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Realism is the default mode for street photography — in New York, anyway — so it is impressive when a photographer transcends the genre by embracing the attributes and effects of a different approach. The lyricism of Helen Levitt, the romanticism of Saul Leiter, the expressionism of Ted Croner take the concrete reality of this most public of arenas as their starting point, transforming (rather than celebrating) the banal. Lynn Saville, a Manhattan-based photographer who has for much of her career focused her lens on the material facts of urban structures and thoroughfares, finds working space in the densely populated street photography tradition by finding the infrastructure’s secret lives, its many shadow selves.
Saville shoots mainly at twilight and dawn, when the lights are on and the sky just glows. Her new book, Dark City: Urban America at Night, just published by Damiani, includes numerous photos in which the combination of artificial and natural light sets an eerie tone. The suggestion of the solar cycle chimes with Saville’s interest in economic cycles of prosperity and decline, of which vacant storefronts are, for her, iconic. Dark City includes many such photographs, in which, as Saville notes in her brief essay, what was once a place has become a space — a “shell of itself.” Devoid of their former programs and the accouterments thereof, these locations await the next generation of renovation, remodeling and reuse.
They don’t wait idly, it seems to me. Stripped of specificity, they gain atmospherics and often take on new personalities. An empty midtown store, seen naked and bleached through plate glass, has the antiseptic look and feel of a space station, 1970s Hollywood-style. Raking one-point perspective, framed by tractorless trailers, corrugated steel fences, and scrawny utility poles, transforms a parking lot in Bushwick into a set from some Beckett play. An isolated bus stop kiosk on Riverside Drive, nearly featureless and washed in florescent light, could be a machine for time travel. With a lone window glowing scarlet, a squat brick shed in Red Hook looks like a post-heist hideout where jumpy gunmen wonder where the hell’s the getaway car.
The near-absence of people in Saville’s pictures facilitates these imaginary transmutations by positing their loss of a function as commercial traffic dwindled. The few pedestrians appear ghost-like, seen as faint blurs or only in part, such as the person emerging from an unmarked ground-floor office in Burlington, Vermont. This effect, of course, is a function of the long exposures needed for low-light conditions — and hardly a problem, since Saville’s main interest is not a building’s use, but its disuse.
We occasionally discern the shadow of the photographer and her tripod-mounted, medium-format camera as she snaps the shutter cable. The shadow is particularly prominent, and particularly cinematic, in a photograph of a dim, noirish interior on Hudson Street, where it upstages the dark forms of a few chairs, doors and air handling vents. While the cast shadow (or reflection) of the photographer is a recurring motif in street photography — and used to comic effect by Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand, among others — in Saville’s frames one senses that it is not a device, but rather a necessity for this documentarian to get the best shot.
Not all the photos in Dark City conform to this conceit; that is, some of Saville’s locations remain “places,” fully inhabiting themselves even if anonymous-looking and unpeopled. Dramatic streetlamp chiaroscuro brings out cranial associations in two egg-shaped cedar trees flanking the gate of a white picket fence on a residential street in Venice, California, while the blackened silhouettes of a truly bizarre, Medusa-like tree and an apartment block loom in the near-darkness beyond.
And not all these photos are of the street, strictly speaking. A study in beige and brown, the desolate, weirdly palatial interior of a former J. C. Penney store in Columbus, Ohio, evokes an enormous game board, with awkward, vinyl-covered seating and dying potted plants as markers. (Maybe it’s just my imagination running away with me, but I see terrific pop-up gallery potential here.)
In her work, the artist takes no moral stance on the issues of development, gentrification and displacement, but is concerned with the outward signs and symbols of economic change. She wears her social engagement lightly, not allowing it to encumber her feeling for color and light, her sense of composition, or her curiosity about the “invisible hand” of the real estate market and its visible effect on the fabric of everyday urban life. In so doing, she turns the ordinary inside out and opens up its imaginary depths.
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