Being the largest city in the USA, and also in many ways the cultural center of the country, it's not surprising that many photographers have tried to capture the soul of NYC. Among them, some were more successful, some less, but the dedication that this great city inspires in all kinds of artists is still very impressive. New York is simply a fascinating place and a true muse to many artists who appreciate the opportunity to live there. And while NYC-based photographers who have chronicled the life on the streets of New York are not as well-known as, for example, music bands ("Ramones", "Velvet Underground") or film directors (Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen), their work was no less instrumental in capturing the ever-changing essence of NYC, preserving it for future generations and making sure that, in a way, it remains forever alive.
#01 Alfred Stieglitz
While it is hard to choose just five photographers, the first one on our roughly chronological list is an obvious pick. Alfred Stieglitz did not only capture the soul of NYC as it was some 120 years ago but was also a very important figure in the world of photography in general. His inspiring remark that photography can be more real than reality reflects his then progressive stance that photography is a legitimate art form, no less so than painting. When he opened his own gallery in NYC in 1905, called the 291 Gallery, his dream of exhibiting photography along with painting came true. As cameras became easier to move, people like Stieglitz started to explore the possibilities and the aesthetic that this new form of art was capable of.
In terms of New York specifically, Stieglitz's photographs captured NYC in its transitional period (in fact, the whole of the USA was then rapidly changing). Thanks to Stieglitz's compositional and artistic skills, one can find many iconic pictures of New York among his photographs, showcasing the contrast between the old and the (then) new NYC, between the majestic skyscrapers and the horse-pulled trolleys. His New York photography serves as a time capsule back to an intriguing era of great scientific advancement where the echoes of a more simple past could still be felt.
#02 Alfred Eisenstaedt
Some time later came another photographer who captured the soul of NYC, but the soul was different then. As the world was engulfed in the deadly fires of World War II, Alfred Eisenstaedt took it upon himself to capture the mood of the city during the great war and after it. To anyone interested in what New York was like when a lot of its male population was out fighting for freedom, and what it was like when they returned and started rebuilding their lives and their war-torn nation, Eisenstaedt's photography will be a valuable glimpse into this highly-specific time.
His work, however, is not only valuable because it captured the essence of the time, but also because of his pioneering style of photography, wherein he approached his subjects in a very intimate way while trying to reach the raw truth of the people he photographed. His most famous photograph was taken in 1945 on the Victory over Japan Day, when Japan finally surrendered, thus ending World War II. The photograph, showing a nurse being kissed by a soldier, was taken on Times Square, where people were celebrating the end of this horrid war.
Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee, focused on another aspect of New York, producing his most acclaimed work roughly around the same time as Eisenstaedt did. Namely, Weegee's focus wasn't so much on people and their stories, but rather on the dark, criminal and violent side of NYC. It is said that Weegee slept with his day clothes on, with a police radio he obtained and almost never turned off. As soon as he caught wind of an interesting story, he would get up and hurry to the scene of the crime.
Regularly being the first one to arrive there, he would make exclusive photographs detailing the (more or less gruesome) events that took place. Weegee captured one side of NYC's soul that might not be as beautiful as some other aspects of this great city but was still important to document, as a sort of a warning and a harsh reminder of humankind's darker impulses. Thanks to brave men like Weegee, this unpleasant truth was exposed to the general public in a more direct manner.
#04 Nan Goldin
Moving on some 30 years into the future, the next artist on our list is Nan Goldin. This photographer was very influential in shaping the kind of spontaneous style of photography, by taking lots of pictures without any previous preparation (snapshots). What's more, she focused on taking photographs of people who were already in her life, conceptualizing her photography as a sort of a visual diary.
In her prime, she was the chronicler of downtown Manhattan, but not the one we know today, but rather a more shady place that stopped existing after the process of gentrification turned Manhattan into a more of a posh place. To Goldin and her subjects, freedom to express their personalities and emotions was very important, leading to a series of photographs of rather unusual people. While this freedom led to many joyous photographs, there were also darker, even tragic photos of people suffering from AIDS or being addicted to drugs. The soul of NYC as a city of colorful characters was seldom more truthfully captured.
#05 William Klein
A similar thing could be said of William Klein as well, although this photographer focused more on the ethnographic examination of NYC. Originally working as a painter abroad (in Milan and Paris), Klein returned to his hometown to detail in his photography the great ethnic diversity of New York. As his goal was to capture the different cultures of different ethnicities, all residing under the New York sky, being away for so long enabled him to be a somewhat objective observer, while still having the know-how of a New York native.
As a result, fans of photography could get to know another side of NYC's soul, the seemingly incoherent clash of different cultures all coexisting together in one place and, in a way, defining it and giving it its true shape. As Klein had realized, if only one of these cultures were removed, New York would stop being New York, losing a part of its soul and becoming a different place. However, that is, of course, only one part of this city's complex essence. While these five photographers (and others as well) have captured the various pieces of its soul, no one has yet managed to capture it fully, and probably never will.
About the author
An art aficionado, Alex Durick works for the Manhattan's premier moving company divinemoving.com, but he also occasionally does some freelance writing on the side. A lifelong fan of visual arts and music, he uses his free time to catch up on the latest interesting works of art of both high and lowbrow variety. Be it the nightmarish worlds of David Lynch, the poignant words of Bob Dylan, or something entirely different, you can bet that Durick has or will take an interest in it (if only to dismiss it as not being worthy of his time).