Transmitter / Matthew Spiegelman / Reviewed by Robert Dunn

Photographs by Matthew Spiegelman
Skinnerboox, 2019
188 pages, 84 color plates
22.4 cm x 33 cm
Reviewed by Robert Dunn

So I’m at the New York Art Book Fair a month or so back, head spinning from all the books and people, when I pick up a good-sized green-covered book, with nice orange type, called Transmitter, by New York City–based photographer Matthew Spiegelman. A quick flip through it, as one does at a book fair, and … oh, it’s nice color shots of people sitting on a shore before blue-gray water, a cityscape in the background. Not exactly what interests me most, so I put it back, but something tugs at me and I pick it up again. Hmmm. I sense that something’s going on in this book, it’s kind of opening up right there in my hands, making me sense that there’s a lot more here than just random shots of people by the water.

This is not a common experience for me, a book immediately demanding more attention, promising riches not at first glance manifest. I’m intrigued. I end up with a copy of the book and a chance to review it here for one simple reason: I want to explore this curious sensation of a photobook insisting that I look at it more deeply—how that works, what the book means.

As mentioned above, Transmitter is comprised of shots taken alongside water, in this case New York City’s East River, near a small park at the end of Greenpoint Avenue in Brooklyn. It’s called Transmitter Park because it was the site of WNYC’s original AM transmitter, set up in 1935. The park was dedicated in 2012, and as I can attest, having stumbled on it once during a wander along the Greenpoint shorefront, it’s a lovely, calm green space in the middle of the crazy metropolis. The park is a place of retreat, contemplation. A spot of quiet beauty, especially when the light is of a certain quality. A place to read, catch up with a friend, gaze out at the cityscape, smoke a pipe, work out a long-brewing domestic situation, or simply re-express one’s love for one’s partner. At bottom, as Spiegelman’s book attests, Transmitter Park is a place to let one’s essential humanity beam its essences, in all their grace and complexity, into the world.

Which is what I think I was picking up on when I first held Transmitter. Its pictures radiate—okay, broadcast—a deep and true humanity.

Particularly strong in the book are the photos of couples deep in conversation. There are couples with pensive faces. A woman rests an open palm on her chest, as if she’s saying, “Really, it’ll be all right.” Two men at the end of a concrete jetty are talking, then embrace each other. A woman looks with love and joy at her male partner. Another man, brow creased, is most likely saying, “Wait, what the hell are you telling me?” A figure in a brown hat before a golden sunset stares at the water; then in the next picture, bows their head over a metal railing.

That’s Spiegelman’s intent here, and his gift: to capture portraits that are in effect pantomimes, their human meanings and emotions easily readable. And what a range of emotions we have: love, joy, calmness, consternation, yet most of all an expression of that deep solace we find next to water, nothing going on but stillness, growing and easing within us. Magical, rare moments.

What Spiegelman’s so good at in Transmitter is making everything so clear. We almost always know what’s happening, we can write the dialogue ourselves. Take the shot of a young guy in a razor-short haircut pulling on a joint. Next picture he’s holding the weed away from him, tilting his head back as his pal next to him looks to be firing up his own. You don’t have to be Raymond Carver to know he’s saying, “Nice shit we scored, eh?”

I invoke Raymond Carver purposefully, because in a way Transmitter is a book of short stories. I’m always beating the drum that great photobooks are a form of literature, and here we have as close to a collection of actual stories as I can think of, though in the way of all the best photobooks there’s no literal narrative at all. The emotions and drama fall between and around the actual photos and are all the more effective for that.

And sweet photographs they are. I mentioned a golden sunset before. Transmitter Park faces west, so you don’t have to get up at dawn to get great light. I think one of the reasons for my first—ehhh—response to Transmitter was that I saw nothing but pretty pictures. Golden sunsets, orange sunsets, blue sunsets. Faces strikingly silhouetted before lit-up water. Manhattan hovering dark and abstractly beyond it all. A pretty picture, which if that’s all a photo is, leaves me … okay, you have to understand, I just spent a day at something called PhotoPlus Expo at the Javits Center, a temple for the folk who pursue pretty pictures at all cost and end up squandering their kids’ college money on big, clunky lenses they don’t need and cameras priced as much as a used car … well, nuf sed. Spiegelman of course isn’t at bottom after pretty pictures (though I’ll admit their beauty doesn’t hurt) but stories like these, human stories. 

Though the photos were taken during 2015 and 2016, they’re not sequenced chronologically. Sequences appear to have something to do with the flow of time through the day, also color, and to some extent by the flow of visible emotions on the people captured by his camera. In any event, it works. The book is a pleasure to move through, and only gets richer the longer you spend with it.

And the title: perfect. If you go to the Google images page for Transmitter Park, you see clumps of people on greensward, the city and river distant in the background. Typically descriptive photos. (Not even PhotoPlus quality.) Look at them … then take in what the book Transmitter has accomplished. It’s not easy shooting parks, with people doing park things in them. Diane Arbus could find some curious souls in Central Park, and Garry Winogrand made a whole book out of taking his kids to the zoo there and in the Bronx, but for most people there’s too much space, too much green, too much everyday whateverness.

But Transmitter Park is special. Spiegelman knows it, and, better, he captures it. It may not be a Navajo burying ground or a spot from which the earth radiates spiritual energy, but it is the home of New York City’s first public radio station transmitter, a force that beamed voices and music over the great city and began to knit it together in a new way. Radio, like TV and the internet after it, was a new forum in history and thus a force for the expression of human possibility and complexity and drama and love.

Bravo to the city for sanctioning this special park and celebrating its place in our history. And bravo to Matthew Spiegelman for understanding how the ghost of those radio transmitters radiates its own special force, from which all the people in his powerful book express their own human complexity, possibility, drama, and love.

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