December 16, 2008
The campaign may be over, but Barack Obama and John McCain continue to face off at the National Portrait Gallery.
In a gallery on the first floor, curators have hung portraits of the two men side by side. Both were taken by photographer Martin Schoeller, and are part of the new “Portraiture Now” exhibit.
Schoeller shot Obama’s portrait for GQs “Men of the Year” feature in December 2004. He did McCain’s portrait a year later, but on assignment for Men’s Vogue. The McCain image was never published.
The President-elect’s portrait is also the subject of an upcoming lecture by the exhibition’s curator Anne Goodyear to take place this Thursday evening at 6 p.m. According to Goodyear, Obama keeps a copy of a famous portrait of Abraham Lincoln hanging in his office. It’s known as the “cracked plate Lincoln.” Taken by Alexander Gardner in February of 1865, the original photographic negative cracked spontaneously. The black line of the fissure appears in all later prints.
Historians have long mythologized the cracked plate Lincoln as representing the bitter divisions of the Civil War, and the ultimate toll that the presidency exacted upon the 16th President.
“The meaning of faces and lives are always in flux while that individual is playing out his or her life,” says Goodyear. “There is an underlying connection between the making of portraits and the writing of history.”
The portrait of Obama on view in the exhibit was originally part of a set that Schoeller took back when Obama was but a fast-rising and charismatic Senator. From that shoot, GQ selected and published a smiling, happy Obama. Now, says Goodyear, the images that we see of the president-elect tend to be more serious, as if to reflect the evolution of Obama’s role in history.
See Schoeller’s picture of Obama at the museum until September 27, 2009, and while you’re there, visit the “cracked plate” Lincoln in the Portrait Gallery’s “Mask of Lincoln” exhibit, until July 5, 2009.
December 15, 2008
Does anyone else remember learning about Kwanzaa? When I was in grade school, there were three acts in town during the holidays: Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. I was sure there were other important holidays in the African-American community besides Kwanzaa, but I never studied them.
Until now. For those who, like me, were curious, wonder no more! The Anacostia Community Museum has an exhibit up called “Jubilee,” and if the name isn’t enough to tempt you to go there, consider this: the exhibit traces a year of important African-American holidays. What’s more fun than a fest?
Some of the holidays in “Jubilee,” like New Year’s, are universal. During slavery, African-Americans referred to New Year’s Day as “Heartbreak Day,” because that was the day that slaves who’d been sold were separated from their friends and families. When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day, 1863, he turned this tragic tradition into a day of real thanksgiving.
Other holidays, like Junkanoo, don’t exist anywhere else. On Christmas Day in the 18th century, North Carolina party-goers donned elaborate costumes stitched from rags. They went on multi-day parades through the streets, singing and dancing. Junkaroo still happens in the Caribbean, but it’s been out of style in the United States since the 1890s.
If you’re still interested in Kwanzaa, Jubilee has a display about that day, too. Invented in 1966, Kwanzaa incorporates east African end-of-harvest traditions. On each of the seven nights, revelers ponder a philosophical and moral principle: unity, self-determination and faith are examples.
Take part in “Jubilee” yourself! The exhibit is up until September 20, 2009 at the Anacostia Community Museum. I recommend driving there: it’s not very Metro-accessible, but the museum and the neighborhood are lovely.
December 11, 2008
For a while after scientists (and Al Gore!) first started talking about global warming, it seemed like biofuels might be the magic solution to our energy needs.
Made from corn, sugarcane, palm oil, soybeans and various other organic matter, biofuels burn “clean,” which means that they don’t contribute to climate change nearly as much as fossil fuels like coal. And farmers can grow a new crop every year, meaning the supply is almost limitless.
(Fossil fuels power industrial production, transportation, electricity, sewage treatment…basically, everything. But when burned, fossil fuels release tons—literally, tons—of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This excess carbon dioxide traps heat. The research is still ongoing, but scientists say the consequences of a warmer planet may include melting ice caps and more “extreme weather events” like tornadoes and hurricanes.)
But researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute warn that these fuels, too, should be approached with caution.
The STRI scientists suspect that farmers in the tropics—which is where most biofuel crops are grown—are chopping down rainforests to make space for crops like sugarcane and soy. What’s wrong with that?
Trees, particularly those in the rainforest, store carbon dioxide and keep it out of the atmosphere. But when a tree is cut down, it releases its store of carbon dioxide into the air.
So if farmers are cutting down rainforests to produce biofuel—and researchers believe that this is what’s happening—then their attempts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions might actually increase carbon dioxide emissions.
Talk about a vicious cycle.
“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” says William Laurance, one of the STRI researchers who warned against deforestation. “We need to conserve, conserve, conserve.”
That means we’re back at the beginning: less use of all fuels, bio and fossil alike.
December 10, 2008
When I read that Alec Soth, one of the young art photographers who has a new show at the Portrait Gallery, specialized in portraits of women, I thought that meant willowy actresses in varying degrees of makeup. Or American Apparel-esque exposes of “everyday women.”
We live in a culture full of pictures of women—from the perennially glowing divas in women’s magazines, to the disastrously drunk celebrities who grace tabloids. Many famous photographers claim they take these types of pictures to comment on our visual culture, but often enough these claims seem shallow.
Soth doesn’t photograph famous people. In a visual environment where everything seems to be a reflection of the viewer, his subjects are neither trainwrecks nor glamazons. His portraits aren’t even pictures, not in the sense we’ve come to believe. They’re stories, like Gordon Parks’ shots of African-American families of the 1960s.
I wasn’t expecting them to be so human, or even so normal. I didn’t expect to be interested in the characters, much less compelled by their narratives. But I was. It shouldn’t be revolutionary to look at people with imagination and empathy, but for some reason it is. Is that a comment on our visual culture?
December 3, 2008
Folk and blues singer Odetta passed away yesterday. Her unique combination of a guitar held high and a voice kept low made her famous, and for good reason. People talk about unforgettable performers, but Odetta’s voice could squeeze tears from a stone. See her wring out “House of the Rising Sun,” below.
And that’s what she sang like when she was 74 years old.
Odetta sang opera, blues and Broadway with equal panache. She counted Bob Dylan and Martin Luther King, Jr. among her admirers.
The Portrait Gallery hung Odetta’s picture in its American Women gallery along with a short bio that said the singer got her start performing folk music in a San Francisco nightclub.
Smithsonian Folkways recorded Odetta in 1989 on the folk song “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.”
Read Time Magazine’s tribute to Odetta here.