Vivian Cherry, Helluva Town @Daniel Cooney

JTF (just the facts): A total of 44 black and white photographs, framed in black/white and matted, and hung against white and grey walls in the two room gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints (both vintage and later), made between 1947 to 1955 (or more generally 1940s or early 1950s). Physical sizes range from roughly 4×4 to 20×16 inches (or reverse) and no edition information was provided on the checklist. (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work was published in 2007 by powerHouse Books (here).

Comments/Context: There were plenty of talented women involved with the New York Photo League during its short run from the mid 1930s to the early 1950s, with now-acknowledged masters like Berenice Abbott, Lisette Model, and Helen Levitt among its teachers and students. Vivian Cherry is perhaps less broadly known than these notable names, but as this sampler of her pictures from this busy period shows, she too was an accomplished street photographer prowling the city’s neighborhood sidewalks. Cherry had an exhibit of her work at the Brooklyn Museum in 2000, was included in the 2011 Photo League survey at the Jewish Museum (reviewed here), and has been the subject of several recent monographs, so her place in history of New York photography is slowly being cemented.

Cherry’s early backstory is filled with hardscrabble New York hustle. While working as a dancer in Broadway shows and nightclubs, she saw a sign for a darkroom assistant position at Underwood & Underwood, a prominent photo service at the time. She got the job, and as her skill in printing news service pictures grew, her interest in making her own photographs led her to the Photo League. From there, she sold photo essays to various magazines, but continued to dance on the side to make ends meet.

Like Levitt, Cherry had a photographic affinity for the children of the city. From Harlem and Yorkville to Hell’s Kitchen and the Lower East Side, she made attentive pictures of all kinds of kids on the streets, finding them waiting on stoops or improvising games in back alleys and vacant lots. Many of her images capture the quiet tenderness of faces and overlooked poses, where eyes look out expectantly, smiles are open and exuberant, bubble gum is chewed, secrets are shared, and groups of kids explore the world together. Others document the street corner battles that rage between imaginary foes, with gunfighters hiding in stairwells, peeking around corners, and rounding up adversaries. That such playacting could involve a pretend lynching is a stark reminder of the violence percolating beneath the surface of even the most seemingly innocent of these games.

The Third Avenue El provided Cherry with some of her best subject matter. Passengers standing on the outdoor platforms were a constant source of inspiration, as juxtapositions of people and the bold advertising nearby made for frieze-like arrangements of small visual set pieces. Inside the trains, the dark geometries of windows and seats ordered her frames, with faces, gestures, and repetitions of men’s hats set in shafts of the bright incoming light. The architecture of the stations themselves also provided Cherry with ways to arrange compositions, in moving shots of horizontal platform edges and extending track lines or the snatched view of a dentist and his open-mouthed patient as seen through the ornate ironwork of a hand railing.

The deconstruction of the elevated train system in 1955 was a particularly rich visual process, and Cherry was there to capture some of its grandeur. In images that recall Lewis Hine’s pictures of the construction of the Empire State Building, workers tangle with huge girders, their forms becoming geometric silhouettes against the backdrop of the city. Misty smoke envelops the activity, as men hang from cross-hatched support sections or push crane-lifted sections away. And Cherry also documented the astonishment of the crowds below, as they gathered in their trenchcoats to watch the bustling activity.

Other singular images find Cherry seeing icons of the city with fresh eyes. Central Park carriages are turned into an angled array of wheels and cabins. The porters at the Fulton Fish Market are awash in shiny wet-pavement reflections. And suited men sit on the park benches of Washington Square, their bodies turned into a progression of poses.

While Cherry’s images of mid-century New York recall those of many other makers, the consistent control seen in these pictures is a testament to her talent as a photographer. Whether she was tracking kids in Spanish Harlem or following construction workers atop hulking crossbars, she knew how to compose a frame, and that ability to organize the visual chaos of the city is what has given her pictures a durable place in the history of this great city.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $3000 and $5000, based on size and print age (vintage/later). Cherry’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Vivian Cherry, Daniel Cooney Fine Art, powerHouse Books

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