"New York: Capital of Photography"

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A week after Sept. 11, I received an invitation to lecture for two weeks in a distant South American capital. Despite the guilt I felt at leaving my wife, friends and other New Yorkers dealing with the trauma of the event, I sensed a large weight slipping off my shoulders the moment the airplane left the runway. Walking the streets of that Latin capital-suddenly so very far away from New York's swirling fears, its growing apocalyptic forecasts and the repeated images of fantastical violence perpetrated on downtown Manhattan-meant encountering a normally functioning city. The billboards of the metropolis spoke without being cryptic, its police and ambulance sirens wailed without signifying civilization's collapse, its citizens rushed about naturally, free to commit their unusual kindnesses and their usual incivilities. Being there felt, to tell the truth, like a breath of fresh air.

I return to this memory now, after visiting the Jewish Museum's new, lively exhibition "New York: Capital of Photography." The exhibit spans a century of images of the streets, cubbyholes and fashionable salons of New York's five boroughs, and charts how photographers have chronicled the city's bobbing fortunes through good times and bad. Documenting all manner of human behavior, New York at work, loneliness, play, conflict, love and spectacle can look, from the vantage point of a city in protracted crisis, unconnected and historical. Yet the many moments of strange familiarity presented in this exhibition blow strong, like an unexpected breeze coming off the Hudson River.

New York and photography are still inextricably bound up with images of Sept. 11. But this exhibition goes a way to recalling both the city's ordinary and extraordinary character, providing photographic glimpses of how much it has endured in images captured by some of the world's best photographers. Curated by critic and author Max Kozloff, "New York: Capital of Photography" presents more than 100 photographs taken by 60 photographers, the best of which capture a dynamic city in constant flux, a metropolis of seemingly unstoppable human and economic force.

For more than a hundred years, New York and its streets have been the sine qua non of urban photography. Paris had its boulevards and bohemian louche life, but up until very recently lacked the social and ethnic weave that makes New York both so volatile and so photogenic. London, another frequently photographed city, also wanted the immigrant experience last century and suffered considerable destruction and economic hardship during WWII. New York, by contrast, exploded as a modern metropolis in the 20th century, becoming the capital of international finance, diplomacy (the UN), ethnic variance and Babel-like vertical construction (skyscrapers). "The shape of a city changes faster, alas! than the heart of a mortal," Baudelaire wrote about Paris in the 19th century. In the 20th, his photographic homologues, street poets to a woman and man, would sing the same energetic tune about New York.

"A famously hard environment," Philip Lopate has written, "New York inspires both stoic pride and chagrin." Fittingly, the century of photography as established by "New York: Capital of Photography" chiefly portrays the city in two contrasting ways. There is Gotham, the industrial, cultural and meritocratic Capital of the Universe, as framed by Alfred Stieglitz's poetic nocturne The City of Ambition. And then there is the city's teeming, marginal downtown: a place of poverty, criminality and accented Otherness, a shifting, dangerous zone that has long been the province of hardcore street photographers like Lewis Hine, Weegee and Nan Goldin.

The socially engagé, highly empathetic documentation of New York's poor found its photographic missionary early in the person of Lewis Hine. A combination of Courbet and Sinclair Lewis, Hine committed countless images of turn-of-the-century sweatshops, Ellis Island immigrants and working children to paper and emulsion (along with extensive written data cataloguing their plight). Several of his photographs are included in the exhibition-among them an especially touching picture of a blind beggar and his infant barker-which in turn makes a strong case for his pervasive influence. Yet his political sympathies sometimes got the better of him. Another photograph, this one of a crowd of surprisingly jowly faces on a Bowery bread line, turns his posed composition (this was before the advent of point-an-click cameras) into the natural precursor of socialist realism.

Hine's influence, so powerful for generations of New York photographers, ran up against the high estheticism of Alfred Steiglitz's pictorialism. A photographic school that looked to turn previously functional photography into a fine art, pictorialism developed from soft-focus, Whistler-influenced "photographic paintings" to hard-edged, psychological pictures, like Paul Strand's transformation of a Wall Street block into an Egyptian mausoleum. Spawning subsets of photographic styles and thousands of personal visions, this initial clash between esthetes and documentarians has happily never quite resolved itself. The impasse has left successive generations of photographers largely free to react to the city's changing flow of social, cultural, economic and urban conditions as well as its attendant tragedies and blessings.

Many of New York's familiar landmarks, both the present and past, appear in the exhibit. A 1932 photograph of Times Square by Samuel H. Gottscho displays a view of 44th St. that remains surprisingly unchanged in its spectacular advertising shill. Weegee's famous 1940 group portrait of thousands of bathers on the beach in Coney Island recalls the heyday of the now-seedy Brooklyn resort, while portraying an intensely blue-collar family population the city has since shunted to the suburbs. A third photograph, by William Klein, zeroes in on the stands at Ebbets Field, once home to the Brooklyn Dodgers. A group of men joke and laugh there, performing a solid bonding and entertainment ritual around their preferred professional baseball team that has endured the sport's growth, except in other stadia and in other boroughs.

Jimmy Breslin once said that nature's finest sight is a crowded street. Yet in "New York: Capital of Photography" it's also the faces of brazen individual citizens that raise the pictures taken by these many photographers to the status of fabulous art. None more so than the photograph of a transvestite named Misty, captured by the reigning queen of confessional photography, Nan Goldin. Outfitted voluptuously and perched on a curb in Sheridan Square, Misty stands with her back to a city on parade, communicating forthrightness, sex, attitude, deviance and, perhaps above all, character-all things that make New York bizarrely engaging, wildly attractive and ultimately more resilient than most folks might possibly imagine.

"New York: Capital of Photography," through Sept. 2 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 5th Ave. (92nd St.), 423-3200.

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