New York

Andrew Savulich

Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery

Like some latter-day Weegee, Andrew Savulich takes the seemingly endless stream of weirdness of the city—horrible or mundane, gruesome or ridiculous—as the subject of his photographs: two men fighting on the street; a dental hygienist teaching a young boy how to brush his teeth; a sidewalk preacher in Times Square at night. This is the stuff of tabloid journalism, events that suggest a view of life as a mixture of the violent and the tedious, of chance and the everyday. Savulich follows the model of Weegee stylistically as well as in his choice of subjects; like an all-seeing, dispassionate eye, his camera seems to be everywhere, his flash blitzing away any lingering shadows of ambiguity or pretension, while his rude, no-nonsense framing seems to insist on the priority of narrative over formal meanings. He even gives the pictures straightforward descriptive captions, with no editorializing or ironic distance, to further heighten their sense of just-the-facts-ma’am objectivity.

But the seeming impartiality of this style, the implicit refusal to pass judgment on the people and events in the pictures, is itself a pretense, a rhetorical stance like any other. Savulich acknowledges this by printing two images together in each piece, thereby suggesting a link between them. Sometimes the connection between these paired images is based on similar forms or gestures in each—a picture of a woman in a cervical harness, for example, is shown next to a street scene of a man being held on the ground in a headlock. In other cases the action in one frame seems to extend into the other—a shot of the back of an elephant, a turd delicately frozen in mid drop, is placed next to a close-up of a dental patient, mouth opened wide as she awaits her fate. Who can resist the playing out of the cruel joke implied in this pairing? Not me.

Joining photographs in order to change our reading of them is certainly nothing new. Garry Winogrand in particular seemed to delight in juxtaposing things that looked alike—comparing a fat-faced boy with an equally fat-faced sheep, say, or three old ladies with three bags of garbage on an Upper West Side sidewalk—in order to suggest that they might somehow be alike in other ways as well. And the cinematic device of continuing an action across two frames was a favorite ploy of the editors of the old Laughing Camera books, among others. But in returning to Weegee’s favored subjects, celebrating the everyday craziness of urban street life, Savulich recovers a source of enormous energy and lurid fascination. Moreover, he remains true to the terms of this essentially satirical style, never pulling his punches for the sake of received notions of morality or propriety.

Savulich treats even real horror—the crumpled body of a man who has leapt to his death, lying on the edge of a sidewalk; a suicide’s body dangling from a tree, stark white against the black night—with a cynical sense of humor, refusing to accept public pieties, however loudly they may be proclaimed. Instead he insists on observing what people in fact do. Next to the picture of the leaper he shows a man hurrying past a stain on the sidewalk—perhaps the bloodstain left after the body had been hauled away, but the passerby appears to be oblivious to the mark; it’s now just another blot on the pavement.

Savulich’s pictures are rude, insulting, cruel, and intrusive. They’re also hilarious, and a much needed and thoroughly welcome antidote to good taste.

Charles Hagen