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