Spencer Ostrander, Times Square in the Rain

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Hatje Cantz (here). Hardcover (22.10 x 31.00 cm), 128 pages, with 90 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Siri Hustvedt. Graphic design by Bonnie Briant. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: For more than a few local New York city residents, the phrase “Times Square in the rain” might evoke a particularly dispiriting circle of Dante’s version of Hell. To many that live here, the initial charms to be discovered in Times Square long ago evaporated into its maddening traffic, its choking throngs of tourists, and its relentless commercialism, making it perhaps the last place you would ever want to intentionally go in the city (except when attending a Broadway show). But for the out of towner and the child under the age of about 12, Times Square is still an unmissable magical wonderland, where the never-ending flood of visual stimulation that shouts down from the electronic billboards above mixes with the jostling of the crowds to create a vibrant blender of over-the-top American energy.

Photographically, Times Square also likely shares the title as one of the most photographed places in America, so the fact that Spencer Ostrander took this famous location on as a subject for his recent photobook says something about his confidence as a picture maker. In the 1940s and 1950s, Times Square was the home to dazzling movie marquees and neon lights that became the visual signature of hardscrabble shadowy film noir; by the 1970s, it had taken on a seedier and more marginalized vibe, with strip clubs, bars, and porn movie houses filling its streets; and now with the advent of the jumbo-sized digital screen, nearly every surface in the square is covered with eye-popping moving imagery, creating a cacophony of light, sound, and futuristic technology that bathes the streets below with jittering washes of saturated color.

Given all this history, there wouldn’t seem to be much room for photographic innovation in this location. But the unexpected discovery that Spencer Ostrander has made about Times Square is that when the square is dry (which is most of the time), its cascades of visual energy settle over the crowds and quickly disappear into the night. But when the rain comes down and covers its sidewalks, cars, and storefront windows with drops and puddles of wetness, the visual characteristics of the square markedly change. Suddenly there are reflections, distortions, and flares of light that weren’t there before, and when the umbrellas come out and the open top bus tour operators start handing out free plastic ponchos (either clear or in cheery pastel colors), the people in the square become variously covered, creating crowds of hooded and interrupted figures. It is these overlooked details, and the way they reinterpret this seemingly obvious place, that fill the pages of Times Square in the Rain.

Some of the strongest images in this photobook center in on the ponchos, cropping down the mass of the crowd to a single individual or small group. Different kinds of ponchos offer different effects – the clingy transparent ones cover bodies but allow clothing patterns and heads to show through, while the more opaque colored versions veil those details more fully, leaving only hints and fogs of specificity. Most of these pictures are essentially drapery studies, where the twists, folds, and wrinkles of the ponchos create lovely tactile surfaces. But the variety of visual possibilities created by these raincoats is unexpectedly wide, including views of the droplets that cluster on the plastic, the gestures of touch and expressive faces that emerge from under the hoods and edges of the ponchos, and the colors that tint the forms and bodies. There are even a few horror movie style grasping hands underneath the suffocating plastic, and several windblown, crumpled, and discarded ponchos that gather into even more complex, in and some sense dispiriting, tangles.

Umbrellas offer Ostrander another compositional device for rearranging his frames. Single umbrellas cut across faces and interrupt views with angular vibrancy, while groups settle into more complicated interlocking layers of heights and fabric patterns. A few transparent plastic umbrellas let us see through to their owners, creating a visual echo between droplets and the eyelets of a woman’s dress and putting a shirt covered with national flags in dialogue with a riff on Milton Glaser’s famous logo that reads NY heart (loves) ME. And in several pictures, Ostrander allows the rainy scenes to fall to soft blur, creating more expressively romantic color stories like those of Saul Leiter.

Passing faces, behind the glass of a window in a bus or taxi or perhaps in sitting in a storefront window, provide yet another potential subject. For the most part, these faces are lost in thought or otherwise in their own worlds, likely unaware that they were being observed; the lights from the square and the dappled wetness on the glass tint and distort their faces, and a general mood of blank-eyed emptiness is common. A few groups recognize they are being watched and wave with friendly enthusiasm, but more common is a bus driver looks on with world weariness, an older woman who reacts to the spectacle with a grim frown, and one young man who sleeps through the whole thing.

Ostrander’s most abstract photographs are built from reflections. Wet streets and grouted edges glow with surreal saturated color, particularly an eye-popping blood red that covers rough black paving stones and wanders down the seams. Pools and puddles create their own reflective surfaces, and in once case, atmospheric flared rainbows of light decorate the wet streets. Ostrander then turns his attention to the glossy surfaces of passing cars, where the shiny distortions become even more twisted and bent, with faces from the billboards elongated and curved like those in fun house mirrors and other less recognizable forms transformed into enveloping areas of marbled brightness.

While it’s certainly possible to see Times Square in the Rain as an arch commentary on rampant consumerism, with the dazed and dumbfounded visitors in Ostrander’s photographs lost in their own aspirational fantasies of whatever happiness such a place (and the goods and services on sale everywhere) might offer, I think the formal qualities of his compositions ultimately carry more weight than any passing visions of 21st century despair and alienation he may have captured along the way. This is a photobook brimming with vibrant colors and textures, nearly every  picture a carefully considered study of how those characteristics can be amplified into something unexpected. I for one had largely given up the idea that there was anything new to be discovered in Time Square, but Ostrander’s photobook emphatically refutes that argument – there are visual gems to be found here on almost every turn of the page. As such, it is a powerful reminder to look, and to look again, as even the most overworked and banal of subjects might just be hiding something extraordinary.

Collector’s POV: Spencer Ostrander does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time; his commercial work is represented by For Your Consideration (here). As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up with the photographer directly via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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