Seeing is art for Leo Hurwitz. He sees what others refuse to see. What we see in Light and the City is a piece of this art. And, Leo never turns away from truths that need to reach the light of day. In The Art Of Seeing Series, we are once again privy to the depth of Leo’s capacity to see; how his carefully trained eyes become a sensitive witness to the details of daily life. Leo Hurwitz is a master at candidly capturing people and their surroundings. The question is: how many of us go about our lives in a state of oblivion; too caught up in the immediacy of our narrowed focus to look very far beyond? How much do we really see?
Light And The City (Watch Film), the second film in Leo Hurwitz and Peggy Lawson’s The Art Of Seeing series, filmed between 1968 and 1970, takes place inside the hustling, buzzing life of New York City’s Manhattan. Most of those captured by Leo’s camera are going about their everyday activities just as unaware of their familiar environment as they are of being seen. But we, the viewers of Leo Hurwitz’s work, are offered a chance to shake off our preoccupations, sit back, relax, and take a closer look.
Sit Back, Look, Listen
Sit back, look, and listen closely, I tell myself, as Light And The City begins with the contemporary sounds of the late 1960s. I hear Country Joe and The Fish and Charlie Musselwhite – courtesy of music consultations with the, then, 23-year-old Tom Hurwitz, Leo’s son. Narrated only by music and images, this is a film to be absorbed through our senses.
There is much to be discovered in the most ordinary moments of life; that is if we stop long enough to look. So, get ready. Variations of light in the city will illuminate our way.
Light and the City
As the film reel for Light in the City starts to roll, we are in the middle of a commonplace big city event: rush hour on the turnpike, cars stalled in a traffic jam. I know those bumper-to-bumper drives all too well and I avoid them if I can. Traffic in Los Angeles or New York City is nobody’s dream.
Yet, look. A young girl in a pink blouse drives with her window open; blonde hair tied back so as not to blow wildly in the wind. Her face has an ease I usually don’t feel when stuck behind slowly moving cars. She, though, isn’t caught up in any could-be frustrations. It’s a summer day and the music (a kind of jazzy rock) is as happening and upbeat as the city life all around us. We move with her through the Holland Tunnel. A large pink/red “A” flashes ahead. The end of the tunnel is near.
We emerge into light and are now out on a city street. A woman’s left foot takes its first step off the curb, as the WALK sign flashes a signal that it’s safe to cross the street. The city is crowded with people in various styles of dress and Leo’s camera flashes on shoes, feet, people walking. Going somewhere. The DON’T WALK sign appears and the camera pans upwards to the faces of people wearing those shoes, their faces waiting, to continue on.
A woman with dark hair and black sunglasses turns towards the camera. Her shoulders slightly startle, her face shows more than just a hint of annoyance at a camera’s intrusion into her private world. She doesn’t like being seen. Some people don’t. But, for the most part, no one notices. The city is there for the camera’s taking.
The pink “A” turns to a green “A.” Stop. Now, Go. It’s a sunny day. The music joins its liveliness with people who walk in confident, jaunty steps, engaged in their busy lives.
A mother pushes her baby in a stroller; this baby, remarkably alert, eyes fixed on the world and a city; his city, busy with people. He owns what he sees; he explores it all, with his eyes. Maybe we can do the same if we look through the lens of Leo’s camera.
A bus pulls up. Two women, stylishly dressed, standing together on a curb waiting, get on. This is city life and public transportation in 1970. The bus moves forward out of the way, and we see, revealed, two small boys holding tight to their balloons. They won’t let them fly, out of reach, high into the sky.
We all want something. Bus windows pass us, one by one. Within each, passengers are framed, ready for their next stops.
Go From Place To Place
Moving along, we stop at an intersection. The first bus merges with many other buses, each going a different direction to various parts of the city, just as each of us is caught up in the demands of a very individual life. People get on, others disembark, a siren wails, cars pass – a VW bug, a red truck. People do their jobs; they go places.
It’s the late 1960’s almost ‘70, before 9/11, before Al Qaida, before Isis, before Trump, before North Korea’s threats. Safe Trucking Company, Inc., with its hazard lights blinking, is blithely unloading its wares. Today is a day without worries. The music is jazzy, jaunty, soaring. Streetlights blink, nearing the end of the day.
A plant’s green leaves peek out from a New York City rooftop – a token of nature in the midst of concrete and metal and graffiti-covered walls. Oxygen, a deep breathe – a small bit of peace.
Did We Miss Something?
We are up there on the rooftop as the sun sets, looking down on an almost empty sidewalk. A woman walks her dog. The music mellows, slowing, as people and the city settle into night. A foghorn sounds in the distance. Birds forming a V move across the sky. This busy, noisy, active city quiets down; darkens, as the sun disappears from the sky, and shadowy/grey clouds move into its place.
Traffic travels leisurely across city bridges, connecting all parts of this metropolis. A workman’s hand adjusts a pink/red traffic light. Ready. Rush hour is over; people no longer hurry. The city’s activities slow to a stop.
Through Leo’s camera’s eyes, we look out on the New York City skyline, darkened now by night. We see no lights anywhere, not in the windows of the skyscraping buildings, or even the headlights of cars. The city and its people are asleep.
Soon, Another Day
But, soon, another day will start – signaled by a flashing red/pink light on top of the Squibb building: 6:40 AM. A foghorn blows and birds chirp. The lights of an awakening sky ripple on the water.
If we missed something yesterday, we have another chance to look.
Cars honk; lights slowly come on in windows here and there in city buildings; boats move out into the water. The sky turns pink as we watch a city beginning to wake. The sun is now a huge ball of fire and light against the skyline.
Our music quickens to a livelier beat, slow jazz. We’re easing into a new day with Light And The City’s last image – a European brown bear at the zoo. The bear is caged; we aren’t. If we keep our eyes open, what might we see next?