“Young Dancer, 34th Street and 9th Ave., 1978”
Chromogenic print 49.7 x 39.2 cm
Art Institute of Chicago
The glow of early morning light casts a golden hue on brick facades, tickles protruding metallic edges and carries with it the promise of the new day. The scene might be from Any City, U.S.A., but when photographer Joel Meyerowitz focuses his lens on “Young Dancer, 34th Street and 9th Ave., 1978,” the presence of New York City’s Empire State Building makes its geography clear.
Despite the photograph’s title, Meyerowitz’s subject is not so much the young woman wearing a green dress standing in the foreground. Instead, the subject is the city’s iconic pinnacle standing resolutely in the background, pointing toward the heavens in the glow of the light streaming from behind and set apart from the shadows of buildings that frame either side.
Yet she is there, the young dancer in the foreground of the photograph, the lower portions of her otherwise bare legs wrapped and cushioned in thick layers of stocking stuffed into the “buffalo” platform sandals so fashionable at the time. Her dress flows around her erect frame, its green fabric a complement to the orange and gold hues of the building behind her, her proud, straight stance a vertical parallel to the Empire State Building of which she appears so unaware. Tiny pops of green repeat in the background on a woman’s coat, on a car parked down the street.
The early morning light comes from behind, from middle to upper left in the photograph, bathing the foreground, the dancer and the building behind her in warm, buttery gold and orange hues, leaving pale touches of magenta on the otherwise gray sidewalk. In contrast, the natural sunlight reflects almost harshly off the windows of a building further down the street, orange light bursting from a ball of white. The framed artwork atop the foreground building gives nod to the new day as well – a child-like illustration of sun rising behind a tree at the top of a mountain. Light gently highlights golden window frames surrounding yellow bananas, reflects from the yellow doorframes that welcome the viewer to follow the light down the sidewalk, down the street to the pinnacle at its end. The repetition of horizontal lines in the brick, in the naked rows of fluorescent tubes that form a sort of musical staff above the dancer, in the rows of windows and the cracks of the sidewalks contrast with the vertical thrust of the city that grows up from beneath, all of it visually grounded by the silent young woman.
While everything appears to be pointed toward the icon that is almost suspended in the pale blue sky – the street, the sidewalk, a man walking away from the camera and toward the light ahead – the dancer faces away to the outside left of the frame. Her expression indicates she is waiting or searching, maybe both – perhaps for an elusive taxicab, perhaps for the friend she will meet for an early morning chat over coffee.
At first glance, one might assume “Young Dancer” is an example of Meyerowitz’s classic street photography made with a 35mm camera; however, this photo was made two years after his transition to and eight by 10-inch view camera. According to Meyerowitz in “Creating a Sense of Place (Photographers at Work)” , with the 35mm, “You hold a small camera in your hand, something happens in front of you, and click, you take a picture. A hand-held camera allows you to react in a split second.” The basic difference with the 8 by 10 was one of mechanics, he said, but it produced the color replication he sought.
“By using the view camera I gave up the instantaneous gestural response to things that I produced with the 35mm. But what I tried to bring to the 8 x 10 was the same sensation of immediacy. If I was struck by something, I tried to have the 8 x 10 camera ready to make a picture quickly. I felt I was bringing a street attitude to the 8 x 10,” Meyerowitz said.
“Young Dancer, 34th Street and 9th Ave., 1978” is part of the larger whole of Meyerowitz’s Empire State series. Meyerowitz was born in New York City in 1938 and continues to live there today. He said in “The Nature of Cities” that a “particular breed of photographer loves the theater of city streets. Think of the scale of this stage where human beings are seen against a backdrop of sixty-story skyscrapers! Nowhere is the human comedy more boldly visible than on the streets of New York City.”