Looking northeast from the rooftop terrace of the Whitney.
The new home of the Whitney Museum of American Art stands in what's left of the meatpacking district, looking out over Greenwich Village, to the east, and the Hudson River, to the west. The grassy aerial greenway known as the High Line, built on an elevated former train track, begins here, three blocks south of 14th Street at Gansevoort, and runs north all the way to 34th. Last spring, we walked south on the High Line from that northern end, and noticed the new museum building in the distance, its rooftop terrace dotted with tiny people leaning out over the railings to look at the city: we wanted to be there too.
So, on an extremely hot day three months later, we took the subway from Brooklyn to 14th Street and walked toward this new urban landmark. We entered the cool air of the museum, bought our admission tickets, and immediately took the elevator to the top floor; there was just enough time to take some photographs before the rain began falling hard enough to drive us back inside.
We had come to see the new building and the views it affords, but also for a retrospective show of photographs by Danny Lyon, an early practitioner of street photography who has steadfastly maintained his 60s politics and counter-culture philosophies, right down to his refusal to use a digital camera.
At the entrance to the exhibition, J. and I drifted apart; we both like to see exhibitions at our own pace. My first impression was that this was a strangely-hung show, lightly-curated (always OK with me) and somewhat difficult to follow (rather less OK.) Gradually I understood the loosely-chronological groupings of work, and spent time with certain periods and photographs I liked the most, such as the portrait below.
Leslie, Downtown Knoxville, 1967
Lyon is perhaps best known for his photographs of Hell's Angels bikers, and for the series of images he took of the Texas prison system, where he became friendly with several inmates and was able to make intimate pictures that eventually became collected into a book. He has never been an excellent printer, and the silver prints in this exhibition were of uneven quality; his focus is on the content and what he is trying to say. Some of the prints from his personal archive include borders on which he has written commentary in black and red ink, going all the way around the central image. I found myself reading all of these, because they gave me insight into his thoughts and emotions, his humor, and his sense of the absurd and tragic. Always documenting in order to preserve something he cares about - as in a series of images of a part of lower Manhattan that was demolished - or to show the humanity of his subjects, what came through most strongly in the show was Lyons' sympathy to the poor and disregarded, and unwavering commitment to his own values over a lifetime of work.
The image below was one that I found particularly arresting. The use of white against dark, and the repetitive postures reminded me of the work of Diego Rivera, though Rivera was trying to glorify the labor of the common worker, while Lyons was showing us the labor of Texas convicts. Next to this image was a photograph of an inmate unconscious in the back of a truck, a victim of heat stroke after hours spent picking cotton under the relentless, indifferent sun.
The Cotton Pickers, Ferguson Unit, Texas, 1968.
Jonathan and I found each other, talked, floated apart again. He was having a similar reaction to the exhibition, but for him it was more personal. Lyon was both an icon of a particular type of photography that they shared, and a rough contemporary. His was a different life, based on different choices, but there were similarities too. If we hadn't married, I mused, J. might have had a career much more like this; the raw edges and grit and obsessive dedication were what he gave up in order to build a life with me. He was a better technical photographer and printer than Lyon, and he had had a clear vision and style at a very young age; in fact one of his own best photographs had been taken close to here in his early twenties, on the abandoned West Side Drive after part of it had collapsed, the new World Trade Center towers in the background.
J.'s first invitation to me, almost forty years ago, had been to come up to his place and look at some photography. As we got to know each other, much of our conversation revolved around that subject. He showed me the work of contemporary photographers he admired - Gary Winogrand, Bruce Davidson, Emmet Gowin, Danny Lyon - as well as older masters like Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston, Disfarmer, Dorothea Lange, Paul Strand, Josef Sudek, and taught me how to look at images. I talked to him about design and art; our eyes developed along with our relationship, and we became each other's most trusted critic. Over the years we have gone to many exhibitions together, and even though I was more of a talker and commenter, and he was more the quiet observer whose astute comments would usually emerge later, we developed a pattern of looking and discussing that suited us both, and fed us and our work together and as individuals. We built a communication and design business, and set our own artistic practices aside for a time, while other people -- like Lyon -- struggled to sell prints and make books.
I thought of all of this as I finished looking at the last group of pictures, and went to sit in a quiet white room overlooking the river. Jonathan came and found me there, and we walked together through the museum toward the roof, where the sun was again shining on an even steamier city.
Photography has changed, and people too.
At one pole you have this older tradition of photography-as-high-art, in which photographers who have passed through certain critical filters are exhibited and collected; even those who were once on the fringes like Lyons are now the subject of museum retrospectives. At another pole, photographers are pushing the art forward on new platforms like Instagram, where we view hundreds of images each day, and where our eyes continue to develop into new ways of seeing. The photobook, once the province of specialized gate-keeper publishers, is now possible for anyone to create. Meanwhile, photography and the masses have become welded together in an often-narcissistic symbiosis, through digital technology that is available to nearly everyone.
"Shall we eat on the terrace, or what would you like to do?" he asked.
"No, too precious, and I'm really hungry," I said. "Let's go get something at one of the Arab food trucks in front."
The sleek elevator whooshed down to the ground floor, and we walked outside, where we ordered two hamburgers and a banana-mango smoothie, and stood on the sidewalk to wait for our food. I slipped my arm around J.'s waist. "Do you have regrets?" I asked, after a few minutes.
"No," he said. "It was more important to me to have what we've had."
"But we have some more time now."
"Yes." He smiled, and after we ate, we stopped at a cafe for a coffee, and then walked all the way to West 4th, taking pictures.