DPP Home Profiles Jeff Liao - Broadway To Queens

Friday, June 15, 2007

Jeff Liao - Broadway To Queens

Jeff Liao's remarkable exhibition, Habitat 7, takes ­us on a visual journey through the diversity of humanity that comprises the fabric of America

The 8x10 Kodak view camera and the accompanying gear Liao carries weigh half as much as he does, and they're twice his age. Working without an assistant, he climbs to building tops, perches on ledges and stands with his back unprotected in the streets of New York. He then works with Photoshop alone in his apartment, dedicating at least 60 hours to perfect each image, before outputting his work on an Epson printer, often exceeding dimensions of 4x10 feet. His expansive panoramas make patterns from the cityscapes and the people moving through them, bringing order to the visual chaos and filling spaces with finely focused detail that literally draws us in to them.

Liao's images demand that we pause to read them, and once we enter his frames, we discover details the eye couldn't possibly have identified had he used a small-format camera. We experience the day's light as it changes during the hours Liao shoots the frames that will ultimately make up a single panoramic photograph. If we give ourselves time, we can find hundreds of random motions and movements that Liao has ordered into a single, completed panorama.

Take The 7 Train

Beginning in 1999, Liao rode the No. 7 line—with passengers who originate from more than 150 distinct cultures, it's called The International Express by the Department of City Planning—from Manhattan to Flushing, Queens. As the train clattered and jolted along its route, Liao had ample time to observe the people who rode with him. They were commuters of every conceivable nationality, all part of the same moving force powering the No. 7 train, which in turn, moved humanity from home to work and then home again.

Like a winding river connecting disparate cultures, the train nurtures each community with its rich source of humanity, as it rumbles through the city, above the streets and cars. And the people—Liao has cast them in his final single-frame movie—move through their days, crowding the city as pedestrians, policemen, fishmongers, salesmen, schoolchildren. It struck Liao that every morning on his way to work in New York, he was part of a large, moving flow of humanity, all weaving through America to chase their version of the American dream. As it hurtled into Manhattan with its travelers on board, the train connected cultures, feeding the communities, unique, apart from everything else, but more importantly, a part of the powerful whole of America.

On several occasions, Liao walked the train's route from midtown Manhattan to Queens, speaking to residents, learning each neighborhood's pace and schedule. What time did school recess? When did the fishmongers begin working in their markets? Where did the graffiti artists hide in plain sight to create the constantly changing galleries of the neighborhoods? Finding the scene with the right combination of buildings as well as humanity, Liao set his tripod down and, over a period of many hours, made many transparencies, carefully angling his large lens to include every detail of his story.

Angle, light, perspective, sharpness—moving objects and people from one scene to assemble them into a believable harmonious image, Liao often feels more like a painter than a photographer. Ultimately, the picture is about the people, living and moving through their environment—the people under the tracks and on the train, moving to the rhythm of the city, making a new rhythm of their own.


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