Image via Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao
How to capture the dynamic energy of New York City in a single photograph? “Assembled Realities,” an upcoming exhibit of photographs by Taiwanese photographer Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao at the Museum of the City of New York does just that. Using different techniques and large format photography, Liao pushes the boundaries of the traditional artistic format to capture the city as it is actually viewed–by countless people, from all different perspectives. Telling The New York Times, “It’s not real, but your brain says it’s real. I am documenting a concept. It looks documentary. I love to see how an image can be seen on so many different levels by a viewer.”
When looking at Liao’s photographs, we are faced with the intensity of urbanism and the social implications of the city that could not be captured in any single-exposure shot. As The Museum of the City of New York explains,
Since 2004, Liao has carefully observed New York City neighborhoods, street corners, and human movement, scouting the perfect sites for his unconventional shoots. After selecting a location, Liao returns with a large-format film camera in tow, capturing multiple shots from the same viewpoint and photographing the changing human landscape and light conditions. He then uses digital technologies to transform these photographs into a single finished image—an enormous, detail-driven panorama of social or urban scenery. As a result, Liao’s photos of quintessential New York City areas, such as Citi Field, Green-Wood Cemetery, and Staten Island, emanate a visual sweep often associated with cinema, encompassing the viewer and providing a strong sense of place.
Liao moved from Taiwan to New York in 1999, where he got a B.F.A. in Photography from Pratt then an M.F.A. in Photography and Related Media from School of Visual Art. His thesis, “Habitat 7,” eventually grew into one of his most famous projects.
“Habitat 7” explores the NYC Subway 7 train that connects Manhattan to 7 Queens communities over 7 miles. While Liao also lives in this habitat, he is most fascinated by the way that entire communities relate to their environment.
Since his debut, he has continued to explore New York City, taking photographs in all five boroughs and capturing the city as the “constantly changing organism” that it is. He documents the city as a complex social landscape by shooting for long spans of time, then taking several days to digitally manipulate the material to create incredible composite panoramas.
By aggregating active people into the foreground and taking the focus off of the buildings in the background, Liao creates several layers of activity, with the population of New York City at the forefront. He does this by adding up selected elements of different exposures taken from the same place over several hours. Each person is selected with care; the diverse “creatures of the urban menagerie.”
Liao also manages to bring buildings to life, creating movement and energy from the relationship between buildings, lights, and the streets working together to celebrate the cityscape. His photography is more experiential than traditional documentary photography: Liao’s photographs show us the New York that we experience but could never be captured in a single exposure.
Assembled Realities will be at The Museum of the City of New York from October 15th, 2014 to February 15th, 2015. If you want to see more of Liao’s work, check out his new book Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao: New York published by Aperture (September 2014), which includes his work from the past 10 years.