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From: Anglela Blake <angela.blake@utoronto.ca>

H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-Urban@h-net.msu.edu (October 2006)

Douglas Tallack. _New York Sights: Visualizing Old and New New York_.
Oxford and New York: Berg, 2005. xii + 212 pp. Illustrations, color
plates, bibliography, index. $89.95 (cloth), ISBN 1-8452-0169-8; $26.95
(paper) ISBN 1-8452-0170-1.

Reviewed for H-Urban by Angela Blake, Centre for Urban and Community
Studies, University of Toronto

Seeing New York

One of the greatest challenges faced by a newcomer to New York City,
certainly since the closing decades of the nineteenth century, is how to
see the city. Should one see it from atop a tall building for an overall
but perhaps abstract view? Or focus on the city from street level,
appreciating the variations among neighborhoods but struggling to
understand them as comprising a coherent whole? From the 1890s onward, as
New York expanded in population as a result of mass immigration, and
became both more extensive and more dense as a result of its physical
growth, newspaper and periodical articles, as well as tourist ephemera,
all struggled with the connections between seeing, knowing, and
interpreting the city. Theorists of urban culture and of modernity--art
historians as well as cultural historians of New York--have taken on these
questions throughout the last century.[1] Douglas Tallack's contribution
finds a niche in this crowded arena by combining the questions of the ur
ban historian with the visual reading of the art historian, producing an
analysis of the visual culture of New York City from the close of the
nineteenth century to the period immediately before World War I. Like many
scholars of "New York," what Tallack really focuses his attention on, he
freely admits, is the borough of Manhattan. The outer boroughs will have
to wait for their own visual culture suitor to pay them their due. But
given that Manhattan has so often been the actual object of the New
York-oriented writer, painter or photographer's gaze, Tallack's focus is
appropriate. Tallack aims to bring together canonical and non-canonical
representations of New York with the socio-cultural context of their
production.  _New York Sights_ covers familiar historical ground in a
manner that, given the author's focus on visuality and his theoretical
acuity, may be unfamiliar to some historians. However, for scholars
interested in early twentieth-century urban culture, or in the v isual
culture of cities, this book represents a vital contribution.

Tallack's goal is broad: to discuss the visual representation of Manhattan
as the city's identity shifted from what he (and contemporary observers)
termed the "old" to the "new New York." Within that frame, Tallack
analyzes particular images and particular ways of seeing in relation to
the cultural, economic, and infrastructural changes that combined to
produce New York as the capital of modernity. Tallack's periodization of
this shift, from the 1880s to the 1910s, follows that of contemporary
writers such as Sadakichi Hartmann, Marianna Griswold Van Rensselaer, and
John C. Van Dyke, whose 1909 book _The New New York_ provided the
strongest contemporary description for the shift and its meanings.[2] But
Tallack also at times extends his discussion to include later
photographic, cinematic, and painted images of the city that continue a
representational thread he wishes to pursue. While this may muddy the
historical periodization, it allows Tallack to give greater weight to hi s
comments. The chapters are organized around different perspectives on the
city which, Tallack argues, produce specific types of views and thus
meanings--the view from street level, from and of mass transit, views from
a distance, and a final chapter on "visual excess" (perhaps the book's
strongest) which considers the "extraordinary, iconic nature of New York,
a city that cannot easily be separated from its visual representations"
(p.166), examining the period from mid-century to September 11, 2001.

The great strength of Tallack's book lies in his sophisticated
interpretations of individual images. Tallack is well versed in the
language of art history but deploys such language tempered by a
wide-ranging theoretical and historical knowledge, rendering his analysis
more accessible to an American Studies and urban history readership. The
resulting discussions of visual texts--as varied as bird's-eye views in
Moses King's turn-of-the-century tourist guides to photographs by Alfred
Stieglitz, and paintings by artists such as John Sloan, Charles Sheeler,
John Marin, and Piet Mondrian--provides the reader with a strong sense of
how the representation of New York worked in dialogue with larger
contemporary tensions over the meaning for Americans of their nation's
burgeoning consumer capitalism, its divisions of class and power, and the
struggle to maintain notions of American republican exceptionalism in the
face of an emerging American empire and the apparent reproduction of t he
social divisions from the "old world" of Europe.

In its interdisciplinarity and its analysis of visual texts in historical
context, Tallack's work stands as an example of scholarship in the
American Studies tradition of Alan Trachtenberg and scholarship in art
history by scholars such as T.J. Clark.[3] Tallack's references are mostly
to the secondary literatures of art history and visual culture studies, so
some urban historians may at first glance assume the work would not fit
well into their teaching or their own scholarship. Although a familiarity
with the theoretical discussions of vision and visuality by art historians
such as Martin Jay and Jonathan Crary, and with the work of
twentieth-century European theories of modernity by Walter Benjamin, Georg
Simmel, and the Frankfurt School will stand the reader in good stead, a
deep background knowledge of those literatures is not necessary to
evaluate Tallack's analysis. For example, if one takes chapter sections
that focus on an image subject--such as Stieglitz's and othe rs'
photographs of the Flatiron Building--and reads through Tallack's analysis
of the images and his contextualization of them, even the theory-shy
historian or the beginner in visual culture studies can appreciate
Tallack's reading.

One minor challenge Tallack's book poses is of a more structural nature.
The author's overall thesis and the arguments of the different chapters
are not easy to find. Perhaps the problem extends from an academic writing
style different from that predominating in the American humanities
academy; Tallack was educated at Sussex and is now at the University of
Nottingham. Urban historians eager to engage with Tallack's analysis of
New York may find themselves searching back and forth in Tallack's
introductory chapter for the classic thesis statement U.S.- educated
scholars are trained to write. That quibble aside, I would highly
recommend this book to urban historians wishing to update their thinking
and teaching about American cities to include an analysis of urban visual
culture. Chapters of the book could certainly be assigned to undergraduate
urban history and American Studies classes. _New York Sights_ may be
especially useful to graduate students pursuing urban topics in h istory,
American Studies, or literature departments. Tallack's book models the
type of close analysis necessary for the evaluation of visual documents as
primary sources and for work in material culture studies. His references
to both European and North American secondary literatures, theoretical and
historical, represent the breadth of reading and depth of critical
thinking vital to the development of a strong research topic at any stage
one's academic career.

Notes

[1]. Walter Benjamin, _Illuminations_, ed. H. Arendt, trans. H. Zohn
(London: Collins, 1973); John Berger, _Ways of Seeing_ (London: Penguin,
1972); Norman Bryson, _Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze_
(London: Macmillan, 1983); Jonathan Crary, _Techniques of the Observer: On
Vision and Modernity_ (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1992); Michel de
Certeau, _The Practice of Everyday Life_, trans. S. Rendall (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1984); David Frisby, _Fragments of
Modernity: Theories of Modernity in the Work of Simmel, Kracauer and
Benjamin_ (Cambridge: Polity, 1985); Martin Jay, _Downcast Eyes: The
Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought_ (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1993).

[2]. John C. Van Dyke, _The New New York: A Commentary on the Place and
the People_ (New York: Macmillan, 1909).

[3]. T.J. Clark, _The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet
and His Followers_ (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985); Alan Trachtenberg,
_The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age _
(New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), and _Reading American Photographs: Images
As History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans_ (New York: Hill and Wang,
reprint 1990);

Copyright (c) 2006 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the
redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational
purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location,
date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social
Sciences Online. For other uses contact the Reviews editorial staff:
hbooks@mail.h-net.msu.edu.



 

 


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