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In the autumn of 2019, a chef friend of mine told me about a wonderful new photography museum that was opening up on Park Avenue South. It was a Swedish import with a restaurant to match, and he was developing the menu for what promised to be a wonderful addition to NYC’s culinary scene. But it wasn’t until over a year later, when museums served as one of the few indoor destinations mid-pandemic, that I finally made it to Fotografiska New York.

I was immediately struck by the elegance of the historically landmarked building in which the museum is housed–a Renaissance Revival former church mission house from the 1890s. The firm in charge of the renovations, CetraRuddy, aimed to reveal the beauty of the underlying architectural structure. This focus was particularly evident to me on the top floor, where my daughter and I took in the Photography 4 Humanity exhibit underneath cast-iron steel beams that supported a vaulted brick ceiling. We gazed at compelling–and often haunting–images that captured the human toll of both man-made and natural tragedies around the world, including the pandemic.

Each exhibit was distinct from the others in artistic content and style, but united in the purpose of increasing awareness of human misfortune and rights violations. We were mesmerized by Martin Schoeller’s larger-than-life digital portraits of Death Row Exonerees. As we stared at the history of hurt and struggle ingrained in the victims’ beautifully flawed faces, we listened to their stories of wrongful conviction. According to Schoeller, “These women and men bear dignified witness to the unacceptable costs of a misguided system of laws in desperate need of revision and a prison system that focuses on punishment, rather than on rehabilitation.”

In contrast, the next group of photographs we saw, Sarah Cooper & Nina Gorfer’s Between These Folded Walls, Utopia, portrayed the subjects in the most flattering of contexts. Young women who had been forced to leave their countries due to violence, misogyny, or other forms of injustice were dressed up like goddesses and situated in more empowering fictional narratives. Their strength and beauty drew us in and made us see what had been within them all along. Like these women, my daughter and I had been transformed by our surroundings that afternoon. After a couple of hours at Fotografiska NY, everything took on a whole new light.