Moveable Feast: Fresh Produce and the NYC Green Cart Program @MCNY

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing 112 black and white and color images from 5 different contemporary photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung in the entry and main divided gallery space on the first floor. An introductory room containing 19 vintage works from 12 different photographers/artists begins the exhibit and provides some historical context. The new work was commissioned by the NYC Green Cart Program, the Aperture Foundation, and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. Newspaper style brochures of the work of each of the 5 main photographers are available for free in the galleries; these are high qaulity and worth taking. (Installation shots at right.)

The following photographers are included in the main exhibit, with the number of images on view and details in parentheses:

LaToya Ruby Frazier (6 archival pigment prints, 10 gelatin silver prints, 2009/2010)
Thomas Holton (19 chromogenic prints, 2009/2010)
Shen Wei (8 archival pigment prints, 2010)
Gabriele Stabile (48 chromogenic prints, 1 journal, 2010)
Will Steacy (21 archival pigment prints, 2010)

The introductory room contains vintage material from the following photographers, with the number of images on view and dates in parentheses:

Berenice Abbott (2, 1936/1938)
John Albok (1, 1935)
Byron Company (3, 1899/1900)
Nicolino Calyo (3 watercolors)
Ronald Dubin (1, 1947)
Alta Ruth Hahn (2, 1935)
Susan Lorkidkatz (1, 1978)
Edward Martin (2, 1997/1998)
Roy Perry (1, 1940)
Jacob Riis (1, 1895)
Anne Shanks (1, 1955)
Dan Weiner (1, 1951)

Comments/Context: On the surface, the idea of commissioning five contemporary photographers to take pictures of the sidewalk produce carts in New York city might seem like a project doomed to obscurity, mostly by its inherent narrowness – how many different ways are there, really, to make images of fruit and vegetable vendors? What is astonishing about this show is just how varied the approaches ended up being, and how compelling these stories actually are, especially when seen together as facets of the same whole.

Of the five bodies of work on view, I found Will Steacy’s photographs to be the most haunting, even though there isn’t a single produce cart in any of his images. Steacy took the unorthodox approach of making pictures of the environment in which the green carts reside, picking a single location in the Bronx, and then documenting the food options within a roughly 10 block radius of the cart. The result is a contextual map of the neighborhood, with a parade of dismal fast food, from pizza to burgers, deli sandwiches to Mexican, all cheap and easily accessible, and often discarded on the sidewalk. It’s a powerful, sometimes ugly, portrait of the problem the green carts are trying to solve.

Shen Wei also came at the green cart commission from an unexpected angle. His images are elegant still lifes of the food that came from the carts, laid out in pure light on white tablecloths (almost with a nod to Laura Letinsky). The effect is simple and quiet, where watermelons and bananas become sculptural, often still adorned by stickers or packing boxes.

Gabriele Stabile and Thomas Holton looked beyond the carts to the customers and vendors themselves. Both got to know the people involved, tracking them to their homes, seeing how their lives have been impacted by the buying and selling of fresh produce. Stabile’s images are full of family meals, where shopping and cooking are preludes and processes. Holton spent his time with two Bangladeshi vendors, following their struggles both at the cart and beyond.

LaToya Ruby Frazier’s images are more like traditional street photography than the work of any of the others. They capture the juxtaposition and connection of opposites and the mixing of different kinds of people on the city’s sidewalks, catching patrons with a handful of fruit or vendors standing idly waiting for the next sale.

Taken together, these different approaches create a surprisingly robust and multi-layered picture of the impact of these carts. This exhibit is far more nuanced and engaging than you would ever expect, finding subtleties of influence that spread out from the food to a wide range of lives and communities. The photography is consistently well executed, and the overall message is effective: while the battle may be uphill and the existing environment often hostile to their arrival, these produce carts really do work, in all kinds of less than obvious ways.

Collector’s POV: As this is a museum exhibit, there are no prices for these prints. The five main photographers in this show are represented by the following New York galleries:
  • LaToya Ruby Frazier: Higher Pictures (here)
  • Thomas Holton: Sasha Wolf Gallery (here)
  • Shen Wei: Daniel Cooney Fine Art (here)
  • Gabriele Stabile: unknown
  • Will Steacy: Michael Mazzeo Gallery (here)
In general, their work has not found its way into the secondary markets much (if at all), so gallery retail is likely the only option for interested collectors at this point.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • Review: New Yorker (here)
  • LaToya Ruby Frazier artist site (here)
  • Thomas Holton artist site (here)
  • Shen Wei artist site (here)
  • Gabriele Stabile artist site (here)
  • Will Steacy artist site (here)

Moveable Feast: Fresh Produce and the NYC Green Cart Program

Through July 10th

1220 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10029

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Read more about: Gabriele Stabile, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Shen Wei, Thomas Holton, Will Steacy, Museum of the City of New York (MCNY)

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