Enigmatic, cutting edge, always intriguing, Richard Sandler’s book The Eyes Of The City, : 116 photographs taken between 1977 and 2001 in Boston and New York, has the kind of energy you come to expect from a great street photographer.
Arguably, the most exciting and dynamic art form on the planet, street photography is about irony, juxtaposition and evidenced narrative. On page 101 of his book : Sandler captures the fascinating candidness and edgy sophistication of the genre, and, he does it with ease.
A man stripped to the waist, lies on his shirt on the ground as if asleep. He looks grubby, dishevelled, probably homeless, maybe drunk. Above him in a beautifully painted mural, we find a fantastical, near surreal comic book image of a smooth-skinned lady and prancing unicorn.
Maybe the man is having a dream, subsequently projected onto the wall above where he sleeps? All that is missing is the thought balloons. Like all great street photography, of course, the scene is real, nothing is staged.
In this collection of photographs, there is always a feeling that the street photographer is taking us beneath the immediate surface to a deeper and more profound meaning of everyday life. Sandler, as he mines reality, offers a visual story for his audience to interpret.
The monochrome collection is beautifully presented in black edging by Powerhouse Books of Brooklyn, New York. The cover photograph shows four travellers riding a graffiti spattered carriage in the New York Underground, all staring at Sandler as he shoots them.
The woman in the foreground has her face divided by the pole she holds, it makes a powerful, almost sinister, image as she stares straight ahead at the street photographer. The scene is a clue as to where he conjured up the title. These – the people who watch him go about his work – are, for him, THE eyes of the city. Yet, the street photographer always understood that he too, in another sense, was THE eyes of the city.
This double exposure around the axis of the photographer watching and, at the same time, being watched was, for him, part of the process of street photography. That fusion that takes place as the street photographer searches the streets for subjects while – simultaneously – the world rushes in on the photographer. That Cartier-Bresson ‘decisive moment’ when the button clicks and that photograph, incorporating the photographer and his subject(s) in the single and same frame, is made.
Four unknowns riding an underground train and Sandler are all represented in that cover photograph. Sandler, of course, unseen and ghostlike will always be an integral and real part of that photograph. Unable to escape his association with that graffiti spattered carriage and his four anonymous subjects he recorded in transit and who, forever, stare out at him.
Sandler’s work is vibrant and energetic, busy photographs carrying strong stories with a subtle glimpse of the photojournalist.
On page 76 A man sits on the pavement with a card that says ‘hungry’ as he begs for money to feed himself. He sits behind a poster of a stick insect thin model in the foreground – someone has written ‘feed me’ on her torso. It is a wonderful thought-provoking image – juxtaposed, one person starving to work, one person starving because he has no choice and probably no work. In perfect synchronicity on the next page 77, an anorexic female, painfully slim, her body ravaged by the excesses of extreme non eating, drags a basket on wheels behind her.
The three images, model, hungry man and anorexic on facing page is genius. Sandler, would shrug, ‘I got lucky’, he would say in his New York Al Pacino accent . But these two photographs are a wonderful social commentary on the various dimensions of not eating. They resonate with us, haunt us, dare I say, eat into our souls.
There are some marvellous examples of great street photography in this beautifully crafted collection. On page 51, a pretty young woman in a subway carriage, her left hand, palm-out, pressed against the window glass as she looks back over her shoulder at Sandler. The photograph is cinematic in its execution and might be the precursor of his future incarnation as a movie maker. A picture, representative of an era, a time in Sandler’s life, while pointing forward at something yet to come?
What makes this book special, however, is its place in street photography history. The collection marking the near end of Sandler as a focused street photographer and his move into the field of film making. The line falling between the USA pre-9/11 and USA post-9/11. Sandler deciding that after the twin towers atrocity he wanted to work in the moving medium because he recognised how important it was to hear sound, something missing from stills. A personal choice, of course, and what is documentary film making’s gain is street photography’s loss.
This book is a must for street photography aficionados. A historical document where Sandler is in the process of transitioning from stills to focusing on movies, street photography to film documentary. In the pantheon of street photography this is a must buy book. Every time I look at it I find something gloriously new.
The Eyes of the City by Richard Sandler, published by Powerhouse Books, Brooklyn, New York 180 pages, 116 photographs,
ISBN 978 – 1 – 57687 – 787 -6