Tracing the history of what David Letterman likes to call “the greatest city in the world” as well as the changing technologies used to record and capture it, Picturing New York is a unique and intriguing photographic exhibition. Originally exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it will soon be seen in all its glory at The Art Gallery of Western Australia. For this, we can thank Project Curator Lucy Harper.
When asked about her role in the project, Harper is refreshingly self-effacing. “I’d describe myself as the project curator for Picturing New York. I suppose I’m a curator at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, working on the project from this end with Sarah Meister, the curator at the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who made the curatorial selection.”
Yet it was Harper’s tireless efforts which saw the collection, which encompasses over 150 photographs from more than 90 photographers, and has been exhibited in Ireland and Italy, come to Perth. Her enthusiasm for the project is palpable.
“It tells the story of the evolution of modern photography,” she explains. “From the late 19th century through to about 2005, which is the latest dated work. Alongside that, it looks at the relationship between photography and the birth and development of New York as a great modern city.”
The roster of talent on display is truly impressive. The exhibition includes works from the great Alfred Steiglitz – “Often considered the father of modern photography in the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries,” Harper tells us – Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Freidlander, Garry Winogrand, and Diane Arbus, amongst others.
Asked to name a favourite element of the exhibition, Harper at first begs off, but when pressed, does finally admit to a personal preference. “I really am attracted to the interwar period, where you have the likes of Lewis Hine, Margaret Bourke-White, and Berenice Abbott working. Their photographs really look at the urban development that happened in the early decades of the 20th century when skyscrapers started to go up – you had the likes of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, these fantastic symbols of modernity. I think the public will really like these photographs, too.”
Indeed, she stresses that this installation is not just for photography aficionados. “I think one of the greatest things about these photographs, and in photography in general, is the accessibility of photography. I don’t think you need to have any knowledge of American history, or New York history, or the history of photography, either; I think you can look at these works no matter what your level of knowledge is, and really get something out of them.”