Read the press release.
Browse the online exhibition catalog, featuring essays by David Michalek and Mary-Louise Parker.
On Mark Kornbluth’s Broadway Photographs
Mark and I used to live in the same building on the Upper West Side. What started out as neighborly chats in the elevator soon turned into leisurely coffee talk about photography and its role in our respective lives. Many of the images that Mark initially shared with me were drawn from his work as a wedding and mitzvah photographer. His technical mastery was clear. So, too, were his keen instincts about where and when to position himself in the maelstrom of unfolding action. Picture after picture showed fleeting moments that had been framed and frozen with a certain — rightness. I could also see in the pictures evidence of his strong sense of humanity, empathic connection, and social skills — the likes of which can put people at ease and build a quick sense of trust. It was around this time that I had been looking for a photographer to make process pictures for my own film and theater work and I asked Mark if it was something he might be open to. He graciously accepted and his documentation of my work and process in the years since has been invaluable.
Mark was preoccupied with the arts in general for much of his life growing up, but it was live theater that initially grabbed him and prompted his course of study at Sarah Lawrence College in the late 1980’s. It was there that he stumbled into a photography course taught by Joel Sternfeld, who is well known for his large-format color photographs of roadside America (his series American Prospects is regarded as one of the most influential bodies of photographic work from the late twentieth century). The term "large format" refers to plate cameras with bellows that load sheet film measuring at a minimum 4x5 inches, up to 8x10 inches and beyond. They are popular among professional landscape and architectural photographers who demand extreme resolution and increased tonal range, but also the ability to manually shift the film plane to bend space and correct lines of perspective. These cameras are almost never used in entry level photography courses because of their difficulty and Joel opted, like most teachers do, to instruct using 35mm cameras which are light, easy, and relatively inexpensive. But there were times when Joel would muse to Mark about taking the 35mm out of his hands and replacing it with a large format camera as a way of forcing Mark to — slow down.
I think Mark might agree that what Joel meant by “slowness” was less about time and more suggestive of the deepening awareness that comes when the artist engages with a tool or a process that insists upon careful deliberation and might even be, to some degree, frustrating. Like Sternfeld, I, too, began to wonder what might happen to Mark’s work were he to take up Joel’s challenge all these years later. I offered to loan him my own 8x10 on multiple occasions, but he didn’t take me up on it. For a long time, I just think he couldn’t imagine how to integrate it into the kind of professional work he was doing and in a certain sense, he wasn’t wrong.
But then the pandemic happened, and everyone’s lives and work came to a halt. Mark, finding himself with some newfound time on his hands, began to take his camera into the empty city in search of images. On one such night, he took one of his first pictures of a shuttered and dark Broadway theater with not a soul to be seen. The sign on the Richard Rodgers facade “History Is Happening In Manhattan” no longer seemed to be referencing something in the theater (the show “Hamilton”), but rather something outside of it. It seemed a unique document of an emptiness that was both uncanny and calamitous. Following that, Mark produced several more images of isolated, figureless theaters and from there a pattern started to emerge. It was at this point that I circled back to the idea of bringing a large-format camera into the equation as it seemed especially well suited to the context. The one major problem in working with sheet film at the time was that there were no labs to chemically process it during lock-down. But Mark, taking the idea seriously, researched and then sought out a camera with a very high-resolution digital sensor that could help him generate larger, more information-rich source images. After gathering the tool in hand, he went to work.
Almost immediately, results started to pour in: the sheer density of the visual data afforded by the new camera was thrilling. But the real work had only just begun. Mark began to look for ways to build certain formal and aesthetic qualities into the images such as infinite depth of field, which is to say that things close and things far away could be seen as equally tack sharp and in focus. This is not an easy thing to accomplish, especially at night where the long exposure times required to achieve it also cause ambient light sources like theater marquees and streetlamps to be overexposed and blow out. Mark achieved the evenness of exposure through an act of labor: by capturing multiple versions of the same image with different exposures which he then meticulously layered, knit, and pressed together digitally into a continuous whole. Each image functions therefore as a document of something discovered or found, but also as something made and somewhat elaborately constructed. Through elbow grease, these images have been polished into existence, so to speak.
After months of looking at Mark’s images in a reduced form, it was thrilling to see the first large prints which seemed to unlock, unpack, or even explode layers of detail and information that were hiding away. Is his book Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before, Michael Fried writes that one of the most important developments in the so-called visual arts of the past twenty plus years (the work was published in 2008) has been the emergence of large-format photographs printed at very large scales, such that they consume vast expanses of wall space much as paintings. With the increase in scale comes a shift in perception, from merely looking to something approaching an immersive experience (these images leave it to the viewer to decide where to look and where to linger).
Through time and attention and through art, Mark has transformed these buildings, or pictures of them, into sites of meaning. Looking at successive images of these darkened theaters, I find myself feeling almost sad for them as though they were no longer able to fulfill their duties or live up to their potential. I also feel somehow embarrassed for them—as though all that overconfident signage, market-tested catch phrases, exclamations, and enthusiasms were hoisted in vain. But what brings about this transformation of a building into the figure of thought that we attempt to describe using personification and metaphor? We could say, for example, that these theaters seem to have been transformed into characters, or tableaux, or theater sets or as backdrops to external dramas extending beyond the frame.
As an artist who works most often with people, I’ve thought a lot about the word “body” in relation to the word “figure” and pondered the conditions under which the transformation occurs. Just as blunt words are transformed into figures of speech when they are seen to exist as intentional deviations from the ordinary form or syntactical relation of words (a metamorphosis often seen in poetry) — bodies become figures when, even if only for a fleeting instance, they are transformed by the frame of art into something elevated and beyond themselves. That frame needs only exist in the mind of the observer as a concept, which is to say: in partnership with the imagination.
Much as the pandemic may have been the context within which the images of DARK began to emerge, it was not the subject of DARK. I think that in some ways the isolated, figureless photographs that Mark was beginning to create around this time — often at night and always with buildings or streetscapes empty — was an aesthetic choice independent of pandemic lockdowns — that it had as much to do with him discovering a new kind of freedom: one that allowed him to make images without a single person present other than himself.
Years ago, I shared with Mark a pearl of wisdom about photographing people: If you capture a smile, you’ve pictured a fleeting moment; whereas, if you capture someone’s resting expression, you’ve caught a glimpse of the eternal. Mark seems to have insightfully translated this knowledge into his photographs of Broadway at rest. Not only do these pictures offer us a piece of eternity, but they also show us a reflection of our own mortality. Perhaps that is what art is meant to do.