by Jason Rosenfeld
Essex Street Quartet (2004)
MOMA | NOVEMBER 11, 2017 – NOVEMBER 4, 2018
Ernie Gehr’s series of four related films form part of “The City” section of The Long Run, MoMA’s thematic reinstallation of its fourth floor permanent collection to showcase work by artists from their later years. Born in Milwaukee, and now seventy-six years old, Gehr is known for films such as Wait (1968), Reverberation (1969), History (1970), and especially Serene Velocity (1970). In The Long Run, his work shares space with that of Romare Bearden, Robert Colescott, Anne Truitt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Kerry James Marshall, Claes Oldenburg, and Helen Levitt. Gehr’s series fits well into the theme of the display because he shot the footage for Essex Street Quartet in the ‘70s, but did not make the film until 2004, by which time his approach to filmmaking had changed.
Associated with the Structuralist tradition of the ‘60s and ‘70s, his films are formally rigorous, conceptually acute, and often about the making of a film and its constituent elements. Inspired by Stan Brakhage films he happened upon in the 1960s, the self-taught Gehr usually worked with a 16mm Bolex camera, but also sought out vintage machines that resulted in a softer focus. He shot the footage that became Essex Street Quartet from 1971 to 1975 using a Depression-era Kodak Model K camera and black and white 16mm film. Starting from 34th Street, he worked his way downtown, shooting in neighborhoods that were familiar to him and where regulars had become accustomed to his presence from Chelsea to the Financial District. Many reels were devoted to the old Essex Street Market, part of his larger project to document changes in lower Manhattan in the wake of the building of the World Trade Center. But he never did anything with the footage, and did not look at it again until around 2002, by which time he had been living and working in San Francisco for over a decade. He came across the film cans while cleaning out his studio, leading him to engage in what must have seemed a forgotten world. Essex Street Quartet is what Gehr calls a “moving photographic image” that he “shaped” in 2002-03—the descriptive terms he prefers—and released in 2004.1 It is comprised of four silent 16 mm films: the black-and-white Essex Street Market (29 min.), Noon Time Activities (21 min.), and Workers Leaving the Factory (after Lumière) (12 mins.), and the color Greene Street (5 min.).
The Kodak K is about the size of a large business envelope and a little over two inches wide. It is surprisingly heavy, must be hand-cranked, and makes a distinctive noise when it runs. It can shoot sixteen frames per second on one-hundred-foot long reels for around three to four minutes. In order to maintain a minimal unobtrusiveness, Gehr cradled the camera under his arm, or held it fast to the floor or on a chair. He became adept at looking in another direction while shooting subjects from the hip in order to avoid detection. As a result, his compositions are thus oddly cropped or from a worm’s eye view.
The cooperative Essex Street Retail Market was only thirty years old when Gehr began to frequent it, getting to know shopkeepers and regulars. Essex Street Market opens with a shot of an apple tree against a bright sky, with a strand of dried flowers hanging from its branches. This brief urban pastoral gives way to ritualistic scenes inside the building of fishmongers, cobblers, and fruit sellers. Carp are flopped into pendulous metal scales, bored merchants lazily drag on cigarettes and read the paper as a smattering of shoppers drift by. Gehr repeatedly comes back to a shoe seller, who pokes his head out from his tiered displays of ladies’ styles, like a rabbit emerging from his hutch or one of the weavers in Van Gogh’s early pictures encased in his loom. Disdaining filters, Gehr captured fluorescent lights that glow with auras as in an Italian Futurist painting. One scene shows six scales in sharp perspective, empty, gently oscillating in the air like pendulums, stand-ins for ticking time (one of his main obsessions). Edits are abrupt or simply swish pans, as Gehr moved the camera while it was still rolling to reposition it or just before changing reels. The sequence ends with a shot from down on a curb where we see two black shoeshiners perched on folding chairs with makeshift set-ups buffing the shoes of two black businessmen. These are the working poor, shot by a skint filmmaker, on a camera from the Depression. The graininess of the Kodak K conveys the grittiness of the lives of these urban laborers.
The second film opens with another shot from the ground and with more shoes—those of people sitting on swiveling stools at a lunch counter. Noon Time Activities documents commuters walking to and from work or sitting at counters alone or with a colleague, and the servers at these establishments. Repeatedly, Gehr comes back to scenes shot from inside as when, sitting inside a restaurant, he trained his camera on a newsstand in the rain beyond the plate glass. Like Atget, Gehr delights in reflections. The film is a study in coats, hats, and cups of coffee, of a counter culture sadly vanishing in New York establishments, of the way communality can be created even without direct communication. At times the film shifts, as when the camera points down at the sidewalk, focusing on shadows and their attendant bodies waking at a city pace, or views from lower down on the curb at people passing by, legs churning like engine pistons as though the street photography of Helen Levitt or Rudy Burckhardt have been put into motion. Additionally, since Noon Time Activities is set in the Financial District and in front of office buildings, it recalls Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s epic film Manhatta (1921), with its similarly black-and-white footage of the corporate crowd, and its most striking sequence—pedestrians dwarfed by the great windows of J.P. Morgan’s offices on Wall Street (transforming Strand’s photo of the same location in 1915 into animated form). The final shots move back up to 34th Street, with views of people seen contre-jour, lunching at tables on the second floor of a long-shuttered Woolworth’s with a view north, shot through the windows towards Macy’s across the street. They seem like characters out of a John Cassavetes film. A woman eats at a table while looking down at pedestrians on 34th Street below; a man with a protruding lower lip wearing glasses and a fedora reads the editorial page of the Times. His empty parfait glass sits a few feet away. Here is another moment where Gehr’s characteristic hidden gaze allows the viewer to fall in love with the simple regularity of a person’s quotidian urban existance, but then Gehr ends the reverie with a swift swipe and he is gone.
The third film, Workers Leaving the Factory (after Lumière), is by no means a reworking of the 1895 Lumière Brothers’s 45-second movie of their Lyonnais employees heading home from the factory. Rather, it is about commuting on the graffiti-soaked IRT, initiated by a shot of subway doors opening and closing, followed by one of the Seventh Avenue trains approaching the station, in a manner similar to the Lumières’ famous tableau shot of a train at La Ciotat (1896). The bulk of Gehr’s picture comprises scenes in the cars, with the camera held down on the floor or at waist level. The doors between cars were left perpetually open, so Gehr would set the camera at the front end of one car and direct it into the next one. Thus riders would be less aware of him kneeling down and cranking the camera. Each edit is around a minute long, but for the last two-minute long take, night descends and the gleaming metal vertical bars inside the train seen in one-point perspective come to resemble the stately stone columns of a cathedral’s nave. The subway cars sway left and right as do the straphangers, paralleling the movement of the scales at the fish market in the first film: it is the repetitive cadence of measured human existence. Everyone is reading—newspapers, magazines, letters—making a connection with the self-absorption of commuters on today’s trains, faces awash in the glow of their devices.
Gehr closed the quartet with a burst of color, a vivid change of pace commensurate with the transition from the sepia tones of Kansas and Dorothy’s farmhouse to the Technicolor of Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz. Greene Street is a five-minute film of the view west across the Soho street to a brick building. Gehr sat there from one day from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. and shot it with his Bolex camera, one frame at a time. It conveys the settled relief of being home, as against the pace of the monochromatic working day seen in the three prior films. It is closer to his earlier films in its abstraction of forms and play with time-lapse and film speed. In the beginning, the forms are screamingly reddish-orange and incomprehensible, but as the afternoon progresses shadows slip across the surfaces and windows, fire escapes, and bricks become visible: a world is revealed with the clarity of Vermeer’s famed Little Street (1657-8).
Gehr’s fortuitous rediscovery in 2002 of this footage from the 1970s formed the impetus for the project, and a rethinking of his earlier non-narrative, less figurative practice, but it is hard not to see it also as an empathetic response to 9/11, by an artist in California long-separated from New York. It commemorates another lost downtown world. It is a deeply sympathetic view of the city’s working class, one starring ghosts—people likely long dead. And in a milieu—Essex Street Market—now slated for demolition in the unceasing luxurification of Manhattan. Far from an essay on silent alienation in an impoverished city, Essex Street Quartet is thus a meditation on what was once New York; but what may surprise viewers today is the continuity with today’s experience—similar dollar bills, the same “It is our pleasure to serve you” coffee cups—in a city that through its sheer number of people maintains the kind of dense and communal existence that Gehr found compelling so long ago.
- Conversation with Ernie Gehr, June 25, 2018, Brooklyn, New York.
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for the Brooklyn Rail.