Peter Funch and the construction of the self

Peter Funch from '42nd and Vanderbilt
Peter Funch from ’42nd and Vanderbilt

Paris Photo takes the photo book very seriously. All the top photographers are there, signing their latest. I returned with ‘42nd and Vanderbilt’ by Peter Funch (TBW Books 2017). Its premise is simple: from 2007-16 Funch took photographs at the eponymous, and decidedly anonymous, street corner in New York between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. He then sorted through them to detect recurring characters – in other words, commuters (and there’s too little art consideration of such a big chunk of many people’s lives). Funch’s effort over such a period is astonishing. Already something routine – boring, even – is made interesting, like Roman Opalka painting numbers.  And you always get a nice frisson from the ‘compare and contrast’ of similar pictures. Will their clothes change? Not always. Will their gestures recur? Often. Funch previously combined many different people at different times doing the same thing – yawning, for example – at the same place. Now people are just ‘being themselves’ at in the same place at different times (though also, in a way, at the same time). We don’t just fit in with society, we fit in with ourselves.

Douglas Coupland, in the book’s essay, suggests that a critique of capitalism is implied – of ‘the way we package and sell ourselves and how we make our peace with our lots in life’ (largely by disappearing into our own worlds as we make the routine journey).  Yet I wonder: the construction of a self is vital to happiness, but we can trace back to David Hume the worry that it’s hard to pin down that self. Perhaps it’s just such repetitions and consistencies which provide the grounding for the self to do the interesting stuff. That’s true at home, too: we follow the same routines, but capitalism doesn’t drive that. Seeing an action and expression I think not ‘what a deadening routine’ but ‘ah, that’s him’.

 Peter Funch from '42nd and Vanderbilt
Peter Funch from ’42nd and Vanderbilt

Art writer and curator Paul Carey-Kent sees a lot of shows: we asked him to jot down whatever came into his head

About Paul Carey-Kent

Art critic and curator, based in Southampton. I write most regularly for Art Monthly, Frieze, The Art Newspaper, Art Critical, ArtLyst... and, of course, FAD - when I'm on the train to and from my job in London as a health and social care financial policy analyst.