In Elizabeth Bick’s photographs, the street is a stage and passersby are performers. The New York-based artist draws from her background as a dancer to sharply and selectively capture unwitting moments of grace in the movements of strangers as they navigate the city. With their strong sense of color, light, and gesture, Bick’s carefully observed images inject a sense of theatricality and intention into the randomness of everyday life.
Bick’s new exhibition Movement Studies at the Houston Center for Photography showcases three of her recent series created between 2017 and 2021. The first suite of works, titled “Movement Study I: Street Ballet,” are large-scale grids of 16 photos each, depicting pedestrian traffic on New York City street corners and sidewalks. Bick shot the images from a tripod set up at a distance away from or above her subjects, engaging in what the photographer described in a recent email to Hyperallergic as “an artistic scavenger hunt.” As her title implies, Bick captures strangers in visually dramatic, stage-like public spaces where unplanned movements take on a certain rhythm. Her multiplied images recall a film roll’s progressive passage of time, but her rigid, rectangular compositions also reinforce the heavy role of architecture in shaping our routine movement. Her photos are dominated by bold backgrounds, large windows, and shifting light. Enveloped by the surrounding shadows, reflections, and color fields, Bick’s human subjects resemble passing punctuation marks.
“After years of this working method,” Bick wrote, “I became more fixated on capturing facial expressions, details in people’s clothes, [and] nuances of movement.” Her “Movement Study II: 40.752200 -73.993422” hones in on one particular location — a street corner in Midtown — capturing people passing through it. In these images, people now fill the frame, cutting up the colorful background with their moving suitcases, bags, and bodies. Thanks to the photographer’s nimble timing, Bick’s camera captures an unexpected choreography of motion, this time with a more interpersonal flavor. In one image, for example, as a chain of strangers walks by in single file, the falling sun imprints their shadows on each other’s backs, visually linking them to each other, if only for a moment.
Later, Bick grew curious about the passersby as individuals, asking herself, “What do their private lives look like?” She approached one of the people she photographed in “Movement Study II” and asked to follow them home. This was the beginning of Bick’s “Movement Study III: Circling a Hawk,” an intimate study of Bronx resident B. Hawk. Over the next months, Bick photographed Hawk commuting, socializing, modeling, and resting at home. At the time, Hawk was transitioning to identifying as a nonbinary trans person, a process which Bick refers to as a deeply personal, “interior movement.” This isn’t the first time that Bick has portrayed a single figure: her 2017 book Coda centers on the writer, dancer, and cancer survivor Linda Levin, whom Bick also met by chance in New York City. Once again, Bick’s Movement Studies uses the camera as a tool to get closer to people, their gestures, and their lives.
Elizabeth Bick: Movement Studies continues at the Houston Center for Photography (1441 West Alabama Street, Houston) through July 11.