Rupert Brooke and the night

sunset compressed No matter how familiar we are with a particular location or place, no matter how often we may have frequented or visited; when the sun goes down and the sky grows dark, a change appears. Go outside when the moon is up and suddenly one can hear curious sounds that were muted by day. There is a stillness in the air that is pushed along by the breeze, and as it travels through the open spaces of the canopies it flicks the leaves ricocheting back the most eerie noises. Insects call, night birds hoot, and any rustle by a woodland creature in a familiar bush or scrub becomes an uninvited intruder sending shivers down our backs.

But if this place you are familiar with is not a countryside, but rather the busy streets of a city; the hustle and bustle of day, which is accompanied by a constant flow of activity, the chronic din of the upward and downward pulley of elevators, and the zipping to and fro of traffic; the arrival of darkness ascends like the rise of the curtains at an evening performance. The city’s glow takes on a theatrical appearance of stage lights and a new vigor illuminates what was once quite ordinary. A frenetic passion overtakes blanched city blocks and as though a resurgence of a Renaissance of sorts has been resurrected, neon signs splash color every which way, music oozes out into the streets with the swing of an open door, and expectations soar.

At night we view things differently, and we often wear a persona that can be an extension or even a new conception of ourselves. For no matter how familiar, how recognizable, how comfortable we were by day… night stares back at us and smiles; it diffuses a blanket of darkness often hiding our clarity or removing our inhibitions…

rupert brooke 2 Today I bring back to you our esteemed thinker: Rupert Brooke; English poet and author, best known for his poetry of World War I. Allegedly learning to love poetry from reading Browning at an early age, he belonged to the Georgian Poets, a term describing a romantic and sentimental style … a description of a group of authors writing between the Victorian and Modern era.

So take a moment from your day for a tidbit out of the young Mr. Brooke. From his essay “Letters from America” here are his lovely words about his observations of New York City.

“… Cities, like cats, will reveal themselves at night. There comes an hour of evening when lower Broadway, the business end of the town, is deserted. And if, having felt yourself immersed in men and the frenzy of cities all day, you stand out in the street in this sudden hush, you will hear, like a strange questioning voice from another world, the melancholy boom of a foghorn, and realise that not half a mile away are the waters of the sea, and some great liner making its slow way out to the Atlantic. After that, the lights come out up-town, and the New York of theatres and vaudevilles and restaurants begins to roar and flare. The merciless lights throw a mask of unradiant glare on the human beings in the streets, making each face hard, set, wolfish, terribly blue. The chorus of voices becomes shriller.

The buildings tower away into obscurity, looking strangely theatrical, because lit from below. And beyond them soars the purple roof of the night. A stranger of another race, loitering here, might cast his eyes up, in a vague wonder what powers, kind or maleficent, controlled or observed this whirlpool. He would find only this unresponsive canopy of black, unpierced even, if the seeker stood near a centre of lights, by any star. But while he looks, away up in the sky, out of the gulfs of night, spring two vast fiery tooth-brushes, erect, leaning towards each other, and hanging on to the bristles of them a little Devil, little but gigantic, who kicks and wriggles and glares. After a few moments the Devil, baffled by the firmness of the bristles, stops, hangs still, rolls his eyes, moon-large, and, in a fury of disappointment, goes out, leaving only the night, blacker and a little bewildered, and the unconscious throngs of ant-like human beings…”

* Night photograph:overlooking Biscayne Bay and Miami, Florida.

Esteemed thinker: Jacob A. Riis

Jacob riis “A picture speaks a thousand words…” An adage that we have all heard, all recognize by its metaphoric content; but I wonder… is this the rallying cry of the photojournalist? For when we are witness to that “split second” moment caught on film, it is forever documented. With the camera being in our hands as early as the 1800s, we are able to step back in time and literally spy upon our days-gone-by; often its effect has the ability to embellish or diminish our perception of the past.

Early photographers like their counterpart the early journalists and writers often became the champions of the disenfranchised; describing and photographing parts of society that were often ignored, brushed aside, or even invisible to the public who were not in immediate contact of those less fortunate.

And so, today’s blog introduces the esteemed thinker: Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) social reformer, writer, and photographer that brought to light the plight of the city’s poor. Riis himself was an immigrant that arrived in New York City in 1870 from Denmark. Having taken many different jobs, he became a police report and began to document the slums of New York City. Through his writings and photography he became a change agent, fighting for reform, for better housing, sanitation, care for the poor, and especially the children. He believed that all men who were moral citizens, regardless of economic status, should have an opportunity to better their lives and break free from poverty. His book of 1890, How the Other Half Lives created public uproar and intitiated a movement for change.

huddle riis From one of his many works titled, The Battle of the Slum, we cannot help but be moved by his firsthand account. Here is Mr. Riis in his own words….

“… The slum is as old as civilization. Civilization implies a race, to get ahead. In a race there are usually some who for one cause or another cannot keep up, or are thrust out from among their fellows. They fall behind, and when they have been left far in the rear they lose hope and ambition, and give up. Thenceforward, if left to their own resources, they are the victims, not the masters, of their environment; and it is a bad master. They drag one another always farther down. The bad environment becomes the heredity of the next generation. Then, given the crowd, you have the slum ready-made…”

“…High rents, slack work, and low wages go hand in hand in the tenements as promoters of overcrowding. The rent is always one fourth of the family income, often more. The fierce competition for a bare living cuts down wages; and when loss of work is added, the only thing left is to take in lodgers to meet the landlord’s claim. The midnight visit of the sanitary policeman discloses a state of affairs against which he feels himself helpless. He has his standard: 400 cubic feet of air space for each adult sleeper, 200 for a child. That in itself is a concession to the practical necessities of the case. The original demand was for 600 feet. But of 28,000 and odd tenants canvassed in New York, in the slumming investigation prosecuted by the general government in 1894, 17,047 were found to have less than 400 feet, and of these 5526 slept in unventilated rooms with no windows. No more such rooms have been added since; but there has come that which is worse…”

housing riis