On Tuesday, The New Yorker posted a new Vinson Cunningham piece called “Humans of New York And The Cavalier Consumption of Others.” In it, Cunningham criticizes—in one of my favorite turns-of-phrase this week–the “slow but certain lexical refashioning” of story:

Once an arrangement of events, real or invented, organized with the intent of placing a dagger—artistic, intellectual, moral—between the ribs of a listener or reader, a story has lately become a glossier, less thrilling thing: a burst of pathos, a revelation without a veil to pull away.

Cunningham targets the Humans of New York (HONY) blog/facebook/book, and zooms out to discuss Jacob Riis’s photos of NYC squalor in the late 19th century, and Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White’s “You Have Seen Their Faces,” a book of photography and corresponding captions regarding the South during the Great Depression. He’s lukewarm on Humans of New York! And people on Facebook don’t like that he’s lukewarm on it.

HONY discomforts me, in a way. The easy explanation is that I think it’s exploitative or misguided in its approach to q&a portraiture (i.e. Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind HONY, took a Halloween portrait of someone in a fucking cool tree bark elemental shaman costume and then asked, “What do you feel most guilty about?” which is only slightly less inane than asking someone in a costume, “So what are you really hiding?”) What I love about art—its interrogations, its nuance, how the audience can claim as much ownership over a story as the artist—is hard to place on the internet, and especially on Facebook, which trades in a kind of imperturbable earnestness. After a while I couldn’t follow the HONY page any longer, not with its breathless, decontextualized captions, and not with how I felt after reading: syrupy or artless, like I’d eaten a plate of waffles topped with potato chips. (Maybe that’s an ingrained cynicism of mine? Maybe I need to figure that out? I don’t know—I’m working on it!)

The shorter captions of HONY are more interesting to me; what’s left out of a person’s self-told story is always going to be more interesting to me. Cunningham again:

The best hints in “Stories” of actual life in New York come despite Stanton’s stage directions. A pair of kids, two hundred pages apart, wear identical orange ties and blue sweaters, testimony to the growing power, even sartorial, of Eva Moskowitz, the C.E.O. of Success Academy. A man in a rare uncaptioned photo sleeps on a subway platform, splayed out like a starfish, performing that most basic of urban imperatives: claiming space. Olmsted and Vaux haunt the proceedings via walls, walkways, treescapes. Robert Moses peeks out from the project windows behind Vidal. That these details—secondary, at best, to the stated purposes of “Stories”—survive, and manage to give the book a hidden, beautiful core, is a sign of Stanton’s real (and clearly growing) ability as a portraitist and poser of people. It also confirms a fact that seems to escape Stanton: that the truest thing about a person, that person’s real story, is just as often the thing withheld—the silent thing—as the thing offered.

Cunningham likes the nuances that appear in certain portraits, and the small imperfections—the human stuff—of Humans of New York, and not the offered answers “before the questions have a chance to settle.” I think I’m in that camp. HONY blipped on my radar again most recently because of its work with Mott Hall Bridges Academy resulting from the portrait of one of its students. It led to a successful crowdfunding campaign for the school and a trip to the White House, and it showed HONY’s talent for an extended artistic depth, instead of the soundbites or the one-a-day Facebook digestibles. Its work on Iran is interesting, but the whole enterprise would need a rebranding if it stopped mining NYC.

Anyway I recommend “Humans of New York And The Cavalier Consumption of Others.”

And also I recommend Vinson Cunningham’s brilliant McSweeney’s column “Field Notes From Gentrified Places.”

One thought on “Storytelling and the thing withheld: Vinson Cunningham on Humans of New York

  1. Nicely done. I much prefer to be allowed to have my imagination participate when reading a written story, or viewing a painting, a photograph, etc. What is not said allows me to fill in the blank, and, of course, it may not be the same as what the artist had intended, but they have drawn me in, and I have become a part of it. An nice example of allowing the viewer to see through the artist’s eye, but still use their own imagination is the Sleepers series by Robert Hannant seen here: http://hannantsleepers.tumblr.com/

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