Photo Book Revisits 1980s Fish Market and Lower Manhattan 'Transformation'

"'Flying fish' on the sales floor, 1984." Photo by Barbara Mensch

Sep. 23, 2023

Barbara Mensch’s seminal photographs of the Fulton Fish Market in its waning days of the early 1980s are given new life—and subsequent historical context—with her recently published book, “A Falling-Off Place: The Transformation of Lower Manhattan.”  

Mensch returns us to the grimy, long-vanished world of ice haulers, unloaders and fish mongers—the denizens of her remarkable 2007 volume, “South Street,” but with the added, wider view of a disappearing Downtown that would follow. While not the sort of extensive, visual rumination on loss that photographer Danny Lyon brought to “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan,” Mensch offers a sort of visual postscript to her valuable documentation of the fish market. Many of the images are of a Downtown coming down, in advance of its residential renewal. 

In a collection from the 90s that she calls “Setting the Stage for a Real Estate Boom: Fires, Floods and Neglect,” Mensch shows us a fish market “arson fire,” a burned-out Tin Building, a flooded Peck Slip, and demolitions of various sorts around Lower Manhattan. The third and final section, titled “The New Millennium,” brings us to September 11, 2001 and its aftermath, including 9/11 conspiracy demonstrators, and protestors against a proposed Islamic Center blocks from the World Trade Center site. 

Significantly, this final section also returns full circle to the Fish Market, where Mensch has photographed its last day, in 2005, and later the area’s lifeless remnants. 

Sorting through stored-away boxes of negatives and prints, the source of many of the book’s previously unpublished pictures, Mensch discovered what she calls in her introduction, “my personal visual timeline.”

“What did the passage of decades reveal to me?” she writes. “What dynamics were at play in my images of the same streets that I walked repeatedly for years? What fell off as the old was swept away by the new?”

A permanent exhibit of Mensch’s Fulton Fish Market photos is on view at the South Street Seaport’s Tin Building. On Oct. 7, the photographer will give a tour of the former market neighborhood, ending with a visit to her exhibit. Go here for more information and to register for the tour.