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Eminent Domain: Contemporary Photography and the City at New York Public Library

NEW YORK.- Shifting views of public and private space through the cameras of five contemporary photographers reveal the constantly changing and often unfamiliar urban landscapes of New York City in Eminent Domain: Contemporary Photography and the City, an exhibition of more than 200 photographs at The New York Public Library.

Eminent Domain features the recent photographic projects of five New York-based artists that deal with the life of the city in terms of passage (of seasons and time, people and place) and exchange (between individual and collective, interior and exterior). The works, by Thomas Holton, Bettina Johae, Reiner Leist, Zoe Leonard, and Ethan Levitas, will be on view at The New York Public Library’s Humanities and Social Sciences Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street from until August 29, 2008. Admission is free.

“Turning on the nature of photography itself – which always complicates the relationship between public and private – all five projects resonate with current debates about the reorganized urban landscape, whether through the effects of gentrification, globalization, or municipal redevelopment,” said Stephen C. Pinson. exhibition curator and the Robert B. Menschel Curator of Photography, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs of The New York Public Library. “While none of the photographers’ works specifically address the legal concept of eminent domain – or the taking of private property for public use – all of the projects deal with the timely topic of the changing nature of space in New York City today. A photograph, after all, is a transaction between the private and the public that is negotiated through the taking of an image – a kind of eminent domain of the visual realm.”

Thomas Holton became very close with the Lam family in Chinatown, photographing the family of five living its everyday family life, at their apartment, school, and grocery market and even attending weddings and traveling to China and Hong Kong to visit relatives. Holton’s color photos of The Lams of the Ludlow Street (2003-2005) are accompanied by Polaroid photos taken by the three Lam children, including their viewpoint as well as Holton’s empathetic perspective on being a Chinese family in New York City’s Chinatown.

Bettina Johae’s borough edges, nyc (2004-2007) includes color photographs, digital slideshows, and a new remapping of New York City’s five boroughs. While undertaking a total of 27 bike rides in all five boroughs (The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island), Johae photographed the perimeter of each borough along its farthermost accessible path, displaying areas seldomly seen or included in representations of New York City. A beautiful, abandoned shipyard is located among the green fields of Rossville, Staten Island; traditional houses perched upon garages are spotted in Manhattan’s Marble Hill; and an airplane is shown flying a little too close for comfort above a two-story house in Queens’ Warnerville/Rosedale neighborhood.

Reiner Leist offers a more intimate view of the city in his Window series (1995-present), using a nineteenth-century view camera to photograph the scene from his studio on the 26th floor of an office building on Eighth Avenue. Leist has taken a photograph daily since March of 1995 at varying times of the day. (If he was unable to take a photograph, the day is represented by a black print.) The series becomes an ongoing portrait of the subtle and radical changes in the New York City skyline that includes One Penn Plaza, Madison Square Garden, and until September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center. On display are the images taken on September 11-15 from 1995-2007, including September 12, 2001, which documented the day following the World Trade Center attack.

Zoe Leonard’s Analogue (1998-2007) is a lyrical documentation of the City’s slowly disappearing local character in the wake of a global economy. Although centered on the storefronts of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, the project also touches upon the route and destination of New York’s castoff clothing in the contemporary rag trade. As its name suggests, the series is also an elegy of sorts for a long-standing tradition of documentary photography, which Leonard sees passing with the onset of digital photography. The images on display comprise a portfolio of forty dye transfer prints, an increasingly rare process of color printing that is itself in jeopardy of obsolescence.

Elevated subway cars from the J, M, and Z lines seem to be the subject in Ethan Levitas’s Untitled/This is just to say (2004-2007), but these color photographs also show passengers in various forms of private and public life: A man standing in between cars during a snowstorm smokes a cigarette; Hassidic Jews are engrossed in conversation; a woman staring directly at the camera seems to be the only passenger in an otherwise empty car. The trains become microcosms of the City as the project functions to collapse the distinction between our private and public selves.

In addition to the five photographers’ works, artist Glenn Ligon contributes a personal written narrative about all of his New York City residences in Housing in New York: A Brief History (2007) which was commissioned for this exhibition. Ligon’s writings are interspersed throughout the exhibition space, reminding viewers that behind the (now) public images lie myriad personal and private stories.

The exhibition is presented in The New York Public Library’s largest exhibition space at the landmark building on 42nd Street, and its design complements the photographers’ themes in creative ways: Ethan Levitas’s large images of subway cars are displayed on the space’s longest wall, side-by-side, replicating a subway train. Thomas Holton’s photographs of the Lam family are shown in a semi-enclosed space reminiscent in size of a small apartment. Reiner Leist’s images of the cityscape outside his window are shown as a selection of framed prints and as a larger group in a digital slideshow so that viewers can appreciate both the intimacy and the seriality of the project. Ten images from each borough of Bettina Johae’s landscapes are available for viewing through flipbooks attached to the wall, and five slideshows of images (one for each borough) are displayed next to Johae’s hand-drawn remapping of the city. Finally, works by each of the photographers are installed outside the exhibition space, in the more “public” spaces of the Library.

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