since I have never watched much TV the program did not ring a bell.
I spent a day with the young man who surprised me with kindness and sensitivity and rapidly agreed with me when I told him his best feature was his profile. I photographed him in colour and in b+w. I like the b+ws better.
Because I do not allow comments on this blog nor do I have a counter or any way of gauging its popularity my guess is that the few that might read it must be men as I post lots of photographs of women. I hope that these portraits of the French born actor will please the few women who might take a glance in this direction.
Neck Folds & Elegance At The Bar
Monday, August 24, 2009
If any of my photography students were to show me a photograph like this one I would crucify them. I teach my students to avoid neck folds and I specifically ask them to crop pictures when they take them and never later. In the case of the photograph here my crop is justified for two reasons. For one it is only a very small section of a negative that is a most beautiful full nude. No nudes in this blog as you might know. A few slip in, now and then. The second reason is that I would like to keep this mystery woman a mystery.
This mystery woman invited me to attend a performance of Ballet BC some years back. It was a sort of business date as both of us were working on something having to do with ballet. Before the dance function we met for drinks at the bar of the Hotel Vancouver. I expected her to dress elegantly so I wore a suit and tie. She was about 30 years younger than I was. There was absolutely no hanky panky even remotely considered. If anything, at the time the woman (who was the same age as my older daughter) was having precisely the same problems with her boyfriend as my daughter was having. I have a feeling she saw me as a much older man than the younger man she made me feel like I thought I was.
Looking back at that evening of drinks and dance and being accompanied by a beautiful and graceful ex-ballerina I consider myself most lucky. In that very same bar I have had drinks with many authors including Isabel Allende and Vancouver notables like Harvey Southam. It was a regular watering hole for Celia Duthie. We often shared a clubhouse sandwich there.
But it was the mystery woman for drinks (I had a Tio Pepe, she a martini) that has provided me with such a lasting, exciting and fond remembrance of the classy kind of stuff that seems to be fading from my very own existence. When I think of taking my wife to a good restaurant I am not sure that her, “Alex, I prefer your cooking. Let's stay home,” is all that romantic. I will have to borrow from that past and suggest that we go to the ballet and have a drink at the Hotel Vancouver. When this happens I will feel like a million dollars all over again. Or as it was defined to me once, a lady is a woman who makes a man feel like a gentleman.
The Horror Of Birth - The Philosopher Opines
I don't believe in God, but I miss Him. That's what I say when the question is put. I asked my brother, who has taught philosophy at Oxford, Geneva and the Sorbonne, what he thought of such a statement, without revealing that it was my own. He replied with a single word: 'Soppy.'
nothing to be frightened of, Julian Barnes
The euphoria of thinking he was well again led my friend Abraham to over extend his confidence. He fell in his kitchen on Sunday morning. At emergency they confirmed his suspicion that he had broken his hip. The rosy news was that the break was not a clean one. A chip showed up in the X-ray. This would mean that an operation is not necessary. What is necessary is a four week confinement in bed. For a man of energy this will not be easy.
So we spoke of death and Abraham the philosopher pointed out to me that death is certainly nothing to be afraid of
. He said, “I can reach over to the wall and turn off the switch on the wall. That’s death. What is fearful is birth. Consider being nice and warm surrounded by amniotic fluid in a nice dark place with not a care in the world. Suddenly it all ends. You are ejected from it and emerge in a noisy environment full of bright lights. To make it all worse you are spanked and you begin to cry.” Abraham looked at me and almost shouted, “That is something to fear!” With a smile on his face he told me of a doctor he once met who made being born a quiet and low light affair. These newborns were not spanked and most did not cry. “He was a smart doctor. The rest are just plain dumb.”
I was not about to argue or disagree with a man who is not well. Isn’t the slap supposed to force the baby to breathe? Isn’t breathing life?
I have my own simplistic theories. One of them is based on the human penchant, or obsession, with symmetry. We observe we are born with nothing and that we die, leaving with nothing. We like to see the symmetry of birth and death. I have gone a bit further and noticed that Alzheimer’s is sort of a reverse birth. We are born with no consciousness that we are aware of (or at least of a consciousness we do not remember we had) and at the end of a life, when Alzheimer’s sets in we fade away in a similar manner. There are obvious differences. Before we are born there are those nine months. Alzheimer’s can take years and bad cases affect families terribly and tax our government care centres. Alzheimer’s could be nature’s way of showing us that symmetry is a common reality.
But for every case of symmetry in nature there are examples of asymmetry. Our faces, our heart’s placement, they are asymmetrical.
Abraham commented to the resident orthopedic surgeon that in his case he had an active and alert mind that could not convince the body to let go. The orthopedic surgeon gently countered that, “Here in emergency that is countered by another one, that of the good body that cannot let go of the slipping mind.” I thought of those two as an odd example of symmetry, of sorts.
I also thought that if Abraham is going to be confined for four more weeks I am going to learn a lot more about death and birth, in no particular order.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
I may have been 13 when I went to a tlapalería (a type of Mexican hardware store that is more basic and cheaper) on Avenida Ejército Nacional in Mexico City and bought my mother a pair of electrical pliers for her birthday. In my pocket I had the right sum of money. Everything else in the store, worth having (or giving), was beyond my budget. I never asked my mother if she liked her electrical pliers (the rubber grips were tested to withstand up to 23,000 volts!). And the pliers are still in our kitchen drawer although the thick insulating grips became so cracked that I had to remove them and throw them away. It is my guess that this talent for giving unexpected, and sometimes useless gifts, is a talent that my daughter Alexandra has inherited.
Ten years ago she gave me a tan polyester vest with some pockets (thankfully it was not one of those photographer’s vests) which I immediately buried in the darker confines of my closet. Just a bit curious I decided to try it on one day, many months later. It was comfortable. It washed easily and it kept my body warm without much weight or fuss. And it did not look like "one of those photographer’s vests!" I found other uses for it. It was great for airline travel as I could keep all my documents and tickets in the inside pockets. After repeated washings, seams have unraveled and I have had it repaired many times. I will have it repaired until it becomes impossible to do so any longer. I love my vest. Besides, Ale gave it to me.
Last night, in the middle of the night, I had an itch in my back and I could not reach it with my left arm. My left arm is no longer as flexible as it once was since I broke my elbow two years ago. I got up and went to the guest bathroom downstairs where I store Ale’s back scratcher. The relief was instant and most pleasant. By the scratcher I keep Ale’s rubber band gun. She gave it to me a few Christmases ago. I terrorized Rebecca and Lauren with it until Lauren learned to use it and she now terrorizes Rebecca and me. Notice that it is a repeater. It is a five-shot.
The loud sports shirt is Ale’s latest surprise gift. She knows I like the clothing of Mark’s Work Warehouse so she bought it there. The shirt was a tad too big so I put it into the washer with hot water and over dried it a few times. It almost fits. Putting it on somehow changes my perception of my world, what I am and who I am. My world is a predictable and logical one. I have worn the same type of turtle shell frame glasses since I was 30 and most of my shirts have button down collars. I dress conservatively. I am a creature of routine.
Every once in a while I spot men in the bus who are in their 60s (I am in my 60s) and they have a carefully constructed duck cut hair cut. They wear pointy shoes, black leather jackets and must look like older versions of themselves 40 years before. They look silly.
I would have never bought this fluorescent green shirt in a million years. I would have thought that I look silly and much too young.
My daughter Ale has seen in me something that I never suspected was part of me. Could I be just a bit more daring than I think I am? She does this gift-giving with a loose cannon irregularity. I love her for it and I must admit I now like my shirt. I cannot wait for her next shot across the bow.