Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

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.

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