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Jeff Mermelstein, Anthropologist of the Absurd

Jeff Mermelstein, Anthropologist of the Absurd

In his new book #nyc, Jeff Mermelstein takes a radical new approach to photography and abandons the pretense of art in favor of exploring complexities of the human mind in a series of new images made of anonymous cell phone text conversations.

Over the past 40 years, Jeff Mermelstein has been documenting the streets of New York with his distinctive blend of humor, verve, and tenderness. His finely attuned ability to see and preserve the compelling yet nonsensical qualities of existence have made him what can be best described as an “anthropologist of the absurd.”

Mermelstein’s inimitable gift to discern the unlikely and unusual amidst the sea of humanity is the result of an impressive work ethic that borders on obsession. A humble man, he shies away from using the word “master” to describe his prowess with the 35mm camera honed over decades. Yet his command of the medium he loved was simply not enough. Although Mermelstein had resisted digital photography in 2011, he made the switch when New York magazine commissioned him to photograph Fashion Week in New York, Milan, and Paris.

Jeff Mermelstein, from ‘#nyc,’ (MACK, 2020). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

In 2016, Mermelstein made the leap to cell phone photography and now works exclusively with the iPhone 8. “I’m looking at a Leica that’s right next to me and I haven’t touched it in four years,” he says from his Brooklyn home. “I’ll never say, ‘No, I’m not going back,’ but it’s definitely not calling me right now.” 

A New Paradigm of Street Photography

The author of several iconic monographs including Sidewalk (Dewey Lewis, 1999) and No Title Here (powerHouse Books, 2003), Mermelstein’s aptitude as an author enables him to present his enigmatic images in intriguing long form portraits exploring the human condition. But where he once focused on faces, expressions, and gestures, Mermelstein now turns his lens on an intimate part of ourselves that we rarely share: our private text conversations. 

In his new book, #nyc (MACK), Mermelstein brings together a series of photographs made on the streets of New York showcasing brief snippets of conversations on cell phones between anonymous participants. Relieved of any identifying characteristics, these disembodied voices act as a mirror of modern life, painting a picture people and their relationships in nothing but words. 

Jeff Mermelstein, from ‘#nyc,’ (MACK, 2020). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was very aware of how I was feeling at a particular time. If I felt a conscious uptightness it wouldn’t work so easily,” Mermelstein says, acknowledging the challenge of moving in people’s personal space undetected in order to make these photographs. Standing 6’ 2” and weighing 195 pounds, Mermelstein is by no means an invisible man, yet he learned how to move as though he were.

The series began one day in 2016, when he spotted a woman sitting in a midtown Manhattan café on her phone. After making the photograph, he zoomed in to read her phone screen. She had been researching wills and saw a mention that her father left $6,000 in the attic and a lightbulb went off.

“I don’t usually think about ideas,” Mermelstein says, describing the way he works. More often than not, he follows an intuitive process, where curiosity leads the search. If there are eight million stories in the naked city, today many tales are being told by text. Finding them was like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. For Mermelstein, this mission became an exciting means to keep photography fun and fresh. 

Jeff Mermelstein, from ‘#nyc,’ (MACK, 2020). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

Like all great street photographs, “If you think about it before you do it, you will miss it,” Mermelstein says. He rarely could read his bounty until after the picture was made. Although he doesn’t remember the specifics of how the individuals looked, there was one defining feature that stood out above all: “Some of the most outrageous texting was from an ‘ordinary’ looking person.”

Perhaps this is what makes #nyc so radical: the thoughts of those hiding in plain sight are readily exposed, even if the texters are anonymous. By focusing exclusively on our words, rather than our faces, Mermelstein has found a new way to explore the inner sanctums of humanity that usually go unseen and unknown. 

“I think there’s a voyeurism in street photography in general because of the anonymity of the work,” Mermelstein says. “I let go and know that no one is being hurt because they’re not. If you’re texting outside, I feel that I’m finding something that tells us something about ourselves but doesn’t accuse us. I’m interested in the real, simply rendering something in time.”

Jeff Mermelstein, from ‘#nyc,’ (MACK, 2020). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

Threading the Past and the Present

Though the photographs of #nyc are a distinctive visual departure from his previous work, they reveal a deeper continuity for Mermelstein’s ability to use photography as a tool to examine the humorous, surprising, and perplexing side of life. This aspect has defined his work since the very start of his professional career, his first published work becoming the cover story for a 1983 issue of Geo magazine celebrating animal actors including Morris the Cat, Benji, and Lassie.

Jeff Mermelstein, from ‘#nyc,’ (MACK, 2020). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

At the same time, Mermelstein began honing his lifelong passion for street photography, which was greatly enhanced by the invention of point and shoot cameras in the mid-1980s. “I have always been interested in speed and not thinking too much, that’s one of the reason the iPhone appeals to me,” he says. “The iPhone is a revolution. Like most things, timing is so important. It came along at a particular time and enabled work that’s just right for me. It’s lightened me up and allows a certain kind of connectivity to what’s in front of me that I hadn’t experienced before. When it is fun, it can be very interesting.”

Unlike many who have fled New York during the COVID-19 crisis, Mermelstein has stayed up, simply adapting his work to meet his circumstance. Rather than travel to Manhattan by train and work his way up, he has walked the streets of Brooklyn alone. “One of the things that keeps things fresh for me is my obsessive nature, dedication to work, and the pleasure I get from doing it,” he says. “I don’t mind traveling but I’m not tired of New York. It’s a good challenge for me to keep trying to find something within where I am.”

Miss Rosen

Jeff Mermelstein, #nyc

Editions Mack Books

£20.00 GBP

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