New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 36 September 24 to 30, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

On the Street

The New Street Types: The Changing Face of Contemporary New York

Photo by Alice Austen . Source: Alice Austen, "Bike Messenger" 1896

If the mean streets of Chelsea seem to be a little too much to face on these warm summer days, but the old photophile bug is still itching, there are a couple of places in New York that offer shoreline breezes along with interesting photography. United Photo Industries, the truly industrious Dumbo gallery, has put together what seems to be a mile long roll of photographs stretching out along the construction fences of the ever-greener and brazenly spectacular Brooklyn Bridge Park. Printed on fabric, the pictures cover various themes, with New York City itself a frequent guest star. An evening’s stroll from Main Street around to the new Brooklyn Heights footbridge shows the work of some favorite New York hands as well as newcomers galore. Larry Racioppo’s Wall Memorial photographs (with the addition of a basketball hoop,) Robin Schwartz’s loopy animal adventures with intrepid daughter Amelia, and Pella Cass’s pictures of rather crowded, if regularly patterned pedestrian crossings in Boston, to name just a few.

For the seriously intrepid photo fan, however, the Alice Austen House on the shoreline of northern Staten Island is just the thing. Ride on the ferry (free!) alongside the huddled masses of international tourists, then take the bus (or walk) along gritty but variegated Bay Street until you reach the verdant gardens of “Clear Comfort”, the Victorian house of the headstrong, eccentric and serious ‘amateur’ photographer, Alice Austen.

Photo by Alice Austen . Source: also titled “Fruit Seller”Alice Austin, "Queer Emigrant and Pretzel Vendor" 1896

Austen was an amateur in the same sense that her contemporary Alfred Steiglitz was; that is, she was not a commercial photographer. Being independently wealthy (as was Stieglitz) she could photograph what she liked. The Alice Austen house is filled with dozens of photographs of society events, children’s portraits, ladies in decidedly masculine looking clothes, and cats (yes – unbelievably cute even in the 19th century.) But Austen also photographed workers in ships and factories, steam engines and machinery and was an early practitioner of what can only be called street photography. This particular body of work is the starting point used by curators Anthony Lasala and Paul Moakley for the current show, which presents work by 13 contemporary photographers, who like Austen, turn to the ever changing sweep of people on the streets of New York as the inspiration for their work.

Austen rarely had her photographs published or circulated early in her life, but in the 1890’s she somehow came to produce a small set of 12 photogravures with the Albertype Company, a producer of souvenir books for tourists. “Street Types of New York” is almost to a field-guide to the characters that visitors and locals would likely encounter as they walked the streets of Manhattan. None of the ‘types’ of New York have names. The context is decidedly 19th century. Developing archetypes was a tendency of the period, not delineating the personalities and quirks of individuals. Though perfectly capable of producing engaging portraits, this was not Austen’s goal here; rather she intended to define people by the jobs and groups that they belonged to. A policeman, an organ grinder, a newsboy, a bike messenger, a postman, and a street sweeper are all represented. The nearest thing to a portrait in this group is the perhaps inebriated, probably Italian and certainly poor man, in a picture titled bluntly “Queer Emigrant and Pretzel Vendor.”

Among the contemporary photographers shown there is none of that. Many of the people pictured are identified by name, and with the exception of a streetwalker or two, almost no one’s occupation could be deduced from their picture. This is a New York made up of millions of vibrant individual personalities.

Photo by Dimitri Gudkov . Source:  Dimitri Gudkov, from the "#bikeny Project

Perhaps the work closest in feeling to the Austen images is that of Dmitri Gudkov from a series called #bikeNYProject. Straightforward, shot from the middle distance, we see individual New Yorkers simply standing with their bikes — what the Albertype Company might label “Hipster Biker.”

Photo by An Rong Xu . Source: An Rong Xu, from the series "Grand Park"

Of course the 21st century eye can deduce all sorts of class information from the pictures. The ‘type’ of person photographed is easily construed, but these photographers do not seem to be overly concerned with the distinctions between groups. If anything the approach is to choose a group and then work the smaller distinctions within it. Thus we see photographers who photograph in particular areas of New York; Harlem, Red Hook, Orchard Beach or Chinatown. A unity of vision arises because of the cohesive overall group similarities.

Photo by Peter Funch . Source: Peter Funch, "Walking Void" from the series Babel Tales

One photographer who does try to capture the integrated flow of people of all ‘types’ in New York is Peter Funch. His image “Walking Void” shows about 10 people’s heads, backlit, walking along a New York sidewalk, similar to Phillip-Lorca DiCorcia’s strobe lit street corner candids, except 10 at a time. Although this image is gripping at first, it starts to literally come undone after a few glances. The faces are all real, and apparently all photographed at the same location, but not at the same time, and, unfortunately, Funch’s Photoshopping chops are not up to his vision. This viewer at least starts to see the seams more than the concept.

Also, Funch’s vision is somewhat monotonous. Whereas on a real New York sidewalk one person looks like he has just met the love of his life, while the next looks like he has just lost his mother, and the third just can’t remember if he needs to buy more cat food, here they are more like zombies on parade.

There are quite a few remarkable photographers here, but all are represented by just a few photographs. Since most are excerpts from much larger projects, these images serve essentially as gateways to extensive collections (there are links for each artist on the Alice Austen House website.)

Photo by Chris Arnade . Source: Chris Arnade, "Fighter"

The most powerful gateway for this viewer was through a rather plain image titled “Fighter“ by Chris Arnade. A competent but not overly exceptional image of a down and out former fighter, it opened onto an ongoing archive, blog, and tumblr stream by one of the most remarkable documentary photographers working in America today. Arnades’ series "Drug Addicts in Hunts Point" is disturbing, fascinating and worrisome on many different levels. The use of Tumblr and Flickr as primary outlets for the work adds to the fascination. Although the work is harrowing (Arnade is very deeply embedded in this unstable and violent world,) it is satisfying to know there are still some photographers who have more than fellowships and art fairs on their minds.

The New Street Types: The Changing Face of Contemporary New York

Alice Austen House Museum
2 Hylan Blvd.
Staten Island         Map

718 816 4506

Monday, July 8 to
Saturday, September 28, 2013
Hours: Thurs-Sun 12 to 5

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat