In New York, the neighborhoods evolve according to the generations that claim them. In the early nineteenth century, Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, bracketed by Chelsea to the north and the West Village to the south, included a military fort and then a mixed-use neighborhood. As the city grew, working-class tenements slowly gave way to produce markets that eventually expanded to serve larger appetites. By 1900, the district boasted at least 250 slaughterhouses and packing plants, which were replaced in turn by entrepreneurs catering to different appetites altogether: underground gay clubs, leather and fetish shops, followed by bottle-service lounges and couture retail. All the while, more than a touch of that ragged grittiness has remained.
It was this mash-up of tastes and cultures that attracted photographer Dina Litovsky to the area in the first place. A student of human behavior, the former psychology major has always been interested in “social interactions and public behaviors, capturing gazes and microgestures that hint at hidden motivations and desires of individuals.” The Meatpacking District after dark—Manhattan’s ostentatious high-gloss bacchanal for the young, single, and heterosexual—offered the prime location for a series on the carnal nature of modern-day courting.
Over the course of three summers, Litovsky shot the late-night mating rituals that unfolded on these cobblestone streets, where after hours “the rules that govern the city during the day are suspended.” When the food carts “roll in,” around eleven, Litovsky says, “the landscape switches from the family and dinner crowd to determined young partygoers,” with midnight to 3 a.m. being the district’s most raucous time.
Litovsky, drawn to “a layering of exhibitionism and voyeurism” in her work, did her best to disappear into the background and allow her camera to record the scene, “looking at both the observers and the observed.” She dressed inconspicuously, and set aside her signature flash for ambient light—headlamps from passing cars, steam from vendor carts, and streetlights in the neighborhood—to provide the atmosphere for her images. Inside this sultry microcosm of the city’s sexual politics, where women outnumber men, Litovsky watched as alcohol-fueled exchanges became looser and more charged. “Women,” she notes, “navigating the jagged streets in high heels, are confident of their presentation but unsteady in their step.” A barrage of compliments and catcalls accompanied them as they moved even deeper into the night, the low voice of men reverberating around them. It was, Litovsky said, “Meatpacking played out like a carnival of desire, meticulous self-preservation and dissolving social masks.”
It’s a scene of contemporary romance IRL in an age of Tinder and other online dating apps that have men and women seemingly glued to their phones. Here, women use the front-facing cameras on their smartphones to gaze at their own reflections; men gawk at women as they drive by, slowing their imported sports cars to get a better look. This “act of looking,” Litovsky says, “concealed in the daytime, is brazenly celebrated” on these streets at night, in a neighborhood always grappling with its history.
— Allison Wright