Assembled Realities
Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao at the Museum of the City of New York

Street photography for the 21st century: assembled together from hundreds of individual images, Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao’s hyperreal panoramas present the dynamic energy of New York. Deutsche Bank is sponsor to the exhibition, which is currently on view at the Museum of the City of New York.
I’ll never get any better—this was the sobering realization that came over Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao during his internship at the Magnum photo agency. It was here that he was able to study classic works of documentary photography by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bruce Davidson and discovered that the quality of these works could never be surpassed. But Liao refused to let himself be discouraged; on the contrary. Over the next several years, he developed a highly unique aesthetic and working method—a high-tech version of classic street and city photography.

He was particularly inspired by two art photographers, each of whom explore the uncertain terrain between fact and fiction in their own unique way: Gregory Crewdson, who creates surreal, cinematic, elaborately orchestrated tableaus, and Andreas Gursky, the master of the large-format image in sharp focus. His visit to Gursky’s retrospective at the MoMA in 2001 was a transformative experience for Liao. The highly detailed, wall-sized works presented the phenomena of globalized mass society—and yet these images of stock exchanges, raves, and densely packed supermarket shelves are not documentary in a classic sense. While they are based on reality, Gursky reworks his pictures on the computer, merging several views of the same motif to create a single image. Everything seems larger than life, every last corner of the picture is in sharp focus—Gursky’s works show more than the human eye is capable of seeing. Liao would later pursue a similar strategy with his New York panoramas.

The first project in which the young photographer combined a documentary approach with digital imaging was his degree work at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He found his theme right outside his front door: Liao had been living in Queens since 1999. After growing up in Taiwan, he moved at the age of 18 to what he calls the “most diverse area on earth.  There are more than150 languages spoken in this area. Every ethnic immigrant brings their own culture to Queens and helps to create this vivid social landscape.” Habitat 7 is the name he gave to the series, which he worked on from 2004 to 2006. He took the photographs along the 7 subway line, which connects Queens and Times Square in Manhattan, riding the so-called “International Express” almost every day into town: observing the stores, restaurants, and workshops from the windows of the elevated train, small businesses run by people from all around the world. “I’ve come to see the 7 train as a habitat of these immigrant settlers who pursue the typical ‘American dream’ while upholding their ethnic traditions.”

One of his “social studies,” as he calls these large-scale works, shows the crossing at Roosevelt Avenue and 69th Street. Each detail can be clearly seen: the Philippine flag waving over Krystal’s Cafe & Pastry Shop, the notes Krystal has taped to the plate-glass window in search of a “Filipino Cook” and a “Cake Decorator,” ads for the Glamour Unisex Hair Salon. A homeless man can be seen inspecting a garbage bin; there are cars, passersby, people waiting—scenes of everyday life in Woodside, a neighborhood that mostly Irish people used to live in. Over the past years, a “Little Manila” has cropped up here, and Philippine immigrants dominate the street scene. 69th Street, Woodside, Queens from the Deutsche Bank Collection is typical for Habitat 7. Liao photographed the scene from a distance similar to the full shot in a movie. Instead of concentrating on individual protagonists, with the street itself no more than a kind of backdrop, he shows people in their social context. Liao’s panoramas distill the dense impression of a place’s atmosphere into a tableau in which the eye can wander quietly from one detail to the next.

His working method is the exact antithesis of spontaneous street photography. Before he shoots a motif, he immerses himself in the situation on site—becoming deeply familiar with the people passing by, the architecture, the quality of the light. Then he arrives with his 8 x 10 large-format camera, tripod, and film—his equipment weighs in at 50 pounds. He separates each motif into three segments and takes up to ten separate shots of each. He then scans the negatives and joins them together on the computer to create a panoramic view. Work on each image can take up to two weeks.

These are fragments of the visible world that Liao then blends together, and indeed, Assembled Realities is the title of the first major exhibition of his New York works. Now, in the Deutsche Bank-sponsored show at the Museum of the City of New York, over forty of these large formats from the last ten years can be seen. Assembled Realities is like an expedition through all five boroughs of New York—with stops along the way at attractions such as the Flatiron Building, Shea Stadium, and Nathan’s, Coney Island’s famous hotdog shop. You can take a trip on the Staten Island Ferry or enjoy magnificent skyline views of Manhattan and the Art Déco buildings along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Between the high-gloss reflective facades of skyscrapers and the bright, colorful storefront windows and signs, the historical subway station at 72nd Street looks out of place—like a foreign body, an almost absurd relic of former times.

Walking through the exhibition, one thing becomes evident: the unreal character of Liao’s images is on the increase—particularly since he began working with a digital camera: “Since 2010, I have been trying to explore new possibilities in photography by constructing several dozen frames of captures, sometimes a few hundred frames to make a photograph. I also play with selective focus, and so my newer works have this softness and sharpness, warm and cold balance.” Like a painter, he pieces together the various different pictorial elements to convey his own personal impression of the respective motif.

With his panoramas, Liao succeeds in capturing in images the entire dynamic of the city that never sleeps. And its transformation, too: Shea Stadium, where the New York Mets played their home games until 2008, has since been torn down and replaced by the Citi Field. And he also, of course, documented the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. Parallel to the exhibition is the publication of his new book, simply titled New York, which also provides an overview of his work. And so now it’s time for something new. His next project is already underway—Liao is currently photographing the nighttime markets of Southeast Asia. Their overabundance of booths, goods, ads, and people pressing through the narrow lanes forms an ideal subject for Liao. And perhaps, after all these years in New York, he has just the right degree of distance necessary to capture this visual chaos and record it in pictures.
Achim Drucks

Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao's New York:
Assembled Realities

15/10/2014 – 15/2/2015
Museum of the City of New York