Martha Rosler | The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems

Today in Alison’s lecture, we discussed Martha Rosler and her 1970’s black and white photography collection, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems.


Interestingly, this collection is one of the first examples that combine photography with art.


Along with the images, Rosler uses minimal type. Words, such as “funnel” and “featured”, seem to portray a relationship between the words and the images. These words are associations or themes towards drunkenness. Alison asked us whether or not we looked firstly at the image or the type. As I am a designer, my eye engages more with the image in contras to the type.

What is The Bowery? 

The Bowery is a street and neighbourhood in the southern portion of the NYC borough of Manhattan. The street runs from Chatham Square at Park Row, Worth Street, and Mott Street in the south to Cooper Square at 4th Street in the north, while the neighborhood’s boundaries are roughly East 4th Street and the East Village to the north; Canal Street and Chinatown to the south; Allen Street and the Lower East Side to the east; and Little Italy to the west. The Bowery was highly known for its drunkenness and homelessness. 

Middle class people would go visit The Bowery and observe- like animals at a zoo. This is partly because of curiosity- to see how the other half live, but also from judgement. By visiting The Bowery, it makes the middle class feel better about themselves and their lifestyle. People said it to be a “slumming spectacle”.

We then moved on to talking about how this style has evolved. Police photographer Jacob Riis captured “How the other half live” in 1890 NYC. The photography documents squalid living conditions in NYC slums in the 1880’s. It served as a basis for future “muckraking” journalism by exposing the slums to New York City’s upper and middle classes.


This particular image is rather well known. As a police photographer, he had to bare in mind the dangers of these people- how they might be a danger to others and create crime in NYC. However, this photo shows vulnerability. From this type of photography, people have commonly done something similar to show poverty within the U.K. I remember for a project I did at college, I tried to create awareness of Poverty within my local area of Blackpool. However, I didn’t feel comfortable photographing homeless people, therefore resulted in staging my brother by dressing him up as a homeless person. 

Another example of evolved and similar photography is Walker Evans who was a photographer commissioned by the American government after recession. His famous family portrait “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”. Evans photographs did not get published until 1941 because at the time it was very bold to show poor in such terrible conditions. 27OBSERVER-popup

Around the same time that Martha Rosler did her photographs for The Bowery, another photographer called Zettler did the same in 1975. He wrote a book about it, and used his photographs inside. On the cover, he featured a middle age man who summed up The bowery. He looked rough, and run down.

Below is an interview with Martha Rosler talking about her project.