The spectacular sublime of Pete Mauney’s city skyline
NYC Metro Air Traffic 3/18/18 by Pete Mauney
8"x10" ($24) | 11"x14" ($60) | 16"x20" ($240) | 24"x30" ($1200) | 30"x40" ($2400) Pete Mauney—NYC Metro Air Traffic 3/18/18. The image is near and dear to my diehard NYer heart for a zillion reasons, not the least of which is my deep affection for the photographer himself.
Our previous releases of Pete's Cemetery Rd, 3169-3327, Viewmont, NY and Montgomery St, 2225-2303, Tivoli, NY were very much the Pete I’ve known since the early aughts. It wasn’t hard to imagine him and that magnificent beard of his whiling away the summer nights near his upstate NY home in solitude, the whirr of fireflies his only company. This new series also involves a lot of sitting around in the dark by himself, but in this instance his lifelong fascination with airports and airplanes is taking this self-described homebody far afield from his beloved Tivoli, using the techniques he honed upstate with his fireflies to create these stunning images.
Both bodies of work have a more subtle thing in common as well, something that I’ve been thinking about a lot as of late and have settled on as a sort of contemporary sublime, one that takes into account the mystery and magic of the manmade. Fireflies and their freaky lightshows fall more neatly into the domain of the unknowable, but here we see the unfathomable scores of journeys that are undertaken daily above us, revealing the madness of the city and the equally frenzied skies—two realms typically unaware of each other.
Since I moved into my Dumbo sublet a few months ago, the objectively spectacular views stir in me the same deep awe and excitement I sometimes feel when looking at the sea or hiking through an ancient forest. One of the defining elements of the sublime, historically speaking, is that it evokes a feeling of terror, and that to face that terror creates a sense of exhilaration. This is what separates it from mere beauty. (Some philosophers apparently argue that the sublime and the beautiful are wholly separate, but I'm not buying what they're selling.)
This photo epitomizes the sublime in the same way that the unending ocean and that Dumbo view does: there is the surface level dazzle—those lights! that technical trickery! the contained multitudes!—but also there is the overwhelming complexity and inexorable forward motion of what we are looking at, almost all of it created by and for humankind and imposing so much upon the natural world it’s been imprinted upon. It’s all a little scary, isn’t it? Which has made me feel a little weird about loving it as much as I do, but through it all I can’t help but see a sort of harmony amongst the havoc.
Pete’s work unlocks the sublime by using light to collapse time, fixing an infinite number of moments into a single plane (pun-intended). For me, to fix these moments is to open them up for contemplation and to examine each and all their attendant stories—every building, every window, all those people and their things. Each manmade element in this image was created for a practical purpose, never meant to be art, never meant to work together. Yet, through poetic coincidence—and an abundance of city planning and FAA-regulated scheduling, but that’s beside the point—they do. Also in the darkness of the foreground, there is still life and nature humming along, trees and grass and creatures rustling beneath and among all of it.
Pete has captured the subtle and delicately nested cogs of this whole atmosphere in a single instant for us to savor. There is almost a nervous delight in partaking of this pause, with the knowledge that in the blink of an eye the bustle of life will resume. There is part of me that is in sincere awe of humanity and our ingenuity, but these spectacular things—humanity itself and all its creations, air travel in particular—are part of the terror, causing chaos and harm. It’s hard to behold a seascape without considering what lies beneath it: the roil of currents, the creatures, its depths. All of it is wondrous and also sorta horrifying if you place yourself anywhere in it. And so it is with NYC Metro Air Traffic 3/18/18’s city and sky and all those tin cans hurtling through it every minute of every day. To behold it, to be a part of it, to embrace it summons forth the bravery that lives within all of us.