A Jeff Mermelstein photograph can read like a Greek tragedy or a bland admission; the cooling embers of a relationship or turbo-charged clandestine lust. Death, life, work, family, politics, supermarket shopping lists and big city ennui all snapped on an iPhone. A roving eye capturing the text messages of New York city. He’s the guy who photographs other people’s phones.
You’ve probably seen his work on Instagram.
Over the course of several years, Mermelstein has stalked the Big Apple in search of its denizen's absent-minded texters, to distill the human condition down to a seven-inch screen, flitting thumbs and what we share when no one is watching. Except someone is. In a new book titled #nyc, he has compiled a body of work that is as much a tragicomic epistolary as it is a landmark street photography series. The book's pages are coloured a uniform bright blue, to imitate the backlit screen of a mobile phone.
“The project came about while I was in the midst of enjoying using an iPhone on the street, having primarily used a Leica film camera in the past," says Mermelstein over the phone from his home in New York. "It [the iPhone] really was a significant ingredient to how I got to the point of making photos of texts on phone screens."
Mermelstein recalls, a couple of years ago, seeing a woman on her phone, standing outside of a cafe and feeling compelled to photograph her screen. "It was without any kind of pre-visualisation or idea or thought, but I just wanted to, and so I went and made a quick photo of her screen. It was a Google search, but from that picture a door opened to a world that I hadn’t considered before, one that I felt would be telling and interesting."
For some inside the photography community, the use of a smart phone camera might be viewed as unrefined, but for Mermelstein, it was a revelation. "I’m sure it will be frowned upon by some, anyone is entitled to frown," he says. "It’s not even that I don’t care, it’s just that it has nothing to do with me or my interests. I find that the phone camera is revolutionary and for me, my engagement with the phone came at a particular time that was just right. It happens to us with all kinds of chapters in our lives.
"Having come across the phone camera it really propelled quite a vigorous, obsessive engagement. The phone camera, in my mind, reinvents or enables the reinvention or notion of the snapshot."
As with many 'firsts' in the art world, Mermelstein's revelatory images of embarrassing, earnest and lurid text messages come with an ethical question mark, namely: is it ok to take photos of people's phones without them knowing, or giving permission?
"I was very careful to maintain anonymity in the context of the texts," he says. "It was quite a considerable ball to juggle, along with the other considerable balls to juggle, but because of the anonymity and also because of the making of the work, I think, or at least I hope, it tells us something about ourselves."
He also raises an interesting point around perception. The very medium of photography, especially street photography, wouldn't exist without spontaneous, candid imagery: Cartier-Bresson, Capa, Lange, Frank, Eggleston, Meyerowitz and Moriyama; all photographers whose work, for the most part, captures people in public spaces without express permission. #nyc and nascent internet fame aside, Mermelstein is a world-renowned street photographer with an eye for the incongruous. He might be best known on Instagram for his phone pictures, but his body of work spans decades.
What, he posits, is the difference between taking a photo of someone's face or their phone screen?
"I was caught taking some photos," Mermelstein says, "but I’ve been taking photographs on the street for very many years. You stand in front of a person depicting them facially and bodily, without asking permission to do so. Over the many years I’ve had significant problems taking those kinds of pictures, so I have a little hindsight now when it comes to taking pictures without asking permission, which is mostly my approach."
When there are eight million people, with their eager thumbs and drama: petty, seismic and every size in between, how do you know when to finish a project? How many texts are enough? For the book, Mermelstein compiled more than 1,200 messages, eventually whittling that number down to around the 150 mark which made the final edit.
"I’m a 'can’t help myself' kind of photographer," he says. "I can’t help myself wanting one more, but there was a particular time that I knew I had a body of work that could be made into a book. With #nyc, one of the exciting thing, and there are many, was that I was taking photos right up to the onset of the Covid scenario. So even though 95 per cent of it was in place, I kept on adding."
The text message used for the cover of #nyc captures the essence of the project: elegaic, strange, unreserved. A darkened right thumb hovers over the qwerty keyboard, while the pale light of the screen reads, "That time in my life left a lasting impression in so many ways. And believe me, if we could have kept all of that private." A suggestion of things that have passed and things to come. How life is logged on a smartphone.
"I think what I learned from all of this is in flux and will remain in flux," says Mermelstein of concluding the project. "I believe the human condition, at least with the barometer of New York city, is quite messy, quite zany, quite surprising, quite interrelated and it ranges from all the ordinary or regular states of humanness to the bizarre."
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