Hamptons Art Commentary: Matt Weber at Harper’s Books

Matt Weber’s  exhibit of New York City scenes can’t help but be compared to other work by well-known street photographers. Two favorite photographers come to mind in this regard: Weegee and Helen Levitt. Both worked primarily during the 1930s and 40s, both were also filmmakers whose style we now call “social realism.” However realistic their  images were, there was an intense acknowledgement of aesthetic qualities, particularly composition and camera positioning.

Yet Weegee’s and Levitt’s works were different concerning subject matter. While New York itself became a character in their imagery, Weegee featured “outsiders,” mainly on the Lower East Side, including criminals. Conversely, Levitt photographed  various neighborhoods where daily life took place, especially celebrating children at play and middle-aged inhabitants in conversation.

Weber, at least in his current exhibit at Harper’s Books, has no particular Manhattan “beat,” setting or subject. In fact, his individuals do not belong to a recurring gender, class or race. For example,  several pieces feature affluent school girls crossing the street. Other images show African American boys loitering outside a pornographic movie theatre. Unlike Weegee’s work, there’s little juxtaposition between the rich and the poor, for instance. (Consider  Weegee’s well-known photograph of wealthy ladies dressed in fur alongside a homeless woman.)

Yet we can’t fault Weber’s works because they are not similar to those of Weegee’s and Levitt’s. If they don’t initially provide a political/ social point-of-view, for example, that is Weber’s choice. Yet perhaps the images do convey a message, in their subtle way. The girls crossing the street, for example, evoke a sense of energy and movement. On the other hand, the boys outside the theater are static and bored. Is this Weber’s comment on the state of class and race in urban America?

Weber may also be observing the white affluent class in another way: its sense of urban isolation. One picture demonstrates this in an arresting way where three people seem lost in their own worlds, hiding under their umbrellas or reading a newspaper.

Another play on isolation is one of Weber’s most well-known photographs: The Trade Center exploding in the background on September 11, a mother and her child unaware of the disaster unfolding a few miles away.

Privacy is another issue that Weber deals with: one image shows a policeman looking through a restaurant window at a couple as he passes by. There seems to be no reason for this act; the pair seems more than decent. Just your typical middle-class urban residents having a bite to eat.

Even so, not all of Weber’s work is somber. We could hardly miss the sexual implications provoked by a girl licking an ice cream cone as she stands near a billboard showing a shirtless man.

Photographs by Matt Weber will be on view at Harper’s Books in East Hampton, 87 Newtown Lane, until May 20, 2013. Call 631-324-1131 for information, harpersbooks.com.

CORRECTION: In last week’s Art Commentary about The Drawing Room’s exhibit, the image that appeared on the upper right was work by Jack Youngerman, not Mary Ellen Bartley.

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