Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Finding Veblen Connections in a NY Photography Exhibit

Though surrounded by forest, the Veblen House might not exist if not for New York City, where its original owner Jesse Whiton-Stuart was raised and later prospered a century ago selling Manhattan real estate. A recent visit to New York added validation for the cause of saving the Veblen House, in the form of Annie Leibovitz's photography exhibition at the New York Historical Society gallery. You can find many of the photos through an internet search of "Annie Leibovitz Pilgrimage".

As the exhibition guide explained, an initial visit to Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst inspired a project that took Leibovitz to homes of many other historic figures, where she photographed objects that had meaning to her. The result is an extraordinary example of how photography allows artifacts located at the various sites to travel, bringing attention not only to the photographer's visual sensibilities but also to the historic figures and locations themselves. The bed of Henry David Thoreau, a dress of Marian Anderson's, the gloves of Abraham Lincoln--items that might gain only passing notice in a museum--are turned into art powerful enough to carry the object's backstory to a new audience.

The accompanying text in the exhibition guide offered some parallels with Veblen House. The Veblen's balcony linking the two upstairs bedrooms may once have been used much as Eleanor Roosevelt used her "unheated sleeping porch next to her bedroom, even in cold weather." I thought of Jac Weller, the colorful character, military historian and Veblen neighbor, when reading that Elvis Presley was a collector of guns, one of which he aimed at a television set, now in storage at Graceland. I thought of the Veblen possessions tragically lost to a leaky pipe while in storage at a county building in Trenton, when reading that much of Martha Graham's materials were badly damaged by flooding during Hurricane Sandy.

The story of Pete Seeger clearing land along the Hudson to build a log cabin, where he would raise his family (Leibovitz photographed his tool shed), brought memories of Veblen's grandparents forging a series of farmsteads out of the Wisconsin wilderness in the 1800s. Another photo is of Charles Darwin's Sandwalk, a looping path "that he had planted with trees and bushes" and walked along two or three times a day. Veblen, too, planted oaks along a path he would frequently walk. Nature as a stimulant of thought is a recurrent theme among scientists and writers of that era, and in Veblen's motivation to save 500 acres of land, at the Institute for Advanced Study and at Herrontown Woods. Darwin also bred and studied pigeons, which played a role in the life of the first owner of the Veblen House, Jesse Whiton-Stuart. He may have housed them in the dovecote (visible in the first photo in this post) that once stood near the house. Emily Dickinson's love of plants, also photographed by Leibovitz, is a thread that runs through the lives of many others, including Robert Frost and Veblen's uncle Thorstein.

A bit of an aside, regarding the connection between wooded pathways and scientists: Growing up next to Yerkes Observatory, I would walk to school along a path used fifty years prior by the astronomer Edwin Frost to get from his home to the observatory. He became blind later in life, but would still walk through the woods to his office every morning. A wire was strung from tree to tree along the path, so he could guide his way with the crook of a cane held against the wire. Pieces of the wire could still be found in the trees when I was exploring around there as a kid. Merging scientists and writers, as Leibovitz does in her exhibit, I somehow turned it in my youthful mind that the Frost who walked that path was Robert Frost, the famous poet.

Annie Leibovitz, describing her pilgrimage, says "I couldn't help but be pulled into other people's lives." This website is one more example of that power of people far displaced in time to draw us in.

The exhibit runs through February 22, next door to the Natural History Museum.

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