The Eyes of the City includes two decades of Richard Sandler’s street photography in Boston and New York City, but it’s all presented as one black and white narrative of grit and glamour. Dates and locations are subtracted (although available in an index) for the startling juxtapositions. In one spread a man with no legs crossing an intersection is contrasted to another moment where a toweringly tall man strides above the crowd. In another, a woman’s face is completely obscured by a dark hat, while in the following photograph two shadows from unseen people reach out and touch hands on the dirty sidewalk. Two suited men’s faces are masked by an American flag — kissing or conspiring? — and in the next image a sliver of a moon sinks behind the Twin Towers.
The monograph, published in November by Powerhouse Books, concentrates on Sandler’s photography from 1977, when he was gifted a Leica camera, to the weeks before September 11, 2001. The first few years he lived in Boston, then migrated to New York. The book doesn’t explain the cut-off date, it doesn’t have to, as the graffiti-covered subways and pornography-adorned Times Square suggest a city more pariah than patriotic emblem. Yet there is a liminal quality to many of the shots, such as the silhouettes of commuters in Grand Central, and an echo of the divisions between class and race that remain. “These photographs not only stand as powerful, profound, and singular documents of a time, place, and people, but they also speak to timeless — often painful — truths that are as relevant today as they were when Richard captured them,” StoryCorps Founder Dave Isay writes in the book’s forward.
Each photograph hums with a density of colliding lives, that never quite cross their divides. The furs and opulence of 1980s Wall Street thrive alongside poverty and grime. “What a play we put on in front of each other on the streets, living so close the way we do, like mice in a burrow,” writes author Jonathan Ames in an afterword. “A play of greed, decay, venality, beauty, longing, hidden meanings, coincidences, love, terror, mundanity, suffering, boredom, loneliness.”
As the title — The Eyes of the City — suggests, Sandler’s photography is very much about looking at this play. And, more often than not, his subjects look back, the gaze of these ghosts from the past asking the viewer to consider what role they have in this beautiful nightmare.