“The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.”
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
From poet Walt Whitman to activist Jane Jacobs to fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, New Yorkers have celebrated their streets as a place to meet, gather, gawk, eat, occupy, walk, play, dress, bicycle, perform, sleep, and just about every other activity under the sun.
Except work. As Dr. Marcus Reidenberg noticed a few years back, the streets of New York are filled with workers — selling food and newspapers, constructing buildings, repairing potholes, delivering packages, and cleaning up after the rest of us — yet often, “in their ubiquity,” these workers are simply ignored. Dr. Reidenberg, a professor of Pharmacology, Medicine, and Public Health at Weil Cornell Medical College, and an accomplished amateur photographer, set out to remedy this oversight with a series of photographic portraits.
Reidenberg drew inspiration from two early photographers: the Frenchman Eugene Atget, who photographed working people in the streets of Paris over a century ago, and British photographer John Thomson, whose images of flower sellers, chimney-sweeps, shoe blacks, musicians, peddlers, and other London street workers were published in the 1876 book Victorian London Street Life. “The trades may be different from those of the 19th century,” Dr. Reidenberg notes, but they do “still exist.” Indeed, his pictures of construction workers, cab drivers, trash collectors, police officers, street sweepers, newspaper hawkers, delivery people, and food vendors reveal a surprising continuity in street professions over the past 150 years.
Like his predecessors, Reidenberg sought to capture the dignity of people “working at what they can do.” He was also struck by the creative ways street workers found to express themselves — in particular, with the hard hats of construction workers. Intrigued by the variety of stickers and slogans the workers affixed to their hats, Reidenberg embarked on a new project focused solely on this personalized and highly individual head gear. These images, featured in the New York Times, “communicate the voice of the American worker in stickers.”
Currently 80 years old and still a worker himself — both indoors as a physician and on the street as a photographer — Dr. Reidenberg has generously donated a number of his images to the New-York Historical Society, along with his two privately printed publications, Street Trades, Then and Now and Hard Hats. “They have earned our notice,” he says of his subjects; we hope his images will bring New York’s street workers the attention they deserve.