New York’s Meatpacking District is, these days, a glittering and slightly surreal place. Once a gritty neighborhood known for its sex clubs, gay nightlife and drag queens (and before that, literal animal carcasses), it’s transformed in recent years into a playground for the hyper-rich and the velvet-roped clubs they seem to prefer. It has obsessed photographer Dina Litovsky for three summers, who sees it as a stage where sexual politics, social mores, and mating rituals play out in unusually public ways. She spent long, late hours in the neighborhood, working to capture fleeting, spontaneous interactions on the streets.
Litovsky has shot for a host of publications; she’s been published everywhere from the New York Times to National Geographic to GQ. She recently spoke to Jezebel about her experience capturing the Meatpacking’s bizarre carnival. Her full photo series is viewable here. You can also see her work on Instagram.
JEZEBEL: The detail you captured here is incredible—women supporting themselves against a wall, changing from flip flops into heels, these fleeting gaping looks of men as women walk past them, a stampede of bachelorettes crossing a lonely street as a guy in a suit does a double-take. It must have taken forever, and it must’ve required being inconspicuous. Tell me about the experience of photographing the scene—how many nights did you spend there? How did you dress? Did you stand against a wall?
Dina Litovsky: I’ve spent more evenings in the Meatpacking than I ever thought possible. Some of the first images came effortlessly, men gaping at women, tripping heels on the cobblestone. But soon after I realized that I need to look for more complex, surprising moments that required a lot of patience and walking around. Because I wasn’t using flash for this project, I could only photograph in specific places that were lit by street lamps, lights from passing cars or vendor carts. If I saw something interesting happening at a location, I’d hang around to wait for a photo opportunity. Many times I had to pretend to be on my phone so the people who interested me wouldn’t realize I’m intending to photograph them. I would dress as comfortably and inconspicuously as I could, black jeans and t-shirt and flip-flops of course.
You talk in your statement and in an interview with Time’s photo blog about the very blunt, visible sexual politics and courtship rituals on display. Men catcall, whistle at and sometimes physically grab women, and women accept the attention, sometimes enthusiastically. Are people pairing off? Is romance, or at least sex, in the air, or is it more about seeing and being seen?
I don’t recall people pairing off right from the street. Numbers could have been exchanged but once I would get the photo I wanted I’d leave the scene. At the start of the night, the attitude was more about being seen, but as the evening progressed interactions became looser and visibly sexual.
You told Time that you were occasionally grabbed or propositioned. How did you respond? Were you disrupting the social order by being a young woman in that scene and yet somehow not there to hook up?
Almost every night that I was shooting I had some kind of incident where I was catcalled, propositioned or even followed. In the beginning I was a bit naïve and would try to explain that I’m a photographer and not interested. Once I gave out my business card when asked, and the guy continued texting me for a long time after, even finding me on social media. After that experience I stopped giving out any personal information, and when I would see someone coming toward me I would just cross the street to avoid any interaction. Still, I’ve had some unpleasant experiences of being grabbed and insulted after refusing to “smile.” Many guys seemed incredulous that a woman walking alone at night was not happy about their advances after 2 a.m. If I was shooting this late, I always tried to find a spot near a patrol car, that was always the safest place where I could photograph undisturbed.
How did you feel about your subjects and what you were witnessing? I love these series in part because it feels sort of cool, analytical, ironically curious and yet non-judgmental. It doesn’t feel like you exactly like these people but you also weren’t horrified by all this excessive peacocking.
No, I don’t find the excessive peacocking, as you called it, in any way horrifying. More than anything I was curious and fascinated by what I saw unfolding in front of me. I have always been interested in discovering people’s hidden motivations for social behavior and here the scene was ripe with opportunities for that. Meatpacking played out like a carnival of desire, meticulous self-presentation and dissolving social masks.
You said this scene offers a glimpse at “contemporary romance.” What about it? Whose courtship rituals are we seeing here? What do they mean?
In a way, I thought that all the public interactions between men and women are a throwback to a pre-Tinder era. What would be considered totally vulgar and inappropriate previously, now had a feeling of a “real connection,” an actual experience of meeting someone in person. But at the same time, the way men would look over passing women to pick one out from the crowd seemed like an analog version of swiping left and right on Tinder.
High heels and the Meatpacking’s famous cobblestone streets seem like a bad mix. Did you see a lot of accidents?
I saw a few, nothing that major but a few falls and lots and lots of stumbles.
You also do a clever, subtle job of capturing the interactions between workers—at restaurants, at food stands—going about their business in the midst of this absolute cavalcade of horned up rich kids. Was there much interaction between the two groups? Was the Meatpacking Crowd mostly white, or was it more diverse than that?
On the street the crowd is pretty diverse, that’s one of the reasons I decided to photograph outside. The clubs and lounges are somewhat sharply divided by race/social status and you could tell that by the lines. But the space in between is like an airport terminal where everyone intermixes while walking from place to place, hailing taxis or just hanging out on the sidewalk.
The people working in the Meatpacking, the street cart vendors, taxi drives and police officers seemed like they crashed a big party. Street car vendors especially, all men and mostly immigrants from the Middle East, were unabashedly looking over the crowd and obviously having fun. I befriended a couple of them; they would always kindly offer me water and hot dogs and seemed quite amused that a woman photographer was interested in this scene.
You talk a bit in your artist’s statement about how Manhattan is considered a particularly bad dating market for women, with a big imbalance of straight women versus straight men. Do you feel like that influences the interactions you were seeing on the street?
In 2015 as I was shooting my third summer in the Meatpacking, I read a few articles that talked about how Manhattan is the worst dating market in US. One in particular stated that “social science show how dating and mating behavior is influenced by prevailing sex ratios… When gender ratios skew toward women, the dating culture becomes more sexualized.” To me that echoed the scene laid out in the Meatpacking; hordes of young single women and super vocal, emboldened men.
Did you find yourself looking at older images of the Meatpacking District, from its days as a grittier scene more associated with sex work and sex clubs? It’s Interesting that this particular spot has maintained its sexual associations, for lack of a better word, even as it and Manhattan become wealthier, whiter, and straighter.
I did try to find as many images as I could of the older days Meatpacking district. It was really interesting to see how neighborhood changed both architecturally and atmospherically yet retained its flavor for outdoor sexual politics.