“You know it kind of makes sense that it mostly focuses on Manhattan, because everything happening there through those years,” my good friend Tyson Ho tells me as we make our way down 5th Ave. The exhibit on the Museum of the City of NY’s 3rd-floor spotlights works from Janette Beckman, Bruce Davidson, Helen Levitt, Ruddy Roye, Richard Sandler, Gail Thacker, James Van Der Zee, Harvey Wang, and others. Those names are enough to make most folks smitten with the romanticism of old New York book their tickets. Quite honestly, the curators did a pretty darned good job. They not only tried to condense the diversity within NYC but also tried to show its unification during a time when we all feel so divided.
I should preface this entire opinion with the fact that I, a native NYer, often feel like my city is turned into a plaything for people with disposable income. We see it in the gentrification and subtle slaps in the face to both the poor and minorities. Folks go around saying “that’s not NY” to something that really only happens in the smaller, very gentrified part of the five boroughs. Yet someone can live here for years and still not see every corner of the city. Even more importantly, they forget or don’t really know what old NY was like. Take it from a guy who grew up surrounded by the children of people who were connected to the Italian Mob. It was dangerous. It was sometimes scary. And it’s honestly still that way sometimes, but we expose the world to a small bubble of what our city is. Tyson often feels the same way.
But with Collecting New York’s Stories: Stuyvesant to Sid Vicious, the Museum of the City of New York tells a pretty accurate story bound to open the eyes of people who are new to the city. Even if you’ve been here for years, you’ll find something new.
The exhibit features the work of a number of photographers who have documented everyday life here in the city for many years. The work, in and of itself, is fantastic. As you go through the exhibit and live in a particular borough, you’ll probably be looking for work from your borough. But it’s scattered amongst itself. I immediately thought that separation of the exhibit by borough would have made the most sense, but on second thought and saying it out loud, I bite my tongue. The layout of the images helps the viewer see that we are a unified NY. This is further evidenced by the major lack of color photographs in the exhibit. Instead, the framed photos being presented against the blue background makes it feel like we’re stuck on a bunch of different islands with some odd lighting. And indeed, the five boroughs of NY are all on islands with the exception of the Bronx.
Adding to the diversity of the exhibit is a better balance of genders amongst the photographers presenting their work. What’s more: none of it feels exploitative. Instead, they feel like genuine, real moments. You can spend a really long time in just that one room taking everything in. (I’d strongly recommend doing just that.) And more importantly, I think you should go alone and ponder the images. When you’re with someone else, you’re bound to want to interact with them, and I think that that’s a distraction. On your second tour of the exhibit, sure, take a friend. But your first time should be solo.
While Collecting New York’s Stories: Stuyvesant to Sid Vicious does a lot well, it also does a few things that are perplexing. There is little to no inclusion of Staten Island in the exhibit. While the former landfill is often the butt of many jokes, they’re still a part of us. We even sometimes do camera tests out there. Further, the lighting in the exhibit does no justice to the photographers. It’s sort of dim and reminds you of the fact that it’s a dark and dreary time outside in NYC. This exhibit partially celebrates inclusion and our history, and it should do it with brighter lighting in the space.
Overall, I really like the new exhibit. The only other tip I’d share: bring a magnifying glass, as the prints aren’t all that large.
Collecting New York’s Stories: Stuyvesant to Sid Vicious is at the Museum of the City of NY and has a formal opening of a fuller exhibit on January 22nd, 2020. But if you’ve got some time, you should go check out the photos soon.