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Christopher Thomas: Found New York

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday January 6, 2010

An exhibition of New York photographs by Christopher Thomas is on view at Steven Kasher Gallery until the end of this week. The Munich-based photographer began shooting his adopted hometown in 2001 and has made extended visits since. Like Alexix de Tocqueville in America during the 1830s, Thomas saw his subject with new eyes, and found majesty in the commonplace, glamor in the mundane and beauty in the city's parks, bridges and architecture. His large format photographs extend the legacy of Eugene Atget in Paris - and later, the rephotographic project by Christopher Rauschenberg - but Tomas's vision conjures up a place that seems haunted.

Shooting with a large format field camera and positive-negative Polaroid film, Thomas would head out before dawn to set up his apparatus while the city was quiet and still. The scenes he has created have a ghostly and luminous quality. Devoid of people due in part to the early hour and to long exposures that cause moving figures to melt into the background, his perspective on the city offers views that are uncommon and inviting, in a strangely quixotic way.

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Left to right: South Ferry Terminal, 2001; Ice Cream Parlor, Brooklyn, 2008; Colgate Clock, 2009. Copyright Christopher Thomas, courtesy Steven Kasher Gallery.

Curator Bob Shamis, whose introduction to the book (Prestel Verlag 2009) that accompanies the exhibition provides a mini-history of photography by Europeans in New York, writes, "The quietness that these photographs evoke, so at odds with our expectations, is at first unsettling for someone well acquainted with New York. The urban landscape may be familiar, but this is not the city that most of us know and experience."

A scene looking north at Fifth Avenue and 21st Street, a familiar spot, caused me to search the photograph for landmarks, including the Empire State building in the distance and the gold dome on the west side at 22nd Street, in order to identify it. The perspective, somewhat flattened by Thomas's low viewpoint, made the scale of the avenue seem smaller, as if I were looking into the distant past.

Thomas photographed many of the city's familiar landmarks, parks and bridges. But his views of abandoned piers, the skyline as seen from Weehawken, the diners, cemeteries and amusement parks of the outer boroughs, offer a foreigner's fresh take on scenes that deserve close scrutiny. His photograph of a pier in Rockaway, consumed by time and tide, and lighted by a stormy eastern sky, has the precision and drama of Stonehenge.

The prints on exhibit are made from scans of the original Polaroid positives, whose streaked edges form a frame around the image. Many of the photographs are enormous, and all are installed in black box frames. While the book is gorgeous, printed on soft acid-free paper, the prints should be seen for this work to really be appreciated.

Christopher Thomas: New York Sleeps is on view through Saturday January 9, 2010 at Steven Kasher Gallery. 521 West 23rd Street, ground floor, New York, NY. 212.966.3978.



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