Archive for Sunday, May 19, 2002

A century of street photos brings New York’s humanity, history to life

May 19, 2002

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— A street choked with immigrants and vegetable carts. A dead body sprawled on the sidewalk in front of a movie theater showing "Joy of Living."

These and other New York City street images are the focus of "New York: Capital of Photography," a new exhibit at the Jewish Museum.

"New York: Capital of Photography" will be displayed through Sept. 2 at the Jewish Museum in New York City, the show travels to the Madison Art Center in Madison, Wis., from Dec. 8 through Feb. 16, 2003, and the Musee de L'Elysee in Lausanne, Switzerland, from April 10 through June 9, 2003.

For more information, go online to www.thejewishmuseum.org.

More than 100 pictures, most on loan from museums and private collections, include little-known photos by some of the country's most famous photographers. Taken together, the black-and-white, and later color, images by 60 photographers capture nearly a century of the city's humanity and history.

"The pictures they take are people who are on the margins of society either in terms of race or ethnicity, in terms of social class, in terms of people who aren't necessarily imagined when you think of New York photographs," said Karen Levitov, who coordinated the show.

"When most people think of the city, they think of glamorous shots of famous people and famous buildings, but these shots are of individual people who make up the city."

There are no glittering skylines here. The images are of real people and real lives. Yet a sense of affection pervades even the grittiest images.

"These photographers are notably unable to hide their affection for the city, even as they brilliantly document what they see as its shortcomings," said Max Kozloff, the acclaimed art critic and street photographer who organized the show.

Noting that most photographers of the genre were Jewish, and many were from the impoverished Lower East Side, Kozloff said that heritage may explain their passion for photographing people on the margins of society. Two-thirds of the photographers featured in the show are Jewish, he said.

Capturing the city's feel

The exhibit, organized chronologically and thematically, begins in 1898 with a Byron Company documentary photograph of Hester Street, crowded with merchants selling their wares on wooden carts amid a backdrop of hanging laundry and drooping awnings.

As New York emerged as a hub of trade, finance and industry, Alfred Stieglitz photographed the city in an almost impressionistic style, picturing a city of smoky factories. Lewis Hine, famous for his photos of construction workers building the Empire State Building, revealed exploited workers in the city and immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.

The exhibit continues into the 1930s, with heart-wrenching images of the Depression. Morris Engel's 1937 "Harlem Merchant" depicts an exhausted merchant appearing above his counter as just another tattered item for sale.

The 1940s are shown in a gallery titled "The Rough and Gregarious Town." Here, Coney Island and Times Square flourish as iconic motifs, and the streets don't seem quite as lonely as they had been in the 1930s.

Weegee, as the free-lance crime photographer Arthur Fellig was known, turned an often humorous eye toward the city's crime scenes and other strange images. His 1942 "Joy of Living" shows a murder scene outside a movie theater and, in his 1940 "Crowd at Coney Island, temperature 89 degrees ...," he seems to have directed swimsuit-clad people as far as the eye can see to wave and smile at the camera.

A drearier side

The next section, focusing on the 1950s and 1960s, shows the not-so-pretty underbelly of the glittering metropolis.

Leonard Freed's 1954 "New York," shows men in business suits walking in a Financial District made shadowy by looming skyscrapers. And Saul Leiter's 1950 "Barbershop 75 cents," one of the first color photos in the show, reveals an angry-looking man standing near a bright red, white and blue barbershop pole.

Elsewhere, faces look grim and colorless, and nightclub scenes even one featuring a Marlene Dietrich cameo are somehow cheap and seedy.

By the last section of the show, featuring street photos from the 1970s to the 1990s, the genre has changed substantially. Photos, mostly in color, seem to be more about the individual photographer's sense of aesthetics.

In an untitled 1993 photo by Jeff Mermelstein, a small dog sitting atop stacks of newspapers seems to dominate a busy sidewalk scene.

The show ends with a jolt with a Mermelstein photo from Sept. 11. In a strange reversal, the dust and debris near the World Trade Center site make the devastating image appear at first to be in black and white, somehow recalling the grim black and white images from the city during its earlier times.

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