New York is a city of histories stacked one atop another like sedimentary rock, each deposit seeding itself into an invisible web of memories that hide in plain sight. For longtime residents, the present floats like a gauzy veil over the past, reminding us of what lies beneath the sighted world. We see glimpses of these realms in the deepest recesses of our mind, picture postcards that call to us as remembrances of things past.
Photographs preserve what is before it has gone, disappeared by the ever-changing face of “New” York. But some things become embedded, even when they are gone, floating through the ether as elusive as the spirits themselves. And though we may wish to forget the spectres of death and despair that haunt these streets, they are never truly gone as benign neglect, arson, addiction, AIDS, gun violence, 9/11, and Covid cast long shadows over the glittering pavement.
But not everyone is afflicted by willful amnesia and a fanatical desire to forget. Some, like actor Jessica Lange, understand the power of preservation. Lange is among a small group of women to receive Academy, Tony, and Emmy Awards for her extraordinary performances of women equal parts complex and compelling.
Now 73, the model-turned-actor is also an accomplished photographer in her own right. Her gritty black and white street photographs offer an unflinching portrait of America in the 21st century, at once intimate, nostalgic, and raw.
Long Days Journey Into Night
“In March of 2020 when New York City went into lockdown due to Covid, like many others who could, I left the city. I didn’t return until October, seven months later. Everything had changed,” Jessica Lange writes in the introduction to her third book, Dérive.
“It was a different city,” she continues. “It felt abandoned. Blocks of storefronts were boarded up. All ‘non-essential’ businesses had closed by executive order. The usual crowds of people moving down the streets had disappeared. I read somewhere that a city’s meaning is to make loneliness bearable. There was no masquerading the loneliness now.”
Unsure how she would make it through the short days and long nights of the winter ahead, Lange’s son suggested she read Guy Debord’s landmark 1956 text, Theory of the Dérive. “In a dérive [unplanned journey], one drops all their usual motives for movement and action and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain—usually urban, and the encounters they find there,” wrote the French writer.
In these words Lange found purpose and adapted her photography practice to engage with New York in a new and meaningful way. Between November 2020 and May 2021, she set out with her camera waking the streets with no destination or intent beyond to observe the city and its denizens as they forged a new chapter of survival.
Standing on the other side of the camera, Jessica Lange bears witness to a time and place to which many wish never to return: a city stricken with grief, confusion, and loss. Once crowded streets are empty and desolate and an eerie stillness pervades. And yet there is hope in tender moments like that of a young couple sitting on bench amid the wealth of spring flowers blooming in the Jefferson Market Garden — a landscape once the harrowing site of the Women’s House of Detention.
“One thinks of Marx’s remark that ‘all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind,’” critic Hilton Als writes in the introduction to Dérive. “That’s what Lange’s pictures remind us of: the beauty and necessity of being together no matter what, or because of it.”
Dérive will be published by powerHouse Books in late spring/early summer 2023, $60.00