New York

Photos of New York City by Irena Elster.

As someone who grew up, and lived most of my life, in New York City, Irena’s images of this city are the most characteristic I have ever seen. They look more like New York, the ordinary, everyday New York I know so well, than anything I’ve ever seen. This is already surprising. With such photos photographers so often strain to show something new or strange. They struggle to find a novel perspective, finally to make the city unfamiliar. The appealing "ordinariness" of Irena’s photos eventually comes to light, however, as the consequence of a rare artistic sensibility, filled with enthusiasm, human tenderness and a jovial humour. In fact it is even this sensibility which makes these views of New York so compellingly familiar and true.

Take the vertiginous quality of the New York streets, the pedestrian’s proximity to sky-scrapers and speeding trucks; Irena captures these sensations powerfully yet without undue emphasis on their dizzying quality which, after all, are lived every minute on the streets of New York and therefore must be liveable. The dizziness is there, but so is the exact degree of the comfortable banality of that experience as lived on the New York sidewalks. Such combinations are remarkable; it is not New York, not the view offered, but essence of the photo itself which is marvellously strange.

Or take the genial visual chaos of the city. Irena’s images, which at first seem like random views, always manage to capture, in a piquant manner, not just the often comic or absurd juxtapositions of words, objects and people, but to show at the same time how they function harmoniously, how that harmony is even a sort of gargantuan pleasure peculiar to New York - and perhaps American cities generally. Irena’s images have made me see the contrast of this quality with the abstract cacophony of a Tokyo or the suavely calculated juxtapositions of a Paris.

Irena’s people, refreshingly, are not the anonymous crowd, the down-trodden masses or caricatures of class and ethnic origin. Neither are they lost existential beings. Each, even the most minor, impress me as a human individual, animated by that energetic joie de vivre so prevalent in Irena’s images, usually intent on a private mission but also partaking of the circus-like choreography which make the streets of New York a sort of perpetual festival.

Sunlit or in the rain, on the wide avenues or in narrow garbage-filled allies, Irena’s New York is the New York I know. But it is something more. That ‘more’ is not some solipsistic personal vision, some ‘unique perspective’, some otherness - the badge and victory laurel of the would-be artiste - but a peculiarly penetrating, ironic, indulgent and wonder-filled depth which reveals, even to someone intimately familiar with the New York experience, of what that experience is truly made.

Paul Rhoads, painter

5th of September 2009