Artist: David Katzensten
Text: Thomas Mellins Curator, The Museum of the City of New York
David Katzenstein looks at a ubiquitous but often under-considered feature of the cityscape—signage—and transforms it into witty meditations on urban life. His images, at once artful compositions, shrewd urban observations, and historical documents, zero-in on the subtle and not-so-subtle ways language, irony, and humor help to animate our daily experience of New York.
In the fall of 1989, the New Yorker magazine contacted Mr. Katzenstein regarding the redesign of the magazine’s well-known “Talk of the Town” section. Seeking to enliven the section, known for its elegant use of language, with equally elegant visuals, the magazine hired four photographers to shoot images that would then serve as the basis of illustrations opening “Talk of the Town” each week. At the time, the magazine excluded all photography in favor of illustrations and cartoons. After his initial shoot, Katzenstein was selected to serve as the project’s sole photographer. Over a period of three years, 120 illustrations based on Katzenstein’s black-and white photographs appeared in the magazine.
Katzenstein aptly seized upon language as a subject for the literary magazine. His focus on words, whether as part of a municipally sponsored signs exhorting, “Littering is filthy and selfish so don’t do it!” and “Don’t even think of parking here,” written in both English and Chinese, or as they appeared on a resourceful entrepreneur’s sign: “Free pizza with every haircut,” reflected his keen eye and keen ear. Katzenstein saw and “heard” the “word on the street.” Ironically, in a city defined by both monumentally scaled buildings and larger-than-life personalities often expressed in the colorful use of spoken language, small written signs, understood and appreciated in silent, solitary moments, revealed much about both the city’s distinctive humor, energy, and drive.
The sense of privacy, of a direct encounter between an individual observer and words, was intensified by Katzenstein’s exclusion of people in his photographs. Serendipity, another key facet of urban experience, also became a theme, as Katzenstein alluded to the state of not knowing what curious or amusing sight might lie just around a corner.
While Katzenstein’s visual vignettes captured something essential about the city’s enduring character, they also reflected the zeitgeist. Now, his images, particularly those that include the incipient graffiti that would in time come to emblematize an era, take the viewer back to a time in the city’s recent past when the physical environment and a prevailing street sensibility were grittier than is currently the case in today’s prosperous, expansive, and tidier city. Katzenstein’s images remind us that the off-beat and the quirky are essential qualities of even the most powerful of cities.