Picks and Pans Review: Frontier New York

updated 01/23/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/1989 01:00AM

Photographs by Jan Staller

As cities grow, the new does not always devour the old, but often just leaves it behind. On the margins the piers rot, the landfills spread, the warehouses creak, and the city's grimier commerce rumbles on. Truck drivers and workers may know these forlorn zones, where tunnel ventilators whir and road salt is stored, but few others venture there. Once central, in function if not in location, they are now, as Staller suggests in his title, unexplored frontiers. When Staller moved to New York City in 1976 after he had earned his bachelor of fine arts degree from the Maryland Institute of Art, he began to photograph the city's abandoned West Side Highway. Now demolished, "this unique Art Deco relic," as Staller describes the elevated roadway that once ran beside the Hudson River piers, propelled him into a more than 10-year photographic romance with the city's fraying fringes. Staller, now 36, shot in color, often in the fringe light of dusk and dawn, and in fringe weather—fog, snow, driving wind. Often there were mercury vapor, sodium vapor or incandescent streetlights overhead. On the daylight film Staller uses, these potent lamps turn skies martian red and lend a surreal beauty even to soaring concrete bridge pillars and protective curtains billowing around demolition sites. As striking as the light and the dramatic weather are the settings themselves. The glistening cobblestones, the rusting ironwork, the elevated subway platforms be-speak a bygone age when the urban aesthetic was not sleek and glassy but massive and mechanical. Staller's exceptional sense of form enlivens and dramatizes, and his orchestration of color is something to marvel at. In some pictures he plays the subtle harmonies of stone, steel and pavement. In another he strikes a spangling chord: brilliant red ship containers in fresh white snow under black steel bridgework. So freshly perceived are these places that even New Yorkers will not recognize them. In fact, one needn't really give a hoot about New York to value this book. The book is about valuing that which has been forgotten and abused. It's about beauty arising from ugliness. And it's about wonder, without which life is dull indeed. (Hudson Hills, $35)

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