City Lights

John Haber
in New York City

Catherine Opie: American Cities

Mary Ellen Mark: Bombay and New Orleans

Catherine Opie maps invisible communities and the lives they hold. In her best-known work, the focus is on the lives, and the communities demand to be seen. The glum, muscular portraits of lesbians and leather in LA are not themselves confrontational. They linger too tenderly for that over harsh faces and lumpy tattooed flesh. Yet they have a deliberate plainness, down to centered compositions and unaccented colors, to express that their subjects are just not going away.

With "American Cities," the focus is instead on the communities, and the marginal becomes the vanishing. Here Opie's world looks barely fit for human life, especially when it contains people. The series updates Depression-era photojournalism and its visual poetry for an age that struggles to recover its downtowns. Meanwhile Nathan Lyons and Mary Ellen Mark photograph the very emblems of patriotism after an urban disaster. He alludes to 9/11, without showing events at all, while Mark, who earlier documented prostitution in India, captures a return to New Orleans after the storm. Right up to her death, she was still facing the facts. Catherine Opie's Untitled #7 (St. Louis) (Barbara Gladstone, 1999–2000)

City lights

Catherine Opie squeezes the heart of American cities down to sixteen inches in height. Her landscapes have little pedestrian traffic. Fragments of architecture often interrupt, as if hurriedly left behind, but the flight might have ended long ago. History has invested the site of One World Trade Center with a special meaning. Yet other streets stand quite as barren as Ground Zero. Not even the South and Los Alamos for William Eggleston, however empty or strange, holds the same menace.

"American Cities" presents not so much a commentary on Modernism and society as a study in quiet and unease, much like rural Virginia for Sally Mann. Here even emptiness requires careful staging, much as for Zwelethu Mthethwa in South Africa. The photos have more breathing room than Opie's family pictures or her seriously quiet views of American beaches, but precious little air. The myriad dead ends around Wall Street cut short the very possibility of breath. So does the ceiling of a nearly empty garage or a cantilevered roof over open space in Chicago. Frontal views exaggerate their width and thrust them out of the picture plane.

A single shot might pair a church and a high rise. Their glass façades could almost pass for stone walls. Another photograph tethers the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis to the spans of an old steel bridge. It also relegates the idealism of Eero Saarinen to a distant corner—the single point of light in a dark sky. Even when a river view offers open sky, evening clouds press down heavily. The white of bare walls becomes shades of gray.

Opie presents a confining garage ceiling and a welcoming canopy as parallels, without explaining either one. They might be elements of the Prairie School or an office tower. I kept puzzling out the light, the time of day, or even the reality. I wanted to figure out what could have driven away the cars and people. The few color prints show Lake Michigan, with the horizon line roughly across the middle and rudely horizontal. The two blue rectangles in each could recall the calm of a Mark Rothko—or just present blunt masses.

For some, her views of Lower Manhattan will offer the most resonance and disquiet. I prefer an entire room devoted to enclosed, second-floor skyways. They make explicit the idea of people doing their best to avoid exposure to air, and the mismatched buildings to either side extend the broken symmetry. The play between entry points and dead ends recalls Thomas Struth, while the looming disaster parallels coastal California for Christina McPhee, who deserves the same attention. Few photos display more than glass and structural support. And naturally the exception allows a poster to proclaim "God Bless America."

Nathan Lyons tackles city streets before and after 2001. He started working before 1960, but here he turns to America's attempts at coping with disaster—those displays of the flag that sprang up everywhere after 9/11. Every so often, he indulges in irony. A flag abuts a magazine cover's display of flesh. Mostly, though, he lets his subjects do as best as they can on their own. He sticks to close-ups, as if only formal constraints could keep the political and emotional pressures under control.

Down the road

One critic has dismissed Shirin Neshat for her images of blank lust as more suited to Night of the Living Dead. Another lumps her with Bill Viola and his "literalist poetic representations." And I admit it: I fall as quickly as the next postmodern yuppie for an earnest feminism or for sentiment. By comparison, Mary Ellen Mark with her own tales of Third World prostitution comes as one shock after another. And one's first shock comes just in looking.

Mark deals with women used to putting themselves on display for men, and their lack of reticence makes the encounter especially blunt. So does Mark's ease with her subjects, after nearly ten years in Bombay. The series embraces the ugliness of bare flesh along with its beauty, premature aging along with stolen youth. Still more unsettling, the same range of responses applies to the women's lives. They cry and cling to one another for comfort. They preen themselves and find laughter beside a customer or "boyfriend"—who, Mark has written, is likely to beat his favored woman regularly.

Does Mark risk some of the same criticism as Neshat? Just as the younger artist at times falls prey to slick production values, Mark works within the idiom of photojournalism, but she does not stop there. Her work has appeared in The Sunday Times Magazine and Rolling Stone, but that makes it all the more provocative. She stays within her subjects' physical space and equally closed perspective, and she gives each harsh fact a personal, emotional dimension. When she says that the prostitutes look on the madam as a mother, even when they also look on her in fear, Mark anticipates the call of the older woman in Zarin.

Neshat's entrance into a woman's world raises much the same tough questions as Mark's as well. Zarin's nakedness at the bath house violates exactly the social and artistic norms that the video is documenting. So does access to her dreams followed by a return to realism. They mark the work of art as a woman's. They mark a place in which she and others, unlike Zarin herself, can step out of a burka for good and assume their desires. They can leave the frenzy of rapture more safely behind.

At the same time, the violations, like the work's cinematic lushness, may remind a male viewer of his own ambivalent space within the video. Neshat calls her ongoing project "Women Without Men," because men lie without. The distance of a fiction keeps intruding, but objectivity is out of the question. Neshat leaves the girl multiply exposed—by her isolation, by her harsh work, by her own wishes, and by the camera. No wonder one stays to the end, to have the last look. Just hope that it does not led to a sequel or a miniseries.

Do not dismiss either artist. In each, I hardly knew which extreme destroyed my detachment more, the pleasures or the fears. Neither comports easily with a view of women as mere instruments of pleasure or as passive victims. Mark's Falkland Road series is still more urgent by virtue of its directness. Photographed in the late 1970s and published as a book in 1981, it obliges one to take Third World prostitution as not merely a metaphor but a disturbing fact. And with her, too, it takes real art to document shame.

Ten years after

Mary Ellen Mark came to New Orleans in April of 2015, on commission from CNN. She had devoted herself for years to living on borderlines, but here the very borders had been washed away. As it happens, the International Center of Photography is itself in exile, between its past in a midtown office tower (and, before that, a more stately Upper East Side mansion) and a future on the Bowery, and "Picture This: New Orleans" finds a home on Governors Island, the former military base at the mouth of New York harbor. It takes up a fragile wooden house in which its subjects might feel right at home. There Mark captures an ongoing recovery and a return from exile. Yet an entire community still looks anywhere but at home.

"And so the first thing that the plague brought our community was exile." For Albert Camus in The Plague, exile does not destroy but intensify who a person is. In isolation, with the choices limited and their efficacy hopeless or uncertain, every action must withstand scrutiny as never before. What might seem like abstractions become the very basis of empathy. Like Nan Goldin or Opie, Mark always scrutinized and empathized with life on the margins—prostitutes, drug users, the mentally ill, and, yes, people in the arts. In her last work, she photographed people still in exile, ten years after Hurricane Sandy.

They look out of place simply on the wall. One upstairs room projects the resulting CNN program, another a slide show of selections from the photographer's career. They, too, could well belong in New Orleans and its impoverished wards. The rest of the building finds scant room for photos in black and white, some blown up and left to corridors—with a noticeable grain far from the crisp perfection of large digital prints. Mark's compositions flatten them further, with fences and walls corner on and uncomfortably close to the picture plane. These figures have almost nowhere to stand.

Stand they do, though, with full awareness of their situation and the camera. Boys punch their way into the picture at Running Bear Boxing Club, set beside the club's disquietingly comic emblem of a stuffed bear's head. They speak to the kindness of strangers and the possibility of growing up, without hiding their strangeness or aggression. So do two white boys, who began existence as embryos saved from the floods. They sit facing squarely forward, in cowboy hats. They seem unlikely to look kindly on black America.

Not everyone is in control of the situation, even when they do not know it. A mother holds her grown son, dressed in a light suit and bow tie, up against a window like a confining frame. A sufferer from a developmental disorder that leaves him much like a child, he could pass for a mannequin or a sex toy. Others are all but buried by the very things to which they cling the most—a Native American prancing in costume, a black man selling souvenirs draped in an American flag, a woman cuddling her dog or in her fat. A man at ease may yet struggle to escape the lanes of a parking lot or his fame. Actually a football hero for the New Orleans Saints, Drew Brees, he has helped raise money for the extended emergency.

For Camus, exile came about not from displacement but from quarantine in light of the contagion. "But if it were exile, in the majority of cases it was exile among themselves, at home." With Mark, even a return home seems far from a return to normal. She makes the very idea of normal less than the norm for the people she accepts. Still, return they do, much like New York galleries after Hurricane Sandy. As for Mark, she died soon after her trip to New Orleans, at age seventy-five.

BACK to John's arts home page

Catherine Opie's photographs ran at Barbara Gladstone through October 14, 2006, Nathan Lyons at Silverstein Photography, through October 7. Mary Ellen Mark ran at Marianne Boesky and Yancey Richardson through December 23, 2005, and at a temporary home for the International Center of Photography on Governors Island through September 27, 2015. I have given Christina McPhee, formerly wrapped in here, a page to herself.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME