Growth and Change

New York City has been the most populous in the United States since 1790, when the Census reported a population of 33,131. It broke the 1 million mark by 1880 and, at the turn of the century, the consolidation of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island boroughs into a single, unified metropolis drove the population to 3.4 million. Fast forward to this year, and the city is currently the primary residence of an estimated 8,992,908. New York is home to an incredible number of unique individuals, but what does the city truly mean to the people who live there?

This is the question that Museum of the City of New York’s (MCNY) new contemporary photography triennial hopes to answer. The group show, open until 27 August, is split into four sections, each considering a different aspect of the concept: Home Crosses Borders, Home is Chosen, Home is a Haven and Home is the Body. These selected works encompass a variety of perspectives, showcasing the breadth of the city’s renowned and emerging talent. There is space to consider both the physical spaces humans inhabit, as well as the metaphorical homesteads made for ourselves – in communities, families and hobbies.

“Lens-based work has an immediacy, an intimacy, and the power to build a connection between the artist, the subject, and the viewer that is unlike other media,” says Sean Corcoran, MCNY’s Senior Curator of Prints and Photographs. This is evident in the work of Laila Annmarie Stevens (b. 2001), part of the Home is Chosen exhibition space, which highlights LGBTQ+ kinship and the power of found families. The photographer and visual artist “honours marginalised youth voices and embraces the fullness of Black life” through personal, visceral portraiture. In Jada and Aaliyah, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY (2022), the viewer becomes an onlooker to a private moment, a couple cosied on a sofa, hands interlinked and their gazes firmly on one another. Contrastingly, Nikki and Ceara, Astoria, Queens, NY, (2020), stare into the camera, arms flung casually across each other. Here, Stephens invites subjects to embrace their identity; home “is not where you are, but the people who allow your freest self to live.”

Elsewhere, in Home is a Haven, mother-son duo Chantal Heijnen (b. 1976) and Lou van Melik use the medium to escape bleakness during the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, houses were places of both safety and confinement, so it was road trips that Heijnen took with her then six-year-old son that allowed them to see the city in a new light. Lou took up the camera; the series Lou’s Summer (2023) documents New York from a child’s perspective. “It helped us to cope with our uncertainty,” the artist says. There is a wistful familial joy to these images, a testimony to the embrace of hope against certain change.

Throughout, New York Now: Home exposes the sanctuary and unpredictability of the environments we call our own. As the exhibition team state, the city “is the world centre of photography and has been a source of inspiration for generations of image-makers going back to the advent of the medium itself.” Here, the vast, imposing skyscrapers and small, close-knit moments are collected together and presented anew: a testament to creativity and the enduring spirit of the city. | Until 27 August

Words: Megan Jones

1. Lou Van Melik, Sea of Buildings (2020), from the series Lou’s Summer. Courtesy of Chantal Heijnen Photography.
2. Irina Rozovsky, Untitled, from the series In Plain Air, Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Courtesy of the artist.  
3. Paul Moakley, 4th of July Eve, Oakwood Beach, Staten Island (2020). Courtesy of Paul Moakley.
4. Gail Albert Halaban, Valentines, East 10th Street, Greenwich Village, New York (2022), from the series Out My Window. Courtesy of Gail Albert Halaban.
5. Laila Annmarie Stevens, Nikki and Ceara, Astoria, Queens, NY, from the series A House Is Not Home. Courtesy of Laila Annmarie Stevens.