Eminent Domain: Contemporary Photography and the City

Exhibition at the New York Public Library through August 29.

So my last few posts, collectively, were starting to look a bit Comic-Con-esque. That might be kind of inevitable, given summer fare, and it’s not there’s like there’s anything wrong with that, per se, but … there’s more to life. I felt like writing about something that didn’t involve superheros or aliens and whatnot, so at lunchtime I walked down to the public library to check out this exhibit, which has been stuck on my well-intentioned meaning-to-go list for a while.

And as is often the case with stuff on that list, I enjoyed it tremendously once I actually got around to going. The title (alluding to the contentious issue of the government seizing private property for public use or, even more controversially, for private development) is misleading because the exhibit isn’t overtly political and certainly doesn’t deal with that subject directly. The point of the name is to get at the ways in which public and private spaces overlap in urban areas, and though that theme shows up in the exhibit in some artists’ work more than others’, I see where the curators were going with the idea, and it’s interesting.

But I have to admit, too, that I wasn’t thinking much about eminent domain—on either a literal or a metaphoric level—as I wandered through the exhibit. The photographs that really captured me were so arresting, so aesthetically striking and evocative, that I found myself enraptured in enjoying them on that level. These were the kind of photos that don’t find beauty so much as create it, and that, I think, is rare and special.

Five artists’ photographs were on display, but I spent most of my time with the work of Zoe Leonard and Ethan Levitas. Leonard’s Analogue documents the Lower East Side, particularly the garment industry, over the past decade. The photos feel elegiac—the neighborhood has changed considerably in ten years, perhaps lost some of its flavor, its character, in the face of globalization and gentrification—but the visual appeal of the images stays with me more than the content. According to the literature, Leonard created the portfolio using an all-but-obsolete method of nondigital dye-transfer printing. What does that mean? I have no idea, but I do know the resulting colors are luminously rich: blacker blacks, redder reds, bluer blues—not hyper-real but really real, the kind of real you swear you could touch.

As reflected in the titles, the images are usually quite simple: “Two Chairs,” “Black Shoes on Blue Tarp,” “Suit Jackets, One Yellow.” I’ve seen exactly what the photos captured in person on countless occasions. And yet I never have seen black shoes on blue tarp quite like that before. Maybe it’s the color, maybe it’s the framing, but I felt like I was seeing those sights afresh: seeing beauty, something worth looking at, where I hadn’t before.

Leonard’s photos were lovely, but I absolutely fell in love with Levitas’ portfolio: Untitled/This is just to say. Levitas photographed subway trains running above ground in Brooklyn and Queens, with each shot capturing little more than a single car. There is no sense of movement—each image must has been taken in a tiny fraction of a second—for the subject is not the car itself but its insides, as seen through the windows.

Even from a distance, the photographs often seem so intimate (here is the public/private tension the curators described), and they capture isolation and togetherness with simple poetry. I remember the people so vividly: A man standing between two empty cars in the middle of a snowstorm to cup his hands around the weak flame of a cigarette. A car full of bearded Hasidic Jews, one reading, another two bowing their heads together in whispered conversation, and standing before the center door, a tall, elegantly turbaned woman. A young couple kissing behind a graffitied window, looking only at each other, while in the other windows people stare out blankly, looking neither in nor out.

In the photo I remember most clearly, a solitary blond woman gazes out of the window with an unreadable expression. The light is different in that photo—an eerie grey-blue, like the light before a storm—and I wonder what the woman is thinking. Is she angry, sad, merely pensive? What does she see on the other side of the glass? But her expression is closed, and the storm is coming, and even in public, her own private self is tucked away where no one can see.