When an infamous SOMA photographer turned her lens on New York City

Janet Delaney’s photos of 1980s Manhattan capture an urban landscape forbidding and far from S.F.

Janet Delaney staked her claim with a series of photographs called “South of Market,” pictures she made in the rapidly gentrifying SOMA neighborhood of San Francisco from 1978 to 1986. An exhibition at EUQINOM Gallery, “New York in the 80s,” which coincides the publication of a new monograph, “Red Eye to New York” (Mack Books, 2021), reveals a body of work the photographer produced concurrently to “South of Market” in Manhattan.

Delaney worked as a courier in the 80s, flying between coasts and shooting in the Big Apple during idle moments on the job, mostly mornings, with her trusty square format Rolleiflex. In the monograph’s essay, Amanda Maddox quotes writer and artist Lucy Sante as having once described New York’s Avenue C as “a lunar landscape of vacant blocks and hollow tenement shells.” I imagine this was a familiar sight to Delaney from her time spent photographing in SOMA. Barring this inspirational similarity, though, the New York pictures stand on their own, with a uniqueness essential to the city.

The major difference is intimacy — or the lack thereof. When I think of the SOMA pictures, I think of, in addition to street scenes and recordings of rapidly gentrifying infrastructure, the many portraits of San Franciscans shot inside their homes and workplaces. Almost all the NYC pictures were taken in the streets, pedestrians rarely granting the camera eye contact. When they do, it’s either a suspicious leer (“Deli Counter, North of New York City,” 1986), or the wide-eyed stares from kids who don’t know any better (“Four Children, Two Dolls,” 1985). The cityscapes Delaney captures are equally unwelcoming: industrial, bleak, estranged.

I’ve been to New York twice. I wanted out both times. There’s a sense of entrapment I get being in Manhattan that terrifies me. The city’s brutal flatness of long boulevards and avenues instills, for me, a kind of vertigo. Delaney, also: It’s this disorientation, filtered through the bleary eyes of an overnight flight, that she captures best. Is it possible for a camera to have a bleary lens? Some of the pictures make me wonder.

The double exposure in “Broadway-Lafayette Station,” 1984, comes close. What are we looking at? There’s a man passing by on the left side of the frame, oncoming traffic, wheat pasted posters, billboards and New York’s signature subway letters in their colored dots. We’re seeing everything at once. It’s the feeling you have coming up from the subway and spinning around to get your bearings.

Janet Delaney, “Wall Street,” 1984. (Photo courtesy of Janet Delaney and EUQINOM Gallery)

Janet Delaney, “Wall Street,” 1984. (Photo courtesy of Janet Delaney and EUQINOM Gallery)

Delaney manages to control the chaos by limiting it to the square frame, with camera angles that read like her own sideways glance at the city, never fully buying it. Think of photography as a way to reintroduce a safe distance between yourself and a place or situation it’s too late to get out of. “Wall Street,” 1984, captures this tactic best, a calm, if ominous picture, showing two business people walking down the street, their dark forms thrown against the austere, concrete façade of a skyscraper in the early morning light

Delaney has curated a supplementary selection of works by photographer Nick Lawrence at EUQINOM titled “Lower East Side Teenagers in the 1960s.” The title is self-explanatory. These kids are cool: just as unavailable as the city itself, rarely looking into Lawrence’s camera. You almost wonder if they even noticed him standing there. Ditto for the city’s attitude toward Delaney. But therein lies the beautiful dichotomy of these pictures: New York never quite lets them in, but in turning a blind eye to their presence, it makes their observation of it possible. Don’t mind me, I’m just looking.

IF YOU GO:

“Janet Delaney: New York in the 80s”

Where: EUQINOM Gallery, 1295 Alabama St., S.F.

When: Wednesday-Saturday 12-5 p.m., Jan. 15-Feb. 26, 2022

Contact: (415)823-2990, euqinomgallery.com

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