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The Spirit of New York Is Flying High at Rockefeller Center

By Alexis CheungMar 29 2021
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What represents the spirit of New York? Following a year when the city that never sleeps was forced to a standstill, Chris Boot, the executive director of the renowned not-for-profit photography foundation and publisher Aperture Foundation, pondered this question while selecting 83 photographs, at the invitation of Rockefeller Center, to be flown as 8-by-5-foot flags.

Rockefeller Center’s Flag Project 2021 coincides with the release of the “New York” issue of the foundation’s quarterly publication, Aperture Magazine. Rockefeller Center and Aperture are also joining forces to present a month-long celebration of New York City. An outdoor exhibition features New York City street and subway photographs by Jamel Shabazz, all installed in 6-foot-tall light boxes across Rockefeller Center’s public plazas. At 30 Rockefeller Plaza on 49th Street, Aperture is hosting a pop-up space for selling prints and books and holding guest signings, and is also hosting a virtual talk series with the issue’s photographers and writers broadcasted live from iconic Rockefeller Center locations such as the Rainbow Room.

“As the capital of photography, and as we imagine coming out of Covid-19 restrictions, we wanted to celebrate the city and consider photography’s role in it,” says Boot of the issue’s theme, which honors the city through photographs and essays by visionary artists and writers. He adds that beyond creating a magazine, “We wanted to create some kind of celebration in the streets, and the opportunity arose to work with Rockefeller Center, which is fantastic.”

Rockefeller Center established Flag Project in Spring 2020, asking people across the globe to show their love for New York City during a challenging time by designing flags that would be flown as a temporary art installation. Artists including Faith Ringgold, Jeff Koons, Marina Abramović, Laurie Anderson, Christian Siriano, Hank Willis Thomas, and more took part, alongside more than 1,200 hand-drawn and illustrated submissions from as far away as South Korea and Brazil. This year’s Flag Project uses photography as its medium to celebrate the diversity and strength of the city.

"Rockefeller Center celebrates the very best of New York year-round, so it is especially meaningful to be working with Aperture, a leading voice in photography, in presenting these incredible activities that honor the city, its rich history, and its promising future, free and open to all," says EB Kelly, the Tishman Speyer managing director overseeing Rockefeller Center. "The Flag Project is the latest way that New Yorkers—and everyone around the world—can share their creativity and their love for New York at Rockefeller Center.”

When Rockefeller Center and Aperture requested submissions inspired by the shapes, faces, and textures of the urban fabric of New York, well over one thousand entries were received. “A lot of feelings of love towards the city and the inspiration that people draw from it was expressed in the work,” says Boot, adding that the photographers come from all over the world and with diverse cultural backgrounds, “which is, of course, one of the great characteristics of New York.”

In selecting the flags, Boot chose bold images that could easily be read on billowing pieces of fabric. “I didn’t go for typical tourist pictures at all,” he says, although a few iconic images of yellow taxis and the Brooklyn Bridge made the cut. “I was looking for people,” he says. “Some of the pictures you might look at and think, ‘What's that got to do with New York?’ but they came out of the spirit of New York. There’s quite a lot about family, and many that reflected queer life in New York, whether from gay pride or everyday activities.”

In addition to the winning submissions, nine famous photographers were also invited to share an image. Iconic photographs of New York by Elliott Erwitt, Nan Goldin, Renee Cox, Ryan McGinley, Susan Meiselas, Tyler Mitchell, Kwame Brathwaite, Roe Ethridge, and Duane Michals will all be on view.

Ethridge, a postmodernist commercial and art photographer who moved to the city in 1997, shot the cover image for the magazine, which also appears on one of the flags. It’s a close-up photograph of an apple: lush and shiny with the stem still intact, slightly shadowed and shot from above. “It has the beauty and the menace of New York,” says Ethridge, who held the farmer’s market apple in a black-gloved hand. He described the cover subject’s “perfect imperfectness”—referring to its nonuniform color and leafiness—as “also being a New York quality.” In other words, it’s a refreshing perspective of the clichéd “Big Apple.”

The resulting flag collection is multifaceted, much like the city. Certain images are indelible to its landscape. There’s a psychedelically colored, double-exposed Coney Island shot, complete with the Ferris wheel and seagulls. There’s an inimitable New York hot dog stand with its proprietor proudly posing for the camera. There’s an iconic yellow taxi cab entirely composed of tinsel and Christmas lights with a child beaming in front of it. Then there’s a bustling intersection filled with a (real) taxi and everyday pedestrians, taken under a long exposure.

Other photographs detail the city’s daily texture and rhythms. Any working-class professional (or pop culture enthusiast) will recognize the crushed Original New York Coffee Cup. It’s an iconic vessel sold at bodegas and diners across every borough and sipped on by television characters from The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’s Olivia Benson. Another image shows a Harlem street with a jump-roping child as a hydrant splashes water on the asphalt. It’s evocative of summer block parties that are sweaty and filled with BBQ smoke. The only difference from years past are the masks on the subjects’ faces.

Given that New York was the epicenter of the pandemic early on, many of the flags capture the reality of a painfully odd year. One flag features New York Public Library’s mascot, the lion Patience, sporting a face mask over his snout. Another shows essential workers from the Wyandanch-Wheatley Heights Volunteer Ambulance Corp., masked and standing in a semicircle, all holding dried flowers. The portrait of these members from the third hardest hit community in Suffolk County serves as a paean to Black and brown communities who have suffered so much in the last year.

“There’s definitely a kind of post–Black Lives Matter spirit reflected in the pictures and that is emerging,” says Boot, in reference to the outrage and protests that roiled the country last year. To that end, many images celebrate the joy of Black life, from the camaraderie in a Dominican hair salon to the self-possessed beauty of a Black trans woman known as Qween Jean.

During a time when the city’s streets were empty as people hunkered down indoors, it makes sense that images of impromptu encounters resonated with Boot. After all, what is a city without its citizens? One image that personifies the beauty of New York’s happenstance run-in is by the photographer Susan Meiselas, who has been part of Magnum Photos since 1976. Selected from her series “Prince Street Girls,” it shows two pre-teen girls standing shoulder to shoulder, arms crossed, defiantly and playfully staring each other down. Meiselas took the image shortly after moving into her Little Italy neighborhood in 1974. Her subjects, Dee and Lisa, were two of six Italian-American girls whom she photographed intermittently over decades.

“I was bicycling down Prince Street in front of the old St. Patrick’s cathedral, and on the opposite corner, there were a group of girls in uniforms, and one of them used a mirror to focus the light in my eyes,” remembered Meiselas of their initial encounter. “It's hard to believe, but that’s led to a nearly 50-year relationship.”

As the city slowly reopens, there’s hope that this nostalgic, old-school New York, complete with people and bustling sidewalks, will return. Yet that yearning for the city pre-Covid-19 is tempered by realistic expectations and introspection. “Everybody’s thinking about what they value about New York,” says Boot of this interstitial time. “We’re not just looking backwards, but thinking about how the past relates to the future—the things we want to preserve and what we value—which I think is very forward-looking and very positive.”

If anything, perhaps that’s the true spirit of New York: a willingness to embrace change, to preserve that which truly matters, and to remain resilient in every way. Whatever conclusion people reach, they’re certain to find a photograph that matches their definition when they simply look up at Rockefeller Center.

The Flag Project 2021 will be flown from the iconic flagpoles of Rockefeller Center from March 27 through April 30, 2021.

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