Kenneth Van Sickles surreal landscape photography, above, and Barbara Menschs snapshots from the Seaports past are on view at the new Photographic Gallery on Front Street.
By Steven Snyder
The street signs may still be the same, but in almost every other sense, the blocks and neighborhoods surrounding South Street are undergoing a remarkable transition.
With the loss of the Fulton Fish Market, the fishy smells, bustling early-morning crowds and swelling sounds that were once a staple in this corner of Manhattan are now gone. In their place is a tangible sense of evolution and change, a rebirth that local residents now measure in news headlines and new storefronts.
Locals will tell you that first there was a new wine shop; then a café. Just two weeks ago, there was the news that The Drawing Center now plans to relocate next to the South Street Seaport. And tucked away on Front Street, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, is another indication of the direction the neighborhood may be heading: An art gallery.
The traffic I expect we can look forward to is not here yet, said Jim Wintner, co-founder of Photographic Gallery, which opened its doors in December. But were doing this in anticipation of whats coming not in a year, but even this spring.
Committed to exhibiting photography with a local, New York connection either about the city itself, or created by artists who live in the city the gallery is an early test of just what kinds of arts institutions the area will bear. And Wintner, along with business partner Richard Sack, have invested considerable time and energy in renovating their space at 252 Front Street, just east of Peck Slip.
Some would see the gallery, the first of its kind in a neighborhood formerly dominated by the maritime industry, as a risk. Wintner and Sack see it as an investment in a neighborhood on the verge of reinventing itself.
I always loved this area and saw a lot of potential, Sack said. To see the infrastructure growing, its going to be like a flood as the people start coming down and saying I didnt know this was here.
And thats not just about the gallery, but [about] the larger neighborhood, he said.
The two said the signs of this growth are all around. New businesses are opening just around the corner. As more residents move down to the area, the once-familiar stream of faces is no longer familiar. And as they see it, the crowd is only going to grow larger as a handful of residential developments plan to open their doors later this year.
Gathered in their gallery late last week, along with Barbara Mensch, one of the two photographers featured in Photographics current exhibits, the group discussed the surreal journey that has brought all three to this place at this time.
Its the idea that something is going to happen, and we want to be part of it, Wintner said.
Mensch said she felt the same way when she originally moved to the area in the late 1970s that this unique haven to workers at the fish market and artists desperate for cheap rent, was about to change forever.
I had an instinct when I got here that change was in the air, Mensch said. As a resident, you knew that this place was starting to act as a ghost of its former self.
But when I moved here, I never thought I would spend the next 25 years photographing this part of Manhattan, she said.
Yet Mensch said something about the neighborhood compelled her to turn the camera back at the place in which she lived, undertaking a photographic journey in her own backyard.
It started on an aesthetic level. In this part of Manhattan, she said, there are no high-rises, meaning the area is flooded with more natural light than other parts of the city. There is also the ever-present backdrop of the nearby Brooklyn Bridge, which Mensch said affected her craft in a dramatic way. And of course, there are or were, and will be again the people.
The people who lived and worked here are essential ingredients.
In a short series of photographs now on display at Photographic Gallery, a condensed prelude to her planned exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York later this year, Mensch offers a glimpse of a people and a place now only accessible through her works.
Here, often expressionless in Menschs candid shots, are the faces of those who poured their lives into this seaport as they take cigarette breaks, move crates and hoist drinks at the Paris Bar. There are also scenes of surprising beauty along the river, and hints of the markets dark underbelly, as we catch glimpses of hooks and guns, and even the loan shark standing beneath the street light. She balances these intimate portraits with wider shots, capturing the energy that was a way of life and is now noticeably missing from the streets.
Depending on which way one views the exhibit, moving either clockwise or counterclockwise around the gallerys back room, Portraits of the Men of the Fulton Fish Market ends with vastly different themes. In one corner is a man with a gun, evoking thoughts of a neighborhood that was once under the influence of the mob. But in the other corner is a picture of a nearly-empty Paris Bar, a bartender tending to an empty room. For better or worse, South Street has changed forever, and in this beautifully-lit photo, exaggerating space to convey a sense of emptiness, one cant help but a feel a hint of nostalgia for what once was.
An adjoining exhibit serves as a perfect contrast to Menschs work, balancing what was with what is.
Approached by Wintner and Sack to show a lively series of photos taken in Paris, circa 1955, photographer and cinematographer Kenneth Van Sickle contrasts the Parisian works from 50 years ago with a new wave of manipulated photos produced over the last year.
The effect of his exhibit is three-fold, reflecting a clear change in time, place and technology. In his most recent efforts, surreal color landscapes have been created using a digital camera with an infrared filter. Five decades into his career, it is clear that Van Sickle is still experimenting with the latest in technology, crafting groundbreaking dreamscapes of a traditional urban jungle.
Now sitting in the neighborhoods first art gallery, located in an area that for so long housed artists but never celebrated them, Mensch finds irony in the fact that her photos of everyday life are now prized as historical documents.
Its not even really a question if I like it or if I dont like it, she said. Im astonished to see this kind of change within my lifetime and were not talking 10 years here, were talking months.
Its that very change Wintner and Sack are counting on.
You have to be a pioneer to some degree, Wintner said. If youre in New York and have a sense of whats happening, and youve seen it before, youd be a fool not to move on it.
Barbara Menschs photographs and Kenneth Van Sickles two-part exhibit will be on view through March 5. A special gallery reception will be held next Saturday, Feb. 8 from 4 to 8 p.m.