Those faces! Those suits!

More stills from 1948 movie The Naked City, the actors playing the police detectives and the criminal (Howard Duff in the bottom shot). They’re  acting with their eyebrows.

See my other posts on this subject, William H Daniels’ Naked City, and Berenice Abbot’s Changing City and Berenice Abbott’s Naked City



Berenice Abbott’s Changing City

Berenice Abbott, Herald Square, 34th and Broadway, July 16 1936

Berenice Abbott’s book Changing New York came out in 1939 and it was sent out to schools and libraries across the country. The New York Public Library acquired the prints which can be seen on their flickr site here. This is the best collection of Abbott’s work I’ve seen, many of them rough proofs or alternative views, and it gives a better idea of her working method than the various edited books.

Abbott is in the pantheon of photographers, her work looks better and better with time. It demonstrates the camera’s immense capacity for recording information, freezing the great city as it became a metropolis. The photographs are objective, matter-of-fact, but they convey the vitality of that city, a new confidence in American life. And there is something about the wide-angle view and the straight-ahead gaze that suggests her own individual strength of character. Looking at these pictures, you can sense she was a formidable personality.


Berenice Abbott’s Naked City

The Hollywood cinematographer William H. Daniels shot the great noir film Naked City in 1948. It’s known as the first to be filmed on the actual streets of New York instead of in studio sets back in Hollywood.

He and the production team took their research seriously and it obviously included Berenice Abbot’s book Changing New York. This was her monumental project documenting the city as it was in the thirties.

The look of the film and the way it depicts New York is much closer to Abbott’s vision than Weegee’s, whose book of photographs gave the film its name. Most of the movies’ scenic shots are in long shots, like Abbott’s, whereas Weegee worked up close, going for the human interest, the tabloid headline.

On the left, William H Daniels New York, and on right New York by Berenice Abbott.

.Does Weegee’s style appear anywhere today? It does, on the leering scopophilia of TV shows like CSI.

See my other posts on this subject, William H Daniels’ Naked City, Berenice Abbot’s Changing City and Those faces, those suits


William H. Daniel’s Naked City


Click on these images to see New York in 1948.

They show the city just after World War II, but just before the prosperity boom of the 1950s; it’s a hardworking city, energetic and unpretentious. The images are by William H. Daniels, whose work, you might agree, resembles that of Weegee and Berenice Abbott, both photographers of Gotham City at that time.

But Daniels was not a still photographer like Weegee and Abbott, he was a Hollywood cinematographer who received an Oscar for this work. These are stills from the 1948 movie The Naked City which was shot on location in New York.

In 1945 Weegee had published a book of his press photos of murderers, drunks and corpses and called it The Naked City. Hollywood producer Mark Hellinger, who had been a columnist in New York, bought the title from Weegee intending to make the movie with a similar degree of grittiness. He determined to shoot it on location in the city which was almost unknown at that time when most movies where made on the studio backlot in Hollywood. It gave the film a surprising sense of reality, like a documentary. The movie was a hit.

Compare William H. Daniels’ images with Weegee photographs here, and Berenice Abbott photographs here.

See my other posts on this subject, Berenice Abbot’s Changing City , Berenice Abbott’s Naked City and Those faces, those suits.

After Life

Susan Fereday, After Y/Arbus 2008/11

Susan Fereday‘s new exhibition, After Life, at Sarah Scout Presents, continues her investigation into the essential nature of photography. Playing with the resonances in a series of found snapshots she creates a meditation on photography’s embodiment in light and vision.

The main photograph is of a girl posing for the camera with her eyes closed to the sun – or is she blind? The facing shots are of people gazing directly at the camera but partly obscured, blinded, by fingers and light fog,  the usual accidents of family snapshots. Their eye contact with you remind you of how many photographs are a kind of mirror: a person looks at a photo and a person inside looks back. It’s a strange encounter between flesh and phantasm.

Light and its action on light-sensitive materials is what makes photography possible. But it has been Fereday’s contention that the medium obscures as much as it reveals and in this exhibition the light is shown in the act of veiling its subjects. Light is anarchic in these pictures, cutting off heads and limbs, an occult energy from the subjects themselves.

The exhibition is about the afterlife of photographs that take on new meanings as they break loose from their original context. After our life we live on in photographs. Yet the person in an unidentified photograph is an orphan. The likeness remains, but there is no identity attached to it. The sign is intact, but what does it refer to? Being made after life, from reality, is the very condition of photography. But it’s incomplete, suggestive, partial, it’s not life itself.

The wordplay extends to the title of the main image, After Y/arbus. The photograph does indeed look like a Diane Arbus, but Yarbus? Well, Alfred L. Yarbus was the psychologist who pioneered the study of saccadic eye movements. When your eyes dart around this photograph looking for clues, that’s what they’re doing. These sort of intricate references are what Fereday excels at – see my post on her PhD exhibition, Grail and Wail.

I recommend the short essay by Tegan Lewis which discusses the exhibition in terms of photography’s alchemical and organic properties. It can be found on the Sarah Scout Presents website.

Susan Fereday, Ghost Story (scary woman) 2011


The Strange Case of Vivian Maier

The posthumous career of Vivian Maier develops apace. Amy Stein’s blog has a new video about her, and Chicago Tonight has a longer one. You must see them.

Maier is a great enigma, a completely unknown street photographer who left behind a massive body of excellent work which she never exhibited. It was only discovered by chance when Chicagoan John Maloof bought some boxes at a flea market. They turned out to contain over 3000 prints and 100,000 negatives! The parallel with Berenice Abbott’s discovery of Atget’s work is inescapable, except that Maier’s obscurity as a photographer was absolute.

Maier’s work is street activism in the mode of Diane Arbus or the New York Photo League. Photographing from the 1950s up until the 90s, she worked up close, recording the dynamic life of Chicago’s streets. The images show a bold, observant eye, human and often humorous, but “not out to charm anyone” as Joel Meyerowitz says. You can judge for yourself on Maloof’s website of her work here.

The Chicago Cultural Center is holding a retrospective, a book is due out soon and a feature-length documentary is on the way. Isn’t it poignant that she died in 2009, just as this discovery was happening?




The images are copyright John Maloof Collection inc, taken from his blog.