Book Review: New Yorkers by Sally Davies
New Yorkers, is the first monograph from Sally Davies, despite her multi-decade career in the arts. A painter for many years, it was not until somewhat more recently that Davies took to the camera in a serious way. Thankfully, she did, as her photography is brilliantly unique. For much of her photography career, Davies has focused on nighttime street photography, for lack of a better description. Her haunt is New York’s East Village and her photos feature the storied neighborhood’s seedy nightlife in full blazing color. The work is stunning. However, this is not the work one will find between the covers of New Yorkers. This collection features portraits, of sorts – more on that in a moment, of New Yorkers at home in their apartments, lofts, studios, and even houses (yes, some New York City residents actually have houses). The result is a collection not only worthy of any collector’s bookshelf but dare I say the walls of the Whitney also.
The book is an important contribution to the photographic arts and also to the annals of New York history. So many of the cast of characters presented in this collection are a product of a bygone era – a New York that many of us lament not having seen. From heirs and heiresses to writers, bankers, shrinks, teachers, psychics, drag queens, musicians (Laurie Anderson’s portrait is below), photographers, and many others, the cast is diverse but all of a certain flavor also. By this I mean, they are all hardened New Yorkers, those who came and stayed for the long haul. In a way, it is this credential that unites them as a cohesive group and the body of work as, well, a body of work. The homes are as much the subject of the photographer’s gaze in this collection as the people themselves. Some of these New Yorkers have been in these homes for forty or even fifty years, creating a decor that is almost a literal extension of their personalities.
For me, the obsession with this book, and the work it contains, is connected to the endless ability it affords one for being a voyeur – a peeper – a kind of ogler of not only strange and enchanting people (one woman’s name is X) but of their most private of places also. Every frame in this collection is a visual story equal to anything penned by Hemingway or Dickens. The narratives read straight across the frame. There is, in many of the images, a sort of choking visual overload that is at once uncomfortable and addictive. As if this were not enough, the photographs are also accompanied by these quaint little written passages that provide bits and bobs about the lives of those portrayed. At moments I almost didn’t want the text but then I read another blurb and found myself not being able to imagine the book without them. They are a blessing and a curse. A curse because I truly believe, both as a photographer myself, and as a viewer of photography, that a good picture does not need any explanation: for better or worse, there the photograph is. Words are always a dangling appendage swaying in the wind and wanting of a good snip. Here, the snippets also come as a blessing at times, though, because understanding who these people are really does add value to many of the photographs.
These days it seems as though everyone is a photographer. Nearly everyone does carry a camera and does take photos anyhow. So how does one go about making photography that will stand out, that will endure the test of time and survive the vast ocean of ones and zeros that make up the digiverse of imagery? It is a question I hear quite often. My answer: great photography, more often than not, comes down to “access”. Getting or having or taking or making access to something or someone or someplace that others do not have access to – that is the key. Anyone, dare I say it, can make a decent quality photograph given today’s technology. What most photographers lack (or simply don’t fight for) is access to photograph subject matter that others simply won’t have access to, or at least not easily. This is precisely what Davies has done here in this project. She has used her connections to New York’s “in crowd” to assemble a body of work that will not easily be emulated. Toss in a little Covid, which hit the moment this book was submitted to the publisher, and you have a combination that will be terrifically difficult for another photographer to crack anytime soon. No one is getting into my home again anytime soon, camera or no camera, which reminds me, I do want to offer a disclaimer here: my husband and I are featured in this book and Davies is a long-time friend of ours. I don’t believe, however, that either renders me incapable of offering a fair review of the book. But there, all the cards on the table.
What do I not like about this book? Very little, truly. However, I do have a couple of nitpicks. One, I think the book is just too small. At a hair over 8X10, it simply feels tiny. These photographs are so visually immense that anyone would be hard-pressed to argue any valid reason for presenting them this small, aside from the economy of printing. My other gripe is the cover. The yellow is a bit unabashed and the photographer’s name is simply too small – come on Ammonite, Davies is the star of the show here, why do I need a magnifying glass to figure this out? I realize both of these things are minor, in the grand scheme of things, but they have remained with me so here they are.
I think most real New Yorkers have a love-hate relationship with their city. New York City is just that kind of place. I feel this way, and I am not even a real New Yorker (I’m a Canadian). What this superb collection of portraits does is capture this sentiment in each and every photograph. One can also glean as much from many of the biographical snippets too, but it is in the images where it is really cemented. Written across the faces of these people, scattered across their rooms like the objects from their lives, is a kind of plea for help, help to extricate them from the trappings of this infamous city. Yet, simultaneously, these people also tell us that they would not leave even if they could. They are here to stay – they are New Yorkers. That too is written across every face bar none.
by Sally Davies
with a foreword by Stuart Horodner
10.24 x 8.27 inches
Also published on Medium.