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Bright Nights, Weird City: Photographs from the New NYC Underground

by Allison Meier on September 18, 2013

The raft Alice rounding the southern tip of Manhattan, 2008

The raft Alice rounding the southern tip of Manhattan, 2008 (all photographs by Tod Seelie, courtesy Prestel Publishing)

Boats constructed from the refuse of New York City; parties with flames in abandoned buildings; concerts where the crowd consumes the band in a frenzy. These are the DIY and dirty scenes of the city that Tod Seelie has spent around 15 years photographing, and now a book coming out next month chronicles some of these misadventures.

Called Bright Nights, the book’s tagline is “Photographs of another New York,” meaning the New York that isn’t pristine condos, consumerism, and monuments and museums packaged as merchandise. Of course, these worlds aren’t totally detached — all the people in these photographs do of course have to get by in this city somehow — but it’s a reaction of one to the other.

crowd surfing during a Spank Rock show at Bodega, Bushwick, Brooklyn, 2009.

Crowd surfing during a Spank Rock show at Bodega in Bushwick, 2009

You’ve likely seen Seelie’s work if you’ve had your eye caught by photographs of parties in abandoned subway tunnels or the annual Idiotarod shopping cart reckless racing or even the Toyshop Collective mud wrestling in the Walter De Maria Earth Room. But he hasn’t just gotten around to the different chaotic Brooklyn underground scenes with a skill that makes you think he might have a teleportation device, he also gives them all a direct, documentary eye that captures their spirit without making it into spectacle. This is because he’s always out there himself, right in the mosh pit or climbing up the pylons of the Williamsburg Bridge. As Caledonia Curry (aka the artist Swoon) writes her essay in the book:

Yes, there are endless raunchy photos of sweaty, bloody rock shows, people flying through the air, kicking things that are exploding into flames, and lots of compound bone fractures in progress. But that’s not the secret of why Tod is an instrument of our living memory. There is something quieter, lighting the images as if from within. I notice it most startlingly when he has photographed something I’ve been involved in making. There is always a moment when I first see Tod’s photos and am overcome with the realization of how much would have been lost without them.

The three rafts of the Swimming Cities “Voltron” together for a swimming party in the Hudson River near the George Washington Bridge, 2008

The three rafts of the Swimming Cities “Voltron” together for a swimming party in the Hudson River near the George Washington Bridge, 2008

The book juxtaposes different views of the city together, like the illuminated abandonment of the World’s Fair pavilion alongside light shining through a hole in an ornate ceiling, and a vertigo-inducing view down a city bridge contrasted to the claustrophobia of a dark tunnel; the euphoria of a rooftop party alongside the random chaos of a burning car. There’s both the beauty and grotesqueness of the everyday, although the beauty is most often tinged with a grittiness and flashbulb aesthetic that wouldn’t be out-of-place alongside Weegee‘s 1930s captures of the New York City streets after dark, both exposing a world that’s there if you just drag your fingernails over its grimy surface and draw a bit of blood.

Burning car outside of Tod Seelie’s apartment, Bushwick, 2007

Burning car outside of Tod Seelie’s apartment, Bushwick, 2007

View of Manhattan from the top of the Williamsburg Bridge, 2011

View of Manhattan from the top of the Williamsburg Bridge, 2011

Setting up for a secret dinner in the Freedom Tunnel, Manhattan, 2007

Setting up for a secret dinner in the Freedom Tunnel in Manhattan, 2007

Crowd dancing on a rooftop during a Fourth of July party, Bushwick, Brooklyn, 2006

Crowd dancing on a rooftop during a Fourth of July party in Bushwick, 2006

Vogue dance battle at La Escuelita, Manhattan, 2012

Vogue dance battle at La Escuelita in Manhattan, 2012

Kissing couple at a Rated X party in the basement of Scenic, East Village, Manhattan, 2006

Kissing couple at a Rated X party in the basement of Scenic in the East Village, 2006

Matt & Kim performing at a loft show, East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2006

Matt & Kim performing at a loft show in East Williamsburg, 2006

What Cheer? Brigade performing at C-Squat, Alphabet City, Manhattan, 2012

What Cheer? Brigade performing at C-Squat in Alphabet City, 2012

Bright Lights: Photographs of Another New York by Tod Seelie is available October 14 from Prestel Publishing.

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