Saturday, May 30, 2009

Shop It. Live It. Love It.

Moon(s) Over Macy's
While T did some shopping at Hilldale, I amused myself by trying to capture some of the sense of unreality that always seems to set in there after dark. I was intrigued by the way the street lamp seemed to create a second moon over Macy's.

I was going to call it something like "Moon(s) Over Macy's." That was before the security guard drove up and asked me what I was doing. After our little conversation, "Terrorist Spy Photo?" seems more appropriate.

"What are you taking pictures of?" he asked. I considered saying something like "working on a photo essay about the shallow transience of our materialist values and the consumer culture they promote," but thought better of it. "I'm just shooting the buildings and the lights," I said. "Just passing time while I wait for my wife."

"Well, you do know that looks very suspicious, right?"

"Why? This is just an ordinary camera," I said, waving my camera at him nonsensically -- a Nikon D90 equipped with a Sigma 10-20mm zoom, the butterfly lens hood still on it from some afternoon shooting making it look even bulkier.

Safe and SecureHe sighed, shook his head, and slowly drove off. At least he didn't ask me to delete the pictures. But I always wonder what these guys are doing. Why would an actual evil-doer scope out the place with a big, bulky, highly visible SLR? Wouldn't a cell phone camera be more prudent, or even a small point and shoot if detail is needed?

It's probably more about keeping people focused on what they are supposed to be doing in a shopping mall. There seems to be only one legitimate purpose for being there -- and that's shop till you drop.

Of course, I should have known better. Hilldale's slogan on their website says "Shop It. Live It. Love It." It does not say "Photograph It."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Experiencing the inside of the Art Institute of Chicago's stunning new Modern Wing

A Visit to the New, Expanded Art Institute of ChicagoWe visited our big neighbor to the south recently to check out the Art Institute of Chicago's new $294-million Modern Wing. What does that sort of money buy? A lot. Of course, they started out with some pretty good art to begin with.

A Visit to the New, Expanded Art Institute of ChicagoThe challenge for architect Renzo Piano was to create a structure to showcase one of the world's great collections to best advantage. For me, the magic of the Art Institute of Chicago's new Modern Wing is not on the exterior. The outside (photographed from the pedestrian bridge that links it with Millennium Park) is just another big glass and steel box. The magic is on the inside.

A Visit to the New, Expanded Art Institute of ChicagoThe light inside is extraordinary, and the screens over the large glass windows reveal the Chicago skyline like a shimmering mirage. Throughout the Modern Wing, the light is fantastic. Third floor galleries as well as the main lobby atrium are flooded with natural light from the glass roof covered with diffusers and screens to soften even the harshest light.

A Visit to the New, Expanded Art Institute of ChicagoIt's a stunning setting for the art. The archtecture doesn't overwhelm the art, but at the same time, it holds its own. For example, René Magritte's 1938 painting, "Time Transfixed," looks particularly surreal in front of the Chicago skyline shimmering outside like a dream.

Nicolai Ouroussof wrote about the quality of the light in the NYT.
But it is the light that most people will notice. Mr. Piano has been slowly refining his lighting systems since the mid-1980s, when he completed his design for the Menil Collection building in Houston. Over the years these efforts have taken on a quasi-religious aura, with curators and museum directors analyzing the light in his galleries like priests dissecting holy texts.

At the Art Institute Mr. Piano has stripped the system down to its essence. The glass roof of the top-floor galleries is supported on delicate steel trusses. Rows of white blades rest on top of the trusses to filter out strong southern light; thin fabric panels soften the view from below.

The idea is to make you aware of the shifts in daylight — over the course of a visit, from one season to another — without distracting you from the artwork, and the effect is magical. On a clear afternoon you can catch faint glimpses through the structural frame of clouds drifting by overhead. But most of the time the art takes center stage, everything else fading quietly into the background.
A Visit to the New, Expanded Art Institute of ChicagoSome things never change: The Art Institute's Michigan Avenue entrance is still flanked by two bronze lions. Unlike the New York Public Library, whose magnificent guardian lions were nicknamed Patience and Fortitude by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Chicago's lions are nameless. Instead, they are designated by the poses created by sculptor Edward Kerneys in 1893: The north lion is "on the prowl." This, the south lion, "stands in an attitude of defiance."

Click on individual photos to enlarge in Flickr, where you'll also find an expanded photo set.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A dollar will buy the house where the UW once taught young women to be good wives and mothers

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A mind-boggling testament to decades of social change is embodied in the fact that in 1940 the University of Wisconsin-Madison built this lovely brick and stone house on campus to help teach young women ("girls" then) to be good wives and mothers, and that the School of Human Ecology (formerly the Department of Home Economics) is now planning to demolish it as part of an expansion project -- unless they can find someone to buy it for $1 and cart it away. It has long since ceased to serve its original purpose, but during the Forties, Fifties and early Sixties 1430 Linden Drive was ground zero for what Betty Friedan would later call the feminine mystique.

It was called the Home Management House then (which was misidentified as the Practice Cottage in Channel 15's story about the demise of the building.) The Practice Cottage was an earlier facility, a smaller wood frame house on the other side of Linden Drive. This Forties state-of-the-art kitchen in the Home Management House was the successor to an earlier, turn-of-the century version in the Practice Cottage. Today it's a closet.
Construction on the house began in 1940 and it was completed in June 1941 at a cost of $33,900. The house is roughly 57 feet wide by 31 feet deep.

Students and faculty once used the house as a home economics practice house, where up to eight students lived for two weeks at a time during their senior year. This period enhanced classroom education and provided hands-on learning in the areas of budgeting and time and household management.

In the mid-1960s the home - designed with four bedrooms, three bathrooms, an instructor's suite and a sun porch - was converted for office use. The home retains, however, much of its original character. A former living room, complete with a long table and wood-burning fireplace, was converted to a conference room.
If you want to see more pictures of the Home Management House and the Practice Cottage in action, go to the picture archive at Home Economics to Human Ecology: A Centennial History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It's filled with time capsule moments like this.

Oh, and if you're interested in the house, which is leaving its site "dead or alive" by next February -- a mover estimates it will cost at least $135,000 to move it 10 blocks. Then there's the cost of moving utility lines along the route, buying a lot, putting in a foundation, mold and asbestos remediation... but you'll be acquiring a lot of history and a pretty nice house.

I always wanted to lie down on the floor of the Capitol rotunda and look up at the dome

Wisconsin State Capitol Dome Photographed Flat on My Back
Holding a camera equipped with a superwide lens.

The Picture of the Picture Being MadeYesterday it all came together. Finding myself downtown alone, in casual clothes, with the D90 and a Sigma 10-20mm zoom in my hand, and not very many people around to watch me make a fool of myself for a picture, I went ahead and did just that. And I can't say my left hand didn't know what my right hand was doing -- the left hand was using the point and shoot I always carry to document the right hand's test shots of the Capitol dome (my final shot was two-handed).

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I believe in ferries

I Believe in Ferries
The history of the Merrimac Ferry goes way back. For more than 150 years, since before Wisconsin was a state, there has been a ferry crossing the Wisconsin River at Merrimac. It began as a toll ferry, first run by a series of commercial operators and then jointly operated by Sauk and Columbia counties. In 1933 the state took it over, and it's been a free ferry ever since. It's called the Colsac -- a phonetic linkage of Columbia and Sauk counties, which it links geographically.

I Believe in FerriesWe took the the Colsac III, launched in 2003, on our Memorial Day afternoon jaunt to Parfrey's Glen. Going north, as we were, the ferry was half empty, but there was a long southbound line on the other side headed home after their holiday weekend.

Today the Colsac mostly a popular tourist attraction and an exercise in nostalgia, since cars can easily fly over the Wisconsin River at 75mph on the Interstate just 12 miles to the east -- as opposed to a 7 minute crossing plus waiting time. There are occasional calls to replace this relic of another time with a bridge, but they've always been rejected so far.
In the early 1960s, when the new full-sized cars had reduced the original Colsac's capacity from eight to six vehicles, complaints about poor service began to pile up.

Studies were made; highway engineers suggested a bridge. But Merrimac had become "Never Never" land as far as bridges were concerned. In true Peter Pan style, residents of Merrimac formed an "I Believe in Ferries" club in protest. The division scuttled its plans for a bridge, and Colsac II went into service in 1963.

Again in 1967, people were certain the ferry was doomed with opening of the new Interstate. Tourists, they reasoned, would rather zip across on the new bridge and ferry traffic would dwindle and die. But they had underestimated the nostalgia factor.

Newly reopened Parfrey's Glen still shows many signs of last June's disastrous flooding

Parfrey's Glen
Parfrey's Glen reopened in time for the Memorial Day weekend after months of repair work following the disastrous flash flooding caused by the torrential rains last June.

Parfrey's GlenMature trees were uprooted, boulders were tossed like beach balls, trails were washed out, and boardwalks were smashed like matchsticks. In some places, Parfrey's Glen Creek dammed itself up with debris and carved new channels, as a near-Biblical torrent came running off the hills of the Baraboo range. As the waters surged through the narrow gorge, they gave a powerful demonstration of water's ability to sculpt our environment and, despite the cleanup, examples are still visible throughout Parfrey's Glen.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Veterans for Peace Memorial Mile -- a reminder of what this weekend is all about

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Driving east on Madison's Speedway Road this holiday weekend is a haunting experience. About 5,000 additional tombstones have been added to those in Forest Hill Cemetery. This is the Memorial Mile display put up by Veterans for Peace -- a stark reminder that Memorial Day is about more than celebrating the end of the school year, Bratfest and the beginning of summer vacation season. It's a time to think about those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, those for whom there are no more summers.

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