The premise of this book is that New York is markedly vertical and thus is interestingly captured when a vertical perspective is adopted. As is customary in photography books there is nothing much written. The preface mentions a few topics that might lead somewhere, such as immigration, but lets them drop, wandering on through vacant, adjective-heavy sentences of praise, questioning nothing and nobody. At the end, Hamann provides technical insight into his process.
But no one is looking at the photographs, as if there is nothing to say about them; they are left to ‘speak’ for themselves. So, what has happened with the twist? I am ready to admit that I like perspectives that push against the natural shape of the visual field, I enjoy the vertigo they induce and the potential they offer for disruption and interrogation. To force someone out of their way of seeing is to awaken critical consciousness. The problem here is that it tends to go back to sleep. Hamann has sliced the view so as to make it less human, less alive. This might make space to critique or explore the life it offers, to meditate on alienation, verticalised (stacked, perhaps) refashionings of community, but the project here is unquestionably to glorify, and what is implicitly glorified is ‘financial potency’ and the verticality of power structures.
In the visual field are our sisters and brothers, the stuff of our lives. Beyond it, stretched up out of it, are these towering ‘cathedrals of capitalism’. Hamann suggests that they are beautiful and I am obediently able to see the harmony of their lines and forms: but beauty must be questioned as an exclusive standard, something determined and imposed by a hierarchical, carceral culture. Here beauty is propaganda, like socialist kitsch, fascist poetry.
What is forgotten here is that the body is also vertical. The body is the determinant of all meaningful architechtural thought. Hamann has given us a city in the shape of the human body, exhibiting space after space empty of bodies and thoughts of bodies. Inside all these spires are bodies, lives, persons, which Hamann has snapped out of existence. This city is a corpse, disembodied, dehumanised. Its angle foreshadows the diagnosis of Hito Steyerl: Colonisation is now in 3D. Our lives are defined by surveillance and class war is waged from above, from these towers and their cousins now scattered all over the globe.
The photographs are presented on the right hand on each spread, facing a famous NYC quote. The latter range from the pathetic: ‘You belong to New York instantly. You belong to it as much in five seconds as in five years’ (Tom Wolfe) to the witty: ‘When it’s three o’clock in New York it’s still 1938 in London’ (Bette Midler) to the vacuous: ‘New York is New York is New York (Wolfgang Joop). My favourite is Simone de Beauvoir’s, ‘There is something in the New York air that makes sleep useless’ because this is precisely what I felt.