Having never been to New York, it is a city that I can only picture and there is ample cultural material to fuel the imagination. New York is a city whose reputation precedes it, a city submerged in its own mythology. Fairytale myth gushes forth from a wishing well of dreams of the rags-to-riches type, where an everyday Jewish immigrant like Andy Warhol, or a foster child like Marilyn Monroe, can rise to super-stardom.
Through pictures upon pictures generated through visual art, the media, television and Hollywood, New York comes alive in the mind. The early days of the 20th century saw photography as the key medium to grow in tandem with and document the volcanic rise of a megacity. New York's moments of glory and shame were captured by the camera's eye.
The photographs of that era tell of a city on the move, a skyscraper-dotted urbanity caught up in waves of modernisation, with all the details of everyday life, from the mass of shoes pounding Wall Street, to the sad faces of immigrants living in squalid conditions, to the dizzying heights from atop architectural wonders.
Picturing New York on display at the Art Gallery of WA, presents such details and more, as the second in a series of shows bound for AGWA, drawn from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The time period visualised spans the 20th century, with spillover either side. It was an eventful century described as the "age of extremes" by historian Eric Hobsbawm, which has given way to today's global neo-liberalist state of affairs. New York has certainly seen its fair share of extremities and intensities, as one of the most densely and diversely populated locales of the 20th century.
Picturing New York communicates this to an extent, through such images as the delirious crowds of Coney Island and the striking architectural vistas. However, the dominant visual language presents a comfortable middle ground, seen in the sporting scenes, portraiture of well-to-do and celebrity folk, the bustle of corporate life and the glitz and glam of nightlife.
What is barely touched on are the more intimate scenes of New York as a harsh and grimy city, racked by social inequities and humanitarian depravity.
Picturing New York is a selective picture of a city caught up in its own photogenic allure. As such it generates a particular ambience and takes the viewer on a mostly black-and-white journey through a city on the rise to becoming a capital of culture and progress, a global power.
On a more logistical level, the images presented might be generous in quantity and quality, yet there is paucity in scale. In the current visual culture, defined by a lust for bigger and higher- resolution imagery, seeing these diminutive prints is quaint but somewhat unsatisfying. Close proximity to the art is necessary to fully appreciate this show and I wonder if a coffee table book might yield greater satisfaction.
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