FRONTIER NEW YORK, by Jan Staller, published in 1988
Bookcase 7, Shelf 3, book 25
This whole ‘reading what the dice select’ exercise is fascinating. I think I’d got used to looking at particular bookshelves, or picking up books on a single subject – travel, say, or history (I’ve got lots of both, which is why they keep coming up). Basically, I’d got lazy. Intellectually lazy, and maybe physically lazy too, because there’s no denying that the shelves that are easy to reach undoubtedly get the most attention.
But the throw of the dice made me stand on the back of the sofa, hand on one shelf to make sure I didn’t fall down the gap behind, stretch out – and pull out a book I’d forgotten I owned. And it’s wonderful! Since I hauled Frontier New York out from between two larger, beefier, altogether heavier photography books I’ve been carrying it around with me, urging people to have a look at it. Surprised the postman, anyway.
I can’t claim credit for having discovered FNY. That belongs to my photography tutor from my City and Guilds in the 1990s, who pointed me in the right direction. I was working on a project which involved getting up at about 4 a.m. and being in run-down, ex-industrial areas by the Thames as dawn broke. I was working in black and white, but Gus suggested I look at Staller’s work, and I found the book in the old Photographer’s Gallery bookshop. Isn’t it strange, the way you suddenly remember little, specific things like that so very clearly, even though you’d not thought about them for years?
Perhaps it’s not so surprising, because I fell in instantly love with Staller’s images…
Boy, oh boy, oh boy. And now I’ve fallen in love all over again.
Staller wasn’t a huge fan of New York, though he moved there in 1976. But, by exploring and investigating, he found a different city, found what he describes as ‘many pockets in and around New York that are relatively unused and ignored’. In his brief introduction, he adds that as life had almost withdrawn from these locations, they had become ‘a neglected frontier abutting the functional metropolis’. What he means is made quite clear in his shots of the abandoned West Side Highway (left above and below), awaiting demolition,
and the strange, often dreamy, images of the edges of the Hudson River.
The shots of and from the old West Side Highway are amazing. Staller apparently ‘discovered’ the location while looking for somewhere quieter, more withdrawn, less frantic. What he found was somewhere that was all that, but which also gave him ‘unblocked sunlight, an open horizon, and all varieties of weather’.
Beautiful. Well, I think they are anyway. My own New York was quite different – as a visitor, albeit a working visitor, in the 90s, I knew frantic energy and life. I hardly stopped to appreciate colours, or the forms of buildings, or the typeface of an old ad on the side of a building, or the reflections in a large puddle. Wish I’d known this book then; it would have given me quite a different perspective.
There’s much more than a heap of gorgeous shots of the West Side Highway, though. In other places Staller created his own frontiers, notably by being out and about very early or in weather conditions that are best described as ‘challenging’ – like the shots he took during the night of the 1983 blizzard. They are, quite simply, magical. My own personal favourite is one of traffic lights, colour blurred in a hazy, snowy, almost-monochrome-but-slightly-indigo vision. Sigh.
In other shots the city is dystopian, a John Carpenter vision of Manhattan.
But again there’s this sense of frontier, here almost of a stage or film set (or maybe I’ve just seen Escape from New York too recently). It doesn’t matter how conventionally unappealing the subject matter, either; the colours are still terrific. Love that electric blue.
So how did he achieve these shots, technically? Well, he used existing light sources, so exposure times for his signature twilight or night images could be as long as 8 minutes. In addition, the nature of the light source in those shots – incandescent, sodium vapour, whatever – added an unexpected element. He was using Vericolor L Colour neg film, and colour film is not formulated for these lights, so the colours are rendered differently, are altered, unearthly and intense. I’ll say.
I’ll leave the last word on this book (almost) to Jan Staller: ‘…I find the atmosphere to be rich in mystery, reminiscent of a lost city’. Yup, me too.
Staller is still working in interesting ways. It’s worth checking out his website to see what he’s up to – and there are more shots from the fabulous Frontier New York there, too.