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Jeff Mermelstein’s #nyc
Jeff Mermelstein, from ‘#nyc,’ (MACK, 2020)Courtesy the artist and MACK

This photographer snaps the intimate texts of strangers on the NYC streets

Street photographer Jeff Mermelstein has been taking secret pictures of New Yorkers‘ text messages

Text messages have become the means by which some of the most urgent and pivotal conversations of our lives are conducted. And many of these discussions are going on silently around us all the time, as people in public spaces become increasingly absorbed in their screens, thumbs rapidly spelling out their part in a dialogue that might be no more important than asking advice about the ambient temperature of their refrigerator, to pleading with a lover for forgiveness.

For several years, street photographer Jeff Mermelstein has been taking covert pictures of New Yorkers’ phones with his own iPhone. The images were initially shared on his Instagram account, but now this collection has been gathered together in a new photo book called #nyc. From people slagging off their yoga teachers, discussing the logistics of anal sex, and worrying if the sausages in their fridge are still okay to eat, to friends supporting one another through chemotherapy, and sharing the news of a new pregnancy, #nyc is a series of voyeuristic vignettes, allowing us a privileged look into the moving, mundane, hilarious, and compelling conversations inaudibly taking place in our midst. 

As fascinating as it is, Mermelstein’s book does raise questions about privacy and, at times, his images do breach uncomfortable boundaries – uninvited – into the intimate inner lives of strangers. The photographer navigates this morally ambiguous terrain by cropping his images so faces aren't shown and no identifying names are revealed. He told Artnet, “Even if I’m on perfect legal ground, I still wanted to try, as best I could, to maintain a sense of anonymity.” Nevertheless, as a viewer, you can’t help but imagine the horror of your own private conversations similarly revealed, even whilst gripped by the illicit conversations of others. 

#nyc by Jeff Mermelstein is published by MACK and is available here