An Englishman in New York, part one

Hi! This is a project I did for my Reporting the Arts class last semester. I got to choose whatever I wanted to do for the project so of course, I just went for a really big blog post. But I’m gonna break it up so it’s not too terribly long and takes up the whole page. Stay tuned!

As you walk through the white wall doorway of room 38A in the National Portrait Gallery, you’re met with a rectangular white room covered, in the most symmetrical way, with photographic portraits. Miniature spotlights on the ceiling shine onto these identically white-matted pictures, and the same thin black frame surrounds each one. The shorter walls to your left and right are all colored portraits and the wall that’s cut in half by the doorway you just walked through has a mix of both color and black and white. The long wall in front of you is arranged in two rows of photographs, all black and white, and with the title of this one room gallery written above: “An Englishman in New York, Photographs by Jason Bell.” There’s a black bench in the very center of this well-proportioned room. If you were to move through the gallery clockwise from left to right, the first thing you’d see would be a tall white rectangle filled with a description of the gallery and a brief biography of the man behind it.

The inspiration behind this exhibit came from an American Vogue photo assignment that Jason Bell began in 2008. He was shooting an English tearoom called Tea & Sympathy that’s located in the heart of Manhattan.[1] After a conversation with the co-owner, Nicky Perry, Bell learned that over 120,000 British men and women were living and working in New York City, just as he was. In an article discussing the exhibit, Bell told the Guardian, “I suddenly thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out why all these people left England?’ And, of course, I also had all these questions about what I personally was doing there.”[2]

What emerged was this beautiful collection, now a book of the same title. Of course, there was some difficulty in turning the most photographed city in the world into something no one had ever seen before. Rather than focusing on the city itself, the standard buildings or the classic landmarks, Bell turned instead to the English perspective. Beside each portrait in the exhibit is a quote from the person in the picture, describing their first experience in New York, their misconceptions about the city, or why they came in the first place. Bell’s first memory of Manhattan is quoted in the same article. He recollected, “Seeing an expensively dressed woman in her 80s on the Upper East Side bending down to pick up dog shit with a perfectly manicured hand.”[3]

Bell has been living between New York and London since 2003, and although he studied Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at Oxford University, he had already decided on a career as a portrait photographer. He’s photographed everyone from Michael Phelps to Colin Firth, to Katy Perry, and has also shot a number of popular advertisements for movies, and television shows. But as an Englishman living in New York, this project was different. “I went for a walk in Central Park with Sting, and for a cup of tea on Kate Winslet’s roof terrace, sat on Zoe Heller’s stoop and watched Stephen Daldry bicycle down 8th Avenue… I started with a blank canvas and was amazed by the number of Englishmen and women who have made such a large impact on the cultural life of the city.”[4] In the description shown in the exhibit he says, “I learnt more about what it means to be English, what it means to be a New Yorker, and where the two intersect.”

[1] books/
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