"The Gilded Giant" is a book-length series of black-and-white urban landscapes made in New York City since March, 2002. These photographs were shot with a plastic camera---the $35 Holga---using medium format film stock. Negatives are scanned for digital storage, and printed with archival pigment inks on an Epson 7800.
THE GILDED GIANT:
Photographs of New York City
Thomas Michael Alleman
I began making “urban landscapes” in Los Angeles in September of 2001, using a $17 toy camera, the medium-format Holga. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, my heart was shattered and my career was momentarily ruined: the weekly newsmagazines I made pictures for had no interest, during that long Fall, in Southern California and our cohort of surfers, politicians, scientists and CEOS. The essential images were at Ground Zero, or in Afghanistan, where a furious new war was afoot. In that upside-down time, I truly had nothing better to do than walk all day in LA’s many strange neighborhoods, shooting my adopted hometown with a camera that truly couldn’t see straight.
Six months later, I took my bag of Holgas to New York to photograph the light-sculpture at Ground Zero, where the fallen towers had been re-imagined by huge banks of movie-premiere spotlights, shining skyward in two brilliant columns. I spent the long evening of my forty-fourth birthday in the neighbor- hoods of Lower Manhattan, dragging tripod and cameras in slow circles around those luminous ghost-buildings.
During almost twenty trips in the eight years since that freezing spring evening, I’ve shot more than a thousand rolls of film in New York and it’s boroughs. Walking all day in Manhattan’s great brick canyons, I’ve learned that the staple heroic views of soaring architecture are all present (and very seductive), but also that there are fresher, more colloquial pictures to be made. Surprising details (great and small, poignant and ironic) leap into focus when one’s gaze resorts to the human scale---and there’s no camera whose gaze is more hilariously human-scale than that infernal Holga.
By obliterating the hyper-detailed, documentary specificity of the reigning multi-coated lens, the Holga’s bizarre optics have given me access to a realm of richly-textured impression and allusion that I couldn’t achieve in my earlier attempts at a lyrical cityscape, which seem psychologically barren in comparison.
Many of these New York pictures are populated by artifacts of American ambition in the nineteenth century, and the great landmarks of 20th century achievement: the buildings, statues and bridges that were all the first of their kind, and which spoke, in their day, of ingenuity, resource and will to an awestruck world.
Photographing this project, I’ve watched contemporary New Yorkers struggle to navigate the long shadows of that golden era: every day these modern folk---with their own ambitions for control of this physical space---must confront the towering indifference of that grand old city, which is truly set in stone. They bang their machines against those edifices, to reshape them, and bore into them like termites, stringing fiber optic cable and broadband, while the city merely twitches and sighs, and watches this age-old business with a single cold eye, alert but unimpressed.
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THOMAS MICHAEL ALLEMAN