Saturday, January 14, 2012

"Radical Camera" and attention to the city

Molly waved me over to see a great photo. "Isn't that just like Ralph Fasanella?" she said, referring to the artist whose paintings of a dense and busy New York captured the city's motion and vivacity. And I replied, "And aren't those balconies packed with people like the balconies we saw in Marseille?" referring to a set of buildings we visited whose balconies were like living rooms with a great view of the Mediterranean.

This conversation took place today at the Jewish Museum. As part of my study of Main Streets, I am a participant-observer with several organizations, including the University of Orange. Today I went on a UofO fieldtrip to see the exhibit, "The Radical Camera," about the New York City Photo League. This was an extraordinary group that promoted a new kind of photography, one that took the evidence of daily life seriously, and raised up the minute-to-minute existence of people. They created "documents," sets of photos focused on one or another neighborhood in the city, often their own neighborhoods, but also others that where people were to be found. Harlem was in the later category.

Paul Manning's showstopper photo depicted a mass of people filling the fire escapes of a building to watch the 1938 Elks Parade go by. That photo was used in an article in Look magazine exploring how Harlem produced Bigger Thomas, and 244,000 other "native sons." The ironies are too many to list, but it's useful to start with the fact that Harlem did not produce Bigger Thomas, he was a fictional character invented by Richard Wright. And, just for fun, let's remember that the 244,000 residents of Harlem weren't all sons. Some were daughters. It's important that that rich photograph of city life, as it is lived at its best moments, was used to depict pathology. It is that distorted thinking, that crowds of people are somehow in poor taste, that led to the desertification of the America's cities, not to mention the clearing of Zuccotti Park.

If we go back to Paul Manning's photo with eyes open to seeing the city on its own terms, we can learn to see the riches of city life, which include many shades of suffering and an equally complex amount of joy.

It is an extraordinary exhibit, and one all urbanists should see.

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