A New Question on Old Ground – Review of “New York Unseen” by Luc Kordas

There is a problem nearly every photographer faces. How do you photograph something with a freshness and originality, a sense of personal style, a new insight, that has been photographed by everybody as well as everybody else?

“New York Unseen” by Luc Kordas
Published by teNeues, 2023
review by W. Scott Olsen

So often, even an insight becomes cliche. At one level, for example, every wedding is exactly like every other wedding. But the best photographers find a way to breathe fresh air into the event. Every portrait is just like every other portrait, except the subjects change and the photographer’s relationship with the subject changes, so there is at least the potential for saying something new.

To say we work within traditions can ground our work and give it a context. But at the same time, to say we work within traditions admits that others have walked whatever path we’re on before.

This problem of how to approach a popular subject is apparent in no place more loudly than in street photography in New York City. New York is a photographer’s dream as well as a nightmare. There are endless possibilities for photographs. Nearly all of them have been shot before.

Of course, the answer to this problem rests with the photographer. The answer is not discovering some illuminating site that’s been ignored (although that’s not bad, either). The answer is in the approach, the attitude, the style and voice of the artist. Think about the ways different conductors bring a new interpretation to Tchaikovsky or Sibelius. The score is the same. The performances are unique.

I’m thinking of this because I have on my desk a new book called New York Unseen by Luc Kordas. Pay attention to the title. It’s not Unseen New York. This is not a book about hideaways and hidden sites, not a book of underground this or restricted that. “Unseen” here is not a normal adjective. “Unseen” has the flavor of a verb. “Unseen” is an action of remaking.

In an introduction to the book by Dr. Abe Davies, he writes:

Luc Kordas is emphatically not a New Yorker. Despite having taken up residence in 2014, he’s adamant that he doesn’t consider the city home…You get the sense in, fact, he’s often less than enamored of the place…The city had grown familiar, and familiarity with its often tawdry reality and shocking inequalities had bred something like contempt. Or at least boredom.

This is not the usual way to begin an introduction that is supposed to laud the collection that follows. But I appreciate its honesty. Even the extraordinary becomes the mundane if you don’t have a way in beyond paths already worn by others. Yet, according to the introduction. Kordas was in New York when COVID-19 hit, and then the Black Lives Matter movement rose, and then the culture wars flamed. The world was exposing some of its faults and seeking new corrections. In short, for Kordas, New York itself had become fresh again.

As the introduction goes on,

…Kordas found himself back out on the streets, camera in hand, seeing New York once again with the eyes of the newcomer…Given that Kordas is not a New Yorker, and indeed given his mixed feelings regarding the city with which he was once infatuated, he might seem a strange candidate to be its photographic chronicler. But in fact it’s exactly his outsider’s view, the slightly jaundiced edge to his gaze, that makes his visions of New York so compelling.

New York Unseen often travels familiar ground. There are subway shots, Coney Island shots, children playing in the streets, and the girders of bridges. The majority of the images are in black and white, although color appears every now and then. There are overhead shots and cityscapes. There are couples embracing, homeless people, and protests. It is, frankly, the milieu we’ve seen 1000 times before.

But if you spend a little bit of time with this book, you realize what might appear at first as old ground is, in fact, not. There is in this book an attitude—sometimes loving, sometimes filled with a bit of malaise. There are tropes, such as people hugging on a subway, and surprises, such as the cover shot of somebody in a clown mask in the subway.  And that’s the problem with street photography in New York. Even the unexpected or out of place has become consistent fare. So, it’s the attitude that becomes compelling.

To be clear, there are images in New York Unseen that are among the very best I’ve seen of New York. My personal favorites are the winter shots in Brighton Beach and elsewhere. But it’s that sense of wonder – is this a vein of the heartwood of New York and, if so, what does that mean – which becomes the strength here.

Most often, street photography wants to celebrate its subjects (which does not always mean to approve or agree). This book seems to have a different goal. This book isn’t in love with New York as much as it’s wondering if it should be. Sometimes, the answer is yes. Sometimes, the answer is perhaps not. Given the apparent omnipresence of New York, it’s a very interesting and rewarding question.

You can order signed copies of the book on Luc Kordas’ online store.

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