Never has it been more important to take time to look deeper. You can do just that during Dena Porter’s new photography show, “Reflections on New York City,” at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse art space from July 27 to August 16, with the opening reception on Saturday, July 28, from 5 to 6:30 pm. Porter captures many layers in each piece, which at once reflect what she sees while actively engaging us in a process of noticing increasing amounts of subtle visual information about New York City life. Porter says that she’s “fascinated about the things we see beyond the first glance,” which is a major theme at the very heart of this show. Her work challenges us to take a longer look at the beauty and complexity of urban living. No matter how layered her photos may seem, they are all single images, often accomplished through capturing reflections. What we see is what she shot.
In “Should I Take the Express?” a fashionably dressed woman is pointing to her pursed lips and tilting her head as though pondering if she should take the local or express subway in Manhattan’s iconic Times Square station. This shot is unstaged and impromptu, but Porter’s keen eye picked the exact right moment from her position inside the subway to click the shutter. The woman is bracketed on either side by commuters who are all oblivious to her dilemma, evoking the sense of anonymity and isolation that can be ubiquitous within the city. Seen from the perspective of inside the subway looking out, Porter gives us a split-second moment of time that is both an ordinary rush-hour scene and compositionally extraordinary.
Porter is particularly enamored with windows. As a child growing up in a public housing community in Brooklyn, she was fascinated by seeing how “the other half lives” when traveling through more affluent parts of the city and being able to anonymously peek through windows while passing by. This sense of “outside looking in” occurs in her photographs of high-end fashion store windows. “Holiday Mannequin” is of an upscale department store’s lavish Christmas window, a long tradition of the fancier stores along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue during the holidays. Porter captures the fantasy of the extravagantly sequined jacked and fabulous double-skirted ballet dress as well as the array of shelves with all sorts of bizarre items. Silhouettes of the trees behind her initially appear as part of the jacket fabric but, in fact, are part of the reflection of the street scene behind her in the windowpane. Porter says, “I think of this as a view into fantastical, extravagant living. Standing outside I see reflections of the buildings that arouse my curiosity about living on Fifth Avenue.”
If you look closely, you can see Porter’s reflection in the windowpane, so she is both the photographer and part of the photograph. We see her silhouette self-portrait in a number of the images in the show, helping viewers to ponder the fine line between the artist as maker and artist as witness.
In “Any Help?” Porter explores the discomfort of being privileged. She was sitting in a taxicab stuck in city traffic one terribly hot morning, and saw the homeless man in front of the Giorgio Armani boutique. Leaning on the mailbox, “he was looking and exuding the hopelessness I felt for him,” she explains. In composing the shot, Porter raised the level of the window, so its edge horizontally slashes across the scene, thus dividing it into a darker bottom and slightly lighter top portion that instantly creates a desolate mood. Porter continues, “Originally, the window wasn’t pulled up that far, but I determined I needed to set the window to the slightly higher level. And why was that? Was it my own sense of guilt? Was it for compositional reasons? He could have seen me anytime during the entirety of that long, interminable traffic light — but he never looked up. There were so many layers of discomfort in capturing his life.”
Another recurring motif in a number of Porter’s works is her interest in the way modern architecture shares space with older buildings, or remnants of them, as we see in “High Line Stroll 1.” She expands: “New York City has evolved over the years to remain a viable, world city. Part of this evolution includes the demise and birth of neighborhoods. My work reflects the interplay of these changed urban landscapes, and people who are affected by the changes. I am always in search of signs of the preservation of urban architecture, and how modernisms move in to share this space.” Porter again uses reflections in windowpanes to explore this dichotomy. In the reflections, we see new buildings constructed alongside older ones when walking on the High Line, a former railway line that was converted into an elevated, linear park.
Porter’s rich photography continually surprises us the longer we linger, revealing additional visual treasures over time. She makes us keenly aware of how much of the everyday world around us we simply pass by. Thank goodness Porter is here to help us stop and actually see, perhaps for the first time, what is right in front of our eyes.