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Its impressive facade may be curtained by scaffolding, but the lions Patience and Fortitude still keep vigil over Fifth Avenue from the entrance of New York Public Library; and the building’s Beaux Arts interiors remain as captivating as ever. Not least the second-floor exhibition space, which is currently host to an exhibition of photography collected by the Library over the past three decades.

In setting the scene for the collection, the curators quote Henri Cartier-Bresson:

Cartier-Bresson compared portraits to a visual reverberation, in which “the people come back to you like a silent echo. A photograph is a vestige of a face, a face in transit.” His definition of portraiture (appealing to themes of recall, repetition, and return) also applies more generally to photography itself, describing a medium that has been repeatedly renegotiated over its short history, whether in terms of mechanical reproduction, documentary evidence, or as an independent art…

Recollection: Thirty Years of Photography at the New York Public Library runs until January 2, 2011. It’s not a huge exhibition but it’s thoughtfully curated for maximum bang-for-your-photographic-buck… Clearly there was a treasure trove of work from which to draw. 500,000 images from 6,000 photographers, to be exact. And alongside marquee names like Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon, imagine the thrill of nationalistic pride I felt to see an image from Australian photojournalist Stephen Dupont.

Dupont’s work has hung here before – on my last trip to New York the library was showing a collection of his work from Afghanistan. But he’s in such good company here – a photograph from his portfolio Guns & Arrows (documenting violence among Papua New Guinea’s Raskol gangs) is hung between a 1954 William Klein shot of a snarling youth, his toy pistol barrelling down the lens (“Boy With Pistol, Upper Broadway” from the portfolio New York 54/55); and Robert Capa’s 1940s shot of German troops on lookout. I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that Australian photojournalists punch well about their weight internationally, and here is wonderful proof.

Visual and thematic echoes link the photographs of Recollection as you pass. Norman Mailer’s grasped tumbler a blur in an otherwise serene, suited portrait…. next to him, a smoking, disaffected teen in an almost identical pose. Men pose with dogs at their feet; women are captured with children at their skirts, with cats, even chickens. High fashion hats and capes next to figures funereally shrouded. So many moments framed in black and white, reminding us of photography’s power to render the highs and lows of universal human experience. The images of Recollection capture poses and looks and emotions that transcend class, race, space and time.

You can experience the NYPL’s photographic collection online here. Or, if you’re lucky enough to get there in the flesh, you might also want to check out Pictures By Women: A History of Modern Photography at MoMA.

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