It’s hard to explain to those who never pushed those silver buttons. There was, however, something comforting about a phone booth. Isolation in a glass pod meant complete concentration on the person on the other end of the line. Close that door and you’re in another world — one of solitude and intimacy.
The phone booth, an artifact of 20th century telecommunications technology, has slipped into the collective unconscious as a conduit between states of being. It’s where Clark Kent went to access his Super-alter-ego, where Dr. Who defied dimensional boundaries. It’s also where criminals in cop shows, anxious to avoid surveillance, conspired to break the law, and where furtive lovers dodged prying eyes and pledged eternal devotion, until they ran out of dimes.
In 2023, all of that is nearly gone, obviated by the pocket-sized computer on which you’re probably reading this review. The blue-shielded city phone box, the booth’s humbler cousin, is virtually extinct, too. But if you know where to look, you’ll see traces of the public network all over the urban landscape: broken machines, dangling cables, and shadows where the phones used to be.
“Dead Ringers: Portraits of Abandoned Payphones,” which will occupy the front room of Gallery Aferro in Newark through Dec. 21, collects 14 color photos of empty booths, broken receivers and, in the spooky “Phoneprints,” two unpainted rectangles on a whitewashed brick wall. Bolt holes in the brick and a loose wire connected to a black socket are all that is left of the phones that used to hang there.
Photographer Amy Becker has mounted versions of this show elsewhere: These ringers have buzzed at us from the walls of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit and the Monmouth Museum in Lincroft. By bringing the popular show to Newark, she is connecting her prints to the city where many of them were shot. It’s an appropriate exhibition to encounter on Market Street — a place where traces of the past, many of them ghostly and strange, are visible wherever you look.
Becker is certainly not the first Garden State photographer to turn her lens on the disused: When she dusts for traces of humanity on the plastic surfaces of forgotten physical objects, she is operating in long Jersey tradition. What separates “Dead Ringers” (curated by Aferro creative director Juno Zago) from the work of common urban explorers is its liveliness, its acquiescence to the fluidity of urban space, and its tacit acceptance of change and renewal. This photographer does not bring us to a local version of Roman ruins. None of her payphones hang from the walls of abandoned buildings. Instead, they are presented as anachronisms: items from a prior version of the city that have been imperfectly extracted, or simply built around. They radiate pathos. They’re mildly glum.
These portraits are not, however, saturated with sadness. Sometimes, they’re even darkly funny.
In “Churros Man,” a hawker has set up a fish tank’s worth of fried dough sticks in a hollowed-out phone booth. He doesn’t look thrilled about it, but at least he’s got shelter from the sun and rain. The payphone in “Wheel” has been stripped to its metal frame, painted chartreuse and slapped with stickers. Posted at the corner of a garage, it looks like a forlorn robot waiting for orders from a mainframe that will never come.
Occasionally, Becker can lay on the irony awfully thick. In “No Loitering,” signage indicating the presence of public phones plus a loud warning not to linger hang over a black empty husk. The object is gone. All that is left are authoritarian echoes.
The shot is also a reminder that payphones were places where people liked to congregate — especially poorer people who might not have had any privacy in their small apartments. The cellphone has freed us to move around as we talk, but also has changed the character of the corner.
Becker often likes to shoot new technologies right next to the old, and these juxtapositions can be as unsubtle as a pop in the nose from a phone receiver. Yet she is also reminding us that the city is constantly in flux. “Newark Library,” one of the prettiest shots in a show filled with color, finds a woman seated in an old phone booth. We see only her dress — bright and floral and very different in texture from the worn, scraped, dull wood of the frame of the booth — and her hands, which probe the touchscreen of an iPhone. Behind her is a mute white panel where the payphone once hung, a switch leading to nothing in particular, and a metal plate on the wall — blank, inscrutable and silent as a stone block in a royal tomb.
Becker’s human beings seem oblivious to the world that was, like the child on the bicycle in “Grounded,” earbuds in and pedaling past an uprooted phone that has been laid on its side. The photographer does not judge them for it: They’re busy city people, many of them Newarkers on the go, and they’ve adapted to the environment they’ve received. But it often feels like she would like to take them by their shoulders, turn them around and implore them to see where we’ve been. In many of her shots, abandoned phone boxes have been repainted to match the colors of the businesses they front. If store owners can’t go through the bother of removing them altogether, they can be made to blend into the background. There they hide in plain sight, fading relics of a different era of communication — one more stationary, more nodal, more egalitarian, and rooted more firmly in the local cement.
If all this sounds nostalgic … well, yes, there is a good bit of that operating here. The best shots in this crowd-pleaser of a show are those in which the viewer can feel the ghosts gathering, and where decay seems to be outpacing the rate of renewal. “Port Newark” is just an image of a blasted booth: a rickety assemblage of rusted metal and wisps of torn-off masking tape, with a frayed strand of electrical wire protruding from a circular aperture that resembles a worried mouth. Trash has been dumped on the ground outside the glass doors, and hazy sunlight obscures the parking lot beyond. Even better is “Fugitives,” in which a pair of desolate booths are sentinels guarding the door to a police unit. Were these used by prisoners making phone calls to their families? From where do they call now?
Becker’s composition isn’t unerring. But if it was, this show wouldn’t be half as energetic as it is. These are best understood as action shots, even if the action has been unfolding over the course of decades. The surreal “Ladders” takes us into a lot that feels like a staging area for urban transformation. The phone that hangs off the hook seems almost operational; at any rate, it’s in better shape than a large letter “e” torn, perhaps, from a road sign, or the weathered ladders that hang in brackets on a high yellow wall. It might have taken years for these objects to gather by these train tracks. It might have taken a weekend.
At the train station on “Hutton Street,” a bicycle is visible through a doorway. A stripped phone box hovers under a window. Not so long ago, a train rider with a quarter could have disembarked and made a call. One day, that changed. Now, if he has a message to deliver but can’t afford a cellphone, he’d better pedal fast.
Gallery Aferro in Newark will show Amy Becker’s “Dead Ringers: Portraits of Abandoned Payphones” through Dec. 21. Visit aferro.org.
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