Hitting the New York Note

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Even before September 11, 2001, my wife appreciated the competence and bravery of the men in New York City’s Fire Department. Whenever she passed a parked fire engine or the open door of a firehouse, she would call out “Thank you,” not because the men had ever done anything for her, but because she knew in an emergency they would. Jill Freedman, whose work makes up half of the “New York City: Two Photographers – Five Decades” exhibition at PhotoGraphic Gallery, certainly understands my wife’s impulse.

There are four pictures from Ms. Freedman’s book “Firehouse” (1977) among her 39 black-and-white works on display. Like all her pictures, these demonstrate her technical skill as a photojournalist, her wide-ranging feeling for people, and her appreciation for the urban bizarre.

“Brothers” (1976) is an image of two men in full firefighter’s regalia – black rubber coats with reflector strips, metal helmets, high rubber boots, oxygen tanks – kissing each other on the mouth. The meaning that a picture of two men kissing would otherwise have is transformed by the firefighting paraphernalia and the broken window of the apartment house behind them. Instead of sexual passion, it is about fraternal relief at having escaped mortal danger.

“New Skyline With Fire Engines and Chief” (1976) is prophetic. The back of an engine occupies the foreground to the right. The street is covered with hoses, among which stands a firefighter to the left. The street beyond is hazy with smoke; the twin towers of the World Trade Center loom in the background. However dramatic the picture may have been when it was taken, subsequent history layers it with resonance: the events of September 11, 2001, are a fate the FDNY does not yet know is waiting for it.

Weegee, not destiny, is the moving spirit of “Harlem, 5 am” (1976). At the bottom of the picture, firemen with plastic face shields and flashlights emerge from the basement entrance to an apartment building. On the stairs above the entrance stands a crowd of amused spectators drawn by the early-morning excitement. The disparity between the professional determination of the men below and the frolicsome attitude of the civilians reprises one of Weegee’s signature tropes.

Ms. Freedman was born in Pittsburgh in 1939. Her work, widely published and exhibited, includes extended essays on Ireland, the aftermath of the Holocaust, and civil rights protests in Washington, D.C., but the Photo-Graphic show focuses on her pictures taken in New York in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Again and again she hits the New York note, that combination of paradox and pathos, of the tawdry and the supernally beautiful, that fills New Yorkers with pride and despair, and that all of us recognize as our own.

Photographs of Paul Manship’s “Prometheus” above the skating rink at Rockefeller Center have become a visual cliche, but Ms. Freedman’s “Fire and Ice” (1972) juxtaposes the golden thief with a couple ice-dancing; the man whizzes by holding the woman horizontally on his knees so that her posture sympathetically echoes the statue’s. A man on a horse in a traditional riding habit trots past two men idling on the steps of a boarded-up apartment house in “Gentrification” (1966). The Doberman pinscher tearing at us with demonic eyes in “Flying Dobie” (1984) might be anywhere except that the awning of the deli in the background means it must be New York.

In “Crazy Salad” (1980), a cop poses on the sidewalk next to a man in a 10-foot carrot costume. In “Naked City” (1981),a man getting on in years and incongruously bereft of clothes pushes on a revolving door at the bronze entrance to a building. In “Happy Hitmen” (1971), a man of about 30 in a dark suit and tie dances with exaggerated arm gestures down the steps of a cathedral while four other men – all wearing shades – clap and sing. So weird, so familiar.

Arthur Lavine’s photographs of New York in the 1940s and ’50s make up the other half of the show at Photo-Graphic. Like Ms. Freedman, Mr. Lavine is a photojournalist whose work appeared in most of the leading journals of his time; he had a picture in Edward Steichen’s 1955 “Family of Man” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Mr. Lavine was the chief photographer for the Chase Manhattan Bank for 22 years, and he produced a valuable documentary record of the introduction of computers into the work space. (And he took what must be the most beautiful photographs extant of Trenton, N.J., where he was born in 1922.)

As befits someone who came of age during the Depression, Mr. Lavine’s work expresses an appreciation for work and simple pleasures. “Coffee House, Greenwich Village” (1954) will fill anyone who was lucky enough to know the Village from that period with nostalgia. We look in through an open door to the black-and-white checkered tile floor and a row of intimate tables at which the customers sit on classic ice-cream chairs. It is not yet the artsy coffee house of poetry recitations and folk music, and certainly not a corporately designed Starbucks: It is a place for neighbors to meet over a cup of java, or where a fellow can read the paper while he eats a satisfactory meal. “Woman Reading on Rooftop, Lower East Side” (1951) is about the gratifications of solitude and literacy in the humblest of settings.

“Men at Scales, Fulton Fish Market” (1952) and “Men at Pushcart, Lower East Side” (1951) seem to go out of their way to avoid high drama, and give us instead an intimate sense of daily routines. “Orchard Street” and “Man in Front of Store,” both shot on the Lower East Side in 1951, also deal with the quotidian, although the kichel and the enormous loaves of pumpernickel in the store window look like they would be worth a trip downtown to buy.

“People Watching Election Night Returns, Times Square” (1952) neatly sums up Mr. Lavine’s ethos. Here concerned citizens – decent folk dressed with propriety and armed with cameras – stare up, presumably at the illuminated Times newsreader, trying to glean their future.

Until August 13 (252 Front Street, between Dover Street and Peck Slip, 212-393-9191).

The New York Sun

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