Courtesy of Fotografiska

Bruce Gilden’s photographic exploration into street life pairs with Vivian Maier’s striking portraiture to paint a fragmented picture of the American dream — a fitting end to Fotografiska New York’s tenure at 281 Park Avenue South. The two collections, titled Why These? and Unseen Work, respectively, serve as Fotografiska’s goodbye to the stately, regal building that’s housed the Swedish museum’s photography collections for the last five years. The photographs are on display until September 29.

Gilden’s Why These? examines the unglamorous side of urban life with brutal honesty. Gilden’s more recent color photos feel invasive, photographing prostitutes and homeless individuals in cities like Las Vegas, Kensington, and New York. The subjects stare into the viewer’s soul, every pore on their face and clump of mascara on their eyelashes glaringly visible. A particularly striking one depicts a child named Nathan at the 2017 Iowa State Fair, tears spilling out of his evocative blue eyes.

“Nathan, Iowa State Fair, 2017.” Courtesy of Bruce Gilden via Magnum Photos.

The earlier black-and-white photos in the collection are no less haunting. A 1999 photograph taken in Shinjuku, Tokyo portrays a woman with dramatic, painted-on lipstick and an uneasy grimace. She’s standing on a sidewalk holding a bag, appearing to wait for somebody or something. Gilden provides no context into his subjects beyond the location and the year, and it’s deliberate — he wants viewers to draw their own conclusions.

Bruce Gilden, Japan, 1999. Courtesy of Bruce Gilden @ Magnum Photos

Brooklyn-raised Gilden knows his subject matter well. His self-proclaimed tough childhood twinges his work with empathy, which perhaps helps his subjects feel so comfortable that they stare into his camera lens. After all, he’s one of them.

Maier’s work has a similar intimacy to it, despite the majority of her photography taking place on the busy, impersonal streets of New York and Chicago. The Chicago-based nanny’s collection was virtually undiscovered until right before her death, when historian John Maloof found thousands of negatives and undeveloped rolls in an auction.

“New York, N.Y., 1953.” “Chicago, May 16, 1957.” Courtesy of the Estate of Vivian Maier, via John Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

“Most of the faces that punctuate her photographic meanderings belong to people like her,” an exhibit blurb reads. “They speak of poverty, hard work, misery, and dark destinies.”

The authenticity of Maier’s work makes it almost emotional to view, transporting museum-goers into the life of an everyday nanny in post-WWII America, who would retain anonymity for her entire life.

The blurb continues: “Maier photographed people who others don’t see, those who feature nowhere, relegated to life on the margins of the world to which they will never truly belong.”

“Chicago, May 16, 1957.” Courtesy of the Estate of Vivian Maier, via John Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Most of Maier’s photographs are nameless, with unknown subjects gazing at the camera as they sit at a bus stop or sob clasping their parent’s hand. The collection works in tandem with Gilden’s as an homage to ordinary people of America, hanging on as the world rebuilt after a world-altering period of violence in Europe. Gilden’s, on the other hand, represents the generations that followed, as people become enveloped by street life and drugs and prostitution, and struggle to hold on.

Both exhibits are an exploration into the haunting effect of eye contact, as well as the power of documenting those who are neglected by society. In both works, the subject’s gaze feels like a tragic cry for help, as the photographer shines a spotlight on somebody who never will receive that help.

“Amber, Kensington, Pennsylvania, 2023.” Courtesy of Bruce Gilden via Magnum Photos.

Nothing illustrates the story of Fotografiska’s closing quite like photography which centers around broken dreams and broken people. The museum was ambitious, purchasing all six floors of an architectural masterpiece to house expansive photography exhibitions, and evidently, the space didn’t live up to the lofty expectations.

281 Park Avenue South drips with New York City history, first housing the Episcopal Church and then the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. The building gained additional fame for its role in taking down fraudulent pseudo-heiress Anna Delvey, who was trying to raise money to lease the building for her eponymous foundation. Fotografiska will close its doors in late September, claiming that the space wasn’t working for the expansive exhibits they want to do.

The magic of photography comes from its authenticity and, at times, its heartwrenching honesty. Gilden and Maier’s artwork pairs well with the real-life fate of the museum to tell the story of the death of a dream.

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