You can tell a lot about people from their text messages. Just ask Jeff Mermelstein, a master of modern-day street photography who, for the past three years, has been surreptitiously snapping pictures of New Yorkers’ phone screens on his own iPhone.
After living mostly on his Instagram account, Mermelstein’s images of adroit texters have now been collected into #nyc, a new photo book published by MACK that is at turns profound and provocative, hilarious and just plain bizarre.
The project reads less like a photo book than it does an epistolary novel. All the timeless themes of a great work of fiction are there—humor, heartbreak, pathos, love—often wrapped up in the mundane, inelegant conversations that constitute our workaday lives. There’s discussions about Venmo etiquette, Whole Foods leftovers, the code for peeing in a Starbucks.
Other times, drama is laid bare. We look on as friends talk about abortions and unplanned pregnancies. Couples break up and new lovers exchange sexts that’ll make you blush. One person, writing in all caps, declares to their cancer-ridden friend that they would do anything to get rid of their pain and suffering.
“I’m not even sure if it’s a photography book,” Mermelstein tells Artnet News, describing his project’s literary qualities. “In a way, I don’t care. That’s very exciting to me.”
Mermelstein amassed more than 1,200 text photos since beginning the series in 2018. The final book features over 150, and they’re all printed on blue paper that mimics the backlit glow of a screen.
Taken by the stories playing out in the pictures, it’s easy to get lured into a false sense of omniscience. But just as quickly, a particularly personal or lascivious exchange will jolt you back to an awareness of the voyeurism at play: Should we be looking at these photographs?
The ethics of candid street photography are as hotly contested as they’ve ever been, and Mermelstein’s pictures add another layer of complexity. The texters may be in the public domain, but is the content of their screens? At the very least, the mental image of the photographer standing behind—and, by his own admission, quite close to—his subjects is a hard one to reconcile.
Indeed, for Mermelstein, who has been photographing in public for four decades now, there was some moral math that needed sorting out.
“It was new turf for me,” says Mermelstein. “And it was a turf that I needed to address and be able to work in.”
So he turned to the first tool in the photographer’s kit: The crop. As a rule, he included no faces, no surnames—nothing that might suggest, even by implication, a person’s identity. “Even if I’m on perfect legal ground, I still wanted to try, as best I could, to maintain a sense of anonymity,” he says.
In terms of context clues, what we’re left with is arguably more interesting: dangling cigarettes, elaborate nail art, screens that look like they were rolled over by a truck—details of character, not identity.
See more images from #nyc below, and buy the book here.
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