For contributors to this paper’s Short List section, working within the (more or less) 100-word format of each item is a regularly rewarding challenge. When every word quite literally counts, there’s a genuine satisfaction in finding a way to make each of them work. But the ratio of satisfaction to frustration can tip if the subject is too big, too complex, or simply too various to fit into such a compact space. What follows is a trio of reviews that outgrew their Short List limits, gathered here as an extended addendum to that section’s brief takes.
After the spontaneous and emotional exhibitions of New York images that sprang up right after September 11, and the spate of more frankly celebratory, sentimental, and opportunistic showcases in the months that followed, another show about our town might seem awfully redundant. But “New York: Capital of Photography,” organized by critic Max Kozloff long before the terrorist attacks (and running through September 2 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue), is too valuable to get lost in this increasingly chauvinistic crush. Kozloff’s New York is neither the glittering, idealized metropolis nor the wounded and resilient town. It’s a city defined largely by its citizens—by people crowded around pushcarts on Hester Street in 1898, standing shoulder to shoulder (and waving at Weegee’s camera) at Coney Island in 1940, or sprawled on the lawn in Central Park in 1992. Although the show has several architectural establishing shots by Alfred Stieglitz and Karl Struss in its opening sequence, virtually every subsequent image includes or revolves around people, many of whom the photographers confront eye to eye and at street level.
Although street photographers—from Helen Levitt, Leon Levinstein, and Sid Grossman to Garry Winogrand, Sylvia Plachy, and Jeff Mermelstein—dominate the exhibition, it’s clear that each of Kozloff’s choices is a distillation of style and content: a picture as vivid as it is illuminating. As a result, “New York: Capital of Photography” doesn’t skim the surface of the city but delves into its issues, touching pointedly on poverty, protest, alienation, integration, and the everyday warp and weft of the social fabric. In his wall texts and in the show’s excellent catalog, Kozloff argues that from the beginning this socially engaged work has been the product of Jewish photographers’ natural identification with and concern for the immigrant, the minority, and the outsider. Where gentile artists “radiate a sense of proprietary nonchalance” in their images of the city, Jews, Kozloff writes, “appear to be making, even negotiating, their way.”
In the end, of course, this negotiating process—sometimes delicate, sometimes brutal—gives Jewish photographers the edge when it comes to picturing New York in all its rough-and-tumble intimacy and giving viewers a true feeling for the city not as a spectacular backdrop but as a home. Kozloff’s thesis is all the more persuasive not only because it’s grounded photo by photo throughout the show, but because so many of those photos are unfamiliar, unpredictable, and just plain great.
“Priceless Children,” at the Grey Art Gallery (100 Washington Square East, through July 13), is another smart show with a provocative thesis. Here, in a classic standoff between realism and romanticism, are two groups of photographs of children made in America between 1890 and 1925. More than half the pictures—uniformly small, black-and-white prints of a bluntly documentary nature—were taken by Lewis Hine in the course of his famous 11-year investigation of child labor. Most of the rest, though roughly contemporaneous with Hine’s, are quite deliberately unmoored in any history but that of aesthetic movements. Made by Gertrude Käsebier, Clarence White, F. Holland Day, Edward Steichen, and others, they imagine childhood as a timeless dream—a soft-focus, sun-dappled idyll in the high Pictorialist mode. These starkly different visions, though brought together by curator George Dimock, stand on either side of a social and artistic divide so vast that they might be on different planets.
The Pictorialist children, frequently the offspring of the photographers themselves, may not have been rich kids, but they were infinitely more privileged and valued than the boys and girls Hine found working in mills, mines, and sweatshops. “For the most part,” Dimock writes of the Pictorialists’ subjects, “these children were portrayed as beautiful, well-dressed, dutiful, healthy, secure, happy, and beloved.” In a number of the photos, notably Day’s and Edward Weston’s, they’re nude and idealized as fauns, sprites, or angelic figures. Compare these carefree darlings of the leisure class with Hine’s berry pickers, oyster shuckers, and newsboys, whose bare feet might be adorable in another context but here brand them as urchins. And no matter how painstakingly detailed Hine’s captions, these kids in their grimy dresses and ragged shirts are less individuals than useful, heartrending symbols of neglect and exploitation. To be fair, the Pictorialists’ children, though lovingly portrayed in these warm-toned platinum-print portraits, are, finally, just as symbolic. Their importance as propaganda tools may not count as crucially as it does with the poor ragamuffins in Hine’s photos, the accumulated weight of which eventually helped change American labor laws. But these precious children, bathed in pale golden light, gave the bourgeoisie a reason to flatter itself while the poor struggled in the dark.
Tina Barney’s new photographs of English aristos (at Janet Borden, 560 Broadway, through June 15) include one of children that’s especially striking in light of the “Priceless Children” show. Like so many contemporary photographers, Barney whips up a distinctive blend of realism and artifice. Because her subjects are almost invariably wealthy and socially established (often, at the beginning of her career, close friends and relatives), her pictures share Pictorialism’s rarefied air of complacent well-being. But Barney’s faux-candid portrait style is much closer to Hine’s documentary immediacy than Käsebier’s or White’s dream world. Barney’s The Lollipops, a big, color picture of four handsome children loosely grouped in a dining room between open glass doors, straddles these two extremes. The setting, with its offhand suggestion of spacious comfort, would have been appropriate for a Pictorialist portrait, but the almost impudent combination of familiarity, impatience, and challenge in the children’s expressions and their snapshot-casual pose echoes many of Hine’s wonderful informal groupings. In other photos here, Barney’s ease with her subjects turns what might have been broadly satiric social comment into something subtler and more revealing. Since most of them are seen in domestic interiors bristling with clues about their taste and status, we’re likely to jump to classist conclusions about her world-weary women, formidable men, and their supremely confident offspring. But because Barney never draws these sorts of conclusions, her portraits have a generosity and grace that gives even the slightest of them substance.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 21, 2002