Review by Steve Harp •
In that distant era – seemingly so long ago, yet in many ways the world in which we still live – of the onslaught of the COVID-19 virus, all of our lives were shattered and altered in ways we are still crawling from and trying to understand. In that now unimaginable pre-pandemic time of early spring 2020, I was preparing to teach an introductory analog photography course when the world shut down. Students were promised that all learning could be shuffled online. I maintained that a process as physical and materials based as darkroom photography cannot be simply given a virtual incarnation. Instead, in this ordeal we were collectively experiencing, I suggested we needed to shift our concerns away from material and towards experience.
How can photography be used to make sense of this unprecedented event? How can photography be used by practitioners to try to understand and deal with the trauma we are facing both collectively and individually? The course that replaced the beginning film and darkroom course I titled “Diary of the Plague Semester” after Daniel Dafoe’s Diary of the Plague Year. Students were tasked with trying to use photography to document and thereby (hopefully) make some kind of sense of what was happening to “the everyday,” the lives they were familiar with and, thereby, photography could become a kind of “working through” of the trauma that daily life had become.
I begin with this extended personal narrative simply to give a context to my responses to the books being reviewed here, On the Roof: New York in Quarantine by Josh Katz and Williamsburg Bkn in Time of Plague by Brian Rose. The coincidence of both books documenting the effects of the same event in the same place from such different perspectives harkened back to my students’ efforts in spring of 2020.
Before considering the narratives of the two books, a few words about the books as physical objects. The design and layout approaches taken by each hint at the different ways each photographer documents the effects of the quarantine – how each tells his story. Rose’s volume is softcover, 11”x 8” (98 pages) straightforwardly structured in a uniform layout of two horizontal images across each spread. The design of Katz’s book (by Eddie Ymeri), on the other hand, is varied throughout. The book is hardcover, 8 ¼” x 10 ¼” (144 pages) and combines double-page bleeds, single-page bleeds, images printed across the gutter, multiple images on a page and images set into images. Interspersed are texts, diary entries, really, written by Katz during the quarantine. These are often (but not always) printed on colored backing fields.
Williamsburg Bkn in Time of Plague
I have long been an admirer of Brian Rose’s comparative photographs of New York’s meatpacking district made in 1985 and 2013. I often present them in a class I teach for first-year students on photographing the urban landscape. Even considering the small sample of Rose’s work I’m familiar with, I’ve long felt that he has an ability to make space – and human interaction with space, particularly urban constructed space – speak.
The meatpacking district photographs are historically elegant in their depictions of change across time. And these photographs of Williamsburg Brooklyn (“a dynamic place that conjures many different preconceptions” Rose tells us in his brief introduction) are tragically elegant in their stark depictions of unexpected, abrupt change. The sense that comes through most powerfully from Rose’s photographs (taken over one month, between March 20 and April 20, 2020, in the absolute depths of the quarantine) is of apocalypse. My own sense of New York is, I think, a common one – endless activity, “a city that never sleeps.”
Rose’s photographs are stunning in their stillness. Stray individuals are seen (alone or in groups of two) but these are the exception in the 83 images that comprise this volume. Mostly we see the works of humans – buildings (obviously), signage, graffiti, advertising, parks, litter, transit stations, store fronts – abandoned. We see the effects of humans, but few humans. The transitoriness of human agency is alluded to in Rose’s opening epigraph from Thomas Nashe written in 1592: “All things to end are made, The plague full swift goes by.”
The disquiet of the apocalypse suggested in these images of Rose’s is enhanced by the fact that the vast majority seem to have been taken on beautiful, clear days. The richness and vibrancy of the blue skies pick up the vibrant colors of graffiti, advertising, painted exteriors, statues of saints and ninja turtles. A bright world – just not one of people and human activity. And therein lies the foreboding in these photographs of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Human life and human activity is that much more powerful and present given its absence. The actors seem swept away, leaving in place the sets of ambiguous narratives, in mid-act as it were.
However, I see in one image toward the end of the book, a glimmer of hope, an embrace of beauty even in those locked down days. In a suite of four images from Lee Avenue, taken in what appears to be an orthodox Jewish neighborhood, a photograph captioned “Lee Avenue – Hewes Street” depicts two pairs of men shopping at an outdoor flower vendor. Both pairs seem aware of safety protocols and yet, the attraction toward the beauty of nature remains. I find something hopeful and lovely in that image.
On the Roof: New York in Quarantine
If Brian Rose presents a portrait of Brooklyn streets during quarantine as a deserted, post-apocalyptic landscape, Josh Katz gives us something quite different. His view of Brooklyn does not contradict Rose’s, but rather compliments it by showing what was taking place off street level.
Photographing in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, adjacent to Williamsburg, Katz presents us with a diary – visual and written – of the quarantine. Interestingly, both books clearly fix themselves in a very specific time frame. The title page of Rose’s monograph situates his images between March 20th and April 20th 2020. Katz’s diary entries begin at March 13th and continue on until May 29 (“Day 80 of Quarantine”). A final entry of June 2nd deals with the Black Lives Matter protests against the George Floyd murder.
For those who might be anticipating (as I was) a contemporary version of Ruth Orkin’s 1978 photobook The World From My Window, Katz does not present the world from his rooftop, so much as the world of his rooftop, the world that grew and developed in the face of the “tremendous loss” wrought by the pandemic and the distancing from the wider world he and his neighbors (and, obviously, all of us) were part of. Katz’s photographs offer us a document of human hope and resilience in the “roof culture” that emerged in the face of the “isolated desperation” all were thrown into. Katz gives something of a manifesto for his project in this written entry for April 12 (Day 31 of Quarantine):
Whatever I’m doing, my camera is in hand and I’m constantly scouting, ready to photograph anything that catches my eye. My neighbors have come to respect my devotion to this project; they understand that I’ll run off mid-conversation if I spot something I need to capture.
Katz’s diary entries are not simply narrative recountings, but are meditations, observations and reflections on photographic ethics, fire escapes, romance during quarantine, rituals, his neighbor Gil and his pigeons, loitering and conversing across distances as transformed by the pandemic. Visually, many of Katz’s images might be described as banal, but to that I would qualify as delightfully banal. The “snapshot aesthetic” at play in these images reinforce the striving for normalcy by those (again, all of us) living through quarantine – the quotidian as a thing of beauty, a condition to aspire to.
In his epilogue, from March 2021, Katz writes, “In trauma, people come together and form lasting bonds.” Katz’s book is filled with evidences of these bonds – people making music, having a drink together, writing in a journal, even cleaning – the more unremarkable the activity, the more beautiful and moving. I think in particular of the couple depicted on pages 72 – 75 (I think it’s the same couple) interacting in wonderfully average ways near a piece of rooftop graffiti reading *cults!.
Visually the most striking photographs, I feel, are the photographs of Gil’s pigeons, particularly the double page spreads on pages 98-99 and 104-105. These images add a subtle metaphorical resonance to this diary-book in which we’re all seeking to fly away from the pandemic. But, as Katz so touchingly shows us, we can’t fly away, all we can do is fly to each other, those we share our rooftops with, in whatever form our rooftop takes.
Steve Harp is a Contributing Editor and Associate Professor The Art School, DePaul University
Williamsburg Bkn In Time of Plague, Brian Rose
Photographer: Brian Rose, born Virginia, resides Brooklyn NY
Self-published (copyright, 2020)
Introduction: Brian Rose
Book description: softcover, perfect bound
Book Design: Brian Rose
On the Roof, New York in Quarantine, Josh Katz
Photographer: Josh Katz, currently resides Brooklyn NY
Publisher: Thames & Hudson Inc. (New York, New York, copyright 2021)
Foreword: Rumaan Alam; Text commentary: Josh Katz
Book: hardcover, casebound with imagewrap cover, 144 pages, ISBN: 978-050002491-1
Photobook designer: Eddy Ymeri
____ Brian Rose:
____ Josh Katz:
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