On ViewFirst Street Green
Through December 1, 2021
Late morning on East Houston, a trucker leans from his cab to look, and a young mother twists from her stroller to stare. The onlookers are studying Taxi: Journey Through My Windows 1977–1987, Joseph Rodriguez’s hard-to-miss new show along the chain link fences of First Street Green. Rodriguez’s images are enlarged on vinyl, each print around six feet tall, all black-and-white faces made large as life. The photos demand observation, and nearly every passerby sneaks a glance. There’s an irony to this, and a doubling of sorts, for the images mark Rodriguez’s own years of watching—so many monochrome fruits of the small Praktica that lived in the front seat of his tattered cab.
The hack’s life can be poignant and profound, particularly in the wee hours. Rodriguez worked an early shift, arriving at his 9th Avenue base around 3 a.m., pulling out a car by 4 a.m.. Taxi, curated by Andy Outis and presented as part of the Photoville Festival, comprises a number of images from these early morning drives, as separately collected in Rodriguez’s 2020 book of the same name.
The show’s style is born, largely, of necessity: Rodriguez admits he was a “frustrated” photographer, “stuck in this box” and “trying to figure out how to take pictures.” So the medium shapes his message, and the contours of his cab outline the majority of his photographs: fellow cabbies waiting at a West Houston stand, framed by Rodriguez’s mirror; a woman leaning into his window, framed by its chrome trim; an eerie and empty Pulaski Skyway, framed through his foggy windshield. Repeatedly, the show emphasizes private existence in public places: men in leather leaving clubs in the early morning, then changing in the backseat of Rodriguez’s cab; sex workers near the river’s edge of the Meatpacking District, counting their wages before beginning the lengthy ride home. Nearly all the streets are empty, as though Rodriguez were the only witness for miles. His photographs come to represent a sort of visual eavesdropping, all life seen secondhand.
There’s a tricky balancing act in this kind of photography, so covertly exposed, so many faces borrowed without asking. Such images dance along what the writer Saidiya Hartman has called “the thin line between witness and spectator,” testing “the precariousness of empathy.” There’s the moment when a curious gaze lingers too long, becoming a skeptical stare, when one’s innate sense of fellow-being shatters and insiders are marked off from outsiders. The risk is manifold in a show like this, cast so many years later, in a neighborhood as gentrified as today’s East Village. Most onlookers have little in common with Rodriguez’s subjects, and surely the temptation for some is to gawk and to ogle. Fraught, too, is the way young people can speak searchingly of that ‘real’ New York, of ‘grit’ itself, drunk on borrowed nostalgia for a city in which they never set foot. This old town is alive in Rodriguez’s pictures: who could resist the temptation to stare?
But Rodriguez’s work walks Hartman’s tightrope, and it evades the trap of spectatorship, moving beyond any cheap sense of voyeurism. What protects these images is Rodriguez’s clear and robust empathy for his subjects. He plainly admires a young father pushing a stroller off 14th Street, an older couple preaching the gospel of compromise, a churchgoing family in their Sunday best, a drag performer on the long ride back to Brooklyn. Particularly poignant is an image of a fellow cabbie who grips a copy of Ebony in the shabby Chelsea garage, reading a story that wonders: “Blacks And The Future: Where Will We Be In The Year 2000?” May that be anywhere, the image seems to plead, besides here.
There’s a generosity to this show, something in line with Camilo José Vergara’s images of Harlem, and, too, with Jamel Shabazz’s portraits of eastern Brooklyn. But Rodriguez is quick to point out that he works as a documentarian, not as a street photographer. These images are “straight-up social realist,” he says. He’s more drawn, in turn, to the tradition of Lewis Hine, and to the contemporary work of Brazil’s Sebastião Salgado and Miguel Rio Branco.
Perhaps what Taxi embodies, then, is a phrase from a documentary project of a literary rather than visual nature. It was in Christ Stopped at Eboli, his memoir penned during Fascist exile, that the writer and painter Carlo Levi looked upon Italy’s south and observed a “passive brotherliness” amid poverty; a true “sympathy in the original sense of the word.” What colors Rodriguez’s images is a kindred sympathy, a quiet generosity that shields the show from the slippery temptations of witnessing, and allows it to resist any cheap spectatorship. All Rodriguez seems to ask is that his audience carry a similar respect, and allow a similar dignity, for others beyond oneself.