April 23, 2015

An Immigrant Walking: On the Stunning NYT Magazine / JR Cover

How can you call an image subtle when it’s 150 feet long, takes up an entire square in NYC and graces the cover of the NYT Magazine?

You can when the portrait by the photo-activist JR, of an immigrant from Azerbaijan walking the streets of NY, merely serves as the cover illustration of a crowdsourced Times interactive mapping New Yorkers’ favorite walks. Here’s what we know of the backstory and this immigrant, Elmar, from JR’s FB post about a project that has been, yes, kept well under wraps). He writes:

Last month the New York Times Magazine @nytimes reached out to me to think about a project together… I told them I have been working for a year on Immigration and I would love to continue what I started on Ellis Island in the city. So, we started looking for people who arrived less than a year ago. We chose 15 coming from all over the world. I photographed them walking in the city … all of them completely unknown… living in the shadows of the city and learning English slowly. We pasted Elmar, 20 years old who came from Azerbaijan, on the floor of Flat Iron Plaza in New York City. The image was 150 feet high. People walked on him all day and no one really noticed him… Today he is on the cover of the NYtimes magazine that comes out this Sunday on paper… while everyone else is in the shadow….

It’s interesting JR refers to Elmar as 150 feet high when he’s really flat. The way media, including editorial photography, is starting to challenge us both more artistically and perceptually, it’s prompts us to toggle in our minds, as we read the image, between a vertical/upright and a birds-eye view. You could say that it’s also terribly fitting that Elmar, the anonymous immigrant, would remain largely so, serving as one of news publishing’s largest lead-ins, the cover for a project dedicated (as much as we know at mid-week) to the city’s more upwardly mobile, to the people — consistent with the NYT demographic, I assume — who can really pleasure in, and also socially map a stroll. That said, however, there’s Elmar, as large a face of New York as immigrants are and have always been. And if JR and the Magazine have pulled off a gargantuan feat, establishing the most profound balance between presence and anonymity, it’s also telling, as JR makes reference to it, that our young friend on-the-move — getting walked on, yes, but only by ants — is the only one beyond the shadows.

More links: the Vine of Elmar’s construction; Behind the Making of Our Walking New York Cover; Globetrotters slideshow; and a post on JR’s 2014 Ellis Island installation., 12.)

(photo: TBD, though I’m wondering if JR took the picture also because he’s up there a lot – 1, 2.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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