Tuesday, February 5, 2013

City Life

You can learn much about the character and personality of a city by its representation in photography and film. Amanda Shubert reviewed an exhibition last fall that looked at New York through the visual arts in Critics at Large.

Urban Poetry: Film and Photo in New York at the Art Institute of Chicago

Louis Faurer. Times Square USA, 1950
In 1900, the Philadelphia-born painter Robert Henri moved to New York City to teach at the New York School of Art, where he encouraged his students to go out into the city streets with their sketchbooks and record what they saw there. Henri’s ‘quick sketch’ – a fast impression of urban life that could be worked up later into a print or a painting – sparked an era of American realist art as gritty and grimy and flush with everyday spectacles and stories as the city itself. Film and Photo in New York, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through November 25, looks at the work of six New York City photographers between 1920 and 1950 who took Henri’s quick sketch to a new level by using a camera, instead of a pencil and paper, to record their urban vignettes. Pioneers of street photography, each of these artists – Paul Strand, Louis Faurer, Helen Levitt, Morris Engel, Weegee and Robert Frank – created images that were investigations of New York City as a dynamic, unruly, always-evolving subject, a kind of playground for the eye where a momentary glimpse could tap into a richly complex social experience. They also each experimented with film as a way of extending those investigations. The Art Institute’s exhibition looks at the way these artists approached the snapshot and the moving image as two ways of recording urban life.

Helen Levitt. New York, 1940
It’s a novel idea to examine this period of street photography by looking at how photographers used the burgeoning possibilities of film to elaborate on or enhance what they could do with still images, and the Art Institute certainly has the collection to support this topic. (All the works in the exhibition are drawn from the permanent collection, which includes a number of works that are on view for the first time.) The comparisons here are fascinating. Take, for example, the fiendishly accomplished and oft-neglected Louis Faurer, whose nocturnal photographs of Times Square are lit fantastically by the ambient light of billboard advertisements. The pictures have an almost surreal sheen, and, saturated with fragments of text from neon signs and theater marquees that create ironic and often funny counterpoints, they work kind of like found poems. By photographing the heart of Manhattan’s theater district, Faurer shows us a city that is itself marvelously and garishly theatrical – it’s always performing itself. (In this way they recall the New York City paintings and prints of the Depression-era satirist Reginald Marsh.) Meanwhile, the film by Faurer included in the exhibition, Time Capsule, a silent documentary shot in the 1960s, splices together movie footage of Times Square to provide a dazzling glance into the kinetic swirl of the city. Faurer’s flash impressions of the myriad incandescent bulbs that shoot the street full of light gives you the sense of a city vibrating with life. The subject is the same as in the photographs, but the movie camera allows Faurer to go even further in recording experiences in the process of unfolding, and to convey the sense of the artist folded into them, one among the crowd.

In the way it threads together film clips in a collage of images, Time Capsule seems to look back in time to the origins of cinema in the flipbook. Morris Engel’s narrative film Little Fugitive (1953), on the other hand, was anticipating what was to come. Engel brought the sensibility of the street photographer to a feature-length film about a seven year-old boy – played by one-time actor Richie Andrusco – who runs away from his Brooklyn home to wander the kitschy paradise of Coney Island. Filmed on a hand-held 35 mm camera, Little Fugitive looked at Coney Island – and the city of New York – through the eyes of a young child. It has real freshness and ingenuity – you can see why it captured the interest and the affection of Francois Truffaut, whose masterpiece about a young runaway in Paris, The 400 Blows (1959), is modeled on Little Fugitive. Helen Levitt, the most poetic and masterful of the street photographers in the exhibition, similarly captured the perspectives of children in her film In the Street (1952), made with James Agee and the painter Janice Loeb. Without the lens of narrative, without actors, In the Street is a rowdy, exuberant, deeply sensitive bit of filmmaking and of all the films in the exhibition it feels most like a series of photographs you can walk into. Like Levitt’s photographs, which feature stunning groupings of individuals on the street, often strangers who become frozen in relation to one another by Levitt’s keen eye to suggest narrative relationships, In the Street shows you the private lives of the people in public spaces.

Paul Strand’s magisterial documentary film Manhatta, which he made in 1921 with the painter Charles Sheeler, doesn’t have the bounding exuberance of the films by Faurer, Engel and Levitt – it’s more formalist, more austere, its vibrancy tuned to a different pitch. Its lyrical shots of the city, attuned to the abstract forms and shapes created by its architecture and industrial landscape, from the black smoke muscling out of steam engines and cargo ships to close-ups of the interlocking girders of the Brooklyn Bridge against the skyline, are interpolated with passages from the poetry of Walt Whitman. (You can watch it here.) Poetic as the film is, it’s also a sort of character study of a city, a portrait, doing for Manhattan what the great American portraitists like Thomas Eakins did for individual people through painting a generation before. (How could you possibly give a portrait of something as dynamic and vast as a city through a single image, or even a sequence of still images? You’d have to look to literature – the novels of Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf – for a similar capaciousness. In blending the spaciousness of the novel with the eloquence of the poem, just as they blend the shimmering vitality of painting with the realism of the photograph, Strand and Sheeler uncover the excitingly hybrid nature of cinema in the first decades of the technology’s existence.

Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler. Still from Manhatta, 1921
Aside from Engel’s Little Fugitive, the films in the exhibition don’t bear much resemblance to those created in the American studio system, but you see traces of the street photographer’s sensibility in some of our greatest American directors. It’s not just the urban subjects or even the fourth wall realism of these observations of daily life: it’s a quality of discovery, of subjects photographed in a moment of insight that blends kinetic enthusiasm and contemplation. You see it in Robert Altman’s films, and especially in Jonathan Demme’s – movies like Melvin and HowardSwing ShiftSomething Wild and Rachel Getting Married in which the camera doesn’t seem to shoot scenes prepared in advance: it probes its subjects, seeming to discover them in the moment. You feel the freedom of the camera to wander and to stumble upon spectacle – in Demme’s films, cinematography is a form of play. He has Helen Levitt’s wised-up wonder and Louis Faurer’s eye for carnival in the everyday.

You get something similar and equally magical in the films of French New Wave director Agnes Varda, who was a photographer before she began making movies, and those of Francois Truffaut. But I see a distinctly American idiom in the works in Film and Photo in New York, one links up those students of Robert Henri in the first half of the twentieth century – artists like Edward Hopper, George Bellows and John Sloan – and forward to the directors in the later half for whom images could split open the jangling pockets of the city to spill out all kinds of oddball treasures.  

- originally published on October 10, 2012 in Critics at Large. 

Amanda Shubert is a doctoral student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop

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