Down on the Bowery: A Fairytale of New York

Down on the Bowery: A Fairytale of New York

The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl: Fairy Tale of New York

Some people feel that The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York is the best Christmas song ever, and not just one of the best, but a gorgeous song no matter why or how you observe Christmas. Fairytale of New York isn’t exactly the epitome of restraint, with Shane MacGowan and the sadly departed Kirsty MacColl singing all over each other, slurring words and tossing all kinds of insults at each other.

The song starts out tenderly, with MacGowan recounting Christmas Eve spent in a Bowery drunk tank, but also his recent gambling win and dreams for the future. MacColl lets us know, as the tempo picks up, that they met on a Christmas Eve, and after some light banter they really get into it, blaming each other for anything they can get their hands on, MacColl ending with “Happy Christmas your arse / I pray God it’s our last.

But then they sing the chorus again, and a string section that actually sounds like it belongs in a Christmas song begins to take over. And it all feels, in spite of itself, grand and sweeping and even a little touching. They squabble a little more, the same as every Christmas, but they’re losing steam; finally MacColl accuses MacGowan of stealing her dreams when they met. This is a terribly poetic way to depict the deadening of expectations in terrible lives. But MacGowan’s voice turns gentle, even though it’s still rough, and he responds: “I kept them with me babe, I put them with my own, Can’t make it all alone, I’ve built my dreams around you.”

It’s a tough old life, and Fairytale of New York practically oozes with the gritty spirit of urban decay, poverty, alcoholism and general dysfunction. But as the sounds of those strings float off and out of sight, it doesn’t seem to matter. Not to them and not to us, because it’s the day to sigh and give in to our better inclinations and hold each other and admit there’s still something there. Christmas is the arbitrary day of the year that purely through willpower and tradition we’ve turned into the day where we all try just a little bit harder at being better than we thought we could be.

The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl: Fairy Tale of New York

Slide Show: Down on the Bowery

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Case History: Behold the Anonymous Homeless, Downtrodden, Insulted and Injured

Photography by: Boris Mikhailov

Case History: Behold the Anonymous Homeless, Downtrodden, Insulted and Injured

Ukrainian-born Boris Mikhailov is one of the leading photographers from the former Soviet Union. For over 30 years, he has explored the place of the individual within the historical mechanisms of public ideology, touching on such subjects as the Ukraine under Soviet rule, the living conditions in post-communist Eastern Europe and the fallen ideals of the Soviet Union. Although deeply rooted in a historical context, Mikhailov’s work also presents profoundly engaging and personal narratives of humor, lust, vulnerability, aging and death.

Case History is a study of the homeless, a collection of photographs by Mikhailov of homeless people in the Ukraine. His raw images of the homeless are sometimes intensely painful and not for the squeamish; they are hard to look at, but also hard to look away from and hard to forget. The photographs from Case History are currently on exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, the first in-depth presentation of Mikhailov’s seminal series (1997-98) at an American museum. The photographs portray people who are far from conventionally attractive in grungy rooms or in wintry outdoor sites, naked or pulling aside their clothes to expose parts of their bodies ordinarily hidden from view.

Mr. Mikhailov began making photographs in the 1960s, but he was arrested and interrogated twice by the K.G.B. In 1996, five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he began making portraits of people who had been disenfranchised and left homeless by the rise of a new capitalist oligarchy in his hometown of Kharkov, Ukraine, where he was born in 1938. He published 400 of them in his book Case History, from which the photographs here were selected.

What does it mean to present images like these as art in a museum? In one respect, they carry on the tradition of picturing the downtrodden exemplified in photographs by countless artists from Walker Evans to Andres Serrano. Works like those tell us that, whatever their outward appearances and circumstances, the poor have souls that are worthy of respect. However, Mr. Mikhailov’s photographs are not so ennobling. They render their subjects as exotic and even demonic. Like specimens in a freak show, they elicit sympathy, revulsion or amazement, but not admiration or empathy. Because there are no titles or captions, you don’t know who the people are or anything about their lives. Maybe some were research scientists, or university professors fired for not toeing party lines or for crossing paths with a ruthless plutocrat at the wrong place and time; maybe they were all rounded up from an insane asylum, or from detox center for alcoholics.

All of his subjects seem to belong to a tribe or extended family of outcasts. But “the homeless,” one might object, is not composed of a homogeneous population. The homeless include alcoholics, drug addicts, criminals, prostitutes, con artists, people with mental illnesses and hard-working citizens going through rough times. But Mr. Mikhailov is not concerned with personal particulars. In his enterprise, the subjects are, above all, actors who function mainly as allegorical symbols. They stand as expressions for the underbelly of society, and their challenging revelations of their own usually hidden body parts is a metaphor for the whole project of exposing what polite society would prefer to keep under wraps. To the extent that they appear everywhere around the world, including in New York City, they are universal signs of capitalism’s failure to care for the less fortunate.

Viewers can read more about Mr. Mikhailov’s work in The New York Times here

Boris Mikhailov: Photographs from “Case History” (1999)

Slide Show: Case History/Behold the Homeless, Downtrodden, Insulted and Injured

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