New York alone among the world's great historic cities was created not from the ambitions and designs of kings, emperors, dictators, oligarchs, or priests, but out of the hopes and dreams of poor and exiled people...for better and for worse. I've lived here now for 30 years as of August, longer than any other place I've lived including Dallas, the place I was born and grew up. And it still feels like I just got here.
The artists I think who best captured the look and feel of the city, its infinite variety and paradoxes, its sublime grandeur and its cozy intimacies, its cruelty and its generosity, its haunting mystery and its stark clarity, and above all its abounding irrepressible life are photographers. There is little in the way of great painting about New York, unlike 19th and early 20th century Paris. There is no New York equivalent of Manet or Degas or Monet or Pissarro among painters. But there are legions of great photographers who either came out of New York or did great work in the city.
Below are some greats who are also favorites of mine in no particular order.
Manhattan and the Empire State Building during World War II "dim out."
The photographer's self portrait in the mirror on the right.
Photos from How the Other Half Lives.
An amusement ride at Coney Island
Jessie Tarbox Beals
The Flatiron Building
The Empire State Building
The George Washington Bridge
Photos from his 1948 essay on Harlem
James Van Der Zee
Riding the Subway with the future movie director in 1946
A night at the now legendary CBGB's.
Photos from the construction of the Empire State Building.
It's sad to look at the work of these great photographers and reflect that the New York they witnessed is now past. From the September 11 attacks to the even worse calamity of the Pandemic, the life that the city knew for over a century is over. Even now 18 months later the pandemic that so far killed over 30,000 New Yorkers leaves the city and its life noticeably subdued. Who knows what New York will become in coming years. Before the pandemic and the 9/11 attacks, New York became an amusement park version of itself, entertainment for tourists and especially the very rich. So much of the population that gave the city its life got priced out. In the end, New York had no task, no reason to exist except to get more valuable for wealthy real estate speculators. The people who actually lived in the city and made it work were just in the way. New York was on its way to become like San Francisco, a great golden coffin; still wondrous and beautiful, but utterly lifeless.
And now everything has ground to a halt in the deadliest calamity since the last big pandemic in 1918. The city's investors would very much like to see New York become that solid gold coffin. But those who survived and remain have other ideas to make the city work for those other than its wealthiest owners and investors, to work for the people who live here and make a living. Who knows what is to come.
Of all the many movies about New York, one of the very few to be filmed entirely on location in the city is Jules Dassin's 1948 masterpiece, The Naked City.