In Search of the Venus of 37th and Madison
The New York Times, by Robin Pogrebin, December 4, 2005
John Yang doesn't make a searing physical impression. Dressed in a button-down
flannel shirt and khaki pants, his glasses dangling on a string around his neck, he looks more
like a New England professor than an intrepid New York photographer. If you spotted him
pointing his Leica at the carved faces on the facades of Manhattan's tenements and row houses,
you probably wouldn't break your stride.
And while he majored in philosophy half a century ago at Harvard, he insists that the big
thoughts should be left to great thinkers. But clearly Yang has a few of his own.
To him, the evocative heads and decorative pediments he spent three years recording on the
streets of Manhattan speak volumes about a turbulent era in the city's history. His mission is
less to save them than to capture them, in all their eerie eccentricity.
"It wasn't because I wanted to document these things before they all disappeared, or
anything like that,'' Yang, 72, said during a recent rainy-day interview at his studio in a
brownstone in Midtown Manhattan. "It had to do with the wonderful things they were ... and in
some ways they were so wonderful because they were ephemeral.''
"You can make your comments about preservation, change, time, memory, who the craftsmen
were, who made these ... immigrants from Northern Europe and the British Isles at the turn of
the century in New York,'' he said. "And then you can talk about the portraits themselves ...
the expressiveness of the portraits ... and to me, this was primary, this is why I took them.''
The photographs, shot between 1990 and 1993, are having their first formal exhibition, a
show at Urban Center Galleries titled "Over the Door: Stone Faces From a Disquieting Age,''
organized by Yang and the Municipal Art Society, which oversees the gallery. The exhibition
dovetails with the society's walking tours around the city, which focus on architectural
Elizabeth Werbe, the society's coordinator of programs and exhibitions, said she viewed the
photographs as more than mere illustrations. "These really are portraits,'' she said.
"Whether they're mythological characters or animals or cherubs, they all seem to have a lot
It was that sense of human emotion ... suspicion, hostility, humor, stoicism ... that led Yang
to spend three years documenting those ornaments. (Until 1990 he had mainly photographed
panoramic views of gardens and golf courses, pictures that were shown in the late 1980s at the
Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery in Manhattan.)
It was the first time Yang had turned to New York itself for material, though he has lived
there since 1939, after growing up in China and a brief sojourn in England.
Roving the city with his 35-mm Leica in search of a theme, he found his attention drawn to
a head with flowing hair and an open mouth. The face was on the keystone of the arch over the
front doors of an apartment building on Manhattan Avenue uptown near Central Park. He was
struck by ""how you could just read expressions, although they were just marks on stone.''
After that, he scoured Manhattan to seek out heads, busts and faces in bold relief.
Exploring different neighborhoods, "I systematically went through the streets,'' he said. "I
chose one area and then I just covered it.'' He kept a crude scribbled map to record his
travels ... April 1991, Greenwich Village; May and June 1991, the Lower East Side; July to
September 1991, Hell's Kitchen; May and June 1992, Harlem.
Often his frame was interrupted by obstructions ... a lamppost, a leafless branch ... which
Yang sought to incorporate rather than work around. To capture his landscape photographs, he
slowly revolved with his panoramic camera. For the stonework, he took the faces full on,
looking up at them from below.
The heads, dating from the 1840s to around 1900, are made of sandstone, which was soft and
workable straight from the quarries of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey
and New York, Yang said. He included some of this history in "Over the Door: The Ornamental
Stonework of New York,'' a book published by Princeton Architectural Press in 1995.
"This is a very personal selection of faces ... and reliefs, from tenements to decorative
architectural embellishments ... that I found interesting,'' Yang said. ""But primarily the
faces ... the stone faces.''
They are faces of distress, contemplation, anguish, disgust, surprise. He didn't try to
capture every one he saw, only those that intrigued him, that moved him, that had been through
"I think I wouldn't have been interested in taking them if things hadn't happened to
them,'' Yang said. Like the face on which years of accumulated salt residue had left a
pattern, the face with a repaired eye, or another with a new painted mustache. "So you have
this element of people adding their own contribution to what's there,'' he said.
In the appendix of his book, Yang quotes among others John Ruskin, who wrote in 1880: "The
greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, nor in its gold. Its glory is in its Age,
and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even
of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing
waves of humanity.''
For Yang, the subtle gradations of human emotion are conveyed mainly through the
sculptures' eyes. Some are ornate ... for example, represented as a swirl ... and others almost
completely obliterated. Some bulge in an alien way. Although they are made of stone, "they
have great depth,'' he explained.
He pointed out a photograph of a bearded man in a Viking helmet from a building on West
83rd Street. "There's a melancholy in that one,'' he said, "Certainly the downcast eyes.''
In another, a face from Madison Street, on the Lower East Side, he remarked on the
"haughtiness and a little surprise.''
He was never interested in the terra cotta figures used in commercial buildings, Yang said,
because they were generally cast in replicable forms. So he stuck mainly with sandstone, and
the occasional pediment, typically made of pressed sheet metal, that topped entryways. "I
found these just fascinating,'' Yang said. "The inventiveness and the imagination.''
Born in Suchow, China, the son of a doctor, he left the country with his family in 1937,
and spent two years in London before arriving in New York. He spent the summer after his
freshman year at Harvard studying with the renowned photographer Minor White at the California
School of Fine Arts in San Francisco ... now the San Francisco Art Institute ... and earned an
architecture degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1957.
Yang bought his first camera while serving in the Army in Germany and remained in Europe to
take photographs after his discharge. Back in New York, he took up architecture, eventually
becoming a partner in a firm that designed public housing and institutions like a U.S.
embassy, schools and correctional institutions. He always photographed the buildings he
designed, and pursued photography in his spare time. In 1978, he retired as an architect to
devote himself to photography.
After wrapping up the series of stone faces, Yang worked from 1994 to 1998 compiling
"sepulchral portraits'' in Mount Zion, the Orthodox Jewish cemetery in Maspeth, Queens ...
miniature portraits that were once placed on many of the cemetery's tombstones. Since 2001, he
has been photographing John Boyd Thacher State Park, a prominent ridge southwest of Albany
that includes the Indian Ladder Trail, which once connected the Mohawk Valley to the highlands
During his stone-face period, Yang would return now and then to reshoot some of the faces,
and to see how they were doing ... in a sense, to visit old acquaintances. But he said he never
grew overly attached to a specific ornament, or felt compelled to influence its fate.
"Some of them will be different, and some of them you may be interested in photographing
again, and some of them you may not,'' he said. And someday, "your subject won't be there