Postcards from the City’s Edge

Ray Mortenson’s photographs at the Museum of the City of New York are a look at New York’s bleak past and possible future.

poster for Ray Mortenson

Ray Mortenson "Broken Glass: Photographs of the South Bronx"

at The Museum of the City of New York
in the Upper East Side area
This event has ended - (2008-11-14 - 2009-03-09)

In Features Reviews by Jonah Lowenfeld 2008-11-26 print

Cities are not supposed to look like this. The black and white photographs of desolate streets and abandoned buildings now on display at the Museum of the City of New York are unsettling. Though they could be mistaken for postwar Germany, the works in “Broken Glass: Photographs of the South Bronx by Ray Mortenson” were taken between 1982 and 1984, and only about three miles from the museum. Mortenson’s carefully composed images portray a New York in decline, and serve as a visually stunning warning to anyone who thinks that the current state of this city is somehow irreversible.

Mortenson captures Mott Haven, Morrisania, and Tremont as they re-encounter a natural world long ago displaced. As seen in these photographs, empty streets flanked by vacant lots of tall grass look eerily like rivers, their meandering asphalt surfaces glistening in the sun. A palisade of abandoned apartment buildings with blocked-up windows rises from a field of rubble. As urban order is broken down by the entropy of nature, Mortenson treats the resulting hybrid as a single landscape in transition. He often shot these South Bronx neighborhoods from elevated viewpoints, as if preserving on film late 20th century versions of the Hudson River School landscapes of a century earlier.

Ray Mortenson, ''Untitled (1-30-9-19),'' 1983. Gelatin silver print © Ray Mortenson, courtesy Janet Borden, Inc.

Curator Sean Corcoran has arranged the exhibition’s 50 untitled works along a single hallway, labeled only by date. The interiors hang on three walls at the hallway’s end and are primarily from the later months of Mortenson’s study, suggesting that he first shot the neighborhood from outside and only later began to venture indoors. Many of these photographs have been printed at larger scales than the exteriors, presumably to allow for closer inspection.

This works to their disadvantage. Looking closely at photographs of peeling paint is not much more engaging than attentively watching paint dry. (With one exception: The photo Mortenson took on September 30, 1984, in which a tree can be seen through an empty window frame. The window is surrounded by a wall shedding paint chips, and the pattern of light and dark is mesmerizing.) Other interiors use objects to stand in for the absent people, and the objects themselves aren’t sufficiently interesting. The photos of wall-drawings – even the one of an idealized city done in one-point perspective – remain flat. And although a chair, an empty soda bottle, a single platform shoe or any other object that creeps into a photograph may convey devastation and hurried departure, it does so prosaically. After years of photojournalists inundating us with their coverage of the aftermath of floods, hurricanes, and tsunamis, images like these are ubiquitous. There’s little to be gained by blowing them up to the size of posters.

Ray Mortenson, ''Untitled (2-09-4-13),'' 1984. Gelatin silver print © Ray Mortenson, courtesy Janet Borden, Inc.

The smaller exterior photos, however, are remarkable. Mortenson’s collection of streetscapes feels comprehensive, and yet the images don’t feel repetitive. In a masterful artistic/curatorial choice, 70 informally framed snapshots of individual buildings (the smallest photos in the exhibit) have been affixed to the wall, edge to bleeding edge. The occasional person or car sneaks into Mortenson’s frame, but their marginal presence only emphasizes the overwhelming absence of life in the photographs in general. And if Mortenson’s postcards from the city’s edge aren’t individually memorable, this tessellation of devastation acts like a period film’s opening sequence: It provides necessary context, and welcomes us into a bleak old world.

The exhibition’s single most compelling photograph is of a small row house. Shot on December 20th, 1983, the house looks inhabited: Its unbroken windows are treated with modest curtains and shades. Its rough brick edges, however, betray the violence with which the urban fabric was ripped out from around the house. Even though Mortenson sets it firmly in the middle of the frame, the whole house feels shaky and off-balance, in large part because of the abrupt end of its cornice line. The house’s pediment hits open air at its highest point without warning, and the feeling it produces is the architectural equivalent of falling off a cliff.

Today, on the edge of new tough economic times for New York, Mortenson’s photos are particularly resonant. “Broken Glass” leaves New Yorkers with an important urban cautionary tale: Your city requires care. This is what happens when you neglect it.

Jonah Lowenfeld

Jonah Lowenfeld. Jonah is a writer who lives in New York, except when he doesn't. He has an M.Sc. in Architectural History and Theory from the Bartlett School of Architecture in London and recently learned to speak castellano with an Argentine accent. » See other writings

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