New York City carries with it a romanticism that reaches far across city borders. It is a place of new beginnings, love and iconography. To fill a room with the images of New York is to play into that romantic ideal. By focusing solely on the idyllic, the city appears cleaner than even Giuliani could hope.
For its show The City of New York, Monroe Gallery of Photography gathered a stunning collection of images of the Big Apple. Many are familiar from years of reprinting, and each, on its own, defines a different part of city life from the 1930s to the 1990s. The show tries to offer a glimpse into a changing city that never loses its status as the center of idealism. However, the emotional quality that each image pulls from its viewers is lost in a series that never allows the mind to focus on the grit and grime of New York. Rather than making the city real, it seems to only appear as an unreachable ideal.
All the photographs, except one by Neil Liefer, are black and white, adding to the idealized view of the city. This is the New York of Frank Sinatra, of Miracle on 34th Street, of Truman Capote. It’s an innocent New York that ignores 9.11. And while that’s OK, it’s also a sterile New York that lacks the emotion and diversity that makes the city dynamic.
Within a show that includes Bob Gruen’s 1974 shot of John Lennon on a rooftop, Martha Holmes’ “Brooklyn Dodger fans celebrating 1955 World Series victory” and Carolyn Schaefer’s 1998 “World Trade Center and Washington Square Arch,” there is very little acknowledgment of change within the city. Each image, though dated by automobiles or clothing styles, could have been taken at any point in time. There exists within
the chosen images a stagnancy that goes beyond the normal stillness of photography.
Only the work of Margaret Bourke-White seems to bring the city to life, and the most dynamic of those works, the one that would tie the string of history through the show, is not included. “A DC4 Flying Over New York City,” Bourke-White’s 1939 overhead image that juxtaposes a small plane over the skyscrapers of Manhattan with the Chrysler Building looming below, sits in a back closet of the gallery, seen only if the door happens to be open. This image would justify and bring to the forefront the many images of the World Trade Center that are included in The City of New York. It would connect the past, when a plane flying over the city was beautiful rather than frightening, with a time when workers peeking out of the windows of the World Trade Center bring to mind images of falling bodies, when viewed from a distance.
Bourke-White was a fearless photographer, a mind-set that is evident from her overhead shots of “Hats in the Garment District,” her close-up of the top of the “Chrysler Building” and Oscar Graubner’s picture of the photographer high above the city, setting up her camera as she emerges from one of the building’s eagle heads. Her images are some of the few in the show that draw the viewer into the photographer’s mind and make one wonder how or why she took the shots she did. This makes the missing DC4 photograph all the more curious. It stops viewers in their tracks because of the recent historical context, but also allows them to step back and reminisce about romance we all still have with New York City.