'Humans of New York' Is Reinventing Museum-Worthy Art in the Digital Age

ByAlexandra Villarreal

A 20-year-old hunches over in a library, a look of desperate exhaustion painted on her features. She cannot smile when she whispers, "I'm trying to figure out what my dreams are."

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This kind of struggle is intrinsic to humanity — it defies century or millennium, to link all people who are challenging themselves to find their way in the world. And two artists nearly two centuries apart — Brandon Stanton and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec — have grasped this mortal quality in a way that transcends their contemporaries. Despite the decades that divide them, the poor, panicked girl could belong to either. Both Stanton and Toulouse-Lautrec possess the unparalleled capacity to at once evoke the flaws of humankind and make them beautiful.

'Poudre de riz' (1887)

Stanton is the 21st–century reincarnation of Toulouse-Lautrec. No, he doesn't limp, and he doesn't garner his inspiration from late nights in the pub nursing the alcoholism that will eventually cause his death. But he does have an acute sensibility for the spectacle of daily movement, and he can transform even the most commonplace interaction into a stunning vignette — a shot of the traffic that surrounds us.

In 2010, Stanton conceived a project based on a bizarre desire to connect with those around him — an aspiration that seems foreign when juxtaposed with the fast pace and self-interested nature of the metropolis. He decided to stop strangers as they rush through the paces of their daily monotonies and, after a quick conversation, discover what makes them tick. From an engaged and progressive school teacher at a subway station to a saxophone-playing Spiderman in Times Square, Stanton delves into the psyche of the melting pot and forces us to think about the complicated web of narratives that encircle us as we catch the 1 train or march through a snowy Central Park.

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Through his photographs, Stanton finds flattering angles and takes snapshots that somehow relate the personalities, quirks and beliefs of his subjects. He adds descriptions — dialogue to complete the statement — but really, his art is so lush itself that it requires no explanation.

Much like Toulouse-Lautrec, whose muse was Montmartre with its wildly glamorous community of sin, invention, vice and creation, Stanton seems to find his raison d'être in the city he adores. However, while Toulouse-Lautrec branded Paris as a home to outcasts by focusing on the slums and dives of the 18th arrondissement, no single barrio calls to the photographer. Stanton ventures to all five boroughs, intent on uncovering the Big Apple's greatest jewels, even if they're encased in rock and grime. Some of his portraits make us smile, while others are heartbreaking yet sublime. He may post a photo of a little girl in Chinatown as she laughs with glee, but moments later he'll introduce the history of a man who started his journey with "one shot. Three dollars."

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Obviously, Stanton doesn't shy from difficult, incendiary topics. His New York is not from "On the Town;" there is rarely singing or dancing, but there is fervor. Maybe it's a mother who grows teary when mistaken for a prostitute, or it could be a skater who waits at Grand Central for his Juliet, though she may never show. No matter the photo, Stanton's work is an emblem of the glory within love, pain and possibility.

"I told her that if she wanted to start over, to meet where we first kissed. She was supposed to be here 15 minutes ago." Image Credit: HONY Facebook 

Similarly, Toulouse-Lautrec could demand pathos from his audience with a swoosh of his brush. He was attracted to the ephemeral and the modern, and always sought to find merit in even the most problematic situations. From 1892-1896, he went through a phase where he concentrated on prostitution. Women stand in line, nearly nude, as they wait to be inspected by doctors. In another portrait two lesbians lounge on a couch, peacefully sharing their affection for one another before their shifts begin.

'The Sofa' (c. 1894-96)

Like Stanton and his couples, the painter was a master of romance: His images of bedtime lovers embody a passion absent in most post-impressionist and fin de siècle canvases. Unlike Klimt's iconic turn-of-the-century "The Kiss," which is violent and sensual, Toulouse-Lautrec depicts love as sensitive, evanescent and delicate even within a mundane context.

'In Bed: The Kiss' (1892)

"It was this night, on our fifth anniversary, that we vowed not to give up ... A moment so fleeting that it had escaped us, lost to the chaos of our times; yet here it is, so beautifully captured and for all the world to see." Image Credit: HONY Facebook

Perhaps one of the most unifying threads that string together the two artistic geniuses is their insistence on sharing their masterpieces with the public. During the late-1800s, Toulouse-Lautrec chose to design posters for popular nightclubs in Paris even though he was financially stable. Some of his most prized drawings are of the Moulin Rouge’s dancers performing their famous can-can.

Now, in the 21st century, social media has replaced the poster as the most accessible venue through which one can share thoughts and ideas, and Stanton has taken full advantage of his blog and Facebook to publicize and distribute his photos — free of charge.

Image Credit: HONY Facebook

But the most important resemblance, if not the most evident, is that both Stanton and Toulouse-Lautrec are comfortable with tragedy. They realize that the world is imperfect — that we get hurt, that we experience horrible and wonderful feelings, and that we're all interconnected by the fact that we are human. In a technological age when we seem to be forgetting that everyone has something to share, sometimes it's nice to look to the few visionaries who comprehend this one invariable truth. 

"I got some purple ones because my yellow ones weren't feeling too good." Image Credit: HONY Facebook