June 6, 2008
Photographer Kevin Connolly, who was born without legs, prefers to use a skateboard rather than a wheelchair.
A recent graduate of Montana State University, the charismatic 22 year old greeted me with a smile and a firm handshake when I arrived at the Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater Monday. He was there to speak about his first professional photography exhibition, “The Rolling Exhibition,” currently on view at the Kennedy Center.
Kevin described the project in blunt terms: “A no-legged guy rolled around the world and got stared at.” The genesis of his work is rooted in his passion for travel and his need for easy mobility. On a recent trip, Kevin shot thousands of pictures of the people who stared at him as he rolled by on his skateboard, snapping images in rapid succession from a camera at his hip, while he looked the other way.
Growing up in Helena, Montana, Kevin rarely used a wheelchair, preferring to walk on his hands. He’s tried gymnastics, wrestling and become an accomplished skier (on a specially designed monoski). It was while he was hitchhiking in New Zealand that he discovered the skateboard as a handy traveling vehicle (People wouldn’t pick up a guy in a wheelchair, he said). He continued his travels through Europe, shooting more conventional travel pictures for class photography projects.
But the concept for “The Rolling Exhibition” evolved from a single shot he took on a street in Vienna of a man looking down at him as he rolled by on the skateboard. He became fascinated by the stares, and after his return to the United States, started planning another whirlwind trip specifically to photograph those inquisitive glances (ultimately taking more than 32,000 shots in 15 countries).
The scene above of a priest in Romania pausing during his cell phone conversation, is one of the photographer’s favorites. Kevin isn’t scolding. To him, the stare represents natural curiosity. “Everyone, including myself, could have been a subject,” he says. He’s more interested in the stories people imagine and project on somebody who is different. They vary from country to country, depending on context and personal experience, he says.
In New Zealand, a boy wondered if his legs had been eaten by a shark. In Bosnia, people assumed he had stepped on a land mine. In Kiev, he was taken for a beggar, and when he refused to take money, bills were stuffed into his backpack. In big cities, people thought he must have gotten into a car accident. And back home, a man with a son in the military hailed Kevin for his service in Iraq.
A born storyteller, Kevin punctuated his philosophical musings with zany experiences from the road, from getting in a bar fight with a midget to receiving an accordion from the former Miss New Zealand as a gift of gratitude for babysitting her eight children.
“The Rolling Exhibition” is at the Kennedy Center’s Hall of States through July 20.
(Photographs courtesy of Kevin Connolly.)
April 30, 2008
Herblock was not fond of Ronald Reagan.
In fact, the three-time Pulitzer prize-winning political cartoonist judged the “great communicator” rather harshly. In a 1984 portrayal, the 40th President of the United States is transformed into a television pitchman selling America an alternate reality—through the looking glass.
It was a rare president that escaped the wrath of Herblock’s pen and pad—weapons that the cartoonist said kicked the “big boys who kick the underdogs.”
On Tuesday, historian Sidney Hart of the National Portrait Gallery led a sneak peak preview of the Herblock exhibit entitled “Puncturing Pomposity,” which opens on May 2. The 40 cartoons span Herbert Lawrence Block’ s seven-decade career, which included 55 years at The Washington Post. He continued his artful commentary right up until shortly before his death in 2001 at age 91.
Hart said that both Nixon and Eisenhower, enraged by Herblock’s cartoons, canceled their subscriptions to the Post. Nixon claimed he didn’t want his daughters to be upset by the frequent skewering he endured and was even rumored to have started shaving twice daily because of the dark 5 o’clock shadow the cartoonist always gave him.
And while Herblock’s work usually had a liberal bent, the Democrats were granted no immunity. At the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a 1998 rendering shows William Jefferson Clinton, his head held high as he wades ankle deep in the thick mud.
It’s a treat to get an up close look at the original cartoons, which were culled from the archives of the 14,000 pieces the Herb Block Foundation donated to the Library of Congress. The thick black lines of his ink pen on the large drawings stand out sharply. It’s fascinating to examine the places where Herblock pasted a scrap of paper over a phrase, and rewrote a caption.
While the span of Herblock’s cartoons dates from New Deal to Great Society to Watergate, Hart said an election year was a good time for an exhibition to focus on the principles of poking fun at the presidency. A cautionary tale, so to speak, for the three hopeful candidates. What does the next generation of pen and ink critics have in store for them?
The exhibition makes also for irreverent contrast, housed in the hall adjacent to the museum’s stately collection of presidential portraits. Or as Martin Sullivan, the portrait gallery’s new director, puts it with understated elegance: Herblock lets us “explore the presidency in other dimensions.”
(“Through the looking glass” (Ronald Reagan); By Herblock; Pencil on paper; Published July 3, 1984 by the Washington Post; Herbert L. Block Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, © The Herb Block Foundation
“This State of the President” (Bill Clinton); By Herblock; Pencil on paper; Published January 22, 1998, by the Washington Post; Herbert L. Block Collection, Prints Photographs Division, Library of Congress, © The Herb Block Foundation)
April 8, 2008
Back in the early 20th century, long before computers or telephones were standard, postcards were like e-mail. The letter carrier stopped by three or four times each day and postcards were cheap, costing a mere penny to mail. You could send a card in the morning to a friend across the city to set up a date that night. It would arrive around noon, and your friend still had time to confirm before dinner.
Businesses learned that postcards were an easy way to advertise, and might print up thousands, says Jerry McCoy, a D.C. deltiologist (postcard enthusiast). Last week at the Smithsonian’s Postal Museum, McCoy, who works at the Washington, D.C. library’s Washingtoniana division, gave a presentation on what he calls “hometown Washington” postcards.
These old cards go beyond Washington’s iconic monuments, and leave a legacy of businesses, shops and restaurants of a bygone era. They “illustrate how much of our city has grown, changed and disappeared over the last century,” he says.
They’re also important historical documents. “Researchers almost never think of postcards as sources of visual information,” McCoy says. “But often the only place you can find photos of a business is on a postcard.”
For example, check out this postcard from the Casino Royal, a Chinese restaurant and hot night spot in the 1950s. On the back, comedian Cal Claude scribbled a message about his performance there with Nat King Cole in 1955.
McCoy visits the sites of his favorite postcards years later. By the 1980s, the Casino Royal was an adult entertainment theater and was heavily damaged in a 1985 fire.
The “Palais Royal” card, promoting a “dry goods and fancy goods” department store downtown, dates from 1907. McCoy says the original building was demolished in the 1990s, he visited the site to find an office building that copied the arched entrances of the Palais Royal.
McCoy searches eBay every day, easily spending $60 or $70 for a coveted card. But he says deltiology is more than a quirky hobby. “I’m buying history, buying back a piece of hometown D.C.”
(Photos courtesy of Jerry McCoy.)
April 2, 2008
It started back in January, when the Comedy Central satirist met with Glass and lobbied him to include a portrait of Colbert in the “Treasures of American History” exhibition, alongside Abraham Lincoln’s hat and Irving Berlin’s piano.
Glass rejected the portrait, so Colbert trudged across town to the National Portrait Gallery. That museum accepted the painting and hung it next to the bathrooms where it remained until yesterday, April Fool’s Day.
It was a hit, and crowds streamed in and lined up to snap pictures with their cell phones. Last night on the Stephen Colbert show, Brent Glass phoned in his decision, announcing that Colbert’s portrait will now be transferred to the American History Museum’s exhibit at the Air and Space museum for the next two weeks.
March 13, 2008
Laurie Anderson’s career has ranged far and wide since her jump from avant-garde performance artist to 1980s pop music star. In addition to experimenting with electronic instruments like the talking stick and the tape-bow violin, she’s written the Encyclopedia Britannica entry for “New York” and recently served as NASA’s first artist in residence. Anderson will be giving a free lecture on Andy Warhol (sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum) at 4:30 in the McEvoy Auditorium on March 15. I got the chance to catch up with her last week.
You started out in the 1960s and 1970s as an artist and you became a pop hit in the 1980s. How was that transition?
I didn’t know anything about the pop world. I was just an artist in New York and I had made a record that I was distributing by mail order. People would call me up on the phone and say, “Can I get this record?” I would go over to a carton, pick it up and go to the post office with it. I had pressed 1,000 records of something I had done on an NEA grant called O Superman. Then I got a call one afternoon from a guy in Britain who said “I’d like to order some records. I’ll need 40,000 Thursday and 40,000 more on Monday.” So I said, “Right. Okay. I’ll get right back to you.”
I called Warner Brothers and said, “Listen, I need to press a bunch of records, could you help me with it?” And they said, “That’s not how we do things at Warner Brothers Records. What we do is you sign an eight-record deal.”
And I was like, “What?”
So anyway, that’s what I did, because I thought that could be interesting. I tried very hard not to be seduced by that kind of world. I tried to have a lot of fun with it and I think I did. You get out of a car and everyone is screaming, it was just funny for me. They were like, “Can I get your autograph? Oh my god!” and “It’s really you.” For me I felt like an anthropologist.
Anthropologist? You’ve also worked in McDonald’s. Is that how you stay fresh, by trying different things?
I had gotten into kind of a rut with my life as an artist. You know how you make these elaborate plans and you start living them out without really getting into the experience?
I thought “How can I escape this trap of just experiencing what I expect?” I try to jump out of my skin. I normally see the world as an artist first, second as a New Yorker and third as a woman. That’s a perspective that I sometimes would like to escape.
So I put myself in places where I don’ t know what to do, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know how to act. I worked on an Amish farm, a place that had no technology at all. I also worked in McDonald’s. They were all really, really fascinating experiences.
You’re coming down to D.C. next week to give a lecture about Andy Warhol and his “Little Electric Chair” series. Why Warhol?
I feel like we are living in Andy’s world now. It’s the world that he defined in so many ways and his obsessions with fame and violence and ego. You just look around and go, “Wow, he was doing that 30 years ago!”
American culture was going that way and he nailed it. It’s completely fascinating how he came up with those categories and American life became that way.
Why the electric chair?
I think for me it combines a lot of things. One was this idea of tabloid stuff. We don’t allow images of people being electrocuted, for example. Another is the factory image, the multiple stuff, it’s a kind of death factory. People pass through that and it involves technology as well in a way, it’s the power of electricity….
Are you running out of time?
I am running out of time. My assistant is waving his hands, saying “You have to go now or you’ll be dead!”
(Photograph courtesy of SAAM. Saturday’s event is part of the American Pictures Distinguished Lecture Series, sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum and the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland.)