Review by Paul Anderson •
In a very curious way, photographs can be magical. Photographs, as is well known, capture three-dimensional scenes as frozen moments in time. This action instantly transforms a scene into a new context. Sometimes, that transformation provides a contemplative experience. A skilled photographer can transform an everyday scene that, say, a New York City commuter passes hundreds of times in a year, into a deeper image that highlights sympathetic or conflicting patterns, textures, details, and juxtapositions.
Such transformations are on display in many of the 78 plates of the photobook Evanescent Cities by Patrick O’Hare. These are quotidian images taken in the New York City boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Details and textures in the photographs show a city that has been heavily used by its invisible inhabitants. The images are curiously anonymous in character, devoid of recognizable signage: chain stores, franchise restaurants, iconic buildings, and the like. The images feel chaotic and somewhat messy, like a teenager who forgot to clean their room.
Most of the images are composed at medium scale, containing parts of buildings, bits and pieces of green space, chunks of parking lots, and segments of roads. These medium-scale compositions often incorporate a repeating graphic design theme, creating interesting patterns. These design themes can be rectilinear shapes, lines from buildings, poles, signs and scaffolding; or tangles of wires and tree branches. Some are a mix of contrasting themes, creating interesting tension. The more successful images contain strong graphic elements, reflecting the bold geometric lines, angles, shapes and planes of a large metropolitan area.
Darran Anderson, who wrote the introductory essay, provides a nice succinct observation on the scale of Patrick O’Hare’s urban images:
“The street scenes we find here in Evanescent Cities are interstitial. They are in-between spaces. The images are studies of gaps and what exists therein.”
It is entertaining to see certain subjects revisited throughout the book. These can include surveillance cameras jutting out from walls, forgotten strips of tape decorating doors and posts, Christmas tree lights winding around just about anything, and bits of nature growing in distinctly unnatural settings.
One notable image contains a small stand of birch trees in the foreground, standing watch over a small urban park. City streets, a transit bus, and office buildings are arrayed in the background. This can be viewed as an interesting play on such images as “Aspens, Northern New Mexico” by Ansel Adams, or the many other mages of birch or aspen that have become a photographic cliché in the current era. Here the cliché has been turned on its head in an urban environment.
These are not grand urban landscapes, nor are they studies of small urban details. These are not images of high-gloss nor poor city neighborhoods. They are not judgmental. They do not romanticize the city. They are not particularly joyous. Rather, they illuminate an urban environment as it is experienced by the everyday city dweller, documenting the march of time as elements of the city grow and fade. Juxtapositions of old and new building styles create visual mismatches that are nicely revealed. The book title, Evanescent Cities, suggests that these images represent the impermanence of urban constructs. This is certainly a valid viewpoint, but this reviewer was more taken by the contrast of aging elements shown against durable elements, unkempt forms playing against architectural rigidity. This is a city past its prime, and the wear-and-tear is showing, maybe even celebrated. Perhaps cities always look past their prime?
This is a well-printed hardcover book. There is a good selection of images, and they are laid out in an attractive sequence. As with any book that contains non-traditional images, each reader will find some more interesting and attractive than others. But, there should be something in here for anyone interested in urban photography or documentary images of urban spaces.
Evanescent Cities, Patrick O’Hare
Photographer: Patrick O’Hare, born Washington DC and resides in Brooklyn, NY
Published by Daylight Books, Copyright 2020
Essays: Darran Anderson and Tim Davis
Hardcover, paper over boards, 78 plates, 128 pages, 12 x 9 inches, printed by Artron, China
Art Director: Ursula Damm
Copy Editor: Gabrielle Fastman
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