Two months before I graduated college I sat in a cafe at Astor Place with a notebook. I was still at school upstate, staying alone in a friend’s basement-level one-bedroom on my spring break while she was at SXSW. I wrote four angst-filled pages about the uncertainty of my rapidly advancing future, about the paralysis of my anxiety, about fear, and about those mornings when the air is just cold enough and the sunlight on Broadway just angled enough and it seems the whole world opens up before you as you walk to work, coffee in hand.
I drew a messy sketch of the corner and wrote something about the geography of our paths, a record of our movements, a historical topography of the city and our lives. The building where I sat is no longer there - though, certainly, there are greater losses than that of the Starbucks across the street from the other Starbucks at Astor Place. But it’s still a place on this map, this time lapse map of my life, six years of my life in this city, traced out in all the places I’ve walked and lived and loved. A history winding out behind me, my life in New York, my life that I’ve been living.
The last few pages of the notebook are lists of songs: an ongoing ledger which I updated religiously, from when I started the notebook sometime in 2005 to when it finished in 2008, as much of a history as the hopelessly solipsistic journal entries, magazine clippings, and concert tickets that fill the rest of pages. New Order, Depeche Mode, My Bloody Valentine, Songs: Ohia, Cat Power, Nina Nastasia, Low, Ida, Sparklehorse, Radiohead, The Magnetic Fields, Phoenix, Mirah, Four Tet, Pulp.
Living in New York infects you with a sort of deluded narcissism, something utterly false but utterly engrossing, an overblown sense of self importance thanks to the romance of the backdrop — especially when you are young and naive and already prone to things like “making lists of the songs you’ve been listening to.” The narrative fallacy: me and my music video life, forever and always wind-blown in a leather jacket walking down the Bowery or whatever. Always getting out of a cab — the leg first, black tights, a high heel — when it’s just beginning to snow. Always a little bit drunk and a little bit sad on the corner of Houston and C just after midnight, midsummer. Always alone in the park, just after sunrise, my breath before me and the frost crisp on the patchy grass, while the rest of Brooklyn still sleeps.
There is something about New York that does that to you. I try to line them up, that map and that soundtrack. How many songs have I listened to here, on this train. How many people have I known. How many times have I looked up at these buildings and felt the rush of possibility run through me, and how many times have I felt my stomach sink and cried behind my glasses.
Rainer Maria on a CD player in the Broadway-Lafayette station, a humid June afternoon in 2002, cutting class from high school. Velvet Underground on a record player in Greenpoint. Arthur playing Satie on the piano in the loft in Hell’s Kitchen sometime after dark the summer I finished college, in his underwear and a velvet blazer. Ryan Adams as I walk alone down Avenue A in mid-October, that song by that band Fredrik who I know nothing else about as I walk up First Ave in the quiet dark after a blizzard, early December, past the Christmas tree vendors near St Marks Church. The lanky boy I dated for a few months playing guitar softly, some almost-familiar melody, in the next room while I half-slept, early morning light.
Late night on East Third near Second Ave, cold, raining a bit. There’s a boy further down the street, a silver trumpet in his hand. He doesn’t see me and I pause as he lifts it to play. A bit faltering, the first few notes sour brass, and then suddenly clear, ringing out over and above the rush of tires against the wet asphalt.
How wonderful are these photos of Brooklyn in the summer of 1974, from photographer Danny Lyon? For the unacquainted, as always: Lyon, along somewhat more widely acclaimed contemporaries Mary Ellen Mark, Robert Frank, and Larry Clark, was among the photojournalists known for their focus on imperfect reality and on the photographers’ involvement with their subjects’ lives, rather than striving for well-composed, technically perfect images from a physical and emotional distance.
Lyon’s deliberate choice to embrace imperfections — most of these photos are ill-exposed, crooked, blurred, or interrupted by a too-close body or object — belies his empathetic intent: the heat and energy and constant buzz of the city comes through here in ways that “better” photographs don’t permit. The images here call to mind Helen Levitt, Walker Evans, and a grittier, less “fashionable” version of Bruce Davidson’s Brooklyn Gang. Also: restraining myself from gushing again about the warmth and grain and depth of fields of old film photography but that horse has been dead for ages so I’m only going to passive aggressively mention it in passing (o see what i did thar?)
Plenty more of these after the jump, but also worth noting are Lyon’s images of Chicago motorcycle gangs in The Bikeriders, which put LIFE magazine’s documentation of motorcycle gangs sorely to shame.
More things we know by now: I am, it seems, a completely incurable nostalgist for all things New York and something of a weird local history fetishist,. (Wait! We need to point out some greatest hits of my obsession! The jail on Ludlow for suffragettes! Lady pirates of the Hudson! The dangers of petticoats in snow! My undying love for Bruce Davidson’s Brooklyn Gang!) Naturally, the sketches, prints, and etchings of Australian-born artist Martin Lewis (apparently a friend of Edward Hopper, whom I’m always weirdly drawn to for similarly NYC-biased-reasons) cater pretty directly to that weakness.
Lewis’ drawings and etchings appeal to me so much, I think, because despite being from the 1920’s and 30’s, they still look so familiar to me — the stylishly dressed midtown crowds pushing against the wind, the angles of the street corners, the open fire hydrants on hot summer days — streetcars and cloche hats aside, this still looks pretty much like every day to me. But mostly I think it’s something about the quality of light and shadow he captures — on streets still busy at night, during a thunderstorm, at dusk on a fire escape — which I don’t really have much to say about other than that is is exactly how it looks here and this is how I think of this city, as mostly grey with extremes of light and shadow. Am I too grossly romantic? Either way, the images are pretty awesome.
• "Yeah, the last place I was subletting was a railroad and we didn’t have a sink in the bathroom and the entire kitchen ceiling collapsed this one time because the alcoholic upstairs fell asleep in his bathtub and flooded the apartment and it took the landlord over a week to fix it and there were bedbugs in the building, but we never got them in our apartment and we only had to pay $800 a month each!" Not that I know anything about that personally, you know. Now I pay less than $600 a month and I don’t have any closets and when all the tiles fell off my bathroom wall, my super fixed it within five days!
• Mariachi bands on public transportation. Accordion players on public transportation, possibly covering Lady Gaga songs. Ukelele players on public transportation. That guy who dresses like a peacock on Seventh Ave in midtown; the guy with the cat on his head who wanders around Flatiron a lot.
• People defecating or pleasuring themselves (or both? we have yet to hear of it, though we’re sure it has happened) in public
• That thing where you get a coffee at a bodega, and they put it in a paper bag, with napkins of top of it?
• That thing where you get a soda at a bodega, and they put it in a paper bag, with a straw?
• Six dollar well drinks; fourteen dollar cocktails; the concept of “bottle service”
• Workplace condoned or encouraged alcoholism; workplace condoned or encouraged drug use
• Daily encounters with rats the size of small dogs. We’ve started thinking of them as pets, really.
• That thing you do where if you pretend like you didn’t see the cockroach, it clearly doesn’t exist.
• That thing you do where if you pretend like you didn’t see the homeless person, nonprofit street fundraising canvasser, guy who is following you shouting about your ass, celebrity, or person you slept with three years ago that you just passed on the street, they clearly don’t exist.
• 104 degree summers with suffocating humidity for which you have one flimsy window fan (well, if you’re lucky enough to have a window) to keep you from literally melting overnight and you’re like, oh, whatever, the subway platform this morning was way worse.
• Two seasons: cold, and hot and smelly.
• SLOWWALKERS, or, alternately, the irrepressible rage directed at them
• "Hey! I saw your posting for a sublet in the East Village on Craigslist for $1200 a month. Just want to make sure — that window in the room actually faces, like, outside, right? Not a hallway or air shaft?"
• Having a friend who got paid like $100 a day just to take some rich lady’s son to and from school on the subway; having a friend who babysat some child on the Upper East Side who at the age of three wanted to play “chef and sous-chef” and not just “let’s make pie out of this mud”; large groups of children chained together via leash wearing matching shirts on the subway; children doing un-children-like-things in general
• The availability of cheap and greasy takeout food at all hours of the night, all days of the week
• "You want to get dinner in Chelsea? Sorry, I haven’t been north of 14th Street in like nine months."
• Coffee shops that close at 6 PM and don’t have Wi-Fi
• "Why would I have a driver’s license?"
• NYU, in general; the Meatpacking District; the Lower East Side
• Your intern casually mentioning his or her yacht/trust fund/inheritance; your intern’s online shopping habit which involves receiving boxes on a weekly basis, the contents of which are worth approximately your monthly pay
• Storing hair dryers/flat irons with the kitchen supplies since there’s never any outlet in the bathroom; people who keep their shoes in the oven; people who keep books in the fridge
compiled via g-chat in collaboration with The Rejectionist ; your input also welcome
REST AFTER THE JUMP
While when it comes to NYC street photography I tend to rave mostly about Bruce Davidson (I’ve blogged about Brooklyn Gang probably like sixteen times by now for real) and while the slick, stylish urban glitz of his work creates a romantic vision of this city which I can’t get enough of, Helen Levitt is among my favourites as well.
Along with Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson, Levitt’s widely considered part of a triumvirate of great street photographers of the early twentieth century. Her work though somehow seems more empathetic than either of theirs — almost always candid, frequently of the elderly or children, unpretentious and somehow restrained. Levitt was an unobtrusive photographer — even when Walker Evans snapped photos of subway riders from a camera hidden in his overcoat, he framed and edited them to look like formal portraits. In contrast, Levitt was one of those photographers who chooses the awkward images: the imperfect shots, mid-gesture, that look more like film stills than paintings, frames from a hidden surveillance camera rather than calculated representations.
As compared to Evans’ more polished, clean portraiture and Cartier-Bresson’s decidedly Parisian glamour, Levitt’s work is gritty, uncomfortable, and occasionally downright weird — somehow the most honest portrayal of New York of the three. Her photographs of city streets, which range from the 1920’s to the 1990’s, somehow still always seem familiar despite the distance in years, as if she’s captured something quintessentially New York that persists even today.
More after the jump, as usual.
Eline just posted this and I had to steal it since that “romanticizing weird old shit” fetish problem thing I have apparently isn’t just limited to New York — posters from a sealed-up-since-1959 metro tunnel in London (where I’ll be in a week! tell me all your secrets of amazing places to go/things to do there that I might not know about yet!) More pictures after the jump and the whole thing here.