On May 18, 1997, the New York Times devoted the entire issue of its magazine to photography. The theme was Times Square. The area was then undergoing a transformation: the porn shops were being forced out for megastores and skyscrapers. Family entertainment replaced seedier shows: Disney was finishing up the renovation of the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street (where the musical The Lion King would run for next nine years). Billboards and light displays went up and stock tickers replaced the names of Broadway stars.
Formerly “Longacre Square,” Times Square was renamed after the New York Times in 1904, when the original Times Tower building was under construction. From her offices, the New York Times Magazine’s photo editor Kathy Ryan had an idea that these changes should be documented.
Ryan chose 18 photographers, ranging from documentary photographers to art photographers and asked them to photograph various aspects of the square.
Jack Pierson’s rainy nighttime vision of Times Square, painterly, cinematic and poetic, ran on the cover of the issue.
Abelardo Morell’s photo of the Times Square (the topmost photo above) the first photo submission that Ryan received. She remembered: “It was an incredible moment, opening the envelope and pulling out Morell’s astonishing photograph. I actually began to cry, because I realized that even if nothing else came through in this project, here was a picture for the ages. In the end, of course, everything worked so well.”
Morell, a Cuban photographer known for his camera-obscura images, was commissioned for a photo that reflected the signage of Times Square in new and unique way. Setting up at the Marriott Hotel, he covered the room’s window with black plastic, in which he cut a hole about 3/8 of an inch to let in light. Morell’s usual work needed sunlight of six to eight hours, but Times Square had a very short window of light entry, because of all the buildings. It took him two full days of exposure to create the photo, the longest exposure that he has ever made.
Foreign photographers unfamiliar with the location were asked to provide the city as seen by foreign eyes. Swedish photographer Lars Tunbjörk turned his camera to the gritty corner of Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street, then full of abandoned cinemas and porno palaces, and took the photo (above) on a sunny Sunday. The spot had personal meaning for Tunbjörk, who had been robbed one late night eight years earlier just a few meters away.
Eddie Keating also worked on 42nd Street, his documentary pictures capturing lost souls and a woman with two black eyes. He commented: “There is a kind of gloom that sets in at a certain hour that seems to represent the darker side of something that’s in all New Yorkers. It was a place where you could go to vent ideas and experience feelings that you wouldn’;t experience somewhere else. Even if it was a hellhole, it was our hellhole.”
Thomas Demand, a German photographer, had never even set foot in the Times Square. Demand’s work recreates real life settings in colored cardboards (or other assorted materials). Ryan provided him with a few pictures of the New York Times archives and he selected the photo of a room in a massage parlor on the square to reconstruct. His reconstruction matched the original image, except big and in color rather than in black and white and used colored cardboard and a red balloon as the light bulb. The original massage parlor in The Times photo was shut down by the police in a campaign to clean up the neighborhood during the 1970’s.
Larry Towell headed to the Port Authority Bus Terminal expecting to see “squalidness and a sense of menace.” The detainees at the police holding center were obviously unwilling to be photographed and he turned his camera to a wall to capture the faint residue of the detainees who sit against that wall manacled to a bench, night after night for years, who left behind grease and grime. Ryan said: “I sometimes wonder how long it takes viewers to recognize those four ghostly figures.”
Chuck Close was initially reluctant to work on commission and in the end, he turned in portraits of actors who were acting on the Times Square that summer, Christopher Plummer and Willem Dafoe, Stockard Channing and Rip Torn.
Richard Burbridge also black and white close-up portraits, of Times Square’s new power players: architects, developers and media moguls: Herbert Sturz, Gretchen Dykstra, Marian S Heiskell, and Disney’s Michael Eisner.
Annie Leibovitz’s portraits (above) were much more intimate. Her subjects were the women living in The Times Square Hotel, a single-resident-only hotel where several of them have had apartments for decades. It was a seedy and dangerous place, but in her photos the dignity of low-income people who lived there and the pride of the women who managed to made it a home shone through.
Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s inspiration was the most famous photograph of Times Square: Alfred Eisenstaedt’s kissing couple. To create his own candid moment, he “hides several synchronized strobe lights on signs or buildings, places his camera on a tripod and stepaside…. This technique allows his subjects no warning that they’re being photographed.”
A fashion editor at The Times had told Lillian Bassman that he had a dream about a woman on a white horse in the middle of Times Square. Bassman put the model Anneliese Seubert in a Vivienne Westwood gown to turn that dream into a reality: “I got a horse and a girl and went to work.”
Nan Goldin shot the remaining transvestite, transsexual and gay hustler bars. She herself was a bartender on 49th Street in the early 80s: “I knew the hustlers and the pimps and the prostitutes who came to the bar.”
Nancy Siesel used a plastic toy camera. Times Square “has always been a scary place to walk around alone with an expensive camera,” she noted. Her goal was to replicate vacationers’ snapshots: “It’s incredible the way people from all over the world flock here, looking for something. Even with the sense of danger, it’s the first place people want to be – fun and danger going hand in hand.”
Lyle Ashton Harris and his collaborator, Tommy Gear set up a camera on the stage of abandoned Liberty Theater and asked strangers off the street to pose together (below). “We wanted to draw in the kaleidoscopic nature of a Times Square in flux — the juxtaposition of new and old, gender and class, tourists and New Yorkers.”
Mitch Epstein also used abandoned 42d Street theaters, manipulating lights set up by demolition workers to create theatrical tableaus.
The issue was in three sections, and the paper also launched a micro website which changed every six weeks, as Times Square evolved.
- Michael O’Neill CROSSROADS AT A CROSSROADS
- Abelardo Morell A SIMULATION OF SIGNS
- Richard Burbridge THE REBUILDERS
- Lars Tunbjork THE COLOR OF CHANGE
- Mary Ellen Mark DISNEYLAND, N.Y.C.
- Thomas Demand SEX AT A CERTAIN REMOVE
- Jack Pierson BROADWAY DREAMSCAPE
- Lyle Ashton Harris WORKADAY JUXTAPOSITIONS
- Larry Towell THE FELT PRESENCE OF AN ABSENCE
- Philip-Lorca diCorcia STREET THEATER
- David Armstrong AT THE BLURRED EDGE OF MEMORY
- Nancy Siesel MOTION STUDY
- Lillian Bassman THE NIGHT FANTASTIC
- Chuck Close NEVER OUT OF CHARACTER
- Nan Goldin THE PERSISTENT ID
- Edward Keating MEAN STREETS
- Annie Leibovitz ROOMS OF THEIR OWN
- Giorgia Fiorio WORKERS RISING
- Mitch Epstein THE LAST SEATS IN THE HOUSE