What defines a place? The land, the people or some intangible quality? The idea of a “sense of place” kept coming to mind while viewing “Picturing New York,” on display through September 2 at the High Museum of Art.
The exhibition is part of the High’s ongoing collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Compared with the recent “Picasso to Warhol,” a MOMA show that brought a bevy of important modernist works to the High, this exhibition is narrower in scope, though the caliber of artists is equally impressive. It presents New York City as seen by such photographic greats as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Harry Callahan, Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Irving Penn, Alfred Stieglitz, Weegee, Peter Hujar, Thomas Struth, Nan Goldin, Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman.
New York in all its guises is here — the glamorous, the seedy, the romanticized, the crime-ridden, the famous and the forgotten. Even so, nothing here is too outrageous or offensive — Robert Mapplethorpe’s images of gay culture, for example — a perhaps necessary compromise intended to appeal to a broader audience. But it’s an unfortunate exclusion considering the city’s pride in its brashness and cutting edge.
Curated by MOMA’s Sarah Meister, the selections range from iconic to unexpected, quirky to mundane, abstract to straightforward. There are images that every tourist has probably snapped: Times Square, the Woolworth and Chrysler Buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge and the view from the Brooklyn Promenade. Other shots might resonate with individuals more intimate with the city, who might feel a nostalgic pull upon seeing, for instance, a desolate street corner captured by Kenneth Snelson in 1979 in what is now the overrun, tourist-clogged SoHo district, or the still familiar sight of a worker emerging from sidewalk cellar doors in 1948 in “Zito’s Bakery, Bleecker Street” by Berenice Abbott.
Architecture features prominently, not surprising for a city dubbed “the concrete jungle,” where venerable landmarks stand cheek by jowl with generic structures or dilapidated eyesores.
One of the earliest images in the show is Alfred Stieglitz’s 1903 sepia-toned, snowy view of the then year-old Flatiron Building, whose 22 stories dwarfed its neighbors. Charles Sheeler’s 1951 shot of the United Nations building imbues the gleaming monolithic structure with a utopian sense of power and unity appropriate for the time. A ghostly image of an upside-down Empire State Building appears in the bedroom of Abelardo Morell, who turned the space into a camera obscura (1994).
Worlds collide in Weegee’s famous 1943 image “The Critic,” showing two bejeweled women in furs brushing past a dowdy, drunken woman on their way into the Metropolitan Opera. It was later revealed that Weegee staged the image, having the woman transported from the Bowery and plied with alcohol.
Cindy Sherman’s New York scenes are also staged, but without subterfuge. The show includes two works from her series of fictionalized “Untitled Film Stills.” (MOMA owns the entire 69-piece collection, dated 1977-80.) In one (above), a young woman appears flustered, overwhelmed by the daunting skyscrapers behind her.
The exhibition includes documentary photos, such as two bird’s-eye views of Manhattan taken by Fairchild Aerial Surveys (1930-31) and Ernie Sisto’s sports pictures from The New York Times (1959 and 1978).
Sisto’s dizzying shot down the side of the Empire State Building after a plane crashed into it in 1945 unavoidably calls up the September 11 terrorist attacks. Mercifully, the show’s only other reference to 9/11 is equally oblique: Harry Callahan’s 1974 detail of the World Trade Center facade, with its familiar vertical striations.
Todd Webb’s 1948 photograph of Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th streets, featuring a variety of record stores and men in trench coats and fedoras, reads as simple sidewalk documentation. But it so strongly suggests Ed Ruscha’s conceptual project “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” (1966) that it assumes a retroactive cool irony.
In her 1998 book “The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society,” Lucy Lippard addressed the subject of human geography from an artistic perspective. As she put it, “Space defines landscape, where space combined with memory defines place.” To my mind, the photos that best convey a “sense of place” are those that engage artistic interpretation.
In her 1940 photograph of Times Square, for example, Lisette Model chose to depict not the flashing lights and commercial signage but a shoe-level view of a crowded sidewalk, which conveys the essence and experience of being in the bustling crossroads. Similarly, Ted Croner’s blurred images of apartment buildings and a passing taxicab in 1948 suggest the frenetic pace of the city.
New York is full of contradictions. It inspires as many dreams as it crushes. The city is so diverse and offers such varied experiences that it’s not surprising when a pictorial ode such as this simultaneously falls short of and lives up to expectations.