My obsession with Patti Smith began in 2011, after reading Just Kids, her brilliant, touching memoir about coming of age in NYC with Robert Mapplethorpe. When I was an art student at RISD, I was aware of her music because my freshman roommate Katherine played Horses over and over again. Her music back then was too raw and visceral for my immature tastes, so I did not worship her like many of my art school peers. However, by my senior year, I worshipped Robert Mapplethorpe – strictly for his bold imagery – which inspired my marble carvings of nude muscular males. I met him at the Young Hoffman Gallery in 1982, where he was standing all by himself – a handsome, soft-spoken cowboy whose demeanor completely belied his promiscuous sexual proclivities and frank sexual imagery. As I wrote in a prior blog, by a stroke of serendipity, I briefly talked to Patti Smith in December 2012 at a little Nepalese boutique in Soho that was going out of business. When I read Just Kids, I found myself sobbing at times, and it was this poignant book that provided my opening line, so I endeavored to maintain some composure. While she was nice enough to engage me for a few seconds, she turned her back before I was done talking and clearly wanted her privacy. I will never forget this chance encounter, as fleeting as it was.
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.
My paternal grandfather Abraham immigrated by himself to America in 1905, leaving behind my grandmother Nettie to fend for herself with their firstborn infant, my Aunt Ella, in a small village near Lomza, Poland. Once my grandfather settled in NYC, he worked in the garment industry as an embroiderer – the trade he learned in the old country. He returned to Poland in late 1911, already a U.S. citizen – Jacob (my Uncle Jack) was born in 1912 and when Abraham left again for America later that year, he was unaware that my grandmother was pregnant with Dora (my Aunt Dottie), who was born in 1913. When World War I broke out, he was separated once again from his family, this time for even longer. He returned to Poland in 1919, moved the family temporarily to Lomza, and worked towards the goal of immigration for his family. Abraham, Nettie, and the three children stepped foot on Ellis Island on April 9, 1921, after sailing from Southampton on the Aquitania. My dad Sam was the only member of his immediate family to be born in America, in September 1923.
“The work she produced in her short life is 100 times better than anything you have created or could ever create!” Those were the cruel, harsh words that were hurled at me from my 20-year-old daughter’s insolent lips in 2007. The occasion was a visit to the Tate Modern in London and the discovery of an Artist’s Room dedicated to Francesca Woodman. It was hard to process everything I was feeling when I saw those photographs. Difficult because my daughter’s post-teenage angst overshadowed what became a trip from hell, but also because I had somehow forgotten about Francesca in the context of my four years at RISD. I am not sure why it has taken me so long to write about this – perhaps I needed the distance and perspective of the passage of time. Or the sheer volume of online content could have dissuaded me – 567,000 Google hits on Francesca as of April 2015, and counting.
I rarely write travelogue pieces, but a September 2014 2-day trip to John Water’s hometown of Baltimore warrants this for the oddities and wonders encountered. My daughter and I took a BoltBus from NYC to Baltimore in mid-September, heading to the Natural Products Expo East. It was with a little trepidation that I booked the bus trip – the reviews on Bolt, Peter Pan, Greyhound, and Megabus leave you wishing you had a fast Porsche instead. In retrospect, glad we didn’t take a Megabus – quite a few accidents in the last months. Hopping in a cab near my daughter’s West Village apartment, we got snarled up in Chelsea traffic along 10th Avenue. We finally made it to the rather odd location for our journey – 33rd Street between 11 and 12th Avenues. The bus trip there was not half as bad as some of the Yelp reviews, but nevertheless, I found myself wondering how the heck anyone over 5” 3” could possibly fit his or her legs into this cramped space. We mainly listened to our iPods and I found myself fascinated looking straight into the faces of truck drivers who were at my eye level for the first time, trying to snap photos of them at the right moment. The highlight was crossing the pretty Delaware River, as I summoned images of George Washington doing so in 1776, or to be more accurate, the painting by Emauel Leutze depicting this valiant event.
I have been experiencing a wave of nostalgia – it comes with age and recent losses of dear friends and our beloved little kitty Pepper. For me, the holidays seem to inspire reflections on the past – thinking back to how much New York City used to mean to me at Christmas. I have been digging up wonderful Christmas-related NYC photos from the Library of Congress and decided to delve into my own archives to see what I could find. When I was a child and up through about 2004, my parents would visit NYC every December for an annual psychiatric meeting at the Waldorf Astoria. While my dad was attending lectures, my mom would go window shopping with some of her friends. As children, my sisters and I always looked forward to my parents coming home with intriguing presents. My dad would also visit Russ & Daughters and purchase obscene amounts of candy that he had shipped home. Chocolate covered coffee beans, pastel chocolate mint lentils, and chocolate covered raspberry rings are the candies that I remember most. He would tell me stories about buying pretzels and roasted chestnuts from street vendors, shopping at B. Altman, Gimbels, and other now defunct stores; telling me tales that made it sound so magical.
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.
I have been fascinated with the Triangle Fire tragedy since I was around 8-years-old. I first read about this disaster in a book entitled, Portal to America: the Lower East Side 1870-1925, edited by Allon Schoener. I paged through this book endlessly, honing my drawing skills by copying the photos of poor immigrants by Lewis Hine and others. Although there are just two pages on the Triangle Fire and one photo in this book, there are quite a few photos of garment workers and sweatshops that enthralled me as a child. I didn’t experience this depth of sadness again about the immigrant experience until I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle when I was a teenager. The hardships suffered by these immigrants and their remarkable resolve in a strange, foreign land was incredibly poignant to me, even as a child. I forgot about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire for many years and I am not sure what renewed my interest, but I delved into the subject like never before about 6 months ago. This is a tragedy of almost unspeakable sadness – one that still grips the imagination and attention of thousands of people every March 25, and forever in the hearts of relatives of victims and survivors. In preparation for my September 2013 NYC trip, I did as much research as possible – with the goal of writing some type of article and creating a collage as homage to the 146 souls who lost their lives more than 100 years ago. Tragically, these workplace disasters are still occurring today, especially in underdeveloped countries. Much has been written about the Triangle Fire and I do not endeavor to duplicate the efforts of others. I only hope to infuse it with something artistic, meaningful, and that does justice to the memories of the…
It’s a great place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. That is what one of the many intriguing characters I met in NYC during my 10-day trip said about Chicago. I guess I feel the same way about NYC, but I have to say, it is easier to engage in discussion with people in the Big Apple. Everybody wants to tell you his or her story. This makes for great conversation and good memories, but is ever so fleeting. You could be talking to somebody really interesting on the subway … and a few seconds later, poof – they are gone without even a goodbye. John and Alfred How delighted I was upon returning from a day uptown on the first Monday of my stay, when my daughter said, “There’s John Lithgow with some other guy walking down the street in our direction.” Of course she always sees celebrities, including Hugh Jackman, who goes to her health club, but for me this was a treat. Turns out they were shooting scenes for Love is Strange starring Lithgow, Alfred Molina, and Marisa Tomei, who unfortunately was not in these scenes. This shoot literally took place half a block away from my daughter’s apartment. After we went back to her apartment, I dropped off my stuff and went back out to shoot pictures with the other gawkers gathered on Seventh Avenue. The actors seemed bemused by all of this and I got some good shots.