In 1971, The New York Times published The Decline and Decline of New York lamenting a downturn that would spiral out of control, bringing the city to the brink of bankruptcy just four years later. “Manhattan — the cosmopolis—the world city—has begun to lose its quality,” wrote Roger Starr, prefiguring the exhaustive trend of journalists bemoaning “the end” of New York for decades to come.
But in the words of writer Mark Twain: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Though it may be down and out, New York is never finished. That’s because the city never rests on its past success, its very ethos contained in the word “new.” Because everything moves at breakneck pace, it may seem to old-timers like the golden age has come and gone — but the young and the fresh arrivals know: the time is now.
For American photographer Janet Delaney, 1971 was a transformative year, marking the very first time she took a red-eye flight from San Francisco to New York. She took to the streets and quickly fell in love with the city that never sleeps, amassing an extraordinary archive of street photographs capturing quiet scenes of daily life amid the chaos that is Manhattan.
Through Delaney’s lens, we get a feeling of small-town life set amid a soaring backdrop in the new book, Red Eye to New York (MACK). Although the architecture is grand, Delaney finds the human moments that we all share: breakfast in a sunny restaurant; kids gathered after school; a moment of respite at the butcher shop; a summer afternoon grilling in the park. Using a Rolleiflex camera, Delaney documented the intimacy of New York while also preserving its grandeur at a time when the city was still struggling to survive.
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In the late 1970s, Janet Delaney moved to San Francisco’s SoMa district way back when it was still an industrial neighborhood. She took a job at Frog Prints, a photo lab in the Financial District, where she made color prints for nearby advertising agencies. On occasion, she would receive a call from Rudy, a dear friend from college who had moved to New York to become a painter. To support himself Rudy worked as a shipping coordinator for DHL, a job that allowed him to contract freelance couriers for cross-country deliveries.
“From time to time he would ring and ask if I wanted to catch the next red-eye flight to New York,” says Delaney. “I always said yes. I was never certain what cargo I was accompanying. I only knew that there would be a ticket waiting for me at the counter and that five and a half hours later I would arrive at JFK.”
Stumbling out of the airport at dawn, Delaney took a DHL shuttle van from Brooklyn to New York, making her way from the company’s Meatpacking district warehouse to her friend Barbara’s fifth floor walk up in Lower Manhattan. “Brooklyn-born Barbara serves as a tour guide during these visits, a walking almanac of arcane urban knowledge, able to dispense facts that activate the nondescript buildings they pass. And when Barbara is busy, Janet takes to the streets on her own,” writes Amanda Maddox in the book.
“The sidewalks usually smell like smoke or sulfur—in other words, like something lethal—while the air in SoHo feels rarefied and exclusive, but still, she comes alive walking around the city. It’s a place where people can be alone without feeling alone. Her camera gravitates to New Yorkers dining solo or commuting in isolation, suggesting that the city is populated by lonely hearts, and yet she isn’t plagued by loneliness.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books and magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Red Eye to New York by Janet Delaney is published by MACK (2021), €35, $40.
“Janet Delaney: New York in the 80s” is on view January 15–February 26, 2022 at Equinom Gallery in New York.