Come See: New York, N. Why? at The Met.

Rudy Burkhardt, Pedestrians, New York City, 1939
Photo via Met Museum

There’s a show up at The Metropolitan Museum of Art of which I’ve come back to three times because I enjoy it so much, maybe I can convince you to come see it too…

New York, N. Why? (1940) is a handmade scrapbook of silver-gelatin photographs Rudy Burkhardt took in New York City between 1937 and 1940 accompanied by 7 sonnets by the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby.  The Met owns the only copy which has been unbound and hung on the wall in sequence for this exhibition.

The book is divided into three sections, each introduced by a poem, and each with different photographic subject matter.  First is street furniture such as standpipes, cornices, door frames, grates, and columns.  Second is advertising including storefronts and posters.  Third is pedestrians.  All three of these categories are found on the streets of New York but Burkhardt delves into and abstracts the minutae of each.

Before you round the one corner in the small exhibition space to get to the beginning of the book, there are two arresting silver-gelatin photographs from the same time period.  The first is Rudy Burkhardt’s self-portrait in front of a simple white screen.  He is in his mid-twenties, handsome, and well-groomed, wearing a tweed blazer over a cable knit sweater, white shirt, plaid tie, with dark slacks and shoes, standing tall and looking solemnly off to the side.

The second photograph, a portrait Burkhardt took of his collaborator Edwin Denby, is awesome.  Denby sits on the roof of their cold-water loft on 21st street, looking frankly into the camera with a slight smirk.  He too is young and handsome with one gelled forelock of dark hair and the blazer, sweater, shirt, tie, slacks, and oxfords ensemble.  It seems as though the photographer is suspended in mid-air over 21st street or balanced on a very far out ledge for Denby and the building’s roof is only on the right side while 21st street stretches into the distance down the center of the image.  Signs reading “Lofts for Lease” and “For Rent” are visible along the sides of the buildings which shrink into lightness.  Below, old-timey (for us) cars line the curbs, several men unload an old timey truck and a couple in black carrying a baby in white strolls away, further into the picture.

Edwin Denby on West 21st Street, 1937 via WNYC

Denby’s poem introducing section one:

You can have the measurements OK’ed, miled,
Talk with the bank and get the building faced,
Carry it on the books and when the firm’s failed
Pedestrians still go by the slabs as placed.

Pride shifts from this accomplishment to that,
Leaves old killings and half a city built,
The noise that smoothed it like a swimmer’s fat
Disintigrates into Sunday bits of dirt.

Measurements however in straight angles to
The pavement and a standpipe do not so move,
As if the mind shifts slower than people do
And keeps widening the span between love and no love.

This widening like a history mystery
Is what Rudy’s camera takes in the city.

Rudy Burckhardt, Pair of Siamese Standpipes, New York City, 1939
Photo via Met Museum

The first section contains photos of sides of buildings, door casings, standpipes, each image a modernist composition of different textures and patterns of concrete and stone, and decorations in moldings and frames with various degrees of ware or scuff marks. I recognize the materials and the patterns as belonging to those big old buildings here, the ones that look really solid and that make you think, they don’t make buildings like they used to.  The first time I saw this show I was also comforted by the familiarity of these images, thinking that although some great stuff has been torn down and some ugly stuff put up in New York, a lot of these very standpipe subjects are probably still here, 70 years later.

Denby’s poems throughout the exhibition seem to be slightly jokingly disdainful of banks and in the first poem he notes the discrepancy between the intentions put into a building, possibly a bank, and the relationship one has with its phyiscal presence from then on.

The final image of the first section, a straight on closeup of speckled granite, looks like a Jackson Pollock painting.  By the way, Burkhardt took this famous photograph of Jackson Pollock in his studio around ten years later.

Part two, the advertising section, begins with a pulled back view of a Barber shop where the lettering of ads on different planes of space in the image create a collaged look.

Rudy Burkhardt, ‘Eagle’ Barber Shop Window, New York City, 1939
Gelatin silver print; 7 1/16″ x 9 11/16″ Photo via Met Museum

In the following photographs Burkhardt captures magazines on racks with just parts of titles visible and posters pasted over each other making most of the letters abstracted and nonsensical while the few letters or images that do remain whole seem comical in their accidental significance.

One interesting bit of history in these images- there are many cigarette ads, one offering packs at 13 cents, another at 10 cents!

One of Denby’s poems breaks up this section and begins with a line I love, “An eye is wide and open like a day.”

The last photograph of section two is an extreme closeup of two advertising posters where no full words are visible, just letters as shapes, but it seems a little tongue in cheek because despite the abstract composition, we are still able to recognize what the ads are for.  (One is for Coca Cola and I wonder if back then the malted milk sign just as easily recognizable.)

Coca-Cola and Malted Milk Sign Details, New York City, 1939
Gelatin silver print; 8 3/8″ x 7 5/8″ Photo via Met Museum

Part three shows pedestrians interacting with this environment of concrete/architecture and signage, but seems to point out the incongruity or lack of a meaningful relationship between the two.  The people seem indifferent to or even helpless to the city’s design around them despite the fact that it was all man made.

Rudy Burkuardt, Legs of Woman Walking Across Manhole Cover, New York City, 1939
Photo via Met Museum

Man in Suit Holding Newspaper on Street, New York City, 1939
Photo via Met Museum.

Burkhardt also abstracts groups of people playing on patterns and trends in fashion but also giving you that street-photograph sense of being there, in the hustle and bustle of the crowd, as in the photo “Pedestrians” at the top of this post.

Weirdly, I just figured out while researching this article that Rudy Burkhardt’s son, Jacob Burkhardt, was my digital sound design professor in college!

Related Links:
ew York, N. Why? (Met Museum)
Rudy Burkhardy and Edwin Denby in conversation with Joe Giordano for WBAI, 1976 (Jacket Magazine)
New York, N Why?: Photographs by Rudy Burkhardt (Flavorpill)
A Photo Scrapbook by Rudy Burkhardt and Edwin Denby (Examiner)
Met Shares Sublime New York Photo Album by Rudy Burkhardt (Village Voice)
Rudy Burkhardt’s New York Street-Scene Scrapbook (NY Sun)
Phillip Lopate on The Photos of Rudy Burkhardt


Author: rebs


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