Unreal Nature

March 1, 2017

The Bigness of the City

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… with his approach … restricted to one block, the idea of the bigness of the city fades from view.

Continuing through New York: Capital of Photography by Max Kozloff (2002):

… The men and the few women who pictured this calamity [the Great Depression] — the defining event of the 1930s — evolved two principles of seeing that opened the street mode to its pictorial future. The first is an apparently artless manner; the second is an intensely voyeuristic approach. What made both possible was the advent of the Leica, a miniature, roll-film, rapid-fire camera manufactured in Germany.

[line break added]Unlike the unwieldy Graflex of Lewis Hine, this tool allowed for instinctive work. By means of the Leica, street photography, previously a cumbersome and conspicuous practice, was transformed into a genre of stealth. For the machine not only encouraged surreptitious behavior on the part of its operator, it often rewarded it.

A new style began to emerge: grabbed, notational, and intrusive. Instead of waiting for action to happen, or setting it up, the photographer could poke right into it. We have the feeling, with photographs taken by the Leica, that metropolitan life is no longer constituted by events so much as made up of a succession of sudden glimpses and ephemeral instants.

[line break added] And just as it atomized movement in time, this observational style also redefined social space. On the street, even though they were exposed to public view, people nevertheless moved — or assumed they moved — within their own private territory. They were not defended against the curiosity of others, but urban decorum at least required that it be circumspect. The new camera could and did violate that circumspection at will.

[ … ]

… [Walker Evans] visually lists or takes inventories of items, each contributing in its modest way to the characterization of an era. Yet he could only assume that attitude from a position psychologically outside the confines of the American Depression. Evans saw that culture in historical terms, though also with a dispassionate spirit. He partakes of nothing, he is interested in everything.

[ … ]

rosenblum_gr_frontfence
Walter Rosenblum, Group in Front of Fence, 1938

… Gradually, by the late 1930s, a shift occurs in the social atmosphere of photographs depicting ethnic or racial minorities in New York. The normalcy of community has replaced a nagging, everyday sense of impoverishment. No longer considered estranged or victimized, people appear in cohesive social situations — their “otherness” naturalized in the process.

[line break added] The familiarity of their ways takes precedence over the specificities of their different cultures, even as their cultures are affirmed as sources of strength. Ben Shahn’s eavesdropping method almost implies that viewers participated in New York street life, but now a younger photographer like Walter Rosemblum (b. 1919) actually breaks through random contact and fraternizes with his subjects.

On Pitt Street, on the Lower East Side, the people were easy with this young man. The work he did there was undertaken as a student project at the Photo League, designed to examine the street as a site of quotidian transactions — in other words, city genre. But with his approach to the street’s mixed usage restricted to one block, the idea of the bigness of the city fades from view. Except for the density of happenings, the environment could be a small town. The setting is construed as only a few tightly framed buildings, and they are human-scaled.

[line break added] Everyone seems to know one another, they talk a lot, and circulation takes its own time. At such a pokey pace, various story lines begin to suggest themselves. It’s almost as if Thornton Wilder’s Our Town were restaged on city blocks. But Rosenblum walked an actual New York street, in territory that was neither Middletown nor Gotham, a turf he couldn’t help but describe with homegrown affection.

To be continued.

My most recent previous post from Kozloff’s book is here.

-Julie

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