Library Looks at Photography and the City
In 2005, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority considered, then backed away from, a proposal to ban photography on subways and buses (unless a permit was obtained). In 2007, the Bloomberg administration faced a firestorm from photographers and filmmakers over a proposal to restrict video recording on streets and in other public spaces.
Stephen C. Pinson, the curator of photography at the New York Public Library, sees the debates as examples of the fine line between public and private, a line that has always been an issue in photography. In a short book accompanying “Eminent Domain: Contemporary Photography and the City,” a new exhibition at the library, Mr. Pinson writes:
Indeed, issues of privacy and image rights have troubled photography throughout its history; with the shift to digital media and the increasing regulation of public space (both literal and virtual), these issues are becoming even more complex. A photograph, after all, is a transaction between private and public that is negotiated through the taking of an image — a kind of eminent domain of the visual realm.
The exhibition, all of the images have been captured since the mid-1990s, represents a significant investment the library has made in acquiring photographs of the city made within the last couple of decades. The acquisitions were made possible through a $900,000 bequest from the estate of Leroy A. Moses. (The estate also gave $650,000 to help renovate the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library.)
The library has a rich trove of some 30,000 photographs that it committed from the 1920s to the 1940s by the photographer Percy Loomis Sperr. Those images, now digitized and available online, were a critical component of the library’s early photography collection.
“From the ’60s on we didn’t have the same amount of photographs,” said Dr. Pinson, who, since joining the library’s staff in 2005, has acquired more recent photographs. In 2006, he organized an exhibition of New York street photography, featuring the works of Diane Arbus, Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand. The current exhibition, which opened on May 2, is the fifth Dr. Pinson has organized for the library.
The five photographers exhibited in “Eminent Domain” reflect a variety of subject matter and technique.
Thomas Holton’s project “The Lams of Ludlow Street” documents the lives of a working-class Chinese immigrant family in Chinatown between 2003 and 2005. (The project was the subject of an article by Bonnie Yochelson, published by The Times’s City section in March, and an accompanying slide show.) Dr. Pinson encountered Mr. Holton’s work on the Web site of the School of Visual Arts, where Mr. Holton studied.
Bettina Johae’s “borough edges, nyc” has images that the artist shot from 2004 to 2007, while exploring the perimeters of the five boroughs. Dr. Pinson said he encountered Ms. Johae’s work in 2005 at the Smack Mellon gallery in Dumbo, Brooklyn.
“It’s an amazing project as conceptual art,” he said. “Being not a native New Yorker, she came to the city and had questions about what the different boroughs look like. Her idea was to travel along the five boroughs and their edges — which is what she did by bike, taking digital images all along her route — and create an archive of 2,400 images that surprises even people who’ve lived here all their lives.”
Reiner Leist’s “Window” is a project that began in March 1995, when the artist began taking one photograph every 24 hours from the south-facing window of his apartment in a commercial building on Eighth Avenue. Dr. Pinson called the project “particularly poignant,” saying: “Only coincidentally, it also documents the loss of the World Trade Center towers. It’s strange how effective it is, at least for me personally whenever I see it. He began the project as a personal ritual, in a way. Everybody can relate to that: There are all things that we do just because it’s what we do.”
Zoe Leonard’s “Analogue,” produced from 1998 to 2007, records images of vanishing New York — from black-and-white televisions to chairs and shoes. “I met her at her studio just as she was finishing the entire ‘Analogue’ project,” Dr. Pinson recalled. “That project has, very consciously, an older tradition in mind, as even the title of course points out. Partially, it’s also in a way her swan song to analogue photography. These were shot using an old Rolleiflex hand-held camera.”
The final work in the show is Ethan Levitas’s “Untitled/This is just to say,” a collection of images of subway cars, shot outdoors between 2004 and 2007. “It represents the subway car in a way that we’re not used to seeing them,” he said. “As New Yorkers, we’re so used to the subway car that we almost don’t pay attention to it. This project, in a way, points that out. also does so in a way that reminds people that it’s still one place you to go every day.”
While much of the show focuses on how rapidly the city has changed in recent decades, the exhibition “does not come down one way or the other” on whether such changes have been a good thing. Viewers of the exhibition have been left to make their own judgments on that front.