Matthew Beck, Event

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by J & L Books (here). Hardback (10.5×8 inches), 112 pages, with 84 color illustrations on black glossy paper. Design by Matthew Beck and Jason Fulford. In an edition of 1000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As the world’s largest public transit system running underneath one of its most photogenic cities, the New York City subway has proven irresistible to street photographers. Many have taken a stab at it over the years—despite the transit authority’s best efforts to restrict them—including such luminaries as Helen Levitt, Bruce Davidson, Jamel Shabazz, Christophe Agou, and Richard Sandler. Treating tunnels and traincars as underground extensions of the Big Apple’s sidewalks, these photographers have tapped its rich veins for possibilities. Situations below correspond roughly to what’s above, but the environment is confined, dimly lit, and transactional. Photo subjects tend to be fleeting, proximate, and garishly lit. Shooting passengers in a subway car may be literally akin to shooting fish in a barrel, but it’s far from easy.

Photographing a black hole is even more difficult. Since no light can escape their gravitational fields these collapsed stars are by definition invisible. Until recently their vacuity posed an insurmountable barrier to photographers. But in the spring of 2019, an international team of astronomers finally cracked the problem, creating a “picture” of the black hole at the center of galaxy M87. The image used radio waves to record the glowing gases at its edge which silhouetted the empty void inside. 

One might quibble with definitions. Perhaps depicting an object through subtraction is a sort of an anti-photograph, and radio waves are not technically light-drawing. In any case, the image was an impressive feat, with broad enough appeal to spill over from the scientific community into general public consciousness. On April 11th, 2019 the black hole’s picture appeared on front pages across the world. A hazy orange ring on a field of black, it resembled the face of a smiling cyclops. Within a very short time period this image had gone viral, transforming literally from unknown to stardom.

On the face of it, these two disparate subjects—MTA and M87—would seem to have little in common. One is below New York City, and the other 55 million light years away. But Matthew Beck’s monograph Event finds surprising and provocative ways to join them, all under the rubric of candid subway photography. In so doing, the book imposes a clever thematic cohesion to a genre which can be fitful and chaotic. 

Connections begin with the book’s exterior. The front cover shows a pair of eyes, the back cover is M87. Cropped from interior photographs, enlarged, and translated into black and red halftones respectively, their forms are analogous. Similarities continue with the first spread after the title page. The lefthand image shows the New York Times being read on the lap of a commuter. It’s April 11th—the day of the titular event—and the black hole photo fills most of the front section above the fold. On the book’s facing page is a subway passenger staring out the window. Like a celestial object she floats in a field of darkness, illuminated only by Beck’s flash. With a bit of imagination, the viewer can find the black hole’s rough color and shape repeated in the manila envelope which sits on her knee.

Another pairing appears a few pages later. This time the black hole photo sits across the spread from a floral bouquet, looking vaguely like an orange flower. These first few images prime the reader to notice such visual repetitions—just as Beck must have noticed them at some point. Afterward, they come more easily. A black hole photo underneath a bag of cookies matches the faint outline of a man’s pinkeye. On another spread, its orange glow corresponds to evangelical literature. A man dressed in a giant orange dahlia outfit is fated to join Beck’s book. Red hickey marks resemble the orange ring, as does a Starbucks cup in orange vomit. Once the mind is limbered up, it’s receptive to wider tangents. Perhaps two eyes peeking through a grate might look like a pair of cover shots? Or a man’s open lips can resemble a black hole? Or citrus peels matched with a man’s orange-rimmed glasses? 

Juxtaposing X with Y is a familiar street photography trope, and as such must be treated carefully. In this case the device works well. Beck’s pairings are formed through sequence, not in the moment. They feel subtle and unforced. More importantly, they represent just a portion of Event, and their volume never feels overbearing. Some of Beck’s photographs carry their own celestial implications, with no matching picture needed. A picture of miniature orange chocolate globes stands on its own, as does a woman’s shock of bright orange hair. A man levitating a strange spinning disc gives the impression of an amateur astronomer at work. In a closeup shot of a man’s face, his clouded cornea takes on a disturbingly earth-like character.  In another photo the speckled linoleum floor of a subway car lights up like a starry night under Beck’s probing flash. 

Filling in the remainder of the book are pictures less tangibly related to the Event. These are merely offbeat moments found by Beck prowling with a camera. Odd characters, detritus, buskers, and graffiti will be familiar to anyone who’s spent time beneath New York. Beck favors a direct approach to all, centering his subjects and exposing them from just a few feet away through wide-angle lens, usually with off-camera flash. Trawling in the inky depths, he’s returned with a nice haul of faces and hands, not to mention metal parts, grime, and a few lost pigeons. Commuters sleep, glare, or stare into space. No one smiles. Laid out on the book’s black glossy stock, these objects pop like ghostly apparitions, whether captured in deep space or deep tunnel.

There’s a certain bravado inherent in flash candids like these. The act of photographing interjects itself into the scene, immediately altering its post-exposure future. In terms of astrophysics, one might say the act of observation necessarily affects the thing observed. In photographic terms, an underground flash is an event, disruptive enough that most pictures here are likely one-off exposures, with no hovering or working the scene possible. Most of Beck’s unwitting collaborators appear caught off guard, lending his photographs a harsh feral quality, but also a sense of discovery. It’s doubtful Beck had any preconceptions about what he might find on any given day, even on April 11th, 2019. More likely he was ambling forward, a rover hurtling through space, sponging up headlines or characters in serendipitous fashion. 

This is where most street photography stops. Indeed, Beck’s own Instagram (@plasticlunch) is typical of the genre, favoring spontaneity over thematic cohesion. But with Event he has found a galvanizing thread, and it is this twist which activates his monograph. Predecessors such as Joel Meyerowitz’s Wild Flowers, Jeff Mermelstein’s Twirl/Run, Elliott Erwitt’s Handbook, and Lee Friedlander’s Chainlink have taken a similar tack, sifting found moments into narrowly themed books. Beck is in good company with these street forebears, and his effort expands their universe. As astronomers can confirm, squeezing conventional material through an unexpected filter can be revelatory.

Event fits well into J & L’s mischievous catalog. Their wry description—“a cultural history of the sublime first image of a black hole, in photographs and documents”—suits the eccentric whims of the publisher perfectly. For most readers this cursory summation will create more questions than answers. Cultural history? Photographs and documents? How is sublime about the black hole and how does it relate to subways?  

Event provides clues, but no clear answers. There is scant supporting text, just a brief page containing acknowledgements and colophon. Beck muses here that the black hole image “allows us to simultaneously see into the past and the future,” but he won’t speculate further. J & L’s explanation also takes a philosophical bent: “The book suggests the notion that the cosmos is not something to simply be observed from our vantage point as humans, but more a system that we are intrinsically a part of; and the true nature of the black hole seems to be as elusive as the answer to humanity’s most pressing question of ‘why.’ ” 

For this reviewer, the operative word is “elusive”. If my understanding of this passage falls short, perhaps that’s intentional. In fact, the title itself is somewhat ambiguous. Event can refer not only to April 11th, 2019 but also to a black hole’s internal structure, in which the event horizon defines the gravitational boundary within which nothing can escape. It’s around this edge that objects orbit for a little while before they perish, stars circling the drain in their death throes, along with masses of gas, dust, and cosmic detritus. In assuming a willfully opaque form, Event might be compared to these mysterious circumstances. Little information is forthcoming. Speculation and imagination rush into the void. Soon they too are trapped.

Collector’s POV: Matthew Beck does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked above in the sidebar).

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