Vivian Cherry: A Golden Lens in a Golden Era

Monday, February 23, 2009

Vivian Cherry: 1940s and 50s

Last week during a brief period of downtime at work I glanced over at my boss's uber amazing collection of photo books and caught the spine of a black and white book called Helluva Town: New York City in the 1940s and 50s by a female photographer named Vivian Cherry. After gazing at the first image of three men sitting on a park bench, crisp hats perched atop their heads, two hard gazes and wrinkled faces fixed on the photographer as if to ask "What's she taking a picture of?" I was transfixed.

Flipping through Cherry's mini essays that explored various sects of NY culture (raucous fruit auctions among men who represented stores around the city, the construction and destruction of the Third Avenue El train, Games of children, Bocce ball among Italian men, and documenting her own personal neighborhood) I found fresh inspiration in her work, and an affinity. She's a quiet observer of people, and through studying her technique for capturing photos, she was persistent and patient. She ventured through her neighborhood daily with her camera so that her neighbors became so comfortable with her presence that when she stopped short in front of them to take photos it was as if she were always there like any other fixture on the street. Many of her photos reflect an interest in the culture of men. She documents them with a curious eye at both work and at play. Funny because for the past few years I've been working on a photo essay about men that has hit a standstill until now (at least I hope). Cherry also offers a curious but nonjudgmental eye towards the behavior and games of children in New York. Her series "Games of Children" will make you laugh out loud in one breath and then retreat that same breath in a gasp as you realize the context of the image. It's children playing, but the games they play--often reflecting the era of war and mob culture--were often violent.

I spent a good portion of the weekend just "googling" Vivian Cherry to see more of her works, which thankfully are preserved in collections throughout the country (including here in D.C at the National Portrait Gallery!). But I can't even say "why didn't I know about her before?" Everything in it's own time, and her introduction couldn't have come at a more perfect moment.


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