Seward Johnson Sculpture Walking Tour

Posted on June 23, 2010 at 1:10 am
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The Downtown Albany BID is bringing 16 life-sized human statues and one monumental sculpture to the streets of downtown Albany from June through October 2010. This body of work by J. Seward Johnson, an American artist known for his hyper-realistic imagery, is part of a collection of 250 cast bronze figures depicting people of all ages engaged in day-to-day activities. I invite you to take a nice, long walk downtown Albany and take a closer look at these sculptures. Bring metaphorical hiking shoes because you are about to embark on a trip down the Uncanny Valley.

Photos below. Check the full-screen Flickr slideshow, that’s the best way to enjoy this series, or click on any of the thumbnails to open a larger view.

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Johnson, born 1930, grandson of the founder of Johnson + Johnson, focused on painting early on, then turned to sculpture in 1968. His work is featured in private collections and museums all over the world. One of his largest piece is The Awakening, a 100-foot statue of a giant embedded in the earth, struggling to free himself. I actually want to see that.

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Above, “Power of Suggestion” – Bomber’s and Wolff’s (Pedestrian Walkway), by Seward Johnson. According to his bio on Wikipedia, he is also a philanthropist who contributed venues for art and technical facilities for artists to learn. He has been criticized by professional art circles for imitating famous creations by others, more specifically for using computer-driven techniques to re-create and enlarge designs and 2D work without actual artistic modeling. Though I wouldn’t really qualify Johnson’s derivative work as street art, I guess said critics shouldn’t watch Exit Through the Gift Shop, that would make them even angrier…

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Above, “Whispering Close” – Omni Development Company, Inc. (Federal Plaza), by Seward Johnson. This 2010 installment of the “Sculpture in the Streets” public art installation officially kicked off on Friday, June 18 with the annual Garden Party at Federal Plaza. I found the largest of the 17 pieces on that very same plaza, a 2-story dancing couple entitled “Whispering Close”. The collection as a whole is meant as a “carefully planned representation of our city, the present time, and the sponsors”. Until you bump into the Mariachi band on State Street…

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Above, “Los Mariachis” – Tech Valley Communications (State Street), by Seward Johnson. Each sculpture was sponsored by local businesses and organizations. The Albany BID put it in a more eloquent way: “A thriving Capital City is one that is made up of many individual residents and businesses who collaborate on a daily basis in order to further the common goals of advancing the economic environment, business development, and quality of life initiatives”. Right, though I wonder about the statue sponsored by… We Want Trader Joe’s.

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Above, “Crossing Paths” – Community (Liberty Park), by Seward Johnson. The community was given the opportunity to fund and select one of the sculptures in this year’s exhibit. It was estimated that $3,000 would support one life-sized sculpture for the duration of the show. This is a good gesture, a smart way to involve us before the exhibit. The public chose “Crossing Paths” which is located in Liberty Park and is deliciously creepy. Aren’t you curious about what’s really going on between those two?

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Above, “Just a Taste” – Palace Theatre and O’Connell & Aronowitz (Clinton at North Pearl), by Seward Johnson. I’m more into abstract art but I’ve to say the realism of the textures and the work on the details is worth noting. I gathered the following tidbits from Johnson’s FAQ. Each sculpture is entirely bronze. It takes between one and two years to create one sculpture. Johnson often use real persons to model the activity being represented: a real gardener, a real police officer, etc. The skin on the pieces is a traditional bronze patina, and the opaque colors are achieved using paints used on airplanes, quite resistant to climate conditions. Each sculpture is coated with a thin film of incrylac and a final coating of wax. Seward Johnson will make up to seven castings of a design, and only as ordered. When the full seven are purchased by collectors, the artist invites all seven owners to the foundry to celebrate the ceremonial destruction of the mold.

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Above, “Between Appointments” – Times Union (Academy Park), by Seward Johnson. The Downtown Albany Business Improvement District (DABID) is a not-for-profit organization established in 1996 that partners with businesses, property owners, arts and cultural institutions, government agencies and elected officials in a united effort to revitalize downtown Albany. Great work. I’m pretty excited to discover a new “Sculpture in the Streets” every year. My friend Bennett took very nice photos of last year’s installation, give it a shot. 2009 was certainly more conceptual, is 2010 more accessible, more popular?

Where are the sculptures?

There are about 17 sculptures scattered throughout downtown Albany. I created an interactive map below to help.

  1. Crossing Paths – Community (Liberty Park)
  2. Creating – EYP (Broadway at Beaver Alley)
  3. Power of Suggestion – Bomber’s and Wolff’s (Pedestrian Walkway)
  4. Holding Out – We Want Trader Joe’s (Maiden Lane Park)
  5. Frequent Flyers – Legacy Banks (North Pearl)
  6. No, Mommy That One – CassHill and Zone 5 (Cap Rep)
  7. Just a Taste – Palace Theatre and O’Connell & Aronowitz (Clinton at North Pearl)
  8. Contact – Yono’s and Hampton Inn (Chapel at Sheridan)
  9. Between Appointments – Times Union (Academy Park)
  10. La Promenade – Columbia Development (State below Eagle)
  11. Los Mariachis – Tech Valley Communications (State Street)
  12. At Long Last – M&T Bank (Near 80 State Street)
  13. Photo Session – CEG and A-C Chamber (30 South Pearl Plaza)
  14. Waiting to Cross – Capitalize Albany (South Pearl at McDonald’s)
  15. Weekend Painter – Downtown Albany BID (South Pearl/Coliseum)
  16. Gotcha! – Seward Johnson and The Sculpture Foundation (Corning Park)
  17. Whispering Close – Omni Development Company, Inc. (Federal Plaza)

You can also check this whole series of photos on Flickr, covering the 17 pieces in 38 photos. Each caption matches the photo index in the PDF map and provides the location of the piece. I geotagged each sculpture as best as I could; find the “Taken in Albany, New York” label at the bottom of the right column, and click on the “map” link to display each location on a Yahoo! Map.

A few more photos below.

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Above, “Gotcha!” – Seward Johnson and The Sculpture Foundation (Corning Park), by Seward Johnson. The way Billy Mays is holding the shears above is a bit weird. He is clearly wondering what would the ShamWow Guy do…

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Above, “No, Mommy That One” – CassHill and Zone 5 (Cap Rep), by Seward Johnson.

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Above, “At Long Last” – M&T Bank (Near 80 State Street), by Seward Johnson.

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Above, “Weekend Painter” – Downtown Albany BID (South Pearl/Coliseum), by Seward Johnson.

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Above, “Frequent Flyers” – Legacy Banks (North Pearl), by Seward Johnson.

My photo tips. I’ve taken photos of sculptures in the past, most recently at Storm King, St. Agnes Cemetery, and Art Omi. I had only seen one of Seward Johnson’s sculpture so far, the monumental “Whispering Close” on my way back from a bike ride at the Corning Preserve last week. With that in mind, I figured I would need a fairly wide lens to capture the sheer size of his work. I packed only one lens, a wide-angle Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L, a robust piece of glass I use extensively in abandoned buildings. Things played out differently though. First, I quickly found out that the other 16 statues were actually life-sized. Second, I was really intrigued by how ultra-realistic the pieces were, almost creepy. I decided to approach this series a bit differently and treat it more like a portrait session, shooting up close and straight into the subject’s eyes. As a result, there are only a few photos that show the *whole* statue; that’s on purpose. It also allowed me to hide the unaesthetic support plate each sculpture is bolted to.

If you are interested in photography, you have probably read that the recommended focal range for portrait is somewhere between 70mm and 110m (for a full-frame camera). Anything below 35mm is likely to produce an unflattering mess combining giant distorted noses and tiny ears. This is not unlike looking through a peephole, which are often fitted with a wide-angle fisheye lens. Unfortunately, I was on my bicycle, with no room for two lenses, so I stuck to my Canon 16-35mm. My idea here was that the distortion would actually emphasize the discomfort you may experience looking at the sculpture itself. Hopefully I didn’t push it too far.

More photos

Flick user abdukted1456 has more photos, captured on Polaroid:

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Tags: Albany, sculpture, Seward Johnson, tour


  1. B says:

    I don’t see the scale of “Whispering Close” in the photos at all; if you didn’t mention how big it was I wouldn’t have known. Another effect of shorter focal lengths, they more dramatically separate subjects at different distances, which I think may be where the sense of scale is being lost.

    Looks like a fun walk, though; of course I’ve seen a handful of these in my day-to-day downtown, I hadn’t seen them all yet.

  2. Sebastien says:

    Wait, if they separate subjects at different distances more dramatically, shouldn’t that help? Unfortunately in that case there wasn’t much to compare the statue’s scale against. It’s in the middle of that plaza. There is a tree nearby, but you know, might be a bush too. Maybe I should have left a human, good call.

  3. B says:

    Well you know all this but your readers might like the extra tip… but the problem is how the wide angle tends to especially exaggerate distance. short focal lengths tend to scale distant objects much more than “normal” focal lengths. For example, using your 70-200mm lens and shooting so the statue keeps the same proportion in the frame will result in the tree appearing “larger” and taking up more space in the frame (conversely, shooting with a telephoto and keeping the tree the same size in the frame will make the statue take up less of the frame, looking “smaller”). That effect would be more pronounced at the 200mm end than at the 70mm end.

    So one thing that’s going on in that photo is because the 677 building is being shrunk so much by the lens’ natural optics, it loses the sense of scale it could otherwise give to the statue.

    Anyway, something that size, of course you want wide angle to fit the whole thing in the frame. But stepping back, say, across the street, and using a longer lens could also exaggerate the scale.

  4. BT says:

    Thanks for posting the pictures of each piece. I didn’t get a chance to take the tour the night of the Garden kick-off party.

    Here are some pictures from Federal Plaza that might illustrate the scale of “Whispering Close” –

    Seeing your pictures makes me wish I still had the Canon SLR. I had to give back the toys when I transitioned jobs. It’s about the only thing I miss!

  5. Sebastien says:

    Thanks Brian. I used your link above. Once you use a DSLR, it’s hard to go back :)

  6. Sebastien says:

    I’m planning to re-shoot that one in the next few days. Carrying the 70-200mm on a bike is… tricky.

  7. B says:

    The 50mm should work fine; at least, since you already have a photo, might as well give the smaller, lighter lens a try and go back again later if you don’t like it.

    Now you see a benefit of having an 85mm or 100mm prime…

  8. Sebastien says:

    I’ll just bring the 70-200mm. If anything, I need less lenses, not more primes actually. A 16-35mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, I think that covers it. For concerts and casual street photo I could have a Micro Four Thirds with a f/1.7 pancake lens (+ the 70-200mm f/2.8 for more serious assignments). Chewing on it.

  9. BobF says:

    I haven’t seen these pieces yet (or maybe if I’m lucky, ever) but this is not the first time Albany has peppered the downtown area with lifelike sculptures. Not my taste in art at all, but I appreciate that some will like it and that’s fine. What concerns me more is that the funds should be going to support our homegrown art community as pointed out by someone over on AOA a few days ago.

  10. Sebastien says:

    I think it’s good they mix it up. As you remember, last year was much more extract, some pieces by artists from the area. In any case, isn’t the money coming from local businesses? That’s probably a small amount per statue. With the Pepsi grant being assigned left and right, I’m not too concerned, I feel like there is funding supporting the community as well.

  11. abdukted1456 says:

    I love your set of photos, and after seeing it I realized I had only seen a few of the sculptures. Great work as always and thanks for including my crazy Polaroids. =)

  12. Sara says:

    As the chair of this years program, I truly enjoyed finding this page and reading your commentary along with the stunning photos you took. I especially appreciate reading perspective about the funding and sponsorship, since that was one of the hardest pieces to resolve. Thank you so much for your interest in downtown and keep up the great photography! _Sara

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  1. Nippertown! says:

    [...] Barre has created a virtual walking tour of all 17 of J. Seward Johnson’s hyperrealistic bronze sculptures currently installed all [...]