Every now and then, a book comes along that provides a kind of new cornerstone, a kind of definition for a genre or generation.
They seem to embody, simultaneously, not only the gravitas of tradition but also a freshness of vision and insight that is both grounded and provocative. This same thing is as true for painting (think Picasso) and music (think the Beatles), and literature (think David Mitchell) as it is for photography. Someone comes up with a new idea, a new way of expressing the world, and the rest of us say yes, this is right.
“New York Street Diaries” by Phil Penman
Published by teNeues, 2023
review by W. Scott Olsen
I’m thinking of this because of Phil Penman’s new book titled New York Street Diaries. This book, firmly in the well-established tradition of New York street photography, is a brilliant voice to a unique vision. Within the multitudes of photographers working New York streets, Penman’s voice is unmistakable and important.
It can argued that street photography began with Louis Daguerre, using a Daguerreotype, in 1838. By 1900, the work had a distinctly urban approach, with names like Stieglitz, Steichen, and Atget opening their shutters. Then came Nègre. Then came Cartier-Bresson. Then came Meyerowitz, Frank, Winogrand, Friedlander, Maier, Levitt, Leiter, Erwitt, Arbus, Evans, Weegee, Capa, and everyone else.
Street photography is well-known and popular. The practice is accessible to everybody with a camera or cell phone, with approaches ranging from observational to confrontational to surreptitious. However, a lot of contemporary street photography also seems to be replaying old ideas and tropes. The real challenge of street photography is to find a new voice, a new way of seeing.
So, it is particularly sweet when a new book comes along, firmly within the tradition but so far above the commonplace that it achieves that kind of benchmark status.
Penman has been called one of the most influential New York street photographers working today. His first book, Street, showed off an impressive photographic range. With this new book, his voice is more focused and refined. His images have a dark motif to them. Shot in black and white, the subject of his work is as much mood as it is building or person. His New York is neither celebration nor critique. It’s certainly not a vacation memoir. It is all tenor and tone.
There is a mood to New York, a feeling that transcends time of day or season. And Penman has found a way to evoke that mood.
I have had the good fortune to visit New York often, and I immediately recognize the mood, although I did not know how to describe it until I got to a page late in the book, one of many given over to short bits of text.
On this page, the text reads, “If Penman shows us the city’s melancholy, because that is one of New York’s moods, he lets us also see its shabby mad majesty.”
That one short statement is dead-on true.
Matt Seaton, Senior Editor at The Atlantic, is the author of the text in this book, beginning with an introduction and then interspersed throughout with moments of insight. For example, in the introduction, he writes, “In his collection, Penman’s Manhattan is monochromatic. In part, this may be because nothing else but black and white can do justice to the city’s colliding geometries of light and shade, its singular mix of haphazard horizontals and vertiginous verticals.”
The images in New York Street Diaries begin with a picture of the Flatiron Building in a snowstorm. And with this one image, both the problem of being a street photographer in New York and the insight of Phil Penman are evident. The Flatiron Building has been photographed 1000 times, 1000 ways, and then 1000 ways in addition to that. It is iconic, perhaps more iconic as a photograph than as an actual structure. And yet Penman’s image, taken at ground level, fairly close up, with a blown out, misty sky in a snowstorm, in black and white, is utterly fresh.
With this image, I see the familiar remade into something unexpected and new.
The subsequent image, Walking on 10th Avenue, 03.12.22, is classic Penman. Late twilight, a city street centered in the frame, car lights, traffic lights, people crossing the street, umbrellas open against the rain.
This is a mood piece, and a tour de force at that. Every element, both tone and content, is balanced and aligned.
Every page is about the character of New York as much as it is about the physical setting.
As Seaton writes, “These are all stories, with some beginning and end beyond our ken; we’re just getting a millisecond to the middle.” And later, “Penman shows us how the sidewalk is a stage set just waiting for a scene, some drama; it’s performers and actors perpetually ready for their close up.”
The book has images of the usual ironic contradictions, signs that don’t match the scene in front of them, oddly dressed people, situations it’s hard to imagine, such as a street musician playing the harp while sitting in a walker. But to limit an understanding of this book to oddities and ironies would do it a great disservice.
Most of the work here takes place at night or in bad weather. And what it shows, when the layers are peeled back, is an act of love. There is a quiet celebration in every single image, whether it’s people sitting on a stoop, someone asleep in a corner, or a simple shop window sign that says Don’t Panic Don’t Panic.
The book includes quirky images such as a dog looking at a store window that displays pet accessories or a sidewalk cafe with giant teddy bears at the linen-covered tables. And while the book is mostly about Manhattan, it also includes Coney Island (in winter), the Staten Island Ferry, and elsewhere.
Penman’s work oftentimes rivals the masters of landscape photography, such as his image of an Upper West Side snowstorm 12.16.20. Taken mostly during the COVID crisis, the book shows us, at times, an empty Manhattan. The elevated bridge that leads into Grand Central Station, for example, is devoid of cars as well as people, leaving only the massive weight of the buildings.
Then again, the book also contains poignant images, such as a wedding inside Grand Central.
At times, Penman’s work is as sharp as a laser. Other times, it’s more diffused and blurry. Penman captures fog, snow, and rain brilliantly.
The book is called Street Diaries, which I find intriguing. A diary is a personal and private statement. And to call these images diaries, I think, gives us a clue as to why this book sits so far above the work of other street photographers. Penman is not after ethnography or cultural anthropology. While his work certainly fits into the idea of documentary photography, that’s not exactly what’s going on. Instead, Penman is looking to express photographically his relationship to New York City. His relationship is one of character and mood, tone and light. Shadows are as much a part of the content in each image as light. I do not mean shadows as in danger, but shadows as in sometimes a sadness, sometimes a way of framing what is in the light.
The images are deeply narrative. It is impossible to look at any one of them anywhere in the book and not feel you are in the midst of a story. This diary is as intimate as any diary has ever been. It is full of beliefs, hopes, dismays, and suggestions for improvement.
Look at Snow Queen, 01.04.18, and the image of a mannequin in a fancy dress inside a storefront window while the passersby struggle in a snowstorm. Look at the Empire State Building, 05.26.22, double-exposed and blurred people contemplating the upper stories of the Empire State Building from a nearby observation floor.
If you’ve ever been to New York, this book will strike you as both surprising and true. If you are a fan or practitioner of street photography, this book establishes a new top tier.
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