Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘New York’

24 AUGUST, 2015

Every Person in New York, Illustrated

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From sleeping strangers to subway cellists to Nick Cave, a loving portrait of a city whose vibrant vitality never stands still.

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” E.B. White wrote in his timeless love letter to New York, adding: “The city is like poetry.” In 2008, illustrator Jason Polan set out to capture the enormous human poetics compressed in Gotham’s geographic smallness by drawing every person in the city. The first seven years of this ongoing project, totaling drawings of 30,000 people, are now collected in Every Person in New York (public library) — a marvelous tome of Polan’s black-and-white line drawings, colored in with the intense aliveness of a city where, as White wrote more than half a century earlier, “wonderful events that are taking place every minute.” What emerges is itself a kind of poetry — fragmentary glimpses of ideas and images, commanded by an internal rhythm to paint a complete whole of this human hive.

Alongside the lively jumble of faces at Grand Central and the staple of sleeping strangers on just about every train line and the taxi drivers and the subway cellists and the many, many Taco Bell patrons (a recurring locale that tells us something about Polan’s own habitual affections) are some of the city’s most beloved public figures — there’s Marina Abramović performing her now-legendary The Artist Is Present show at the Museum of Modern art, Nick Cave at the Armory, Don DeLillo at Grand Central, Marc Jacobs in Soho, and Joan Didion walking, allotted an entire page in a subtle act of reverence.

Here and there, snippets of overheard conversation invite us to cast these anonymous citizens as characters in imaginary dramas that, however fanciful, might just be true — this, after all, is New York.

The seed for the project was planted many years earlier: While still in art school in Ann Arbor, Polan did a project titled I Want to Know All of You, in which he drew every single person in the school, offered the portraits for $10 each at a local gallery, and gave the $10 to the schoolmate whose likeness the drawing depicted. Eventually, Polan took to a canvas decidedly larger than the 800-person college and approached the whole of New York City with the same creative curiosity, openheartedness, and generosity of spirit.

Polan describes the aliveness of his process:

I try to be as authentic with the drawings as I can. I only draw the person while I can see them. The majority of the drawings are done (mostly) while looking at the person, not at the paper. If they are moving fast, the drawing is often very simple. If they move or get up from a pose, I cannot cheat at all by filling in a leg that has been folded or an arm pointing. This is why some of the people in the drawings might have an extra arm or leg — it had moved while I was drawing them. I think, hope, this makes the drawings better.

His selection criteria are just as organic and wholehearted:

I do not usually plan to make a drawing for this project. Sometimes I’ll go to an event to see a particular person and will know then that I want to draw them, but often the drawings happen completely randomly… I’m not looking for anything in particular, but as I think about it, I usually draw people if they: have an interesting haircut; are leaning a certain way; are a little kid who is doing something funny while wandering down the street with their mom; are playing an accordion; have a certain curve to their arm; are holding something interesting; have an interesting jaw line or lines in their neck; are particularly tall; were in the television show The West Wing; look like a nice person; are sleeping, eating, or focused on something; remind me of someone; or if I like the lines in their hands. These (and other traits that pop up every day) are certain things I find that I’m so excited to see and draw and share.

At the end of his introduction, Polan adds: “I hope you are in this book.” And, lo and behold:

Complement the wholly delightful Every Person in New York, a labor of love seven years in the making, with a similarly spirited yet decidedly different portrait of another city’s humanity, Wendy MacNaughton’s Meanwhile, in San Francisco, then revisit this charming illustrated tour of Gotham from a dog’s point of view.

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18 AUGUST, 2015

An Illustrated Tour of New York City from a Dog’s Point of View

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A vibrant concentration of humanity, seen through earnest eyes of wonderment and infectious enthusiasm.

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.” So wrote E.B. White wrote in his timeless love letter to New York — a city that has, in fact, has inspired a great deal of poetry itself: visual poetry, like Berenice Abbott’s stunning photographs of its changing face and Julia Rothman’s illustrated tour of the five boroughs; poetic prose, like Zadie Smith’s love-hate letter to Gotham and the private writings of notable authors who lived in and visited the city; and poetry-poetry, like Frank O’Hara’s “Song (Is it dirty)” and Walt Whitman’s “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun.”

Now comes a most unusual addition to the menagerie of Gotham-lovers — a foreign cousin of Manhattan’s beloved creative canines. In Americanine: A Haute Dog in New York (public library), French illustrator Yann Kebbi takes us on an imaginative and infectiously enthusiastic tour of the city from the point of view of a dog, “a merry canine” — a creature full of goodwill and earnest wonderment at the world, wholly devoid of the petty cynicisms that blind us to the miraculousness of so much humanity compressed into such a small space. It is only through such eyes of fiery friendliness that we begin to add music and meaning — to New York, to any city, to life itself.

Kebbi’s illustrations, immeasurably delightful in their own right, bear a palpable kinship of spirit with this singular city itself — colorful and deeply alive, they bridge haste and purposefulness, simplicity and sophistication.

We follow the dog as he samples the usual tourist attractions — from staples like the Statue of Liberty and Grand Central to classic funscapes like the Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel to bastions of high-brow culture like the Guggenheim.

Tucked into his journey are treats to which tourists may remain oblivious but which locals will recognize with nostalgic delight — the Central Park saxophonist, the archetypal spoke-figure of the dog walker, the Domino Sugar factory by the Williamsburg Bridge, the city’s iconic water towers.

There also semi-hidden perplexities that wink at the reality of the story and the reality of the city simultaneously: Our dog-hero wanders the streets leashed, and yet the enigmatic leash-holder always remains out of the frame — both a source of mystery and a subtle layer of civic history, for it is illegal to let dogs off-leash in the streets of New York.

The playfulness of the canine perspective extends a warm invitation to pause and marvel at some of the absurd things we humans do, which we’ve come to take for granted in the rhythm of daily life. As the dog peers through the window of a giant gym and watches people run in place without getting anywhere, one is suddenly reminded of how silly much of what we do would seem to a rational observer.

What emerges is a loving portrait of a city ablaze with aliveness, one in which both tourists and locals will recognize themselves — their dreams and their realities, mirrored back at them with eager and nonjudgmental eyes full of wonderment.

The wholly delightful Americanine comes from Brooklyn-based Enchanted Lion Books, the independent picture-book powerhouse behind such intelligent and imaginative treasures as Beastly Verse, Little Boy Brown, The Lion and the Bird, Why Dogs Have Wet Noses, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.

For some complementary treats, see The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, the graphic biography of the man who shaped Gotham, and the science of how a dog actually “sees” the world through smell.

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20 APRIL, 2015

North Brother Island: Haunting Photographs of the Last Unknown Place in New York City

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An otherworldly portrait of the eternal dance between life and death, wilderness and civilization.

“New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation,” E.B. White wrote in his timeless love letter to the city. In the middle of the East River between the Bronx and Rikers Island, in strange proximity to New York’s ample participatory excitements, there exists a glorious yet invisible pocket of privacy — an almost otherworldly twenty-acre islet, at once ghostly and full of life. Abandoned in 1963 and closed to the public since, it remains virtually unknown even to New Yorkers.

In North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City (public library), photographer Christopher Payne — who has previously documented the haunting world of 19th-century mental asylums — captures this striking parallel universe that exists just outside the world’s most exciting city.

The island was once the flat and bare hospital campus for treating smallpox victims, then became a juvenile drug treatment center, and is now a lush wildlife sanctuary with overgrown greenery taking its posthumous revenge on civilization. (A curious intersection, given Payne’s previous project: Riverside Hospital, the island’s original resident, migrated there from Blackwell’s Island, currently known as Roosevelt Island — the site of pioneering Victorian journalist Nellie Bly’s landmark 1887 exposé of asylum abuse.)

Taken over a period of years with the city’s permission, Payne’s photographs — a gutted house through which the forest peeks; a morgue in an overrun building; a boiler house engulfed in a thick coat of kudzu, the coiling perennial vine that has colonized the area — reveal the island as a kind of heavenly purgatory reconciling civilization and wilderness, death and life.

Complement Payne’s altogether enchanting North Brother Island with a history of New York in 101 objects and Jane Dorn’s haunting photographs of abandoned buildings in the South, then revisit the story of how a vintage children’s book saved New York’s little red lighthouse.

Photographs courtesy of Christopher Payne

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18 DECEMBER, 2014

How New York Became New York: A Love Letter to Jane Jacobs, Tucked Inside a Graphic Biography of Robert Moses

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How two titans faced off to shape the ideal of the modern metropolis.

Few people have done more to redefine the fate of a city — and, by a halo of influence, of cities in general — than Robert Moses (December 18, 1888–July 29, 1981), “master builder” of New York during the city’s astonishing growth spurt in the middle of the twentieth century. He envisioned and brought to life 658 playgrounds, which increased the city’s previous supply of these precious play-areas fivefold, 416 miles of parkways, 288 tennis courts, and 678 baseball diamonds, in addition to numerous major roads and bridges. A brilliant architect and fierce politician who denied doing politics, Moses possessed “an imagination that leaped unhesitatingly at problems insoluble to other people,” as Robert E. Caro wrote in his Pulitzer-winning, 1,200-page biography The Power Broker — one of the most impressive books ever written in the English language — tracing how Moses slowly changed from “the optimist of optimists, the reformer of reformers, the idealist of idealists” into a man who used “iron will and determination” to bend a city, perhaps the world’s greatest city, to his will. That uncompromising willpower and its fruits would eventually lead the great urbanist Lewis Mumford to proclaim that “the influence of Robert Moses on the cities of America was greater than that of any other person.”

Forty years after Caro’s classic, writer Pierre Christin and artist Olivier Balez offer a very differently delightful take on the legendary man’s life in the beautiful graphic biography Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City (public library) — the latest installment in the same series by British independent press Nobrow that also gave us the excellent graphic biography of Freud and that of Karl Marx, which was among the best history books of the year.

In gorgeous mid-century-inspired illustrations, the story chronicles Moses’s formative years, his rise to power, his many contradictions — the greatest urban planner who ever lived built revolutionary highways and freeway systems, but never learned to drive — and how he acted out that infinitely rare combination of dreamer and doer on one of the grandest stages the world has ever known.

But make no mistake — Moses was no holy hero. The deep flaws of his power-hungry character and the dehumanizing ruthlessness of his industrial vision reveal themselves gradually and crescendo midway through the book as his counterpoint emerges: Jane Jacobs, legendary patron saint of urbanism and the human-centered city, enters the scene, via the beloved bicycle on which she was known to roam the city.

By that point, Moses has developed “such arrogance that he started to think himself irreplaceable.” Jacobs, on the other hand, operates with equal determination but from a deep place of humility and compassion for the citizen’s experience. The two titans of urban planning soon clash over their differences, exposing the disquieting fact that no ideal is without its tradeoffs and that what is most effective, more often than not, comes at the expense of what is most ennobling.

Moses’s fertile and perhaps perverse imagination has no limits and a second, equally gargantuan project will bring the antagonism between him and Jane Jacobs to a climax….

Jane has no trouble denouncing the monstrous “Spaghetti Bowl” that will constitute the Lower Manhattan expressway, soon also to be known as the LOMEX.

All that constitutes New York’s heritage, but also the memory of the tenements crammed with new immigrants — the air laden with the smell of meat from the meatpacking district; the discarded fish of Fulton Street; the sewing workshops full of exploited girls — all of this, considered by Robert Moses as inefficient or worse, unhygienic, is destined to disappear under a ten-lane highway.

Jane Jacobs will personify the refusal of the systematic eradication of the human, done in the name of a hypothetical better world.

In fact, the entire book feels like a love letter to Jane Jacobs buried inside a biography of a man far less worthy of admiration, which begs the obvious question: Where is the graphic biography of Jacobs herself? And, more broadly, why is it that among all the major graphic biographies released in the past few years — Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, and Francis Bacon — there hasn’t been a single one of a female cultural icon? There are some lovely children’s books celebrating great women — such as those about Julia Child, Maria Merian, and Jane Goodall — but the graphic biography genre woefully remains gender-warped, to say nothing of the subtler implication that women’s stories are to be infantilized and men’s superheroized.

Even so, Robert Moses remains an excellent book and in many ways a necessary one, worthwhile not only for that love letter to Jacobs — though it, to me, was the highlight — but also for telling the complicated story of a complicated man who shaped a complicated city. In doing so, it disabuses us of the dangerous illusion that history’s most important narratives are simple and straightforward hero-myths.

Illustrations courtesy of Nobrow

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