New York City Framed



Jess Weisberger

From August 22 to October 30 a story is being told in the Picker Art Gallery of the Dana Arts Center. However, it is not your typical story. An array of black and white photographs adorns the walls of the third floor of the gallery, revealing the unique style and talented eye of Frank Paulin. The exhibit’s setting, the urban and notoriously stylish New York City, is well suited for the Center for Ethics and World Society’s theme this fall: Cities, Citizenship and Modernity.

This past Thursday, there was an opening reception which included a lovely assortment of catered food, a detailed and engaging gallery tour by the gallery’s curator, Diane Butler, a cappella performances by the Swinging Gates and various poetry readings. It was a lovely introduction to a thought-provoking exhibition, made possible by alumnus Bruce Silverstein ’89, who donated eight photographs. The other 27 photographs in the exhibit are on loan from Silverstein’s Gallery in New York City.

Today, at the age of 79, Paulin still carries on his legacy of casual but stylized street photography. In 1939, his family moved to New York City and then to Chicago. He was a member of the Photo League, which reigned from 1930 to1951 and included such artists as Bernice Abbot and Louis Hein. Their kind of street photography was candid because it showed such instantaneous and unique moments of individuals as putting on make-up, walking on a sidewalk or even sitting on a park bench.

Being reared in urban environments was clearly a catalyst for Paulin’s sharp eye for individuality and subtle yet striking moments. From 1953 to1960 he held the title of fashion illustrator for popular and world-renowned stores and designers such as Saks, B. Altman, Wanamakers, Abraham & Straus, Franklin Simon, Sterns and Lord & Taylor. With his background in fashion photography, Paulin continued to photograph the notably stylish New York City. He now has collections in many prestigious locations including the Center for Creative Photography, the University of Arizona, the Museum of the City in New York, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and The Museum of Modern Art in New York City

Not only does has Paulin shot such renowned monuments as the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building, he has also narrowed in on the minute role that pedestrians and park-goers play as they walk across the stage that is the city. The exhibit celebrated here focuses particularly on the year 1956, a time when New York City was flourishing and its population was somewhat indifferent to the greater world around it. The fleeting moments that pass by us daily may seem blas?e, but because of Paulin they are now transformed into a spectacular piece of art made of gelatin or vintage gelatin silver print, plainly framed in a uniform white mat and a thin black frame.

Walking into the exhibit, one cannot help but be overwhelmed by the glossy sheen radiating from Paulin’s eclectic choices of photos. The first to mention is modestly titled Musician Practicing, Central Park. This scene emphasizes the unexpected that can occur in the most banal situations. The musician in the photo is using the tree next to him as a coat hanger to hang his polished tweed coat while he concentrates on his fingers fluttering along the gleaming instrument. His shiny watch contrasts with the natural park setting, and his music seems to be competing with the untainted world of nature.

Next is the humbly titled Battery Park Bench, NY. The juxtaposition of a couple with a lone man on the bench next to them is humorous and endearing. A story could easily be written based on this one shot: as a happy couple practices “public display of affection” on one side of the bench, a plump man bursts out of his overcoat puffs on a skinny cigar and stares off into the distance. All three seem to have some sort of oral fixation and they take this lovely day in New York City to satisfy it.

While his titles may be straightforward, the works themselves have a great amount of depth. As Butler notes, there are endless interpretations of even the simplest of scenes. She highlights her favorite painting, Make-up, and describes the New York sparkle of urban experience and solitude within. While she is reminded of glamour and more specifically her favorite star, Audrey Hepburn, a man on the tour suggested something quite different. He focused on the striking beauty and “supposed” class that is seen at first glance, but he said that if one analyzed the photo further, one may notice that her dress is made of cotton, she has little jewelry and she is putting on an excessive amount of eyeliner at such an early hour in the day.

As the viewers stare into the black and white art, hoping to discern the secret of why Paulin chose the scene before them, they may easily become distracted by their own reflection. The light that reflects off the framed glass creates an eerie situation, wherein the viewer must decipher his own reflection from that of the characters in the photo. Paulin shows off his love affair with cars, fashion, nature, love, strangers and even an odd theme of masks. His clear admiration for distinguished material items matches the beauty that resonates in his images.

In one image titled Candide, he focuses on the social atmosphere of a cocktail party from a bird’s-eye view. It is a scene of motion and gossip. The well-dressed ladies and gentlemen sport the penguin-like attire of black and white tuxedos and the Chanel-inspired “little black dress.” The fragile, smooth and hardly-worked fingers grasp onto their slim cigarettes as the smoke gracefully rises up, effectively clouding Paulin’s lens.

Take an hour, more or less, and venture over to Picker to witness this spectacle with your own eyes. Make your own interpretations and appreciate the generous donations of Bruce Silverstein. Not only is it inspiring, it shows that trivial moments can provoke interesting stories.