New York

Judy Tomkins

Castelli Graphics

One of the first black-and-white photographs one encounters in the show of Judy Tomkins’ "Hells Kitchen portraits is of a white man sitting on a stoop with a little girl (possibly his daughter) standing next to him. The man’s style is tough and protectively masculine, but his eyes are soft and his expression effuses pathos as he gazes steadily into the camera. The little girl twists away from him to focus on a distant spot down the street, her face cross and hostile at the sight of what we can only imagine. Though bordering on the staged (the girl’s head is cropped off at the top of the photograph, so she is a bit distorted, the man is not), there is a nice reversal in this double portrait, an intrigue that draws the viewer into the photograph. But, looking at the approximately 20-picture-portrait of this neighborhood is like walking into a spotless and futuristic Washington D.C. subway station expecting it to be like a brutalized one in New York—not only does it bear no resemblance to what you expected: it hardly seems believable.

Not that a representation of the place as a hellish wasteland would be any more believable. That, too, wouldn’t tell us anything we didn’t at least suspect. The prevailing mood of Tomkins Hell’s Kitchen faces and terrain acts as a shield not unlike that camouflaging paranoia. Tomkins not only wants us to “like” the people in her portraits: she wants us to “like” the neighborhood. Many of her subjects are not only aware of the photographer—they are smiling and posing invitingly for her. This in itself becomes significant when our eyes cannot latch onto subtle discrepancies. In one sense, this indicates a remarkable surrender by the photographer to the manipulative power of pictures (the epitome of which is, as of late, being associated with the work of photographer Diane Arbus), but in several portraits this also means a surrender of artistic control. One might think that Tomkins was reacting from a fear of typecasting the “poor and downtrodden. but Tomkins has typecast in another way—as a thin middle-aged man in a doorway bows to the photographer, we think of Ed McMahon saluting Johnny Carson as he makes his entrance: as the young man in T-shirt with cigarette butt flexes his muscles, we think of Rocky: and as the beaming black woman in front of a graffitied wall stretches out her arms to the camera, the ”Pepsi Generation Jingle comes to mind. Because the romanticism that Tomkins camera allots to her subjects is not an interpretation of character or history, it seems artificial.

Tompkins never really allows us to see the street life described in the press release for the show—we are not given a sense of tile restless energy that causes “simple pestering to ”fester into a gang war." What we see are three-quarter length portraits of people frozen in doorways, looking somewhat hostile but not enough to move from their guardlike stances. Or tile camera goes in close to show us playing cards or tattooed arms around a baby, details not exclusive to Hell’s Kitchen.

Despite the documentary nature of Tomkins protect. she seems uncomfortable with the idea of a specific portrait of lime and place. She declines the responsibility of documentation and leaves us teetering on the edge of a neighborhood still unknown, an enclave that seems not a specific New York City neighborhood, but anywhere U.S.A.

Joan Casademont