Federico Hewson

Federico Hewson was an actor and performance artist before getting into fine art - receiving a Masters at NYU in Art and Education with a focus on socially engaged art, social practice and art activism. He founded two non-profits and is currently producing a festival on dance film and technology along with working for a photography foundation.

Federico Hewson was an actor and performance artist before getting into fine art - receiving a Masters at NYU in Art and Education with a focus on socially engaged art, social practice and art activism. He founded two non-profits and is currently producing a festival on dance film and technology along with working for a photography foundation. His past credentials include such quirky and diverse gigs from hand modeling to art modeling to launching a small foundation in the Netherlands called the Valentine Peace Project. He promotes current photographers along with dynamic vintage work. In his activism he has worked on labor issues in the floral industry and is currently working on visuals about human rights and horticulture called the Action of Flowers. He loves discovering the stories behind contemporary photos, unknown historical photographers and the work of art in social change.

Brooklyn Times

Empty Garden (Ode to Ansel Adams), 1984, Bushwick, Brooklyn

I lived in Brooklyn for almost three years. I paid $1100 a month to live with two others in an area not far from the Brooklyn museum. I paid half for my own apartment in Berlin. It’s through this economic lens that I and many I know experience Brooklyn; holding on to a cheap apartment before the landlord decides to sell, dealing with bedbugs (twice), holes in the wall that took months to fix while tripling in size, and rats showing up to roam freely in the kitchen. Sometimes I had to wonder why I was shelling out my high rent acquiring significant student loan debt. One month before I left our kitchen sink almost exploded when mud and dirt flew out of it onto the ceiling. I looked to the blog Brokelyn for advice – a ‘post-crash survival guide devoted to living the best possible life in Brooklyn regardless of one’s means.’

But whatever I did to survive in Brooklyn I knew it was nothing compared to the bombed out recession 70s I learned about at NYU graduate school. I read that in one year – 1980 – New York City had almost 2,000 murders. So who were the artists specific to Brooklyn chronicling this time period? Who not only survived but thrived, capturing images of children playing among the debris of 1980s Bushwick as well as a more buoyant 1960s Williamsburg.

Brooklyn Photographs at BRIC near downtown Brooklyn opens September 7 featuring eleven photographers who capture the varied Brooklyn neighborhoods in a ‘rapidly gentrifying post-industrial landscape’. Change is the operative word prominent in descriptions of an exhibition thorough in its visual examination of the borough’s significant cultural history, diversity and camaraderie in adversity and celebration. Jump Rope (Vanessa's Family) “Gentrification makes neighborhoods unaffordable, and undermines many of their unique qualities” states the photographer Meryl Meisler who visually explores Bushwick in the troubled 80s. “Once a photograph is taken, the vision captures a bygone moment. The pace of change in Brooklyn is rapid.” One of her photo books contrasts scenes of Bushwick, Brooklyn with imagery from the partying nights (and early mornings!) of club Studio 54 in Manhattan – a true Tale of Two Cities. Next to Disco Era Bushwick Meryl also has a photo book juxtaposing her wacky family life in Long Island with Manhattan nightlife and Fire Island parties - Purgatory & Paradise: SASSY ’70s Suburbia & The City. Meryl told me: “Among the photographers in the exhibit and gallery talk are Larry Racioppo and George Malave. Larry, George and I met in recent years because of a common thread that connects and obsesses us – we were all C.E.T.A.photographers in the late ‘70s. [Note: Through an overseeing Foundation the Comprehensive Employment Training Act actually employed New York artists, the largest federal arts employment program since the WPA - the Works Progress Administration of 1933. The program was defunded in 1980.] This is the first time Larry, George and I are in an exhibit together, and it will be important for us to talk about C.E.T.A.’s impact on our life’s work.” Family Picnic, September 1982, Bushwick, Brooklyn Brooklyn – with all its complexity and current economic tensions appears to be very well captured in this thorough and timely exhibition. The photos preserve its turbulent history with humour, insight and delicate humanity. When I was living there I remember navigating the large borough by bike. Cruising past what seemed endless constructions of new tall residential ‘communities’ sprouting among beautiful brownstones – I wondered about its future. Will these photos make a difference? In her recent iN-Public interview Meryl eloquently states: ‘Photography is another expression of spirituality, living with purpose, questioning and seeking appreciative wonder.’ Meisler_1983_01_Man_Fixing Truck_Carrying Car Parts_1500 1983_10_24_self_bday_mirror_wood.1500

Funkalicious

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“I deal with many different disciplines including photography, design and painting. What is important to me are the relevant themes, the topics and content, which are above the discipline. I want to show, discuss and work with material that has a social impact, significant to society and even obvious within our human nature.”

Berlin based designer and architect Yasmine Benhadj-Djilali grew up in Algiers and Cologne. She studied architecture at the RWTH Aachen and taught at the Technische Universität Darmstadt where she focused on cities in transition with an emphasis on violent upheaval in the Arabic world. She is the founder of architecture & design studio YBDD in Berlin and in addition curates the Benhadj & Djilali gallery connected to her studio.

I met Yasmine when I saw her exhibit of Alfred Steffen’s stunning Prince photos, together with his ‘Comfort Zone’ series – photos taken from the unisex restrooms of the legendary long running Cookies club of Berlin. I showed her the late Chicago photographer Michael Abramson’s photos of mid-70s South Side Chicago blues/jazz/funk nightclubs which immediately fascinated her.

“The photos touched me deeply. . their clear illumination of this refuge, an escape we all know, that stands apart from our everyday lives – this parallel temporary nighttime universe of potential serenity and enjoyment. I’m fascinated by the effects of music and alcohol standing for a vision or hope of a better life. The so called ‘good life’ – this combination of illusion and fantasy – its unique fashion and atmosphere. Different from the ‘Cookies’ photos – this is a completely underground scene – there are very few white individuals. It’s an entirely black domain, totally relaxed, almost private and exclusive.”

A lot has been written about how Michael Abramson, a young white student at the time, was able to infiltrate this scene – made to feel welcome so much that he photographed there for almost three years after initial hesitation. He became a fixture at a series of clubs, a character whom Blues legend Lonnie Brooks called the ‘picture man’.

Next to his ballroom and strip club work of the same time period it is the South Side photos which have become Abramson’s most celebrated work – featured in two significant publications. As reported by the LA Times upon his untimely death in 2011, Abramson felt that as a traveled photographer he had been to ‘every part of the planet’ but had never felt so ‘far away as I was when I was on the South Side of Chicago. Not because it was exotic, in the misused sense of that word, but because it was so exhilarating.’

A selection of Abramson’s Chicago South Side photos are currently at the Frankfurt Foto Forum as part of the exhibition Rock.Funk.Punk. and will be opening at Benhadj-Djilali in November.

Happy

Men with Cameras

“The acclaimed photographer Michael Abramson, who passed away from kidney cancer in 2011 left me his estate. He was my longtime romantic partner but I knew little about the art world in general or photography in particular. Only that I had loved Michael and I treasured what he left, which included hundreds of vintage prints. One day as I was packing up Michael’s belongings I came across an archival box full of negative film strips simply labeled “1979.”

Holding up the first strip to the light, I realized this was Michael’s notorious never before seen work from a so-called gentleman’s club that used to exist on Chicago’s north side. Like many strip clubs of its era, the theater hosted monthly events called Camera Night during which, for an extra fee, amateur photographers were invited to arrive before the regular show began to take as many candid shots of the strippers as they liked. Like the other men present, Michael initially went to take photos of the strippers, but as he surveyed the larger scene, it occurred to him to turn his camera on the other photographers – the sea of men continually clicking their shutters.

Michael’s striking and often beautiful photographs of this complex social scene may at first glance generate discomfort, or even be dismissed as disturbing and ugly. While the images are not nearly as graphic as say those of Robert Mapplethorpe – which portrayed men on men – these photographs of men looking at women can make a feminist like myself cringe. Even now nearly 40 year after these photographs were taken, they retain the power to further the conversation of what it means for women to engage in sex work ─ and more critically perhaps, what it says about the men who would want to watch, engage in, and photograph them.”

This is part of the story shared to me by Michael Abramson’s surviving partner, Dr. Midge Wilson, who currently serves as the Director of the Abramson Arts Foundation.

When I shared her story and the images with a London professor friend of mine he wondered what had happened to all the pictures that the men had taken. I wondered too- did they develop them secretly? hiding them from girlfriends or wives? Others viewing the images pointed out to me the cost of purchasing porn in this pre-internet time. These gentlemen were creating their own personal porn supply!

Multiple stories can be unpacked about these wild sometimes humorous and over the top pictures – coming out soon in book form. Some call the scene truly sordid, but I wonder who is really holding the power in this gendered scenario. Within my gaze of the work I appreciate the wide smiles, the showbiz pizazz of the women, the relaxed atmosphere. A sign of the 70s – or men and women sharing an erotic experience? It looks like some are having fun. . Or for the women is it just put-on? A performance? And the men . . fun? bored? exploitive?

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What do you see? 

Feeling Blue

AccraBlueThreeNew York photographer Accra Shepp recently wrapped up his conversation series at the International Center for Photography, titled Radical Conversation: Making America Great. The conversation series – lasting four weeks – was a series of interviews with art activist Dread Scott, Beat generation poet Hettie Jones, visual journalist Brian Palmer and American National Public Radio reporter Arun Venugopal. About the series Accra told me: “In the work of resistance the size of the gesture is not so important as the sincerity and content of the act. For example, when beat poet Hettie Jones published the seminal poetry journal Yugen- its distribution was very small, but over time it became an important voice in American poetry introducing radical poets like Allen Ginsberg and Amir Baraka whose work resonates with us today.”

Catching up with him in his studio in Queens I asked him what he’s up to now:

“I’ve started work on a series of cyanotypes. It’s a 19th century process that creates an image in tones of blue.”

Why is this colour meaningful to you?

“I’ve been feeling the need to do this work for over a year and am still exploring it. People who have responded to the images have talked about how the colour blue evokes our current collective political mood. [Note: For Americans blue is the colour of depression and sadness while for Germans to be blue means to be drunk.] Printing these images in tones of blue (as cyanotypes) they come alive in a way they have not previously – as traditional black and white photographs. It’s like this is the color that they ‘need’ to be. When I’m further along in the series I will know why. The first images came out of a residency I did at a castle in Italy in 1997. The photos were from that castle and a nearby farmhouse. The cyanotype, a very early photo process from the 1840s, links us to our past. In this political moment, which is so uncertain, it provides a kind of anchor. Like Janus, the Roman god of thresholds, looking forward and backward at the same time.”

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Accra’s statements reminded me of a blog I had stumbled onto recently by an upstate New York watercolour artist – Kateri Ewing called Thinking About Blue. She states ”As a watercolourist I now see everything in terms of not only shape, but colour, and no colour is as elusive or as important to me as the colour blue.” Ewing describes the complexity of blue – its appearance in art in the Middle Ages- its multiple palettes and symbolism in both the English and German language. A friend of mine had a dance company in Chicago called Cerulean [considered a deep sky blue]. For Accra, blue is a bridge to memory. For me, in these tumultuous American times gazing at these fresh delicately papered photos I feel a sense of new peace.

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