Tag Archives: New York City

Joel Meyerowitz

Published in Artforum, January 2013. The second part of this exhibition is on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery until January 5.

Joel Meyerowitz, New York City, Times Square, 1963

Joel Meyerowitz, New York City, Times Square, 1963

The first of a two-part survey of Joel Meyerowitz’s fifty-year career as a photographer, this exhibition presented nearly four dozen color and black-and-white prints of varying sizes. Today, Meyerowitz is known for large-format landscape images in often saturated, emotionally resonant colors, a vein of his work that had its spectacular debut with the 1977 exhibition of his “Cape Light” photographs at Witkin Gallery in New York; the book of that series is a milestone in the history of color art photography. By including no photographs shot later than 1976, this exhibition offered viewers a chance to reacquaint themselves with the Meyerowitz images largely eclipsed by his later renown. The first and most obvious lesson is that Meyerowitz was actively using color film not only well before the large-format pictures that made his reputation, but also before color prints were widely accepted by galleries and museums.

The second is that, from the early 1960s, when he had a formative encounter with Robert Frank, through the mid-’70s, Meyerowitz was a street photographer, capturing intimate, humorous, and poignant moments with a handheld camera. He worked mainly in New York, where he lived, but ventured to other parts of the country and to Mexico, Spain, and France, among other international destinations. The earliest photographs presented here suggest the artist’s impish side and demonstrate his eye for incongruities, though his humor cuts several ways. The black-and-white photograph New York City, Times Square, 1963, offers an immediate laugh: The face of a theater-box-office worker, centered in the frame, is completely obscured by the small porthole through which one would talk with her. Two color images spark more complicated reactions. New York City, 1963, taken from the driver’s door of a curbside convertible, depicts a man holding a woman aloft, about to place her in the backseat. Yet his mouth doesn’t match the grin of the man enjoying the unfolding scene; it reads as a grimace, and the placement of his hand underneath—and around—the woman’s neck seems menacing, almost violent. Mexico, 1963, taken at what appears to be an amusement park, likewise provokes a double take. One’s eyes quickly register the strange sight of a swaddled baby resting, seemingly unattended, in a blue-painted wooden box. Then one notices the air rifles lined up on a nearby counter. Sure, they’re for a shoot-the-duck game, but the sense of foreboding is enhanced by a second wooden box, its coffinlike lid closed.

Joel Meyerowitz, Fallen Man, Paris, 1967

Joel Meyerowitz, Fallen Man, Paris, 1967

The tension between obvious punch lines and ambiguity continues in photographs made throughout the decade. The latter is epitomized by Fallen Man, Paris, 1967, which offers no explanation for the subject sprawled on the pavement; a seemingly nonplussed passerby in the foreground glances over his shoulder, as if unsure whether to help. On the other hand, Miami Beach, Florida, 1968, in which a rotund man in a swimsuit stands in profile beneath a passing Goodyear blimp, is evidence of Meyerowitz’s quick wit. But the image raises other questions. It is one of three black-and-white prints paired with nearly identical images taken in color, indicating that Meyerowitz was working in both modes simultaneously. In a new essay, the artist has claimed that color presents this photograph’s joke “more fully.” He continues, “I need to see the color of his shorts, that belly, the silver of the blimp . . . .” Yet what is to be made of the fact that the color image, which was snapped first, was not printed until many years later, while the black-and-white version was printed (and presumably exhibited) at the time it was taken? The lag time between the act of photographing and the act of printing these images suggests the third lesson of this show: Instead of printing what he felt, and what side-by-side comparison reveals, to be the superior image, he printed the one that had a better chance of being shown. Despite his early and consistent advocacy of color film, even Meyerowitz might have felt constrained by the art world’s condescension to his preferred medium. 

“Weegee: Murder Is My Business”

Weegee, Line-Up for Night Court, ca. 1941.

I reviewed the exhibition “Weegee: Murder Is My Business,” on view at the International Center of Photography until September 2, for Capital New York. An excerpt:

The Weegee that’s surveyed in this entertaining exhibition is not only the man, an immigrant born Usher Fellig in Austria, but also the myth, who described himself as both “Weegee the Famous” and the “official photographer of Murder Inc.”

Curator Brian Wallis has crafted a show that demonstrates how and why Weegee became one of the best-known photojournalists in New York City from the mid-’30s through the ’40s. Operating out of a sparse room across the street from police headquarters, he made nightly forays into the streets in search of breaking news. He nearly always found it, returning with pictures of lifeless bodies sprawled out on sidewalks and the inquisitive bystanders and pained relatives who had witnessed the crimes.

To read the rest, click here.

“The Greatest Grid”

Earlier this week, Capital New York published my review of “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.” The show is on view until April 15, an appropriate enough date given the prevalence in the galleries of tax assessments, land-sale auction handbills, and other ephemera related to the transfer of Manhattan real estate. The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated and informative catalogue, published by Columbia University Press (Amazon, Columbia).

Map of Property Belonging to C.C. Moore of Chelsea, 1835. Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

An excerpt:

The plan’s Cartesian rigor made it a machine for such frenzied growth, and the exhibition contains hundreds of artifacts that chart the city’s scramble uptown. There are surveyors’ maps and tools, land-sale auctioneers’ handbills, and ledgers documenting tax assessments. Numerous photographs reveal just how much labor went in to unifying the landscape: giant boulders had to be broken up and carted away; rolling hills had to be leveled; houses perched in the middle of planned roadways had to be torn down or carted to a new location.

At the exhibit’s center is one of the three original copies of the nearly nine-foot-long map of the Commissioners’ Plan, its size and detail a measure of the ambition it represented. Generations of canny politicians, imperious real-estate developers, and visionary architects have tried to implement changes or carve out exceptions to its rule, yet the Manhattan this map depicts is recognizable to us today: a somewhat claustrophobic, undifferentiated mass of right angles that cedes almost nothing to topography or the human need for variety.

To read the rest, click here.

“Jill Freedman: Street Cops, 1978-81″

Published on Artforum.com on October 13, 2011. The exhibition is on view at Higher Pictures, New York, from September 15 to October 29, 2011.

George Likes to Sit in Garbage Cans, 1981

George Likes to Sit in Garbage Cans, 1981

When photographer Jill Freedman embedded with the New York City Police Department’s Ninth and Midtown South Precincts in 1978, the city was just past its postwar nadir. Three years earlier, in the eyes of Daily News editors, President Gerald Ford had told the struggling metropolis to “drop dead.” The summer of 1977 had been marked by the tragic denouement of the Son of Sam killing spree, as well as rioting and looting under cover of the July blackout. In a city troubled by crimes both petty and spectacular, Freedman sought to counter the largely negative opinion of cops on the beat, to humanize the men and women behind the badge.

The officers with whom she cruised for three years were certainly busy: The Ninth Precinct covers the East Village, where junkies lay strung out in buildings burned for the insurance money and then abandoned, while Midtown South incorporated the hustling and vice of Times Square. There is a man Stabbed Twice in the Guts, 1980, and one Caught in the Act, 1978, while trying to boost a turntable, and one who tried to score a Free Lunch, 1979, by skipping out on his restaurant bill. Through it all, Freedman’s blue-shirts handle their duties with a sense of humor. They know that George Likes to Sit in Garbage Cans, 1981, and that this little boy in the cruiser is Always Running Away, 1979. Several of Freedman’s images match this humor with visual wit, as with the Partners, 1978, who are hopping a cinder-block wall with symmetrically outstretched legs, or the Street Cops, 1978, belly to belly in a cramped hallway, one holding his pistol while the other clasps a stogie.

Viewed today, after more than two decades of zero-tolerance “broken windows” policing and in the midst of overreaction to #OccupyWallStreet protesters, the humanity and self-awareness Freedman identifies in her subjects is all the more remarkable. She deftly captured a moment unlike our own in several ways. While I wouldn’t trade the safety of today’s city for its late-1970s incarnation, I do wish today’s officers, many of whom are high-strung and alienated from the communities they patrol, would learn from their predecessors’ relative good will.

Small Change, 1979

Small Change, 1979

Stanley Greenberg

Urban Omnibus has published an interview with Stanley Greenberg, whose “photography explores hidden systems, infrastructures and technologies, both state-of-the-art and antiquated. New York City’s unseen workings, the region’s complex water systems, architecture mid-construction, physics labs, telescopes and a decommissioned dam have all been the subject of Greenberg’s careful eye.” A slideshow of Greenberg’s photographs accompanies the text; to see more, click here for a page on the Gitterman Gallery website and here for a selection published at the site of the Architect’s Newspaper.

Michael Greenberg

For several months I have read, in a fugitive manner, Michael Greenberg’s essay collection Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life. A compilation of roughly thousand-word essays he has published in the Times Literary Supplement, the book, so far as I can tell, amounts to a haphazard index of New York, a careful and sympathetic accounting of its odd places and characters. I peruse it standing up. I read in a West Village bookstore about a longtime fixer in the Brooklyn neighborhood where Greenberg grew up, and in an Upper West Side indie about Hart Island, a potter’s field where thousands of New York’s anonymous dead lie buried. Now I’m pleased to discover that Greenberg has inaugurated a new column, “The Accidentalist,” in the new issue of Bookforum. Read his first entry, about a “strange fever,” here.

David M. Henkin, City Reading

Henkin_City_ReadingDavid M. Henkin’s City Reading (Columbia University Press, 1998), the last book I read in 2009, comes close to my current ideal of the historian’s first book. It offers a fresh look at familiar territory: in this case, the public spaces of antebellum New York City. It’s short: based upon Henkin’s 300-page dissertation, the main text is a mere 180 or so pages. Despite that brevity, it engages a big idea: the formation of a new public in the wake of the city’s rapidly growing—and changing—population and economy. (This public is brought together, Henkin suggests, by reading in public, with commercial signage, handbills and posters, newspapers, paper currency, and the like as the citizenry’s common texts.) In doing so, Henkin is unafraid to push back against received wisdom: he suggests a somewhat novel conception of the nineteenth-century “public sphere” that counters Jürgen Habermas’s many followers, who lament everything after the demise of eighteenth-century coffeehouse culture. The book is rooted in thorough research: Henkin went through several archives’ worth of lithographs and photographs depicting the city, then interwove the insights he gained from them with contemporary observations drawn from New Yorkers’ diaries and visitors’ travelogues. He has marshaled enough evidence to convince readers that he isn’t extrapolating too broadly from too shallow a pool of sources. And the writing is largely free of obscurantist jargon. City Reading has weaknesses: to my mind, in striving to demonstrate the emergence and coherence of this new public Henkin underemphasizes the consistent confrontation among New York’s varied residents—which led to such clashes as the 1849 Astor Place Riot and the 1863 Draft Riots, both mentioned in passing in the book. (For more on this, see, for example, Lisa Keller’s 2008 book Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London, also published by Columbia.) Yet novelty, ambition, depth, and (especially) brevity seem to me admirable traits for a young scholar to aim for. To read reviews of Henkin’s book, click here and here.

STACKD

Designer Sidney Blank created STACKD, a website that allows registered users to get in touch with other tenants in their office building, when his design company moved into a new twenty-story building on 28th Street in Manhattan. He describes the project at Urban Omnibus: “On a map, it shows which buildings belong to the network. [...] Once you are logged in and click on a building you can see – listed in a vertical stack – the businesses located there. Selecting a particular business reveals contact information and industry as well as what the business offers and needs on a regular basis. If that’s all you need to know, then click on the contact email address and send the business a note or give them a call. Above this directory listing is an area that we call the feed. This is where the building does its talking and where you can listen in. Every building is set up with a twitter account so that others can tweet to it and follow the collective conversation.” To read the rest and see images of the interface, click here.

Interview: Michael Sorkin

A car-free Times Square, New York. (Photo by Flickr user The B-Roll)

A car-free Times Square, New York. (Photo by Flickr user The B-Roll)

Michael Sorkin is a New York–based architect, urban planner, educator, and the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Variations on a Theme Park (1991), Exquisite Corpse (1994), and After the World Trade Center (2002). His latest book, which examines the history and changing face of New York through the lens of his morning commute, is Twenty Minutes in Manhattan. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on Artforum.com on June 29, 2009. To see the interview in context, click here.

The idea for the book came about fifteen years ago. Walks are contemplative times and spaces, and going over the same territory day after day gave me the opportunity to see things over the relatively longue durée: construction projects, seasonal activities, changes in commercial life, in culture, in the population. After dilating internally on the happy accidents produced by the city and on the quality of my immediate environment, I thought I’d begin to write about it. Not only did I want to do something a little bit popular, but also to bring together discourses that are normally segregated: formal, economic, sociological, political, quotidian. I wanted to show, for example, how the ratio of a stair riser has ramifications up to the organization of property and beyond. Twenty Minutes turned out to be frequently delayed; I probably completed half a dozen other books while writing this one. I was also gentrified out of my old studio midway, which changed my route. But the walks were comparable and in the same neighborhood. The only historical event that doesn’t fully register in the pages of the book is 9/11, in part because I have dealt with it at length elsewhere.

In bringing together these various discourses, I hope in some small way to counteract architecture’s continuing obsession with narrow formal issues. The social side of architecture has been disastrously slighted for many years. Things are now beginning to change for the better, as social issues slip into architecture under the cover of environmentalism. If the moniker we use to recuperate ideas of equity and fairness is “environmental justice,” so be it. The risk is that many urban problems are more deep-seated and widespread than a narrowly constructed environmental idea, in which things are broken down into categories and considered solved. Aspiring to LEED certification is not enough. Architects—as well as critics and educators who contribute to our profession’s current myopia—need to see not simply constituent parts but how those parts interact as part of a larger and far more complex system. The book is predicated on the understanding that nothing in the urban environment exists autonomously, that the city is a web of fascinating contingencies.

Here in New York, we’re beginning to see glimmers of more enlightened thinking. Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, though vague, points in the right direction; Janette Sadik-Khan, our transportation commissioner, is bringing to the streets the first fruits of her fascination with Copenhagen, the poster-town for pedestrian planning. (That our plutocrat mayor believes deeply in the leadership of private initiative doesn’t help; public amenities shouldn’t have to sneak in a profit-making arrangement for private partners.) These positive developments have a lot to counteract: for over a century, cities have tried to redesign themselves in order to accommodate first trains and then cars, two modes of transportation that can be lethal for urbanity. We now need to start with the image of a desirable city and then imagine the transportation technologies that might produce it. Only neighborhoods and communities structured to eliminate the need to move long distances at high speeds will wean us from our automobile addiction. My book, like Jane Jacobs’s great The Death and Life of Great American Cities, imagines a city based on bodies and basic principles of affinity.

Jacobs was a tireless activist, and small-scale initiatives and community solidarity are both important. Neighborhoods and localities must be empowered; we need to leverage cooperation in tractable and inventive ways. This is something I try to do with Terreform, my nonprofit organization—to raise expectations, to show what the possibilities are, and to help give expression to dreams and desires that find difficulty reaching the mainstream. As I say in the book, the future of the city lies not in the superposition of the next great idea but in the careful articulation and expression of many fresh and familiar differences.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: William Chapman Sharpe

William Chapman Sharpe, professor of English at Barnard College in New York City, is the author of Unreal Cities (1990) and coeditor of Visions of the Modern City (1983). His new book, New York Nocturne (2008), examines images of the city after dark in literature, painting, and photography from 1850 to 1950. To get a sense of what Sharpe attempts in the volume, click here to read the book’s description and here to read the introduction (warning: PDF link), which Princeton University Press has made available via its website. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on Artforum.com on November 27, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

I’ve spent my entire professional life engaged with the modern city’s representation in art and literature. Unreal Cities discussed poetry about the metropolis by Wordsworth, Whitman, Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and others. I’ve always straddled the Atlantic, surveying not only New York but also London and Paris. This book germinated when I looked at works by James McNeill Whistler and realized that his art must have influenced the way people imagined the city at that time. My original effort was an attempt to understand how Whistler’s vision of the Thames, which is mostly represented horizontally in his paintings, was translated into representations of the vertical reach of New York City. The darkness and mist that covers the bridges and the far shore of the Thames revealed to Whistler an abstract and elemental formal quality that was instrumental in making his art so revolutionary—a deliberate arrangement of colors and shapes on a flat surface. As soon as photographers began looking at the vertical geography of New York they began to see ways they could capture the unusual forms by covering details in the same cloak of darkness.

Whistler wasn’t afraid to make enemies or to go to court (as in the famous lawsuit against John Ruskin) to demand that he be recognized as a revolutionary artist who had showed urban citizens something they had never seen before. He even compiled his rebuttals to his critics in a book called The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. His influence extended beyond the realm of the visual arts; for example, when Ezra Pound was trying to promote imagism in London in the second decade of the twentieth century, he cited Whistler’s courageous artwork in support of his ideas. Returning to the visual arts, even so brash and semiabstract a painter as Joseph Stella, whose sharp angles seem distinct from Whistler’s delicacy of touch, also began his career as a maker of Whistleresque nocturnes.

It can be said that Whistler showed people how to paint a “moonlight” (his original term for what he later called “nocturnes”) without ever depicting the moon. This, coupled with the increasing ubiquity of artificial light, helped liberate the representation of night from a number of qualities that had become clichéd, most notably that it was a time of reflection and pastoral repose that would carry us back to childlike innocence.

But of course the book is not all about Whistler. The motif of the flâneur runs throughout. I try to show that Edgar Allan Poe had partly celebrated and partly parodied this figure in his story “The Man of the Crowd.” What he notices is that the flâneur can’t really make anything happen; his whole job is to observe and comment. But beginning in the late nineteenth century the flâneur becomes an investigator. Think of Jacob Riis, who was dedicated not just to observing the world but also to changing what he saw.

The book shows that we have a number of ways of looking at the night—from seeing it as a gaslit immoral Babylon to wondering at the skyscraper fantasia. We alternate between fear of what might be out there and absolute delight in the way it looks. We’re beguiled and discomposed at the same time that we wander down the streets. Such fluctuation is an omnipresent quality in the nocturnal city. While I try to tease out separate strands of it, any time we regard the city at night we do so with a bundle of ideas and emotions that range from fear and dismay to sexual excitement to a sense of being both voyeur and victim. The word voyeur seems key to understanding an artist like Weegee, who tried to bring us a flashlit consciousness of the city. In his clever comments on the staginess of city life, he became a producer and director of the night. But he was a producer who urged us to indulge ourselves in the thrill of watching somebody else suffer, and for this reason I ultimately found him less honest and compelling than Riis. Weegee was more enamored of himself than anything he depicted. While he shows us the worst about the night, he also shows how the night can bring out the worst in ourselves.

In the book’s epilogue I discuss various attempts to reconnect the human species to the full range of natural experience, including natural night. If for no other reason than economic reality, people will gradually change the way they light up the night. We may see a more consciously managed image of the sparkling city. The classic views of the skyline offered a totally unplanned panopoly of light. But perhaps greater patches of darkness, and the understanding that when it’s dark it’s not necessarily as unsafe as we fear, will intrude upon this vision of the city. We will gain a lot as human beings if we can look up once again and see the stars.

–As told to Brian Sholis