Book Review: America's Stage: Times Square
By Sarah Sunday
A roiling epicenter of human interaction, akin to the moments leading up to the big bang, Times Square is a dizzying dance of people engaged in a constant gush of movement. In Betsy Karel’s America’s Stage: Times Square, tourists, hawkers, masquerading characters, lovers of free speech, brides and grooms are pictured in black and white streaming and weaving through the busy streets. Beneath the unearthly lights of advertisements and gleaming billboards, the strangeness of human nature is concentrated and magnified through the lens of Karel’s camera.
A clownish and garish place, Times Square gives license to those passing through to act in ways which are not socially accepted almost anywhere else. This was one reason as to why Karel first felt propelled to delve into and capture the metropolitan arena after her first visit in 2014. Throughout her photographs, there is an element of confusion present; confusion as to where one object begins and another ends. The black and white photos are crammed with innumerable objects and individuals, which works to confuse the eye and puzzle the viewer. Each frame is packed with a juxtaposition of content, condensed into a flat 2-D image.
Karel’s photographic view of Times Square is one of declarations. Declarations of peace, of love, and of far-fetched ideologies. It is a place where everything is for sale and everything has a cost; all, that is, but free expression. Hyper-sexualization is one prominent aspect of the book; a naked cowgirl grasps at her breasts, couples lock in public displays of affection, young and topless women count out dollar bills casually, and dozens of individuals stand about, clothed in nothing but body paint.
It is a place that fills one with awe, but only awe accompanied by terror. Towards the end of the book, there is a string of photographs of forlorn individuals, strewn about and discarded by society, shrinking into themselves. Karel quietly harnesses the power of a voyeur, privy to the inner struggles of strangers as they set themselves on display in America’s spotlight. “Fantasy parades as reality,” writes Karel. “Tourists flock to Times Square to see and be seen. People from every background co-exist. In the wee hours of the morning the homeless find a safe place to sleep. And occasionally moments of tenderness and care cut through the electric static.” It is truly a stage in which the characters of New York and of the world come out of the cracks. Through Karel’s intuitive images, fleeting moments of human oddity and novelty have been frozen and captured.
You can find out more about the book here.