Alen MacWeeney captured the fleeting moments and exchanges that often go unnoticed by the hurried commuters of New York City
The New York Public Library is taking the train back in time in the new free exhibition “New York Subways 1977: Alen MacWeeney.” On display now, through January 7, 2024, in the Print Gallery of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, this captivating showcase will feature 42 remarkable diptychs by the renowned Irish American photographer Alen MacWeeney, all taken in the New York City subway system in 1977.
In the late 1970s, MacWeeney started capturing everyday moments on the subway with his Leica M-4 camera. When developing his photographs in the darkroom, he used a distinctive technique that paired two negatives to create each positive print, resulting in diptychs that seamlessly blend two frames into one image. These black-and-white diptychs serve as subtle juxtapositions of stillness and movement, people and environment, and intimacy and exclusion.
All 42 of MacWeeney’s pairings in the Library’s collections are on view in the exhibition. They evoke a wide range of emotions, from the threatening to the humorous, from the provocative to the intimate. Presented together, the series presents the New York subway system in 1977 as an extraordinary space of contradictions, just as it is today: millions of people thrust together, each navigating their private lives in a very public space.
The exhibition further enriches the experience with two large-scale photographs on loan from the artist: historical maps of the 1970s subway system designed by Massimo Vignelli from the Library’s Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, and a short film created by MacWeeney. The film, with a runtime of approximately 12 minutes, provides insights into the New York Subways series, the circumstances surrounding its creation, and MacWeeney’s personal experiences as a young photographer in NYC during the late 1970s.
One of the most significant highlights of the exhibition is the artist’s book of the Subways series, a long-cherished project of MacWeeney’s. The book, measuring 8.5 x 22 inches and printed and bound by the artist himself, offers a unique perspective on the New York Subways series. It includes diptych arrangements not seen in NYPL’s collections. The book’s format provides viewers with an alternative arrangement, allowing for a more active and intimate relationship with the photographs. Visitors to the exhibition will also have the opportunity to purchase a limited-edition 1/4-size photobook of the Subways series, produced in collaboration with the Library Shop.
Alen MacWeeney, born in Dublin in 1939, began his photography career as a press photographer in Ireland before relocating to New York City in 1961, where he worked as an assistant to the renowned photographer Richard Avedon. While his early work was rooted in the realms of fashion and studio photography, MacWeeney’s unique vision always gravitated towards the beauty found in the ordinary moments of life. Having previously documented Ireland’s marginalized communities, MacWeeney brought a curious, tender, and democratic observational eye to the bustling platforms and interiors of the NYC subway system.
On September 29th, MacWeeney will be in conversation with exhibition curator, Assistant Curator of Photography, Maggie Mustard. Together, they will discuss MacWeeney’s career, his artistic influences, and reflect on the significance of the Subways series in the current moment.
This exhibition has been made possible by the continuing generosity of Miriam and Ira D. Wallach.
Support for The New York Public Library’s Exhibitions Program has been provided by Celeste Bartos,Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos and Adam Bartos Exhibitions Fund, and Jonathan Altman.
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