Critics’ Picks

Ted Croner, Times Square Montage, n.d.

Washington, DC

“The Streets of New York”

National Gallery of Art
Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
September 17, 2006–January 15, 2007

The seventy images and six books in “The Streets of New York: American Photographs from the Collection, 1938–1958” rapturously celebrate the city’s riches and ills at midcentury. Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lisette Model, and others reveled in a new style of visual expression that “freely violated the rules of photography,” notes exhibition curator Sarah Greenough, and set the stage for “the street photographers of the 1960’s, including Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Richard Avedon.” Collectively, this cogent exhibition captures the metropolis’s giddy, gritty day-to-day and hellish emotional dead ends, frequently offering transporting moments of visual poetry. Many of the exhibition’s photographers were influenced by either Alexey Brodovitch, art director of Harper’s Bazaar and founder of the Design Laboratory, or Sid Grossman, who taught classes at the Photo League. They employed odd angles, available light, and double exposures to re-create the blurry pandemonium of a daily commute, as in Paul Himmel’s Grand Central Station, 1947, or the chaotic verve of midtown, as in Ted Croner’s undated Times Square Montage. There’s a strong undercurrent of voyeurism, as demonstrated by Walker Evans’s classic “Subway Portrait” series and Weegee’s Frank Pape, Arrested for Homicide, November 10, 1944. There are also oddly heroic moments, such as Sol Lisbon’s 29th Street, West of 5th Avenue, ca. 1940, which finds one of the city’s outcasts in a classical composition worthy of Poussin.

Compared with other major institutions, the National Gallery’s photographic holdings are modest, but they are growing. Most of the photographs in this exhibition were purchased recently, revealing an aggressive, focused acquisitions policy that augurs well for the future.