The New Yorker, December 2014
The esteemed photographer Paul McDonough has been taking photographs for more than forty years now, and a salient feature of the work seen here, from his project “Sightseeing,” has to do with refinement, elegance. Artists—the best ones—reinvent themselves by continually digging at the essence of the thing they mean to describe. McDonough’s project, it seems to me, is a kind of record of his life as a walker in cities; his pictures are a map of experience, of his consciousness. He is a thinker who looks through the eye of his camera to distinguish truth from reality. That is more difficult, or as difficult, as it sounds. A number of post-Henri Cartier-Bresson artists equate reality with the drama of the moment—a man skipping over a puddle, a young woman crossing a street, that kind of thing.
McDonough, who came of age as an artist when Cartier-Bresson’s influence was at its height, seeks something that resonates more truthfully: his pictures describe the space between the truth and the fiction of public life. People queuing up for roller skates, a girl sitting by herself in blinding light—these are graphic images about our resistance to knowing anything or anyone other than ourselves. It might take you a minute to recognize that, because McDonough, unlike Cartier-Bresson, does not take pictures that would fit nicely into Edward Steichen’s “Family of Man”; indeed, his photographs are a meeting of the minds—his consciousness meeting yours as yours meets the world. The elegance one sees in his prints is the elegance of a caring artist who knows that without distance there is no critical thought, and without critical thought there is no truth in the frame, or outside of it.
The New Yorker, April 2013
In the seventies and early eighties, the New York street photographer spent his summers on the road taking pictures of young Americans at leisure. His black-and-white pictures tend to sneak up on teen-agers who seem suspended between boredom and excitement: making out, hanging out, anticipating their next diversion. McDonough’s group portraits—particularly one of a randy foursome gathered by a parked car in Florida—are terrific, at once spontaneous and composed. But one of the show’s best pictures catches a girl by herself, taking in the sun at the curb of a shopping center near a bunch of empty shopping carts.
The New Yorker, January 2011
The publication of a book of McDonough’s black-and-white street work, “New York Photographs 1968-1978,” prompts this show of work from the later years, 1973 to 1978. His influences (Garry Winogrand, Tod Papageorge, Joel Meyerowitz) are obvious, sometimes blatantly so, but McDonough has a great eye for the passing scene—for incident and character. His most engaging pictures are populated by a range of quirky New York personalities: the lady with the outsized hat, the oblivious couple, the wise child. Although these modern prints don’t serve the work very well, the best pictures survive and stick.
The New Yorker, December 2010
It’s hard to believe, but Paul McDonough’s “New York Photographs: 1968-1978,” is the brilliant photographer’s first monograph. Either that’s a parable about the world of art photography and its habit of relying on the same ten or twelve picture-makers to talk about the form as a whole, or about the difficulty some artists have finding their voice in a post-Henri Cartier Bresson world. Whatever the reason, McDonough’s book is a more-than-welcome addition to what is generally called “street photography.” Working in a 35-mm black-and-white format, McDonough’s eye is enlivened less by the sweet lyricism Bresson and others have found in the “decisive moment” than in what one might call the surrealism of the everyday. The Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native—who has been a respected photography instructor for a number of decades as well—lives in a New York only people who come from elsewhere bother to look for, let alone see. His figures and shapes collide, rush, and meet in an atmosphere that feels mythical, and on the very edge of being forgotten even after McDonough has captured them in his expertly printed work. In one picture of heart-breaking beauty, three young women sit near a pond feeding pigeons; the pigeons are circling for food. Who’s hungrier for the experience? The lovely girls in their summer dresses, or the greedy birds, whose number parallels the girls’ own? In another image, McDonough photographs a remnant of New York’s old burlesque world as it hovers over a plot of tulips. In McDonough’s universe, the natural not only co-exists with the man made, the “unnatural”; each defines the other in an age when mechanical reproduction is the standard, not an event.
The Wall Street Journal, November 2010
Paul McDonough (b. 1941) turned up in New York in 1967 with a 35mm camera and was soon part of the community of photographers that included Tod Papageorge and Garry Winogrand. Improved film and a drop in the level of free-floating angst may account for the finer grain patterns and sharper focus in their images, but they continued to shoot in the streets like their New York School elders.
Mr. McDonough’s pictures are marked by their humor and fine social distinctions. “Two Men on Stand Pipes Watching Parade, 1975” is Monty Python in black and white. The men wear suits, white shirts, and ties—they are executives—and hold their elevated positions with insouciant aplomb.
In “Women in Fur Coats, 1974,” three women coming down a sidewalk in Midtown pass three women kibitzing: Each woman wears the pelt of a different animal.
The child in the title of “Central Park, Boy on Band Shell, 1973” is maybe 10, a black kid wearing an impeccable pin-striped suit with a shirt and tie while the other people in the picture are dressed casually.
The public necking in “Couple and Pilgrim Statue, 1973” is contrasted with the sterner morality in stone. What Mr. McDonough sought in the streets were incongruities, serendipity, and the occasionally weird.
The New Yorker, November 2007
A new photography gallery opens in Tribeca with one of the season’s most rewarding shows. Although the series was his first as a photographer, the black-and-white pictures McDonough made of New Yorkers between 1968 and 1972 merit comparison to the street work of Garry Winogrand, Harry Callahan, or Diane Arbus. Whether shooting up close or from middle ground, he always seems in synch with the city’s jagged rhythm, and his results feel loose and instinctive–full of exciting, serendipitous connections. Every expression, every gesture counts, and there’s never a dull moment in McDonough’s Manhattan.