UPPER EAST SIDE — Dallas has its Christian colleges and some of the country's largest mega-churches. San Francisco has its ties to New Age spirituality. By comparison, New York is often portrayed as a secular city.
However, a new photography exhibit at the 92nd Street Y challenges that idea.
“Observance,” a collection of photographs by James Estrin, highlights New Yorkers experiencing moments of spiritual transcendence — whether those moments are attained through religious rituals or through everyday activities.
"While religious rituals are visually lush, spiritual experience is interior and hidden,” Estrin said. “The challenge for me is capturing the essence of an invisible event."
This is the first time in 20 years that Estrin, a senior staff photographer for The New York Times, has exhibited his work. He took the photographs between 1999 and 2012, going from the beaches of Far Rockaway to the sidewalks of the South Bronx to capture these moments.
Some images portray religious ceremonies meant to lift participants out of their everyday lives. At a Hindu temple in Queens, a young woman exhales a breath of flames while revelers dance nearby. In TriBeCa, women draped in red and white cloths close their eyes during a Sufi meditation.
Other photographs capture more spontaneous moments of transcendence: A woman and two young children find relief from a heat wave in a kiddie pool on their sidewalk; the Duke Ellington Orchestra jams on the A train; and three health aids wash the hands of Alzheimer patients as they prepare for bed.
Estrin hopes that taken together, the images will reveal the search for transcendence and the divine that he describes as an essential part of the human experience.
Robert Gilson, director of the 92nd Street Y School of the Arts and curator for exhibits in the Weill Art Gallery, sought out Estrin to create an exhibit. While Gilson did not propose a topic for the show, he found Estrin’s choice fitting.
“While Estrin photographs a wide variety of topics for the Times, his work on spirituality seemed particularly fitting for 92Y’s Weill Art Gallery,” Gilson said. “He has the capacity to capture the most intimate of moments in a thoroughly unobtrusive and revealing way.”
The exhibit will be on display, barring gallery events, through March 3. For more information, visit the gallery schedule.