For the past 20 years, Kevin Landers has photographed a New York that is falling apart, half-rotten, hobbling along, gouged, frayed, screwed together, broken, and faded. In a book of Landers' photos covering a period from the early 1990s to the present, Jackpot, out last month from MTV Press, Landers focuses on what he calls "tools of the street," a mediation on New Yorkers and their environment and something halfway between the poetry and anarchy that results.
The editors of the book have made the wise decision to include Landers' earliest New York work, still lives still lives of panhandlers' cups, window squeegees, and stacks of cardboard boxes used by Three-card Monte dealers that Landers bought or coaxed from their owners and photographed in a studio. Later he found plastic bags that had caught on the branches of trees, cut down the branches, and photographed them against a white background. These works are quite different from the later images taken on the street, and they suggest that Landers is not so much interested in an improvised moment as an improvised thing (or person). Paradoxically, the standardized Greek deli cup with a hole in it for a thumb is also a stand-in for its holder. When Landers finally turns to photographing his Lower East Side neighborhood, he carries forth his concern with "desperate ingenuity," as he calls it, in images of things and people that are like the Platonic ideal of duct tape.
His photos have the look of something once covered in grime that has been freshly Windexed to reveal a more brilliant reality underneath. It may seem odd to use words like "love" and "beauty" in this context, but they are what spring to mind looking at these photos, a sense of something ugly or pathetic invested with visual ardor. Landers' work feels like the antithesis to the cool detachment of a contemporary and autobiographical photographer like Wolfgang Tillmans, with his Germanic Zen and palate of grey-blues. Landers is drawn to hot yellows and reds: a sulfur-colored pegboard wall; a crumpled yellow blanket abandoned against a wall; the cratered surface of a cheese pizza; a man leaning against a wall with a look of complete self-containment, wearing a red bandana and yellow headphones. A pile of withered mangoes and cucumbers on a deli shelf is a comment on the tradition of still life, with its undertones of mortality and fleeting physical freshness, yet even this meager display of bargain produce fairly sparkles with life. Landers renovates both the neighborhood he clearly adores and the left-overs of life-- animate, inanimate, or somewhere in between-- as in a photo of a brown wig that has somehow gotten wrapped around a pole. He is more interested in the meditative love that the eye lavishes on its subjects than in social commentary. His human subjects do not seem psychologically pierced or understood; instead, they peer back at the camera with a kind of coy survivalism, barely making it but with an odd surface tranquility.
Pressed for his influences Landers cites photographers of the 60s and 70s like Mary Ellen Mark, Diane Arbus, and William Eggleston, and many of the dominating formal interests of twentieth century photographers are present, especially an obsession with signage, multiple surfaces, and shop windows; photographers like Walker Evans and before have long loved the double surface of the photo and the window, one a comment upon the other. The influence of Eggleston is especially strong in an image of a series of warming trays full of unappetizing orange food, the photo plane cut by the kind of sharp diagonals the older photographer used in his photos of Roadside America. In Landers' work the composition feels spontaneous and messy, like his subjects. Sometimes Landers even courts a sense of unresolve or blurriness, as in an out-of-focus window full or rotisserie chickens. Some of the most interesting works look almost like the kind of thing normally captured by accident and discarded, such as an exhausted looking man sitting on a folding table staring off in the middle of a dark space, spots of light here and there around him like fireflies.
In the interview with Landers accompanying the book, Linda Yablonsky notes a melancholy aspect to the work, and this is certainly inherent, both in the struggle they depict, and the way this moment in the life of an ever-changing city has already disappeared. Landers, like many of his subjects, has left a Lower Eastside that no longer exists, and lives in Brooklyn. In a restatement of Flaubert's Madame Bovary c'est moi, Landers remarked that as an artist trying to survive in New York, "I feel like these things." Yet, one takes away from the book, more than anything else, a sense of deep satisfaction with the world as it is. Two photos in the book capture the same extraordinarily decrepit and emaciated old man, his gauntness emphasized by the frames of his giant round glasses, his face wreathed in an expression of almost beatific charm.