Rusty Leffel's New York photographs put him in the big leagues.
By DANA SELF
Published: May 24, 2007
Rusty Leffel's 245 Blocks of Broadway, NYC, USA is a photographic powerhouse. On every block along Broadway from Battery Park up through Harlem, Leffel recognizes the impulse and critical allure of street photography. And New York's most-renowned street provides ample occasion for visual pleasure.
With this work, Leffel earns his place in street photography's significant lineage. Artists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand shot (often literally from the hip in Winogrand's case) on the streets, arresting the zeitgeist of an age. They captured a look, a feel and a state of being.
Juxtaposing the various cultures that converged on city streets - from the society doyenne to the downtown hipster - Winogrand and others documented, through their personal filters, the people and places that constitute our environments. Their images help us understand how photography, in all its manifestations, shapes the way we perceive ourselves.
Leffel is a Kansas City artist whose interest in shooting the entirety of Broadway emerges from this rich history. Printed in a beautiful sepia tone, his compelling images convey the physical authority, humor, eccentricity and dynamism of New York.
"Herald Square Walking" is an extreme close-up of a woman walking and talking on her cell phone, seemingly oblivious to the photographer and the people around her. Shot from below, at an active angle, it's a comment on the way we often move through a city fixated on our own central narrative. The background, though important to the image, falls a little away behind the woman's forward movement; her cleavage dominates the shot.
In "Spring Street Crosswalk," the titular crosswalk's white stripes run diagonally from top to bottom of the vertical print, focusing our view on the bright lines and the asphalt. Two people are caught in the crosswalk, but their presence only serves to heighten the energy of the street itself. The crosswalk becomes the dominating character in this vigorous narrative.
These works are but a handful in Leffel's series. Elsewhere he focuses on architecture and the people who inhabit the spaces of this built environment. He understands how color - contrasts are critical in his architectural shots - can activate the relationships between buildings. "Empire State at 22nd Street" juxtaposes the elegance of the Empire State Building with the utilitarian quality of nearby apartments, whose dark balconies are silhouetted against the light and almost airy facade of the city's landmark. The tranquil balance struck between the two structures signifies a moment of serenity in a city built to excite.
"Sidewalk Signs, Broadway at 190th Street" clarifies Leffel's skill in using the flat picture space to its richest advantage. Here the "street" - a sidewalk with a few pedestrians - takes up only about a quarter of the shot. Dominating the photograph are overhead signs and awnings that compress the people into the image's smallest section. Leffel suggests that the visual noise of the city, its commerce and forward momentum, can miniaturize its people. In this image, he reaches a perfect balance, showing how people and their built environments both tolerate and complement one another.
His photographs are a warm and intimate examination of an iconic yet living place.
Mission Hills-based street photographer Rusty Leffel traverses "245 Blocks of Broadway, NYC USA" in his eponymous exhibit at the Kansas City Artists Coalition.
Leffel recently won the "best in show" award in the Art Center of Northern New Jersey's 16th annual national juried show.
His winning work, "War Toys," which shows an oil tanker reflected in a Louisiana shop window displaying plastic soldiers in Jeeps, reads as a trenchant still life. In contrast, his 30 odd images at the Artists Coaltion exhibit capture the energy and atmosphere of New York City.
To Leffel's credit , one leaves the exhibit feeling one has walked its teeming streets.
Many of the featured works showcase the artist's avid eye for the anecdotal antics of pedestrians, including a rain-drenched runner and a gaggle of stressed-out bridesmaids at Grace Church.
His lens takes in the city's myriad signs, sights and vendors, enbracing New York natives and tourists alike.
At their best, the images are captivating; at their worst, they feel contrived. An oblique shot of the crossroads at Broadway and Spring Street is striking but heavy-handed; the same is true of "3 Carriages".
And Leffel's decision to sepia-tone all the shots feels gratuitous - an idea more rooted in sales appeal than thougtful artistic conecption. It works best on inanimate subjects like "Rooftop Watertowers," taken at Broadway and 23rd Street.
This subtle and poetic image comes without a punch line, leaving the viewer free to reflect and explore.
BY L. KENT WOLGAMOTT / Lincoln Journal Star Sunday, Aug 12, 2007
Broadway is arguably the most famous street in the world and certainly is the best-known thoroughfare in the United States.
But, as photographer Rusty Leffel points out, when most people think of Broadway, the 10 blocks of Times Square come to mind.
The home of ticker-tape parades, the New Year’s Eve ball drop and the center of midtown tourism, Times Square today is probably the least interesting portion of the street that stretches from Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan north past Harlem.
So Leffel concentrates on areas beyond cleaned-up, corporate Times Square in “245 Blocks of Broadway, New York City/USA,” his exhibition on view at the HaydonArtCenter through Aug. 25.
A Kansas City-area attorney and self-taught photographer, Leffel shoots on the street, capturing the city’s architecture and candid moments that reveal a slice of life on the central artery of the teeming metropolis.
The photographs are sepia-toned, a very smart move by Leffel, that gives them a timeless quality and separates them from the black-and-white work of consciously “artistic” shooters and journalism through the ’80s and the color snapshots of tourists and the work of contemporary newspaper and magazine photographers.
In fact, Leffel’s work combines both the artistry of street photography and the documentation of journalism. Not that he’s shooting news events and celebrities. But a shot like “Herald Square Walking,” with its central figure of a woman on a cell phone coming past the camera in a tilted image, could have happened only in the last few years and is presented with a visual drama and flair that is too unusual to pass as journalism.
That image is part of a suite of works that hang together depicting people going about their lives. The other large image in the grouping is of a “Break Dancer, Battery Park” showing a young, African-American street entertainer at work, his right hand thrusting toward the camera. That picture could have been taken in many cities. But in Battery Park, it both anchors Leffel’s journey up Broadway and pays homage to New York as the home of hip-hop.
The remaining pictures in the suite find bridesmaids in their dresses in “Wedding Party -- Grace Church,” a little girl shot from behind watching a blurred out performer in “Braided Pigtails -- Steel Drums/Times Square” and a woman sitting, staring into the camera in “Lady Irish and Her Dog,” taken toward the north end of Broadway at 212th Street.
But the most striking image in the grouping for me is one that demonstrates Leffel’s eye for capturing a poignant moment. “3 Carriages,” shot at 87th Street, finds two moms pushing babies in strollers eating ice cream next to an elderly woman being pushed in a wheelchair — a depiction of life stages right there on the street corner waiting for an artist to suss it out.
Another grouping of images concentrates on the city’s architecture.
“Rooftop Watertowers,” from 23rd Street, brings to mind the paintings of Edward Hopper, a shot of buildings that have been around for more than a century. “Photographing Flatiron” depicts one of New York’s iconic buildings, the triangular Flatiron at 24th Street and Broadway. But it does so by photographing a tourist who is photographing his wife and son in front of the building.
In sharp contrast, most tourists will never come close to the “Harlem River,” which crosses Broadway at 223rd Street with housing projects along its banks, another important, if little-seen slice of New York architecture.
Finally, you couldn’t do a New York show that included buildings without the “EmpireState.” But again, Leffel has found an eye-catching contrast in depicting the familiar building, shooting it so the balconies thrusting out from a closer structure contrast with the sleek, upward lines of the classic skyscraper.
There are all kinds of connections to be made looking at the images in “245 Blocks of Broadway.” A blond girl playing for the camera in one photograph makes clear the artificiality and seriousness of the fashion model in her high heels and lace seen in “Fashion Shoot.”
A stand of “Coffee & Bagels” puts the bustling midtown life in perspective without the inclusion of a single person, while “On Broadway” has nothing to do with the Drifters’ song, depicting instead a 60-ish black man in front of an open-air store on 136th Street and Broadway, where beach balls, backpacks and bangles dangle from the ceiling and spill over buckets on the sidewalk.
Another series of photos is shot through windows of cafes and coffee bars, a technique that once again recalls Hopper, as it shows people talking to each other, reading or talking on their phones, suggesting the drama, interaction and sometimes alienation that is at the heart of New York life.
Leffel isn’t doing anything new. Photographers have been shooting on the street since cameras were invented. But street photography, when well done, remains a powerful medium for both depiction of daily life and artistic expression, and “245 Blocks of Broadway, New York City/USA” is very well done.
Reach L. Kent Wolgamott at 473-7244 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.