Elizabeth Bick’s street photographs, some of which were published in a long-form photographic essay in the New York Times last week, capture the peculiarly isolating angst of the moment: New Yorkers practicing social distancing in a crowded city, staying apart together, navigating emptying streets in face masks and blue plastic gloves. Conscious of the need for physical distance, her subjects have a heightened awareness of their bodies in space and in relation to other bodies. Their movements feel almost choreographed, a recurring element in Bick’s work.
A former dancer – she took her first dance class at the tender age of two – Bick says that ballet and modern dance “profoundly affected the way I see the body, how it translates into the rectangular frame of a photograph, the theatrics of light and shading.” Her movement studies are characterized by the rhythm of bodies, shadows, and the graphic backdrops that she scouts for her settings – a revolving door, a temporary construction barrier, the geometric lines of an urban plaza.
Images from Bick’s Movement Studies I, II, and III (which have been published in three separate monographs by Roman Numerals), as well as from her series Coda, portraits of her longtime muse, the 79-year-old Linda Leven (who has been photographed by a number of photographers, and who Bick calls “a work of art in herself”), are scheduled to go on view at the Houston Center for Photography from May 22 to July 5. Movement Study I is a series of typological grids: each photograph captures groups or individuals moving past the same spot, doorway, or street corner. As in the typologies created by Bernd and Hilla Becher, or Ray Metzker’s Composites, she shoots from the same distance, using the same composition, for each image in the grid, creating works that are both figurative and abstract. In Movement Study II, Bick left the grids behind and moved in closer to her subjects, capturing people’s faces and expressions, exploring saturated color and the play of shadows across faces and bodies in images that suggest an updated take on Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s mid-1990s New York series. And in Movement Study III, she zeroed in on B Hawk, a non-binary person whose performative nature and arresting style animates the images.
In this period of necessary rule-following, Bick’s photographs have an inherent playfulness that feels like a welcome release. As a dancer who attended an all-girls Catholic school, Bick has a complicated relationship to rules that ultimately serves her photographs. She sets herself a set of instructions – a photograph every three seconds at a certain corner, for example – and lets chance have its way with what follows: a blue cloak echoing a blue wall; a couple, one person completely in shadow and other leaning into the sun; or the distorted archway created by the shadow of a traffic light against a cinderblock wall that outlines each person walking by. “Taking play seriously is huge for me,” she says. “That’s what art can provide us as adults – the space to play.”