Arthur Lavines Rockefeller Center at Christmas and Jill Freedmans Love Kills are two examples of their different visions of New York City, now on view at PhotoGraphic Gallery.
By Steven Snyder
The idea of the city as an urban jungle is nothing new, but the two vastly disparate jungles now hanging side by side at the Photographic Gallery offer an interesting commentary on how the same city can be a very different adventure when seen through different eyes, at different times.
Traversing five decades, the works of two distinguished photographers stand apart in this thought-provoking exhibit that at once observes from afar and scrutinizes from up close. Both prolific artists have a wide breadth of experience in exhibitions, photojournalism and published collections. Arthur Lavine photographed the city for four decades, until he moved west in 1992, while Jill Freedman has divided her time between international projects in the United States, Europe and Japan. In bringing them together, the Photographic Gallery, located near the South Street Seaport, has assembled nearly 70 photos in total for 2 Photographers 5 Decades. Lavines chosen works focus on the 1940s and 50s, while Freedmans photos span the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Navigating 2 Photographers chronologically, the exhibit begins with a hint of naïve observation but ends with a streak of sarcastic judgment. To make the transition from Lavine to Freedman is to become less infatuated with the daily hustle and bustle and more intrigued with the surreal juxtapositions and contradictions existing side-by-side everywhere you look.
What is similar between the photographers, however, is a striking sense of space, depth and texture. Lavine finds art in the overlapping shapes and spaces of the city. The exhibit opens with his remarkable 1949 piece Subway Series, in which several small, connected square frames capture casual moments on the subway, as observed from across the rail car. They are snippets of everyday life that are simultaneously voyeuristic, as the subjects are unaware of our invasion into their commute, even though they know (as we all do) that others are indeed sitting only inches away. Its the ever-present paradox of New York City, which is both isolated and connected at once.
Many of his Lavines other works navigate these extremes. He seems in awe of the Fulton Fish Market which not so long ago existed only blocks from PhotoGraphics front doors around sunrise, offset by the Brooklyn Bridge and obscured by the smoke wafting above the sea of working men. He captures straight-on profiles of men working push carts who stare back into our eyes, pictures of shoppers who seem unaware of our presence, and even glimpses of a little girl blocking a doorway who at any moment might turn around and notice our gaze.
Hes fascinated by crowds waiting for trains, a couple on a date at a Greenwich Village coffee house, workers at Coney Island and crowds gathering to watch election night returns in Times Square. He also has a sense for how to make the mundane magical, such as his memorable photos that capture the overlapping lights of Rockefeller Center in winter, criss-crossing far above the Christmas Tree, or the seas of straw hats during the 1951 Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue.
How interesting it is then, to turn the corner and see the city through Freedmans subjective, critical lens. If Lavine is fascinated by the everyday coincidences, then Freedman seems bewildered by the bizarre contradictions, such as the tutu-wearing ballet dancer standing next to graffiti art, the smog clouding the awesome sight of the citys new skyline after the completion of the World Trade Center in 1976, and the Love Kills (pictured left) that brings the exhibit to a close.
In her best works, Freedman comments on the citys evolution, from the gentrification that can be seen in 1966 as a polo player on horseback prances through Downtown, to the isolation in 1970 of two art lovers who co-exist in the sanitized white bubble of a museum. Freedmans Brothers shows two firemen kissing in 1976; her Fiddler catches a man playing amid the trash cans; and her angry Harlem Kids is followed immediately by her cheerful Jump Rope, in which children of different races play together in a scene of pure ecstasy.
Put together, we see two very different profiles of the city. In many ways, it is Woody Allens romanticized Manhattan mixed with Martin Scorseses rough edges, minus the blood. As a whole, its an exhibit that mimics the paradox of the gallery itself. Quietly, and without much fanfare, PhotoGraphic Gallery has become one of the great unsung treasures of the former Fulton Fish Market area. Similar to the contradictions of Freedmans work, PhotoGraphic still seems to be a bit ahead of its neighborhood, waiting for the weekend crowds to catch on to the amazing artwork that has been flowing through this unlikely venue.
In that regard, 2 Photographs 5 Decades is not only an interesting look back, but a commentary on the triumphs and struggles of a city moving forward.