Sally Davies' 'New Yorkers' May Be the Best Photography Monograph Of 2021

As a photographer and a photography critic, I see and review hundreds of photo books. Most, unfortunately, are not all that good. Some are actually outright bad, and others are okay, but ultimately just bring more of the same to the table. This is not the case with Sally Davies' first-ever monograph, "New Yorkers." 

Sally Davies is a street photographer, and like many of us, she became disillusioned with the current scene out there. The genre is oversaturated, there is low commercial/gallery interest in street images, and the public at large is, well, over the whole thing. Similar to the poets, street photographers are, largely speaking, making work just to try to push it in front of other street photographers. The end result: everyone is peddling their wares and no one much is caring or, more importantly, buying. Unlike most of us, Davies decided to be bold and do something different. She decided to leave the street and go indoors to photograph people. The result is nothing less than brilliant. 

(c) Sally Davies

One of the biggest issues with street photography is that the barrier to access is tremendously low. Anyone can access a camera and a sidewalk. Going into people's homes and photographing them, however, is a whole other ballgame. The barrier to access is rather significant, especially if you want to get into the right homes and photograph the right people. I can hardly imagine the effort Davies put into this project: the coordination of the shoots, releases, locations/sets, and then working with people to compile their biographies (a little snapshot of each person's life accompanies these beautiful portraits), not to mention the work needed to locate interesting people with interesting homes. It must all have been a tremendous load of work for Davies to complete in what amounted to basically a year. However, unlike the rat race that street photography can be, this project terminated not only in Davies' first published monograph but, I would argue, the best photography monograph of 2021. The book, "New Yorkers," is truly a classic in the making. It will, undoubtedly, be found alongside Frank's "Americans" in the decades to come. I'm not kidding. The first edition sold out in just a few weeks! Davies had looked to Ammonite Press to put her on the map, and here, she is doing just that for them! "New Yorkers" is definitely the book for which they will be remembered. Mark my words. 

(c) Sally Davies

"New Yorkers" presents a smattering of, well, New Yorkers at home in their kitchens, bedrooms, and living rooms, about 70 portraits or so in all. But the book is not just a book of simple portraits. These portraits are special because the backdrops are just as important, just as visually spectacular as the people situated in them. The photographs in this book are visual delights. I even got out my magnifying glass to read book titles, album covers, pill bottles, unpaid electric bills, and grocery lists. The book is a "Where's Waldo" for adults! The book is a visual cornucopia of artifice and eccentricity. From artists, writers, teachers, bankers, designers, dog walkers, musicians, cab drivers, and the “born rich,” to more unique characters like loan sharks, pornography writers, telephone sex girls, drag queens, and bootleggers, the book is brimming with the most exciting voyeuristic opportunities.

(c) Sally Davies

Sally Davies is a great street photographer. Her night scenes of New York's East Village are iconic. Yet, it is clear to me that this is where she truly shines. These portraits are simply stunning and I cannot wait to see the next book.

(c) sally Davies

"New Yorkers" is a visual read, to be sure, but it also contains a good deal of text on the subjects and their lives. In this way, the book is an ideal gift for the photography lover or the avid reader of the biographies in your life. Buy a copy, you can thank me later. 

All photos are used with permission. 

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14 Comments

Mike Dochterman's picture

diane arbus in color? course...I like diane arbus, so I like this

Michael Comeau's picture

"It will, undoubtedly, be found alongside Frank's "Americans" in the decades to come. I'm not kidding."

UMMMMMMM NO. Just no. The work is great but The Americans was a landmark in the field.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

This will be too, trust me. But, actually, we will have to wait to find out, won't we? In the beginning, The Americans was junk, no one liked it. Frank couldn't even get it published don't forget.

Jan Holler's picture

Definitely a great photographer, but compared to the Americans, the photos are not as shocking as they were for the time, nor are they connected to the real (dirty, normal, imperfect) world. There is much more staging in her work. I like them a lot, I think they present a different genre. If I ever had the chance to visit an exhibition of her work, I would love to go.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Thanks for chiming in, Jan.

Jan Holler's picture

I just discovered that on the second last photo there is Iggy Pop's face on the cushion. Hahaha, weird!

Michael Comeau's picture

Again, I think the work is great.

But I've seen tons of environmental portraits like this.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Yes, pretty much everything has been done before. That is the fate that photography now faces!

Bjarne Solvik's picture

I suppose IKEA don’t do good in New York:)

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Haha, good one, Bjarne! :)

J.d. Davis's picture

Michael Ernest Sweet: You need to take a break!

When you write "The barrier to access is rather significant, especially if you want to get into the right homes and photograph the right people." and "...not to mention the work needed to locate interesting people with interesting homes."

~ I can only wonder why anyone would couch praise in such dogmatic phrases. The people are posed well and the rooms seem evenly lighted. The photographs tell a story about the personal lives of those who occupy space inside the borders, but are hardly as compelling or artistic as the raw Arbus works! By contrast, they are bland and only sustain when we learn that there are "bootleggers and Porn Stars" amongst the now of 15 minute fame crowd.

The examples you show are saccharine and have no emotional impact...without the narrative they languish as unimagined and unfulfilled images.

Has everyone forgotten what great environmental portraiture looks like?

https://medium.com/vantage/gordon-parks-american-gothic-af36a14b8b70

Gordon Parks, American Gothic

J.d. Davis's picture

While I expected Mike to disagree with my statements, I did not expect him to remove our last conversation.

My comments may be terse at times and unliked by some of the people here, they are my opinions and as such hold validity the same as any other comment.

Mike, you think Ms. Davies work is spectacular - I do not.

Shall we leave it there?

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Yes, let's leave it there. Also, I am entitled to my opinion, which is all my articles are - opinions (as stated in the category for the post). So, I too claim the same validity. And, I removed our last conversation because I made an offensive remark toward you and was not pleased with myself for having done that ... so I attempted to correct my rudeness. I am only here to express opinions on photography, not to insult others. I hope you can understand this and we can move forward.

J.d. Davis's picture

Done & Done