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Past Exhibitions: 2002

New York Observed: The Mythology of the City

July 13-September 22, 2002
West Gallery

New York Observed
Berenice Abbott(American, 1898-1991)
New York at Night, 1932
gelatin silver print
Museum Purchase, made possible by Helmut Stern and the Jean Paul Slusser Memorial Fund, 2002/1.156

New York City inhabits a special place in the American imagination. From the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, New York transformed itself from colonial outpost to teeming metropolis. The port of entry for millions of immigrants, New York has a richly diverse and cosmopolitan character. As the burgeoning population moved northward up the island of Manhattan, New York began to spring vertically into the sky, puncturing the horizon line with skyscrapers described by Henry James in 1904 as "extravagant pins in a cushion." As the hub of an extensive transportation network, it boasted an intricate webbing of railroads, bridges and roads, it was the center of the nation's commercial and publishing activities, the largest seaport, and featured the tallest buildings. Its transformation chronicled and celebrated by writers such as Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, Edith Wharton, and others, New York shrugged off its European veneer and stood as a new (and American) creation - fast-paced, dynamic, temporal.

Throughout this transformation, photographers captured New York's many moods and faces. Although the approaches taken by the photographers represented in this exhibition are as varied as their subjects, the pulse of life in New York has been the recurring theme that knit together such disparate visions of the City. Early commercial views, such as those found in stereo photographs, portrayed the City's best known landmarks - the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, and the Flatiron Building - while celebrating its gigantic scale and its frantic pace.

A little more than a century ago, a more poetic and self-consciously artistic approach emerged in photography known as pictorialism. Spearheaded by Alfred Stieglitz, pictorialism took root in New York with the establishment of the Photo-Secession group and the publication of the innovative periodical Camera Work. Depictions of New York City by photographers such as Stieglitz, Karl Struss and Alvin Langdon Coburn employ the soft-focus and richly evocative aesthetic of pictorialism.

Technical advances in cameras and film and the influence of modernism and abstraction led to shifts in how photographers portrayed New York. As interest in unmanipulated, unmediated views, known as "straight photography," came to the fore, photographers reached beyond pictorialism's poetic images of Fifth Avenue. European Émigrés such as André Kertész and Ilse Bing, along with Americans Berenice Abbott and Walker Evans, introduced in America trends encountered in the artistic circles of Paris. Noting New York's tremendous changes upon returning to the United States, Abbott endeavored to record the City's neighborhoods, denizens and character. Her project, Changing New York, sought to capture "the spirit of the metropolis, while remaining true to its essential fact, its hurrying tempo, its congested streets, the past jostling the present... The tempo of the metropolis is not of eternity, nor even time, but of the vanishing instant."

Abbott's "vanishing instant" became part of the aesthetic of street photography, particularly in the 1960s as artists such as Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz employed the tilted angle and cropped framing to convey the humor, irony, and instantaneity of life encountered on New York's streets. For Helen Levitt, Aaron Siskind and Roy De Carava, the richness of the City's streets created self-contained worlds rooted in the neighborhoods. Some portrayals of street life in New York recall the efforts of social reformers nearly fifty years before, while others celebrate the richness of city streets and neighborhoods.

Drawn largely from the Museum's collections and timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York City, this exhibition looks at the myriad ways that photographers have portrayed the city that continues to symbolize key aspects of the American character.

Carole McNamara
Assistant Director for Collections and Exhibitions

This exhibition is made possible by Lois and Bruce Zenkel, Borders Group, Inc., and the Friends of the Museum of Art. Additional support has been provided by the following University of Michigan units: the Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Visitors' Fund of the School of Art & Design, the MFA Program in Creative Writing, the Arts of Citizenship Program, and the History of Art Department.


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