Located at the corner of 22nd and Park Avenue South, within a short walk from the Flatiron Building, Fotografiska’s New York branch has picked a neighborhood which, until now, had long been a cultural desert, far removed from Chelsea galleries and major museums. The location is quite strategic and underlines the founders’ ambition.
Fotografiska took over a beautiful, late nineteenth-century, six-story neo-renaissance building. This architectural gem, classified and renovated for the occasion, narrowly escaped the fate of other buildings in the Flatiron District, transformed for the most part into tech company offices and corporate headquarters.
Upon approaching the building one might ponder the changes that have taken place in the neighborhood in recent years; however, once inside, the visitor is greeted by a bookstore and a café, both already crowded despite the early hour, and gets a matcha latte and exhibition ticket at the same counter. Grace Noh, the exhibition coordinator, who came out to welcome us, emphasizes that Fotografiska is above all about experience. Whether you are into photography or not, there’s always something to do: you can attend morning meditation or wiggle your hips to a DJ set at night, as the venue stays open until 11pm and midnight Thursday through Sunday.
In addition to the bookstore and café, the building houses the restaurant Verōnika (named after the patron saint of photographers), a bar located in a former chapel with a magnificent vault and stained glass windows, a performance and installation space in an equally splendid attic, and in between three floors dedicated to photography. The total surface is over 45,000 sq. feet. Fotografiska asserts that it’s not “your ordinary museum or a gallery”; visitors come here to “stay for hours” and not just to view the exhibitions.
The spaces dedicated to photography aim at creating an experience that goes beyond the medium. Galleries tend to be a bit labyrinthine, so that the visitors may wander and “lose themselves,” as well as narrow and dark enough to spotlight the brightly lit images. One moves from one exhibition to the next without any transition except for a short text and a change in scenography. The hallways and staircase walls are painted black—Fotografiska’s trademark color, which visually evokes a bar lounge.
Some images (as in the exhibition of the fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth) and contact sheets (as in Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s exhibit) are printed onto wallpaper and then pasted on the walls. There is also a short video by Tawny Chatmon who talks about her portraits of African-American girls bejeweled with gold leaf.
Listening seems to play an important role in some exhibitions, without the sound component being strictly necessary: a musical composition accompanies Helene Schmitz’s exhibition while playground noise is the soundtrack to the work of Anastasia Taylor-Lind, which made one visitor wonder anxiously, her coffee cup in hand: “Are there children in here?” The galleries afford freedom of movement this Friday morning, as there are only few visitors.
Fotografiska: an all-in-one concept
The Fotografiska concept was formulated in 2010 in Stockholm by two brothers, Jan and Per Broman, photography lovers and “cultural entrepreneurs.” Since the art space has become one of the most visited sites in the Swedish capital, they have exported their idea abroad. In June 2019, Fotografiska opened in Tallinn, Estonia, and London is expecting one sometime in 2020.
People have become accustomed to seeing shops and cafés in museums, but Fotografiska, which is a private enterprise, has taken the idea a step further with an all-in-one project which breaks new ground in the world of culture and in the cultural market. Fotografiska New York has no permanent collections, no curatorial project, and no curator. It relies on a network of individuals and institutions, and especially on the two—soon to be three—other European branches. The exhibitions will rotate between the different venues, with about twenty exhibitions a year. It is an ambitious project that aims at quantity and diversity with about four concurrent exhibitions, as is presently the case.
A breath of fresh air
While the location may be as surprising as the concept (and the $28 admission), Fotografiska breathes fresh life into New York’s photography scene. Apart from renowned galleries and major museums, the only place entirely dedicated to photography in the city thus far had been the International Center of Photography, with only four exhibitions last year. One of Fotografiska’s promises is to feature diverse artists and cover all photographic practices, with a particular focus on fashion photography and photojournalism, which are often under-represented in New York’s cultural institutions. Nevertheless, Fotografiska will have to prove its mettle if it is to make a real mark in the city’s cultural landscape.
By Hugo Fortin
Fotografiska New York
281 Park Avenue South
Adi Nes, Testaments, until March 1, 2020.
Anastasia Taylor Lind, Fotografiska for Life X TIME, until March 8, 2020.
Ellen von Unwerth, Devotion! 30 Years of Photographing Women, until March 29, 2020.
Tawny Chatmon, Inheritance, until March 22, 2020.
Helene Schmitz, Thinking Like a Mountain, until April 12, 2020.