New York

Ken Heyman

Carter Burden Gallery

Ken Heyman uses a plastic “point and shoot” camera; he holds it below waist-level and shoots pictures without looking through the viewfinder, capturing uncommon vistas of city life. His black-and-white photographs employ a gritty style that is appropriate to defining the anxious urban edge that permeates these scenes. Even his color photographs employ an overall sense of shadowplay that augments their melancholic subtext. Heyman’s work comes across as simultaneously casual and intense, as inventive without looking preconceived.

“Hipshot” is a panoramic display of slice-of-life episodes that seems rather unassuming at first, but is loaded with contextual implications. Many of the photos from the black-and-white series titled “New York City,” 1984–85, depict public gatherings—festive, informal groups of people bonded together by a variety of circumstances. Heyman’s is a purposely unglamorous investigation into urban experience, particularly the showing off and proclaiming of one’s individual identity in the face of group anonymity. His eye is all-encompassing, judicious but open-minded, and his method allows him to capture unexpected pleasures. A typical photo in this series is a candid shot of a young Hispanic woman enjoying a cigarette and beer as she looks out of the frame to the left. Here is someone completely absorbed in the immediacy of the moment, her revery extending beyond the limiting boundaries of the picture frame.

Cropping and framing is crucial to the impact of Heyman’s art. What is cut off by or left outside the parameters of the camera’s rectangular eye appeals to our imagination. In one photograph, a black man holding a toy rifle stands in front of a building mural by Keith Haring. Heyman shoots the photo from an askew, tilted angle, giving it a tentative feeling of anxiety and imbalance. The man’s mouth is ajar as if he is shouting, either as a playful gesture or as a battle cry. Even though the gun is a toy, its terrifying unreality complements the cartoon image of a giant foot (in the Haring mural) poised to squash this man from above.

The works’ overall exuberance is never forced or sugar-coated. Some of the images invite the viewer into a heightened communal atmosphere. One such photograph is of a woman poised in a lotuslike dance position, surrounded by others dressed in mythical costumes and masks. The woman is captured in a fleeting moment of fluid, organic movement. Here and elsewhere, Heyman demonstrates a keen awareness of the significance of ritual in its contemporary versions, as a unifying force for humanity.

On a technical level, Heyman avoids an ostentatious polish in his pictures—he keeps the black-and-white tones gritty and full of shadows. Heyman chooses scenes in which light does not dominate, but instead acts as strategic punctuation to the darkness. His ‘Cairo’ series, 1988, contains a photograph of a young boy washing his hands in a ravine. Shadows rise up from the recesses of this secluded space and cover the boy while he conducts his clandestine activity. These private moments convey the preciousness of life without falling into sentimentality.

—Jude Schwendenwien