new york times magazine
ASSIGNMENT: TIMES SQUARE
May 18, 1997
By Michael Kimmelman
Mary Ellen Mark

The most famous photograph of Times Square is surely Alfred Eisenstaedt’s chestnut of the kissing couple, which summed up the national mood in 1945 because it combined all the right elements: the returning soldier, the woman who welcomed him back and Times Square, the crossroads that symbolizes home.

Some people were upset to learn that Eisenstaedt may have staged the kiss, as if this somehow invalidated the image. The picture had first been published in life, which meant that it was assumed to document what happened serendipitously at the instant the shutter clicked. Of course, all photographs are contrived to the degree that the photographer chooses the image, framing what is to be in and out of it, and Eisenstaedt, to ensure he’d get the effect he wanted, simply recreated for the camera what was taking place around him anyway. But, if so, he still broke the pact between photojournalism and viewer, creating something that tended towards fiction or theater. In a strange way it was true at least to the spirit of Times Square, the epicenter of Broadway.

That was then. If you want to see where photography is now, take a look in this issue at Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s own version of a man and a woman embracing in the square. DiCorcia lights his scenes so that the images look unreal, as if the figures were actors and their encounters staged. But the event in this picture really was caught by chance, which is to say that diCorcia's approach is essentially opposite to Eisenstaedt's: he has taken a photograph of a spontaneous meeting in Times Square and made it look fake. The viewer's surprise in this case comes from discovering that the picture isn't fiction or theater.

This week's Magazine is dedicated to new photography; its theme is Times Square. The infatuation of photographers with the square must be almost as old as the square itself and no wonder: It has been the perfect place for the dramas and encounters that make great pictures, whether in the happy honky‑tonk of the area's glamour days, decades ago, when the neon lights really were the brightest on Broadway, or more recently, when squalor and crime overtook the area and the facades of the great theaters of the 1890's along 42d Street disappeared behind porn‑parlor marquees.

Now the area is undergoing another transformation: the porn shops have been gradually forced out to make way for megastores and skyscrapers, and the theaters have been refurbished for family entertainment. Cleaned up or sanitized, the neighborhood has dearly been altered as well by a spate of billboards and light displays, which in the square's new corporate spirit flash the latest stock prices rather than the names of stars on the Broadway stages.

It happens that from their office windows overlooking 43d and 44th Streets, the Magazine's editors get a bird's‑eye view of Times Square, and concluded that the changes there would make a good match for an issue devoted to photography today. Just about every young artist now takes photographs, partly because photography lends itself to the preoccupations of the moment in the art world, including narrative, sex and a brand of surrealism that has to do not with some imaginary universe but, as diCorcia's pictures illustrate, with the oddness and unbelievability of everyday life. Times Square of course, has always been linked with sex and surrealism, and still is, even with its new scrubbed face.

This issue includes what might be called various photographic strategies, real, surreal and otherwise. The old wall separating traditional documentary photography from art photography has dearly come down ‑ for better and worse, meaning that too many artists today think their snapshots are art just because they took them, and too many photojournalists seem to forget that documentary photography done well is art already and needn't be gussied up with artsy touches to make it so. Then again, there are photographers like diCorcia who now move easily between documentary and art photography and understand the distinctive merits of each.

Kathy Ryan, the Magazine's photo editor, assigned 19 photographers along the documentary‑art continuum to turn their cameras on various aspects of the square; the goal was not to tell the whole story of the redevelopment of the area, nor the entire story of contemporary photography, but to show the same subject through many sets of eyes, as well as to demonstrate an equivalent range of approaches to photography, sometimes even within the same format. Thus Chuck Close and Richard Burbridge both made black‑and‑white close‑up portraits, Close of current Broadway stars and Burbridge of Times Square power players, who lately are architects, developers and Disney moguls. The differences between Close's and Burbridge's portraits demonstrate what Ryan was aiming at: Close's are straight and dignified and Burbridge's are a screw cross between "Dick Tracy" comics and official Soviet portraiture, with Michael Eisner looking uncannily like a mouse.

This issue also encompasses Edward Keating’s documentary pictures of lost souls on 42d Street, the outcome of a night's prowl with his camera, and the conceptual work of Thomas Demand, who never even set foot in the square. Demand recreates old newspaper photographs, and in this case began with a picture from The Times's archives of a room in a massage parlor, which he rebuilt so that he could photograph its reconstruction to match the original image, except big and in color rather than in black and white. His strange work becomes a meditation on spontaneity and truth, two of photography's presumptive traits, and also on the history of the square: the massage parlor in The Times photo was shut down by the police in a campaign to clean up the neighborhood during the 1970's.

It's often said that the latest clean‑up is turning one of the city's distinctive places into a theme park of itself and the multiplying chain stores and chain hotels are clearly bad omens. Still, one wonders how many of the people romanticizing the square's seamy side actually live there. The women in Annie Leibovitz's photographs do. Not so many years ago the Times Square Hotel, an S.R.O. where several of these women have had apartments for decades, was a dangerous place. Now, spruced up, it's a dignified residence for hundreds of low‑income people, and you can see from Leibovitz's pictures the pride that these women have taken in making it a home. Times Square is their neighborhood and they are its true experts, more than the flâneurs who come to slum in it.

But the place would not be what it is without both. Lyle Ashton Harris set up his camera on the stage of an abandoned theater and asked strangers off the street to pose together. He also assembled employees from neighborhood businesses, like the soldiers from the recruiting station in the middle of the square, and shot them staring straight ahead, heedless, it seems, of the woman off the street who, Zelig‑like, is stuck into the middle of their group portrait. Harris's point is an obvious one: to show the stew of people, tourists and regulars, rich and poor, who have always come together in Times Square.

A few photographers try to make art of the faded splendor of the area's decayed buildings and signs, a nostalgic art lamenting the changes taking place. People cringe at recent additions like the ersatz 1940's‑theme diner at a corner of 43d Street. But they may forget that Times Square has always embraced inauthenticity, which, like the long‑gone and well‑remembered movie theaters made to resemble Moorish and Egyptian palaces, comes to seem genuine in retrospect. It's fitting that a branch of Madame Tussaud's is due to open in 1999, another chain business, true but one that's about artifice, which is the basic currency of Times Square. Its wax reproductions are a quaint kind of virtual reality compared to the new video‑game version shown in Mitch Epstein's photograph of what looks like a rifleman popping out of a tank turret.

I suspect that the square will remain, as it has always been, untamable, even by Disney: One remarkable photograph in this issue, from the conceptual end, is Abelardo Morell's, which at first glance isn't easy to grasp. It's an elaborate example of camera obscura, the pre‑photographic technique, as old as the Renaissance in which inverted images, mostly of the outdoors, are projected through a small hole onto a surface. Artists used to trace these images. Morell has photographed his, as homage to the history of his craft and a tribute to its magic. At the same time, his work shows the magic of Times Square, its trick of triumphing over even the blandest addition to it. The picture shows a stripped‑down room in the Marriott Marquis Hotel, anonymity itself, except for the unmistakable view of the jostling signs along Broadway that the camera obscura casts onto its walls. Flipped, the signs turn the room into a kind of dream space.

Michael Kimmelman is the chief art critic of The Times.


225Z-071-013
April 4, 1997, 1:09 P.M.: Outside the New Victory Theater on 42d Street.

MARY ELLEN MARK
DISNEYLAND, N.Y.C.

For Mary Ellen Mark, a documentary photographer accustomed to becoming deeply involved with her subjects over time, the freedom of wandering around Times Square for a few days "really opened me up to street photography." The longtime New Yorker says: "I was walking by the same characters and getting to know the people in the neighborhood. It is an incredible place, full of life and strangeness." Though she loves to focus on what she calls the "edges of the city" she takes issue with artists who find romanticism in New York's grimy regions. "It is terrible to be homeless, and there is nothing charming about living in squalor," she says. 'Times Square will have a loss of edge, yet it is being replaced by a clean‑cut sort of American squalor that is less visual but still has a real energy."

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