Photographer Interviews

Telling New York City’s Story Through Photos

January 3, 2017

By David Walker

© Joseph Michael Lopez

“Lower Manhattan,” 2016, from Joseph Michael Lopez’s commission to photograph what curators saw as New York City’s five major challenges: housing, transportation, employment, diversity and the environment.

© Rachel Elizabeth Seed

Joseph Michael Lopez © Rachel Elizabeth Seed

In celebration of a $97 million renovation completed last June, the Museum of the City of New York recently opened “New York at Its Core,” a sweeping exhibition about the city’s past, present and future. Among the displays in the exhibit’s three galleries is a portfolio of 100 new images by photographer Joseph Michael Lopez, who spent six months photographing all over the city on commission for the museum.

“My curatorial goal was to bring to bear the artist’s eye, illuminating the very different character of a variety of New York neighborhoods,” says Hilary Ballon, a New York University urban history professor who served as a guest curator for the exhibition. “Joseph’s photographs enrich the exhibition by giving it a very vivid sense of the variety of people who live in New York, the variety of ways they interact, and they transport you into different neighborhoods.”

A native of New York City, Lopez works at the nexus of documentary, fine-art and street photography. He had introduced himself to Sean Corcoran, MCNY’s curator of prints and photographs, at a street photography forum several years ago. Corcoran later included some of Lopez’s images at a South Street Seaport exhibition, and last year recommended Lopez for the “New York at Its Core” commission.

Ballon says she was impressed not only by Lopez’s past work, but by his fearlessness photographing in the public sphere. His work, she says “is not romantic, it’s not varnished. It feels like one is entering the social worlds of people walking, or hanging out on a street corner, or sitting on a bench [without] worrying about invading their private space.”

Lopez got the call for the commission in late 2015. He met several times with Ballon, Corcoran and Kubi Ackerman, project director for Future City Lab, the MCNY gallery where Lopez’s images are being displayed. By January 2016 they had settled on a framework for the photography project. The idea was to photograph neighborhoods with an eye toward five major challenges for the city: housing, transportation, employment, diversity and the environment.

Ballon worked with the museum staff to identify particular neighborhoods where each of those challenges “manifested in particularly interesting form,” she says. For instance, they selected the bustling neighborhoods of Jackson Heights and Midtown Manhattan to explore transportation challenges, and low-lying areas such as Port Morris and Battery Park to look at environmental challenges.

© Joseph Michael Lopez

“Midtown,” 2016. Hilary Ballon, the show’s curator, developed a list of neighborhoods for Lopez to photograph. © Joseph Michael Lopez

Initially, the plan was to have Lopez photograph ten neighborhoods. But that soon grew to 20 neighborhoods—four different neighborhoods for each one of the challenges—and “it morphed into a four-month project, then a six-month project,” he says.

His task was to search for images that somehow reflected the designated challenge. “I was working like an on-site visual investigator,” he says. The museum didn’t want photo essays about the neighborhoods, or the challenges. Instead, they wanted interpretation, and surprises— “what happened to unfold before [Lopez], and what he noticed,” Ballon says. “He was able to recognize what would make a great photograph, and none of it could be determined in advance. It all had to be spontaneous.”

Lopez began photographing last January. He kept an eye on the weather, and used Google maps to pre-scout some of the neighborhoods. (An assistant helped with some research and mapping, he says.) He got up well before dawn several days a week to explore the selected neighborhoods. “I spent a lot of time walking,” and visiting some neighborhoods “over and over,” he says. “I surveyed what was going on: the layers of the social landscape, the architecture, the housing. There’s a way to see what’s going on if you look deeply into the landscape.”

He worked with a Leica M-P240 with a 35mm lens and used his street photography instincts to anticipate scenes that might unfold in front of him. “Without my experience working on the street, I don’t think I would have been able to do this,” he says. He adds, however, that the project “was more documentary in nature than street photography” because he interacted with subjects, and talked his way onto rooftops and into other places and situations to get images that weren’t accessible from the sidewalks.

Lopez usually shoots in black and white, but the museum pushed him to shoot the commission in color. “People see the world in color, [and] the goal was to convey the vivacity of the city,” Ballon explains. Lopez worked most often in low, raking light around sunrise and sunset. “I want to use light in a cinematic way, where the light sculpts the place and makes it either more mysterious, ambiguous, or dramatic,” Lopez says. “I always like playing with shadows and hard light.”

© Joseph Michael Lopez

“Crown Heights,” 2016. Rather than making a photo essay about each neighborhood, Lopez says, “I was working like an on-site visual investigator,” finding unexpected moments. © Joseph Michael Lopez

He met periodically with Ballon and Ackerman to discuss his progress. He showed 15 to 40 images from each neighborhood at those meetings. “There were a lot of conversations about where the project was going,” Lopez says. The dialogue helped address some practical challenges, such as weather. For instance, he made his first forays into Midtown Manhattan during a cold snap. “We wanted to emphasize human density, and types of available transport, but in winter it was too deserted,” Ballon explains. They suggested he try again in warmer weather.

For images reflecting the challenges of housing, Lopez had initial instructions to photograph undeveloped land in Staten Island. But the brown, barren landscape made for boring pictures, and nearby areas offered more visual possibilities, he explains. So he got permission to explore those areas instead. “It was an interesting challenge of taking direction, and having to do on-the-fly legwork,” he says.

Among his favorite images from the project is a bird’s eye view of a corner of Battery Park, looking down through some trees at people relaxing on the grass in the late afternoon. He had spotted the location and kept an eye on it as he made trips to and from Staten Island. He was waiting for just the right light. “It was an intersection of luck and timing and research,” he says of the photograph.

Ballon’s favorite images include one of a group of Orthodox Jews coming from a wedding, and another of a quinceañera party. She says, “It’s remarkable how he broke down boundaries and entered these private spaces [for] a glimpse of city life that most of us don’t see.” Lopez’s entire body of work, she adds, conveys a sense of how people live in the city, move around, and interact with one another. “That’s what we hoped to capture.”

Ballon selected 100 images for the exhibition, with input from Lopez and MCNY staff. “There were times when the selections were congenially contested,” Lopez says. Twenty of the images have been made into Duratrans enlargements for display on light boxes. All 100 images will be presented to museum visitors on iPads along with archival images and other documents that convey the past, present and future of city neighborhoods. As part of a permanent exhibition, Lopez’s images will be on display indefinitely.

Related Articles:

PDN Photo of the Day: Dear New Yorker

PDN Photo of the Day: New York: Portrait of a City

Facebook Comments