Jeff Mermelstein is one of the most highly regarded American photographers working today. I’ve previously written about his work on Brooklyn’s Barclays Center here. In that post, I noted that Mermelstein is not only highly regarded, but also prolific. In fact, he’s so prolific I’ve got a new book to talk about: “Hardened” (Morel, 2019).
Whereas Mermelstein’s book on the Barclays Center saw him leaving the streets of New York for the bowels of Brooklyn’s sports complex, “Hardened” takes him back to Gotham’s sidewalks, his more familiar turf. And although the photos in his newest offering are all taken with an iPhone, they stick clearly to the oeuvre he has been operating in for decades. That is to say that they are stunning, vibrant and sometimes wry examinations of the cacophony that has defined New York for as long as anyone can remember.
Nowadays, just about everyone fancies themselves a photographer. That has kind of been the case for the decades after compact cameras became affordable for the general consumer. But with the advent of smartphones and their cameras, the notion that everybody is a photographer has exploded. Social media has been one of the chief flame fanners of this phenomenon, most notably through Instagram, where multitudes proclaim that they are “street photographers.” While writing this post, I looked up the hashtag #streetphotography and was met with more than 69 million posts. That’s fine, but I would hardly put just about all of the photographs that pop up with that search anywhere near the realm of Mermelstein’s work.
One thing the photos in “Hardened” do have in common with all those hashtagged photos is that he used a camera on a mobile phone to take them. That’s about the only similarity, though. Mermelstein is a widely acknowledged master of the genre for good reason. There are few people who can match the vision that is showcased in “Hardened.” Mermelstein’s images of street life in New York are strikingly bold in color and execution — he sees things most of us would completely miss because he has a vision, a message and an authorial voice he has honed through decades of taking photographs.
I can’t describe the power of Mermelstein’s work much better than David Campany, a highly regarded photo curator, who writes in the introduction to “Hardened”:
These are just some of Jeff Mermelstein’s pictures taken mainly on the streets of New York in the last few years. A world of everyday neurosis, minor catastrophe, panic, charm, indiscretion, revelation, fallen pride, deflated bravado, pricked narcissism, and unexpected affection. In a culture in which seemingly everything is contrived for the camera, it is heartening, and horrifying, to see what it looks like when it doesn’t think it is being photographed, or at least photographed the way Jeff Mermelstein does it.
These are iPhone pictures, most of which first appeared on Instagram. That means they got viewed on devices similar to the one that made them, and in similar circumstances. You see on your screen what he saw on his. That is quite intimate, but it is a kind of livid intimacy that is Mermelstein’s own. Slipping beneath the skin, slicing the facade, close to the bone, too close for comfort. And now here on the printed page, in a new sequence, the effect of these pictures is deepened and estranged yet further.
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