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Book Review: Kill City


Book Review Kill City By Ash Thayer Reviewed by Blake Andrews Ah, youth. Days were simpler then, before mortgages, kids, and insurance bills. Many adolescents enjoy their early 20s as a peripatetic, communal, and often, revelatory period. Take Ash Thayer for example. As an art student in New York in the mid-90s, she carved out a typically bare bones existence. Ramen, yard sale furniture, etc. But Thayer's life was unusual in at least one respect. Instead of paying rent, she squatted for several years in abandoned buildings.

Kill City. By Ash Thayer.
powerHouse, 2015.
 
Kill City: Lower East Side Squatters 1992-2000
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Kill City: Lower East Side Squatters 1992-2000
Photographs and text by Ash Thayer
powerHouse Books, New York, 2015. 176 pp., numerous illustrations, 9¼x11¾x1".


Ah, youth. Days were simpler then, before mortgages, kids, and insurance bills. Many adolescents enjoy their early 20s as a peripatetic, communal, and often, revelatory period.

Take Ash Thayer for example. As an art student in New York in the mid-90s, she carved out a typically bare bones existence. Ramen, yard sale furniture, etc. But Thayer's life was unusual in at least one respect. Instead of paying rent, she squatted for several years in abandoned buildings. Over an eight-year period, Thayer bumped from one squat to another, all tucked into the lower east side of Manhattan. The LES was largely derelict during this era, and finding vacant buildings wasn't difficult. But remaining in one place was, as squatters played an endless cat-and-mouse game with authorities attempting to remove them. Squats bloomed and folded quickly. Some stuck around for years, and a few made the leap to legal status. Thayer was on the scene throughout the heyday, an integral member with camera usually in tow. Her photographs of the squatting community offer an insider's view into a world that is by nature covert, and often misunderstood.

Kill City. By Ash Thayer. powerHouse, 2015.

Thayer is now a mid-career artist living in LA. Some two decades after making the work, she's compiled many of her favorite squat photos into a nice thick book, Kill City: Lower East Side Squatters 1992-2000. Filled to the brim with photographs, many augmented by lengthy descriptive captions, Kill City serves several functions at once. It's the personal history of Thayer's youth. It's a document of 1990s LES. And it's a brief history of New York squatting. For me it's this last role that is most interesting. The book is a veritable Wikipedia entry of information on squatting, explaining who, where, how, and why it happened. An alternative title might have been Everything You Wanted To Know About Squatting But Were Afraid To Ask. I learned a ton.

Kill City. By Ash Thayer. powerHouse, 2015.

I'd always imagined squatting to be a solitary enterprise conducted by lonely souls bouncing around according to circumstance, maybe one step above a cardboard mattress or living under a bridge. Thayer quickly buries this misconception. The squat communities she described are just that: communities. They were as well organized and self-regulating as any conventional society, albeit with less bureaucracy and with no long-term security. Despite the uncertainty, Thayer and fellow squatters invested massive time and energy into renovating living quarters. They cleaned up debris, landscaped, and generally countered the blight of abandoned buildings. The book documents all of these contributions in both photographs and anecdotes. For those who imagine squatting as a symptom of decay, Kill City re-imagines it as conscious urban remediation. This isn't the gloomy LES of Invisible City nor the squalid LES of How The Other Half Lives. Instead it's Swiss Family Robinson in Manhattan.

Kill City. By Ash Thayer. powerHouse, 2015.

Candid portraits compose the bulk of the photos. Thayer didn't have to search far for interesting characters. Her fellow squatters were visually striking, with tattoos, piercings, home-made jewelry, painted skin, and other accouterments of youthful decoration. Many stare blankly back at the camera, with expressions somewhere between defiance and boredom. They seem to relish lives directed away from the norm, sometimes to the point of homogeneity.

Photographically Thayer's style leans toward the casual snapshot style. Most photos are simple portraits or moments caught in passing, with subjects captioned by first name. Taken together the book feels like a bit like a family album or scrapbook.

Kill City. By Ash Thayer. powerHouse, 2015.

Several photographs, however, are more carefully constructed, and show the mind of an art student at work. They infer that Thayer wasn't just grabbing snaps of friends. She was consciously creating a body of work. A photo of Maria playing violin on the stairwell is cleverly composed. A photo of Jacob looking at a map connotes exotic worlds through simple description. A child peeking through a window in her room is equal parts creepy and tender, and formally perfect. The book has several such photos but they are the exception. Generally the approach is more mundane. The goal is documentation rather than grand revelation.

Kill City. By Ash Thayer. powerHouse, 2015.

Thayer is in familiar company with this project. The glaring flash illuminating worn domestic interiors calls to mind photographs by Roger Ballen or Jacob Holdt. The focus on isolated communal gatherings carousing amid urban blight recalls Igor Samulet's Be Happy. There are the comparisons to Ken Schles and Jacob Riis mentioned above. And the specter of Mike Brodie's A Period of Juvenile Prosperity hangs over the whole project with its similar timing, subject matter and insider access. Kill City bears a passing resemblance to all those projects but it's not quite like any of them. It hovers somewhere between art project and historical essay. I suppose all good documentary work does this, but Kill City hugs the historical side more than most.

Kill City. By Ash Thayer. powerHouse, 2015.

powerHouse has put some muscle into the design, probably with an eye for crossover potential. The yellow binding, title, and design accents create strong visual punch. The cover photograph showing the Twin Towers will pique anyone's interest, and promo cover blurbs by Luc Sante and John Zorn promise hip cred. With all that in mind, Kill City might find a place on the coffee table not just of photographers but also musicians, historians, urban planners, art students. Who knows, it might even make it into some squats, at least the ones that haven't yet been closed down.—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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