Tuesday, September 28, 2010

New York, by Anonymous, for the Anonymous

The Main Concourse of Grand Central Station, by Anonymous
 After getting a preview of the new Taschen book New York: Portrait of a City, I decided I'd finally figured out who the greatest photographer of all time was. That photographer is named Anonymous.

Many, many, many of the images in the book were made by said photographer, including the 1929 photograph of Grand Central Station above. I found that fact fitting, even comforting. The picture, which the book credits to the New York Mass Transit Museum, captures the sublime isolation New Yorkers surround themselves with every day, even in crowds. Especially in crowds. (E.B. White put it this way: "New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation.")

The book is a big (560 pages), tumbling mix of history, archival imagery, and photography by photographers who are anything but anonymous: Alfred Stieglitz; Alvin Langdon Coburn, Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott, Carl Mydans, Paul Himmel, Louis Faurer, Saul Leiter, Joel Meyerowitz, Bruce Davidson, Cornell Capa, Dennis Stock, Sylvia Plachy, Ernst Haas, Elliott Erwitt...you get the idea. Many cities are photographed; New York, along with Paris, has long been one of the centers of photography. It has been well documented, shall we  say. In that sense, the history of New York and the history of photography go hand in hand.

Nonetheless, it was the images attributed to anonymous photographers that attracted my gaze most, perhaps because I didn't know them as well. The photographs also reminded me that it's in the anonymity of daily life that New Yorkers create and recreate the city. By and large photographs of New York are photographs of people. (Yes, skyscrapers...but those merely as symbols for what people build.) Here's another one the images the book attributes to anonymous:

Mulberry Street, 1900, by Anonymous
When I look at this, I wonder at all those anonymous lives, and I wonder who all those people were looking at, and how that anonymous photographer got them to hold still.

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