Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Friday, April 30, 2010

Super-tired litany

In response to the question "is photography over" which was the focus of a recent symposium under that title at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, symposium participant and curatorial heavy-weight Charlotte Cotton enumerated what she called the"super-tired litany" of the "national and regional collections of photography," namely:

•  road trips

•  street poetry

•  illustrations of political and social issues

•  light-weight conceptual art

•  the inoffensively and classically stylish

•  the outputs of the persistent and charming

•  the cheap stuff that contemporary art curators
   and collectors aren’t interested in, and

•  the downright over-produced

Other participants — among them Vince Aletti and Peter Galassi — responded more cautiously to the symposium's motivating question, but controversy is more fun, so let's run with Charlotte Cotton ….

Wadsworth Avenue & 192nd Street, Northeast Corner

Another of the participants, Philip-Lorca diCorcia suggests that the real question is not "is photograpy over" but rather should be "is art over"? But it seems to me that Cotton's "super-tired litany" gets closer to the heart of the matter with its implicit though tactfully understated suggestion that the real issue is whether curating is over (since the "super tired litany" of the "national and regional collections" can only be a litany of their curators).

And in fact Cotton comes right out and (almost) says it:

It's about time for photography as a culturally institutionalised, ghettoised, and, frankly, dull and acquiesent, photo-art-market-serving "discipline" to be over.

What is stake here, materially speaking, is neither "art" nor "photography" but rather the market value of one kind of portable decorative wall-hanging: namely the photographic print (other kinds of portable decorative wall-hangings include tapestries, paintings, drawings, engravings, etchings, lithographs, silkscreens, and so on — and, yes, I include both Monet and Marimekko in this category, and moreover include them as peers).

Is the photographic print "over"?

There's nothing like the prints that Atget himself made — or I think so, anyway — they're just "magic." Or are they?

Goethe says somewhere that once a work of art has achieved some level of historical recognition it becomes impossible to judge it as a work of art: our awe of its status precludes our being able to respond to it directly for what it is — or was.

One might go further, drawing on Schiller but going "too far" — or at least further than he went (and why not? going "too far" is always, at least in these contexts, more fun than not going far enough).

Which would be to say that all poetry, even all art, eventually beomes sentimental, "reflective," in proportion to how well it fares in its subsequent history, at least in the sense that an effort to experience it as it was before "greatness" was bestowed upon requires an effort of reflection on the part of the viewer (or reader or listener) that was unnecessary when it was first made.

And that is subsequently doomed to be no more than a kind of hypothesis that we try to incorporate into our immediate experience, our actual perception of the work.

But I like to think the Atget's are great anyway.

However — they look even better well-displayed on a good monitor, and so does every other photograph that I know of, no matter how much I admire and even love the print. (I know, I know, you don't agree with me about this ….)

So, yes, the photographic print is over, though of course there will remain a market for photographic prints, just as there remains a market for all sorts of antiques that are for the most part valued for reasons other than their immediate use for the purpose(s) for which they were made.

What the digital technologies have done, in this regard, for photography — much more than the printing technologies could ever do for the hand made portable decorative wall hangings — e.g., Vermeer, Vuillard — that are still the mainstay of the world's galleries and museums — is to render meaningless the concept of "the original."

Which is why photographic prints have so little of what Walter Benjamin called — satirically, I believe — "aura" (unless they have a provenance of exceptionally bankable vintage, such as Atget's prints of his own work) and why digitally produced and displayed images have no "aura" at all.

The Benjaminian "aura" of an "original" derives from its monopoly on being itself, from which, in the manner of all monopolies, flows its potential for monopolistic pricing in the market — here as an embodiment of "greatness," "power," "status," "achievement," and all the other hieratic accoutrements of our kind of society and its cultures (not necessarily to imply that there's any other kind available to human animal).

Without which the curator's role in the art-world that is photography must surely evolve into something altogether different from what it has been for the 200 or so years of the museum's existence — and the 100 or so years of photography's presence in the museum — to date.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Project journal entry for April 16, 2006

The problematics of including people in the photographs of New York in Plain Sight — ethical, practical, even aesthetical — arose very early on in the project and remains very much a lively issue for me. Here's what I was saying to myself about one aspect of this scarcely a month after the shooting began.

The photographers featured in the New York Times today are quoted as saying that by keeping people out of, or limiting their presence in, their photographs, they invite the viewer into them "as if he/she were there"(not an exact quote).

They also say that the real presence of people in a photograph makes the picture about those particular people. I think I agree with this, when we're talking about viewing a single image in isolation — real or conceptual/virtual — from any others.

But in street corners, the sheer number of people in the hundreds and thousands of pictures generalizes the subject in a different sort of way, while at the same time maintaining the specificity, the particularity and uniqueness of the individuals who appear in them.

I want to make an analogy between [the following I then crossed out as "too grand": very large scale but uniform photography projects …] my street corners project and Morton Feldman's large scale — "long" — pieces. How the sheer scale of a piece like the 2nd String Quartet changes the perception of event densities.

Similarly, I think, with the thousands of street corners — the issues of what makes a single photograph a good one are radically altered in the context of 10,000 similar photographs.

And so again, also, the question of scale and its implications, its consequences.

Washington Street & Gansevoort Street, Northwest Corner

I haven't counted — and I probably won't, either! — how many people there are altogether in the photographs of New York in Plain Sight — but if I were guessing, I'd hazard something on the order of 50,000, if not even more than that.

It's possible that the more difficult question, given that just about everything in our culture is aimed at the individual, the singular, whether as the achievement (or failure) of a person or of an object like a photograph, is how to see an ensemble of hundreds or thousands of photographs as just that: an ensemble and therefore to judge how they do — or even don't — work together, instead of only seeing them as just a heap of so-and-so many individual pictues.

An analogy perhaps to learning to hear music as an ensemble of sounds instead of a sequence individual tones?

In which case the analogy with Feldman may be in reverse: I gather from his writings and lectures that one of his ideas in working on such a large temporal scale was to free the individual sound from the received web of compositional relationships in which we "naturally" hear it embedded.

Whereas in New York in Plain Sight it's just the opposite: the scope of the project deliberately undermines the individuality of the separate photographs — or tries to, anyway.

Successfully? — I don't know yet; it remains to be seen.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Random corner #2

Looks like Wednesday is going to be Random Corner Day — or at least it was last Wednesday, and now this one too, so maybe that's the makings of a trend or at least a pattern, if not quite yet an institution.

Today's random number is 09823, which translates to the southwest corner of Columbus Avenue & 82nd Street.

Columbus (Ninth) Avenue & 82nd Street, Southwest Corner

And what about it?

(As with last week's Random Corner #1, the following is no more than a miscellany drawn from a few internet searches and standard reference works.)

"Columbus" Avenue because that's what this stretch of Ninth Avenue has been called ever since it was renamed, in 1890, in anticipation of the 400th anniversary of Columbus' "discovery" of America.

82nd Street, as usual, from the Commissioner's "grid" plan of 1807-1811.

The neighborhood — the Upper West Side — was called Bloemendal (Bloomingdale) by the 17th century Dutch settlers, and even up until the Civil War was a largely rural area, punctuated by a number of grand estates.

Development began in earnest after the Civil War, spurred in part by the creation of Central Park. In 1879 the Sixth and the Ninth Avenue Elevated lines were extended up Ninth Avenue to 81st Street, a block south of today's random corner; the El was subsequently (1891) extended on up past today's random corner to 116th Street (and later on to 155th Street and beyond as well).

The name change from "Ninth" to "Columbus" Avenue was part and parcel of a more general effort to develop the neighborhood as Manhattan's "West End" — around this time (1890) Eighth Avenue was renamed Central Park West (from 59th Street to 110th Street), Tenth Avenue became Amsterdam Avenue; Eleventh Avenue had become West End Avenue already in 1880. (for more, much more, on the development process of the Upper West Side, see Stern, Mellins, and Fishman's fabulous New York 1880.

Columbus and 82nd is a block north of the northwest corner of Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould's 1877 American Museum of Natural History, the campus of which occupies the four blocks between Central Park West and Columbus from 77th Street up to 81st Street — in effect, if not officially, an extension of Central Park beyond its original Eighth Avenue western border./span>

Actually, however, these park-like four blocks substantially pre-date Central Park, having been provided for as "Manhattan Square," one of a handful of small parks in the Commission's plan of 1807-1811.

The Romanesque building seen on the corner extends the whole block down to 81st Street, Originally built 1889-91 as the Hotel Endicott and intended to rival the Dakota, on the park and half a mile to the south, it was converted to condominiums in the 1980s in the sweep of gentrification — or perhaps one should say: re-gentrification of the neighborhood that got underway in the 1970s, a process launched in the early 1960s with the creation of Lincoln Center a mile to the south.

Today the immediate neighborhood — and more — of Columbus Avenue and 82nd Street is well-established as a district of multi-million dollar apartments with upscale shops — like the Canine Ranch in the photo (above) — to match.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Survey?

Of course New York in Plain Sight isn't a survey in any scientific sense of the word, social or otherwise. And yesterday's little exercise, or the beginnings of it, shows just how and why this is the case.

The key is the difficulty — which I found myself enjoying — posed by the "generosity" of the medium. What's important in the photographs, or in any photograph, and what isn't?

Well, you can't ask the photograph itself to answer that question, particularly when the photographer has deliberately employed none of the means — composition, lighting, selective focus, viewpoint — to give emphasis to one or the other aspect of the subject.

The problem being, of course, that for any even modestly scientific purpose, you pretty much have to begin with a question, or a group of related questions, and design the survey instrument in such a way as to eliminate in advance all that irrelevant stuff that constitutes the dense reality of life and the world.

And to do so in a way that, hopefully, doesn't already by its very exclusions prejudice the answer too much.

(Anyone who has ever bothered to answer a telephone survey has probably had the experience of feeling that the questions asked and the choices given for answering them somehow miss what one thinks altogether, so that no matter how one answers, the result is a serious misrepresentation. — It's a real problem, which is why survey design is such a fine and difficult art.)

Broadway & Canal Street, Northeast Corner

Of course, one could take the photographs of New York in Plain Sight — or probably any other photographs too — and just regard them so to speak as tissue samples, a sort of visual biopsy, and then approach them with much more specific sorts of questions.

For instance, "how many people are to be seen standing and talking on a street corner, on average, in daytime Manhattan"? Or perhaps more interestingly, "how many people in wheelchairs are to be seen?"

But even with this kind of simple — and naive — question, one would have to ask after the question behind the question: "why would you want to know?"

So, really, New York in Plain Sight isn't that kind of a survey, though some clever boots might find a way to make it useful in that way. (I wish I were that clever person, but I'm afraid I'm just not.)

"Survey" can also mean, however, a general or comprehensive view of something, and in that sense New york in Plain Sight is, surely, a survey.

Does it matter, this question, whether it's a survey or not?

Perhaps, if only because the word captures the most distinctive thing about New York in Plain Sight," which is its comprehensiveness. (I hope of course that that's not the only distinctive thing about it, but still don't doubt that it's the main thing, despite the fact that I can't claim that it's the most comprehensive such "survey" of the island of Manhattan.)

Food for thought — maybe — on a rainy Tuesday morning.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Tenth Avenue mile, interrupted

As much as I've enjoyed the conceit that New York in Plain Sight is a survey, however informally conceived and executed, and without the apparatus of any real research methodology, I've never sat down and made even a minimal effort to tabulate what there is to see in this "survey" or even in any part of it.

So here we go, spreadsheet in hand — well, on the screen — for a mile on Tenth Avenue, from 14th Street up to 34th Steet (twenty blocks to the avenue mile in Manhattan per the 1811 "grid"), 78 corners in all.

And already, just nine corners into it, I'm brought up short by how demanding an exercise this is (I'll continue tabulating, but not for this post — results in a few days or a week, maybe).

But what's so difficult, you ask?

What's so difficult is actually seeing all that's there to see.

Take, for instance, the northeast corner of Tenth Avenue and 16th Street — right where I've got stuck — which I might have and no doubt did characterize without thinking much about it as one of those "nothing" corners you pass in a taxi taking 16th Street across from the West Side Highway to the middle of the island in order to avoid the traffic on 14th Street.

Tenth Avenue & 16th Street, Northeast Corner

And maybe not quite so easily dismissed the photograph itself, as a picture, owing to the strong lines and shadows of the elevated railroad — the "High Line" — together with the strong colors of the advertising and the near match between the orange in the ad and the orange in the dress of one of the women in the corner, and perhaps the various near-complementaries of this orange and also the yellows in the ad with the purple on the back of the truck on 16th Street and the greens of the displays on the chain link fence of the Chelsea Garden Center just beyond it.

(Not making any strong claims for the quality of this photograph, just saying it ain't so bad, either.)

Like many people, apparently, I've long loved Lee Friedlander's famous statement about photography's being "a generous medium" but I'm not sure, despite having looked, and looked closely, at who knows how many hundreds of thousands of photographs, that I've ever been as acutely aware of just how "generous" the medium really is until a few minutes ago, when I began to seriously try to enumerate everything I can see in just this one photograph.

For instance, I see at glance that there are three people on the corner — hard to miss, especially with one of them wearing that orange dress and also because the composition naturally leads the eye right to her and the other two as well.

But of course, it's four people, since one of the three is pushing a stroller with a small child — whom I must surely count too.

And aren't those two dogs sitting at the feet of the woman in the orange dress? Or is one of them a cat? (Note to self: if I ever do this project over again, as I think I want to, I must get one of those 60 megapixel digital backs, 16.7 megapixels was clearly not enough ….)

And the woman pushing the stroller, am I sure that's not a man?

OK, hard not to miss the man standing in the street off to the left — looks like he's going to hail a taxi, or is looking for the bus that will stop just behind him. The M-11, does it still run up Tenth Avenue? — Probably.

Now for those ads: must be a "luxury" condo going up (a cyncial friend says that "luxury" in Manhattan just means that the toilets are alleged to work most of the time). What was there before, is the new building up now? I should go over and have a look. What happens if I call 212-633-1717 today? (Don't do it, resist the temptation.)

Whoops, there are two more people, just emerging into the sunshine from behind one of the High Line pillars.

Oh gosh, and someone else too: a woman walking towards me on the other side of 16th Street, chatting on her cell phone.

I find myself wondering: is the Gourmet Coffee Service really Metro New York's best, at least for offices? I suppose there's no denying that coffee is one of the corporate essentials ….

There's a "cobra light" on the far right, one of the ugliest designs ever (IMHO), very 1970s — is that true? — but here it seems to fit right in with those very 1970s oranges and browns.

Looks like the woman in the orange dress with the two dogs (or the dog and the cat) is looking at her cell phone — does she have the number for the woman she's talking to? Or is she calling someone? Maybe the Caledonia sales office at 212-633-1717?

Incidentally, about those ads on the high plywood fence: may be one of the highest tech items to be seen in the photograph: large scale digital printing, now ubiquitous, which it wasn't when I moved back into Manhattan going on twenty years ago.



OK, enough, I'll stop. But isn't this the real magic of photography, any photography? This unlimited richness of the visual world, revealed by stopping it in its course and having a closer look at a single moment?

Well yes, of course everybody knows that, and so, of course, do I. But the fascination remains undiminished for all that. For me, anyway.


[I'll get back with my "survey" results later in the week, or maybe next week.]

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Google's streets

I first became aware of Google Map's "Street View" feature sometime in the summer of 2006.

I was already about halfway through shooting New York in Plain Sight when my downstairs neighbor Kevin invited himself up to visit and with the sort of shit-eating grin that never bodes well told me that I "had to look at this — now."

(If by any chance you've never looked at Google's "Street View" yourself, then you too have to look at it — now.)

Even four years ago it was stunning, despite the primitive quality of the low resolution images and the clumsy "street level" navigation. Now, at least in New York and surely many other cities as well, the image quality has been improved enormously and the navigation too (though it's still not as fluent as I, for one, would like).

Not only can you look at every street corner on the island of Manhattan (should you wish to), you can view everything on either side of every street in between the intersections as well, and move your apparent point of view around in the image, e.g., from one side of the street to the other, or from this end of the block to that one, or around that corner and up that street instead.

For someone who remembers, as I do, some of what was involved in digital mapping and imaging 35 years ago, the achievement is still breath taking, no matter how often I use Google Maps and its "Street View" feature (which is very often indeed).

Of course what Kevin was smirking about in the summer of 2006, and what I'm still frequently asked about, is the question, what's the point of New York in Plain Sight when "Street View" offers so much more? Isn't New York in Plain Sight as obsolete as Frank Dibdin's grand "virtual cities" project, for which he photographed every building in the city of New York? (Not to suggest that I myself think that Dibdin's work is obsolete — quite the opposite, in fact.)

My first response of course is that the photographs of New York in Plain Sight are better than what "Street View" delivers: far higher resolution, much wider color gamut and dynamic range, etc., etc.

Broadway & 13th Street, Southeast Corner

But, I remind myself with a glance back to digital mapping and imaging as it was 35 years ago, these superiorities, such as they may be, are surely temporary, and soon enough (I don't doubt this for a moment) we'll be looking at "Street View" in 3D as well, at which point, technologically speaking, New York in Plain Sight really will be totally obsolete.

Well, so much for that kind of supposed superiority.

Try again: the photographs of New York in Plain Sight were made by an artist (however minor and obscure), by an individual human being, while "Street View" is the mechanical product of what amounts to a spectacularly glorified surveillance camera.

But aren't those among my desiderata for New York in Plain Sight (see my earlier post "In plain sight"), to avoid "art" at every level and to exclude from the photographs of New York in Plain Sight the subjectivity of the photographer, i.e., myself?

OK, try this: the photographs of New York in Plain Sight are taken from a more realistic or at least more appropriate vantage point (eye level on the sidewalk vs. Google's mid-street van-top elevation), given my intention to capture "the sense of life at street level in daytime Manhattan."

This — I want to believe and do believe, though not without some frayed edges of doubt — has some merit to it, though it comes down to just asserting that my pictures are better for my purposes than theirs are.

Well duh.

Or I could argue, more dialectically, that it is the inevitable failure of my attempt to exclude both "art" and myself from the photographs that makes the New York in Plain Sight project and even the individual photographs, or some of them, into something more — "better", "more interesting," etc. — than what "Street View" delivers.

But now this really is clutching at straws.

Is there no way out of this impasse?

No — but then again, yes.

No, if the question is "which is better, 'Street View' or New York in Plain Sight."

But then again, yes, if we drop the competitive question "which is better" and simply look at either or both for whatever they are and whatever — if anything — they give us.

If New York in Plain Sight doesn't do anything for you, or doesn't give you what you need at this moment, while "Street View" does, then go to "Street View" — I for one am very grateful to have "Street View" at my fingertips.

If New York in Plain Sight does speak to you, in some way or another, at least some the photographs some of the time, well — great: enjoy!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

New York in Plain Sight as a survey

[Adapted from a recently finished longer essay on the New York in Plain Sight project.]

New York in Plain Sight is or can be regarded as — among other things — a large-scale photographic survey of everyday life at street level in daytime Manhattan, shot for the most part in 2006.

The survey is based on the Manhattan street map, which provides a straightforward plan for obtaining comprehensive coverage of the island at a relatively uniform density throughout.

The 3,300± intersections of Manhattan’s streets and sidewalks are distributed across the island at an average density of 182 intersections per square mile (exclusive of parks and other public open spaces).

Though local densities range from as low as 140 to as high as 300 intersections per square mile (but only in a few areas, each extending over less than a quarter of a square mile), most of the island is close to the overall average, largely as a result of the famous Commissioner’s “grid” plan of 1811 and its subsequent extensions, which defined an average of 168 intersections per square mile over about two-thirds of the island.

Broadway Terrace & Fairview Avenue, Northeast Corner

The unit and motif of New York in Plain Sight is the street corner.

Not counting the corners of streets that are permanently closed to traffic, staircase streets, park roads, on/off ramps, medians, and traffic islands, there are perhaps 11,485 street corners on the island of Manhattan — some ambiguous cases make the exact figure a matter of judgment — or about 633 street corners per square mile.

As a result, New York in Plain Sight comprises some 11,485 photographs: one for each of Manhattan’s 11,485 street corners, each viewed — with a few exceptions — from its diagonally opposite corner.

A more important result is that New York in Plain Sight is a reasonably equitable survey of Manhattan’s human geography, capturing its range of demographics — age, race, ethnicity, income — in roughly the same proportions as their physical distribution across the island.

New York in Plain Sight is a “random” sampling of its subject in the sense that the pace of the shooting meant accepting whatever was or wasn’t happening within a very brief interval of arriving at a corner.

If nothing was happening — especially if no people were present — a single shot might suffice, requiring only a few seconds, while if a lot was happening — many people doing many different things — several minutes and a dozen or more shots were sometimes warranted.

The actual averages were about 18.3 seconds and 2.1 shots at each corner.

New York in Plain Sight was also conceived as a survey of a single “moment” in the city’s history: the long summer season from March 10, 2006 through November 24, 2006, during which I photographed 10,563 street corners (92% of the total) in 91 days of shooting.

Most of the remainder have since been shot — and some of the original 2006 photographs reshot — in coordination with the work of cataloging and processing the whole set.


[Over the next week or two I'll post some closer looks at the questions raised by this view of the project as a survey.]

Friday, April 23, 2010

Open closed open

I've been rereading Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz's magnificent Bystander: A History of Street Photography — after all, New York in Plain Sight surely belongs to the genre of street photography, if nowhere else as well.

Madison Avenue & 60th Street, Northeast Corner

And Bystander is indeed magnificent, the sort of confluence of two minds, and two pairs of eyes, that one could only wish would happen more often.

Not just worth reading, worth rereading, and then rereading again. I read it before starting out on what became New York in Plain Sight, and then again after I'd more or less finished the photography, and now I've started to reread it again, as the project nears completion (at least of this phase, on the hopeful assumption that there will be more phases to follow).

Already on the first page of their introduction, I'm brought up short by the following:

… a paradox to which street photographers are very sensitive. On the one hand, the many shots that they can get at even a rapidly moving, changing subject allow them to strive for the singular image, some one, perfect composition into which all the other possibilities are condensed. On the other hand, they might make purposely open-ended, unbalanced pictures that can't stand alone and need to be played off one another in groups or runs in books. The choice between the two ideas is, in large measure, the choice between Henri Cartier-Bresson's work and Robert Frank's. [Bystander, p. 34]

For simplicity's sake, let's just call these alternatives "open" (Frank) and "closed" (Cartier-Bresson). Of course, these alternatives are extremes, guides to thought, probably never or only rarely to be found in their pure form in any actual photograph.

Moreover, since the eye continues to learn with every image it sees, our sense of what is "open" and what is "closed" continues to change, and with the passage of time and the accumulation of experience, Frank's individual photographs have — to this eye, anyway — come to seem less "open," more self-contained, than they once did, and — again, to this eye — Cartier-Bresson's have come to seem more "open," albeit with an openness quite distinct from Frank's.

While the individual photographs in The Americans may seem open-ended, each in need of all the others, the set as a whole has a kind of closure to it: it is, as everyone now recognizes — very thoroughly composed, despite the gesture of casual artlessness. It is as if the individual photographs are open-ended to the whole but not or not so much to the world, and the closure of the whole itself is an important source of the oppressive, stifling quality of The Americans that gives the book its critical punch — a film noir in 83 stills, the story board of a journey that ends, exhausted and nowhere, at the side of a road.

(Sez me.)

Whereas Cartier-Bresson's "closed" compositions have more often than not whetted my appetite to look at more Cartier-Bresson photographs, without the body of work ever seeming closed to me. Quite the contrary, the more of his photographs I look at, the more I find myself wanting to leave off looking at them and go out and look, not at photographs, but at the world.

Recently Peter Schjeldahl complained in The New Yorker about the perfection of Cartier-Bresson's work, the apparent contradiction between its "Apollonian" detachment and the emotional import of its subjects, but that's not what's at issue here, no more than the validity of the critique of American society implicit in Frank's work, much rejected when The Americans first appeared and no doubt still contentious in some circles.

But is there a connection? Does closure exclude involvement or critique, does openness preclude detachment? Or is the question rather how the photographer balances the whole matrix of possibilities?

Possible desiderata for the next iteration of New York in Plain Sight: more open, more closed, more involved, more detached — and all at once too, of course.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Project journal entry for April 1, 2006

Although I had been making notes about the project since April, 2005, long before it even became clear to me what the project was, I didn't start keeping a proper project journal until almost two weeks after I'd actually begun taking the photographs.

The first project photographs were made on March 10, 2006; the first journal entry is dated March 22.

By March 31, I had photographed 647 corners, most of them in six big shoots, which on the one hand seemed like a lot to me, but on the other hand, given the magnitude of the project, seemed like not all that much at all.

The journal entry for April 1 is the first one in which I took a look back and tried to get a sense of how the project was going.

Reviewing the corners photographs to date, but especially yesterday's: here's the only real remaining question: what is the right balance between the corner per se and the street context to either side? I.e., what's the right field of view, or in technical terms,what's the right focal length for any given corner-to-corner distance?

And a related question: to what extent do the pictures want to stand on their own, even in a documentary sense, and to what extent do they or can they or should they rely on the context of the other pictures?

Or, differently again: what is the primary intent, documentary-wise, to show the street corner per se or to show the street corner as a focal point of the immediate neighborhood?

Or does there have to be a consistent answer to these questions?

In one sense, or at least in some sense, it is obvious that I'm only asking these questions because I'm not altogether happy with what I've got so far. Most of the pictures are OK, I think, but some are too wide-angle and others not nearly wide-angle enough.


First Avenue & 9th Street, Northwest Corner


Possible solutions: shoot everything at the focal length that is most right on average, say 35mm. This will get the narrow street intersections a little too close in and the wide avenue intersections too far away.

Then there is the intermediate solution, which is to restrict the range to, say, 28mm–70mm, or even 28mm–60mm (?), and judge each one as it comes along.

I ended doing something like that as I went along yesterday (and on prior days too, only more so yesterday).

I'm inclined to go with the 28mm–70mm solution (and occasionally 90mm?), but across the whole range, i.e., framing each one as it comes along. This will slow it down, of course.

Note: with 20,000 corners [I was still under the mistaken idea that there were 17,000 corners, and so was using 20,000 for "math-in-my-head" calculations] every additional second adds 5.6 hours or, effectively, two shooting days, or three to four calendar days, to the project.

[ . . . ]

I think that the acuteness I feel in the questions I was just asking has a lot to do with the 1 x 3 format that I've settled on, which may simply be too restrictive in many cases. Of course, I do like it, and like it a lot, and it's always an option. But not a universal, an all times and all places solution.

Through four years, 11,000 corners, and some tens of thousands of frames, these questions continued to bug me, and still do. Sometimes, when I'm feeling discouraged — believe me, it happens — I wonder if it made any sense to keep going with the project before I had solid answers to them, and to some of the other, "larger" questions of purpose and intent as well.

There's that famous Ansel Adam's line about there being nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy concept. (I kept wanting to write, "a dull concept.")

On the other hand, I felt then, and still do, overall, that the best way to find answers to these and related questions was to go ahead and do the work and see if some answers don't begin to emerge out of the doing of it, together with some reflection on the results.

Somewhat to my surprise, I've found that now that I can see 98%+ of the whole thing I'm mostly happy with the results, and at the same time I find myself wanting to do it all over again — next year, if possible — and to do a number of things differently (though not really all that differently).

More on that soon.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Random corner #1

In case you didn't know, 04202, a number supplied by www.random.org, translates to Park Avenue (since 1860 the hoity-toity but nonetheless official name for Fourth Avenue above 17th Street) and 20th Street, the Southeast Corner.

(04 = Fourth, 20 = 20th, 2 = SE, i.e., the 2nd corner counting clockwise from NE = 1)


I thought it might be fun just to pick a corner at random, look at the photograph, and see what there is to learn about its history, or at least whatever odd facts may turn up about it, via no more than a few relatively simple internet searches.

The first thing, as already mentioned, is the change of name from Fourth Avenue to Park Avenue, starting in 1860. Actually this renaming proceeded in stages, and once "Park" Avenue was established north of Grand Central Station, the stretch of it between 17th and 42nd Streets came to be known as Park Avenue South.

20th Street, of course, is straighforwardly on the "grid" proposed by the Commissioner's plan of 1811 — the famous map itself is dated 1807 — just a few blocks above Union Place at the multi-block long intersection of Bowery and the Bloomingdale Road (between 10th and 17th Streets — now, in part, Union Square) and the Parade Ground (between 23rd and 34th Streets from Third Avenue west to Seventh Avenue), later cut back in stages to the present Madison Square (the cutbacks had already begun when John Randel published his 1821 Manhattan map and were finished when the park (with its present boundaries) was opened in 1847).

The signage on the lamp post on the southeast corner of Park Avenue South and 20th Street tells us also that the avenue at this point is also known as Theodore Roosevelt Way, owing to the 26th President's birthplace being half a block to the west, at 28 East 20th Street, between Park Avenue South and Broadway.

In the other direction, mile or so to the east, 20th Street terminates at what some people call  "the East 20th Street Beach", though that's a bit of a stretch as well as getting pretty far afield from Park Avenue South.

Closer by, in fact just a block away, also to the east, we have Gramercy Park, a private park as well as a neighborhood rich in history and in riches too. Gramercy Park — the neighborhood — dates from 1831, when a developer, Samuel B. Ruggles, bought Gramercy Farm from James Duane (Duane Street, downtown), a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant. The park was fenced in 1833.

The neighborhood — that is, the neighborhood of Park Avenue South and 20th Street — also has allegiances to the Flatiron District to north and west, and to Union Square to the south and west.

Not as much, this, as with some corners in the city — though there's no doubt much more one could learn — but not nothing either: history in Manhattan is almost if not more densely packed on the island than the streets themselves, and if you're not standing on a corner of great historical significance, you're probably not more than a block or two from one that is.

Doubters are directed as usual to White & Willensky's AIA Guide to New York City, in this instance to the sections "Ladies Mile" (pp. 189–200) and "Union Square (pp. 201–208).

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Scale

I was talking last night with my friend Vincent Virga, a world-class photo editor and author of three "must" books: The Eighties, Eyes of the Nation: A Visual History of the United States, and Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations. Vincent has spent the better part of a lifetime looking at photographs — millions of them — and we were talking about some of our favorites among the great Farm Security Administration photographers — Jack DeLano, Russell Lee, John Vachon, Marion Post Wolcott — and how different their photographs look when seen, as they can be at the Library of Congress, in the context of all of the 175,000+ photographs produced for this agency.

Even the individual photographs look different, somehow, have a different import to the eye, when seen as just one — no matter how great (and some of them certainly are that) — among thousands instead of by itself, wholly out of this context, or together with just a few dozen or so, maybe even a hundred, other photographs from the project.

And also how different they look also in the context of all the other FSA photographers, and what happens to their work when it is "edited" into monographs on the individual photographers, or into "greatest hits" collections.

Ever since John Szarkowski famously proposed that the essence of photography was "editing," we've been seduced into believing that aesthetic virtue somehow resides in the mere fact of choices having been made instead of in the much harder work of coming to understand what the choices were and which ones were made and to what end — which I'm (almost) sure is what Szarkowski had in mind when he proposed editing as the crux of the photographic art.

Of course, there are other views, a favorite of which is Lee Friedlander's oft quoted remark that

I only wanted Uncle Vernon standing by his own car (a Hudson) on a clear day, I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on the fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and 78 trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.

Which might be construed as slyly contradicting Szarkowski's dictum — or at least its reductive interpretation — or else as implicitly affirming its importance — the importance, that is, of its (hopefully) original, non-reductive intent. Or, of course, both contradicting and affirming it.

At this point I think that I must confess that I love flickr. I sometimes spend hours — especially when I have something more important to do — browsing through the flickr galleries, looking at hundreds and thousands of pictures, but only ever looking at the real "snapshots": Aunt Edna's birthday party, our neighbor's new car, the five of us at last year's tailgate party, etc., etc.

What I love about these pictures is the combination of their absolute artlessness with their total devotion to their subject, which is another way of saying, their generosity, their indifference to the self of the photographer, the way in which they're not about the photographer, or photography, or art, or anything else other than, e.g., "Joe washing the car last Saturday just before it rained."

Darragh Park and I used to talk endlessly about this, about whether it was possible to set out to achieve this kind of artlessness deliberately without falling into a sort of second-order "artful artlessness" and still, however paradoxically, arrive at something that might be considered, in some art world or other — I use the term more or less in Howard S. Becker's sense — "art."

(It occurs to me that the artists — in any medium — whom I admire most are those whose art could only be accepted as such by an art-world that didn't exist before their work was made but that was brought into existence, at least in part, in response to their work. Which may be just a sociological way of reading Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent.")
"Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine …."
Scale matters — that was the conclusion Darragh and I came to, especially as a way to overcome the artiness of artful artlessness. We were talking a lot then about the late, large scale works of Morton Feldman, and about what Feldman had to say about them, about what happens when you get beyond what Feldman inveighed against as "the twenty minute piece" and into the realm of pieces that may, like his Second String Quartet, run for as much as six hours.

On that scale, or on the scale of the large-scale photography project (e.g., Dylan's Stone's), the kind of close compositional "knitting" (as I call it) that matters in a twenty minute piece (to say nothing of the Webernian two minute piece) or a single photograph just doesn't matter, or doesn't matter in the same way or to the same degree, and other, larger-scaled — and one might say, looser limbed — structurings come to the fore.

Jack DeLano was a great photographer, and some of his images — e.g., of the railway yards in Chicago — might even be called "iconic", but it's quite another experience to click through them by the thousand. They're all pretty terrific — he really was a very great photographer — and somehow the scale of his accomplishment when seen in bulk manages strip away the brown varnish of "celebrity" or "iconicity" that our culture's obsession with the individual artist and the individual work of art slathers over anything it can coopt into the service of a belief in the primacy of the individual — a belief that has, I think, done as much to obliterate individuality (and not only in the arts) as its collectivist opposites.

Well, huh!

To end this post on a lighter note, but addressed to the same issues, here's my favorite Monet story: Monet was in London, working on the London Bridges, when he got a letter from his dealer, Durand-Ruel, in Paris, complaining that he, Monet, had to be more careful about properly signing his paintings — there were fake Monet's being sold in Paris and they were hurting the prices that Durand-Ruel could get for the real thing. To which Monet replied, "Not to worry, there's nothing to be done about it — after all, it is so easy to fake a Monet: I've done it myself hundreds of times." [Remembered, or more likely misremembered, from Grace Seiberling's Monet in London.]

Monday, April 19, 2010

Paradox of the quotidian

[Adapted from a recently finished longer essay on the New York in Plain Sight project.]

To find most meaningful what is most extraordinary is so natural that it is almost impossible not to forget that the deepest sense of life arises out of what is most routine, commonplace, unremarkable, ordinary.

The fundamental structures of the Lebenswelt, the material constants of the longue durée, and — nearer the surface — the intricate ballet of the urban sidewalk continuously recede to near invisibility behind the scrim of more immediately pressing concerns until an Alfred Schütz or a Fernand Braudel or a Jane Jacobs hauls them back for a brief turn on attention’s center stage.

And even then the sense of what is happening when nothing is happening — like the music of the world that sounds through the open window of John Cage’s silent 4' 33" — eludes the effort to make it an object of special attention, for the essence of the quotidian is shy, as modest as it is pervasive, the social and material equivalent of the unseen air we breathe.

This paradox haunts the photographer of everyday life, whether on the streets and sidewalks of Manhattan or anywhere else.

The great New York street photographers — Berenice Abbott, Bruce Davidson, Lee Friedlander, Walker Evans, William Klein, Helen Levitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Garry Winogrand (to name just a few of the least contentious candidates for such a list) — have responded by intensifying the paradox itself until it precipitates the latent sense of our own experience of the street and elevates their images into Heraclitian ciphers of life in the city.

Whether it is otherwise possible to capture the sense of life in Manhattan in a single photograph — or even a single monograph — is another matter altogether.

But if no single photograph, no matter how great — or even how banal — escapes this paradox, the New York City Department of Finance’s “tax” photographs of the facades of every building in the city, taken between 1939 and 1941 and again between 1983 and 1988, bury it under the sheer of mass of their prosaic — albeit indispensable — documentation, as does Frank Didik’s 2000–2002 survey, also of every building in the city.

The 22,000 photographs of New York and New Yorkers made by the Byron Company between 1892 and 1942 fare better in this regard, if only because of their more deliberate artistry.

The same might be said of Percy Sperr’s 30,000 photographs of New York commissioned by the New York Public Library between 1931 and 1942; it is even more true of the 5,000 photographs of New York produced by the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project between 1936 and 1943, among them Berenice Abbott’s famous Changing New York of 1939.

Large-scale New York documentary projects have also been motivated by art-world conceptual-serial intentions, most notably in Dylan Stone’s remarkable Drugstore Photographs, Or, A Trip Along the Yangtze River, 1999.

With its 26,000 color snapshots of each of the buildings below Canal Street, Stone seems in retrospect almost to anticipate Google Maps’ “Street Views” — the most comprehensive as well as the most accessible documentation of the island’s streets and sidewalks ever produced.

However, Stone’s eye-level camera on the sidewalk yields a far more persuasive account of the look and feel of Manhattan at street level than the roughly ten foot elevation of Google’s mid-street van-top imaging technology.

The photographs of New York in Plain Sight are not architectural; few if any of their moments are decisive; they do not aspire to the closure of art. In its simplest terms, New York in Plain Sight is a set of 11,485 photographs, one for each and every one of the 11,485 street corners on the island of Manhattan. Nevertheless, New York in Plain Sight is not “about” street corners, or at least is only incidentally about them.

If you walk the length and breadth of Manhattan often enough and long enough, and make an effort to stay alert to the fleeting moments when the sense of life on the island seems as palpably present as the trash can on the corner — litter only no household trash no business trash $100 fine — you may begin to sense in these moments a larger sense of what it is to be alive just then anywhere in Manhattan, and this larger sense may come to define your entire experience of life on the island, of life in public, of life on Manhattan’s streets and sidewalks. The sense and the justification — if any — of New York in Plain Sight is to be sought in this sense of life which is its elusive subject.

Project journal entry for March 28, 2006

Originally posted April 18, 2010

Some aspects of planning and executing the New York in Plain Sight project were so mundane as to seem, in retrospect, almost trivial if not downright comical. Nevertheless, they had to be dealt with, or taken into account, or the whole thing might have gone nowhere. Here's an entry from my project journal from March 28, 2006, dealing on the fly with something that I really hadn't given much thought to when I'd started out in earnest a few weeks previously. (Planning is like that: you think you've thought of everything, and then you discover you haven't — and that happens again and again.)

Cranky day, can't remember exactly what I did all day. One thing was to do Second Avenue from 13th Street down to 9th Street, around 3:30 PM. Which put pay to my idea that late afternoon is a good time to be doing this. In fact, midday is best.

The problem is flare from having to shoot too directly into the sun in the late afternoon. The best days would be gray days, for the sake of the even lighting, but I doubt that there are enough of them to get as far along as I'd like before the winter weather sets in. Cloudy but not raining.

[ . . . ]

Here are the historical stats [from from an internet weather site — I don't have the URL anymore] for cloudy days in New York City April through November:

 92 cloudy days


 88 partly cloudy days

 78 rainy days (included in cloudy days)

 64 sunny days

Only 14 cloudy but not rainy days

But 152 sunny or partly cloudy days

So: 152, that's enough days.

And it was enough, or at least enough to get 92% of it done, and it wasn't for want of good weather days that I didn't get the other 8% done then (sometime later I'll tell you about how corners get missed, though this may only be of interest to those of you with more than a few gray hairs). A few sentences later I also wrote a note to myself that

I must not, MUST NOT, let this project dominate my entire life for the duration …

Well I certainly had that wrong, no matter whether what I meant was for the duration of the project or for the duration of my life (at least so far), since it's been completely dominated by New York in Plain Sight for over four years already ….  Just goes to show: if I'd known what I was letting myself in for, I'd never have even begun.

So glad I did.

Darragh Park July 24, 1939 — April 17, 2009

Originally posted April 17, 2010

Darragh Park, April 8, 2005 (photo by Richard Howe)


A year ago today Darragh Park, artist, friend, inspiration, took his own life.

He always said he would, when the time came that he could no longer manage living at home, and, apparently, that time had come.

In the time that I knew Darragh he became one of my closest friends, even though almost all of our friendship was conducted by telephone.

We talked every Sunday morning, starting at 10 AM, for about two hours, sometimes more, sometimes less. We talked at other times too, and sometimes he came into the city and we met, and sometimes I visited him at his home in Bridgehampton / Water Mill, out on Long Island.

One Night the Empire State Building was Blue (watercolor on paper,
51.25" x 33.875"), 1995 © Darragh Park

But the backbone of our friendship was the Sunday morning telephone conversation. We talked about everything, more or less, but especially art, music, and poetry.

Darragh was a terrific painter, very much in the style of Fairfield Porter, whom he'd known early on in his career as an artist, though with an eye and a sensibility all his own.

Later, he became much more radical, and began to paint on a very large scale — his masterpiece, if I may call it that, was a 7' x 70' canvas called "440" (which had been his Manhattan address on 22nd Street) in which his attempts to catch on canvas the moment at which perception is coalescing but has not yet quite coalesced into a meaningful gestalt were extended, owing to the sheer size of the canvas, into a "real time" experience as well as a represented one.

("440" is, alas, simply too large to reproduce meaningfully within the scale constraints of this blog.)

Naturally such things — there were others, on a somewhat smaller scale — were the end of his standing in the art world, but Darragh, though disappointed, took this in stride. It was the price of being himself and he was willing to pay it.

The composer Bernard Rands once said to me, over more than a few pints in a pub in Shepherd's Bush — now more than forty years ago, this was — that it was easy to be avant garde at twenty but a lot harder to be avant garde at fifty (I was myself 22 at the time). Darragh went that one better and was avant garde at sixty and beyond — an amazing achievement albeit a difficult one to get recognition for.

Winter '97 (mixed media, 7' x 11'), 1997 © Darragh Park

Darragh's late "big" works developed concurrently with his new-found enthusiasm for the music of Morton Feldman, and we spent untold hours discussing Feldman's music and his writings about music and about painting.

He saw an analogy, a very clear and straightforward analogy, between his interest in the moment in which perception is coalescing but has not yet quite coalesced into a meaningful gestalt and Feldman's interest in the threshold between silence and sounding and with the beauty of sound itself.

One might say that in both cases the interest was in the moment at which the visible or the audible per se is seen or heard without the intermediation of meaning, the moment just before it is subjugated to what the eye or the ear already knows, the moment at which it is perceived but not yet read (if such a moment exists, the possibility of such a moment being perhaps the utopian moment in both Darragh's and Feldman's works).

Darragh was also very taken with the scale of the late Feldman pieces, the six hour string quartet and any of the other multi-hour works. I went with Darragh one evening to hear a multi-hour hour Feldman piece at Cooper Union and the sight of Darragh's face as his involvement with the gradual unfolding of the music deepened was of a beauty on par with the music itself.

Detail from Winter '97 (mixed media), 1997 © Darragh Park

Out of our conversations about these big pieces — both his and Feldman's — emerged many of the ideas that led to New York in Plain Sight.

Darragh knew or had known everyone, or so it seemed, at least everyone in the "New York School" in 1960s and after. Most of all, he had known the poet James Schuyler — he was Schuyler's literary executor — and Darragh and I actually met the first time on account of a number of drawings that I had made that were based on texts of Schuyler's.

So we talked a lot about Schuyler's poetry, but also about Frank O'Hara's and John Ashberry's, and about Kenneth Koch and Kenward Elmslie — and Joe Brainard too, as a writer as well as an artist.

And OULIPO — Darragh was big fan of the OULIPO group, and had known some of its members, especially Harry Matthews, and was full of stories about them.

And Proust, Proust, Proust, endless conversations about Proust. Darragh read French fluently and knew great swaths of A la recherche du temps perdu by heart, which he would quote — or was he reading? I'll never know now — at length and with great pleasure.

Summer '96, fragment 1 (watercolor on paper, 16" x 20"),
1996 © Darragh Park

But gradually he began to slip away from us, and then all of a sudden he was gone.


[Images of Darragh Park's paintings used with permission of the Executors of the Estate of Darragh Park]

What digital can do / Equipment

Originally posted April 16, 2010

This is not a photography blog per se, or at least I don't mean it to be such a thing. Not that I don't enjoy, and frequently visit, photography blogs, just that this isn't meant to be one of them. But then it would be silly to pretend that it has nothing to do with photography per se either, so I though that once a week or so I'd do a post on photography in the narrower sense as well.

I've put the nitty-gritty stuff towards the end of this post, so feel free to bail out at that point, if you haven't already by then (I know you'll know when it's time to bail).

I never really had a camera until about six years ago, when a friend gave me an Olympus C2000 — 2 (!) mega-pixels which was a bit of something when it was new, circa 1999-2000. I just didn't have the patience to deal with film, and for some reason I didn't want to have to learn about ASA numbers and apertures and focal lengths and depth of field and all that stuff I heard friends who were into cameras talking about.

(Yes, I did then have to learn all that stuff anyway, but the immediate, or nearly immediate feedback you can have with digital surely accelerated the learning process.)

So I can't really get into what digital can or can't do compared with film, except that, having scanned some terrific 8" x 10" negatives for friends, I know that digital can't (yet) match that, and having spent a summer a couple of years ago shooting 35mm film (Ektachrome, Kodachrome) with a Leica R8, I think digital emphatically can match that. Others, I'm sure, will disagree.

What digital can, unquestionably, do, is make projects like New York in Plain Sight feasible and manageable to an extent that would be virtually impossible with film.

Imagine trying to shoot roughly 11,500 street corners in 6-8 months with a 8" x 10" or even a 4" x 5" view camera! And imagine the editing and scanning involved, to say nothing of the storage requirement!

Of course, it would be terrific if you could only do it. Maybe a compromise, using a technical camera with a high end digital back would be feasible — but again, it's the economics of the capture medium that make the difference.

Twelfth Avenue & 134th Street, Southwest Corner

So then, for anyone who's interested, here are the mechanics of shooting New York in Plain Sight.

About two-thirds of the photographs in New York in Plain Sight were taken with a Canon 1-Ds Mark II camera body. It would have been 100%, but the camera failed in June, 2006, and while it was in for repairs (about six weeks, owing to the repair depot "losing" the camera), I used its predecessor, the Canon 1-Ds (and for a couple of shoots, before I got the 1-Ds, I used a Canon 20-D).

Subsequntly, the reshooting, and shooting the corners I've missed, has been done first with a Canon 5-D and then, this past year, with a Canon 5-D Mark ii. The same Leica 28-90 "R" lens has been used throughout, except for a few regrettable experiments with a Canon 24-105 "L" on the Canon 20-D.

The 16.7 mega-pixel Canon had the highest pixel count of any DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera when I bought it in 2005, and I wanted all the pixels I could get for the project that was beginning to take shape and that, a year later, became New York in Plain Sight.

Of course, even then, higher pixel counts — and probably better image quality — were available with medium format digital backs, but a whole new system: medium format camera body, digital back, and lens(es) would have cost three to four times as much as the Canon 1-Ds Mark II, and I already had the Leica lens (and the Novoflex adapter) and had been using it with a Canon 20-D, so I was comfortable with the Canon line, so I figured there was a learning curve advantage to the Canon as well.

And I knew I would want smallish apertures (8–16) and faster shutter speeds (generally above 1/500th sec) and so would want the higher ISO's that the Canon would give me.

Finally, Canon 1-D series camera bodies are big and heavy, and the Leica 28-30 "R" lens is big and heavy too, with a maximum aperture (at the short end) of 2.8, so that was enough weight to contemplate lugging around all over Manhattan day in and day out. 

Equipment this big makes it almost impossible to take a picture unobtrusively — though this wasn't such an important consideration, as I wasn't thinking of New York in Plain Sight as an exercise in "candid" street photography (though of course there are strong elements of that to it) — and I was often asked about it.

The most common question was, "is that a digital camera?" — That was in 2005 and 2006. Recently I've noticed, going about the job of catching the corners I missed the first time around (with a Canon 5-D Mark II with the vertical grip, and the same Leica lens attached, which makes a package of about the same bulk as what I was using in 2005/2006), that nobody asks this question anymore.

If they ask at all, the question today is now, "is that a film camera?"