NEW YORK – The last time I was in New York was forty years ago, when I was a student in Boston and would hitchhike down from time to time to see the city. In the intervening years, though, I’ve several times been to New York, New York, the Disney-ish attraction, complete with smaller-than-life Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge, at the bottom of the Strip in Las Vegas.
So when I found myself back here in the real-life city this week, I couldn’t help but be struck by how closely the two places resemble each other. The real New York is bigger, grittier, and has better bagels. But the night we walked from our midtown hotel up to 42nd Street, the real New York looked weirdly just like New York, New York, and it felt as though the hygienically transformed Times Square had been transported from the East Coast to Nevada, or at least re-engineered as a tourist destination by Steve Wynn.
Thousands of people milled around the streets under a glittering cascade of LED signs, buying $6 hotdogs and waiting for a party that would never begin. Mimes and actors in costumes from popular movies solicited money to have your picture taken with them. Several young women wearing little but body paint posed for avid male photographers. We took photos of each other grinning under the lights, and a woman who might have been from Omaha came up to me and asked, “Are you an actor?”
But it made me sad in some way that Times Square – once the seat of gritty evil in the city, before Rudy Giuliani cleaned everything up – has become nothing but a PG-13-rated tourist destination (giving it, of course, much in common with Vegas). There is, as was once said of a place elsewhere, no longer any there there.
Let’s be clear. I love Vegas. I love its faked up luxury and impossibly ostentatious buildings and endless casinos with their smell of possible money. I love walking on the Strip day or night in the desert air and being nothing but a tourist. But at least in Vegas you know that’s all you get: Paris, Venice and New York, New York.
In the real New York, I wanted the real thing – whatever that happened to be. Times Square isn’t it. In the generation that’s passed since I last visited, New York has become calmer, safer and much user-friendlier. No one seems aggressive anymore. My family and I all walk faster than any of the New Yorkers we encountered on sidewalks. Even the accents have faded, ground away – like regionalism everywhere – under the weight of television, radio and the movies.
We were in town for the week because my son had been invited to give a talk about his new book at the American Museum of Natural History. That gave us a chance to visit the city together and spread out, taking in everything from museums and Central Park to the U.S. Open.
My own destination of choice was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which happened to be showing a Garry Winogrand retrospective that I’ve wanted to see since it was first exhibited in San Francisco.
Winogrand (1928-1984) was a photographer whose work I much admire. Starting in the 1950s he began shooting moody black and white photos of street scenes in New York, and later in Los Angeles and around the country, substituting a mordant energy and an incisive, intellectual vision for the taut technical quality of some of his predecessors, such as Walker Evans.
A classic Winogrand photo has an accidental quality. They all look like grab shots – crooked framing, blurred focus and rough photographic grain combine to give them a voyeuristic feel. Winogrand loved women, and some of his best work is of them.
At best his work is utterly moving. “Albuquerque, New Mexico” a 1958 photo that’s in the current Met exhibit, wrings a sense of isolation and loss from a simple image of a young child, with a tricycle, playing in the driveway of a suburban home.
“Hollywood Boulevard,” also in this exhibit, shot in 1969, shows three smartly dressed women strolling down Hollywood Boulevard while a disabled man slumps in a wheelchair on the sidewalk. The women are lit from behind y sunlight; the man is hidden in the shadows. This isn’t social commentary on the order of Weegee’s famous (and intentionally set up) “The Critic.” Instead, Winogrand seems hardly to have noticed the man; he once said that, for him, the photo is entirely about the light that rakes the women from behind.
“I photograph to see what things look like when photographed,” he once, or may have, said about his work.
This Winogrand retrospective poses a difficult and challenging question for viewers and for photography at large, which you can boil down to the issue of monkeys and typewriters. If you shoot enough pictures, you’re bound to find something worthwhile when you look at them later – right? And does that make you a photographer? What if you never get around to looking at the photos? Doesn’t all this undermine any notion of photographer as artist, or of photography as art? What if you never even develop the photos?
When Winogrand died, he left some 2,500 rolls of film undeveloped. Photographer Leo Rubinfien, who put this exhibition together, found the money and time to process that unknown and unseen work – and then printed some of the best images from the late photos, or what he took to be the best ones.
So who is the artist here? Winogrand? Rubinfien?
It gets worse. Winogrand’s late photography does not, by many accounts, measure up to his early work. John Szarkowski, the former director of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art who was Winogrand’s early patron and proponent, thought Winogrand’s late work fell off badly in quality. Rubinfien disagrees.
Mounting a retrospective like this, in which the editing is done in retrospect from such a vast amount of unsorted and unsifted material, seems almost dishonest. The new images, to my eye, are not worse than the old – but they’re not better, either. It’s as though Winogrand had something to say in his early years but couldn’t find anything new to add as time went by, and so had to keep repeating himself endlessly. And the evidence is that Winogrand himself knew this about his work, as he stopped even processing his film.
By the end of his life, he no longer needed to see what things looked like when photographed.
So this exhibit hauls out what amounts to notes and rough drafts, dresses them up into polished prints and shows them side by side with finished work. What artist or writer could measure up to that?
The Met, of course, is a jewel. I spent hours happily lost in its multiplex of galleries, wandering from late 19th century European painting to the middle ages, from ancient Persia to southeast Asia. The crowds are sometimes intense, especially in front of celebrity art like Vincent Van Gogh’s little self portrait – bring on the selfies! – but you can always escape to a quieter corner, such as the amazing indigenous art of Papua, New Guinea.
A couple days later at the Museum of Modern Art, though, I had the opposite experience. The museum itself is fine, pleasant even, though it’s jammed a bit in the darkness between tall buildings on 54th Street south of Central Park.
But as I made my way down chronologically from the fifth floor, where the museum collection opens with a handful of post Impressionist paintings from Picasso and Van Gogh and Cezanne and then continues as you go downstairs through the early years of the 20th century and into the full thrust of modernism’s blank white canvases, I began to get the feeling that so much of modernism, which was fun and even shocking as it was being produced, is now simply shopworn.
A lot of this has to do with the nature of contemporary art. It’s designed to taunt as much as to enrich, and there’s nothing quite as boring as rehashing yesterday’s dusty insults. But there’s more to the problem. So much of what has been produced in the art world since, say, World War II, depends on context and explanation, for how else are you going to know who and what is being taunted? And that forces the viewer into what amounts to homework, or confusion, or both.
Beam me back to the Met, Scotty.
One morning – on my way to the Winogrand show, appropriately enough – I had coffee with New York street photographer Dave Beckerman. I’ve known him for years online, as he was one of the first photographers with his own website, where he kept a daily journal of his photographic adventures well before anyone had thought up the word “blog.” (I think that, with a nod to Weston, he called it a “Daybook.”)
I have long admired Beckerman’s nerve in quitting a good-paying job in high tech to devote himself full time to shooting pictures of New York and selling them, at low prices, on line, and he inspired me to follow along – not to quit my job, but to sell photos at low prices on the web, which I did quite happily for years before the business collapsed.
So I was thrilled when I emailed, the night before we flew East, to see if he was available to meet, and he said to come on by.
Before Beckerman fell into technology, lured by its easy money, he was a film student at NYU, where he got to know a young film student named Spike Lee. Now Beckerman lives in a walk-up apartment in a pleasant upper east side neighborhood. Like many New Yorkers, he doesn’t own a car and couldn’t remember, when I asked, how long it’s been since he’d left the city for any reason. A year? More. Five years? More than that, he said.
As it did for me, the bottom fell out of his web sales in 2008, and the money hasn’t returned. Now he’s looking for other ways to market his work, perhaps through book publishing.
One last cultural experience we enjoyed was the U.S. Open. I’m not a huge tennis fan, but my wife and son are, and they had bought tickets to see the men’s semifinals on Saturday, from which they came back devastated that Roger Federer had lost, though they had at least gotten to see him play.
On Monday, we took the subway out through Queens to Arthur Ashe Stadium where, for $25 each, we sat not in the stadium itself but on the grounds, at a comfortable table next to a bar that sold Heineckens for $10 each and a plate of antipasto, so tiny it might best be measured in milligrams, for $12, and watched the men’s final on a large screen on the stadium wall.
It was a beautiful evening, a slight wind chopping the clouds into a perfect sunset, and it was fun to mingle with the One Percent and watch two unexpected young players – Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori – battle it out for the title.
Half of Japan, it felt like, had turned out to join us in cheering on Nishikori, and Japanese television crews roamed the area around the bar and interviewed just about anyone who would sit still in front of a camera.
It was for naught. Nishikori lost in straight sets, and we headed back to the subway station and home to our hotel as the film crews stalked people in the departing audience to dissect what had gone wrong.
Finally, our tourist wanderings took us inevitably one afternoon to Ground Zero, the place where so many people died 13 years ago this morning, to check out the memorial there.
What a letdown. I’ve rarely seen a monument so important to so many people that imparts so little sense of place, or tragedy, or much of anything at all. As you approach, nothing but an unusual concentration of people indicates you’re getting close.
You might, in fact, be on the edge of something like Times Square for all you can tell, from the larger number of police officers and food carts that ring the empty footprints of the Twin Towers. Touts offer discount coupons to some sort of small 9/11 museum that looked unconvincing from the outside; the larger, official museum could be mistaken for yet another bank.
We left without going into the museum, shaking our heads, and then walked back to our hotel along the extraordinary new city park called the High Line. That’s a one-mile walking path that follows an old elevated railway through Lower Manhattan; the route, which still has the old rails and ties, has been beautifully landscaped and is a huge hit with locals, tourists and cops alike.
This might be the new real New York — one you’ll never match in Vegas.