Review

‘Manhattan Out’ by Raymond Depardon

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Raymond Depardon is a contemporary French photographer, photojournalist and documentary filmmaker.[1] During the winter of 1980 and 1981, he took thousands of snapshots of downtown New York, many of which have recently been published in a photobook titled ‘Manhattan Out’. Before taking the photographs, Depardon had checked himself into an Italian psychiatric clinic as he was troubled by some ‘personal confinement issues’. While a patient, he was encouraged to take photographs of others as a means of treatment. Wandering the institutional corridors, camera in hand, he perfected his ability to take revealing photographs of others without them even registering his presence.[2] This process therefore served extremely therapeutic for Depardon as his stay lasted less than a year. When Depardon left the institution and flew to visit a friend in New York, his way of photographing continued and took to the streets of this once notoriously dangerous city with only his trusty Leica for company. While there he took many pictures of New York City, thereby ‘Manhattan out’ being his first project following his Italian convalescence.[3] It is consequently clear that the modern form of psychiatry that Depardon underwent continued with him long after he left the institution.

Although filling two or three rolls of film a day, Depardon was thoroughly disappointed with the negatives that resulted. He explained, ‘I hated them. The composition was wrong. So was this. So was that.’[4] Looking at the images now however, it is very difficult to understand why Depardon came to this conclusion. Perhaps they served as a painful reminder of his introverted state of mind or possibly he feared how his unknown subjects loomed so threateningly close to the lens.[5] Maybe it was simply down to the unstable mental state that Depardon was suffering from. Indeed, this would explain why he jumps from the criticism of the ‘composition being wrong’ to ‘so was this, so was that’. Due to this unclear dislike, Depardon filed the photographs away, and it was only recently that he decided to print the images, nearly thirty years after they were taken.

Depardon decided that he wanted to capture the essence of the city by taking pictures without thought or preparation. He wanted to capture this peculiar meeting point in the city, possibly to see what he could reveal by capturing the space were chance encounters are at their most dense. In order to carry this out, Depardan decided not to even use the viewfinder of his camera, and instead to photograph ‘like a shotgun fired from chest level’, in an attempt to capture the crowds of people without attention or notice.[6] Depardon explains, ‘my body would perform the tracking shots, like a filmmaker’.[7] Russian photographer, Alexander Rodchenko made a very similar comment, referring to this process of photography as ‘shooting from the bellybutton’.[8] However, Rodchenko differs from Depardon, as his aim was to break away from this form of photography. Instead he wished to capture images from a bolder and more unusual perspective.[9] The image ‘pioneer with a trumpet, 1930’ serves as a great example of this.[10] Subsequently, although both photographers aimed to capture something new with a unique way of shooting, it is clear that they differ in how they carry it out.[11] This therefore suggests, that the uniqueness of Depardon’s images lies more with what he manages to capture, than the photographic technique that he uses.

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As Depardon did not use the viewfinder, many photographers will comment that the photographs are not aesthetically very good at all. Many images, for example, chop off the top of subject’s heads. However, maybe the likeability of the images are not down to whether or not they are technically good photographs as described in many how-to books. Instead, it is clear that Depardon’s images say much more and consequently go much further than simply being/or not being aesthetically pleasing.

One example of this is that through his unique way of capturing images, Depardon was able to capture the grit, displaced glamour and rawness of this vast city.[12] Although he first believed that many of his subjects were unaware of him, when he revisited his images, he realized that most were in fact aware of the camera. Consequently, ‘their knowing glances embody the unique, raw beauty of this collection of period photography’.[13] More interestingly, upon realization, the characters in the images chose not to look at the photographer who had ‘maneuvered his way into their path’ but at the camera, ‘whose tiny lens was taking in their likeness’.[14] This ‘stare’ or ‘glace’ then allows us to read further for deeper understanding. For example, do these sudden photographs make us privy to a moment of inner reflection? Or on the other hand, are we simply witnessing people in ‘awkward moments of realization like a deer caught in headlights’.[15] Attentive of fearful? Indeed, while in the words of Marcel Duchamp, ‘it is the eye that makes the painting’, in the case of Raymond Depardon ‘it is the eye that makes the photos’![16] However, to go one step further, is this referring to the eye of the subject, the eye of the photographer or the eye of the camera?

In most pictures, Depardon choses to zero in on one or two subjects within his direct path, however, the periphery captured also proved interesting. For example, one thing that is clear within many of Depardon’s images, is that New York is very much a vertical city – ‘one that seems two tiered with a street level reality and a penthouse reality’.[17] His images therefore, allow ‘the wide-angle lens to stretch the foundations of buildings, and consequently converting all into an odd elastic cement pulling at the edges’.[18] For example, alongside the images of high rise buildings and skyscrapers, we see the people on the ground, with one image in particular focusing in on a man who appears to be begging. Another image captures a blind woman begging at a street corner; however she appears to be sitting at the bottom of a very impressive high rise building. This photograph seems extremely similar to that of Paul Strands ‘Blind Woman’.[19] Similarly, Strand also wished to capture his subjects without notice; however, his aim differed as he took his images as a tool for social reform. The images in ‘Manhattan Out’ therefore stress this divide well as they highlight the horizontal of the streets and sidewalks while being captivating in their splayed perspectives.

A further point is the way in which Depardon chooses to sequence his book, and subsequently often ‘drawing relationships across the gutter’.[20] For example, in central park two women entwine arms while roller-skating while on the facing page a man is arrested by two policemen. Moreover, a man wearing a balaclava appears to become the ominous shadow at the bottom of the next image of an unsuspecting woman in a fur coat and high heels. Consequently, Depardon’s sequencing is ‘cinematic in effect’, making the ‘pace of our walk quick and energetic’.[21] He has us weaving through the crowds and barely gives us time to ‘settle on the smaller details before thrusting the next photo into view’.[22]

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Consequently, it seems fitting to conclude that Depardon hoped for realism in his photographs. He evokes multiple cinematic metaphors and tries to present a more appropriate way to look at the modern city experience. He aimed to capture people in their everyday lives, with everyday expressions. He wanted to capture the look in their eyes on their way to work, to the supermarket and so on. Consequently, he aimed to capture the realistic indifference that can be seen in many eyes throughout Manhattan. He also wanted to highlight the realistic two-tiered society that existed, and arguably still exists. Moreover, he wished us to experience his walk throughout Manhattan, in order to realize how fleeting an image is.

Books of street work, especially made in New York, can be so ‘depressingly predictable with endless variation on photos we already know so well’[23]. For example, there are an extraordinary amount of photographers that go to New York and take the same photograph (of the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Central Park and so on). Therefore it seems correct that, as Walter Benjamin claimed, ‘modernity came with it the destruction of the aura and originality of art’.[24] Photographers such as William Klein, Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand very much fall into this category. All three are street photographers, and although the images themselves are stunning, they could very easily all have been taken by the same photographer. They all seem extremely similar, and seem to focus on the same type of subject. For example, Robert Franks Image, ‘U.S. 90, en route to Del Rio Texas’ is particularly similar to Garry Winogrand’s image ‘Los Angeles, 1964’. Depardon however, manages not to fall into this category. Instead, he seems to capture an entirely different viewpoint. Whether this viewpoint is positive or negative is up for debate. However, either way, due to the technique of Depardon’s photography, he accomplishes a ‘wonderful drift into the flow of life that feels fresh even though we know we’ve been down this street before’.[25]

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Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 4 1838-1940 (Belknap Press, 2003)

Bunyan, Marcus, http://artblart.com/tag/alexander-rodchenko%E2%80%A8-girl-with-a-leica/, accessed 8/1/2014.

Chesse, Patrice, (2013), http://patricechesse.deviantart.com/journal/Raymond-Depardon-Manhattan-Out-370594681, accessed 15/1/2014.

Daily Streets, http://www.dailystreets.wordpress.com/2013/04/13/raymond-depardon/, accessed on 2/1/2014.

Davis, Lucy, (2009), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/4059965/How-to-see-New-York-without-looking.html, accessed on 5/1/2014.

Depardon, Raymond, Manhattan Out (Steidl, Germany, 1980)

Leitch, Laura, (2010), http://moralcompass.blog.sbc.edu/2010/10/19/images-of-blindness-paul-strands-blind-woman/, accessed on 20/1/2014.

Masters of Photography, http://www.masters-of-photography.com/R/rodchenko/rodchenko_articles2.html, accessed 8/1/2014.

Vanskiver, Kathyrn, (2009), http://aleksandrodchenko.wordpress.com/, accessed 8/1/2014.

Whiskets (2008), http://5b4.blogspot.co.uk/2008/12/manhattan-out-by-raymond-depardon.html, accessed on 4/1/2014.

Word count: 1,518


[2] Daily Streets, accessed on 2/1/2014.

[4] Raymond Depardon, Manhattan Out (Steidl, Germany, 1980), p. 2.

[5] Lucy Davies (2009), accessed on 5/1/2014.

[7] Raymond Depardon, Manhattan Out (Steidl, Germany, 1980), p. 2.

[8] Kathryn Vanskiver (2009), http://aleksandrodchenko.wordpress.com/, accessed 8/1/2014.

[10] Kathyrn Vanskiver (2009), accessed 8/1/2014.

[13] Patrice Chesse (2013), accessed 15/1/2014.

[14] Whiskets (2008), accessed on 4/1/2014.

[15] Raymond Depardon, Manhattan Out (Steidl, Germany, 1980), p. 4.

[16] Raymond Depardon, Manhattan Out (Steidl, Germany, 1980), p. 4.

[17] Whiskets (2008), accessed on 4/1/2014.

[18] Whiskets (2008), accessed on 4/1/2014.

[20] Whiskets (2008), accessed on 4/1/2014.

[21] Whiskets (2008), accessed on 4/1/2014.

[22] Whiskets (2008), accessed on 4/1/2014.

[23] Whiskets (2008), accessed on 4/1/2014.

[24] Walter Benjamin, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 4 1838-1940 (Belknap Press, 2003), p. 254.

[25] Whiskets (2008), accessed on 4/1/2014.

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