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Book Review: Metamorphosis: Meatpacking District 1985 + 2013


Book Review Metamorphosis: Meatpacking District 1985 + 2013 By Brian Rose Reviewed by Karen Jenkins In 1985, Brian Rose wandered around New York’s Meatpacking District in search of a new subject, bringing little expectation or preconceptions of what this place might offer him. At that time, it was not a part of the city that invited the casual visitor or passerby.



Metamorphosis. Meatpacking District 1985 + 2013. By Brian Rose.
Golden Section Publishers, 2014.
 
Metamorphosis. Meatpacking District 1985 + 2013
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

Metamorphosis. Meatpacking District 1985 + 2013
By Brian Rose
Golden Section Publishers, 2014. 56 pp., 50 color illustrations, 9¼x11½".

In 1985, Brian Rose wandered around New York’s Meatpacking District in search of a new subject, bringing little expectation or preconceptions of what this place might offer him. At that time, it was not a part of the city that invited the casual visitor or passerby. For much of its history, this section of Lower Manhattan was home only to those laboring in the production of meat, all hooks and hangars, smells and stains. Rose’s photographs from 1985 show us the bones of all that in cityscapes and factory facades with their graffiti tags and faded signs, and an abandoned elevated rail line, set against winter’s dull sky and dirty snow. But these negatives were tucked away, of little consequence and largely unexamined until Rose pulled them out again in 2012, prompted by their unassuming documentation to return to the Meatpacking District to look again. He may have felt as much a trespasser in an alien realm, but in 2013, this place was no one’s best kept secret; now a high-end destination with a High Line vantage point.

Metamorphosis. Meatpacking District 1985 + 2013. By Brian Rose. Golden Section Publishers, 2014.
Metamorphosis. Meatpacking District 1985 + 2013. By Brian Rose. Golden Section Publishers, 2014.

Rose calls the shift he observed a metamorphosis and his paired images shot from similar vantage points invite side by side comparisons in the face of dramatic change. On a first take, Rose’s contemporary views are all fullness and fulfillment. Insiders and savvy tourists populate the district’s gentrified commercial corridors, scrubbed clean and shiny under sunny skies. Where the 1985 series echoes a storied past, the 2013 images are studded with signs of future promises, with barely settled buildings wrapped in ads laying out the even better and more to come. While the earlier photographs wear absence on their sleeves, the 2013 images also point to what is no longer present. In all their daylight clarity and public display, they counterpoint the Meatpacking District’s identity during those years in between when this place earned its name and its current cachet. By the 1970s, this remote industrial zone was trading in the transgressive, from transgender prostitution to a burgeoning gay and S&M club scene. Short essays by Jeremiah Moss, of the blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, and Rose himself, describe some of the traces to be seen of this layer of the Meatpacking District’s history just before a municipal shutdown sparked by the rampant AIDS crisis initiated its demise.

Metamorphosis. Meatpacking District 1985 + 2013. By Brian Rose. Golden Section Publishers, 2014.
Metamorphosis. Meatpacking District 1985 + 2013. By Brian Rose. Golden Section Publishers, 2014.

Meatpacking District joins those contemporary re-photography projects that share a calculated return to prior subject matter, to reexamine, reframe or tap into the power of comparison. Unlike some re-photography that addresses socio-political concerns, Rose assumes a rather neutral position in his written statement on the Meatpacking District’s metamorphosis; acknowledging both loss and renewal. Much re-photography is also tied to nostalgia. While Rose has no personal ties to the Meatpacking District per se, his return to New York after years abroad, and revisiting of past work and prior haunts, pushes back against his stated neutrality. Color plays a striking role in the conceptual tone of this work. A gray winter’s day creates a past-tense palette in the 1985 work, whereas the temperate brightness of the 2013 helps to push us forward in time. The latter images defy a perceived patina of age, teetering on the line between vibrant and garish, new and unseasoned. The re-photography premise doesn’t always hold up individual images of varying strength and interest here, yet collectively these photographs offer much food for thought. The notion of absence informs a tour through this place’s industrial past and adoption by a marginalized culture, thriving, yet hidden, then routed out and dying off, and its eventual rebirth as a sanitized, spotlight destination of see and be seen.—KAREN JENKINS
KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.


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