Saturday 13 December 2008

Postcard of the Day No. 20, Hester Street

Hester Street is to be found in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and was traditionally a centre of Jewish life in New York. This colour postcard captures the vitality of the neighbourhood with an enormous cast of characters observed from an elevated viewpoint. The elevation favours an almost ethnographic dimension in the sense of detachment that prevails. All age groups are represented and an immense amount of social interaction is taking place. A group of young men have turned on a fire hydrant to get some relief from the summer heat. Local children splash through the torrent of water. The shop-fronts have their blinds extended to provide some shade. Peddlers line the sidewalk and trade is brisk. Amid all the energy and animation, one or two solitary figures can be glimpsed, making their way through the crowds. The balconies on the upper floors are piled high with bedding. When we zoom in on selected details, what we find is street photography par excellence and a record of life as experienced by an unexalted slice of the population at large. Another reading is to imagine we are watching a movie still from a long introductory tracking shot. A movie called Hester Street was released in 1975; it was set in 1896 and based on the story of Jewish immigrants into the US.

Each detail has its own compositional integrity and each could support an individual narrative. The scattering of contours and degradation of the enlarged imagery enhances the quality of mystery. The great joy of post cards is the power of the visual poetry compressed into their modest dimensions. This card illustrates just how rich that poetry can be. An absence of motor vehicles suggests that the original photo was taken on the cusp of the 20th century. Images that come from deep in the past often convey a special potency. Evidence of social change, lost customs, economic migration and the transience of human life are firmly embedded into a wafer thin sandwich of cheap card and printing ink. Only available in postcard form!

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