Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.
— Walker Evans
It is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph.
— Robert Frank
Richard Sandler’s book, “The Eyes of the City” (Powerhouse, 2016) opens with those two quotes. And they couldn’t be more relevant to the body of work that follows. In the book, Sandler takes us on a wild and wandering journey through a New York (and briefly Boston as well) that hardly exists anymore, staring, prying and eavesdropping along the way. We wander through the concrete and steel canyons with him, noting the characters that punctuate the masses teeming by on sidewalks; we descend underground to the subway and meet more characters playing out the drama of living in one of the world’s most famous, gritty and raw cities.
It’s true that the concrete canyons and subways still exist in New York. But New York is far cleaner and less dangerous now than the world Sandler shows us. Times Square is no longer a destination for X-rated entertainment, and the subways are mostly free of graffiti. Some say New York lacks the edge it used to have. High rents have forced many of the city’s inhabitants out, many of the people (struggling artists, writers, actors) who once contributed to the raw, gritty energy of the place. In the book’s afterword, Jonathan Ames tidily sums up Sandler’s book:
“These photographs are like stills from a horror film, and yet they’re the pictures of our lives. Specifically our lives in the city. What a play we put on in front of each other on the streets, living so close the way we do, like mice in a burrow. A play of greed, decay, venality, beauty, longing, hidden meanings, coincidences, love, terror, mundanity, suffering, boredom, loneliness.”