New Yorkers As Seen By Magnum Photographers

by Matt Damsker


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Edited by Max Kozloff. Published in the U.S. by Powerhouse Books, 174 pages; approximately 160 plates. ISBN No. 1-57687-185-1. Information: Powerhouse Books, 68 Charlton St., New York, NY 10014-4601; phone: 1-212 604 9074; fax: 1-212 366 5247; email: . Web site: .

First published in 2003, this classic collection of New York images from the great Magnum photo agency is street photography of the highest order, with such luminaries as Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Inge Morath, Bruce Davidson, and many others among its pages. Cartier-Bresson's contribution, in fact, is wonderfully emblematic of the whole New York theme, as a busy bank manager sits at his desk, surrounded by the vaults and machinery of banking, while a large painting of Manhattan being purchased from the Indians, entitled "The Romance of Manhattan," looms ironically in the background.

Beyond that, there is less irony than sheer visual information at play here, and it sweeps gorgeously, grotesquely and often picaresquely all around the town. Bruce Davidson's shot of a young boy attempting to fly a kite from a rooftop on East 100th street is a vision of urban grime and grit aspiring heavenward, just as his shot of an elderly couple eating at an east side cafeteria--their faces rubbery and virtually identical--is a hymn to sheer Gothamite persistence. Indeed, these photos are good enough to convey the very smell of the streets, glimpsing everything from early morning deliveries in the rainy gloom of the garment district to a gray dawn in Times Square--and, always, there are the denizens of the five boroughs: Elliot Erwitt's fish mongers at the Fulton street market; Susan Meiselas's neighborhood girls on a corner in Little Italy, their faces mingling hope with vulnerability; Bruce Gilden's family outside of Nathan's Hot Dogs on Coney Island, in all their immigrant vitality.

Magnum's photographers and, perhaps more importantly, its photo editors are adept not only in delivering great documentary photography, but in capturing photography's democratic spirit amidst so much of New York. Thus, Erwitt's 1954 portrait of playwright Arthur Miller, with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background, carries much the same weight of personality as Bruce Gilden's 1995 shot of an anonymous fat man with a cigarette on Fifth Avenue. Their worlds may be different, but the tough spirit of the city is etched comparably in their faces. And Eve Arnold's 1961 shot of a black-hatted Malcolm X at a Harlem mosque is a superb portrait, in profile, that conveys the civil rights legend's glamour and humanity where he seems most at home.

And the streets of New York are home to the infinite variety of life lived, grabbed, and ground down--from lovers kissing on subway platforms to blind beggars on street corners, Samoan strippers ogled by servicemen at a dive on 52nd Street, taxi drivers and tumbling children. As critic Max Kozloff points out, Magnum was founded in 1947 as a cooperative of photographers committed to independent media and social democracy, and its peer-selected membership holds on to those ideals. Magnum's cameras seem to catch everything and everyone, affording dignity and comprehension in the unkind, chaotic metropolis.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.