New York/The Bowery

The Bowery (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose

Events are typically presented in photography or TV as spontaneous despite the fact that they rarely are. Most events are staged and the image makers oblige the image controllers by taking camera positions given them, and picture editors tend to use images that meet certain expectations of what events are supposed to look like, staged or unfolding spontaneously. Movie makers further create expectations of how events are experienced, how events are supposed to look, by carefully constructing experience as multi-view bursts of overlapping time, close up, stylized, and packaged.

But that is not the way events are actually experienced, at least from my perspective. Things happen or develop off camera and only briefly intersect with my consciousness–or lens. The putative event is often at a distance, fleeting, barely apprehended, elusive to the eye. Eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable. They see what they think they see in the confusion of real time, the chaos of unfolding visual signals, unordered, unedited, unmediated. The camera is a dull witted eye.

President Obama’s motorcade drove through the Lower East Side, and swept up the Bowery. It was a passing incident noted by some, not by others. Probably unknown to him, he drove right by Shepherd Fairey working on a mural on the same spot where one of Fairey’s famous hope portraits was painted during the presidential campaign. A small crowd formed at the corner of Houston and Bowery awaiting the arrival of Obama. The police were, on the one hand, relaxed and blasé, as is typical of authority in New York. But on the other hand, a police truck was cruising up and down Houston Street clipping bicycles off of poles, tossing them arrogantly and carelessly onto a pile of dozens of other potential–pipe bombs??

I set up my view camera on the Bowery a quarter of a block from the corner in the midst of restaurant supply workers hauling stuff around on the sidewalk while some architects were discussing work for the interior of an art gallery. The motorcade approached, signaled by a few whoops of police cars, a hovering helicopter, some flashing red lights. The black cars and SUVs rounded the corner, and for a few seconds everyone turned, froze, and stared. Within seconds the event was over, the prosaic flow of work on the Bowery resumed. The most famous person in the world was a few blocks up the street, out of sight out of mind.

History witnessed.