Delving into this book came interestingly enough after seeing an exhibition on photographer Vivian Maier’s work. The precision and cleanness of Maier’s work makes for a stark contrast to Stein’s distracted, dark, and almost tortuously labored images. Two views of the same city, one photographer shot mostly during the day and one shot mostly at night, one shot natural light and the other often with flash, one natural and one with artifice, and one observational while the other very in-your-face. Both provide compelling evidence that photography is indeed an art and not merely a random click of a shutter.
In Stein’s New York, shot over a 30 year period but from nearly the same two or so locations in midtown Manhattan, we have a New York that is bustling, crowded, and very dark. To provide artistic license, Stein employs blur, reflections, harsh flash, blocked shadows, grain, and a variety of conceits in this collection of black and white images. Because he shoots very wide angle (21mm and 35mm) and nearly every shoot is wall to wall people, the images are almost manic in their intensity – harsh, with odd angles, and a lack of regard to compositional rules or elements. It’s a free for all, the equivalent of throwing paint at a canvas while turning around 10 times and after a 5 martini lunch. As such, one finds pinpoint glimpses of interest among throngs of suited backsides, cut off heads, umbrellas coming out of noses, skyscrapers floating out of heads, decapitated arms, blurred features, shots up noses, crazy reflections, and a surprising amount of breasts and male crotch shots. You’ll have to be patient – sometimes it takes awhile to figure out what prompted the interest within the image.
What Briefly Seen represents to me is the fulmination of the 1960s/1970s photography world, responding to the common feeling that photography was not considered an art at that time. As such, this is the epitomal expression of ‘photojournalism’ that became so rampant in those decades and in college/university photography degrees. It differs so greatly from photography on the streets today, which is so often about form, function, precision, beauty, and impact: heavily planned and the antithesis of what Stein is doing in this book with spontaneity.
Whether you enjoy Stein’s works will likely depend on which photograph era/discipline you prefer. Those doing formal portraiture may find the crazy comps and randomness of so much of the photographs in this book daunting and perhaps frustrating. Those looking for a pure expression of the 1970s photojournalism as art movement will likely fall absolutely in love with Stein’s images. But as with the discussions of preferring a Picasso or a Rembrandt, it all comes down to art. For those curious about what may be contained inside this book, the cover image is perfectly representative of the images inside. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.