Townhouse Doors, Rittenhouse Square, Philly

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OK, in this one I do remember getting the fence pole in there intentionally to add to the verticals. But, without seeing the original picture, I probably cropped it too tightly, except for the sign post — it’s too fat a border.

To get these sideways “relief” shadows, the sun has to be low in the sky, but it can’t be too low or it will go below the other buildings.  So it usually has to be an east/west street, and then there is only about 15 minutes, in the morning and evening, when the lighting is really nice.

Sun and Shadow, Center City, Philly

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I had recently discovered “spot exposure” — if you set your camera thingee to the the little round dot with no box around it, and put that on the sunlit thing, it’ll expose for that, making the rest totally black.  Much better than trying to average out the shadows and sun and making both look horrible. Digital, like film, has only half the “dynamic range” of our eyes, meaning that, when I was standing there, the shadow part was just “shaded”.  But this way, you got your sunlit path, to the steps, to the doors.  Feels like it’s going somewhere!

“Welcome” statue, Apartment Complex, Rittenhouse Square Area

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So as far back as when I was going to college there in the 70’s, Philadelphia has had a rule that any new construction has to include 0.01% of the budget, or thereabouts, for some Public Art.  Hence, back then (and no doubt still) there was a gigantic clothes-pin that one would pass by on the way down to Wanamaker’s. 

It is one of the things that makes Philly so pleasant to walk around in.  And it doesn’t have to be “modern” art, as this statue shows.  Just something nice.

Convenience Store, Near Rittenhouse Square

9311588377_d915a08915_oI love photographing store windows when the light is on them. Don’t know why. Think it is because it is just so much colorful stuff squeezed together. That’s what I like about NYC too. So much stuff to look at.

And finally! Looking at this picture, I remembered one of my favorite photographer’s names! Andreas Gursky! His “99 Cent” is one of favorite things. You really have to see it at full size. And by that I mean a 7′ by 11′ print. Not any version on-line or in a book. But here it is online anyway.

Philadelphia: Path down to the river

I recently (well, 10 years ago, like with all the other pictures I am posting) spent a weekend in Philadelphia, walking around and taking pictures. I took 1150 pictures. This figure causes consternation among my friends. “How can you sit and look through all those pictures?” Actually, it’s not like shuffling through a stack of prints … I just breeze through them with ACDSee … How many frames do you see when you watch a movie? It’s like that.

A while ago — maybe it was around my 60 or 70 thousandth picture, somewhere in there — I started to worry that all I really cared about was taking pictures, like a collector who cares more about his collection than the things in it. Happily, during this Philly weekend, when I was poking around back behind the Museum of Art, just before sunset, I realized that for me, taking pictures is like fishing — the real pleasure is not “catching the fish”, but in the walking, seeing what is around that next corner, and taking the time to look at everything. The camera is just an excuse to do lots more of it.9307813312_30b6bb57f1_o

The Forbes Galleries: “A Lifetime of Collecting” (Conclusion)

“You know,” says the woman with the red hat, “setting up these soldiers is very good for the eye and finger control of the child. You know, putting them in rows and not knocking them all over.”

Only an artist-jeweler (such as Tiffany) could possibly set up what she’s referring to: 1,400 pieces representing French infantry, cavalry, and artillery of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, all under an inch high and arranged row upon row in a small box painted to look like a parade grounds.

You can’t call human history a complete waste, says Dostoyevsky, when you take into account the spectacular military dress uniforms worn by armies down through the ages. Most of them seem to be represented here, in dazzling panoramas ranging from the coronation of Menelik II, to Kaiser Wilhelm reviewing his troops.

Mass production of toy soldiers began with “flats” produced in Nuremberg, Germany, using excess metal left over from kitchenware manufacturing. Only 1 mm thick, the specimens here are nevertheless microscopically detailed and painted. For example, in a tableaux of fantastically costumed and feathered Aztecs battling Conquistadors in shining helmets and ornate breastplates on the steps of a giant pyramid.

These “flats” evolved into “semi-flats” (10mm thick) and then into full rounds (3-D). The master of these was George Heyde, of Dresden (creator of the lavish “Wilhelm” and “Menelik” scenes above) whose firm flourished from the end of the Franco-Prussian war until the firebombing and utter destruction of Dresden during WWII.

In 1893, “a man called Britain” invented the economical hollow lead figures that have become the most widely collected toy soldiers. Britains have recreated “nearly every regiment of the British Army and hundreds from other nations.” Of course, any Britains that were made, Forbes has — right down to the rare “Village Idiot” from the 1920’s “Home Farm” set. This was speedily introduced when King George V made an off-hand remark on his absence (“No English village is complete without him”) and withdrawn shortly thereafter “on grounds of taste”.

Thanks to revolving turntables, there’s parades and mounted Indians circling cowboys. Also, a spectacular staging, “in the authentic heraldry of the Middle Ages”, of the Battle of Portiers in 1356, with England’s Black Prince making butter out of the cream of French chivalry. Each knight’s name is printed on his stand.

Between the soldiers and the ships is an india-ink and watercolor painting, “The Destruction of Admiral Cervera’s Fleet, July 3rd, 1898 (Xanthas Smith, 1898), which is done in the innocent spirit of children’s drawing on similar themes.

In it, 3 American dreadnoughts, all guns blazing at once, are literally blowing the Spanish fleet to smithereens. U.S. sailors lounge on the decks, arms folded or hands in pockets, watching the fireworks with detached realism. The Spanish are not even firing back: “Last one overboard is a rotten egg,” seems their motto; some even seem to be running on top of the water to get away from the exploding smokestacks. Other have crowded aboard a capsized, floating gun turret, like Lear’s Jumblies, who went to sea in a sieve. There are no visible injuries, except to their feelings.

Cries of “man battle stations!” and the theme from Das Boat emanate from the next room. Inside is a big tank, at the bottom of which lies a model of the Lusitania, for which Forbes paid $28,600. Dozens of toy subs swarm above it.

Any doubts about the value of collecting toy ships (and toy soldiers, etc.) are erased by seeing the collection itself, with fleets of warships, passenger liners, merchant marines, and riverboats loving arranged, labeled and explained. Most date from 1905 to 1930, and are made of tin, which allowed for attractive and sturdy detailing. It’s fun to kneel down, to get on eye level with them, and imagine what you could have imagined, had you had these toys.

The Marklin Company’s Weissenberg, a beautiful battleship at least 3′ long, has unhookable lifeboats, a sturdy railing, places for toy soldiers to stand, an anchor with chain attached, fixed cannons protected by curved tin shields, and two rotating turrets that look like upside-down saucepans. A wind-up key sticks out of a smokestack.

“The Weissenberg captures all that made this company great,” says the label. “Note how well designed the ship is for its size, somehow appearing almost bigger than it is. This results from many exaggerated features—overstuffed gun turrets, thick masts, and large painted portholes. . . . Even the warship grey coloring sparkles with playful seriousness.”

Nearby is the “Andre”, the largest boat in the collection. Its deck has been removed to expose its “complex and very powerful gas engine.” It looks like you’d have to get your Dad to help push it out to the center of the driveway; then you’d stand back about 100′, hands over your ears, while he started it up.

“What exactly is a toy boat?” asks a signboard on the glass case housing a flotilla of fifty warships, ranging from 1′ to 3′ long. It explains that unlike a model, which is a delicately crafted replica of a real ship, a toy ship is mass produced with the emphasis on playability, not realism.

“Powered by steam, battery, or clockwork, toy boats had a tough life. They blew up, sank, forgot to come back, or just rusted away, leaving few survivors. They are the rarest of antique toys because they fulfilled their purpose—they were played with.”*

*****

Yard sales and pawn shops are where Forbes gathered the final collection, trophy memorabilia. He writes: “The point made in this gallery is relevant to all collectors: THE MORTALITY OF IMMORTALITY. Every object you see here . . . marked a moment that was of great moment to Gone getters and doers. These varying milestone markers, so meaningful to lives past, were acquired in flea markets, at auction, and other emporiums of the ephemeral. This trophy room is a moving reminder that all things and all of us are all too soon ”over and out”.

Oddball items like the Hindenburg stool, the feet of a Mexican deer made into handles for a carving knife and fork, and a silver platter presented “for the best 5 acres of Swedes grown with Bradbury Manure” acquire special poignancy when viewed in this light.

Nor has the parallel to Forbes the collector been lost on me. My Dad told me a story about a rich guy who spent his whole life at Sotheby’s, filling up his house with a comprehensive collection of stuff from all over the world. As soon as he died, his family called in Sotheby’s, and they auctioned all off again, scattering it to the winds, as it were.

That’s not likely to happen here, since Forbes’ son seems to share his interests. Hopefully he will also subscribes to Malcolm’s collection philosophy: “It’s the sharing of it that keeps it alive.”

*****

[Well, they did keep the collection together for many years after his death, but eventually it went the way of other collections, and that seems proper.  Many many people had a chance to see it while it was here.]


*This crucial distinction was brought home to me one Christmas when I received both a giant toy aircraft carrier, “Mighty Matilda”, and also a large-scale model kit of the U.S.S. Constitution.

Mighty Matilda was my all-time favorite toy. Powered by dozens of “D” batteries (Dad finally figured out how to hook it up to a electric transformer instead, to his great relief), with an indestructible yellow plastic flight deck long enough for me to try riding it myself, it had working elevators, catapults, missile launchers, alarms, and a full complement of jets, sailors and frogmen.

It would cruise majestically around the living room, , crushing enemy speedboats which sent out to ram it.

Another exciting scenario had two enemy frogmen climbing up the hull, knocking out the sailor at the main control panel before he could flip the alarm lever. Then they would leap for, and just grab onto the ascending elevator, battling with more sailors there (those who weren’t knocked overboard would end up pinned helplessly between the elevators and the bottom of the flight deck). Finally they would crawl across the deck (being frogmen, they were permanently stuck in prone swimming position) and get into two jets, taking off just as the first sailor recovered to sound the alarm.

A tremendous dogfight was climaxed by a kamikaze dive, which just missed thanks to Sailor #1 throwing the ship into reverse.

The model of U.S.S. Constitution was an shame to me for years. A present from Gramma, who probably thought it would develop my hand and finger coordination, it was, or might have been, a delicately crafted replica, after painting and assembly. The painting went o.k.; I learned how to use masking tape to make a straight line and how applying a thin wash of enamel over the decks, instead of just slopping it on, would bring out the molded imitation wood grain.

But the rigging—what a nightmare! I’m sure Malcolm Forbes has had NO problem entering the Kingdom of Heaven, rich as he was, when compared with what I went through trying to pass that thread through one of those tiny eyehooks. Then the main mast melted because of too much Testor’s.

The one time I played with it, half the cannons broke loose and started rolling around amidships. The only way to retrieve them would be to rip off the upper decks. I would have stomped it to pieces, but Gramma kept asking how the ship was coming (“almost done, Grams!”).

Now I’ll have to censor this part of the article before sending it to her, because while I always meant to finish old Ironsides one day, in truth the disfigured hulk sat in a closet for ten years before being judged unfit even for a yard-sale freebie.

The Forbes Galleries: “A Lifetime of Collecting” (Part One)

Sadly, Malcolm Forbes died within the same week that I wrote this — on February 24, 1990.  We had a special affection for him because he lived near us and sometimes we would see his hot air balloon passing overhead.  My Dad would run out and with his fist raised, yell, “Capitalist Tool!”  

The collection has now mostly been auctioned off, after many many years of providing pleasure to all, instead of to just a fortunate few.

“Let’s go look at the boats!,” says a woman with a red hat. “We’re going to go look at the boats. Here are the boats. Let Christopher look at the boats. Look at the boats going round and round. The only one who’s not looking is Christopher. . . . You want to go see the soldiers? Let’s go see the soldiers.” Aside to friend: “This is a great museum for children.”

Sure, kids love the Forbes Magazine Galleries. Their scrawled letters line the walls, thanking the late great collector Malcolm Forbes for his marvelous display of toy boats and soldiers. But, throw in the opera glasses Lincoln dropped when he was shot, Thomas Jefferson’s $167,000 bottle of Lafitte, a strut fragment from the Hindenberg used as the legs for a stool, a biography of Julian Christian Smuts, written by his son, J. C. Smuts, and the fabled Fabergé Eggs, and everyone from the Roving Rube to the Dilatory Dilettante will get their money’s worth. And admission is free, anyway.

Included in that price is a picture gallery, currently featuring “Detached Realism: The Works of Penn and Bravo”. One does photos, the other painting, all of real people—including life-size portraits of Forbes and his son Timothy (president of Forbes Magazine), the former flanked by icons of his interest in motorcycling and ballooning. The “detached realism” apparently refers to the unsmiling, critical expressions with which they regard you, the viewer—I started to feel like something the cat dragged in.

Nearby are the Fabergé Eggs. “Oh—the Fabergé Eggs! You must see them!” friends had said. I read in one of those Franklin Mint ads where collector eggs have been “coveted objets d’art” for centuries. “The Fabergé eggs, for instance, are so prized that prominent collectors have paid thousands of dollars for a single egg.” Incredibly, the F.M. has created an “imcomparable collection of 12 magnificent eggs—the kind of collection it might take a lifetime to assemble”, for just $37.50 each.

Forbes collected 12 eggs during his lifetime. Unfortunately, 9 are currently on loan to the Moscow Museum as part of “Eggnost”—the first time they’ve been back there since the Revolution (they’ll return soon).

I thought they would be real eggs with a hole in one end, and you look in and see a miniature city or something. But it turns out they are made of gold, encrusted with gems, and have a “surprise” inside; i.e., a removable golden yolk which opens to reveal a hen, or a rooster which pops out on the hour, crowing and flapping its wings.

The eggs were given as Easter presents by the Czar to his wife and mother from 1888 until they were executed by the communists. Fabergé, considered by some as the greatest jeweler of all time, tried to top himself each year when creating these eagerly anticipated gifts. His work makes what you find on 47th St. nowadays look like Cracker Jacks trinkets. (Speaking of which, how come when you buy a gold chain, they charge you $200 for the “craftsmanship”, but when you try to sell it back a week later, they’ll only give you the “scrap” value of $30. Fabergé’s answer: “Of course these people are merchants and not artist-jewelers.”)

For true non-depreciating craftsmanship, it’s Fabergé. And he was more than just eggs—he did cigarette cases, letter openers, ink wells, glue pots, fans, and thimbles. All crawling with precious, semi-precious, and just plain sparkly stones. Not content with regular golden gold, he used yellow, green, red, blue, white, and grey golds.

A book on Fabergé by a Mr. Snowman calls him a master of the “intensely pretty”, and attributes the current shoddy craftsmanship plaguing the jewelry industry (and the fine arts in general) to there being “fewer and fewer people of an educated taste . . . in a position to acquire articles that attract them.” Slake your own educated taste here, and be thankful Forbes was in a position to acquire these attractive articles for you. Bring your monocle, as there’s a separate 24 page fine-print brochure describing all 300+ objets de luxe.

*******

In the next two galleries are the Presidential Papers, Forbes’ favorite collection.

“Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens, you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below. . . . [signed] Harry F. Truman”

This letter from the former president to a critic who panned his daughter’s singing typifies the exhibit’s emphasis on the human sides of famous figures. Another example is Paul Revere’s expense account for his ride from Boston to NYC after the Boston Tea Party.

[to be continued….]