In Which Thrust To The Fore New York Casts Its Own Shadow

Over the coming weeks we’ll be featuring our New York series: essays which reflect on New York City art, film, music, fiction, architecture, and history. You can find the first entry in that series here. Now we turn it over to photographer Matt Lutton.

I See A Darkness

by Matt Lutton

I can remember each and every moment I took these photographs. I can remember the location, where I was standing, where I was going and often what I was thinking when I clicked the shutter and attempted to capture a fleeting impression of a person, thing or place in New York. I try to put into the picture an idea of this little, tiny moment in time in an immense city, too complex even to discuss.

A few, though, are unconscious. I don’t know why I took the picture, I have no memory of it. They are blessings on the contact sheet. I recall the place I took them – if not this can be reconstructed from looking at the nearby frames – but I don’t know the moment. An accident, maybe. Blessing, certainly: something inside me, bypassing thought, caused me to react to a scene by taking a picture.

Lately I’ve been trying to explore this phenomenon. Most all of my favorite photographs, taken by myself and others, seem more made by feeling than by thought.

They’re impressions, or questions, rather than statements. They’re often products of intimacy and understanding of the subject, and of intuition. They always say it is about ‘being in the right place at the right time’, but it goes further – you need to feel it to be there and know what is important.

What am I thinking when I’m out shooting? Music and rhythm. Of the city and of myself. One of my favorite photographers, Alex Majoli, says: “We should think of a photographer as a Samurai who makes rituals, moves and gestures in order to develop his techniques and his instinct.”

I think this is insightful, particularly when one is working on the street trying to chase down and hunt images in the faces of the anonymous. I am not talking to the people in my pictures; many don’t even notice me or my camera. It takes practice, particularly mental practice, to work this way and produce images that live on their own. I say “If your pictures are not good enough, you don’t feel it strongly enough.”

Let’s be honest, I’ve put myself in to pretty clichéd territory – photographing New York City in black and white.

I started taking these pictures at 21 during my first summer of living alone outside of the city I grew up, Seattle. At first, I was just photographing the things around me as I went about my days in the city as an unpaid intern living in rough Brooklyn neighborhoods. Later on, looking at all these random pictures together for the first time, I noticed a consistent theme running through them, which was amazing to me because I hadn’t tried to do anything consistent, I had no aim to do a ‘body of work’.

In these pictures I expressed something deep about my interaction with the city, and done so without conscious thought. And I had to have more, both to close this chapter, and to learn from photographing in this way, as it seemed to unlock something new in me and the photographs.

Robert Frank‘s The Americans probably got me started taking pictures of people in the first place, and from there I moved on to Garry Winogrand, Henri Cartier-Bresson and other black-and-white ‘street’ photographers.

That I bring up these names with this project is probably incredibly obvious to some of you, and I can’t decide if that is good or bad. Hopefully I’ve moved beyond imitation and produced something new and in my own voice.

Even more than these or other photographers I find myself constantly bumping up against a particular album and book when I am photographing in New York. If I do have an image in my mind, it is some strange apparition to the tune of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s I See A Darkness and in the key of Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece The Master and Margarita.

I’ve taken to starting out exhibitions of these pictures with my favorite quote from Margarita, which explains everything:

As soon as you appeared on this roof you made yourself ridiculous. It was your tone of voice. You spoke your words as though you denied the very existence of the shadows or of evil. Think, now: where would your good be if there were no evil and what would the world look like without shadow? Shadows are thrown by people and things. There’s the shadow of my sword, for instance. But shadows are also cast by trees and living things. Do you want to strip the whole globe by removing every tree and every creature to satisfy your fantasy of a bare world? You’re stupid.

Here the Devil is admonishing Matthew the Levite for his naiveté about the world; there certainly is darkness in this world, and frankly it gives the light its meaningfulness. We must remember that we all cast our own shadows, and that this is inherent to having light around us. One begets the other.

This is precisely what I am interested in: the casting of shadows, literal and metaphorical. In New York in particular there are profound shadows thrown from the dizzying and oppressive maze of skyscrapers, setting the whole scene. And then there are the pockets of light that squeeze between, finding the gaps and illuminating, sometimes for impossibly brief moments, hidden corners of a city.

There, again, something that is often relegated to a dark existence is spot-lit and thrust to the fore, only to cast its own shadow.

There is no judgment here, I find meaning and beauty in it all. I just seek to capture those places and moments for everyone else who doesn’t notice them or never gets to see them through their own eyes.

As for the album I ripped my title from, the perfect confluence of lyrics and music conspires to paint the most photo-realistic picture of my New York. In some ways, my photographs are simply trying to realize and communicate my feelings when listening to this album and how profoundly it represents life in the city.

This is my vision of New York City, a place I love and fear. And as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy sings on this album, “By dread I’m inspired, by fear I’m amused.” Walking for 8 hours a day puts me in to a trance. I’ll glaze over for hours, not talking to a single person, just pacing. Then to snap in panic as I make a picture or more. As an old hero said, talking about his first days taking pictures on the street, “I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, ready to ‘trap’ life.”

Here are some of those moments, many of which I remember in my bones and am happy to share. Others are those miracles that struck like needles and I present here as wonders of spontaneity and luck. All are trademarks of moments big and small in the city of New York.

Matt Lutton is a photographer living in Seattle. His site is here, where you can find the complete collection of I See A Darkness. The introduction to the book version of the series can be read here.  If you want to be on a mailing list for information on the book version of Lutton’s I See A Darkness please be in touch with him via the contact info on his website.

“Another Day Full of Dread” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“Death to Everyone” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“Lie Down in the Light” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“I Kill Therefore I Am” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“Love Me Tonight” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“Babylon System” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“Someone to Watch Over Me” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“Someone to Watch Over Me” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“Lullaby” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“Missing One” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“Brokedown Palace” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“Big Friday” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“Madeleine-Mary” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“No Bad News” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“Cold & Wet” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“Knockturne” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“Cursed Sleep” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“Willow Trees Bend” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“I’ll Be Glad” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

“Song for the New Breed” – Bonnie Prince Billy (mp3)

PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING

We are so through with men.

Being cheap as an art form.

All the good young electric jellyfish.

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