Exhibition dates: 14th November 2008 – 12th April 2009
Gelatin silver print
“Documenting the abandoned, burnt out, and razed structures of entire city blocks in the South Bronx in the aftermath of the 1970s, during which this neighborhood experienced dramatic decline, Broken Glass: Photographs of the South Bronx by Ray Mortenson will be on view at the Museum of the City of New York from November 14, 2008 through March 9, 2009. The 50 black and white cityscapes and interiors on view – five of which are large-scale – were taken between 1982 and 1984, and they vividly illustrate the results of a downslide that began in the Great Depression of the 1930s and accelerated with the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway in the 1950s and the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. Broken Glass is Mortenson’s first museum exhibition in New York City, and it is the first presentation of the South Bronx photographs.
The 50 photographs on view, all black and white, range in size from the smallest at approximately 11″ by 14″, to the most monumental at 40” by 60”. Each conveys a devastating silence, serving as a reminder that these city blocks were once the homes of individuals, families, and a large community. Mortenson has written, “The buildings were like tombs – sealed up, broken open and plundered. Inside, stairways with missing steps led up to abandoned apartments. Doors opened into rooms that were once bedrooms or kitchens. Small things left behind hint at who the occupants might have been – a hairbrush, photographs, or bits of clothing.” Ghostly remnants of the once prosperous and thriving neighborhoods can be glimpsed in his images which document the extent and severity of the urban decline experienced in the South Bronx.
These photographs document an important chapter in the history of a New York City neighborhood, augmenting their aesthetic power. The decline of the South Bronx began as early as the Great Depression when previously sustained development came to an abrupt halt. After World War II an exodus of New York’s middle class began and continued into the 1970s. This caused a population decline throughout the city, but the effects were particularly hard on the South Bronx as more than 200,000 residents left the community between 1970 and 1980. As entire communities left the city, Robert Moses’ road building and slum clearance, along with other urban renewal initiatives had dramatic effects on the lives of all who remained. In the 1970s New York City faced another economic crisis and virtual bankruptcy. City government was unable to maintain services in the South Bronx and “planned shrinkage” became an unofficial policy as services were slowly withdrawn. With little incentive for landlords to upgrade or even maintain their property, waves of arson and “insurance fires” decimated the by now largely minority community. Astonishingly, some 12,000 fires a year occurred through the 1970s, averaging more than 30 a day.
A successful resurrection of the South Bronx began in the mid-1980s, as grass roots organizations and community development corporations, along with financial reinvestment by the City, sparked its regeneration. The photographs on view stand in starkest contrast to today’s revitalized neighborhood, which has been the result of the dedication of its citizens combined with government support. The photographs serve as a reminder of the ruins that once dominated the now-vibrant streets and that the balance between prosperity and urban decline can be fragile.
Ray Mortenson was born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1944 and studied art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the San Francisco Art Institute. In the early 1970s, Mortenson moved to New York and began working with photography. His first significant photographic project was a comprehensive investigation of the industrial landscapes of New Jersey’s Meadowlands (1974-1982). Since then, Mortensen has continued to focus on landscape photography that is often interested in liminal places of transition, set apart from everyday life. His photographs have been accepted into the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.”
Press release from the Museum of the City of New York website
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