On ViewMuseum of the City of New York
February 18 – November 1, 2022
There is no collective definition of nostalgia. What evokes a sense of nostalgia for one will not always for another. Moreover, the feeling or memory recalled will be completely different for everyone. The same can be said about New York City. One person’s experience will never be like another’s, yet so much of life here is experienced in shared spaces. Celebrating the City at the Museum of the City of New York puts this quality at the forefront. The photography exhibition claims no agenda except to invite viewers of all walks of life to see and celebrate their lives and memories of New York.
The exhibition features photographs from a recent donation of more than 1,000 works from the Joy of Giving Something, a non-profit dedicated to supporting photographic arts. On view are nearly 100 works by over 30 artists taken between c. 1870 to 2008, including well-known names like Helen Levitt, Rosalind Solomon, Bruce Davidson, and Larry Fink.
Paul Himmel, Dog in Central Park, c. 1955. Gelatin silver print. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Joy of Giving Something, Inc., 2020.10.198. Courtesy of the Estate of Paul Himmel.
Abandoning chronology, senior curator Sean Corcoran instead arranged the works into loose themes: gazing, reflecting, going shopping, working, playing, gathering, loving, and being, as well as a final section called “buildings” that explores early developments in photography. The section themes are vague and open-ended, allowing viewers to make their own associations. “Reflecting,” for example, includes photographs that show imagery reflecting off of other surfaces, like the sun reflecting off of the Hudson River in two works by Peter Hujar from 1975. “Reflecting” also includes people in moments of contemplation, like strangers resting on park benches, and an exhausted brunette taking a moment to relax in the back of a car. Arranging the images without concern for the time the photographs were taken or the age, race, gender, or demographic of the subjects makes each theme a microcosm of the larger melting pot that is New York.
Most of the works in the show are gelatin silver prints, with some color photography scattered in from recent decades. The subjects rarely seem to notice their photographers, lending an overall candid, ethnographic feeling to the images on display. The museum advertises the exhibition as a “love letter to the city.” The show celebrates those who live and visit New York, and the ways in which we carve out small spaces of a city where most of life is spent in a shared environment. As we slowly emerge from a world where we have been confined to our small spheres—both literally and figuratively—the exhibition truly does feel like a love letter and an invitation to rediscover the places that have been a constant in so many different lives and times.
Many of the photographs were shot outside. Recognizable streets and locations are paired together, such as two images of dogs playing in Central Park from c. 1955 (Paul Himmel) and 1985 (Ken Heyman) that underscore how the city’s green spaces have been used in much the same way for decades. A similar comparison is made in scenes of “shopping,” which depict busy sidewalks with outdoor vendors in various locations including the corner of Stanton and Orchard Streets (Berenice Abbott, 1936), a candy store on Pitt Street (Walter Rosenblum, 1938), and Main Street in Flushing (Ed Grazda, 2002). Little context is provided apart from the general locations and dates, yet the vibrancy and bustle translate across time, lending a sense of familiarity to the subjects depicted.
Throughout the show, this feeling of being part of a larger, timeless community with shared interests and activities continually emerges. In an image from 1968 by Sylvia Plachy, figures play in the stream of an opened fire hydrant. A similar scene unfolds in a photograph of another opened fire hydrant by Helen Levitt from c. 1945. Though taken decades ago, the playful moments would be entirely commonplace today. The photographs are a testament to the activities that endure.
Celebrating the City also weaves in uniquely New York humor with images that are absurd, yet entirely believable in a place where crazier things have happened. In one famous work by noted photojournalist Inge Morath from 1957, a llama is seen riding in the back of a taxi through Times Square. The staged scene was part of a story for Life magazine about Linda, a high-paid llama living in New York.
The exhibition also explores significant shifts in the development of photographic technologies in the “buildings” section, which includes examples of photogravure, gelatin silver prints, bromoil transfer, and an albumen print from c. 1870, the oldest work in the show. With thorough didactics, the section is a useful counterpart to reflect on the artistry of photography itself and the materials used in the show.
The timing of Celebrating the City is unexpectedly poignant. As the world enters its third year of life with COVID, it’s hard not to feel a sense of sadness and a longing to reflect. Although the subjects in each photograph are presumably strangers to the viewer, there’s an unexpected sense of comradery and connection in every image. Through social, political, economic, and environmental changes, New York has always been New York. Celebrating the City is a poetic reflection of life in New York and a beautiful reminder of the lives that have shared these streets for centuries.