Essay for Rebuilding, My Days in New York, Martino Marangoni (The Eriskay Connection, 2018)
“I happen to like New York, I happen to love this town
I like the city air, I like the drink of it
The more I see New York, the more I think of it
I like the sight and the sound and even the stink of it.”
“I happen to like New York”, copyright Cole Porter, 1930
Imagine what it must have been for a nine year old Italian boy encountering the New York skyline for the first time in 1959. This was not the experience of a classic Dondi, war orphan of the comics *1, but rather that of a sweet middle class boy from Florence with an American passport. Martino Marangoni’s mother came from the US, and the dual citizenship came many years later since in fact his father did not want Martino to become an Italian citizen at all, or, for that matter, the family to have anything to do with the Italian State. They lived in Florence without official papers for decades.*2
No matter the stories he may have heard, the size and height and density of the New York City buildings seen from the deck of the Queen Mary must have been daunting and exhilarating.
As an adult, perhaps not quite a Colossus bestriding the narrow world, Marangoni has managed to find his way between two cultures and have a successful international career as a photographer and curator.
In this collection of photographs, there are a number from these earliest visits to New York. They are oddly romantic. Picture a young boy with his basic Kodak camera at sidewalk level. He confronts skyscrapers head-on or straight up towards the sky; he is captivated by their immensity and handsomeness. On the left side of the frame in some images, there appears evidence of light leaks or film loading problems that have left ghostly reminders of his exuberance or lack of expertise, sweet accidents.
Coming into Manhattan is always special. There is that inimitable moment for the traveller returning from wherever, by way of La Guardia or JFK airports, at last crossing the Triborough Bridge. The East Side looms into view, and you literally feel the soulful clarinet opening of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” course through you. Welcome.
That Marangoni cites Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” as his favorite New York movie is not at all surprising.
The artist lives in two worlds. He is a stranger to yet at home in New York where he has lived on and off for many years. But he was brought up in Florence; he raised his family and his photographic practice and base Fondazione Studio Marangoni are located there.
Photography is the bridge.
As a young student, the artist was challenged with dyslexia. The camera liberated, grounded and offered him a creative way of seeing and communicating. It changed and fulfilled his life. He has been making photographs for over 50 years.
There was an epiphany. He was not yet a teenager when a female friend of his parents saw a photograph that he had dismissed as a mistake, a double exposure of a tower and bell monument in Venice. She was prompted to look at his other pictures and then tell him he had a good eye.
That changed his life.
He studied political science for a year possibly destined for a life in diplomatic corps. On a long visit to New York to see a girlfriend and his brother who had been living and working and living there, Marangoni took a film class at The New School and another on photography at Pratt with the legendary teacher, Charles Harbutt.
That was another life changing moment. His life as a photographer in New York began.
Photographers coming of age in the 1970’s and 80’s working on the streets of New York ran up against the legacy of Andre Kertesz, the members of The Photo League, and Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and others of the so-called “New York School” *3. There are echoes of the work of many other photographers in Marangoni’s work, but one could argue that most everyone’s street work from this post World War II period has similarities. It is black and white, it focuses on buildings and people in the city, and the photographers are fueled with righteous humanism, or at least, a disposition to social change. Marangoni was not consciously studying or copying the work of others but rather working in the same environment and literally bumping into the photographers themselves.
It’s a select list: Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Alexey Brodovitch, Ted Croner, Bruce Davidson, Louis Faurer, Sid Grossman, William Klein, Saul Leiter, Leon Levinstein, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Weegee, and Robert Frank.
Frank did a commissioned project “New York Is” for The New York Times in 1958, the year before his now legendary The Americans. Frank is the classic immigrant photographer searching out, being a stranger in a strange land. But all of these photographers were reacting to a city of shadows, right angles and grids, swooping modernist curves and iconic buildings. People on the street all seem to be wearing hats and walking intrepidly. He is solidly a part of this history.
Overwhelmingly the biggest influence on Marangoni has been the City itself. He was by himself there. It is no surprise that he has an earlier book titled “Alone Together” *4. It’s observation, not journalistic story telling
The strength of the work is his appreciation of the solidity of the architecture and his attraction to stopping the individual - the pedestrian or passerby - in the frame, trapping him or her for a fraction of a second. His studies of cigarette smokers speak to a past era of New York street life. He slows down the passerby so completely that these are portraits not action shots. Marangoni also loves looking down from an overhead point of view and catching the lone soul in the rectangle.
In his student days, the artist interned at the classic Light Gallery *5. Proximity to Aaron Siskind and Emmet Gowin and the like had to have had an impact on him, especially his composition and inclination towards abstraction.
The transition from black and white to color film doesn’t call attention to itself. He seems to have been able to go back and forth fluidly without making any noticeable adjustment.
Further, in the past fifty years, technology changed dramatically. The introduction of 35 millimeter cameras and fast film was liberating for street photographers making it easier for them to vent and to explore their anxiety and impatience. Photography could be done “on the run”. The streets of New York were the new playing fields.
There is a bit of technical history of photography to witness in this work. The artist changed cameras over the years moving from Kodak Brownie (1959), Kodak Retina (1961), to his father’s Minox (1964) then Nikormat (early 1970’s while at Pratt, a period he started “forcing” his film, shooting ASA 400 at 200). A number of years later, he slowed down the action by picking up a medium format camera Fuji 6x9 (1988).
For the past 20 years he has included a smaller camera, a Contax. He has had a Mamiya which he used for his “Smoker’s” portfolio, as well as a Fuji G3 and his I-Phone which yields terrific results.
But it is not the equipment that tells the story, it is the eye and sensibility behind it.
One can also see the impact on Marangoni of Italian Neo-Realist filmmakers, auteurs like Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio de Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and Luchino Visconti. Marangoni was a student and lover of film.
Further the second half of the twentieth century was characterized by a feeling of anomie, most acutely in the city. This wasn’t the quality of feeling anonymous but rather of sensing a collective despair or social deterioration.
The artist’s aesthetic is a melting pot of styles - gemütlich - shooting cityscape, still life, portrait. He is a flaneur. He likes looking at people, and he likes architecture. Marangoni is a lover of his adopted city and at odds with it enough to display a little alienation. It is familiar and foreign. He will always be a bit of an outsider.
New York is always changing. Florence is not. He says, “This fascination for watching buildings being built most probably stems from growing up in a city that was already built centuries before I was born. And moreover, the city itself has a lot of difficulty in allowing new constructions within the city walls”. *6
New York constantly needs to shed its skin; it is always rebuilding. Marangoni is our witness, our eye. He even likes the garbage, “the sight and the sound and even the stink of it.”
He happens to like New York.
*1 Dondi was a daily comic strip about a large-eyed war orphan of the same name. Created by Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen, it ran in more than 100 newspapers for three decades (September 25, 1955 to June 8, 1986). Source: Don Markstein’s “Toonopedia”
*2 Ironically Marangoni points out that his father gave up his Italian citizenship when he went to America during World War II so the artist was, in fact, wholly American and did not have dual citizenship until recently, even though he was born and grew up in Italy.
*3 “The New York School of Photography”, Jane Livingston, The New York School: Photographs 1936–1963 (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1992)
*4 “Alone Together”, (Danilo Montanari, 2014)
*5 The Light Gallery (1971-1987) was one of the first art galleries that devoted itself to the sale and promotion of contemporary photography. The gallery sold prints and represented artists ranging from Ansel Adams and Harry Callahan to Paul Strand. (Source: Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, AZ)
*6 (page number needed) “Rebuilding, My Days in New York 1959-2018” (2018)