What’s Your Story: Fifth Graders Share Their Family Histories

When you enter this classroom you are:
unique, explorers, authors, musicians, readers, successful, inventors, respected.

These words welcome visitors to teacher Debbie Elkayam’s fifth grade classroom at Haskell Elementary School, an LAUSD school in the San Fernando Valley. And they are a perfect representation of the teacher and her students.

Several years ago, I met Ms. Elkayam during her class field trip to the Skirball for the extremely popular Grade 5 School Tour of Americans and Their Family Stories. I was one of the educators leading the interactive tour in which students explore the commonalities and differences among immigrant stories from around the world. At one point in the tour, Ms. Elkayam mentioned that she uses this tour—along with the Skirball’s teacher guide and creative activities she designed herself—to make the topic of immigration and heritage more personal for her students. Curious about how she did so, my next question was: When can I visit your classroom?

Soon, I was happily on my way to Haskell Elementary for the first of two planned visits. On my first trip in February, I learned how Ms. Elkayam prepares students for the program at the Skirball by connecting the theme of immigration to their lives.

A warm greeting in Polish, my native language, welcomes me to Ms. Elkayam’s classroom. Dzień dobry (d͡ʑɛɲ ˈdɔbrɨ) means “hello,” or “good day,” in Polish.

A warm greeting in Polish, my native language, welcomes me to Ms. Elkayam’s classroom.
Dzień dobry (d͡ʑɛɲ ˈdɔbrɨ) means “hello,” or “good day,” in Polish.

Looking around the classroom, I saw projects displaying illustrated family stories, art making, and explorations of the diverse heritage of her students. Clearly, the Americans and Their Family Stories tour worked extremely well within Ms. Elkayam’s curriculum. Continue reading

What Big Art Is All About: Conversations with Robert Landau and Enrique Vidal

I recently sat down with photographer Robert Landau and billboard artist Enrique Vidal to discuss the billboards on view in the exhibition Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip. In addition to telling me more about the history of the billboards and the labor of creating them, they each spoke of their great admiration for billboard art. This passion drove a teenaged Robert to photograph the billboards on the Sunset Strip for over a decade, a project that profoundly influenced his artistic vision. It also led Enrique to make a living “painting big,” first as a billboard artist and later as a muralist for cultural sites around the world. Hear more of their fascinating stories in the videos below, plus read some of my favorite moments from our conversations.

Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, on view through August 16. Photo by Timothy Norris.

Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, on view through August 16. Photo by Timothy Norris.

Interviews have been edited for clarity.

Excerpt from my interview with Robert Landau, Photographer:

Can you tell me a little more about how you came to document the rock & roll billboards?
I had an old Nikkormat, which was kind of a poor man’s Nikon camera in those days. But the smartest thing I did was shoot color transparency film. I shot Kodachrome slides, because my main purpose in shooting them was that I would have slide shows for my friends. That’s as far as I thought the images would go. I’d invite all my friends in—they lived in other parts of the city, they never saw these things because [the billboards] came and went so frequently—and I’d have slide shows and show [my friends] all these great billboards.

I began just by trying to take good pictures of the billboards when the light on them was good. I was crossing the Strip every day: Every time I went anywhere in the city, I had to travel on the Strip. So I’d see them. I was traveling early to go to school. I’d see the crews out there, so I got to know the sites, and when and where and how [the crews] changed [the billboards] and all that. Very quickly thereon, I realized it was just as interesting to see what was happening around the billboards. Some of the first art photographers that I was interested in were mostly French street photographers . . . and I thought that they were capturing so well that city and that time. I thought I could try to do the same thing with Los Angeles.

Photo by Robert Landau. © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

Photo by Robert Landau. © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

What specifically drew you to these billboards?
My father, Felix Landau, was one of the early art gallerists in Los Angeles, on La Cienega. He started in the late 1940s, but throughout the ’50s and ’60s [he] had a very influential gallery Continue reading

I Remember Bill

Bill Graham onstage before the final concert at Fillmore East. Fillmore East, New York, January 1, 1970. Chromogenic print. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Bill Graham onstage before the final concert at Fillmore East. Fillmore East, New York, June 27, 1971. Photo by John Olson. Chromogenic print. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

I never met Bill Graham (1931–1991), but I remember him. If you lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the ’60s and ’70s, you remember Bill. In the exploding rock & roll universe of that era, he loomed as large as anyone. Bill was no mere concert promoter; he was a visionary, a celebrity, a force of nature. His productions were not just music but a revolutionary form of theater and audience communion. Whatever the venue—the legendary Fillmore and Winterland ballrooms, Golden Gate Park, the Berkeley Community Theater, the Oakland Coliseum—if the marquee said Bill Graham Presents, you knew the music would be amazing. More than that: it would be an experience. It would be like…well… the Jimi Hendrix Experience, if you can imagine it. Earthshaking. Mesmerizing. Titanic. Unforgettable.

Bill Graham sons, David and Alex, joined us to celebrate the opening of the exhibition, seen here with their mothers Bonnie MacLean and Marcia Godinez. It was an exciting night, full of anticipation as we looked forward to sharing Bill's legacy with the public.

Bill Graham’s sons, Alex (far left) and David, joined us to celebrate the opening of the exhibition.
They are pictured here with their mothers, Marcia Godinez and Bonnie MacLean (far right).

Yet Bill wasn’t only about the music. He was about the message. He believed that music could be a force for social change, and he led the way to the mass phenomenon that came to be called the benefit concert. Bill had protean powers of energy, persuasion, and will. When it came to something he believed in, he could not be stopped. In 1985, President Reagan announced that he would visit the Bitburg Cemetery. When Bill learned that fifty Nazi SS officers were interred there, he launched a national campaign of protest. As a child he had barely escaped Nazi Europe; his mother and one of his sisters perished in the camps. Despite enormous pressure to cease and desist, Bill would not. Bill was not one to cease and desist. The president went ahead with the visit. But history will remember Bill’s courage and conviction.

Continue reading

President’s Greeting: May/Jun 2015

When it comes to rock & roll music, I can’t claim much familiarity. I grew up with the music of Israeli folk dancing, which still moves my heart (and my feet!). The world of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Santana was known to me only through my children. I was well aware that this music had become a worldwide phenomenon, but I knew very little about how it happened.

Photo From the collection of Bill’s sons, David and Alex Graham, this treasured photo depicts a young Bill, when he was Wolfgang Grajonca, with his mother and sisters. Berlin, ca. 1938, Gelatin silver print.

From the collection of Bill’s sons, David and Alex Graham, this treasured photo depicts a young Bill, when he was Wolfgang Grajonca, with his mother and sisters. Berlin, ca. 1938.

Now, with the Skirball’s presentation of the exhibition Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, I am finding out. I am learning of the life and legacy of a remarkable Jewish immigrant, orphaned by the Holocaust, who did as much as anyone to launch that revolution and transform it into a communal experience and a social force.

Born Wolfgang Grajonca in Berlin, Germany, Bill was in many ways a classic example of the American success story: a young boy with no advantages, rising from obscurity to the pinnacle of success solely on the strength of unstoppable personality, drive, and determination. Continue reading

Billboards, Covered

Marvin Gaye billboard on the Sunset Strip, circa 1977. Photo by Robert Landau.  © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

Marvin Gaye billboard on the Sunset Strip, circa 1977. Photo by Robert Landau.
© Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

The Skirball’s upcoming exhibition Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, opening March 24, highlights a unique era in rock & roll advertising when record companies took over the Sunset Strip with one-of-a-kind hand-painted billboards to promote their artists’ new albums. These rock advertising billboards, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, were elaborate works of art. They were also highly ephemeral, residing on Sunset Boulevard for just a month or two at a time before being dismantled and whitewashed in anticipation of the next record release. With the advent of MTV in the 1980s, billboard ads for music disappeared from the local landscape. Robert Landau’s photographs, featured in the exhibition, remain to document this brief moment when the biggest names in the music business—from Bowie to Bruce to the Beatles—clamored to be seen on billboards.

Of course, the music also remains. I revisited my days as a college radio DJ and made a mix that includes a few of the legendary musicians whose billboards appear in the exhibition—as covered by other musicians. Continue reading

Exploring Light and Shadow: Film Noir and Photography

 ROUSE & JONES, Dead End, 2009, courtesy of the artists


ROUSE & JONES, Dead End, 2009, courtesy of the artists

The Skirball exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, now on view through March 1, explores how European exiles and émigrés helped create some of the most classic Hollywood films during and immediately after World War II. Film noir is one of the genres from that era that was heavily shaped by these film artists. Noir films present thrilling stories involving intrigue, suspense, disillusionment, and corruption. Characters are often immersed in dark worlds full of tension and uncertainty. As a companion to Light & Noir, the exhibition The Noir Effect looks at a range of contemporary fine art, film, graphic novels, and games that have taken noir in a new direction and redefined it for audiences today. A large section of the exhibition includes contemporary photography by a diverse group of artists who embrace and experiment with the aesthetics of film noir.

Among these artists is the Los Angeles–based photography duo ROUSE & JONES. Partners in life as well as art, writer/director Mitchell Rouse and photographer/producer Brittany Jones began collaborating in 2009, and soon developed a photography series called NOIR based on their love of films from Hollywood’s Golden Age. The pair’s work combines several elements of film, photography, performance, and storytelling.

Rather than re-creating films that already exist, ROUSE & JONES create a new story in the film noir style using a distinct sequence of techniques. First, they write an original, noir-inspired script that includes setting, action, and dialogue. Then, they ask actors to perform the story, directing the actors’ lines and gestures as they photograph the unfolding scene. Several “takes” of each scene are photographed, shot from different angles and using multiple lighting setups. The actors are encouraged to improvise so that the tension and realism of each scene are heightened.

ROUSE & JONES believe in nurturing the noir genre for future generations; on February 26, as part of the “Light & Noir in Los Angeles” high school residency at the Skirball, the pair will meet with students to discuss their work and share techniques. But before they do, I thought I’d check in with them on SkirBlog and see if they could provide a few more insights into their fascinating way of working:

 

What is it about film noir that you are so drawn to? Why do you think this type of work that draws from noir themes is still so relevant and compelling today?
We love film noir because it’s all about “painting with light,” as the great noir cinematographer John Alton would say. Obviously that’s true of every image ever created, but the noir aesthetic is probably the most dramatic example of how light can be used to tell stories and create emotions. Light and shadow are always “characters” in noir imagery.

Noir themes are still relevant today because they are universal. Noir explores the dark side of man (and world), and those are things that every person faces in their lives. There’s an interesting balance between light and dark within every person, Continue reading

A Trans Am and a Mystery Woman: Noirscape Photo Contest Winner

For many filmmakers, writers, and artists, Los Angeles is the quintessential noir setting. As part of The Noir Effect exhibition, we challenged people to use the noir city as inspiration and submit their own noir-style photographs for a “Shoot Your L.A. Noirscape” contest.

We received more than eighty entries that captured all corners of Los Angeles, from famous landmarks to dramatic shadow-filled streets to moody urban landscapes. People experimented with angles, light sources, blur effects, shadows, colors, and filters. Some even incorporated noir characters into mysterious urban scenes to trigger unsettling narratives. The eclectic range of submissions reinforced just how much noir is part of today’s culture and is constantly being redefined. Noir extends beyond the film genre and becomes a lens for seeing the world. It’s a language, an art form, a style and sensibility that can be applied to so many spaces and environments.

We handed over nineteen compelling entries from our finalists (you can see them all in the slideshow below) to Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation and producer and host of the NOIR CITY film festival, who made the final selection. And we are pleased to announce that the winner is…Eric Canale! Eric wins a nice dinner at the old Hollywood restaurant Musso & Frank Grill, and his photograph will be displayed in The Noir Effect gallery for the month of February, so be sure to look for it!

Pennsylvania Avenue at Stewart Street, Santa Monica by Eric Canale

Pennsylvania Avenue at Stewart Street, Santa Monica by Eric Canale

Eric Canale describes his work: Continue reading

Light & Noir: Through the Curator’s Lens

Red Carpet Season is well underway, and if you watched the Golden Globes last night, wasn’t it nice to glimpse a bit of classic Hollywood glamour?

Here at the Skirball, we’re approaching the halfway mark of our own homage to the Golden Age of American filmmaking, Light & Noir: Exiles and Emigres in Hollywood, 1933-1950. As KCRW’s Edward Goldman says, “From the get-go, it’s a winner.” With only about seven weeks to go until the proverbial credits roll on the show, I sat down with curator Doris Berger, who conceived of the exhibition and worked tirelessly on it for more than two years before its October “premiere.”

Curator Doris Berger in a vintage dress for the opening of Light and Noir.

Curator Doris Berger in a vintage dress for the opening of Light & Noir.

 

Is there one particular object in the exhibition that moves you especially deeply?
There are so many objects that move me in this exhibition. It was really hard to decide sometimes what to include and what to leave out. The correspondence of Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures, to his extended family in 1938 is incredibly affecting—full of humility and conviction to help others. In a letter to his nephew William Wyler, Laemmle pleads for him to do everything he possibly can to help other refugees. Here’s a quote from that letter: “The Jewish situation in Germany has been getting on my nerves for a long, long time. I feel that these poor, unfortunate people need help the worst way. … If you want to do something really big—something that will give you an immense amount of pleasure—issue one or more affidavits, as many as your means permit. … I feel that every person in America, Jew or non-Jew, with a heart, should do his bit, and thereby get an immense amount of satisfaction and possibly save one or more lives.”

Laemmle also wrote a simple Christmas card to other family members on which he writes, Continue reading

The Shadow of Harvey

The design I created for the VHS release of Harvey is now being used on the DVD covers. Harvey is one of the many Golden Age of Hollywood films explored in the Skirball exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés, 1933–1950.

The design I created for the VHS release of Harvey is now being used on the DVD covers. Harvey is one of the many Golden Age of Hollywood films explored in the Skirball exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés, 1933–1950.

 

It was a dark rainy night in 1989. Tanks were rolling into Tiananmen Square. I dodged flaming cars returning to our residence from the hotel near the airport to rescue my design portfolio. I figured I was going to need it. I was right. In two weeks I was working in L.A.

I got a job with a design firm in the old Helms building on Venice Boulevard. An old friend scooped me up right away. In those days I really had chops.

Yeah, we had some accounts in the entertainment sector. Our specialty was creating airbrush illustrations for the front of video boxes, often using disparate scenes from the movie to create whole new scenes that do not even actually appear. But that was only part of our ruse. You see, even if the movie was B&W—as most classics are—the covers would always be in color. And if that wasn’t enough, the finished product would then be used in all subsequent advertising and promotion for the movie, all over the world. Okay, I’m not proud of it, but that’s the way it was back then.

We got the gig designing packaging for Harvey, a Henry Koster movie about a man (played by James Stewart) whose imaginary friend is a human-sized rabbit named Harvey.

Watch a scene from Harvey:

My task was to examine hundreds of stills from the movie and do several compositions. Continue reading

President’s Greeting: Jan/Feb 2015

Ernst van Leyden, Portrait of Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger, 1946, oil painting. Courtesy of Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, Special Collections, University of Southern California Libraries. On view now in our exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

Ernst van Leyden, Portrait of Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger, 1946, oil painting. Courtesy of Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, Special Collections,
University of Southern California Libraries.
On view now in our exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

 

I had the privilege of knowing Marta Feuchtwanger, pictured above with her beloved husband, Lion Feuchtwanger (1884–1958), the famed German Jewish writer. She and I were friends for two decades in her later years (we met in 1964; she died in 1987). From her I learned of Lion’s celebrated novels and plays, his outspoken opposition to the Nazi regime, his rescue from Nazi-occupied France, and his new life with her in Los Angeles. Their magnificent home in Pacific Palisades is now known as Villa Aurora, and stands as a memorial to the exiles and émigrés who found refuge from Nazi persecution in the United States.

Marta told me how Lion spoke out against Adolf Hitler as early as the 1920s. Continue reading