Wednesday, May 28, 2008

'Eminent Domain: Contemporary Photography and the City' exhibition at The New York Public Library

One of the many hats I wear at my day job: I'm the publicist for an exhibition that opened on May 2 at The New York Public Library. If you're in the New York City area, Eminent Domain is definitely a worthwhile exhibition to check out. Here's the press release:

Disappearing Storefronts of the Lower East Side, Life with a Chinatown Family, and Views from the Unseen Edges of New York City Featured in Major Photography Exhibition at The New York Public Library

Five Contemporary Photographers Observe New York City’s Ongoing Evolution of Private and Public Urban Space in Eminent Domain: Contemporary Photography and the City – May 2 to August 29, 2008

Shifting views of public and private space through the cameras of five contemporary photographers reveal the constantly changing and often unfamiliar urban landscapes of New York City in Eminent Domain: Contemporary Photography and the City, an exhibition of more than 200 photographs at The New York Public Library.

Eminent Domain features the recent photographic projects of five New York-based artists that deal with the life of the city in terms of passage (of seasons and time, people and place) and exchange (between individual and collective, interior and exterior). The works, by Thomas Holton, Bettina Johae, Reiner Leist, Zoe Leonard, and Ethan Levitas, will be on view at The New York Public Library’s Humanities and Social Sciences Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street from May 2 to August 29, 2008. Admission is free.

“Turning on the nature of photography itself – which always complicates the relationship between public and private – all five projects resonate with current debates about the reorganized urban landscape, whether through the effects of gentrification, globalization, or municipal redevelopment,” said Stephen C. Pinson. exhibition curator and the Robert B. Menschel Curator of Photography, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs of The New York Public Library. “While none of the photographers’ works specifically address the legal concept of eminent domain – or the taking of private property for public use – all of the projects deal with the timely topic of the changing nature of space in New York City today. A photograph, after all, is a transaction between the private and the public that is negotiated through the taking of an image – a kind of eminent domain of the visual realm.”

Thomas Holton became very close with the Lam family in Chinatown, photographing the family of five living its everyday family life, at their apartment, school, and grocery market and even attending weddings and traveling to China and Hong Kong to visit relatives. Holton’s color photos of The Lams of Ludlow Street (2003-2005) are accompanied by Polaroid photos taken by the three Lam children, including their viewpoint as well as Holton’s empathetic perspective on being a Chinese family in New York City’s Chinatown. (image: Thomas Holton. Untitled from the series The Lams of Ludlow Street.)

Bettina Johae’s borough edges, nyc (2004-2007) includes color photographs, digital slideshows, and a new remapping of New York City’s five boroughs. While undertaking a total of 27 bike rides in all five boroughs (The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island), Johae photographed the perimeter of each borough along its farthermost accessible path, displaying areas seldomly seen or included in representations of New York City. A beautiful, abandoned shipyard is located among the green fields of Rossville, Staten Island; traditional houses perched upon garages are spotted in Manhattan’s Marble Hill; and an airplane is shown flying a little too close for comfort above a two-story house in Queens’ Warnerville/Rosedale neighborhood. (image: Bettina Johae. si_4888 rossville, staten island from the borough edges, nyc series.)

Reiner Leist offers a more intimate view of the city in his Window series (1995-present), using a nineteenth-century view camera to photograph the scene from his studio on the 26th floor of an office building on Eighth Avenue. Leist has taken a photograph daily since March of 1995 at varying times of the day. (If he was unable to take a photograph, the day is represented by a black print.) The series becomes an ongoing portrait of the subtle and radical changes in the New York City skyline that includes One Penn Plaza, Madison Square Garden, and until September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center. On display are the images taken on September 11-15 from 1995-2007, including September 12, 2001, which documented the day following the World Trade Center attack. (image: Reiner Leist. September 12, 2001 from the Window series.)

Zoe Leonard’s Analogue (1998-2007) is a lyrical documentation of the City’s slowly disappearing local character in the wake of a global economy. Although centered on the storefronts of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, the project also touches upon the route and destination of New York’s castoff clothing in the contemporary rag trade. As its name suggests, the series is also an elegy of sorts for a long-standing tradition of documentary photography, which Leonard sees passing with the onset of digital photography. The images on display comprise a portfolio of forty dye transfer prints, an increasingly rare process of color printing that is itself in jeopardy of obsolescence. (image: Zoe Leonard. Drop Off A.M., Pick Up P.M. from the Analogue series.)

Elevated subway cars from the J, M, and Z lines seem to be the subject in Ethan Levitas’s Untitled/This is just to say (2004-2007), but these color photographs also show passengers in various forms of private and public life: A man standing in between cars during a snowstorm smokes a cigarette; Hassidic Jews are engrossed in conversation; a woman staring directly at the camera seems to be the only passenger in an otherwise empty car. The trains become microcosms of the City as the project functions to collapse the distinction between our private and public selves. (image: Ethan Levitas. "#75" from the Untitled/This is just to say series.)

In addition to the five photographers’ works, artist Glenn Ligon contributes a personal written narrative about all of his New York City residences in Housing in New York: A Brief History (2007) which was commissioned for this exhibition. Ligon’s writings are interspersed throughout the exhibition space, reminding viewers that behind the (now) public images lie myriad personal and private stories.

The exhibition is presented in The New York Public Library’s largest exhibition space at the landmark building on 42nd Street, and its design complements the photographers’ themes in creative ways: Ethan Levitas’s large images of subway cars are displayed on the space’s longest wall, side-by-side, replicating a subway train. Thomas Holton’s photographs of the Lam family are shown in a semi-enclosed space reminiscent in size of a small apartment. Reiner Leist’s images of the cityscape outside his window are shown as a selection of framed prints and as a larger group in a digital slideshow so that viewers can appreciate both the intimacy and the seriality of the project. Ten images from each borough of Bettina Johae’s landscapes are available for viewing through flipbooks attached to the wall, and five slideshows of images (one for each borough) are displayed next to Johae’s hand-drawn remapping of the city. Finally, works by each of the photographers are installed outside the exhibition space, in the more “public” spaces of the Library.

Stephen C. Pinson, exhibition curator and the Robert B. Menschel Curator of Photography, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs of The New York Public Library, acquired the materials on view after receiving funds from a benefactor specifically designated to purchase photographs that enhance the Library’s collection of New York City views from 1950 to the present day. Bettina Johae’s series borough edges, nyc (2004-2007) was the Photography Collection’s first digital acquisition. An online version of borough edges, nyc, also commissioned by The New York Public Library, will be available on the exhibition website at

Companion Volume

Edited by and including an introduction by curator Stephen C. Pinson, Eminent Domain: Contemporary Photography and the City features highlights from the five photographic projects presented in the exhibition. The book includes statements about their work from each of the photographers: Thomas Holton, Bettina Johae, Reiner Leist, Zoe Leonard, and Ethan Levitas. All of their projects intersect and resonate with current concerns about the reorganization of urban space, and its public use, in New York City. Also included as a counterpoint is artist Glenn Ligon’s literal narrative of his own housing in the city as a reminder that behind these (now) public images lie myriad personal and private stories. Published by The New York Public Library. 80 pages, 7 x 8 in., 70 images in color and b/w, eminent domain court case time line, suggested readings. $22.50. Softcover. ISBN 978-0-87104-460-0.

Books are available from The Library Shop at Fifth Avenue and 42 nd Street. Mail, phone, and Internet orders are accepted. For more information, call 212.930.0641 or visit

Curatorial Tours

Curatorial tours with exhibition curator Stephen Pinson are scheduled for Wednesday, May 14 at 11:15 a.m. and Friday, June 3 at 6:30 p.m. Tours are limited to 20 people. Register in advance via e-mail at or call 212.930.9284.

Docent Tours
Free public tours of Eminent Domain: Contemporary Photography and the City are conducted Monday through Saturday at 12:30 and 2:30 p.m.; and Sunday (through May 18) at 3:30 p.m. All group tours, including school groups, must be scheduled well in advance. Unauthorized tours are not permitted. To schedule a tour, call 212.930.0501. Group tours are $7 per person for adults ($5 for seniors); no charge for full-time students.

Additional Public Programs

Visit the exhibition website at for details about additional programs.
Other artists, photographers, and interested public are invited to participate in a collaborative, online project on the theme of eminent domain through a link on the exhibition website.

borough edges, nyc

A series of bike tours to selected edges of the five boroughs, led by photographer Bettina Johae. Each tour begins at 12 noon and will last approximately three hours. Rides will be at an easy pace and for all ages and fitness levels. Interested individuals should e-mail

May 11 – The Bronx

May 18 – Manhattan

June 1 – Queens

June 15 – Brooklyn

June 22 – Staten Island

Eminent Domain: Contemporary Photography and the City will be on view from May 2 through August 29, 2008 in the D. Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall at The New York Public Library’s Humanities and Social Sciences Library, located at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan. The exhibition is open during regular Library hours: Monday, Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m.; Sunday (through May 18), 1-5 p.m. Closed the following days: Saturday, May 24; Monday, May 26; Friday and Saturday, July 4 and 5. Admission is free. For more information, call 212.592.7730 or visit

About the Photography Collection
The Photography Collection of The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs comprises approximately 400,000 photographs, including examples of almost every photographic process from the earliest daguerreotypes to contemporary digital images.

The Photography Collection was developed in 1980 when images culled from other NYPL departments and branches were brought together to form a new division. The historically stated focus of the collection has been "documentary photography," a term originally coined in the 1930s to describe the work of photographers who attempted to document specific social conditions. The Photography Collection, which has significant holdings in this area, actually encompasses a much broader range of the medium, including images made for commercial, industrial, and scientific application as well as images for the press and other print media, the vernacular of amateur snapshot photography, and original works intended for exhibition and/or the art market.

Future collection activity and development will focus on fulfilling the department's role as the most accessible public resource in New York City for the study of photographs and the history of photography.

About The New York Public Library

The New York Public Library was created in 1895 with the consolidation of the private libraries of John Jacob Astor and James Lenox with the Samuel Jones Tilden Trust. The Library provides free and open access to its physical and electronic collections and information, as well as to its services. It comprises four research centers - the Humanities and Social Sciences Library; The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; and the Science, Industry and Business Library - and 87 Branch Libraries in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. Research and circulating collections combined total more than 50 million items. In addition, each year the Library presents thousands of exhibitions and public programs, which include classes in technology, literacy, and English as a second language. The New York Public Library serves over 16 million patrons who come through its doors annually and another 25 million users internationally, who access collections and services through its website,

Acquisition of works for this exhibition was made possible through the Estate of Leroy A. Moses, which provided funds to purchase photographs that enhance the Library's collection of New York City views from 1950 to the present day.

Support for this exhibition has been provided by the Lily Auchincloss Foundation, Inc., and by an anonymous contribution in honor of Elizabeth Rohatyn.

Additional support has been provided by
The L Magazine, the exhibition's Media Sponsor.

Support for The New York Public Library’s Exhibitions Program has been provided by Celeste Bartos, Mahnaz I. and Adam Bartos, Jonathan Altman, and Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

the genre of office urban exploration photography?

Over the weekend, Boing Boing, Laughing Squid, and other cool blogs linked to Phillip Toledano's Bankrupt series, in which the photographer took photos of recently abandoned offices. I first came across Toledano's work about a month and a half ago while searching for new discoveries of photo books. I wondered then if Bankrupt is related philosophically to urban exploration photography. I think it is, but the series still leaves me cold, and I haven't fully decided why: Is it because there is electricity on in the buildings? Has the building not actually been abandoned? Is it because I spend a good portion of my life in an office and don't regard these images as new, or perhaps different enough from me? Is it the fluorescent lighting? Is it Toledano's aesthetic style? Is it because the rooms' architectural styles are so dreary?

What do you think? Is Bankrupt a twice-removed cousin from "traditional" urban exploration photography? Why or why not? Does Toledano's work resonate with you?

The links:

Phillip Toledano's online version of his Bankrupt series at

Toledano's online version of Bankrupt at

statement from

Do these images "document the high cost of human failure"? (I'm not convinced.)

Is there an "unsettling, Pompeii-like stillness to recently abandoned offices"? (Eh, maybe? I'm indifferent. Convince me otherwise...)

Monday, May 26, 2008

Time Out New York carries the flashlight

Ars Subterranea was included in Time Out New York's "Extreme issue" a couple of issues ago. Billie Cohen from TONY, who wrote the first significant piece about Ars Subterranea in 2002, accompanied us on a daytime exploration. Since TONY is a NYC-based publication, the site had to be within the City's five boroughs.

Time Out New York / Issue 659 : May 14–20, 2008


We’re thrilled for you

Superheroes aren’t the only ones who can leap tall buildings, see in the dark or pummel evil opponents named Drunkin Janitur. In NYC, anyone can—even us.

Illustration: Thomas Pitilli (appearing in TONY).

Urban spelunking

View extreme photos of urban spelunking (Photos Cohen took of the exploration.)

I’m shining a flashlight down a long, dark tunnel. The beam settles on a staircase at the opposite end, seemingly a million miles away. Everything else is hidden in blackness, except for the dust swirling in front of me. “This is how horror movies start,” I say.

The group behind me laughs in polite acknowledgment of the newbie’s jitters. “We usually let the person who’s never done this go first,” my guide, Julia Solis, had said, as if she were giving me a Christmas present.

But it’s a gift I asked for. In this city, as in many others around the world, brave—and, some would argue, stupid—cadres of people climb, shimmy, tiptoe and probe through abandoned buildings, forgotten tunnels and forsaken ruins. They call themselves “urban explorers.” The ones I’ve sought out run a local arts organization called Ars Subterranea (, which (legally) presents exhibitions and events in deserted gems such as the old Long Island Railroad tunnel under Atlantic Avenue and the Bronx Borough Courthouse. “Ars Subterranea preserves forgotten architectural relics through creating experiences with sites or locations,” explains Gayle Snible, an explorer who also serves as the group’s publicity director.

Today we’re scouting a site for documentation purposes, and I am sworn to secrecy about the location to protect its integrity. What I can reveal is that it’s a complex of early-20th-century buildings. They are stately, with columned entries, brick facades and big windows, many sealed with cinder blocks. Solis warns me to be careful of the floors; often they are not solid. These, however, are—they’re just covered with layers of brick dust, debris and something that looks suspiciously like asbestos.

Dangers aside, the decay is at once haunting and elegant. “I have a preference for hospitals,” says Solis, Ars Subterranea’s founder. “If you want to see what it means to be human, they’re the best places. You can go to a museum, but in a hospital there’s nothing between you and reality.”

The complex we’re exploring today wasn’t that kind of institution, but we still see rusted bed frames and other evidence of past lives: in the basement, piles of discarded office chairs; in the long dormitory rooms, eroded radiator covers; in one cubby, small plastic football figures; and in a closet, shelves labeled DRESSING TRAYS and MORGUE PACK.

When I emerge from the closet, I don’t see anyone else. I beat back an eruption of terror, certain I’m going to get picked off by some dude from Hostel. But then I hear the rustling footsteps of my crew, each caught up in their own discoveries. One is awed by unbroken lightbulbs, Julia is drawn to staircases, and I find I have a thing for slivers of light shining through very dark spaces. As I build courage throughout the day, I turn off my flashlight to see where cracked walls, broken windows and roof holes let the sun sneak through.

When we finally emerge, I can’t believe it’s still daylight. The safety of noon hadn’t been tangible in the musty blackness inside, but now I hear kids playing ball at a nearby field and church bells ringing somewhere. I make a mental note about the fickleness of perception. Safe in the bright day, I feel pleased with myself, even a bit cocky. I can’t wait to go into the dark again. Although next time, I might bring a bigger flashlight. — Billie Cohen

-- and a couple of photos I took during our visit:

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Sound the Alarm

Wave Hill was moderately crowded today with visitors wanting to get away from the urban jungle for a short commune with nature. Here are a couple of photos of plants that I particularly enjoyed (the cacti greenhouse is surprisingly extensive):

It was good timing that I was able to see the current exhibition up in the Wave Hill Glyndor Gallery, Sound the Alarm: Landscapes in Distress (up through June 1). Featuring the work of eight artists, the exhibition "calls attention to the indelible impact of human activity on the environment from the Arctic to the Equator," according to the show's curators. Most of the work is interesting, although I only knew Edward Burtynsky's work by name beforehand. Travis Roozee tells a partial story of Centralia, Pennsylvania, a town I've wanted to visit for years now. (He also did a series called Rooftop Brooklyn that I remember, because it's about birds...Bushwick pigeons, to be specific.) Gilles Minasson's photo of teens ice hopping was simultaneously playful and sinister. Sergio Vega's images were interesting, factually, but there wasn't enough of it to be cohesive enough, and the inkjet print quality of his image "Jose Dias Soares Farm at Rochedo (field)" (2007) was distracting.

The find of the exhibition was the discovery of Sasha Bezzubov's Things Fall Apart series. Bezzubov documents the ruins of natural disasters. (Although this article states, too simplistically and mistakenly, that the natural disasters he documents are actually the result of man.) Bezzubov brings his vision to disaster photography, traveling to India (after the 2001 earthquake), Indonesia (after the 2005 tsunami), and California (after a 2003 wildfire). (He's also traveled to Missouri and Floria after hurricanes and to Utah after a wildfire, as seen on his website.)

at the Sound the Alarm exhibition: Sasha Bezzubov's "Wildfire #4, California" (2003) from the series Things Fall Apart.

not at the exhibition: Bezzubov's "Earthquake #1, India" (2001), also from the series Things Fall Apart.

The quality of Bezzubov's images are stunning, similar in style, but not subject matter, to Burtynsky's work. The brochure accompanying the exhibit states that there is an upcoming monograph for the series, and I anticipate it being appropriately breathtaking. (NOTE: If you spend time on Bezzubov's website, click on images twice to view the largest image size available, as the work definitely benefits from being viewed as large as possible.) It is also of note that although Bezzubov is working on a newer series, Things Fall Apart is still an active series of work. I wonder if he is currently in China or planning a trip in the immediate future to document the recent earthquake's after effects.