Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Jan Gossart (Netherlandish, ca. 1478–1532)
Christ on the Cold Stone, ca. 1530
Oil on panel

For a long time I felt unfairly treated in the cruelty of my birthday falling within weeks of Christmas. I realize it might be considered petty, even sacrilegious, to feel upstaged by Jesus Christ, as if he were my bratty older brother who got all the attention, even moreso after his well-publicized tragic premature death! But too often my natal celebration was lost in the preparations and distractions of his, and even with the best intentions, paled by comparison and never lived up to its full potential.  Just the way New Year’s Eve can become a desperate mission to have the best day of the year, with all that pressure of not having another chance for another long year, my birthday suffered from a series of failed attempts at the ideal or ultimate commemoration, until I realized that a broader philosophy needed to be adopted. I rejected all norms for birthday fetes, and established a winter festival for which the anniversary of my birth was a mere recommended beginning, and could continue up to, include and outlast Christmas, with no one day bearing the burden of being the last word in seasonal amusements and satisfactions.  My festival has no fixed end, either.  It only lasts until every interested party is partied and gifted out and ready to submit to the deep depression of deep New England winter, which can last until April, so you better have plenty of comfort and joy stored up in advance!

 The Hand of Man - Alfred Stieglitz
American, 1902

Decemberfest 2010 began with a whimper on my actual birthday December 7th.  I had all the right elements in place – had taken a wonderful train ride the day before to my home town and arrived pleasantly drunk on free red wine thanks to the generous car attendant in first class, and gratefully amused by the characters on the Manhattan subway, whose winner for the day was a tall man in a business suit and large furry black coat who looked like a cross between one of the Men in Black and a pimp. He was also wheeling a small rack of large canvases behind him, which looked like his own paintings!   

The Flatiron, 1904
Edward Steichen (American, born Luxembourg, 1879–1973)
Gum bichromate over platinum print

But the next morning I woke to a cold windy gray day, feeling tired and uninspired, and emerged to encounter one frustration after another – museums closed, weather bitter, no desire to walk, eat, shop, shoot or any of the things I associate with a successful day in the city. I went home defeated and had a lovely dinner with my wonderful parents, yes, but all in all the day was dull and unremarkable and I wondered where all that “travel magic” I am always blessed with had vanished to.

December 8th I woke after a bad sleep with the awareness that this was the 30th anniversary of the death of John Lennon. I made a mental note to find time for a brief visit to his memorial in Central Park as part of my day’s itinerary. Then I proceeded to do all I had wanted to do the day before – a visit to Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which was deserted, windless, and warmed by a bright sun in a clear sky in the midmorning that made for ideal high contrast shooting conditions for black and white film.

I visited my 115 yr old bonsai in the Conservatory, sturdy, wrinkled old friend I have now greeted in every season for nearly two decades. 

I had a wonderful soup and sandwich lunch watching young school groups led through various indoor plant exhibits, from tropical to desert flora, and felt hopeful that future generations will learn to love and value nature thanks to places like this. I even saw some VERY late cherry blossoms outdoors, white, fragile as tissue paper, yet delicately tenacious on the bare trees in spite of 30 degree temperatures.  Every view offered me a photographer’s dream of angles and shapes and light playing with each other. Every listless negative feeling of the day before was replaced with vitality and joy.

When I emerged from the subway and entered Central Park at 72nd street, passing the Dakota, where John lived and died, I could see that the police presence and stanchions for crowd direction anticipated masses and possible trouble. I recalled 30 years ago in my old bedroom at my parents’ home uptown listening to a small radio as a dj on the night shift broke the news and then opened the phone lines for callers, playing Lennon songs through the night and sharing shock, disbelief and grief. No tweets or texts back then, just people coming together with real voices and bodies, as they would assemble later on the streets, through the night and days to come, as John would have loved. At the official memorial in 1980, held in one of Central Park’s largest areas for public events, no gathering of thousands in that space was ever as silent or unified.

As I said, I meant to file by and pay my respects to the IMAGINE mosaic with its increasing collection of offered flowers and memorabilia, but could not even see it for the people, row upon row, cameras raised high like periscopes, citizens and news media alike. But I moved toward the sound of a strummed guitar just as he gave up trying to play near the mosaic and moved to a park bench off to the side, and soon found myself among a spontaneous Beatles songbook singalong. 

Other musicians arrived, and the crowd instinctively, respectfully parted as they joined the cluster at the bench, a bongo drummer, a mandolinist,  two, three, four acoustic guitarists. And we sang – in perfect harmony – for an hour. If I didn’t have to meet my Dad on the other side of the park at an appointed time, I’d be there still.

I had shot my last roll at BBG, and got only one photo of the event, the b&w one above, as I arrived. It never occurred to me to reload and take more, even if now I wish I had captured what happened there. Oh well. I’m not a journalist. The images of that experience are burned in my head where they belong, though I’ve since scoured individual flickr sites and sorted through literally thousands of images, including those of one dedicated photographer who must have been at their station the entire day as the crowd changed faces but kept its numbers strong. There, I did find a few photos of myself, caught in the act and almost lost in the I do have proof.  I would like to make it clear here that these photos are not mine and not to be reproduced.

All too soon, I had to leave and meet my father at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a show of to me unknown Netherlandish painter Jan Gossart, a great talent who combined the lessons of antiquity, the upfront humanism of the Italian Renaissance, and the great attention to detail of the Northern masters. His image of Christ, an unparalleled realistic rendition of not an idealized concept but an actual man in torment awaiting his horrible destined end, with a twisted figure based on the massive and muscular yet broken Apollo Belvedere, begins this post. I apologize for using it as a witty visual reference to my birthday rivalry with JC, and now humbly request you view it again for all its raw power. 

 Paul Strand (1890-1976)
Iris, Georgetown, Maine, 1928
vintage platinum print 10" x 8"

Then it was on to another gallery to view the Stieglitz, Steichen and Strand show, a humbling and inspiring experience, as I alternately felt reassured that these great artists possessed the same vision as I do, the same attraction for certain compositions, and troubled that I will never be able to translate that vision into the final results that they were able to produce.  Then again, my results are my own, great art or not.  See Paul Strand above, and me below:

My day ended with another lovely dinner shared at home with my parents, and another trainride the next day, back to Boston, with an equally generous wine-pouring car attendant!  Now that Decemberfest is properly launched, I intend to celebrate for several more weeks. I do not mean by this that I will spend a lot of money and consume a lot of calories and alcohol (not that there is anything wrong with that!) but that for a few weeks I will suspend all “should”s and “oughta”s and instead focus on what feels good, to mind, body and spirit, in whatever affordable and relatively harmless form that can take. I urge you to do the same, and if questioned, say, "it’s okay, it’s Gabriella’s birthday!!"

  Reach for the sky!


  1. Gabriella,
    I love reading his stories, so vivid!
    I felt close to New York, even though I've never been there. You do tours through the kind I would; your lucky that, having participated in this tribute to John ...

    I was curious about Jan Gossart,
    I'm researching, I found wonderful!

    and you know, here at home, my daughter is on the 17th of December, the competition with the birthday of the month is huge!
    she always got mad at it ...
    exactly one week before Christmas ...
    ah ... come on!! no fun, is not it?

    a big hug for you, dear!!

  2. "it’s okay, it’s Gabriella’s birthday!!"
    Funny , you feel Christimas as a rival but not Lenon . His event is closer to your bitrthday and takes all the attention of the media and people .
    Ok, you have chosen your rivals. hahahh!!!
    I imagine when you were a kid , i hope your parents didn't use to say : "this gift is for your birthday and Christimas" . I would hate that . My parents used to do this with my younger sister as her birthday is .... wow!! december 14 . I didn't say nothing to her this year . AGAIN !
    well... i think that at the end it was a nice travel .
    and.. i really don't like Jan gossart . weird , right? most partof the time i only compliment the Netherlandishs .
    All the Black and white photos are very good .

    have a lovely week and don't get upsat with Christimas :D

  3. Hi Denise! I'm glad you liked this post. I do feel lucky to have been at the memorial, and to be a New Yorker. So much happening there, so much vitality, even the events that could be sad end up being full of life. Thanks for reading and enjoying! Tell your daughter happy birthday from another December baby!

  4. Happy Birthday Gabriela! Decemberfest sounds fantastic. Yeah go ahead and celebrate! Thanks for sharing with us a great day!

  5. Hah, Caio! I guess maybe Lennon would be my OTHER older brother whose December event upstaged mine! But I forgive him because his event takes only one day and does not force people to give me only one gift instead of two. Yes, that has happened to me! As for Jan Gossart, he is one of those painters where I can see the talent, but I do not necessarily call him one of my favorites, the ones that speak directly to my soul and make me feel like fainting if I stand in front of their paintings in person. I feel this way about Turner, for instance. Glad you liked the photos! I will try to make my peace with Christmas. It isn't such a bad "sibling rivalry" after all. I think there is room in Decemberfest for every kind of celebration, no matter the excuse!

  6. Good shots ! Happy Birthday to you and god bless you !

  7. I like such kind of artists like Mabuse, those artists that don´t figure in the first pages of any art catalogue. Those artists that dont come to the mind of the people when mentioned (like, let´s say, Rembrandt or Leonardo even when many of these people have not even seen ever one of their paintings) But well, that is another topic.
    And about December, i don´t know what do you think but many times i wonder why do people have to make plans and follow such a unflexible schedule for something so simply to achieve, a good day, a good time!! And i have to underline, i like Xmas, i enjoy it and i must admit sometimes i am a very old fashioned guy when it comes to what you in a remarkable way described as "decemberfest" =). No, i am not the Grinch one, but i cant understand how people manage themselves to complicate what should and could be a delightful time and transform it into a frenzied race of crazyness, like if feelings could obey to a schedule and a timetable. Nah, many times in my life my best Christmas day was not even close to the 25th and many of my birthdays were one of the worst days i can remember from my childhood. All that people and voices trying to take control of a date that supposed to belong to me !! So in a certain way Gabriella, maybe you were lucky of having all that overwhelming attention focused to another subject (your old brothers John and J.C =) and lernt yourself to discover that the special instant might come in any unexpected moment, like this very visit you made to NY that first didn´t go as you could have supposed, but that later happened to be a fantastic short story of one of your days, with all those memories and reflexions and yes, even some great pictures, taken both with your camera and from the eyes of your mind as prove, if necessary, that you really was part of the story of this thing we call world.
    Just "Let it be" would be my humble advice, if an advice from my might be of any value and i am sure, next January we will think, "gosh, it was a good December,not a perfect one, far from it, but still great, and not exactly at 25th" Like any good story we read, it is not the end or the beginning what matters, but the plot and the central pages and how we experienced it =)
    And i know i have already told you it, but still, happy birthday and above it all, happy new day of the rest of your existance!!

  8. WONG - I am glad you liked these shots! Your opinion means a lot to me!

    ALBERTO - what can I say? You have understood me completely and perfectly. It is such a beautiful blessing in life to have a good happy day, whatever day that may be, and it does astonish me too that in this month people will ruin whole weeks with anxiety and craziness rushing around in a frenzy to make the 25th (or 31st) live up to everyone's expectations (or some tv or movie version of the ideal Christmas) only to be let down and end up exhausted and maybe have arguments with family or friends too because of all the stress! Yes, "let it be" is the best advice of all, for holidays, for birthdays, and just live every day to the fullest, happy to be alive! All the best to you, my friend.

  9. LAURA - inside my life, as I present it here, your sympathetic and sensitive spirit is always welcome to come visit! Feel free to enter - there will be a hug waiting for you every time!

  10. Great photos, I like the shadow-light, especially the 5th one, very strong,love the subtle interplay of the curly leaves agaist the strong lines, beautiful Gabriella.
    About the 'decemberfest'.... I'm joining you, fantastic idea, I have to say I enjoy December, the festive mood, the snow,the lights,good food, a nice bottle of wine, love a wodka also....... and no stress.
    I buy my loved ones presents when I come across something they really like and that can be any time of the year.So no rushing around..

    Loved your post, thought of Lennon too, nice to read your story(and photos)

    Don't know much about Jan Gossart.I will look him up (he was educated and worked for a period in Antwerp Belgium), always interesting to travel back in time and see what painting and art was about then. Seems he has a peculiar, own way of painting nudes.

    So to you dear Gabriella a very magical 'decemberfest' hugs and xx

  11. Gabriella,
    my master of story telling..
    I can see you all over there in New York!
    I have been there many times and love this
    city most of all..

    I can tell you, that three of us in our
    family, my two daughters and me have almost
    the same birthday date in April and we are
    all Aries.
    So it is always nice to celebrate all together!

    Greetings from Greece!

  12. Renilde - many thanks for your comments on my photos and story! I'm glad you enjoy them. What a dream it would be - all the good things about the holiday season, including gifts purchased for the right reasons and not under pressure, and none of the stress! Can we get everyone to join in? Hugs to you.

    Monica, my dear fiery Aries! If I had to guess, this sign would have come to mind first! Three Aries women in one household?? I am glad you can all celebrate together and hope you do not "butt heads" too much! I'm glad my stories please you. I can picture you all over New York too! I send you a warm embrace from afar...

  13. I'm sorry I missed your bday, Gabriella. Happy belated birthday. My dad's is on the eighth.
    I remember the day that John Lennon died also. I was a teenager and recall it so well.
    Your post is so full of wonderful. I was excited you saw Steiglitz's work. I adore the book *portrait of an artist* which is the story of Georgia O'keefe. They had a great romance.

    I liked the *pleasantly drunk* part on the train. I'll travel with you

    I hope that you and Brian have a beautiful holiday season. I so look forward to meeting in the new year!!

  14. Well, M, *technically* you haven't missed my birthday, as I will still be celebrating it through the winter and you will probably be well within the very flexible rules of "Decemberfest" if you wanted to use me as an excuse for revelry when we finally meet in the new year! All the best to you, and have a very happy holiday season!

  15. Hi Gabriella,
    like Denise i so love to read your stories, a bit as if i was there indeed. I love to see your face there in the crowd on the Lennon memorial. :-)

    I'm so happy to find you here and to read your lovely stories and insights and to enjoy your photographs.

    Habe a nice Christmas and i wish you a fantastic 2011!!!

    Sweet greetz and kisses for you, Monica

  16. My dear Monica! You have been in my thoughts, I know you were ill. I myself am only just feeling "100 percent" again after the cold I caught 5 weeks ago! I am happy to see you here and even happier to know it means you are feeling better! It pleases me that my stories are enjoyable for you, it mean a lot. I will do my best to keep up the same quality in 2011! It's satisfying to think of this past year, and exciting to think of the year ahead, and this has not always been the case! You are a great part of what made 2010 special. I wish you a Merry Christmas and all the best for the new year!

  17. I share the same situation as you, my birthday is Dec. 18. Birthday presents wrapped in Christmas paper, last minute preparation - whatever, in the end I always had what was most important - the people who loved me. I sure like your idea of a long celebration, that sounds like fun! :) Your b&w photos are lovely; I love shooting b&w film, but not the wait time of seeing the result! Now that the birthdays are over, I wish you a happy and peaceful Christmas!

  18. Hi TB - it can't be said enough, that the true message and delight of the holidays is being with the people you love, whatever the date on the calendar! I hope you have plenty of good times in the days and weeks and months ahead!

  19. Gabriella just wanted to stop by to wish you a lovely Christmas time.

  20. Same to you, Luis! Your images and words have been such an important part of what made this year special for me, I wish you all the best this month, next year and beyond!

  21. Gabriella, I come by from Caio's blog. Your photography is inspirational. I enjoyed your post so much. Congratulations on your Natal Anniversary! Have you thought of celbrating your half-year anniversary? I know several friends,including one which falls on the 25th,who do this! But, I like your Decemberfest celebration much better!!! I have signed to follow your blog..I know I will spend some great time here!Wishing you a wonderful New Year! Ann

  22. Hi Ann and welcome. Any friend of Caio's comes well-recommended! Thank you for your kind words about my images and words and your wishes for my natal festival. I am getting ready to publish my last post for 2010 and already have some good ideas forming for 2011 which I hope you will enjoy! All the best to you this holiday season!