Jeff Mermelstein, one of the most prolific and widely acclaimed street photographers working in the United States today, was displaced by the multibillion-dollar complex that’s home to the Brooklyn Nets. You’d be right to think that this didn’t sit all that well with him. A little over a decade before the complex — which would include the Barclays Center — was built, Mermelstein and his wife had just bought a home that would have to come down to make way for all of it. But what many would take for defeat, Mermelstein found a way to make work for him.
Mermelstein told Huck magazine that one day, looking out the window from his home, he saw the man behind the development, Bruce Ratner, and ended up running out to him to vent about the upcoming enterprise. Mermelstein says that the encounter began “very gruff, but it evolved over 18 years into a friendship.” That friendship would be the spark that would ignite what would eventually become the material for one of Mermelstein’s newest books, “Arena” (TBW Books, 2019). Ratner would go on to commission the photographer to document the early days of the Barclays Center.
Over a period of four years, Mermelstein photographed more than 350 events, functioning as a kind of unofficial documentarian for the center.
Mermelstein is primarily known for documenting the quirky realities of life in the streets of New York City. You can see that work in his previous books, most notably “Sidewalk.” He brought the same sensibility with him into the sports arena. Barclays. Not once do we ever see any of the main events: no concerts, boxing matches or even basketball games. What we do see are the quirky happenings around the edges, as Mermelstein wormed his way through the bowels of the place catching the people and events going on there.
In the book’s afterword, Robert Slifkin, associate professor of fine arts at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, strikes the nail on the head while describing the 71 photos laid out in the book’s 140 pages:
“[T]he images effectively convey the convivial and populist spirit that Ratner envisioned for the new arena. Eschewing the sort of celebratory and glamorous portrayals of athletes and stars that are typically used to publicize arenas, Mermelstein’s pictures by turns emphasize the intimacy and almost domestic feel of the space, staging dramatic affinities between its bustling corridors and the teeming scenes of humanity he captured on the streets of New York for decades.”
Here is a selection of darkly humorous, thoroughly quirky and deeply masterful images from “Arena.”
In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.
More on In Sight: