Books

New York Noir: Capturing the City’s Grit and Grime

by Allison Meier on February 26, 2014

Michael Ernest Sweet, "The Human Fragment"

Michael Ernest Sweet, “Hanky Panky” (all images courtesy the artist & Brooklyn Arts Press unless otherwise noted)

Photographer Michael Ernest Sweet scavenges the constant contrasts of people in New York City for shots that show the grittiness and grime of its collective persona. Some of these photographs have been collected into a noir narrative called The Human Fragment, a monograph released in December by independent literary publisher Brooklyn Arts Press.

"The Human Fragment" by Michael Ernest Sweet (photograph by the author)

“The Human Fragment” by Michael Ernest Sweet (photograph by the author)

Sweet is based in Montreal, but spends much time in New York, and his familiarity with the people and places from Coney Island on a summer’s day to the swarms of Times Square is evident, as is his willingness to come right up to these strangers with an almost uncomfortable closeness. Sunspots are visible on people’s faces, as are scars darkened by the film’s contrast. Yet rare is it that a whole person is present in the photograph. Instead you get just pieces, human fragments, in itself a fragmented view of the city that is always just a bit off-center.

As writer Michael Musto states in the book foreword:

In New York, there are no humdrum people, but Sweet makes them even more extraordinary with the way he frames and shoots them going on about their business. His photos always have something going on in both the foreground and the background, and they’re usually not related to each other, highlighting the multiple plot strains that make NYC into a 24-hour living cineplex.

The Human Fragment has a sort of Bruce Gilden grotesqueness with Robert Frank‘s quick and brazen eye for plucking striking visuals from the city streets. It’s like walking through the city yourself, where out of the corner of your eye you get half a face, or a fur coat, flashing against the buildings and pavement. Even his slower captures of the urban beach have a spontaneous feel to them, catching one person in a hundred that represents the whole roughness of the city rather than the individual. They seem like a rebuke to the constant chorus of New York being a city that is too clean now, and while sure it’s not longer the 1970s and 80s, Sweet’s photographs show that it is still far from a pristine paradise at its rough edges.

As a note, the photographs in the book, taken with Sweet’s Ricoh GR, are all printed in black and white and have a grimier texture than those supplied for this post, converted to RGB for viewing on the web.

Michael Ernest Sweet, "The Human Fragment"

Michael Ernest Sweet, “100% Juice”

Michael Ernest Sweet, "The Human Fragment"

Michael Ernest Sweet, “Down Below”

Michael Ernest Sweet, "The Human Fragment"

Michael Ernest Sweet, “Fly Fly Away”

Michael Ernest Sweet, "The Human Fragment"

Michael Ernest Sweet, “Squeegee Boy”

Michael Ernest Sweet, "The Human Fragment"

Michael Ernest Sweet, “Sun Bath”

Michael Ernest Sweet, "The Human Fragment"

Michael Ernest Sweet, “Shoes”

The Human Fragment by Michael Ernest Sweet is available from Brooklyn Arts Press. 

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