Museum Of Modern Art Opens Bill Brandt Photography Retrospective

Museum Of Modern Art, Bill BrandtThe Museum Of Modern Art in New York City has opened an important retrospective of the work of Bill Brandt, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century.

Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light” covers the photographer’s entire career in more than 150 images. While Brandt was born in Germany in 1904, he made England his home until his death in 1983. He’s best known for his intriguing photos of London during the bombings in World War II. Images of civilians sleeping in Tube stations and a blacked-out London in moonlight quickly became iconic images of Britain in wartime.

Before this, Brandt was already making a name for himself with images of the English poor and working class, and also the English countryside.

After the war, Brandt began to create nudes and, once again, his photos had an ethereal, dreamlike quality to them. He’s also known for intimate portraits of famous people of his day such as Pablo Picasso and Martin Amis.

“Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light” runs until August 12.

[Nude by Bill Brandt taken in London in 1954 courtesy Museum of Modern Art]

The Secret Tunnels Under Tallinn

Tallinn
Tallinn is an old city, and like many old cities it has its share of secrets. Stories of ghosts, buried treasure and hidden tunnels add to the atmosphere of the medieval streets.

For a couple of years, one of those secrets was revealed when the city opened up the Bastion Tunnels. These corridors were built by Estonia’s Swedish rulers in the 1670s and ran under the earthen bastions that protected the city. These bastions were an improvement over Tallinn’s stone walls, which were now outdated in the age of artillery. The tunnels allowed for the rapid and safe transport of troops from one part of the defenses to the other.

The Bastion Tunnels were used by the soldiers for a time and then were abandoned to the rats and spiders. Abandoned, but not forgotten. The entrances were still visible yet few dared to go down there. Rumors of buried treasure arose but most people were too afraid to venture into the dank, dark tunnels to search for it.

In the more practical 20th century the tunnels got new life. In the 1930s everyone could see that war was coming, and Estonia’s uncomfortable position next to the Soviet Union made it an obvious target. The government reopened the tunnels as bomb shelters. Today, a section of the tunnels is preserved to commemorate this era, with vintage posters showing what to do in case of an air raid, and some frightened dummies set up in period clothing.

The Soviets occupied Estonia in 1940, only to be kicked out by the Germans the following year. They were hardly a liberating force, however, and the partisans who had been fighting the Soviets soon turned their guns on the Nazis. Meanwhile the Soviets launched bombing raids and the citizens of Tallinn hid in the tunnels for protection. Luckily most of the historic city was preserved, but as you walk around you can spot patches where all the buildings are new. This is thanks to the Soviets.

%Gallery-179163%The Estonian resistance actually took advantage of the bombings to strike a blow against their occupiers. Estonians tell the story that the German high officers all stayed at a particular posh hotel. The resistance hoped it would get hit by a bomb and preeminently smuggled ammunition into the cellar. A Soviet bomb hit the hotel and BOOM … no more Nazi officers.

The Soviets eventually retook Estonia and it would remain under Soviet rule until 1991. During that time the tunnels were used again as a bomb shelter. Visitors can see period equipment like radios, air circulation machines and radiation suits. There’s even an old Soviet latrine that still stinks. The photo above shows an Estonian family hoping their suits will stop the radiation from an American nuclear strike. That green bag between the mother and her child is for a baby. I’ll leave it to you to guess whether that contraption would have actually worked.

Eventually the Soviets, too, abandoned the tunnels. Estonia had nuclear missiles positioned all over the country so it was on the U.S. shortlist for bombing. The Soviets must have realized that some 17th century tunnels weren’t going to protect anyone from a direct hit, so the tunnels once again reverted to a home for rats and spiders.

Then, in the 1980s and ’90s, a new group took over the tunnels – the punks. Punk rock was illegal in the Soviet Union. That whole defy-the-system ethos didn’t sit too well with the Communist Party. So the punks went underground, literally. They spray painted the walls, threw parties, drank, took drugs and generally had a good time while thumbing their noses at authority. The police harassed and often arrested punks on the street but never chased them into the tunnels. Our tour guide told us that the tunnels had become infested with fleas and the cops didn’t want to catch bugs along with punks.

Independence came in 1991 and the punks could enjoy sunlight again. The economy wasn’t doing so well and the homeless population swelled. They took over the tunnels and made them as comfortable as they could. Eventually, of course, they were kicked out so the tunnels could be restored and opened as a tourist site. Our tour guide didn’t know what happened to the homeless people.

The Bastion Tunnels make for an interesting tour, yet I feel that the city missed a great opportunity. The punk graffiti was all painted over and eventually replaced with faux graffiti in the punk style. I would have much preferred to have seen graffiti written by some crusty old punk from the days when defying authority could land you in jail instead of just angering parents. It would have also been nice if they could have employed some of the homeless people as tour guides. This would have given them work and given visitors an insight into what it was like to live underneath the city.

And the “Time Machine” ride they have is just too cheesy to waste bandwidth on …

Still, the Bastion Tunnels are one of the most interesting attractions in Tallinn. They’re entered through the cellar of the Kiek in de Kök tower. The name means “peek into the kitchen” because the tower so dominated the town that it was said the watchmen could look down the chimneys of the houses and see what was cooking! The tower has a collection of arms and armor as well as a space for photographic exhibitions. From the top you get a fine view of Tallinn’s Old Town.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: A Vintage Submarine and Icebreaker in Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbor!

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Nagasaki, Japan: More Than You Think

Outside of Japan, the port town of Nagasaki is simply known for one thing – the bombing that ended the second world war. There are plenty of reminders around the city, such as the striking single-legged torii gate (below) whose other half was blown off in the atomic blast, the stirring statues scattered about town and numerous memorials. It’s an important site in world history and worth going to for that reason alone.

Of course, no trip to Nagasaki would be complete without visiting Peace Park or the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, but there is so much more to Nagasaki.Yellow ceramic oragami paper cranes in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum

Yellow origami ceramic cranes in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.

A monument under where the atomic bomb hypocenter was located.

Peace Park being visited by an elementary school field trip.

Nagasaki played an extremely important role in Japan’s history prior to World War II as well. For over 200 years, between 1633 and 1853, Nagasaki was the only port in all of Japan that was officially allowed to conduct trade with foreign countries. The impact of this role can still be seen today in the city’s food and architecture.

Megane-bashi, the spectacles bridge.

Megane-bashi, Japanese for “spectacles bridge”, is named for the reflection it creates in the water, is a very popular and romantic spot. Visiting around sunset is key and so is finding the heart-shaped brick in the stonework.

Castella, one of Nagasaki’s unique foods.

Today, Nagasaki is probably best known within Japan for its food. The two most popular dishes are castella (above) and champon. Castella is a simple cake that was brought in by the Portuguese. It’s rich with egg flavors and can be purchased virtually anywhere in the city. On the right is the original flavor and on the left is a green tea variation. Champon is a very popular pork and seafood noodle soup that was inspired from Chinese food. There is even a popular chain restaurant called Ringer Hut that sells Nagasaki champon throughout Japan.

The cute streetcars of Nagasaki.

Much like in the U.S., most cities in Japan used to have thriving streetcar networks. Today, most have ceased operation in favor of subways and making more room for cars. However, most of the big cities in southern Japan have held onto their streetcar tradition, including Nagasaki. It’s a convenient and fun way to get around the city and their bright colors are adorable.

Onboard a Nagasaki streetcar.

A row of torii gates at a local Shinto shrine.

Nagasaki is certainly not a main attraction in Japan, and quite a ways from many of the big name sights, but it’s worth it. It’s a quiet and quaint seaside town. It’s a great place to wander around and get lost in, to stumble across small neighborhood Shinto shrines and handicraft stores. There’s an important history to Nagasaki, without a doubt, but there’s a wealth of sights to see and things to do.

[Photo credits: Jonathan Kramer]

Remnants Of World War II In The UK Countryside

World War Two, pillbox
During World War II, the British were sure they were about to be invaded. The English Channel seemed like nothing more than a narrow creek against the might of Nazi Germany. As the British army fought in North Africa and Southeast Asia, the Home Guard and teams of civilians prepared for the worst.

One elderly English woman told me that when she was a teenager she helped lay electric wire below the water line of the southern beaches. The idea was that if the Germans launched an amphibious invasion, sort of a D-Day in reverse, they could flip a switch and electrocute the Germans. While the idea disturbed her at the time, the thought of an occupied England disturbed her even more.

Another defensive measure was the construction of more than 18,000 small bunkers called “pillboxes” at strategic sites. Thousands still stand along the rivers, estuaries, ports and main roads. If you hike for any length of time in England, Scotland or Wales you’re bound to come across some. The one shown above guards the road leading into Faringdon, Oxfordshire. Jump the cut to see another view of the same installation.

%Gallery-166587%World War Two, pillbox
As you can see it’s not very big, barely room enough for a couple of men and a machine gun. Still, it would have slowed down the enemy and given the British time to organize a counterattack. Many installations were strung out in long lines called “stop-lines” across the countryside with the idea that the German invasion could be halted along those lines.

Pillboxes came in numerous types. They were built of concrete, stone or brick reinforced with concrete and had various shapes. The Pillbox Study Group is dedicated to the study and preservation of these defenses. Anyone who knows the British will not be the least bit surprised that such a group exists. They’re big on all sorts of societies and associations. These groups allow a rather introverted people an excuse to gather without (or sometimes with) the social lubricant of alcohol. Sometimes this is rewarded with a major discovery. The Richard III Society must be having their best year ever.

I’ve clambered over plenty of these little forts and each one is a little different. In Orkney, I even came across one built atop a prehistoric Pictish broch. Some have been incorporated into later buildings and one has even been used to create a habitat for bats. Most, however, are quietly decaying, visited only by local teens as a private place to drink and screw. Only a few are preserved as historic buildings. The Pillbox Study Group is trying to change that.

If you come across a pillbox while hiking, be careful. Despite once being bullet proof many are now in rather poor shape. Watch your step and admire these remnants of the nation’s Proudest Hour.

Exhibition Examines Role Of Scientists And Doctors In Holocaust

Holocaust, eugenics
This is a poster for the Nazi eugenics program. Printed in 1936, it proclaims, “We are not alone.” The column on the left shows the countries that already had forced sterilization for certain “social undesirables.” The columns on the bottom and right show countries considering eugenics programs.

Note the American flag on the left. Various U.S. states practiced compulsory sterilization as early as 1907, when Indiana instituted sterilization of “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists.” The law was overturned in 1921, only to be replaced in 1927 with a law requiring sterilization of the “Insane, feeble minded or epileptic.” That law stayed on the books until 1974. Many states had similar laws and this “social cleansing” program heavily influenced the Nazis.

The Nazis instituted their Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring in 1933, the same year Hitler came to power. Many scientists and doctors were quick to jump onto the Nazi bandwagon and began “studies” to prove how the Germanic peoples were superior to all other races. This gave a scholarly stamp of approval to the forced sterilization, and eventual killing, of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and physically and mentally disabled.

This unseemly link between science and the Holocaust is being examined in a new exhibition at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. “Deadly Medicine: Creating The Master Race” brings together posters, leaflets and photos of scientific examinations to show how the scientific community became complicit in the greatest crime of the 20th century.

It also shows how these ideas were sold to the German people. One picture in a high school textbook shows a German man bent under the weight of an alcoholic and a brutish-looking man, perhaps meant to portray a mentally disabled person, with the caption, “You are sharing the load! A hereditarily ill person costs 50,000 Reichsmarks on average up to the age of sixty.”

“Deadly Medicine: Creating The Master Race” runs until October 15, 2012.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]