Walking into the (Art)Amalgamated Gallery in Chelsea for the opening of Flying Point Beach: Photographs by John Jonas Gruen and Artwork of The New York School, I felt ready to usher in the summer. Outside, the air was warm and breezy. New Yorkers wearing white and navy blue gathered around the gallery’s entrance on 10th Avenue. It seemed that we could feel the changing of the seasons in the air, ready for spring to melt away into hot summer nights.

Inside, the grainy black and white photographs of smiling people on the beach made us dreamy. Was it the backdrop, the colors, the glamorous yet nonchalant people that made us want to drift off to the idyllic seaside? There’s something undeniably alluring about the aged quality of the photos. In our modern times of digital photography, where colors are shockingly bright and airbrushing is ubiquitous, there’s something refreshing about the slight graininess of film photography and the simplicity of a black and white palette.

The photographs in this exhibition were taken in the 1950s and ’60s, at the point when Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art were gaining importance, and they tell a story about that time. Gruen and his wife Jane Wilson hosted parties at their home in the Hamptons for their artistically minded friends, including pioneers like Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns and Frank O’Hara. Drawings and paintings by some of the artists are featured next to Gruen’s portraits of them. In one photo, De Kooning stands prophet-like on the sand with a walking stick in hand. In another photo, Johns smiles into the camera for a close-up, his hair wet and slightly disheveled. Individual portraits show people paused in the moment, frozen in time. The photographs seem to be somewhere between candid and posed, as if the subjects were interrupted in the midst of sunbathing or reading a book. They look like they’re aware of the camera and the photographer, but natural, not self-conscious. It’s a refreshing type of relationship between the subjects and the camera.

The nonchalant attitude of the subjects toward the camera gives the photographs a refreshing sense of realism. The exhibition is a lovely contrast to the type of hyper-commercialized photography we’re exposed to on billboards outside on the street. Moreover, it’s a contrast to the type of self aware and self-conscious photos we take on our ipods, destined for immediate dissemination on Facebook and other social media sites. We’re so concerned with looking good that we forget to look natural. Gruen’s portraits remind us that natural is good.

Flying Point Beach: The Photographs of John Jonas Gruen and Artwork of The New York School
317 10th Avenue (at 28th Street)
May 17 to June 9, 2012