National News

Why She’s Leaving Town: New York Just Isn’t Funny Anymore

Posted December 17, 2017 3:11 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — What Jessica Burstein had to show for just over 40 years in New York — photographs of what looked like crime scenes and of the new Yankee Stadium when it was under construction — had been sent across town for permanent safekeeping. The last two words in that sentence are not, in fact, redundant. The New-York Historical Society, where the photographs went, is not like the friend’s garage where you can stash a few things for a few months until you feel settled in your new place. Or the friend’s patience runs out.

Back at Burstein’s apartment on the Upper East Side, where the neighbors once included Yul Brynner, the movers filled a van with the possessions she had decided to keep, and drove away.

Everyone who moves to New York has his or her reasons — a first job, maybe, or a promotion, or someone special. Love is usually involved, but a different kind of love from the love of the job or the someone special — love for New York City, because it is the kind of place you have to love to live in.

Inevitably, because love can be perishable, there is the question of what to do when that love dims, when the appeal of the city is not there anymore.

Burstein decided the flame had gone out, so last week she left. Why, after so long?

First among her reasons was not one of the usual answers about hassles and high prices.

“I stopped being funny in New York,” she said. “It stopped being funny, and as a consequence, I am no longer funny. And funny is a consequence I value.”

But soon she was talking about developments that were not funny. Her apartment building was renovated as part of a condominium conversion. She was a rent-stabilized tenant and had lived in the building for most of her time in New York. The landlord moved her to a building on the Upper West Side while the work was going on.

“I felt as if I were in another country, and it was liberating,” she said of her new surroundings. “There were people, as opposed to my neighborhood, and the zeitgeist is so completely different.” She discovered open mic nights at Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar, the club on West 72nd Street founded by the singing duo Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson.

But the Upper West Side was different from what she was accustomed to. “It’s filthy over there,” she said. “Then the litter started getting on my nerves, and after a while, it wasn’t so much fun. It’s like anything, when you first go someplace new, it’s exciting. The reality is, because I worked on ‘Law & Order’ for over 20 years and we went everywhere in New York City, I saw the changes. We used to come out of Chelsea Piers” — where “Law & Order” was based — “scared out of our wits. If somebody had been digging and there was a pile of dirt, we figured there were rats around there.”

When the renovations in her building were completed, she moved back, but her frame of reference had changed. “It’s no longer the city that never sleeps, it’s the city that’s gone to sleep,” she said. “Downtown is a younger area, I understand, but I spent so much time shooting there, it feels like it’s a set. I may have a very crooked perspective, but it’s mine. It’s what I’ve seen.”

What she had seen through her Canons and Nikons were particular slices of New York. She took photographs at Elaine’s, the celebrity hangout on the Upper East Side with an imperious proprietor, starting in 1992. “It’s not like she paid me or anything,” Burstein said. “She’d want prints, and it was all on my own dime. It was the most expensive job I ever had.”

But it led to “Law & Order,” because the show’s creator, Dick Wolf, was a customer.

“Dick Wolf saw some photographs of mine and said, ‘Who is that photographer?’ Elaine said, ‘I’ll introduce you.’ He said, ‘I have an idea.'” Wolf had a crime-scene book in mind, but the crime scenes he wanted were from “Law & Order” — staged, but so authentic-looking that television viewers would assume they were real. At first, Burstein worried about whether her shots looked authentic enough, so she took prints to Elaine’s, which was also popular with police detectives. “They would argue about which person had been at which crime scene,” she said, “so I knew I got it right.” The book was published in 2003.

She was a photographer for “Law & Order” and, later, for “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” a spinoff that ran for 10 seasons, six on NBC and four on USA. The last shoot for “Criminal Intent” was on the same night in 2011 that Elaine’s closed.

At Yankee Stadium, she stood on the roof when the electrical workers installed the lights and on the field when the sod was rolled out. She had gone to the sod farm before it was rolled up. And she zoomed in when the blue “Y” was hoisted into place above Gate 4, completing the word “YANKEE.”

Marilyn Satin Kushner, the curator and head of the department of prints, photographs and architectural collections at the historical society, said that when she was hired, she asked about gaps in the society’s collection.

“The gaps were anything from 1950 to the present,” she said. “One reason was, the people who were taking photographs in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s were still taking them and weren’t ready to give them up. So Jessica’s photographs are filling a gap that we have. Her work is good. She lived through quite a time and documented it in her own way. She was at the right places at the right time. We’re bursting at the seams, but that’s why I’m bringing them in.”

Burstein is moving to Maine. She said it would seem “sort of empty” compared with New York, but she is thinking about another place. While shooting for a book several years ago, she was captivated by the Mississippi Delta. “It was the least Gap-ified, least Home Depot-ized part of America,” she said.

She plans to go there to — what else? — take photographs.