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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for March, 2008

42nd and 5th: Architectural Photography, Global Cities, and Working Class New York

Posted by Stephen Lewis on March 5, 2008

Last week, in this weblog post, photographer Brian Rose described our recent chance late-winter-afternoon meeting on the corner of 42nd St and 5th Ave. and our follow-up conversations some days later. Brian Rose is a superlative large-format photographer (click here for an overview of his work) with a unique understanding not only of buildings but of the natures of the cities they comprise and of the people who create them, use them, and imbue them with meaning. Our meeting was laden with coincidence. We are both die-hard “analogue” photographers. Brian has lived most of his adult life on the Manhattan’s Lower East Side — the place where I grew up and that shaped me indelibly — and we both spent years working and living in Netherlands. By chance, I had seen an exhibition of Brian’s work more than two decades ago at the Henry Street Settlement House and had also chanced upon his masterful photographs of the Essex County Courthouse, embodiments of the ways I’d but imagined portraying the interiors of Islamic monuments during the several periods of my life in which I have been involved in documenting the Ottoman architectural patrimony of southeast Europe (see numerous entries on Bubkes.Org).

Brian’s stunning day-end photograph featured in his blog post also comprises a coincidence. In it, Brian attempts to visually anchor the glass and steel corner store of a the international clothing retailer H&M into an iconic “signature” New York location, the corner of 42nd and 5th. His photograph combines end-of-day light, the delicacy of large-format negative film, and an impeccable composition placing the store between trees adjacent to the Public Library in the foreground and the towering spire of the Chrysler Building in the background. The task Brian confronts in his photograph is one that I have been trying to deal with conceptually as I try to locate the continuity of what had once made New York unique in the increasingly bland and seemingly cloned international shopping-mall-, tourism-, and chain-store-like nature of much of (Manhattan’s) retail sector and entertainment and night life.

As a starting point in tracing this uniqueness, I’ll begin with this quote from the introduction to Joshua B. Freeman’s “Working Class New York” (New York 2000) a penetrating examination of the unique ethos, economic history, and social and physical infrastructure of the City from the shaping of its one-time entrepot- and specialized-manufacturing-based economy in the 19th-century, through its creation of America’s only social-democratic society in the 20th, and through the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and the subsequent rise of the so-called financial and information economy from the 1980s on. This winter, Freeman’s book helped me begin to articulate a vision of New York that had been up until now beyond my reach, this despite my one-time education in “Urban Affairs” and my visceral, indelible knowledge of New York work and street life. At the outset of his book, Freeman eloquently anchors New York in the intangible, in the collective tone of its people:

“Endlessly frustrated by its difficulties and brutalities, try as I may I find it difficult to imagine living elsewhere. What keeps me in New York is neither the high culture of museums and concert halls nor the unrivaled opportunities for working, eating, and spending that New Yorkers revel in. Rather it is a sensibility that is distinctly working-class — generous; open-minded but skeptical; idealistic but deflating of pretension; bursting with energy and a commitment to doing.”

More on the interplay of New York’s people, economy, infrastructure, and unique sensibility — as well as on Freeman’s powerful book — in future entries.

Note: For the next several weeks I will be in Istanbul, Turkey. Because of the Turkish ban on WordPress.Com I might not be able to post to this site while there. I will certainly be posting to Bubkes.Org, so do look for new material there.

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