Jason Bell’s An Englishman in New York exhibition opens at the National Portrait Gallery this month alongside his fourth book, a small collection inspired by the 120,000 English men and women living in New York. Bell, a native Londoner, moved to New York in 2003 dividing his time between the two cities.
Following an American Vogue assignment about ‘angophilia’ Bell began his investigation into the flourishing English expat community and has since photographed a cross section of the New York English community, including Kate Winslet, Sting, Zoe Heller and Sir Paul Nurse. Thankfully Bell doesn’t just focus on his eminent sitters, embracing the wider expat community from commercial divers Phil and Dennis Roach to NYPD detective Martin Speechley. Bell’s expats are as diverse as the city itself.
The real highlights of the exhibition are the small cultural insights of the sitters New York stories displayed beside the stunning photographs. Their concerns and motivations highlight what it means to be English, to be an immigrant and where the two intersect. Most of the sitters warmly celebrate England, rose-tinted and frozen since their departure, they certify their identity as British and draw upon the sense of humour; something ‘you can’t replicate and you can’t teach it to Americans, they really don’t get it’, whereas others find themselves merged into the melting pot and feeling more American than English.
Bell’s sitters seem to share a sense of ‘profound European scepticism’, which keeps them from being taken in by the overtly optimistic American dream while also accepting the idea that things really are possible. New York bridges this divide healthily.Bell succeeds in avoiding clichéd shots of the world’s most iconic city but still captures that very unique sense of New York. New York is a city where anything is possible, where the English, full of reserve and scepticism, are encouraged and cherished.
Till 17 April 2011
An Englishman in New York is published by Dei Lewis Publishing (RRP £35.00) with text and interviews by Guy Harrington.