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August 22, 2008

Summer's photo finish with Atget, Evans, Kikai, Fusco

By day, NewYorkology contributor Heesun Wee works as a video segment producer for Yahoo’sTech Ticker. She’s also writing a screenplay entitled “War Photographer.” Today, she surveys the best of the end-of-summer photography to check out in NYC.

I like to look. For photography fans like myself, it has been a bountiful summer in the city. From the shuttered, brothel-filled streets of early century Paris to the punk street culture of modern Tokyo, you can travel the globe through pictures – all for the price of a NYC museum ticket.

First stop, Paris by way of Alabama. “Framing a Century: Master Photographers, 1840-1940” is a special exhibit that runs through September 1 at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. The collection features a wide swath of images from Gothic-like landscapes to iconic portraits.

Among my favorites is Eugène Atget’s image of prostitutes, hanging out a widow in 1930s Paris. The women’s faces are painted like clowns, their eyebrows harshly filled in and arched. We may be looking at them, but they’re looking at us — and having the last laugh.

RuedeConstantine.jpgAlso stunning are works by Charles Marville, who was under the service of Napoleon III and officially documented Paris as it was deconstructed and reconstructed. Marville roamed Paris early in mornings to record the metamorphosis of the city’s architecture. If NYC is all energy and money, Paris’ cityscape is elegiac and haunting in Marville’s version.

As dawn turned into day, another French photographer, Eugene Atget, was busy capturing iconic images of Paris street shops and windows. It’s the social, everyday Paris I imagine and dream of, as someone who has never been to the City of Lights.

Half way around the world, a budding American photographer named Walker Evans was taking note of the French photographers. In 1936, Evans set out on assignment for Fortune magazine to document the daily Depression-era lives of tenant families in Hale County, Alabama.

negrochurch.jpgThose images, a handful of which are on display at the Met, were groundbreaking in how collectively they weaved together as a narrative, something we take for granted today.

In Evans’ images, the families look directly into the camera, truly testing the boundaries of direct observation. It was a tactic Walker noted and borrowed from French photographers such as Atget and then made his own — an apprentice-like process of individuality great artists master.

Evans’ photographs along with writer James Agee’s nonfiction eventually was published, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” a landmark document of poverty in America during the Depression. (I met Agee’s daughter, deeply in love with her father, yet still haunted by her father’s larger-than-life past, but that’s another story. “Men” is a must read by the way. The original gonzo, nonfiction swashbuckler, way before the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, Sebastian Junger and “Generation Kill.”)

Modern Japan via Midtown

Next stop Japan. “Heavy Light” is an impressive survey of modern photography from Japan featured at the International Center of Photography in Midtown until September 7.

My favorite: Hiroh Kikai.

Kikai documents the street people in the Asakusa district of northeast Tokyo, famous for its pleasure palaces. Using his trademark economy of style, Kikai says he rarely spends more than 10 minutes on each portrait and uses few exposures for each subject. Indeed his pictures are powerful in their simplicity and directness. Kikai says his objective is to create a two-way conversation between the viewer and picture.

Kikai’s titles for his photographs are nearly as arresting as the portraits: “Older man with a penetrating gaze,” “Man wearing ten-yen coins for earplugs, whose hobbies are jazz and Japanese-style painting,” “Tattoo artist with son.” In the later image, the boy sports a foot-high Mohawk and his mom carries a tote that reads in English, “Let’s dancing with me!!”

As I enjoyed Kikai’s images, I thought often of American photographer Lee Friedlander, whose social landscape style of photography captured America, Americans and Americana during the 1960s and 70s. ‘Friedlander counted Atget and Evans, on display at the Met, as among his influences. Photographers influence other photographers, and the continuum goes on and on.

RFK in Chelsea

Final stop, the RFK train in Chelsea. On June 8, 1968, photographer Paul Fusco was on the train that carried the body of Robert Kennedy from NYC to Washington. It’s that final journey Fusco captured, and is now on view at the Danzinger Projects gallery on West 24th in Chelsea.

Even some 40 years later, the images of Americans lining railroad tracks to pay their final respects is powerful. Fast forward to today. Heaven forbid a politician or public figure was killed and the body carried by rail. For whom would you go out of your way to pay respects, pause your life? A president? A federal judge? Any public figure?

After the service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC, the train with Kennedy’s body departed. Hundreds of Americans clogged NYC platforms to say goodbye. “I was absolutely stunned,” photographer Fusco says, in this audio slideshow for the NYTimes.com. “It was amazing.”

Ironically, Fusco said much of his attention was on the pending arrival at Arlington national cemetery, not the train ride itself. Then a young photographer for Look magazine, Fusco said to himself, “There’s something going on. Photograph it,” he told the NYTimes. He jumped from his seat, opened a window and began shooting.

Eight-Hour Ride

The normally four-hour train journey took eight hours and Fusco says he took about 2,000 pictures with Kodachrome film, a reason why the images are so vibrantly hued.

At the exhibit, I was struck by the broad spectrum of Americans that Kennedy touched. From poor minorities crowded on city train platforms and crumbling back porches to white suburbanites on lawn chairs in lush backyards, hundreds of American families stopped their lives for a moment that spring day. Three months earlier Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated.

Decades later, the sense of families’ loss of faith, the American dream in jeopardy, the yearning to cling to hope some how, is palpable. Teenagers salute. Men clutch their throats. Families hold makeshift signs on old sheets that read, “So-Long Bobby.”

Coda – The woman behind the camera at Abu Gharib

All summer long I’ve been meditating on my, our, desire to look, to document with photographs. Specialist Sabrina Harman took hundreds of pictures in Iraq – including the iconic image of the man draped and standing on a box, wires hanging from his hands. Her superiors now question the hell that occurred at Abu Gharib. But Harman, as an amateur photographer, instinctively picked up her camera and started clicking, if only to convince herself of what she found hard to believe, she told the New Yorker.

Harman took the photographs “just show what was going on, what was allowed to be done,” she said. Let’s hope we never look away.

Image credits: Met Museum
Charles Marville (French, 1816–1879)
[Rue de Constantine], Paris, ca. 1865
Albumen silver print from glass negative; 27.3 × 36.8 cm (10 3/4 × 14 1/2 in.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1986 (1986.1141)

Met Museum
Walker Evans (American, 1903–1975)
Negro Church, 1936
Gelatin silver print; 23 × 18.6 cm (9 1/16 × 7 5/16 in.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Joyce F. Menschel Gift, 2005 (2005.100.170)

August 22, 2008 10:12 AM in Cheap Stuff, Downtown, Midtown, Museums, Sightsology, Upper East Side

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