Once Upon a Time in New York
Featuring an array of photographs taken in New York spanning from the 1940s to the 1970s, David Vestal: Once Upon a Time in New York offers the opportunity to consider this under-appreciated master in greater detail. Learning the idiom of photography through the Photo League, where he was a member and befriended Sid Grossman, Vestal developed a distinctive approach outside the general doctrine associated with that group, generally eschewing the photographic essay in favor of single images that could stand on their aesthetic qualities alone. With an outstanding flare for the atmospheric, Vestal's photographs from this era place him in dialogue with luminaries such as Robert Frank, Aaron Siskind, and Berenice Abbott.
A flâneur of postwar New York, Vestal trains his lens on lone figures in the urban landscape, captured within the atmospheric plays of light. Framed by the severe geometries of city and the photographer's often acute angles, such images balance film noir's cinematic suggestiveness with an iconic appreciation of the organic pulse of the city, especially seen at night. Vestal's is a world as seen from loft windows and alleyways, fire escapes and crosswalks. Such scenes are further mediated by the artists masterful handling of sumptuous prints — spectacular objects in their own right, and skillful evocations of a particular time in New York.
David Vestal was born in Menlo Park, California in 1924. Once Upon a Time in New York is his third solo exhibition with Robert Mann Gallery. In addition to his photographs, he is a respected critic, educator, and the author of influential books on the craft of photography and black and white printing. He was the recipient of John Simon Guggenheim Fellowships in 1966 and 1973. He continues to regularly lecture and present at workshops around the country. His photographs are included in significant public collections including the Whitney Museum of America Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, among many others.
The Wall Street Journal
November 20, 2010
The title page of Jane Livingston's authoritative history "The New York School: Photographs 1936-1963" is printed over a double-spread picture of the Empire State Building at night. The dense night sky takes up most of the image, some unidentified structures are seen in silhouette at the sides, and the raked top of the skyscraper pokes upward, the light from its tower a white mass projected onto the sky. David Vestal (born 1924) took the picture in 1960. He is one of the least known of the 16 photographers Ms. Livingston discusses, so this exhibition is a welcome treat.
Like others in the New York School, his work tends to be grainy ("Dead Flowers in Glass on Back Window, 77 East 10th Street, NYC, 1952"), sometimes out of focus ("IND Fifth Avenue Subway Station, NYC, 12/1958"), and redolent of the existential sense of loneliness that suffused the city then ("Man Walking Under Neon Sign, West 22nd Street, NYC 1958" and "Self in Raincoat, 14th Street, NYC, 1952"). All the pictures evince great affection for the city that is their backdrop.
Mr. Vestal is a poet of inclement weather. Several of his pictures were taken in the rain: "Man with Umbrella, Rain Puddle, from Above, 11 West 22nd Street, NYC, 8/1960" and "Heavy Rain on Roofs Across Street from 77 East 10th Street, 1949." Several were taken in the snow: "West 22nd Street, Falling Snow, NYC, 3/1958" and "Falling Snow from Back Window, 133 West 22nd Street, NYC, 3/1958." The grain, the blur, the precipitation: They all work together.
The New Yorker
November 22, 2010
As one of the lesser-known figures in photography's New York school, Vestal remains in the shadow of the others (notably Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, and Saul Leiter), but this choice group of intimately scaled black-and-white pictures nudges him firmly back into the light. Made primarily in the nineteen-fifties and sixties on downtown streets, the work is poetic and atmospheric — a series of quick glances at people seen in passing, often from above, as well as more contemplative views of dead flowers on a windowsill and neighboring rooftops in the snow. Vestal's reticence, and his tendency to keep subjects at a distance, draws us in like a confiding whisper.