Jeff Mermelstein, #nyc

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by MACK Books (here). Softcover (19×14.5cm), 160 pages, with 150 black and white images. There are no texts or essays included. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Jeff Mermelstein has been photographing the streets of New York City since the early 1980s, including the events of September 11, fashion shows, and most recently, in and around the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. His photographs are known for their sharp sense of visual humor. About three years ago, Mermelstein took a shot of a woman who was typing something on her phone, but he centered his attention on the phone itself. That photograph started a new project that takes street photography into new territory. Mermelstein used an iPhone to take tightly cropped shots of hands holding phones and fingers typing text messages, with the main focus on the content of the texts. Over the years, he has collected over a thousand images – initially he shared them on his Instagram feed, and recently the series was published in a photobook, with the simple, yet brilliant title #nyc.

#nyc is quite exciting as a photobook object. The entire book is constructed in light blue, similar to a text message conversation bubble or the backlit glow of a phone screen, and the bright blue cover matches its blue edges and the internal spreads. Inside, all the images are black and white on blue paper, with the same size and position. The book is a comfortable size, easy to flip through, read anywhere, or even carry around. The image on the cover is slightly indented and captures a screenshot of an unsent text message “that time in my life left a lasting impression in so many ways. And believe me, if we could have kept all of that private,” while prediction text at the bottom offers to add “conversati”, “property”, and “plane”.  The fragments from various text messages appear together on the back cover as one continuous text, printed in black against a blue background. 

The narrative of the book unfolds almost like a surreal novel. The opening image, placed on the endpaper, shows a text message starting with “But I was concerned about my own privacy”, right away stating the artist’s awareness of his tenuous position. Seen together, Mermelstein’s photographs reveal the private life of New Yorkers through fragments of their text messages, exposing conversations and thoughts that were never intended to enter the public space: “Hey aunty can you send me some money please”, “How’s the Affair ??”, “should I send a thanks text now or tomorrow..”, “I said: you have to be comfortable with everything”, “New Year’s Resolution: no more dating apps”, “I’ve decided to talk to you Maaaybe mañana. Haven’t decided yet”.

In page after page, we follow the fragments of strangers’ conversations. The texts touch a wide range of topics including affairs, break ups, unwanted pregnancy, money, witches, groceries, sex, and even cockroach traps. They are heartbreaking, comical, and in a few cases, completely bizarre. As we flip through the book, it is hard not to think about how it pushes us into a voyeuristic position, particularly in the moments when the text message is being typed and just about to be sent. 

The organizing concept behind Mermelstein’s book is both simple and effective. All of the photographs are stripped of their locations and surroundings, and tightly cropped to focus just on the screen. Mermelstein has also removed any personal information, including names and phone numbers. While we know nothing about the people behind the screen, their fingers, hair, and long polished nails add some character to the messages they type and receive. One photograph captures a cigarette over a cracked phone screen, while in another, the screen is partially covered by the person’s hair, and the text message mentions the death threats and drama the recipient’s actions provoked.

Mermelstein’s #nyc project fits into a long line of voyeuristic urban photography projects, but with a new 21st century technological twist. In 1930, Walker Evans used a camera concealed inside his overcoat to photograph people on the New York subway. In the 1970s, Kohei Yoshiyuki’s provocative series captured couples having sex in the park at night and the voyeurs who stalked them. And Merry Alpern secretly photographed men and women engaging in sex and doing drugs at a low-rent brothel near Wall Street, capturing them through air shaft windows.

The very last image in the book captures a screen with a text message that consists entirely of a code, perhaps a link, keeping the narrative of #nyc somewhat open ended and mysterious. Mermelstein says that his series “reflects a multitude of layers and ingredients of a pretty wild place, and also a pretty mad time. It’s filled with concern, joy, pathos and love and craziness.”

The book is at once mundane, hilarious, and provocative. The success of #nyc lies in its clever integration of concept and execution, bringing all of its elements into an original photobook experience. Mermelstein offers a creative and unexpected way to examine a layer of NYC life, offering an indirect commentary on the current moment.

Collector’s POV: Jeff Mermelstein does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his Instagram page (linked in the sidebar).

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