Last summer, public outcry forced New York City officials to reconsider regulations that might have required even the most casual of tourist-photographers to obtain a permit and $1 million in liability insurance to photograph or film in the streets of the city. A majority of the objectors felt that the proposed regulations threatened First Amendment rights to photograph in public places and amounted to a kind of privatization of public space. Similarly, people have questioned the current private/public arrangements that characterize much of modern urban redevelopment, from the proposed Columbia University expansion to Hudson Yards in Manhattan, and from Willets Point in Queens to the Atlantic Yards and Coney Island in Brooklyn.
Contention particularly surrounds the legal power of eminent domain, or the taking of private property for public use: at the core of the debate is the definition of “public use” and concern that the word “public” has become a euphemism to disguise what are essentially private investments.
As the proposed regulations on photographing in New York City illustrate, photography is often subject to such private/public complications. Indeed, issues of privacy and image rights have troubled photography throughout its history; with the shift to digital media and the increasing regulation of public space (both literal and virtual), these issues are becoming even more complex. A photograph, after all, is a transaction between the private and the public that is negotiated through the taking of an image—a kind of eminent domain of the visual realm. By its very nature, then, photography poses questions that resonate with current debates about the reorganized urban landscape and the consequent shifting of public and private space, whether through gentrification, globalization, or the suburbanization of the city.
Eminent Domain, based on a New York Public Library exhibition of the same title (on view May 2–August 29, 2008, at the Humanities and Social Sciences Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street), presents selections from the work of five New York–based artists who have recently created large photographic projects that take on the theme of the modern city. While none of the artists’ works specifically addresses the law of eminent domain, all of the projects deal in different ways, and to varying degrees, with the changing nature of space in New York City today.