When I recently shared my thoughts about the future of photobooks when looking out another 10 years, I can not imagine at the moment an electronic version that would be capable of simulating the feel of a wonderful photobook lying in my hands. Christopher Thomas’s recent book New York Sleeps published by Prestel Verlag is perhaps an excellent example. The tactile weight of the page, the way the ink absorbs into the paper and floats the image on the page, the resulting dynamic range of the tonalities, the size and heft of the book and even the smell of ink on paper and the glued and sewn binding. This is an object that will be hard to duplicate by another medium
Thomas has chosen to take on a frequently photographed subject, the city of New York, a place that this Munich based photographer lives part time in conjunction with his professional photographic career. Because of New York’s long history related to photography and art, it is in of itself a potential cliché and a daunting urban landscape subject. To look at New York anew, Thomas choose to work in black and white, specifically using the Polaroid type 55 positive/negative film with a medium-size view camera, with extended exposure durations. He chooses to photography during the late evening and early morning hours, completing this project over a couple of years. His photographs are subsequently organized thematically; the city, bridges, riverside piers, parks, and the neighborhoods.
Part of the esthetics of his photographs is to include the raw transitional edges that result from the Polaroid positive/negative process. I can see how this transitional edge is another design element, perhaps to show the process, much like Atget’s glass plates edges, and add another element to the photographs. The edges contribute to a one-of-a-kind quality to these photographs that indicate these are singular objects. Including the transitional edges is making a statement to me that these photographs have not been cropped, but are taken directly from the camera just as the photographer has envisioned them, which harkens back to an Edward Weston modernist and purist viewpoint.
Choosing to photograph at these usually dormant hours and in conjunction with the extended exposure durations was consistent with his desire to essentially remove the human element from consideration. It is easy for me to see the parallels to the earlier photographs of Eugene Atget, (here and here) who photographed a vanishing Paris at the turn of the twentieth century at a similar time of day using long exposures. Much later Bernd & Hilla Becher and Candida Hofer have eliminated people from their photographs to distill social architecture down to its essential structure. The stilled water found within Thomas’s waterfront and bridge photographs are similar to the work of Joesf Hoflehner, Michael Kenna and Michael Levin, where with enough time, water becomes a plasticized element.
Thomas’s photographs remind me of an archeological documentation of a forgotten civilization, capturing the exposed bones of the architecture and related infrastructure. I find a sense of wonder and beauty in these photographs, that Thomas makes evident the design, line, texture and mass of these structures.
The photographs are devoid of mankind that might provide a warm social link to these edifices. Even without the people present, their presences still can be felt by the parked cars, lights still glowing in windows, parked delivery trucks with their loads now positioned on the street pending the final delivery, and footprints left in the new snow. This creates a little tension for me, as it is odd to see this city without the swarm of people who seem ever present, traversing the sidewalks, streets, bridges and parks. I expect any moment for someone to appear, which reminds me that these photographs are a very brief slice in time.
For me these photographs are also dreamlike and haunting, representing a barren and desolate place without the people who usually provide the energy and vibrancy of this city. It is an unusual sight. I find Thomas’s inner city photographs unique, but his winter park and waterfront subjects have not revealed anything new, although they are beautifully made images.
The book was edited by Petra Giloy-Hirtz and Ira Stehmann with essays by Ulrich Pohlmann and Bob Shamis. The linen wrapped hardcover has a tipped-in image, and the interior is printed in Passau, Germany on a creamy tone acid free paper, which further enhances the warm tone black and white photographs. Each image has a classic amount of surrounding margin space to allow adequate breathing room, such that the photographs can be fully envisioned and evaluated on its own merits.
By Douglas Stockdale