“Inspiration and Opportunity” – A photographers’ review of two exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

Anthony Caro on the Roof
Night Vision: Photography After Dark

By Neal Rosenau

Photographers will find inspiration and creative challenge in two new exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Both are worth your time.

The inspiration will come from Night Vision: Photography After Dark,” an exhibit of 40 masterful black and white prints on display until September 18 in the Gilman Gallery – the photography rooms on the Met’s second floor.

For a creative challenge, head up the fifth floor to Anthony Caro on the Roof.  Bring your camera and a friend or two, and see what you can do with delightful, big and colorful abstract modern sculptures set in the roof garden against gorgeous birds-eye views of Central Park and the New York City skyline.  Caro’s work will be there until October 30 (fall colors available then).

I’ll consider each of these exhibits separately.

Night Vision: Photography After Dark

Anyone serious about working with a camera has tried taking pictures after dark, using flash or “available light.” First results can be uncertain and sometimes nightmarish. but this exhibit features night visions that work.  Some of the images are strikingly beautiful, some funny, some uncomfortable or challenging. They are done quite well technically, and some are downright exciting for one who loves the photographic art.

coburn photo

Alvin Langdon Coburn, Broadway at Night, ca. 1910, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Here you can see original works by such masters as Brassai, who revealed Paris de nuit, or Bill Brant, who captured moody, damp and foggy night scenes of London.  New York is well represented – notably in Berenice Abbott’s brilliantly glistening high-angle view of Midtown skyscrapers in early evening; in Alvin Langdon Coburn’s “Broadway at Night” from 1910; and in Peter Hujar’s vibrant portrait of a man cruising the night scene in a Lower East Side park.

Alfred Stieglitz has a print in the show – a moody view of New York’s Savoy Hotel in 1897, and Edward Steichen is represented with a darkly glowing image of deep woods at twilight. Hung between their prints are memorable works by great names of twentieth century photography such as Diane Arbus, Weegee, Lewis Hine, Robert Frank and Gary Winogrand, to name a few.

You may not need to read the wall labels to appreciate the special vision, the humor, the gloomy pathos or the pain these photographers captured so well.  But read the captions, and you can discover the careful thought and effort that went into making some of the images.  One of the earliest pioneers of the night-shot genre, English amateur photographer Paul Martin described his technique for capturing gaslight reflected on wet pavement. His exposures lasted 10 to 30 minutes, and with his camera on his tripod, he attracted attention of authorities in a way that won’t surprise serious amateurs even today:

“When I was making my first exposure on the Embankment in the pouring rain a bulky City policeman all complete with beard approached me and said, ‘What are you supposed to be doing?’ ‘Taking a photograph,’ I answered. ‘What!’ he exclaimed. ‘At this time of night and in this rain?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘That’s why I am taking it.’ He said nothing more but stood with his arms folded under his huge cape and just slightly nodding his head, as much as to say, ‘Poor fellow! No doubt queer in the head!’”

Berenice Abbot, Night View, New York, 1932, printed 1950s ©Berenice Abbot/Commerce Graphics

Effective night visions don’t just happen. Consider how Berenice Abbott’ planned her exquisite “Nightview, New York” in 1932:

“I took this early in the evening,” she wrote. “There was only one time of the year to take it, shortly before Christmas. I started about 4:30 P.M. and didn’t have much time. But I had done a good deal of prior planning on the photograph, going so far as to devise a special soft developer for the negative. This was a fifteen-minute exposure and I’m surprise the negative is as sharp as it is because these buildings do sway a bit. I knew I had no opportunity to make multiple exposures because the lights would start to go out shortly after 5:00 P.M. when the people began to go home and so it had to be correct on the first try. In this case I was at a window, not at the top of the building; there would have been too much wind outside. It was, of course, hard to get permission. They always thought you wanted to commit suicide and superintendents were always tired, lazy and annoyed. They usually had to be bribed.”

Unfortunately, the most modern optics, digital capture and color are not represented in this exhibit.  But Part of the lesson here is that, even with 21st century lenses and digital equipment, you still have to think about the image you want and what it will take to get it.

And that’s true night or day.

Robert Frank London 1952 ©Robert Frank

Peter Hujar Man in Park, 1981©The Peter Hujar Archive

Anthony Caro – On the Roof

Of course, daytime is the only time you’ll get to see or take pictures on the Met’s fifth-floor rooftop.  They won’t let you up there after dark or in bad weather, so choose a good day to enjoy Anthony Caro’s curious sculptures along with the treetop perspective on Central Park and the grand views of the New York City skyline.

You can enjoy this exhibit with camera or without, of course, and in bright sun or clouds.  The sculptures show up well either way, and a few clouds add interest to any views you take of the art, the skyline or people who gather there to contemplate, to sip some coffee or wine or enjoy a snack, and to soak in the weather and the passing scene.

Anthony Caro

It was cloudy, even drizzling a bit, on the day of the press preview, when the 86-year-old artist himself was available for questions and photos.  The result was soft light that helped me make a portrait of the modern sculptor described by the Met as “the most influential and prolific British sculptor of his generation, and a key figure in the development of modernist sculpture over the last 60 years.”

The earliest of the five big works on display on the Met roof is a yellow piece called “Midday,” made in 1960.  The rest cross the decades to 2010’s “End Up,” its rusted cast iron and jarrah wood posed against a mirrored-window reflection of the city.

Caro himself pointed me to “Blazon,” a steel piece painted red, which he said worked very nicely against the skyline.

For this reviewer, 1968’s “After Summer,” made of steel painted light gray, offers a winsome contrast to the angles of New York buildings.  On the right afternoon, it should provide an evocative echo of puffy white clouds – but you’ll have to see for yourself.

For the artist, who said “it’s nice to see my old friends [these sculptures] here,” the Met Museum roof is “a lovely place to show… Who could hope for a better background?”

And for us, it’s a lovely place to view and photograph.

After Summer, Blazon and New York City

Midday and New York City

NEAL ROSENAU is an avid, award-winning photographer and writer and past president of the Teaneck (NJ) Camera Club.  His career in journalism included writing and editing newspapers and magazines, and he was an on-air correspondent for WCBS and WNBC TV stations in New York. View some of his photos http://www.nealrosenau.com.

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