My love for NYC goes back to when I was a teenager and visited my older sister, who at the time was living in her first dive apartment, a 3rd floor walk-up on Sullivan Street north of Houston. However, it was during my four years at RISD, from 1976-1980, that I became immersed in NYC. I have written about this before, in Reflections on a New York City Christmas, Own a Small Piece of Vanishing New York – Vintage 1970s, and The Times Square of My Mind. I have photographed the gritty streets of NYC going back to my RISD years. Every time I return, another small or large chunk of my youth slips away, swallowed up by gentrification and cookie-cutter commerce.
Twenty-eight years before the great female photographer Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio on July 17, 1898, a pioneering documentary photographer named Jessie Tarbox Beals was born on December 23, 1870 in Hamilton, Ontario. While Abbott has long been a favorite of mine along with the wonderful female photographers Helen Levitt (1913-2009) and Ruth Orkin (1921-1985), Beals was not on my list until recently. I readily admit this oversight with remorse and humility and she is now the subject of my devotion and fascination. While the aforementioned photographers may have possessed greater cache in the art world during their lifetime and post-death, and perhaps more bravura technique, Beals overcame more insurmountable odds due to her place in time. All three of these photographers are synonymous with capturing New York City life … and all of them surely had to encounter the challenges and prejudice of working in a male-dominated field. Abbott was influenced greatly by the French photographer Eugene Atget, whose artistic goal was to document all of the architecture and street scenes of Paris before these cityscapes succumbed to modernization. She moved to NYC in 1918, but left for Europe in 1921 to study sculpture and painting in Berlin and Paris. It wasn’t until 1923, when Man Ray hired her as a darkroom assistant at his Parisian portrait studio that she realized photography was her calling. She returned to NYC in 1929, reportedly to find an American publisher for Atget’s photographs, and it dawned on her that she had to capture the city’s ephemeral landscape much as Atget had done in his beloved Paris. I cannot find any mention of this, but surely Abbott had to be aware of Beals’ work.
This is for kindred spirits who have read this blog, and in particular the articles on photography and the vanishing urban landscape. And for souls like me that bemoan the disappearance of vintage NYC and appreciate its rich visual history. I have been photographing the gritty, graffiti-etched surfaces of NYC since 1976. As a young photographer, I was particularly inspired by the work of Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Ruth Orkin, and Weegee. I had two exhibits of my NYC photographs in the Netherlands in the 1981, and an art critic commented that I should have endeavored to document social injustices like Bruce Davidson did in his East Harlem series, or like my personal favorite Lewis Hine did in his harrowing photos of young, poor immigrants. But I have always been true to my vision – one that goes back to when my dad gave me my first camera at age 13. And that is to capture and preserve the ephemeral urban landscape – highlighting aspects of consumerism and pop culture before they vanish forever. Sometimes people enter the picture, but they are an integral part of this landscape rather than the primary focal point – with a few exceptions.