The big picture: Janet Delaney’s nostalgic New York painter

Cities are made of sedimented strata of memory. Janet Delaney’s photograph of the New York street painter was taken in the mid-1980s, with a Rolleiflex camera from the 1960s. The artist’s painting, nel frattempo, seems nostalgic for a SoHo scene of an earlier vintage – his depicted street ignores the presence of the lorry and street furniture and scaffolding of his present moment in favour of a more innocent kind of vanishing point.

Delaney’s photographs of strangers in the city quite often work like that – immersing you in a sense of the world as it might look from inside other heads, under other hats. She developed this eye mostly in San Francisco, with celebrated photographs of the city’s Mission district during the culture wars of the Reagan era. Her occasional visits to New York from the west coast were generally unplanned – she worked for a while as a courier for DHL and would sometimes be asked to catch an overnight flight across the country with a package, stealing a few hours with her camera in Manhattan before heading home. The pictures from those visits, collected in a new monograph, retain that slightly disoriented quality, the visual surprise of being dropped somewhere new on the map, blinking yourself awake to a slightly changed reality.

As a series, it is tempting to see them as intimate portraits of a city in a unique moment of transition, before the Wall Street boom hardened the edges of inequality and division and it was easier for those at the margins to live beyond developers’ schemes and dreams. Ma, as here, they also dramatise that myriad kind of timelessness that busy urban streets always contain: the sense of everyone, at any one moment, experiencing life at their own particular shutter speed and seeing what is out there through their own frames and filters.

Red Eye to New York by Janet Delaney is published by Mack (£40)

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