Monday, August 30, 2010

The Baltimore Comic Con

I went to visit some old friends yesterday at the Baltimore, Maryland Comic Book Convention (not sure if that's the real name, but it is what it is), had a great time, was mystified and came home.

Now, I'm not a convention kind of guy by any means. Big things overwhelm me and I don't like to get lost in crowds. But, I'll be 59 next month- 9/11- so I figure, get over it.

And I did want to see my friends Walt and Louise Simonson and Howard Chaykin.  Comic book legends as they jokingly call themselves. Comic book legends as their fans at the Convention reverentially called them.

Of course, the strangest aspect of these conventions is the complete willingness of adult  fans to dress in the costumes of their favorite super heroes/ heroines/ movie characters/ monsters. In the context of the convention it almost seems normal, after a while, if you don't think about it much.

In the context of real life it's arresting, and indicative of the times, I guess, where no one really wants to be who they actually are, at least not all the time. Who can blame them?

Armed with my trusty Lumix Panasonic (with its Leitz optics) I took a few snaps.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Beck's Wreck

No, unfortunately, not the greatest of all Brit guitarists Jeff Beck, but media moron Glenn Beck. That Beck brings his celebration of the entitled stupid to my hometown today, devouring public space on the Mall and displacing anyone who may have wanted to go to the National Gallery with their granddaughter.

Hmmm... basking in some of the greatest artistic masterpieces of all time or whining about our president and why we're not getting more of something for nothing. Tough choice. I'm opting to stay away.

DC is no stranger to downtown demonstrations this time of year: it's the 47th anniversary of the Reverend Martin Luther King's rally by the Washington Monument, and earlier this month marked the ninetieth anniversary of the amendment that gave women the right to vote.

Here's a beautiful photograph from the terrific Shorpy site of that event:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Leaving comments, Subscribing to the Blog

I've been getting a lot of feedback that the blog won't accept your comments. I've checked the settings and they seem ok, but there have been a huge amount of complaints on the interweb about this, especially about this particular host.

One person suggested that I change to a pop-up comments window, so I have done that. If you have given up trying to comment, please try again, and let's see if we can fix this problem.

The other favor I'd like to ask is this: if you read my blog and enjoy it, please subscribe. I can win a round- the- world trip, all expenses paid, if I get five more subscribers.

Actually that's not true at all- nothing will really happen, but it would be nice to get a better idea of how many people read this.


your old pal,

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Happy Birthday, Ray!

Photograph by Marissa Roth

My friend Phil Proctor (yeah, the Firesign Theater guy- that's right- I know him!) reminded me through his cool website Planet Proctor  that the great Ray Bradbury turned ninety on the 22nd of August.

Mr. Bradbury, who splits his time living in Los Angeles and a nice cottage on Mars is still very much with us, lucky for all of us.

No need to go into my theory of longevity equaling genius (you know who you were,  Eubie Blake, Alfred True and George Bernard Shaw), because of course Ray Bradbury is a genius, at least in my book, even though I've never written a book. Mr. Bradbury, however, has written many books, fifty- nine in fact, according to his website.

From the time Mr. Sofield first read us a Bradbury short story in seventh grade on a Friday afternoon to the time I read adaptations from The Martian Chronicles in old EC comics reprints, to inhaling story after story throughout the remainder of my life so far, I've known that here was a class act, a great humanist utilizing science fiction as his platform, but really telling us something noble about ourselves if we were just willing to listen.

Finally, let me leave you with this beautiful and heartfelt tribute to Mr. Bradbury, also discovered for me by my very good friend Phil Proctor (really- we had dinner in L. A. and I met Esther Williams that same night, as well as the guy who played the gunsel in Key Largo,  Harry Lewis, who still looks like a gunsel, albeit much older).

It's called Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury, so if the word "fuck" disturbs you, even used correctly as it is here, well then, don't watch it.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Herman Leonard: March 6, 1923 – August 14, 2010

Herman Leonard- the great Herman Leonard- died August 13th at his home in Los Angeles CA.

Leonard was one of a handful of photographers, like Henri Cartier- Bresson for instance, who lived long enough to see their work become iconic images that define a certain portion of our world. For Cartier- Bresson, in many cases, it was the journalistic world. For Herman Leonard, it was the jazz world.

Both photographers, also along with others (Penn, Avedon, Frank, and Klein come to mind immediately) made images that transcended their labels and ultimately became art.

The portrait of Dexter Gordon above is a perfect example of the Herman Leonard approach. Shot on 4X5 black and white film, it's lit by several flash bulbs (I'm assuming this is a pre- strobe picture), placed by Leonard to give a theatrical light to a nightclub milieu. In other words, Leonard used his technique to give the impression that we're sitting in a smokey club listening to Dexter. This is what it's supposed to look like.

Of course, if this picture were not so rigorously composed and lit, if it were actually taken in a smokey club it would look nothing like what we see here. It would be black, murky, out of focus, assuming any image turned out at all.

Instead, we get a Leonard: back-lit, atmospheric, romantic, beautifully composed, compelling and easy in the eyes.

Mr. Leonard's own site,, can supply us with all the biographical information we need, so I'll just touch on a couple of things I think are important.

Herman learned lighting from Yousef Karsh, the Canadian- based portraitist. However, where some of Karsh's work is stiff and overlit, Leonard's is timeless and iconic.

A Lester Young still life

Duke Ellington

Billie Holiday

Louis Armstrong

Ben Webster

A print of Miles Davis, post- Katrina.

After a peripatetic career here and abroad, Leonard moved to New Orleans (AGC) and began to create a new body of work. He was in his late seventies. In August 2005 Hurricane Katrine swept through and essentially drowned his massive collection of vintage prints.

Although his negatives were unharmed, stored in a vault at the Ogden Museum, it was too much for Herman Leonard, now 82 years old. He moved to Los Angeles to be close to his daughter and lived there until his death.

It was an amazing career, an amazing life, the kind that is impossible to live nowadays. Leonard was a photographer who shot from the inside out instead of the other way around. His work was imitated widely and it wasn't until William Claxton brought a cooler West- Coast- 35mm- based sensibility to jazz photography that the overall style of music photography changed. A change, by the way, that Leonard was able to embrace, unlike many of his peers. For great artists, seeing is seeing. Technique is simply part of the communication apparatus.

Whew. Jim Marshall and Herman Leonard in less than a year. Too much too soon.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Norman Rockwell Again

We saw Mr. Rockwell here in the L By L archives last December at Christmas, appropriately enough. I found a nice series of Saturday Evening Post covers and published them to give us all that unique nostalgic sense that Norman Rockwell's work always brings.

I've just come from an exhibit of Norman's work (my pal Norman!) at the American Museum of Art here in Washington, DC. This exhibit is culled from the collections of those two Norman- wannabee hucksters of the silver screen, Steven Speilberg and George Lucas. And, no matter what they may think of themselves and each other, neither one's work even begins to plum the depth of Rockwell's commitment to an America of the heart, which may or may not have existed physically, but certainly exists emotionally for anyone who grew up in the Rockwell era (1927- 1966- ish).

My prime purpose in seeing his original paintings was to check out his actual painting: the brush work, the thickness of the paint, his technique for applying the paint to his canvasses.

As I mentioned in the piece on Frank Frazetta, Frank used very thin layers of oil paint which dried quickly and allowed him to make his deadlines and still deliver a fine oil painting.

Rockwell doesn't do this. He paints like the old masters he so admired. He uses gobs of paint a la Rembrandt to build up texture when he needs to, and thin coats when he needs to use the canvas itself as part of the color or texture statement, as in this picture, Let Nothing You Dismay:

The couch is done almost as a wash of black, gray and white to achieve the texture of a horsehair couch. The diplomas behind the little girl have small buildups of whitish paint, as does a lamp in the lower left, unfortunately cropped in this picture, as highlights of the reflections on the glass globe. The face of the little girl is exquisitely painted. You can tell that this is where most of the real work went. Her dress also contains his three- d highlights, but hangs curiously, stiffly on her frame. The two men in the corner are the usual Rockwell fodder: exaggerated expressions, the hand to the mouth in an Edward Everett Horton "Oh my!" expression. As always, their clothes are perfect. Rockwell paints clothes the way haberdashers think we should wear them, that is to say, without odd wrinkles or sweat stains.

In person, the technique involved in painting the texture of the rug is probably the most incredible in the picture. Echoing Vermeer, Rockwell is able to really suggest the weave of that rug.

Like Maxfield Parrish, Rockwell is at his best with a straightforward composition where everything is a series of parallels. Here's another tour-de-force of technique from the 1960's:

As one enters the show there's a huge photograph, life sized, of Rockwell painting the "Pollack". It's surrounded by other modern art pastiches which I guess he gave up on as not being distinctive enough. Sure enough, he's dribbling paint from a paper cup.

The figure is featured in some of the other versions as is a younger figure, maybe a kid. It's a real insight into Rockwell's sense of his work. The final picture here is perfect. We see the work of art, we read it as a Jackson Pollack, we read the viewer as a person with a different background because of the details: the clothes, the hat, the umbrella, the gloves, the little peak at the program, the impeccable tailoring of the suit, even the haircut. Was there ever such a person? Mr. Drysdale from the Beverly Hillbillies? (Lots of movie and TV iconography came from Rockwell illustrations.)

The caption next to the painting quotes Mr. Speilberg to the effect that Rockwell saw his moment passing- the old guard givers way to the new. Of course the Pollack part (keeping in mind that it is another Rockwell) is as dated as Rockwell part. Maybe more, as it invokes a much shorter period of time in American cultural history than Norman Rockwell's work.

Of course, Speilberg and Lucas, two directors who, in my opinion, make instantly out-of-date movies, constantly try to put their stamp on this work. They really don't get it. Their work is trite. This work is profound. What was once viewed as "mere" illustration has now become Art with a capitol "A", much like N. C. Wyeth. The emotional impact of a good Norman Rockwell is not diminished by its accessibility, it is enhanced by that accessibility.

Take a look at this one:

Look at the expression on the teacher's face. It's the whole story. A cinematic equivalent might be the expression on Dalio's face in Rules of the Game when he shows his guests his new machine. That was the work of Jean Renoir. Not a Speilberg or a Lucas.

Another aspect of the show are the cartoons (in the classical sense) of the final paintings. Here's Miss Jones again:

Although you can't see it in this reproduction, the face is slightly different. And even though Rockwell's pencil technique is flawless, I mean, really flawless, the drawing is not the equal of the painting. By the way, his pencil/ charcoal technique alone is worth seeing the show.

Sometimes the whole thing is perfect:

The Boy Scouts were my introduction to Norman Rockwell's work. I was in the Cub Scouts and Washington, DC's scouting headquarters was up the street from  my house on R Street near Connecticut Avenue, on the corner of Connecticut and Florida Avenues. They had the original of the painting of the different scouts, Cub, Explorer, Eagle, etc. in their lobby. I've never forgotten it.

This painting captures a resonance for me, a time of building a pinewood car with my dad or sewing patches with my mom. A moment when my childhood seemed almost normal.

There are flaws to Norman's work. For instance, his perspective is really strange. Maybe it's because he worked with so many photographs and therefore replicated different lens' focal lengths, or maybe he just took extraordinary artistic licence. Whatever the reason, once he deviates from his parallel line obsession, he seems lost. This illustration from Little Women, for instance. The figure seems to float above the sofa, which itself seems unconnected under the figure.

Here's another:

Again, perfect pencil technique, great moment, etc, but my eye tells me these people are getting squeezed like accordion pleats in that seat. Interestingly, Rockwell glued a piece of paper to the head of the soldier, a common way for illustrators to mask a mistake without trashing the whole piece.

This is a great show, highly entertaining, truly wonderful. Please go see it, despite the comments of the paintings' owners. At least they bought these works instead of the works of, say, Margaret Keane.

Ultimately, Rockwell himself became a Norman Rockwell, so synonymous was he to his Art. Here's his sweet homage to himself, Rembrandt, Vermeer (The Art of Painting), Van Gogh, Picasso and others.

CD Released!

 ...and a splendid time was had by all!

Playing music was something I did all through high school and college. I stopped playing in public after Sue and I were married in 1976 in order to concentrate on a career and a family. When our youngest daughter, Charlotte, became independant, I began tiptoeing back into music. Always blues, a lifelong love.

The release of a real CD recorded in a real studio by real professionals with a real good band probably means more to me than it should but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't very proud.

photograph by Neil Greentree