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"NEW YORK, NEW YORK"

by Mario Cutajar

 

Don Hunstein, “Rockettes”,
gelatin silver print, 1960.

 

Bill Perlmutter, "Jumping
Rope," gelatin silver
print, 1957.

 

Rivka Katvan, "Dancin'
Elephant," gelatin silver
print, 1983.

 

Ida Wyman, "Wrought
Iron Design," gelatin
silver print, 1947.

(Apex Fine Art, West Hollywood) David Barenholtz, who opened Apex--L.A.’s latest gallery devoted to photography--last October, says the idea for New York, New York came after it struck him that the one thing most of the diverse photographs in his collection shared was an association with the city that, for most of America’s history, has defined the meaning of urban and urbane. The show comprises 40 black-and-white photographs of the city, or subjects related to it, snapped by a dozen artists of varied renown over the period from the ‘30s to the present.

Of course, calling New York the city “you love or love to hate” betrays a New Yorker’s conceit. For a variety of reasons the subject of New York increasingly evokes indifference rather than passion. One reason is simply economic. In the post-industrial, information-driven scheme of things New York no longer looms as large as it did in the era of the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers. Another is that New York’s cultural monopoly depended on a popular equation of sophistication with a patrician taste for literature and high art--and New York’s unchallenged status as the arbiter of such taste.

The contemporary obsession, however, is with celebrity rather than sophistication, and celebrity is a product manufactured by Hollywood (as the Economist noted last year in a feature that detailed the shift in cultural heft from east to west, every episode of Seinfeld, that most New Yorkian of TV sitcoms, was shot in a studio in Burbank).

Ironically, New York’s own contribution to its diminished cultural stature has been its unrelenting effort to mythify itself, an effort so successful at transforming the image of the city into a cliché that it has inspired the inevitable Vegas homage in the form of the New York-New York Hotel & Casino, which, among other things, promises the visitor “a classic Manhattan skyline with 12 New York-style skyscrapers, a Central Park-themed casino and a 150-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty.”

Many of the images on display in this show, particularly the vintage ones (by Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Andreas Feininger, and Don Hunstein) can be seen as potent visual aids to this process of New York’s self-fictionalization. Feininger’s beautifully composed, almost pictorial studies of the city’s skyline are dazzling, Gershwinesque rhapsodies. A diagonally-composed Bourke-White, an aerial view of the city grid with a silvery DC-4 passing over the Chrysler building, is an image of New York as the epitome of graceful modernity. It takes Edward Clark’s picture of children skipping rope in Harlem and Carl Mydans’ view of a narrowly confined “sandhog” working on the Queens/Midtown tunnel to bring us back down to earth.

The more recent images don’t possess quite the same punch. Roger Corman’s picture of a buff Peter Boal frozen in a dancer’s leap in front of the Unisphere is also emotionally arrested, a tribute to narcissism and little else. Rivka Katvan’s backstage images (her photographs adorn the set of the current Broadway hit Closer) are more interesting but although they were shot in New York, their connection with the city is attenuated by the universality of their subject. That’s not a bad thing. It suggests that even New York can sometimes be just another city.