New York

Ryan Weideman and Sarah Stolfa

Silverstein Gallery

The first part of the definition of patron in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) is innocuous enough: “one who countenances, supports or protects.” It is in the second sentence that Johnson gets in a dig at his fickle sponsor, Lord Chesterfield: “commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.” The provider-client relationships on view in “Patrons” are less fraught than those to which Johnson alludes, but are tangled in their own way. Photographers Ryan Weideman and Sarah Stolfa crystallize the transactional nature of the relationship between sitter and portraitist (and between viewer and artwork) by shooting those on the customer’s side of the exchange between, in Weideman’s case, taxi driver and passenger, and, in Stolfa’s, bartender and drinker.

The artists know of what they photograph, having transformed their places of employ into provisional studios. Weideman drove a cab in New York City for twenty-five years, and took pictures of his fares from the front seat, while Stolfa worked at a Philadelphia tavern from 1997 until 2006, photographing tipplers from behind the bar she was tending. Twenty-six of Weideman’s black-and-white images wrapped around the walls of the gallery’s main room. Most subjects were shot from the waist up, and all are framed by the taxi’s backseat and windows, but any consistency ends there—not an average Joe is to be found among the riders. Some of the surprises are unmissable (two Lower East Side punks with a snake coiled around their necks, a fishnet-stockinged prostitute), but best are the images whose oddities take a few seconds to notice. In Couple with Submarine, 1984, a soigné older pair hold a giant hero sandwich that stretches across the width of the car. Most of these photos were taken in the early ’80s, and are intimate time capsules of that much revisited moment, with men wearing Mohawks and women channeling Farrah Fawcett; Weideman picked up the riders in Six Girls Crack Up, 1982, from the Mudd Club.

These images work in part because Weideman caught his patrons on the fly at unself-conscious moments. The lowering of inhibition evident in Stolfa’s subjects comes from familiarity (these are regulars at a bar called McGlinchey’s) and, of course, alcohol. Eleven of her color photographs hung in the smaller of the front galleries, forming a pendant body of work in a different style. While Weideman sifts peculiar details through the deadpan tradition of New York street photography, Stolfa filters ordinary subjects through an amber-colored light that dramatizes her sitters. They are pictured singly, surrounded only by the appurtenances of the watering hole—bottles, glasses, ashtrays, money. The images are titled after their subjects’ names, but this biographical specificity only renders their blank expressions more impenetrable, and narrative questions rupture the straightforward presentation. What thought has distracted the subject of Kataryna Choniel, 2006, from her beer, cigarette, headphones, and reading material? The star of Robert Fleeger, 2005, is dapper, presumably professional, and wearing a wedding ring, so why is he alone, his face impassive, double-fisting a shot and a beer?

Every photograph is a document of the bygone, but in “Patrons” one senses the past poignantly: Stolfa no longer lives in Philadephia, and the New York City of most of Weideman’s images—in which passengers could pile in six or eight to a taxi—is finished. What has not changed is the artist’s need for financial support, and “Patrons” provided a heartening reminder that making rent and making art need not be exclusive propositions.

Lisa Turvey