At the turn of the 20th century Kodak famously marketed their easy to-use-cameras with the slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.” Today, digital cameras have made it easier than ever to capture our world. Yet, as we see in the exhibition, Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao’s New York: Assembled Realities, on view at the City Museum through March 15, 2015, when technology is paired with creativity a photograph can become an impressionistic work of art.
Since 2004, when he began his Habitat 7 project, tracing communities along the No. 7 train line from Flushing, Queens, to Times Square, Manhattan, Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao has created photographs that embody the complexity of New York’s five boroughs. As an immigrant who arrived in 1999 from Taiwan via Canada, Liao has an acute sensitivity to the qualities of the city that make it so distinct: the continually changing built environment and the diversity of the people who live and work in this metropolis.
Every photograph for Liao is a process. He typically spends days in advance of a shoot trying to get a sense of a particular place. He observes the people, traffic patterns, changing light and shadows, and how the weather alters the mood of a neighborhood. When it comes time to photograph, Liao sets up his tripod at a particular site, then, over several hours, produces dozens of exposures he’ll later condense into a single panorama containing all the energy and activity observed. Once a day’s worth of shooting is complete, the photographer heads back to his digital darkroom and stitches together these vignettes. The finished products often depict the architecture of the city combined with the subtle interactions of the people on the streets.
Initially, Liao used large format film to capture his desired subject, but he’s since switched to a digital camera. Though he has always acknowledged that his work compresses time, his images created with film, such as 5 Pointz, Long Island City, Queens, 2004 were fairly subdued and could easily be mistaken for single-shot images.
Since switching to digital, works such as Opening Day, Barclays Center, Brooklyn, 2013, bring the compression of time into the foreground and provocatively use selective focus, trails of light, and blurring. The illusion of documentary photography has fallen away in service to the photographer’s constructed vision.
For further illumination of Liao’s process, this video provides an approximate recreation of the image Duffy Square, Times Square, Manhattan, 2011 (see first photo above). The image gives an impression of the photographer’s process as he culled through some 207 frames, stitching together more than 80 images to achieve the final realized work. The resulting large-scale print has a visual sweep often associated with cinema, inviting the viewer in, and providing a strong sense of place.