New York is one of those cities that most of us feel we know something about even if we've never been there. We've seen it represented so often in cinema, television, and photography that most of us can identify its major landmarks at a glance - there's the Chrysler Building, this is what a New York cab looks like.
But a city as diverse and multi-faceted as New York can never be entirely "known", even by the people who have lived there all their lives. Perhaps that's why so many have been drawn to photographing its people, places and spaces - to try to capture some essence of this teeming, ever-changing metropolis. The impulse has been there for as long as photography has been in existence.
The follow-up exhibition to the Art Gallery of WA's very successful Picasso to Warhol exhibition, and the second in its series drawn from The Museum of Modern Art, is Picturing New York, a photographic survey of the Big Apple ranging from the late 19th century through to 2005.
More than 150 works will be on display, presenting a fascinating history of a city and a timeline of great photographers, from early 20th century pioneers such as Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz through to Berenice Abbott, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus and more recent names such as Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin.
"In many ways it's the story of the evolution of photography," says project curator Lucy Harper. "Alongside that, we're looking at the development of New York as this great modern urban centre."
MoMA opened in late 1929. Its founder, Alfred H. Barr, was determined that photography would form part of its collection, not just the more established, "classical" forms of painting and sculpture. While a photography department as such wasn't established until 1940, with Beaumont Newhall as its curator, the MoMA held numerous photographic exhibitions throughout the 1930s, including shows devoted to such disparate subjects as dada and surrealist photography, mural art and 19th century housing.
"The photography archive at MoMA now runs to about 25,000 works - it's enormous and one of the greatest collections in the world, so it's fantastic that we are able to show a selection of that work in Perth," Harper says.
Some of the biggest names in photographic history are included in the MoMA photography collection: Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, to name just a few. But in the beginning, as they say, there was Stieglitz.
"Stieglitz is often referred to as the father of modern photography," Harper explains. "He was a key figure in discussing its aesthetic and artistic possibilities, because in the late 19th and very early 20th century it possibly wasn't regarded as a fine art. Together with Edward Steichen he opened the 291 Gallery in New York - the first gallery in the city devoted entirely to photography."
The big question, as modernist photographer Berenice Abbott once put it, is: "How shall the two-dimensional print in black and white suggest the flux of activity of the metropolis, the interaction of human beings and solid architectural constructions, all impinging upon each other in time?"
"That's what's so beautiful about this exhibition - I've worked with this material for seven or eight months now and I still see things in the photographs that I might not have noticed before," Harper laughs.
"Through these photographs, you're getting to know the landmarks - the Brooklyn Bridge, The Empire State Building - but there are many other nooks and crevices and viewpoints that aren't so familiar, so you're really seeing it from such a diverse range of angles. With the development of the hand-held camera in the late 1930s and 1940s, for example, street photography really began to pick up. The way photographs could be taken was changing, so what you're seeing of the city shifts as well."
The rise of modern(ist) photography and the rise of modern New York, with its shiny deco skyscrapers of the 1930s, went hand-in-hand. The much-photographed Chrysler Building, for example, defined modern New York's aspirational, sky's-the-limit mood, signalling a city moving into the future.
But there is a flipside to that gloss and glamour: the gritty subway system, the down-and-out districts, poverty and the Bowery. Highly formal, composed shots of architecture sit alongside fly-on-the-wall works; studio portraits hang next to photojournalistic reportage.
"The exhibition is largely chronological, just because of the story we're trying to tell of the city's evolution," Harper explains. "But within that, there are certain nodes and themes - New York at night, New York between the wars. Hopefully, whether subliminally or not, that will help the visitor to understand that progression and development."
Does Harper have her own favourites in the exhibition?
"It keeps changing, it really does," she laughs.
"I do love the photographs of the 1920s and 1930s because they are just so dramatic and the composition is incredible. But what I think is so successful and beautiful about this show is that there are just so many threads to it, so many different tangents - it celebrates New York in all its complex diversity. For people who have been there, it will be a lovely reminder; for those who haven't but want to, I've no doubt it will serve as a huge inspiration."Picturing New York: Photographs from The Museum of Modern Art runs from January 26 to May 12. Tickets and details: artgallery.wa.gov.au.
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