Marc Yankus Interview: Seeing Beauty in New York’s Old, Forgotten Buildings

fine art photographers - Marc Yankus

The Space Between, Marc Yankus’ most recent project exhibited at ClampArt, started one day after Yankus had returned from photographing the Goldman Sachs building in Manhattan. “When I got back to my studio and opened the image on my computer I noticed that I could see every single detail of the building,” Yankus told me about the moment. “I found it fascinating.” In keeping with that initial fascination, Yankus shot the photos for this project, unlike much of his previous work, with a precise, hyper-real focus.

He also digitally altered the light and reality of many sites he found. In some photos, buildings have been erased or faded, while many feature a textured, sandpaper-like background. City life is often removed and reality softened. Yankus considers his images as attempts to rebuild New York. He revives the beauty of overlooked or forgotten materials — sees in concrete, brick, and city light traces of past wonders. I spoke to Yankus over email about New York City and The Space Between.

Yankus’ work is represented by the gallery ClampArt in New York City.

fine art photographers - Marc Yankus

Your project The Space Between was recently profiled in The Paris Review. I’d like to start by talking about New York City, your subject for the project. How long have you been living in New York? When did you first arrive? Do you remember your first impressions of it and its buildings?

I moved to New York City in 1968, from Long Island, New York. I clearly remember my first day in the city. I remember riding the elevator down to the first floor, walking out into the street looking up at the tall buildings, where everything was grey and absent of green. The roar of the city was intense. There was this beautiful old turn-of-the-century building on 79th St., near where I lived that I loved, and one day it was gone, replaced by a ugly modern, 1960s building. Don’t get me wrong, I like new architecture also, but it was sad to see this amazing, majestic building being torn down. Here I was 11 years old and already an architectural critic.

How do you think your fascination with skyscrapers developed?

I think that it was the early experience of living in a rural, bucolic environment and abruptly being placed into an urban situation. It had a huge impact on me. Though, my fascination is not only with skyscrapers but all buildings — whether one story or thirty stories. I’m not sure why. I didn’t intend to be drawn to older buildings. I just preferred the materials that they were built with. I’m drawn to those that are often walked by and ignored. In closer inspection, there is some kind of magic that pops out to me.

fine art photographers - preferred the materials

I read that the moment when a building finds you, you feel as though it’s speaking to you. Could you describe this feeling more fully? What physical responses does it give you?

A good example is one time I was walking down Broadway near 20th St. in Manhattan, and when I looked up, there were three buildings all connected, and everything around them seemed to fade away and appeared to be a projection floating in front of me. I had a synesthetic experience. I could feel the building, I could feel the corners, the bricks, the sides, and the angles. I sometimes have this experience when I’m talking to people, too. I can feel shapes from the sound of their voices. I know that might sound crazy, but it helps me with my work.

fine art photographers - projection floating

Do you remember the first image you created for this project? What made it different than any other work you had shot previously?

I photographed the Goldman Sachs building from lower Manhattan, looking over toward downtown New Jersey. When I got back to my studio and opened the image on my computer I noticed that I could see every single detail of the building, and I found that fascinating. And it made me want to go out and photograph more. My earlier work has been soft focussed, impressionistic, moody; therefore, this was a very different direction.

fine art photographers - Goldman Sachs building from lower Manhattan

Have you ever been forced to intellectualize why you find these sites beautiful? 

I come from an art background. My mother is a potter and a sculptor. I studied fine art in art history in college and had an attraction towards figurative and abstract painting. Some of the works that I shoot are abstract, featuring exposed walls, cracked brick, and the space between buildings. Some of these photos can be seen as abstract paintings.

fine art photographers - figurative and abstract painting

Perspective is crucial for these photographs. Some of these photos were taken atop rooftops, for example. I’m curious about the practical side to this. What was the usual process for you gaining access to a rooftop? Did you have ever have to cajole your way into a site?

I find that people are very open to letting me have access. I always tell them what I’m doing and bring examples of the work so that they can get it. I’ve never been turned down so far — fingers crossed.

fine art photographers - Perspective is crucial for these photographs

All the images in this series have been digitally edited: you’ve erased buildings, added textures, or soften your backgrounds. I read that you don’t like talking about the exact process to your work, but could you give us a general approximation of your editing process? For example, in this one, what compelled you to add the sandy texture?

Actually, not all the images have been digitally edited but a large number have been. Sometimes I use this sandy texture to isolate a building. With everything in the background faded, the structure that I want to emphasize is brought into focus. But I will often keep parts of the background in the image but fade them for the same reasons. Because of that, my work lies between documentation and fiction.

fine art photographers - sandy texture to isolate a building

From all your time spent on foot, I’d imagine you could craft a decent walking guide to New York. What do you think? Which two-mile route should everybody take while in New York?

I think the area north of Macy’s, 34th Street between 7th and 10th Ave., is an area that’s often overlooked but has many amazing buildings. I have yet to finish photographing in that area. I have a piece that’s called “Somewhere in the West 30s.” That is a perfect example of the building but you might see walking here.

fine art photographers - amazing buildings

Marc Yankus is a photographer and an artist who uses digital mediums to create mixed media. His fine art and publishing experience span a period of more than thirty years. Yankus’ work has been included in exhibitions at The Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY; The George Eastman House, Rochester, NY and the South Street Seaport Museum, NYC.

His artwork has graced the covers of books by Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth, and Alan Hollinghurst, among many others. His images have also been used for theatrical posters for such acclaimed Broadway shows as Jane Eyre; August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; and John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Doubt.

He is represented in the permanent collections of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The New York Historical Society, NYC; and the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

All images © Marc Yankus

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