As an impressionable young woman, I journeyed to fabled Manhattan from my relatively sheltered life as an art student at RISD in Providence, R.I. Upon alighting at Penn Station for the very first time, there was a bit of a glitch. My older, worldlier sister who had already been living in the Big Apple for 3 years had not given me clear instructions on where we were to meet. Those were the days before cell phones – there was no way to get in touch with her. I was an innocent 18-year-old in New York City wondering what the hell had happened to my sister – after about 40 minutes or so I decided to go search upstairs and there she was … my street-smart sister nearly as frantic as I.
For a good part of this visit I was on my own – marveling at the gritty, wonderful streets of NYC. Camera in hand, I attempted to summon the spirits of dead immigrants on the Lower East Side, admired the Art Deco lines of the Empire State Building – imagining King Kong and Fay Wray at the top, and prowled Canal Street for Vintage. A longtime admirer of the photography of Bernice Abbott, Jacob Riis, Walker Evans, and Helen Levitt, I too desired to capture a moment in time in “The City that Never Sleeps.”
There was one place that pulled me in more than any other and I found myself gravitating towards it – Times Square. This was not the relatively innocent Times Square captured as the backdrop for perhaps the most indelible photo of the 20th century – Alfred Eisenstadt’s The Kiss taken on V-Day.
It was a decidedly darker underbelly of big-city life – sleazy peep shows and XXX-rated movie theaters, game arcades, neon lights, and dubious characters. Patti Smith wrote about this Times Square (circa 1969) in Just Kids, her eloquent, poignant memoir of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe. “We stopped at a photo booth at Playland to take our pictures, a strip of four shots for a quarter. We got a hot dog and papaya drink at Benedict’s, then merged with the action. Boys on shore leave, prostitutes, runaways, abused tourists, and assorted victims of alien abduction. It was an urban boardwalk with Kino parlors, souvenir stands, Cuban diners, strip clubs, and late-night pawnshops.”
I found Times Square both fascinating and repulsive and about as far afield from my upbringing in idyllic suburban Chicago as possible. I was not a total rube, having spent a lot of time as a kid in the City of Chicago itself – but NYC was different and I was smitten. I shot a lot of B & W photos, and in retrospect, was lucky that nobody stopped me. There were prostitutes and pimps on these mean streets and I could have stumbled into a dangerous situation photographing at will.
I happened upon Playland, the glorious game arcade mentioned by Patti Smith. I played Skee ball – my personal favorite, and stepped into the same photo booth as Patti and Robert, albeit 8 years later. I only wish I had been born earlier so I could have visited Hubert’s Museum at 228-232 West 42nd Street, in existence from the 1920s-1965, and Hubert’s Freaks – the freak show housed within and brought to life vividly in the pages of the book by Gregory Gibson. I also found a dirt cheap, dimly lit steak house on Broadway called Martin’s – I ate there by myself and dragged my sister with a few days later. We went to see a few Broadway shows on my visits, but the theatre district is not what drew me to Times Square.
Many of the NYC photos I shot from 1976-1980 were exhibited in the Netherlands when I moved there after graduating from RISD. I remember one art critic commenting that my work lacked the socially responsible commentary of Bruce Davidson’s gritty NYC photos. That was not my intent – I was simply documenting the rapidly vanishing urban landscape from a purely artistic, cultural perspective.
During the mid-1990s, Mayor Giuliani ramped up the eradication of porn and sleaze in Times Square. The movement to clean-up Times Square had actually been attempted as early as 1971 when Mayor Lindsay created the Times Square Development Council. By the end of the 1990s, the ‘Disneyfication’ of the area was complete. I bemoaned the demise of authenticity and always will – the homogenization of America is not a good thing. Times Square today is unbearably commercial and fake – yes, there are still souvenir shops, but everything is Made in China and looks like a facade. Nothing stays the same, but photography blissfully freezes moments in time when memories start to dim with age.