|New York Vertigo , at Abrams|
I have loved New York since the first day I saw it. I love this city for its larger-than-life attitude, its humanity, and its contagious energy. I love it for its avenues leading to the river and the sea. I love New York, marching to the beat of its own music. Its inhabitants, who shout at each other in every language—English, Spanish, Chinese, Italian—approach you pleasantly in the street, on a bus, on the slightest pretext, just for the simple pleasure of talking. I love New York when the moon plays games of light on the facades of its skyscrapers, when the sun uses the grid of its avenues as a sundial. I love New York in the summer when the city relaxes after a long day; in winter, when it slows down in the silence under a snowfall. I love New York when, after I’ve walked too much, looked too much, listened too much, I’m stricken with vertigo. I love New York because I feel free and anonymous in the crowds of this great bazaar, where the noises, the smells, and the peoples of the world are blended together.
I still love New York, even if it is no longer the brash city I once knew. Like all great urban areas on the planet, it has not escaped the hazards of real-estate speculation. New York has settled down and become upwardly mobile. Times Square has been cleaned up and turned into an immense commercial center that emulates Disneyland. The avenues in Alphabet City and whole neighborhoods to the south of Manhattan, where once people dared not go, today have been nvaded by bobos. Even Harlem has gotten a facelift.
But the city is not trapped in the past. It still attracts young artists from around the world. The newcomers forgo Manhattan to conquer new territories. They are the force behind the tremendous development of the industrial areas to the east of the city—along the East River, in Brooklyn, and in Queens, where rents are cheaper. Within the space of a few years, Dumbo and Williamsburg have become the new centers of New York’s avant-garde. This artistic capital is still today an astonishing fusion of freedom and pragmatism. It is the absolute symbol of risk, audacity, originality, individuality, and the ephemeral. It is a hard and troubled place, marked by social contrasts as vertiginous as its skyscrapers.
I’ve been coming to New York for thirty years. For all that time I was satisfied just to walk around the city, with no particular project in mind. I just wanted to flee the Paris sky, which hovers close to the ground. I needed to let myself be permeated by this vital energy from time to time.
I still remember my first trip, my first yellow taxi at the airport. The driver, a Haitian immigrant, talked to me half in English, half in Creole, as we sped through the night, above the bridges and tunnels. Once we arrived in Manhattan, he surged furiously into a razor-straight avenue. Flanked by the towering facades of the skyscrapers, the street seemed like a canyon. The city seemed ready to swallow us up at any moment.
I remember, too, my first culture shock. Like all those who have just arrived, I walked through the streets with my eyes fixed on the skies. I was, of course, captivated by the gigantic proportions of the city and its towers, which seemed to drive back the celestial vault.
At that time I was rereading Journey to the End of the Night, and I felt like Céline’s hero, Bardamu, discovering the New World:
“Just imagine, it’s vertical, their city, absolutely erect. New York is an upright city. Of course we’d already seen some cities, and some beauties; and ports, even some famous ones. But at home, you know, cities stretch out, on the edge of the sea or along a river; they lie down in the countryside, they wait for the traveler, whereas this American one, it doesn’t sprawl out, no it stands straight upright, there, not with its legs spread wide, stiff enough to scare you.”
Like Bardamu, I discovered the city by looking every which way—up, down, into the distance, right to the ends of these avenues that unfold toward the infinite. My gaze practiced encompassing the great spaces, then focusing on the details lost in the heights; then it would be drawn once more to the right, to the left. This city reawoke the child in me, dazzled by excess. In these ordered streets the crowds walking at the feet of the buildings seemed to supply the blood for the city’s arteries, like a vital fluid.
Blinded by the light, overwhelmed by the noise and vitality of the city, I was overcome with vertigo. My head began to spin.
Then the sirens of the port awoke me from my spell. I smelled the wind from the city. There, right at the end of the avenues, were the bridges, the sea, the horizon. I realized that this megalopolis is just an island, a little island.
I felt this vertigo again when, at a street corner, I thought I recognized, as if in a dream, a set I’d glimpsed in a film. Was it West Side Story? America, America? Manhattan? Sex and the City? Or was it a book by Edith Wharton, Paul Auster, or Jerome Charyn? Thousand of books and films have been made about New York. How could I sort things out?
It was years before I was able to photograph the city. It’s always intimidating to take on subjects that have been visited by so many others. I couldn’t see how to avoid the commonplace—how to speak in some new way, to photograph in some new way, or to write in some new way about New York. Everything seems to have been captured already: Manhattan, Harlem, the Empire State Building, the Bronx, Central Park, Greenwich Village, the yellow taxis, the skyscrapers, the dark alleys split apart by the jets of steam that heat the city. All of this now forms part of our collective consciousness.
At this time France, the country where photography was born, had just enacted new laws concerning legal rights to images. The most trivial street photograph could lead to a trial, with fines and punitive damages. Yet at the same time the country continues to celebrate its great humanist photographers: street photographers, whose works now form part of our national heritage. I could not understand.
I wanted to look elsewhere, and New York had a new taste of freedom for me, the freedom to take photographs. Photography in the streets is still an art in its own right there.
I didn’t yet have a precise project in mind; I wanted to reconnect with my first impression of the city: like that of an astonished child, that gaze from the beginning, from my first travels. I wanted to make people feel the vertigo in my images. And it seemed obvious to me that I should view the city from above, from the heights of its skyscrapers, in the secret hope of capturing its soul. I began my voyage to the heart of these forests of stone, rising hundreds of meters above our heads. For years, like Calvino’s Baron in the Trees, I skimmed along the summits of the megalopolis—fascinated, suspended, timeless. I craved that space between: between sky and earth, between heaven and men.
I was in New York on September 11, 2001. I had arrived from Paris the night before, intending to continue my work. I was there, in the street, right at the foot of the World Trade Center in flames, with the crowds scattering everywhere. I understood nothing of what was happening; I hadn’t seen the airplanes.
I witnessed the collapse of the towers. Suddenly New York—like Pompeii, Carthage, or Hiroshima—was a vulnerable and ephemeral city. The wind carried the odor of the charnel house into the distance. A rain of ashes fell upon the city. The island of Manhattan, cut off from the world and transformed into a temporary mortuary, lived for several months in a state of apnea, like a wild animal struck at the heart. No one thought it could recover from its wound. Nonetheless, thanks to its vital force, its scar healed over. Five years later, newspapers carried the headline: “New York Is Back!” New Yorkers were rushing again, and the Wall Street District had reestablished its vivacity amid flamboyant buildings.
But everyday life also returned to the way it was. Every day, every morning, we must once again raise our heads; we must create or re-create our lives, in a fight without mercy, stimulating and pitiless. It’s heaven or hell—there’s nothing between the two. In New York, there are those who see heaven, those who sleep on the ground, and those who die. There are those who believe, and those who do not believe. Perhaps I have caught hold of a few bits of this frenetic kaleidoscope. But in the end, in New York you possess nothing but the instant. One day, there may be nothing left of the city but this: an island, water, wind, light, the vertigo of the horizon, and the flight of migratory birds.
For me, seeing New York without the Twin Towers is like imagining Paris without the Eiffel Tower. But I have hesitated to display the past, to show images of the Twin Towers. I have preferred to act as New Yorkers do: looking toward the future, presenting the city in its rebirth.
So New York is back, even more upright, once again reaching for the sky. Two new twin towers have appeared south of Central Park, echoing the towers of the World Trade Center. The planet’s greatest architects are already in the process of remodeling the skyline of the Big Apple. Other towers, even more beautiful, even more arrogant, will rise in their assault on the sky, like a new challenge.