Photographs with a View of Her Own

For those of us with an interest in Boston’s Gilded Age, the Women’s Suffrage Movement or 19th century female photographers, the name Clover Adams rings a bell. Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams—Gilded Age socialite and portrait photographer, is currently the subject of a small but delightful exhibition at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  

A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life: The Photographs of Clover Adams 1883-1885—traces the privileged life of “a fiercely intelligent Boston Brahmin.” Clover began experimenting with photography in the summer of 1883 while her husband Henry Adams—prominent historian, Harvard professor and novelist—was writing Esther, a novel loosely based on the making of Trinity Church in the City of Boston. Adams modeled the heroine of the novel after his wife Clover, whom he characterized in it as a “second rate amateur” painter.

“I’ve gone in for photography and find it very absorbing” wrote Clover on September 7 1883. “My wife does nothing except take photographs…” wrote Henry to Elizabeth Sherman Cameron on July 26 1883. Artistically dismissed by Henry, Clover continued to make compelling photographs that allowed for an intimate look at America’s Gilded Age. 

Clover’s photographs are marked by quotes or any information she recorded of the individual or place she photographed—often providing a glimpse into the personalities of highly respected figures. When photographed, Senator and future Supreme Court Justice Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar of Mississippi refused to have his photo taken until “he had rumpled [his hair] all up,” wrote Clover alongside his photograph on February 23 1884.

(Left) Henry Adams seated at desk in dark coat, writing, Photograph by Marian Hooper Adams, 1883 (Right)Umbrella tree at Smith's Point, Photograph by Marian Hooper Adams. Both Photographs courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society.

Clover’s ability to communicate the personality of her sitters is evident in the arrangement of her albums.  She paired a photograph of Henry Adams in his study room alongside a photograph of a lonely tree perched on a mountain top. One can arrive at numerous conclusions, but we can all assume that this arrangement speaks to the lonely life that Henry led.

Organized by the seasons of the year, the exhibition highlights Clover’s three albums and displays them in the context of letters, loose photographs and ephemera—including her personal sketchbook with a watercolor by John La Farge.

Having lived in the immediate surroundings of Trinity Church before moving to Washington, DC, Henry Adams became close friends with Phillips Brooks, Trinity’s then charismatic preacher; America’s premier architect Henry Hobson Richardson and artist John La Farge. Clover photographed Trinity Church and the people behind one of America’s greatest architectural treasures. These photographs, many of them iconic—also form part of this exhibition.

The photographs of Clover Adams are as heartbreaking as the life she led. On the morning of Sunday December 6, 1885 she wrote “if I had a single point of character, I would stand on that and grow back to life.” That same Sunday morning, Clover committed suicide by drinking potassium cyanide, the chemical she used to develop her own photographs. She was 42.

Henry Adams never spoke of her or mentions her in his masterpiece “The Education of Henry Adams,” but he honored Clover’s memory with the bronze seated statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens–placed over her grave at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC.  

 A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life: The Photographs of Clover Adams 1883-1885 is accompanied by a biography of the same title by exhibition curator Natalie Dystra. The exhibition is on view until June 02, 2012.

An Evening with Patti Smith | Patti Smith: Camera Solo

It wasn’t long ago that I was introduced to the work of Patti Smith, not as musician, but as visual artist. Using narrative form and content in song lyrics, Patti Smith pioneered the Art Rock movement in New York City. Her debut album “Horses” became an instant classic that defined a generation. It also rocked my world to say the least. Apart from her music, Patti Smith has been exploring photography since she was a teenager, but it was alongside Robert Mapplethorpe that she began to explore the medium in depth. Her most recent photographs are the subject of an exhibition at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, CT.

Patti Smith, Self-Portrait, NYC, 2003. © Patti Smith. Courtesy the artist and Robert Miller Gallery

Billed as the first large scale museum exhibit in the United States in nearly ten years, Patti Smith: Camera Solo isn’t a show of epic proportions, but rather a show of intimate moments. The exhibition highlights the relationship between Smith’s photography and her interest in poetry and literature. Approximately 60 new black-and-white silver gelatin photographs and multimedia installations created between 2002 and 2011 are exhibited.

Many of the works are small and require the viewer to make more of an effort in developing a personal relationship with these. As a whole, the exhibition is much larger than I envisioned it, as I personally think of Patti Smith as having contributed more to our culture as a musician and performer than as a visual artist. Yet, since 2002, Smith has had countless solo exhibitions in museums and galleries across the country.

Patti Smith, Robert's Slippers, 2002. © Patti Smith. Courtesy the artist and Robert Miller Gallery

Camera Solo is a deeply personal exhibition, an aspect I experienced firsthand listening to Patti Smith talk about her work at the Wadsworth. The photographs suddenly became meaningful as she discussed objects that belonged to Robert Mapplethorpe, or when she poked fun at her lack of technical skills while talking about her cameras. Those cameras are a Polaroid Land 100 and a 250 which she candidly referred to as having been “made for someone who is technically a moron.”

Gallery Talk by Patti Smith on Friday October 21st at the Wadsworth Atheneaum. Image by Diana Guay Dixon.

Smith doesn’t photograph her own things because she doesn’t have the “right camera,” she says, instead she photographs other people’s stuff. Patti Smith feels her photographs don’t need any explanation; they’re just her “sharing stuff.” That “stuff” is what curator Susan Talbott has termed “symbolic portraits” of things and people close to her heart, like Robert Mapplethorpe’s slippers which Smith says “taking a photo of Robert’s slippers is like taking a photo of Robert to me.” Her photographs are “similar to nineteenth-century amateur photographers.” Yes, some of Patti Smith’s works do come off as amateurish in technique (I’ve taken both a university level studio photography course as well as a survey course), but she obviously doesn’t have a problem with it and neither did I.

The exhibition Patti Smith: Camera Solo is on view until February 19, 2012 at the Wadsworth Athenaeum. For more information, visit:

Review: River Street

Saturday May 1st, Daniel Phillips preparing for the installation of River Street (center)

A site specific installation in Hyde Park by Daniel Phillips, River Street fosters an enriching cross-cultural and multi-generational dialogue between people whose memories are encapsulated in the built environment and “outsiders” like me who might be interested in learning about the architectural, industrial, social and natural history of the site in its present state.

According to Dolores Hayden in The Power of Place, historic places help citizens define their public pasts and trigger social memory through the urban landscape. Hayden investigates the concept of “place memory” through philosopher Edward S. Casey’s formulation, in that place memory “encapsulates the human ability to connect with both the built and natural environments that are entwined in the cultural landscape.”

River Street is installed on the former site of what was until 2004, the oldest operating paper mill in North America. Built on the Hyde Park side of the heavily polluted Neponset River, the history of the Tileston-Hollingsworth Paper Company extends as far back as 1733.

Besides its social and industrial history, the site of the mill complex was architecturally significant until recent years when it succumbed to demolition’s wrecking ball. The firm of W. Cornell Appleton and Frank A. Stearns (Appleton & Stearns), and later members of the illustrious Boston architectural firm of Peabody & Stearns, designed an 1890 “handsome” Georgian Revival office building which is no longer extant. In its present state, the remaining scars resulting from the demolition of the site evoke a sense of loss and nostalgia of an era gone-by.

River Street is a multi channel video projection composed of thousands of photographic stills shot on site by Daniel Phillips. For every one and a half minutes of video, it is estimated that approximately 900 photographs are used to create a time lapse moving image. Each photograph captures the passage of time, the crumbling death of the last remaining buildings on site and the slowly renewing life of the Neponset River Reservation. Projected on the loading bays of a dilapidated water pumping station, River Street triggers our memory by capturing those moments that vanish before our eyes. Moments like ice melting from the branches of trees or the rhythmic flow of the river or the transient life of the graffiti in the area, allow us to visually connect the past with the present.

A collaboration between the artist Daniel Phillips and Finnard Properties; the current owners and developers of the site, this one night installation of River Street was presented in conjunction withthe Boston Cyberarts Festival. The installation on Saturday April 30 attracted many members from the Hyde Park and Dorchester communities. “It was wonderful, breathtaking, unbelievable” says Adrian of Hyde Park, “This is my community, of course I had to be here tonight.”

River Street Tower Still #16, Daniel Phillips, 2010

River Street Tower Still #16, Daniel Phillips, 2010

A Fascination with the Toxic

Calla Lily, 1925, Imogen Cunningham. Source: J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Growing up in a tiny rural town on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, meant that I was always surrounded by trees, shrubs and flowers.  I grew up with my feet firmly planted on the ground (literally) anxiously looking after our banana, lime, pomegranate, cherry, guava and coconut trees. Flowers like hibiscus, passion flowers, fragrant white oleanders and calla lilies nurtured sweet and colorful memories of my homeland.


Review: Neal Rantoul: Twenty-Five Years (1980-2005)


Neal Rantoul, Untitled from the series Boston Infrared


Neal Rantoul: Twenty-Five Years (1980-2005) on view at Panopticon Gallery from November 10 through January 04, 2011 chronicles twenty five years in the career of photographer and Northeastern University professor Neal Rantoul. From the heroic depictions of Boston’s most maligned modernist buildings in his series Boston Infrared to the stark and eerie landscape series on the Northampton, Massachusetts fairgrounds, the work of Rantoul captivates the viewer with their varied subject matter. Contemplating the photography of Neal Rantoul and having studied the works of his mentors Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, some of the characteristics that made these two photographers famous are undeniably present in Rantoul’s photography.  Callahan’s love for the American landscape and Siskind’s fascination with the abstract forms of architecture are particularly captured in Untitled #7 from the Northampton Fairgrounds series and in Untitled #4 from the Boston Infrared series. This is not to say that Rantoul’s works aren’t original, because they are, but to have learned and been exposed to the works of Callahan and Siskind from the masters themselves, adds so much more credibility and importance to Rantoul’s works.

Panopticon Gallery is located inside the Hotel Commonwealth, in Kenmore Square. Take the Green Line B, C, D to Kenmore Square and enjoy the show.

Book Review: Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950

Peter Dans and Suzanne Wasserman
Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950
Princeton Architectural Press, 2006 $29.95
ISBN 978-1-56898-939-6

In January of 2010, I visited New York City specifically to explore the Lower East Side, in particular landmarks like the Eldridge Street Synagogue and the Lower East Side Tenement House Museum. Wanting to experience the sumptuous interior talked about in Preservation Magazine, I went on a tour of the Eldridge Street Synagogue in the center of Chinatown. When the tour ended, a woman from Connecticut approached me said “you know, there aren’t any other places on earth like the Lower East Side.” I agreed with the woman and briefly discussed the complex spatial and cultural relationships found in this neighborhood of New York City. I emphasized the immigration trends and patterns that have impacted and shaped the Lower East Side and went as far as to call the neighborhood a microcosm of the United States. 

As cold as it was outside, I was deeply immersed in the rich urban fabric of this neighborhood, absorbing its buildings, people and streetscapes. Today, what visitors and residents experience walking around most of the Lower East Side are the results of the Urban Renewal projects of the 1940’s and 1950’s which demolished many areas deemed unfit to live in (this happened all over the country, not just in New York City).  Photographing the sector of the Lower East Side razed for public housing, Rebecca Lepkoff transports us back to a neighborhood most of us perhaps never knew had existed.

The photographs of Rebecca Lepkoff vividly capture the moments and memories of a neighborhood long gone (and perhaps forgotten by many) decades before Urban Renewal.  Lepkoff “[’s photographs are] filled with love and a sense of history and community[...] (31).” The Lower East Side brought international fame and recognition to Lepkoff whose striking images of people and the city celebrate the urbanity and simplicity of the vibrant neighborhood she once called home.

Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs of Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950 is the first monograph of Lepkoff’s work in the Lower East Side. The plates in the book shed much light on issues of cultural identity, race and multiculturalism, issues that photographer Gordon Parks had explored through the lens of his camera roughly around the same time Lepkoff was active. A member of the Photo League, the same organization photographers like Lewis Hine, W. Eugene Smith, Paul Strand and other masters of photography were part of, the images of Rebecca Lepkoff are richly layered in beauty and history. Lepkoff, like Berenice Abbott, another photographer whose muse was the city of New York also celebrates the power and inspiration found in the bridges, factories, smokestacks and elevated railways. Lepkoff’s photographs bring out a sense of hope and heroism observed in the people who lived in this neighborhood.

Last Spring, I enrolled in a history of photography class at a university in Boston and having been exposed to many great masters of photography, the images in this monograph stylistically recall those of Lewis Hine, Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott, Gordon Parks and even Eugene Atget in their beautiful composition and play of light and shadow. Although I was not introduced to the work of Lepkoff in this class, I am hopeful that her work will be seen in future history of photography surveys.


Venustas: vĕnustas , ātis, f. 1. Venus, I. loveliness, comeliness, charm, grace, beauty, elegance, attractiveness, etc. (syn.: pulchritudo, formositas).

In defining the qualities of good architecture, the Roman architect Vitruvius believed that  firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty) in a building were its most important qualities. It comes as no secret that the name for this blog was in part inspired by venustas, the quality of beauty, charm, elegance and attractiveness.

Exploring the beauty of Boston and its surrounding communities continues to be the focus of this blog. I hope you enjoy the following images of some buildings in Boston and its surrounding communities which I find to be inspiring and beautiful (another building which takes my breath away every single time is Trinity Church, I hope everyone knows what this building looks like).

The Woburn Public Library, taken by John Michael Garcia.

The Woburn Public Library, Woburn, MA. Taken by John Michael Garcia.

Saarinen's Kresge Chapel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Boston Public Library by McKim, Mead and White

Review: Roni Horn AKA Roni Horn

You’ve seen a ton of traffic. Now come see a ton of pink.

The tag line for Roni Horn AKA Roni Horn (February 19 – June 13) at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, attempts at drawing in the crowds through the artist’s play on the color pink.  As human beings, we tend pre-judge many things that cross our path and through Horn’s exploration of identity, perception and place, her sculptures and photographs challenge the viewer to look twice before judging.

And yes, if you’re wondering about the marketing tag line for Horn’s show, expect to see pink all around you.  As a color, pink has often been associated with feminine qualities, yet Horn allow us to see beyond it and into the androgynous world she dwells in further inciting thoughts within her audience.

In today’s technologically overloaded world, we seldom stop to look at a painting or a photograph, let alone discuss their formal qualities and meanings. Roni Horn as an artist has no other option than to force her audience to stop, take a second look and create a direct connection between her “art and our sense of discovery.”

Horn’s thirty year retrospective at the ICA plays with our memory and sense of perception, challenging us the moment one steps inside the museum. One of the most popular pieces in the exhibition is Pink Tons, a five ton pink glass cube situated in a corner at the entrance of the ICA. As one peers over the cube, Horn reminds us that things are not always what they appear to be. Naturally, our mind leads us to think that the cube is solid, but Horn distorts this reality by making the center seem “molten.”  Emphasizing one’s individuality is at the center of Horn’s works. Roni Horn’s art treats issues like age, gender, sexual orientation and even mood as things that are “never fixed but always shifting.”

Horn employs a vocabulary that is not only thought provoking, but also inspiring. Her work deals with the poetry of Emily Dickinson and other famous authors. The artist has long been fascinated by the 19th century poet who used language to “defy restrictions of place, society and identity.”

However, Horn only uses small fragments of Dickinson’s poems, thereby forcing her audience to invent and make assumptions of what is to come. Roni Horn AKA Roni Horn is full of contradictions and this is one of them.

In questioning identity and gender, Horn poses several questions to her audience by means of photography and sculptures in the exhibition. As part of the ICA’s “Collection in the Making” program, curators have exhibited the works of groundbreaking artists like Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin in other galleries further complementing Horn’s exhibition. Sherman as an artist is known for calling attention to the stereotyping of women in film, magazines and television. Goldin on the other hand, is known for her intense, highly personal and at times sexually charged photography of drag queens, friends, drug addicts and other subjects close and dear to her heart. Both Sherman and Goldin have posed the same questions Horn has to her audience.

For some critics, the Roni Horn exhibition at the ICA has proven to be disengaging for not suggesting real risk, real audacity and real creative compassion. Horn as an artist does a tremendous job at engaging her audience in a conversation that deal with identity, age, gender, and even sexual orientation. Her sculpture more than her photography remind us that life is full of fleeting moments and in order to savor them, one must stop,  take a second look before imposing our judgments upon others.

Review: Harry Callahan: American Photographer

Harry Callahan, Eleanor, Port Huron, 1954

Harry Callahan: American Photographer at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (November 21,2009 – July 3, 2010) features recently acquired black-and-white and color photographs that survey major aspects of Callahan’s remarkable photographic career. Largely a self taught artist, Callahan’s career spanned six decades, including teaching positions at the Chicago Institute of Design, the American manifestation of the German school Bauhaus which promoted the experimentation in all the arts as well as a position at the Rhode Island School of Design where he taught until the mid 1970’s.

At the Chicago Institute of Design, Callahan was invited to teach photography by Lazslo Moholy-Nagy, one of my favorite artists to have come out of the Bauhaus and also an influential photographer in America. Primarily drawn to urban subjects, Callahan said in 1991, “I think I’ve photographed the same things all my life, buildings and grasses and people walking.” His photographic works become extremely personal and intimate for many reasons, in part due to his wife Eleanor, his muse for more than 15 years.

Harry Callahan (American, 1912-1999), Eleanor, about 1947, Photograph, gelatin silver print, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Barbara and Gene Polk, © The Estate of Harry Callahan, courtesy Pace/MacGill, NY, Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Callahan also once said that if one chooses one’s subject selectively, the camera intuitively writes the poetry. Eleanor Knapp, as the subject for some of his most iconic works was arguably that poetry not written, but emphasized intuitively by the camera. One of the most striking images in the exhibition and one of Callahan’s most famous works is Eleanor, Port Huron, 1954 which juxtaposes the soft, sensuous curves of the human body with the lush, hard and almost raspy edges of the landscape that envelopes Eleanor’s body. Callahan’s ability to intensify his subjects by placing them in the vastness of the geographical landscape is emphasized in most of his images depicting Eleanor.

In spite of Callahan’s expansive career, the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts is small and somewhat uninspiring. Over the past few years, several museums have organized exhibitions of Callahan’s works, but an entire retrospective of his influential career has yet to surface. Many works in the exhibition have the power to remind us as spectators of how small we are in context to our surroundings.