What defines a place? Is it the people; their faces, their clothes, their gestures and habits? Is it the buildings these people inhabit; their houses, places of work and social hangouts? Or is it a different kind, an ethical architecture? If, in the twentieth century, what moulds the fate of a place is its economic, social, political circumstances, then how can photography go about documenting such forces? Can a place really be seen?
A quick glimpse at the cover of Golden Section's Time and Space on the Lower East Side suggests one set of answers to these questions. With its carnival atmosphere – the fluttering streamers in the top third of the frame, multi-coloured buildings and cars, and the dynamically positioned boy who swings a baseball bat right into the centre of the image – the image seems to suggest a clarity of vision to match the clarity of composition. This is a place, the book suggests, characterised by variety and improvisational energy (the street as a sports field). The image also nods to a visual history – a photographic tradition that has tended to see the Lower East Side, the LES as abbreviated here, in intimate, human terms. This cover image echoes Weegee’s active shot of children playing, captured squealing under an arc of water, near a fire hydrant on the LES (c. 1937). Nan Goldin, even Jacob Riis – the notorious nineteenth-century photographer of impoverished tenement-dwellers in this part of Manhattan; these photographers have focussed on the human scale in the space defined as the Lower East Side.
Brian Rose has in the main approached the neighbourhood in a more topographical way – he even refers to his project as 'drawing a map' – and his cover image is in the minority in Time and Space, where most images (though similarly vibrant and dynamic) show few or no people. Very often, where they do appear, humans are rendered anonymous by crowds or distance, and it is more likely than you will open the book to see a store frontage, a monument or intersection (often labelled, Shore-style, simply with avenue and street names). While Rose acknowledges the idiosyncratic nature of the LES population, drawing attention in one of his engaging author texts to its highly diverse immigrant communities, he is also at pains to stress that this is not an anthropological project, or at least not a systematic, unified one.
Layering and multiplicity are watchwords for this collection; from the texts that pepper the book – ranging in subject and tone from the macro-historical to the anecdotal (the General Slocum disaster) – to the views across streets and round corners that lay bare the city grid, both its thriving and desolate spaces. Particularly among the photos taken in the 1980s, there are many views across and into spaces, round corners, so that slices of different architectural styles are simultaneously present and a space opens up in the foreground for contemplation of the neighbourhood’s varied uses. Many of the photographs from around East 4th and 5th streets encompass waste ground, urban thoroughfares, industrial, civic and residential architecture – all captured in the warm, clear light that Rose and Fausty favor.
Despite its title, the book cannot even be read in a straightforwardly chronological manner. The photographs are divided fairly evenly between those taken in 1980, in collaboration with Ed Fausty, and images made in 2010 by Rose alone. However, the structure of the book thwarts attempts to compare and contrast the two sets of images either formally or with respect to the neighbourhood they document. While the book may open with a spread that positions a thriving, bustling summer scene on Orchard Street with the same, empty, street on a winter's day in 2010, the book is seldom so direct. Neither does it tell a unidirectional tale of social improvement, or decay. Rose is at pains to point out that he considers it as a mistake "to see everything emblematically. That is, a broken window signifies decay while a new door represents rejuvenation." Accordingly, this book often draws complex comparisons between the New York of thirty years ago and today. Often, it is only the incursion of luxurious modernist architecture into the otherwise unchanged cityscape that identifies a photograph as belonging to the present day (Houston Street, 2010). Similarly, while one spread may contrast a run-down, eyeless tenement building obscured by graffiti (1980) with its tidier, more visually regimented modern counterpart, another spread contrasts a confused, but crucially populated street scene, with a gentrified, but empty street corner, on which a luxury goods advertisement is underwritten, literally, by massive, looping graffiti and a sign ordering 'no standing anytime.'
That Rose decided to use a view camera for this project reveals a great deal about his approach – these clear, sharp, detailed images present more visual information than the eye can take in. They are a view across time and space, beyond the merely human perspective. This complex and handsomely-presented project is a portrait, or map, of a place, which challenges our assumptions about urban street photography.
Faye Robson is an editor of illustrated books, currently based in London, UK. She has worked on photobooks for publishers including Aperture Foundation, New York and Phaidon Press, London, and writes a photo-blog called PLATE.