New York/Around Town

Tenth Avenue — © Brian Rose

Odds and ends. Things to recommend. Things to dis.

The New York Times reports this morning that the film On the Bowery will soon be available on DVD. I saw it last year for the first time at Film Forum, and wrote about it extensively in my blog here and here. Alan Rogosin’s film is an astonishing portrayal of lost New York and lost souls, controversial then and now for its hybrid documentary/fictional format. Actual denizens of the Bowery, picked out by Rogosin, played the lead roles filmed in the streets and bars of the Bowery near Houston Street. It’s one of the great realist films ever made, a tour de force of editing and photography. The montage of grizzled faces at the end is unforgettable.

Fifth Avenue — © Brian Rose

The Radical Camera at the Jewish Museum, one of the best museum photography shows in recent years, will be up through March 25th. This show is about the New York Photo League and its community of photographers who explored the streets of the city during the 1930s and 1940s. Their work pushed aesthetic boundaries and embraced political engagement. The show is worth seeing both for its vivid depiction of New York and for illuminating the development of documentary street photography leading up to the modern era. There are a number of familiar names in the exhibition, like Berenice Abbott and Aaron Siskind, but most are lesser knowns, many who have fallen through the cracks, and are typically not included in the dominant narrative of photographic history.

From the blog DLK Collection: For me, I finally started to visually understand the small steps that made up the aesthetic and conceptual changes that took place between the 1930s and the 1950s, those missing evolutionary links between Abbott and Frank; The Americans now seems to me less like a thunder strike of genius out of nowhere and more like an innovative, original extrapolation from visual ideas that were already beginning to percolate around. This excellent show tells a uniquely New York story, and is worth a visit simply for the rich historical details of life in the city that it provides. But the reason I found this to be one of the best photography shows of the year is that it also successfully fills in an important (and largely missing) gap in the recounting of the American photographic narrative. Not only do I now have an increased appreciation for the talents of the many members of the New York Photo League (many of whom have been unjustly overlooked), I now understand much more clearly how the larger artistic puzzle fits together.

Read the whole review here.

We think of serious photography now in the context of museums and galleries, but it wasn’t really until the Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art with its “we are the world” sentimentality that the medium began to find favor in elite institutions. The Photo League embraced work that depicted gritty reality whether on the streets of the Lower East Side or the  beach at Coney Island–it did not celebrate the myth of American ascendency, and as a result, ran afoul of the anti-communist blacklisters of the early ’50s. The fact that many of its members were Jewish was also not coincidental.

Imagine. At the time of the Photo League, there was virtually no museums or art galleries that paid any attention to photography. In retrospect, it appears that the Photo League–its shows and its community of photographers–was central to the development of photography as social instrument and as an art form. And this story has not adequately been told until now. Do not miss this exhibition.

World Press winning photograph — © Samuel Aranda

There has already been lots written about this photograph, and I have no inclination to analyze something that’s not worth the effort. First of all, the premise of a grand prize for a single news photograph is wrong. The most interesting single photographs, in my opinion, are often the most open ended, often the least iconic, images that defy easy reading. That’s the opposite of what the World Press jurors usually come up with. They want a Muslim Mary cradling Jesus, or something.

This is a crappy photograph, maudlin, cliche.

2 thoughts on “New York/Around Town

  1. Stan B.

    I’m sure you could find way better photographs in the Photo League exhibit than this year’s World Press winner. Mediocre at very best…

  2. admin Post author

    The Photo League exhibit, indeed, is full of glorious individual images.

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