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On the Street: The New York School of Photographers

TUCSCON, AZ.- New York — its streets, attractions, people, energy and urban charm—is the focus of a new exhibition organized by the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona . Open through February 27, 2005, On the Street: The New York School of Photographers presents the work of such renowned as artists as Diane Arbus, Roy deCarava, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, William Klein, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Weegee, Garry Winogrand and others who lived and worked in New York in the twentieth century. They docu me nted the drama, turbulence, exoticism and humanity of this great me tropolis as it evolved in the crucial years from the economic crisis of the Depression through the social unrest of the early seventies.

CCP Director Douglas R. Nickel notes, “The Center for Creative Photography retains particularly strong holdings of works by the photographers of the New York School . This exhibition presents a wonderful opportunity to discover a set of shared interests and shared sensibilities among photographers who devoted themselves to New York as their subject in the middle part of the century.”

At the same time that the U.S. became a world power at the end of the nineteenth century, it also moved from being an agrarian society to an urban one. New York City emerged as the cultural capital of America . The Ashcan school of painters in the 1910s inaugurated a tradition in American art that took the everyday life of New York as the primary theme of their work. Simultaneously, the city became home to an increasing number of photographers, who also trained their eyes on the streets of this frenetic city. Many of these artists were immigrants, and many Jewish in background, who brought with them the intellectual and artistic traditions of Europe . At the same time, the social circumstances of the Depression era and its aftermath would inevitably factor in their work. Generally defiant and not given to “isms,” artists of the New York School betray an existential attitude in their work. Photographers such as the famous Weegee clearly put social realism — an effort to describe the city in blunt, human terms — at the top of their agendas.

To put the generation comprised by the New York School in context, this exhibition will also include an introductory gallery of photographers who worked in the city before the Great Depression. The New York images of Berenice Abbott, Paul Outerbridge, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Charles Sheeler were more utopian in character, often celebrating the city’s monuments — bridges and buildings — by framing them as symbols of progress and modernity. These artists adduce in their work the promise of the city, while the photographers later dubbed the “ New York School ” more often show us the fallout, that is, the shortcomings of this promise.

What is perhaps most striking about these images, however, is their often in-your-face intensity, which is achieved through the combination of subject and approach. The New Yorkers of these photographs distinguish themselves from the denizens of any other city in their dramatic extremes and appealing idiosyncrasies. Cockeyed camera angles, inexact focus and grainy exposures unbalance viewers at the same time that these techniques deliver us to the very center of the action. These were photographers who as a rule eschewed large-format cameras in favor of the small and portable, and they worked mostly with ambient light. As in the city itself, it’s sometimes hard to make out exactly what is happening in the pictures — everything seems to be happening so fast, the senses are overloaded. The shapes and contrasts of the people and the buildings, pitched at precarious angles, always in motion, are full of mystery.

Now that recent events have caused New York City to again emerge as the focus of the nation’s interest and a symbol of the United States, these photographs allow us to draw intriguing comparisons between the then and now of life on the city’s streets. At the same time they seem remarkably fresh, timeless, pertinent. This is work ripe for re-examination, full of rich avenues for contemporary viewers to explore.

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