Sunday, December 21, 2008

Manhattan Out by Raymond Depardon

In the winter of 1980 while visiting New York City, Raymond Depardon spent many afternoons wandering the streets equipped with his camera and black and white film. He returned the following year in better weather and 97 images from these couple trips have been collected in Manhattan Out just published by Steidl.

Using his Leica like a shotgun fired from chest level, the wide angle of his lens gathered information wholesale as he navigated the crowds attempting to work without notice. Usually zeroing in on one or two subjects within his direct path, the photos also collected information on the periphery that often prove more interesting and unexpected.

One thinks of New York as a vertical city, one that seems two-tiered with a street level reality and the penthouse reality. The latter is often imagined but rarely experienced firsthand as that divide is often only crossed with affluence. Depardon's images in Manhattan Out stress the horizontal of the streets and sidewalks and are captivating with their splayed perspectives. The wide-angle lens stretches the foundations of buildings (and sometimes human faces) converting all into an odd
elastic cement pulled at the edges.

Add to this the cutting swaths of sunlight broken by deep shadows (made more extreme by some underexposure) and a seductive stage is set for the various gazes of the pedestrians. Although shooting from the hip, half the characters are wise to Depardon's attempts at surreptitious surveillance. They look, not at Depardon the person who has maneuvered his way into their path but at Depardon the camera whose tiny lens is taking in their likeness. It is this gaze that we settle upon and 'read' for deeper meaning. In the best of which, we are privy to a moment of inner reflection. In the lesser, we are left with people in awkward moments of realization like a deer caught in the headlights.

Depardon's pedestrians are often straight from Central Casting's stable of 'street photographer's subjects' with their fur-lined coats and aged faces. There are more drooping jowls in these pictures than taut cheeks and all is amplified by the folds of fabric that catch the light with wonderful twists and turns.

Depardon in sequencing this book often draws relationships across the gutter. In one image, the back of a man walking with his arms at his sides matches the same shape as his female counterpart on the next page. In another, a man wearing a winter balaclava becomes an ominous shadow (Depardon's) that is cast at the bottom of a photo of an unsuspecting woman in fur coat and high heels. In Central Park two women entwine arms while rollerskating while on the facing page a man is arrested by two policemen. Cinematic in effect, the pace (no pun intended) of our walk is quick and energetic. Depardon has us weaving through the crowds and barely gives us time to settle on the smaller details before thrusting the next photo into view.

Printed on a matte paper with the images surrounded by thick black borders, the tone of the book is celebratory but with a dark side. Certainly not the New York Deniro's Travis Bickle wished a rain upon to wash away the scum and slime but not the Disney wonderland it eventually became either. The size of the book and the grey flexible cloth covered boards feel perfect. The whimsical typography of the title pages seem straight from a Jacques Tati film and set the mood for light-hearted with occasional dips into the difficulty of city life. The cultural and urban theorist Paul Virilio contributes an introductory text.

Books of street work, especially made in New York, can be so depressingly predictable with endless variation on photos we already know so well. What Depardon accomplished with his cinematic viewpoint shot without verticals (there are no verticals in films after all) is a wonderful drift into the flow of life that feels fresh even though we know we've been down this street before.