SEPT. 2020 NYC
Sep 23 - Oct 31, 2021
Thursday, September 23rd, 6-8pm
RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org
Must show proof of Covid vaccination and valid ID to enter
During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw a wide range of reactions from our friends, neighbors, and strangers. We each went through a spectrum of emotions ourselves. Some people retreated; some resisted. Early in the pandemic, many took to the streets to protest police violence. And many artists, seeking a way to comprehend the state of the world, set out to make new work in this new climate. Sarai Mari is one of them.
Like a lot of us, she spent the first few months of quarantine fearing the worst—is this virus going to kill us all? But as time went on, she saw strength and defiance rising up in her adopted hometown of New York City, a town which again and again has proven its ability to persevere.
By August of 2020, things were far from fixed—they still aren’t—but they were improving in New York. During that month, Mari received an assignment from a Publisher back in Japan: Get out there and shoot the month of September, 2020 in New York City. And so Mari, who had no experience with street photography—her practice up until that point was assignment-based—ventured into an uncharted area of her chosen medium. What she found thrilled her. Carrying three cameras, Mari ventured out into a city that, rather than being a ghost town, was bursting with vibrancy. From roller discos in the park, to protest marches in the streets, to simpler moments capturing both friendships and solitude, Mari found that the spirit and diversity of city life continued despite the intervening months of fear and uncertainty.
In this exhibition, we see what Mari saw. And it’s not just the subject matter that compels us here. We are also witnessing an artist finding a new mode of expression. The honeymoon bliss of taking her first street photos and then growing day by day into an accomplished practitioner of the genre is an inspiring path to trace. From the center of Manhattan all the way out to the beaches at the edge of the city, Mari took the chance of asking strangers if she could take a picture of them.
We live in a world that has been indelibly changed by the pandemic. But life finds a way, and in the energy of the streets in cities like New York, we experience hope, joy, and solidarity.
There’s a relationship between subject and artist in street photography that can’t be found anywhere else. Taking a photo—any kind of photo—is stealing a moment from time. A candid photo, a shot of a person going about their daily business, a person not expecting to be photographed, is stealing not just time but also essence, and then not just stealing essence but taking it and translating it into your own language by way of formal decisions such as framing and distance, but also decisions with more of a psychological/psychic bent—the ineffable stuff of mood, tone, and feeling. But this is a benign sort of theft. Even, sometimes, a kind one.
Street photography is risky. It takes guts. Sometimes the subjects don’t even know they’ve had their picture taken, but sometimes they do and they’re angry about it. Sometimes they’re bewildered; sometimes bemused. But often, and in some of the most successful and intimate street photography, the work feels collaborative between the photographer and the photographed. We see this again and again in these pictures by Sarai Mari. As she traversed the city over the course of one month last year, she encountered the fullness of New York’s diversity but, more than that, she interacted with it all.
Taken as a body of work, a group of photographs shot on the street during a preordained span of time functions explicitly as a memento of that moment. In choosing September of 2020 to make the photographs seen in this exhibition, Sarai Mari entered into a particularly heady milieu. Quarantine was loosening by degrees. Political protests still dotted the city. In between these two energies—the optimistic frisson of being outside again and the righteous anger at unchecked institutional authority—it was an electric month. A time ripe for documentation, and a time that required great sensitivity. Compound all that with the fact that Mari had never practiced street portraiture before creating this work, and we can see these photos for what they are: small celebrations imbued with a tripled newness: the subjects’ experience of being photographed, Mari’s experience making such photos, and people being reborn into the wider world after a time of sequestering from pestilence—often while immersed in a fog of fear and paranoia. And so in Mari’s September 2020 photographs we see the delicate joy of average people—accustomed at that point to the trauma of forced solitude—performing for the camera of a stranger. The extremity of vulnerability and openness made that month an ideal time for such street photography.
I wonder what one might glean from these photos if they were to look back at them many years from now. In their vibrancy and intimacy, they would appear as relics from a happy era rather than the politically and culturally fraught world we now find ourselves in. Maybe, conversely, we can look at them today and imagine a better time to come.
Jesse Pearson is a writer, the founder of Apology magazine, and the host of Apology, a podcast about reading. He has written for Playboy, GQ,
the Los Angeles Times, and more.
In the photographs that Sarai Mari took before the pandemic, one can sense a lightness that is evident within each image. Her subjects perform and pose for her camera; they are fully aware of her presence and the fact that she is there to shoot them. There’s an air of seduction between the lens and the subject in Mari’s fashion photography that’s provocative, subversive, and sometimes irreverent.
Two models dressed as nuns put on thigh-high Gucci boots for Interview magazine. In another photograph for YSL, the model stares deeply into the camera, her lips in a pout as if she’s flirting with the viewer. Mari’s portraiture insinuates an unspoken dialogue between her and her subjects; they know that she’s there to make them look good, to help promote their endeavors. Paris Hilton offers the camera a sweet smirk, while Scarlett Johansson goes from calm to fierce in a diptych.
Then, in March 2020, life as we know it changed with COVID-19 attacking every part of the world. Much of the globe was forced to pause; New York’s streets quieted down like never before. Those who had the privilege left for anywhere that afforded more space and comfort than the BigApple.
The sound of sirens from ambulances rushing patients to the hospital filled the air during the first few months, then that was coupled with a roar of applause at 7pm to thank the essential workers. Then, after George Floyd was murdered in May, the sound of helicopters flying above took over as they monitored the protesters who flooded the streets—as well as the looters who ransacked the storefronts.
Life was beginning to open up when Mari received a request from Japan to shoot the month of September 2020. She was pushed out of her comfort zone. The assignment requested that Mari go out into the streets to document life in New York as it emerged from the first six months of the global pandemic.
In these photographs, Mari makes the transition from directing her subjects to becoming a voyeur, an observer, a witness. We feel the heavy load that the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, and the upcoming presidential election put on the shoulders of New Yorkers. Mari shoots protesters as they surround City Hall, biking past holding placards, and chalking Breonna Taylor’s name. She takes photos of the NYPD as they stand waiting for something to which they can respond. She watches a couple dancing and smiling before a sign that reads, “Fuck Trump.” She captures them, waving their flags in hopes of spreading a message. There are also quiet moments of beauty—flowers blooming in Central Park, a giant bubble as it floats through McGolrick Park. The mood is heavy, yet hopeful—a stark juxtaposition to the choreographed and controlled images from Mari’s pre-pandemic career.
Ann Binlot is a Brooklyn-based writer who covers art, fashion, architecture, and design, among other things, for the New York Times, Wallpaper*,
The Economist, Document Journal, Vanity Fair, ARTNews, and more.
Born in Nara, Japan
Lives and Works in New York City
Sarai Mari studied photography at Santa Monica College in Los Angeles when she was a teenager. She began her career as a photojournalist in New York, then moved back to Japan and transitioned to fashion photography. After six years in Tokyo, she relocated to London where she became a well-established fashion photographer, shooting for numerous magazines such as Dazed & Confused and Harper’s Bazaar UK. In 2014, she moved back to New York where she has come to focus on portraiture.
Mari’s first book, Naked, is a monograph of female nudes published in 2011 and is the culmination of her work with the subjects of femininity and female sexuality. In 2017, Mari released her second book, Speak Easy, with Damiani Books. The work in this book is a photographic investigation of the gender roles men and women play within society. Mari’s third book, Delusion, was released by the Japanese publisher THOUSAND, Inc. in May 2019. With this book, Mari’s dream of working with the art director Fabien Baron came true. Delusion is focused on Mari’s own phobias and fantasies. In March of 2021, Mari released her fourth book, September. 2020 NYC, from the publisher Purezine.