Monday, December 5, 2016

Illumination

Park Avenue Tree Lighting ceremony, 7:00 PM. The trees on Park Avenue have been illuminated every year since 1945 as a memorial to those who have sacrificed their lives in war and in celebration of New York's holiday season. We have the Fund for Park Avenue to thank for this. Photo: JH.
Monday, December 5, 2016. Pleasant weekend weather-wise for the first week of the last month of the year. Daytime in the 50s, nighttime in the 40s, some sun, some beautiful stormclouds around. The weatherman says it’s going to be much colder this week. We haven’t had cold where you could see your breath when you’re out walking. We didn’t have much of that last year either.
Minutes before the illumination.
The crowd caroling after the lighting ceremony.
Life’s little ironies. The New York Post in last Friday’sedition published an article about the horrendous traffic in New York and WHAT (or rather: WHO) caused it. Thank you, New York Post and writers Shawn Cohen, Yoav Gonen and Laura Italiano. Finally someone in the mainstream press is talking about it.

It began during the previous mayoral administration when someone too brilliant to measure decided to change the traffic system in Manhattan. They removed traffic lanes, converting them into bus lanes only as well as bike lanes to promote bicycle riding on this island which is the heart of the greatest city on Earth and has more than 15 million auto vehicles on its streets everyday (and several thousand bicyclists).

They also closed off blocks on the Grid, which was designed by some people with vision before the island of Manhattan was even developed and was still mainly countryside and wilderness. They also eliminated turns (choices), so that if you’re stuck in traffic on many of the thoroughfares, you’re forced to stay there.  They even closed off parts of its main artery — Broadway — which has the distinction of being the oldest (by many centuries) thoroughfare on the North American continent, created by the Native Americans who lived here long long before the first Europeans (who obviously knew more) arrived. Someone had a better idea which was, in a word, NO.
Bike lanes for one and for all.
We were told these re-directions were to give more room for people to bicycle and cut down on the use of cars. The thought always reminds me of pre-auto Shanghai or Beiijing — millions of bicycles and hardly any cars. You don’t see that any more of course because China’s gone with the rest of the world.

We’ve also been graced with “islands” now constructed in the middle of some avenues at intersections, also lessening the space for the 15 million cars to move in. On some they’ve planted trees and even little plant gardens where there used to be roadway. To a New Yorker getting around on foot or vehicle, the good intention reads rather like a giant F-U from our city fathers.
Times Square by day and night.
The Natural Ravages of Entitlement. The bicylists are noticeable despite their comparatively small number compared to the four-wheelers, because they follow NO rules, move in any direction they choose — on the bike lanes or off (mainly off); and they are dangerous (sometimes even fatally) to pedestrians because, like many pedestrians with their cell phones in front of their eyes, they are unconcerned about who might be traveling around them on foot. Not responsible and anything you want.

So the irony of all these newly established traffic “rules” created by our leaders former and present, is that we now have a kind of road and street anarchy where everyone is doing whatever it takes to keep moving  toward their destination rather than sitting still or inching along on roadways. Take a look at the Post article, here.
One of many "oft-used" bike lanes.
Another ride on a far more efficient avenue, last Thursday night, at the Beekman Theatre, they premiered the documentary “Harry Benson: Shoot First.” I wrote about the event on Friday’s Diary.  The film is very entertaining because the audience is taken on one man’s odyssey through the last six decades of celebritydom as Harry has photographed many of the famous faces of these past decades including every President since Eisenhower and many leaders of the world including Queen Elizabeth II.

Glitz, glamour and the celebrated aside, the film gives you a sense of the man and his motivations that created this brilliant career. Harry was born in Glasgow (he celebrated his 87th birthday, this past Friday, December 2nd) and grew up in a lovely seaside town not far from Glasgow called Troon.
Harry's portrait of Queen Elizabeth at The Scottish National Portrait Gallery. When Harry asked if the dogs slept in bed with her, the Queen answered, "No, they snore."
There is a scene toward the end of the film where he travels back to his home village. The house he grew up in still stands. He knocked on the door several times but no one answered. He then walked around the side of the narrow property to get to the backyard.

There was a weather wooden wall that he remembers his father erecting more than seventy-five years ago; aged and darkened by the glum Scottish weather. In the back of the house is a small shed next to the back door — also very weathered. Harry explains that his father erected it so that the boy could have a dark room to develop his photos.

That interested me. Harry was thirteen or fourteen then. I’m not clear when he got his first camera but he was very young. It didn’t hold up well and didn’t last long. But he got another, a better one, and continued to take pictures.
Harry as a young boy in Glasgow. 13-year-old Harry's first photograph of a roe deer taken at Glasgow's zoo.
He was officially finished with school at age 13, and got a job as a messenger boy. And had a camera. The family were working people and their lives were modestly housed, but the father had enough natural imagination to encourage his boy (building him a dark room); the hand of approval.

Thinking about the film over the weekend, I was left with a new impression of his celebrated works, and with Harry whom I have known now for a number of years. Along with the famous and glamorous, his archive is rich with a visual and emotional record of the times we’ve been living through. Ethel Kennedy’s left hand splayed as if to hide the image of her husband from the lens, as he lay fatally wounded by an assassin’s gun on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in June 1968.
And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who lay dying only two months before almost to the day, from assassin’s gun in Memphis. Then there are the haunting refugee camps in Mogadishu where many children were dying of starvation. He was there with Willy Brandt, then Mayor of Berlin, on the day the Berlin Wall officially cut off the East from the West. Death and despair all around him. And us. Through Harry’s eyes, I was also left with a feeling of deep sadness and the profound sense of injustice we foist on one another, deluding ourselves.
Harry’s whole life has been an adventure following his curiosity with his camera, all over the world, in all kinds of situations. He tweaks and pulls on our memories and nostalgia, feeding our curiosity with his images he photographed, from Churchill, to the Queen, to Frank Sinatra along with his then wife Mia Farrow in masks while entering the famous Truman Capote Black and White Ball.
Harry's photograph of Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball.
Then there’s the light and the hope in Muhammad Ali in full force of personality and young manhood declaring “I am beautiful!” And he was, indeed he was, in many ways. He was the light for that moment in our history when we were enmeshed in a war of our own choice in Southeast Asia. And Harry was there too, photographing Viet Cong in South Viet Nam. In his natural Everyman approach, he conversed with his subjects who told him that when they spied on American soldiers at their rest in the bush, their curiosity was kept not by any conversations of those Americans, but by their music which the Viet Cong loved listening to.
Harry Benson’s photography is the messenger, with a camera instead of a pen (or nowadays, a keyboard). The medium is the message of his life and our lives. Harry has been our messenger for more than 50 years. We have names and explanations for his celebrated images, but beyond forever it is his message about Us. We are them, and they are us.
 

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