Only Paris's photographers have invested as much of their art in memorializing their city as New York's photographers have. Although Paris now has several institutions devoted to displaying photographic art, New York has more, and had them earlier. (When it comes to commercial galleries, there is no contest: We beat everybody.) Two of New York's most important institutional venues of photography — one past, one present — meet in the New York Public Library's exhibition "Making the Scene: the Midtown Y Photographic Gallery, 1972–1996," which opens tomorrow.
The show of close to 200 items is housed in the 42nd Street library's stately D. Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall, with its marble floors, beaux-arts architectural details, and spectacular carved wooden ceiling. The Midtown Y Photographic Gallery wasn't so fancy: It was in the second-floor hallway of the Young Men'sYoung Women's Hebrew Association on 14th Street between First and Second avenues. The building was totally undistinguished architecturally, the walls were a pedestrian pale green, and commercial fluorescent fixtures provided the lighting, but there was a constant thrum of activity. Fliers announced programming for everyone, and there was always lots going on.
The Midtown Y Photographic Gallery was founded in 1972 by Larry Siegel with the help of Robert Menschel. By that time, the Museum of Modern Art had put on several important photography exhibits, and there were a few adventurous private galleries trying to convince the public that photographic prints were worth buying, but the Y was the first nonprofit organization with space devoted to exhibiting photography. In the '80s, my wife had several plays produced by the Jewish Repertory Theatre, which was also at the Y, so I was in the building frequently and made a point of visiting the gallery when I was there. It was a new experience, to know that you would always be able to see interesting photographs, well printed and matted, and hung in an orderly arrangement. It was a treat.
As marvelous as the Y was for me as a member of the public, it was an important infrastructural addition to the city's culture of photography, and critical in the development of many careers. The first two exhibitions in the spring of 1972 were of work by W. Eugene Smith and Berenice Abbott, photographers who were well established, even famous. But after that, the gallery emphasized work by emerging artists. Many of the photographers who had their first, or one of their first, exhibitions at the Y went on to substantial careers, and it is interesting to see their early work on display again at the library. Among the "names" in the current exhibition are Saul Leiter, Graciela Iturbide, Arthur Leipzig, Gordon Parks, John Vachon, Todd Weinstein, Aaron Siskind, Louis Stettner, Bill Aron, Dawoud Bey, Rebecca Lepkoff, Ed Grazda, Peter Hujar, Roy Colmer, Abelardo Morell, Larry Fink, Bruce Gilden, and Jeff Mermelstein. This is an impressive list.
Not everybody Larry Siegel and the gallery's two subsequent directors, Sy Rubin and Michael Spano, exhibited became famous. Most, in fact, did not. But it is important for any art that there be a place where new work is made available for public scrutiny and where artists can experience the thrill of approbation, as well as hazard the despair of rejection. It is part of the process, and during a critical period in the current development of photography as an art, the Midtown Y was that place. It is a credit to the gallery's directors that so much of the work by photographers who are not well known still looks so good after so many years.
Some of the pictures in "Making the Scene" were taken far from 14th Street. There is, for example, Arthur Leipzig's heartrending "Death of an Infant, Jungle Hospital, Honduras" (1962), and Nathan Farb's comic "Man With Fur Belt Buckle," which was part of "Soviets: Photographs of the Russian People," an exhibition in November 1978. But overwhelmingly, the pictures are of New York and New Yorkers. I don't think this is parochialism; it's just that there's so much to shoot so close at hand, why go anywhere else?
The Midtown Y Gallery opened just as Mayor John Lindsay was presiding over New York's bankruptcy. People fled, the Bronx burned, graffiti became psychotic, it was not a pretty city: Much of that is visible in these pictures. Toby Old's contribution to the 1983 exhibition "Brooklyn Bridge, the 100th Anniversary" shows the fabulous bridge in the background and a totaled car — windows smashed, wheels askew, hood crumpled — in the foreground. Michael Uffer's "Untitled" (c. 1980) shows a band onstage at a scruffy music venue; a girl wearing saddle shoes dances in the foreground and looks too young to be out at night, a man in the requisite denim jacket plays electric guitar, light glistens off the chrome of the mike stand, and a man lies drunk on the stage, his legs draped over its edge. Malcolm Barker's "Anti War Demonstration" (1971) shows a vast crowd in Central Park demanding the people of Indochina be abandoned to communist repression.
"Making the Scene" has a section with 48 pictures by Sy Rubin from the "14th St." documentary project he and Larry Siegel shot in the late 1970s and early '80s. It might be Desolation Row, but you can see Klein's on the Square, Mays Department Store, the Palladium, Lüchow's, and the meat district when it still sold meat. Other sections show a more enduring New York: Bruce Gilden's expansive, sunburned Coney Island bosom, Susan Unterberg's snappish, chromogenic dogs, and Patrick D. Pagnano's troubled bleached blonde shot with an MTA bus in the background.
History caught up to the Midtown Y Gallery, and it closed in 1996. Two years later, its archives were bequeathed to the New York Public Library. The curator of the photography collection, Stephen Pinson, who last year organized an exhibition about the Photo League, organized "Making the Scene," one institution's homage to another, in the chain of institutions that makes New York, in Max Kozloff's phrase, the capital of photography.
Tomorrow until September 16 (Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, 212-869-8089).
Correction from April 27, 2007:
"Making the Scene: The Midtown Y Photography Gallery, 1972-1996" is the name of the exhibit opening at the New York Public Library. Saul Leiter, Graciela Iturbide, Gordon Parks, John Vachon, Rebecca Lepkoff, Bill Aron, and Jeff Mermelstein exhibited their work at the Midtown Y. The name of the exhibit and the photographers' connection with the exhibit were misstated in a review on page 15 of yesterday's New York Sun.