Eight Striking Images Of New York City Through The Decades

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Eight Striking Images Of New York City Through The Decades

Words by Ms Rosalind Jana

3 October 2021

New York is a city that has been relentlessly documented. You are familiar with its streets and skyline even if you’ve never been there. Ever since the advent of the portable camera, New York has exerted a powerful visual presence, which has been captured by residents and visitors alike. This autumn, three exhibitions focus on photographers who have pictured the city and its shifting population.

Mr Jamel Shabazz’s Prospect Park: An Oasis In Brooklyn (until 21 December) is a site-specific exhibition in the park itself, which joyfully documents the community that has enjoyed its greenery. Vivian Maier at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris (until 16 January 2022) takes a closer look at the great American street photographer. Mr Bruce Davidson gets an outing at Magnum Photos’ new Paris gallery in October, his work presented in conversation with fellow New Yorker and photographer Mr Khallik Allah.

As these exhibitions get under way and New York opens up to visitors once more, we celebrate with eight iconic photos of the city.


“New York, NY”, June 1954, by Ms Vivian Maier

Ms Vivian Maier was an unassuming nanny who roamed the streets of New York with her camera. Her extraordinary body of documentary photography wasn’t discovered until 2007, two years before her death. Although many of her most famous images were taken in Chicago, she also documented New York, where she was born. Her photos are skilfully composed and slyly observed. In this shot from 1954, a fire hydrant offers anarchic reprieve from the heat.


“New York City Subway Platform”, 1980, by Mr Bruce Davidson

Mr Bruce Davidson once called the New York subway “a great social equaliser”. The American photographer became a member of Magnum Photos in 1958 and spent decades documenting subcultures and social movements, from biker gangs to civil rights protests. His Subway series from the 1980s, which captures New Yorkers in transit, is visceral and unvarnished. Many of these portraits exist in graffitied gloom. Others linger at platform level, quietly observing those absorbed in their own worlds.


“Four Degrees Of Separation”, 1997, by Mr Jamel Shabazz

The camera can be used to distance yourself from people or bring you into close conversation with them. Street photographer Mr Jamel Shabazz grew up in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and his work forms an intimate dialogue with his subjects, capturing the style and attitude of his community. His camera, he says, has always been “used as a tool for black liberation”. This photo, taken in Coney Island in 1997, observes four separate telephone conversations happening in tandem.


New York City, 1968, by Mr Joel Meyerowitz

“We loved watching the play of light on Fifth Avenue and how it gave meaning to things,” writes Mr Joel Meyerowitz of his early days with fellow photographer Mr Garry Winogrand in his book Where I Find Myself. Born in the Bronx, Meyerowitz made a name for himself capturing the exchanges, characters and heated moments he observed as he wandered New York’s streets. His work is sprightly and sprawling and often revels in the unexpected. This picture from 1968 captures a world of motion dominated by bright colours against grey buildings.


From Taxi: Journey Through My Windows, 1977–1987 by Mr Joseph Rodriguez

There’s something exhilarating about seeing the city from a car. Shops, people and bright lights form a constantly changing ribbon of sights, a slice of life caught in the blink of an eye. Brooklyn-born Mr Joseph Rodriguez worked as a taxi driver for eight years before becoming a photographer. Interested in the sheer variety of customers he picked up – families, sex workers, clubgoers – he turned his lens on them. In other shots the camera is directed outwards and passers-by are framed by the car’s interior.


New York, 2005 by Mr Amani Willett

Mr Amani Willett’s work is driven by memory and an acute awareness of space and often features meditations on the relationship between American history and contemporary culture. The Brooklyn-based photographer’s Street series focuses on the experience of being in a crowd, whether arrested in the midst of a current or swept along by commuters. “New York” (2005) is no exception. In a sea of dark jackets, a woman is almost spot-lit, lips pursed as she navigates the bustle.


“New York”, 2017, by Mr Andre D Wagner

Street photographer Mr Andre D Wagner’s work always comes back to a question of narrative. How do you tell other people’s stories? He works primarily in black and white, his eye both poetic and political, always alert to the most telling details. He is in the process of compiling New City, Old Blues, his latest monograph, which offers a meditation on the experience of being black in New York. This portrait from 2017 is characteristically full of energy; youth in the foreground contrasted with receding age.


“Taxi”, New York, 1957 by Mr Saul Leiter

Mr Saul Leiter specialised in surfaces – figures blurred by condensation, faces caught through café windows, fragments of the city reflected in glass. An early pioneer of colour photography, he spent most of his life in the East Village and lived in the same apartment from 1952 until his death in 2013. “Taxi” (1957) is typical of his approach to street photography. A hand slides by, framed by vivid yellow. We know nothing about the car’s occupant. A glimpse is enough.

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