By Jeffrey Escoffier
Photography, at least before the digital era, has a special relationship to history. Unlike other visual images, photographs are ‘traces’ of what they portray— they are the direct result of light reflected from objects in front of the camera onto a chemical emulsion. The photographic trace is recorded at a moment of time and then stored for future viewing; it is, thus, automatically an historical representation. According to cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer, the historical significance of photographs rests on their capacity to record things normally unnoticed at the time.
These thoughts come to mind, in the wake of visiting two recent shows featuring work by photographers Peter Hujar (1934-1987) and Leonard Fink (1930-1992), roughly contemporaries, who produced their most notable work during the 1970s and early 1980s — one of the most volatile and wildly creative periods in New York City’s history. The city was on the edge of bankruptcy, it was physically crumbling, and it had an abundance of cheap rents — and was thriving culturally like no other time. It was also a politically charged time: the neoliberal dismantling of the welfare state, the emergence of second wave feminism, the Stonewall riots and rise of gay liberation. The photographs in these two shows capture the mood and feel of the times.
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