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Secrets yielded

By Jane Holtz Kay / April 24, 1981



The city is a silhouette. The hands that create our urban spaces obey a hard-edge axiom: the shortest distance must be crossed by the straightest line. City surroundings thus take on the edge of engineered objects -- their edgy quality, too: urban contrasts are heightened, blacks are blacker, whites whiter than on a more open, more organic landscape.

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R. Todd hoffman's "Dover Station" gives us that rendering of silhousettes. It is part of the right-angle narrative of our streets. Roof, bannistr, supports, frame the sky. They grid the figure taking the same -- that direct no-nonsense -- route from here to there.

Fresh to the city, the photographer felt its contrasts in the striking way he presents them here. The inky geometrics, the patterns of the city, even the bigness of the stranger descending the steps of the elevated Dover Station, struck the newcomer. He haunted Boston's streets, lived on "the funky side of town," and sought the ways city life most silhouetted itself against his suburban past.

Hoffman came to Boston and his profession at the same time. Each had an impact on the other. City life demanded that you look and "photography demands that you look," he says. "When you carry a camera, you keep peeling back layer after layer."

So there are layers here beyond the cutout contrasts of black on white. Softening elements enrich the starkness of the scene. The sheltering roof has a gentle underbelly of gray, the ridged fabric of its surface. The decoration that 19th-century architects used to ameliorate the rigid physics of the stairs to the elevated train station appear in the posts, the curlicues of the stairways, the column below.

Even the figure that Hoffman found both frightening and attractive has elements of softness beyond its imagined menace to a stranger in a city. The light that carves out the man's rounded cheekbones is the same light that makes that wrought-iron curlicues more tender than at first glance.

So, too, the act of photographing must have made Hoffman's impressions of this vast new landscape less stark. Signaling out one element of the endless metropolis and transforming it into a more compact play of geometric forms defused the threat, made the boundless newness more finite and lifted a very manageable paragraph or page from the city's unwiedly text.