It’s been a while since I have posted any street photography work. It’s easy to get backed up especially as I was starting a new National Park Service commission that gave rise to some artistic and technical and challenges. Now that so much of the world is under some sort of quarantine, the commission is on hold and I’ve had time to catch up on previous work.
This was a photograph I made about a month ago. I was walking along West 14th Street, which I had not been to in quite some time. Many years ago when I was working in the music industry, I actually had a small office space toward the end of this street. It was in a loft where a client — the Record Pool Business Center (RPBC) — was based. The record companies furnished RPBC with their latest dance music vinyl releases. RPBC, in turn, distributed these records to their DJ members. The DJs played the music at their night clubs, radio programs, and events, and furnished RPBC with audience feedback that was then reported to the record companies for marketing purposes. The cycle of this ecosystem served all the parties well in the days before recorded music started migrating online.
The neighborhood is different from what it was in those days. But there are some spots, like the building above, that have remained largely the same for over a hundred years. What has changed is me. When I walked down West 14th Street back in my music business days, I was walking with a purpose. I had a meeting to get to, I was walking and talking with a client, or I was rushing back home after midnight.
Last month, though, it was broad daylight and I had time to observe my surroundings. That’s when I passed by number 200. I caught a glance of it within the periphery of my vision. It’s easy to miss as it is tucked in between two garish retail stores. Perhaps that’s why, in an effort to compete for attention, the entranceway to the building was painted bright red — a color I doubt was original to the building. The conspicousness of the red is only matched by the twin statues framing the door. It was such a peculiar sight that I started to think how it might make for an interesting photograph. A few doorways down, I came to a dead stop and immediately — without bothering to turn myself around — sped-walked in reverse.
I got the photograph I wanted, but it’s only now that I finally had an opportunity to do a little checking to find out more about this unusual structure. The five story brick residential building was constructed in 1889 in a style that was common in France at the time. Indeed, the building is named The Jeanne d’Arc, in honor of the teenager who led the French army in battle against the English in the 15th century. She was later captured, burned at the stake, and canonized as a Roman Catholic saint in 1920. I did not think to look toward the upper stories of the facade, as I often do, but a white statue of her is set between two windows on the third floor.
The sculptures that I did notice were the ones gracing each side of the doorway although I chose to only depict one in the photograph. I have come to learn that these are called caryatids. Adopted from ancient Greek architecture, they serve as a more decorative version of the pillars and columns used to support the horizontal beam — or entablature — that rests on their heads. The typical caryatid, unlike what is seen on The Jeanne d’Arc, is a complete female body draped in a full length garment called a peplos.
That bit of information enhanced my appreciation of two wooden carved pieces measuring close to three feet in height that I have in my studio. They belonged to my father, who reproduced one-of-a-kind antique chairs for a variety of clients that included Chris Jussel (later cast as the original host of PBS’s Antiques Roadshow). These pieces, which appear to be made of oak or ash, were handcarved by one of my father’s colleagues. I think his name was Giuliano, a talented Italian immigrant who worked out of his basement shop in his Brooklyn home.
These were either sample pieces or leftovers from a job that my father could not bear to discard. So they have lived with the family for at least 40 years. In all that time, I did not know until now that they are caryatids. It provokes a hazy memory of my father explaining that they were designed for use in supporting a table top.
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