Jay Maisel's New York

by Jay Maisel

Published by Firefly Books

2000, 192 pages

Manhattan Skyscrapers

by Eric P. Nash

Published by Princeton Architectural Press

1999, 176 pages

New York: The Painted City

by Grace Glueck

Published by Gibbs Smith

2000, 88 pages





New York, New York, New York: A Place So Nice We Reviewed it Thrice

Reviewed by David Middleton


New York City is not a place which elicits cries of indifference. Ask anyone -- even someone who has never been there -- and they will tell you it's too: big, dirty, rude, smelly, dangerous, crowded, expensive, dense, busy and generally frightening. But to some, usually New Yorkers themselves, this is exactly what makes this city the great place they believe it to be.

In his latest book, Jay Maisel's New York , the award winning photographer makes an intimate portrait of the city he calls his first love. "Photographing New York," Maisel writes in the book's foreword, "is like trying to take a bite out of an elephant. It's the only place that can truly be called larger than life. Into its physical boundaries are packed spectacle and change unmatched anywhere." With this book it's hard not to see what Maisel means. To capture, in photographs, the true nature of the entire city would be a mind-boggling and impossible task. What he gives us instead are impressions. Bits and pieces that, stitched together, would still not make up a whole picture but nonetheless give us a mini mosaic of the microcosm of New York.

Upon first impression, Maisel's work appears as informal as a snapshot but upon closer inspection you see complexity and balance in his often deceptively simple compositions. With the instincts of a journalist and a storyteller's eye, Maisel captures the beauty, ugliness and contradictions that make up New York. A young girl in a bright print dress, her head perfectly haloed by the sun heliographing off the rim of a bicycle wheel -- a once in a lifetime shot; the lid of a Con Edison manhole cover, its cast-iron grid painted in the blues and purples caused by the interference reflections of spilled oil and gasoline; a man astride a bike watches as an elderly woman dressed in a white taffeta gown and white gloves strolls by holding a pigeon. The usual shots of New York are here as well, you know the ones: the big buildings, the big bridges, the big statuary and the big traffic, and they are splendid -- think of any beautiful shot you've ever seen of the New York skyline at dusk and it just might be Maisel's. It's when Maisel puts people into the picture that we get to see a truer portrait of the city. There are very few places in the world where a tow truck driver would draw an appreciative audience who are apparently fascinated by his fleet-fingered skills. Where else but in Jay Maisel's New York?

And where else but New York would you get more perpendicular steel, glass and stone than any other place in the world. In Manhattan Skyscrapers author Eric P. Nash states that, "Manhattan may no longer boast of the world's tallest skyscraper but, as you see, it perhaps possesses the most distinctive collection of has-beens for that title." And quite an impressive collection of has-beens it is.

Starting off with the American Tract Society Building constructed in 1896 and finishing with the 1999 Condé Nast Building, Skyscraper chronologically takes us on a vertical virtual tour of 75 of Manhattan's more prominent and famous buildings while also taking a look at some of the lesser known. With Norman McGrath's superbly illustrative photographs, some archival photos and illustrations and Nash's brief and fascinating history of each building, we get an intimate portrait of each skyscraper down to its street address and the name of the architect or architectural firm who built it.

Of course the greats are here: The Empire State Building -- along with an illustration of where, on June 28, 1945, a B-25 bomber smashed into the 79th floor; the poised and polished Chrysler Building looking like a rocket made from spare car bumpers and hubcaps; the minimalist sculptural elegance of the World Trade Center's twin towers; the aggressive ship-like prow of the Flatiron Building perpetually plowing motionless through the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue. And some of the not so greats: The bell-bottomed W.R. Grace Building, predating but looking ever-so disco; the oft-maligned Pan Am Building (now Met Life Building) and its off-the-grid effrontery; or the just-plain-weirdness of the truncated Hearst Magazine Building -- a 1925 Art Deco affair originally meant to rise 20 storeys above the street but instead, squatting at a meager six floors, hardly making an attempt at a poke through the ozone.

Those who have not experienced the towering wonder of these immense icons of success and excess firsthand can experience a breathtaking secondhand look in Manhattan Skyscrapers. Simple but effective in its design and presentation, Skyscrapers is a visual feast for those who cannot get enough of these basketball players of the architectural world.

While photographs are superb and usually accurate portrayals of the world, a painting may convey something deeper by the simple fact that the painter can take liberties with the subject and add to, subtract from or enhance a scene to fit a style, a mood or a whim.

In Grace Glueck's New York: The Painted City we see New York grow up in paintings. From a bustling but still polite cosmopolitan city in such impressionistic works as William Merritt Chase's Lilliputian Boats in Central Park (1890) -- where little girls and boys, dressed in their Sunday best, watch toy boats sail across a serene pond on a sun-dappled day -- to the raging metropolis of James Romberger's 1991 piece, The Battle of ABC, where the night is saturated with the shouts of rioters and the smoke from burning dumpsters.

The Painted City does not run through artistic periods chronologically but instead flits back and forth through time as the reader is taken on a whirlwind jaunt through artistic styles and some of New York's better known locales. Roger Winter's Union Square (1991), Joseph Stella's Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme (1939), Edward Hopper's The Circle Theater (1936), Max Weber's Grand Central Terminal (1915) and Georgia O'Keeffe's Radiator Building -- Night, New York (1925).

As a reporter and writer on art for The New York Times for many years and herself a Manhattan resident, Glueck has a passion for the subject. In her text accompanying each painting she can, and often does, inform the viewer as to where the painter was standing when the piece was conceived, or picks out landmarks and things that have changed since. Things that may not be salient, but perhaps, for some, giving each painting extra life and texture.

While not very big -- weighing in at under 90 pages and about 8 inches square -- New York: The Painted City is a quintessential look at an intriguing and unique world. | December 2000


David Middleton is the art and culture editor of January Magazine and while he was in New York spent his idle hours in his palatial suite at the "Y" counting the skid marks on the wall left by roach carcasses.