Today’s Special: New York City Photographs 1969 – 2006 is a collection of Jeff Rothstein‘s photos, made in the city and in the years mentioned in the subtitle. There’s not much more to say about it, really, but I’ll try…
Given the timespan—37 years, give or take a few months—Rothstein’s collection provides something of a time capsule, or time machine. We see Yayoi Kusama‘s young, macrame-draped arm as she signs a poster; there’s Muhammad Ali in his early 1970s prime; John and Yoko still looking rather preppy; and a poster for a girlie show in Times Square, long before Times Square gentrified and played host to a Disney Store. There’s somewhat more, of course: people standing or sitting or protesting or sitting-in, storefronts and river views, graffiti and broken windows. At first glance, I thought it was mostly chronological, then I got to the index on the final pages and found the years were all over the place. 1978, 1969, 2006, 1979, 1998, 1984, 1981… all over the place.
Therein lies the strength both of black & white film and of a consistent vision.
One could, of course, chalk the whole thing up to luck. Shoot 1000 rolls of film or however many around couple hundred square miles over 40-odd years and you too might come up with enough pictures to fill a 50 page zine. I mean, at its basest, most ludicrous reading, this is pretty much what Robert Frank did for The Americans, albeit over a few months and all over the country. It’s pretty much what all famous/pro/art (read: Real) photographers do, really. We amateurs just have a somewhat longer runway… I’m at about 600 rolls over 7 or 8 years and know I couldn’t put together anything like Today’s Special, and if I could, no one would care: there’s no nostalgia or longing for a past that recent, and I shoot in/around places nobody really cares about. I mean, what is Irving, TX or Eureka Springs, AR compared to New York City?
Anyway. The book opens with a brief introduction from Robert C. Morgan, an artist and international art critic. Some of the language is a bit strange to me, and forgive me as I quote a lengthy passage. Perhaps in copying it down, I’ll figure out what Morgan tried to say…
As Rothstein shakes up history, dispersing and later reassembling the images he had sought out and captured on the streets, he transforms their meanings. Each image appears to hold an identity of its own, taken at a particular time and place. [I’ve got it so far, but it falls apart for me here:] Yet in the way they have been assembled in Today’s Special, the photographer’s identity comes through. The two identities—that of the observer and the observed— are not exactly the same. Yet somehow they are related, even though they were unknown to one another (a prerogative of street photography), or the photographer must disappear from the frame (another prerogative of the medium). […What?]Morgan, Robert C. “A Streetwise Photographer.” in Jeff Rothstein, Today’s Special: New York City Images 1969-2006. Coral Press Arts,
The more I look at Today’s Special, the more I sense the end of a traditional narrative based on historical chronology, and instead revel in a poetic manifestation filled with excitement and joyful abandon, though never exempting hints of grief or modest tinges of despair. [Huh?] In some of these images, I sense an occasional respite or slight hesitation that Rothstein must have had, as if on the verge of moving away from a predictable street recognition in which tactile sensations of everyday life begin to dissolve. [Whoa! Burn!] Whether conscious or intentional [aren’t these essentially the same?], this ambiguous affect might be understood as a prevailing theme in the collective momentum of images the streetwise photographer has chose to assemble for this book.
Now. Long-term readers of this blog likely disagree, but I consider myself fairly literate. I mean, I think I comprehend English fairly well. But I really have no idea what Morgan tried to say above. It’s sort of a shame, as a more comprehensible essay might’ve contributed some to the images (not that they need it). Instead, some of the above seems sorta backhanded: “I sense an occasional respite or slight hesitation” suggests that Rothstein missed the “decisive moment,” or at least some bit of more-interesting action or gesture. And much of it reads like hasty, nonsense, art speak. I sometimes make backhanded comments in my reviews, and in banging out two reviews per week I know hasty when I see it too. I’m not sure everyone notices all the time, the backhandedness or the hastiness, and I think I know it when I see it. And again, as regards my literacy in these matters, long term readers may have doubts.
Anyway, should you pick up a copy of Rothstein’s book, maybe ignore the essay. It doesn’t seem to contribute much.
Overall, I rate Today’s Special a solid, recommended 3.5 stars.
I learned of Rothstein’s work thanks to the Reach Out box on my blog. He sent a pleasant note alerting me to his work and the publication of his book; I took a look at the work and ordered a copy of the book, which he autographed for me. I promised an immediate unboxing (recorded August 27, 2020 and published to YouTube September 10, 2020) and that I would “try to get a review out sooner rather than later,” then totally forgot about it. Deepest apologies to Mr. Rothstein!
Copies seem to remain available direct from Rothstein, and you can see many of the photographs, in a different order and glossy and backlit on a screen, in his Gotham 1 and Gotham 2 sets. He has a bunch of color digital work too, if you’re interested in that sort of thing. It’s good stuff, but the black & white film work has something that I respond to more than the color digital stuff. It’s not nostalgia, or not just nostalgia. For me, Today’s Special helps me feel less alone. If Rothstein could shoot NYC for 40 years and then publish a small photobook a decade later, then my ennui about mindlessly snapping away or 7 or 8 years is nothing, and I just need to stick with it for another 20 or so, at which point, maybe I’ll have something really worth sharing too.*
Edit: speaking of backhanded, I suppose most all of the above seems rather backhanded… To be honest, part of me means it that way and shame on me. This is the art snob in me rearing its ugly head, and I don’t like it. Sure, I have an MA in Art History and Criticism, so I (theoretically) know my art history and criticism, but that doesn’t mean I need to be snobby about it. And, anyway, if I had any reason to be a snob about photography, I wouldn’t be: I’d have already done something bigger and better than Today’s Special, and guess what? I haven’t. So go buy a copy of Rothstein’s book, buy a print or two. Show him some appreciation. Any committed photographer that happily sticks with the medium for as long as Rothstein has deserves more respect and appreciation than I’ve shown him, and shame on me.