New York City has proven to be a rich source of
inspiration for photographers for over a century.
Visually complex, often confounding, New York presents
a challenge to any artist drawn to its dense, bustling
thoroughfares, dizzying glass towers, and sparkling
reflections. Lured by its multiple personalities
and mercurial beauty, amateurs and professionals
alike have made New York their subject. Street life
in its myriad moods has been recorded by Lewis Hine,
Berenice Abbott, Ben Shahn, Ernst Haas and Gary
Winogrand, to mention just a few. Yet few photographers
in recent years have produced images that speak
with a new voice and offer us a chance to experience
the City in new ways.
Jeffrey Aaronsons recent series of color photographs
of reflections shot on the streets of New
York and printed by his own hand without digital
manipulation offers a rich bounty of unexpected
surprises and a fresh vision of the city. For the
past two years he has quite literally stalked
his subject, seeking to expose the Subconscious
City he has come to know through his deliberate,
self-imposed wanderings. Focusing his lens at close
range on window glass and mirrored surfaces, he
captures what he refers to as found moments
that hover somewhere between the real and the surreal.
Like a spy glancing quickly at reflections in shop
windows to see if he is being followed, Aaronson
searches the realm of the immaterial for a momentary
discovery or revelation.
His perambulations have taken him from east to west
and from lower Manhattan to midtown. As the cityscape
passes before him, a multi-layered portrait of the
City emerges from the elegant windows of
Bergdorfs, Prada and Saks to a crowded souvenir
shop in Times Square. Here, in the faces of people
frozen within his reflected scenes, are fragmented,
chance narratives of rich and poor, contentment
and desire, anxiety, alienation, and vulnerability.
In Bus Shelter, a young woman in a print
ad averts her eyes from view. Reflections in her
head swarm with images from the street car
lights twinkle on her cheek, a bicycle rider veers
towards her mouth and a Get Paid Cash
sign with its tear-off tabs flapping is both an
emblem of the indomitable spirit of entrepreneurship
and a symbol of economic uncertainty.
A photojournalist of international renown, Aaronson
has long held a fascination for events of significant
social and political impact. Though he has traveled
all over the world on assignments for Time,
National Geographic, Vanity Fair,
The New York Times Magazine and Newsweek,
among others, he is perhaps best known for his coverage
of China. From the 1989 student demonstrations in
Tiananmen Square to Britains return of Hong
Kong, his colorful photographs of todays China
expose the many contrasts of a rapidly changing
nation: A young girl with incense cones on her chest
calmly undergoes an ancient Chinese treatment for
asthma, while smiling waitresses in Beijing dressed
in brand-new Coca-Cola uniforms eagerly look toward
a more modern future. Largely self-taught, Aaronson
learned on the job, and, drawn especially to developing
countries, he built a vast repertoire of images
of those he encountered on his journeys around the
world, from Europe to Asia to Africa.
While the Subconscious City series is Aaronsons
first foray into the realm of fine art photography,
his editorial work has always transcended pure reportage.
Vibrant, fully saturated color and carefully orchestrated
compositions distinguish his work in both arenas.
Yet there are differences. He sees his recent investigations
into the lives of New Yorkers as pseudo-contrived
documentaries. Though real enough, they are
also his own creations. Unlike his editorial work,
which often depends on building relationships with
his subjects, the Subconscious City series
finds him shooting anonymously his subjects
unaware that they are being scrutinized. And, while
the work speaks of this city and its inhabitants,
it is also a personal diary or visual account of
Aaronsons own daily discoveries.
Many of Aaronsons photographs in this series
reveal the Citys obsession with consumerism.
Each is titled after the location or name of the
store whose window is featured. In Saks, an elegantly
attired mannequin in needle-sharp, high-heeled shoes
presents a startling contrast to the casually-dressed
family of three who stroll into her rarified world
from the teeming street outside. Prada with
its jumble of complex layers of reflections
brings us face-to-face with a window-washer inside
the store. Headless mannequins appear to be breaking
through the boundaries of the vast expanse of glass.
While the clash between the Citys haves
and have-nots is certainly one of the subjects
in these works, Aaronsons reflections also
speak of the Citys humanity. Reflected buildings
appear to have diminished in size, making them less
imposing, more in harmony with human scale.
Particularly striking for its quiet beauty is Raindrops
at Bergdorf where hand-wrought glass vessels
filled with water and suspended at various levels
were featured in the 2002 Christmas display. Like
so many tear drops, they were poignant reminders
for Aaronson of all that New York had lost the year
before. Yet, somehow these glittering raindrops,
which reflect the statuesque grandeur of the GM
Building and Sherry Netherland Hotel, simultaneously
allude to the Citys vulnerability and reinforce
its towering aspirations.
Other photographs in this series elicit similar
emotional responses. The American flag, so ubiquitous
in the aftermath of the September 11 tragedy, is
a powerful presence in many of the Subconscious
City photographs. This evidence of newfound
patriotism can be seen in Rockefeller Plaza,
Grand Slam and American Express. Winter
Garden, however, with its reflections of downtown
landmarks such as the Woolworth Building, is less
obvious in its subliminal message, but equally eloquent.
Photographed on the day the newly restored Winter
Garden atrium reopened following the terrorist attack
on the World Trade Center, it speaks of a city determined
to rebound from tragedy.
Among Aaronsons most compelling images are
those in which reality is obscured by pattern and
abstraction supercedes the concrete. Framed mirrors
in Chelsea Flea Market bring nearby buildings
into close view, conflating the monumental and the
intimate. Similarly, Ta Bom Ties fuses reflected
architectural detail with a multitude of richly
patterned ties, which become one with bricks, doors,
windows, and sky. In Dinos Parking Garage
the familiar Day-Glo palette of graffiti conforms
to the undulating curves of a black Mercedes that
glistens in the aftermath of a light rain shower.
Aaronsons Subconscious City photographs
are entirely fleeting in nature one-of-a-kind
moments. Each day sunlight and shadow create new
reflections and by now, most of the store window
displays that he once photographed are long gone.
Yet, with a click of the shutter, he stills the
restless and inexorable flow of the City, leaving
us with a journal that is both personal and universal,
material and immaterial. Seeing his photographs
may inspire us to look more closely into the magical
depths of reflected surfaces and search for those
instants when fragments of New York City appear
more surreal than real taking us out of ourselves
into the solitude of the unconscious mind where
the cacophony of city life dissolves into silence.
New York, August 2003