Marvin Heiferman

The Street Scene


Manhattan commands attention. It is a visually riveting place, but difficult to gain perspective on because there are so many vantage points to view it from, contradictions at work, and stories to take in. That, in part, is what explains its appeal to photographers. By the time it was dubbed “Gotham City” in 1940, in the hand-drawn frames of a Batman comic book, New York’s complex and mythic modernity had already been noted in photography. Early in the twentieth century—as zigzagging skyscrapers grew in number and height, bouncing light off of stone, metal, and glass and onto photographic film—Alvin Langdon Coburn, Edward Steichen, and Alfred Stieglitz were among the first to capture the city’s heady mix of beauty and ambition. Not long after, during the Great Depression, archetypal architectural images made by Berenice Abbott, Samuel Gottscho, and others presented the machine-age city in machine-made images that stylishly acknowledged continuity, extolled progress, and helped to keep the city’s hope alive.

With cameras tilted up from street level, pointed down from vertiginous perches, and leveled straight across New York’s avenues and cross streets, photographers respond to and package New York’s spirit and allure. Leave it to the street photographers—and there have been, and will continue to be many of them—to seek out and picture New Yorkers themselves, the big shots, oddballs, and everyday folk as they navigate the topography and circumstances of their lives. Traditionally, it has been the goal of photographers of the city’s built environment, those who sidestep or pull back from its human drama, to document and find metaphors in the cool façades of a combustible city that is driven by compression, determination, and desire. They still do, even today.

According to a 2011 study by Cornell University computer scientists—who analyzed 34 million photographs taken by 300,000 photographers from around the globe that were posted on Flickr—New York is the world’s most photographed city. With its iconic spires, syncopated street life, and the cacophony of signage that fills Times Square, New York has branded itself as the world’s oldest “modern” city. It is no coincidence that its most accelerated period of growth, from the 1890s through 1940s, parallels the decades in which photography’s power grew as well with the rapid spread of snapshot cameras and of still and moving photographic images in the media. In his book Delirious New York (1978) and subsequent writings, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has often celebrated the city as a radical experiment, a “culture of congestion” where “a free-form coalition of developers, visionaries, writers, architects, and journalists intersects with popular expectations to make the city an extreme and exhilarating democratic machine, one that is able to process all newcomers into New Yorkers”. If Koolhaas neglected to add photographers to his list of city shapers, we should not.

In 1999, when Luca Campigotto arrived in New York to photograph in and around the city, his image of it, like most of ours, was shaped by old photographs and movies that reverberate in pop culture and the collective imagination. Venetian-born, Milan-based, and with a degree in modern history, Campigotto was well aware of the ways that photography, a medium he describes as the “supreme instrument of nostalgia,” not only documents, but actively shapes our perception of and experience in cities. In work made on that initial visit and during subsequent ones over the past dozen years, Campigotto’s interests in architecture and his nuanced investigations of space and place have led to this collection of beautiful and paradoxical photographs. In each one, a palpable, almost visceral sense of presence seems at odds, yet strangely in sync with the melancholic sense of absence that also permeates the pictures.

Neither a journalist nor a story teller, Campigotto is, in fact, a scene shaper. He makes no claims to this being an encyclopedic project and works instinctively, as he has described it, to photograph “the container of events”. Rather than construct and then follow a strict conceptual framework—as Thomas Struth did for the black-and-white street views he made in New York in the late 1970s— Campigotto responds to the city subjectively. Many of the photographs in Gotham City were made in the lower third of Manhattan that stretches from Midtown to the Financial District. Each one is rich with formal and graphic incident: the march of elegantly regimented building facades, the tracery of fire escapes and scaffolding that cling to buildings, the spectral effects triggered by multiple light sources, and the jittery juxtaposition of all sorts of messages and signs.

One of the more enduring stereotypes about New York is that everyone and everything in it is awhirl. But in this work—with the exception of the few pedestrians, traffic lights we know will blink on and off, and the ghostly trails of head-and-tail lights that appear in some images—everything is stilled. The photographs seem, at least at first, to focus on and revel in the visual spectacle of a metropolis. But a sense of sobriety resides in these photographs, too. While they reflect something of the city’s bravado and anything-can-happen-here promise, they cannot quite shake the fact that a once-smug city of go-getters, in these post-9/11 years, feels a little less full of itself, chastened, vulnerable.

Of course, New York and brash New Yorkers alike pride themselves on being survivors. The city—grimy, crime-ridden, on the verge of bankruptcy—nearly went under in the 1970s, then bounced back. Campigotto’s photographs, made before, during, and after the financial crisis of the last decade, often feature areas of the city that have been zealously repurposed and remade. New York neighborhoods previously dismissed as culturally or geographically undesirable are now teeming with the condos, co-ops and life-style purveyors that recast the look and redraw the map of hipness. The cast-iron lofts buildings in Soho, Tribeca, and the Garment Center, where piece workers once toiled, have become the homes of millionaires. “Old facades” as social critic Richard Sennett wrote and these photographs hint at, “hide new values and lifestyles”.

If Manhattan is no longer a melting pot, but a place for the rich, as class-conscious or priced-out cultural observers point out, if the city is in danger of becoming a theme park version of itself, it still remains fertile ground for photographers fascinated with urban fact and fantasy. In one frame of the comic strip mentioned earlier, Batman and Robin, up on a rooftop, scan a sketchy panorama of towers and bridges that looks just like Manhattan. A caption describes them as “two mantled figures... posed against the inky sky that forms the backdrop of the great stage that is called Gotham City”. Taken together, the images in this book suggest that as Campigotto surveys New York, he, too, sees it as a succession of theatrical spaces or movie sets.

The possibility for narrative that is embedded in these photographs is reinforced by the fact that Campigotto often works at night when, he says, “the outcome is unpredictable. The lights, the contrasts, the colors are more interpretive... Night makes evocation more plausible”. And so does the post-production work Campigotto subsequently does on the images themselves. After they are shot, he carefully rebuilds them, recalibrating their color saturation so that the subtlest details that would have disappeared in the shadows begin to assert themselves. Once they do, something odd and magical is set in motion. The not-quite-naturalistic palette of these images makes the atmosphere they depict feel immersive. Coupling the camera’s forensic gaze with a decidedly romantic sensibility, Campigotto creates extraordinary and haunting photographs in which the present and the past, and desire and nostalgia coexist. From one image to the next, we’re reminded of the New York’s legendary hold over those who build, live in, visit, or imagine it. And thrilling as they are, these canny photographs speak to something else, something unexpected—the big city’s indifference and its power to go on without any one of us.

copyright © 2013 Luca Campigotto

Luca Campigotto