By Way of Broadway

New York Photographs by Cervin Robinson

An MIT exhibit of photographs by Cervin Robinson, one of the world’s most widely-published architectural photographers, was recently reviewed by Boston Globe critic Robert Campbell as 'a superb exhibit' and 'a brilliant show'.

Organized by Gary Van Zante, Curator of Architecture and Design at the MIT Museum, By Way of Broadway is Robinson’s exploration of the visual landscape of New York over a span of 35 years, from 1972 to 2007. It consists of color and black-and-white photos of 32 sites along the city's longest thoroughfare, the only major street in Manhattan that moves at an angle to the street grid.

'As a result,' wrote Campbell, 'it creates a slightly odd condition whenever it crosses a side street or an avenue. Some of those oddities generate major sites, like Times Square. Other sites are quiet byways – a word that is punningly hidden in the show's title.'

In describing the show, Campbell called it a world of flat-fronted buildings that seem to be posing for their portraits. 'Their often richly sculpted facades remind you of the stiff shirts or rich gowns people once wore for such portraits. Sometimes they seem to be thrusting forward toward us; at other times they line up along the sidewalk like soldiers at attention.'

But, he said, 'This is not the New York of genteel tree-lined streets in the East 60s or the West Village. It's the brassy, ever-changing world of Broadway, where new pushes past old and things crash into one another in unexpected ways. Bizarre juxtapositions are, after all, the special DNA of New York.'

So another major aspect of the show is collage. 'Robinson loves to find and record places where something new is collaged over something old,' wrote Campbell. ‘A huge red Checks Cashed Open 24 Hours billboard splashes across what once, clearly, was an elegant movie theater in the Art Deco style. An auto body shop, with a phony castle-like façade, shoves itself rudely in front of a decayed object that appears once to have been a grand memorial arch. As we perceive such scenes, we visually peel back the present to reveal the past. Robinson is, among other things, a photographer of time itself.'

After the opening reception in April, Robinson and others discussed the photography of place. Participants included Peter Bacon Hales from the University of Illinois, Chicago; Donlyn Lyndon from the University of California, Berkeley; and James F. O’Gorman from Wellesley College (Emeritus).

In his account of the occasion, Campbell said that Robinson dates his interest in photography from a high school trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he first saw the photographs of Walker Evans. 'He later worked for Evans, off and on,’ said Campbell, ‘and claims he even lived for spells in Evans's darkroom. There's still a lot of Evans in his work – a love of billboards and signage of all kinds, a fascination with decaying architecture, and a kind of deliberate flatness and lack of perspectival depth. You'd never mistake one artist for the other, but you can see the family descent.'