Tag Archives: New York

Lunch atop a Skyscraper, 1932.

New York Construction Workers Lunching on a Crossbeam

For about a decade I thought this image was a shot of construction workers enjoying a lunch-time nibble on the Empire State Building. Only last year was I told the building wasn’t the site of King Kong’s last hurrah but 30 Rockefeller Plaza, or 30 Rock for short (now recently renamed the Comcast Building).

Weirdly, Sir Alex Ferguson brought me here. In a TV interview with Fabien Barthez, Fergie explained to his old goalkeeper the importance of the photograph (it adorned his office wall), that it encapsulated with its 11 men dangling on the 840-foot girder classic themes of sacrifice and teamwork, and of realising the impossible. A cultured chap for a football manager, one would of course expect this kind of art on his wall, and not Vinnie Jones crunching Gazza’s testicles.

Widely credited to Charles C. Ebbets, the snap has a staged, advertising feel to it, but is nonetheless quietly subversive in its details. This is the Prohibition era, yet the bloke on the far right is hogging a bottle of whiskey (fuck the system!). Researchers have identified him as Gustáv (Gusti) Popovič, a lumberjack and carpenter from Slovakia, who would at the end of WWII be killed by a grenade. He even sent his wife this photograph, on which he wrote, ‘Don’t you worry, my dear Mariska, as you can see I’m still with bottle. Your Gusti.’

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Immigrants building the future, eh. Many photographs are considered great merely on the basis of their functional quality (a photo is a photo is a photo), others also have an accompanying historical value which enriches them, surface components opening up human dramas outwith the artefact.

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Dark Days (2000).

There’s a link now online to the absolutely stunning documentary Dark Days (2000), about New York City’s mid-’90s homeless community living in Freedom Tunnel, an abandoned part of the Amtrak underground. The subjects themselves use 16 mm gauge cameras to document their endeavours, and the film also serves as an introduction to DJ Shadow’s groundbreaking ‘trip hop’ album Entroducing (1996). With Hoop Dreams (1994) and The Cruise (1998), it’s one of the best documentaries from the tail end of the pre-digital age.

Further reading:

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/jan/26/dark-days-marc-singer-new-york

http://thevinylfactory.com/features/how-dj-shadows-entroducing-turned-forgotten-vinyl-into-a-postmodern-masterpiece/

Entroducing (1996):

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New York – Twin Cities.

The Big Apple is venerated as the most filmed city in movies, a hustle-bustle urban jungle of possibilities, both magical and harrowing.

It seems there aren’t films made *about* New York City very much anymore; they merely take place there, the protagonists unaffected by the milieu. Perhaps it’s a post 9/11 reluctance to confront the contentious ‘symbolism’ that the city continues to offer. Only Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002) confronts NYC in its role as ‘snapshot city’, and attempts to deconstruct its myths and contradictions.

New York is represented in two modes of cinema – it’s a decrepit urban hell or a serene cloud to naval gaze on – guzzle down coffees, discuss Dialectical Materialism, be ‘arty’. The dichotomy is illustrated in two films made three years apart, Taxi Driver (1976) and Manhattan (1979).

Taxi Driver (1976).

If ever the topography of a city mirrored a protagonist’s crumbling psyche it’s Taxi Driver (1976). Travis Bickle here represents purgatory, New York a steaming cesspool of ‘animals’ and ‘filth’. The city is an ill-thought-out maze, a cruel, shallow, uncaring conurbation from gutter to canopy. An utter dump, it’s where people lose their minds.

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Manhattan (1979).

This movie is paradise. I’d love to live like one of these characters. A bloke in it willingly quits his job because he can. He doesn’t worry over council tax or credit card debt or rent or any of that trivial shite – he just spends the remainder of the movie see-sawing between a neurotic journalist and a 17-year-old high school student. The city here black and white, lit up in fireworks and George Gershwin. There is no crime, there are no social problems. There are only parties and conversations. NYC is a lucid dream.

Photography By Brian Hamill

A film-maker from different backgrounds and experiences will of course develop his own vision of metropolis as distinct from another’s, but this city is ridiculous in its contrasting representations to the extent that one wonders if it’s the same place subjected to the camera. The theme goes beyond a depiction of class divide – its wholly disparate districts captured on celluloid – and channels two states of mind. New York is *the* kaleidoscopic dwelling.

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