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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Review Loisaida Photographs by Tria Giovan Reviewed by Blake Andrews “As the coronavirus pandemic winds down, it’s an opportune moment to highlight the positive aftermath. What’s that you say? Positive? What?"

Loisaida. By Tria Giovan.
Photographs by Tria Giovan
Damiani, 2023. 96 pp., 77 illustrations, 8¼x11½x½".

As the coronavirus pandemic winds down, it’s an opportune moment to highlight the positive aftermath. What’s that you say? Positive? Wha…? Yes, I realize that the plague years have been horrible in many respects. But for housebound artists they offered a rare chance to hit pause, recalibrate, and pivot. Photographers of all stripes took advantage, and in the past year or so we’ve begun to see a viral explosion of pandemic-generated photobooks. These include recent photos of the disease’s impact, and also past work finally given time to resurface.

Tria Giovan’s Loisaida fits the latter category. For almost forty years after she made them, these remarkable photos were tucked away in storage. It’s a depressingly familiar scenario when it comes to film archives. Gary Stochl, Vivian Maier, and April Dawn Alison are merely a few examples. In Giovan’s case, the pandemic was the ticket to rediscovery. Stuck at home in 2020, she finally found time to dig into her old New York photos. A few years of editing, scanning, and sequencing later and voilà: Loisaida the hardback.

“Loisaida” is a Spanglish term for Manhattan’s Lower East Side (LES), an onomatopoeic nickname bequeathed by the local Puerto Rican community. Giovan moved to the neighborhood in 1984. She was 23, photography degree fresh in hand, ready to tackle the world. “The Lower East Side was as gritty, authentic, and humble as it was exotic, vibrant, and colorful,” she remembers. She settled at 29 Clinton, on the corner of Stanton Street, in a third-floor flat. Several photos in Loisaida show exterior views from her apartment. Aiming out the window she captured her fire escape, the urban fabric beyond, and multiple frames of the street corner below. Clinton/Stanton was an ever-revolving stage, and she had a bird’s eye view. One day the corner hosted a boxing ring, another day it was occupied by pushcart vendors. Another moment might reveal a glut of bad parking jobs or a shifting knot of pedestrians. Taken collectively these corner photos offer a snapshot of LES life in flux. The neighborhood was a traditional melting pot for immigrants. It was dynamic and bustling, the antithesis of future pandemic shutdowns. For a young and energetic photographer like Giovan, it was an inexhaustible cornucopia.

To her credit, Giovan was flexible photographically. As might be expected from a public documentarian in Manhattan, much of Loisaida can be loosely classified as street photography. A scene of a child sitting with toys on a bench must have been captured in a fleeting instant, yet Giovan positioned the postures and objects with care. This photo and several like it prove her deft touch in shifting situations. Bystanders and shoppers were typical subjects, often captured in passing against city backdrops. But Giovan didn’t require people. Sometimes a simple facade or shadow was enough. She was fascinated by signage, ironwork, doorframes, and the thousands of other small details that give the LES its vernacular charm.

Some corners she shot head-on, for example a gorgeous frame of melting snow fronting repeated shop window posters. This picture and several others have a stately, static quality. If they exude the formal contemplation of view camera photos, that’s a misconception. Loisaida was shot on foot with small and medium format cameras. “I didn’t overthink it, I just went out and responded instinctively to my environment,” she said in a recent interview. “The trick is to be completely present, to look in your peripheries, to not hesitate. It’s like a muscle or a reflex, you know, the more you use it, the more refined and defined it becomes.”

Since this is a book of older color work, the palette is naturally filmy. Pictures are imbued with undertones of amber and cyan, some venturing—sometimes too far?—into one or the other end of the spectrum. Secondary shades of orange and green provide mood lighting. The delicate tints are faithfully preserved in Damiani’s reproductions. Analog colors play off each other like Astaire and Rogers, with partners typically matched across the spread. For example, the benched boy mentioned above is paired with a photo of an old car in the same dark teal. Reds march with reds, magenta with magenta, and so on. All are buttressed by a grounding layer of grey/cyan concrete, while the book’s landscape format gently prods the viewer along the block.

Looking at Loisaida now with four decades of hindsight, the scenes seem exotic and remote. It’s not just the colors, but the fashions, car models, and demographics too. All have shifted radically since the 1980s. If the photos feel alien, Giovan was an outsider. She was a recent LES transplant when she made these photos, and she represented a cultural shift. She was a recent BFA graduate in a working-class neighborhood, a beacon of impending gentrification, and a fish out of water. “I wandered the streets photographing as if in a foreign land,” she recalls.

That wide-eyed curiosity is part of what makes these photographs special. It lends them an outside observer quality, as if peering in on an urban diorama. They could almost pass for New Topographics remove, but Giovan’s photos have a humanity and sensitivity which is missing from that scene. “A lot of what people associate with that era and that area is the punk rock and the graffiti,” she writes. “I feel like this book takes it somewhere else, somewhere softer.”

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at