Arts - Spring 2017

Scenes from a Lost World

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Remember when urban life was gritty and bleak, but also poetic?

“He likes to frame subway riders among the unusual forest of grab bars in a way that makes them look like prisoners.” (Courtesy of the publisher)

By Robert Campbell

March 6, 2017


 

Photographer Richard Sandler’s The Eyes of the City, published late last year, is easy to describe. It’s an album of 116 images of city life, some never printed before. Most were made in New York, a few in Boston, in and around the 1980s. Like so many collections of photography, The Eyes of the City (powerHouse Books, $49.95) is a search for lost time. The world depicted here doesn’t exist anymore, and maybe it never quite did, but for that very reason, it can teach us much about the culture of its era. The images also raise perennial questions about photography itself, and the elusive ways in which it conveys meaning.

Sandler calls himself a street photographer. It’s a classic role: a lone guy with a Leica wanders the streets of a great city, searching its mysteries. I knew that excitement. A few years before Sandler started out, and purely as an amateur, I was doing the same thing. My cheap secondhand Leica was virtually the same model that Sandler would later use.

Taken as a group, Sandler’s images show the city as a hellhole—crowded, scary, dark, filthy, alien. The images are all in black and white, and there’s a lot of black. Many are set in the New York City subway system, which Sandler employs as a symbol of the city as a whole. A subway system is the exact opposite of the world of privately owned, free-ranging, sun-splashed automobiles that were still part of the suburban myth of America in the late 1970s and 1980s. The national rush to the burbs in the postwar decades sucked life out of cities, and when Sandler was working underground, so to speak, downtown was a place most Americans knew only from the TV news. Television made you feel good about your suburban life by presenting the abandoned city as a sewer of crime, drugs, fires, and gangs.

Sandler’s relationship with New York (and Boston, too) is love-hate. Like the black-clad Emo and Goth kids of the era, he views the city as an anti-culture, where nothing is conventionally beautiful. He likes to frame subway riders among the usual forest of grab bars in a way that makes them look like prisoners. Few of these figures seem aware of one another or of the photographer, and those who do look at him—that is to say, at us—do so with alarm. This happens to be a brutally edited view of the city. As with any photograph, Sandler’s images really consist of two scenes: the one he frames and the one that includes everything he has chosen not to frame. Not a single tree, for example, is included in these 116 images of two American cities, not even a potted plant. We’re suffocatingly isolated from the natural world.


The prints are dark with shadows, surely a nod to the noir photography of 1940s gangster movies, in which theatrical lighting makes every shot look like a staged scene. Graffiti is everywhere. I remember how I hated graffiti in its heyday, seeing it as an upsurge of disorder into the civilized world, and at the same time how I thrilled to its Jackson Pollock–like freedom and zest. Graffiti in Sandler’s images is part of their mystery. It’s as if an earlier civilization, long departed, left behind only these strange markings we can no longer translate.

Okay, that’s Sandler’s world. It’s gone, right? Well, yes and no. The graffiti is gone, the noirish light has brightened, the windows may now be clear. But those changes are cosmetic. Something more important is missing too. It’s an attitude, not a physical reality. The images are the same, but their meaning isn’t.

Sandler himself offers the first clue to that change. He has said that he stopped taking pictures like those in City when the World Trade Center was demolished by terrorists. He doesn’t say why he stopped, but we may infer, I think, that on any scale of visible terror and disruption, 9/11 trivialized Sandler’s images. His photos became like postcards of the past, something localized in time and place, something we can even feel nostalgic about. Sandler now reminds me of perhaps the greatest of all photographers, Eugène Atget, who in the early 20th century worked to capture and preserve the appearance of a Paris that was rapidly metamorphosing.

That’s one clue. Another is the cell phone, which began to come into widespread use a few years after the fall of the Twin Towers. None of the people in Sandler’s photos, needless to say, are using a cell phone. If they were, they couldn’t be so intensely involved in their own time and place. It would be too easy for them to escape, too easy to flip the screen, too easy to be anywhere and, therefore, nowhere. They would no longer be the solid, physical, anchored, and maybe smelly creatures we gaze at. Sandler may not have been the first to realize how the loss of the Twin Towers and the rise of the cell phone were going to change perceptions, including his own, of his photographs and their meanings. But that’s one thing the arts are good for. Anyway, that’s my argument. Sandler’s photos are best understood as a still point in a turning world. As time moves past them, they graph the passage of cultural change.

The Eyes of the City measures change in another way, too. It’s the manner in which the photographs have now been packaged for our consumption. The book is a product of what you might call the MoMA taste in art. It’s minimalist modernism, the Miesian game of Less Is More. The photos are all the same size. Each occupies one page, surrounded by empty white space—no titles or captions, only a page number so tiny and pale that it’s nearly invisible. Everything works to isolate the image from the rest of the world and even from any information about the photograph itself.

I don’t have a major problem with this. It’s a handsome book. I’m just pointing out the discrepancy between the world of the kid photographer, haunting the streets and subways, loving the grit and risk and surprise, and the culture of elegant consumption of our own day and especially of today’s New York, into which Sandler’s work has now been transmuted.

As for the individual photographs, like any artist, Sandler prefers certain effects and repeats them. My favorite is one I’ll call the “glasses shot”: images in which Sandler frames a pane of glass or window in such a way that it looks like a humanoid pair of glasses. Now we’re not looking at the city. The city is looking at us. We’re reminded that the book is called The Eyes of the City.

A second pictorial type I’ll call the “split shot.” One of these is featured on the book’s dust jacket, where a subway grab pole seems to slice a woman into symmetrical halves. My favorite split, though, is two guys in dark glasses divided by a pole, with a couple smooching or quarreling—you can’t tell which—in the background window and graffiti swarming the walls like an invading pestilence. Another split occurs on the second to last page of the book, a kind of goodbye to the reader. It’s a shot of the Twin Towers before their demise.

A third photo type is one I’ll call “save me from the kidnappers.” In these, a figure seems to be desperately making eye contact with us, hoping we’ll help as he or she is swept along by a train or a crowd.

I don’t remember where I heard it, but I’ve always admired one comment on photography: “No one will ever know whether Walker Evans documented the Depression or invented it.” Evans was the great American photographer who documented families living in the rural South during the 1930s. His images became so famous that they are now an indispensable part of the very history he set out to record. Was Evans inventing, or was he merely documenting? Both, of course. Is Sandler? Sure. That’s photography.


Robert Campbell is the architecture critic of The Boston Globe. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1996.


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