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.
“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.
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.
The announcement on Thursday, May 30 from the Chicago Sun-Times that they fired/laid off all full-time photographers immediately evoked a torrent of responses from media outlets all over the country. I cannot help but wonder what the late Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert would say about this – I think I hear him grumbling from movie heaven. Among those fired was John H. White, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who blazed a trail for black photographers in the 1970s. I had the honor of meeting him at a Prevent Blindness America charity luncheon at Neiman Marcus in 2002, where he shot a few photos for the Sun-Times. For me, this announcement evoked a torrent of personal memories that started with an appreciation of documentary photography at the tender age of 11 – nurtured by a passionate interest in history and appreciation of visually powerful moments in time. When I was 12, my dad taught me how to develop black and white photos in a makeshift darkroom in our basement. I was immediately taken with the magic of pictures developing before my eyes in the chemical trays lined up on the rickety plywood shelving my dad had rigged up.
Just before I lost my high level position as director of communications for a national medical association in mid-June 2011, I read Just Kids by Patti Smith. In the darkest days after losing my job, I found inspiration and salvation in Patti Smith’s words. Just Kids also sparked a rediscovery of her groundbreaking music, but with a more appreciative, mature ear than I had at RISD when my freshman roommate played Horses day and night. Her cutting-edge punk rock music was a bit too hard for me back then, but listening to it some 30 years later made me fully comprehend the sheer genius and depth of her musical poetry. Below is a collage I created in homage to Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe that I exhibited in a group show at Studio 659. During my depths of despair, I played several Patti Smith songs over and over as if I was once again a young adult coming of age. Well, I guess in essence I did go through a rebirth of sorts spurred on by losing my high-paying job. Having more time on my hands enabled me to get back to my fine art and exhibiting my work. Gloria, Dancing Barefoot, People Have the Power, and the brilliant Horses among other songs inspired this burst of creativity … that continues to this day. While I haven’t had a major solo gallery show, I feel promise looming on the horizon.
Creative types have been fascinated by clowns, circuses, and circus freaks for eons – from film directors to musicians to amateur artists. Examples are the rather commercial clown paintings of Red Skelton, the notorious groundbreaking film Freaks, directed by Todd Browning in 1932, and most recently – Water for Elephants starring Reese Witherspoon. Widely considered a masterpiece, the most touching clown-related film – and my personal favorite – Fellini’s La Strada. Personally, I find clowns rather creepy which is why they are so fascinating. It seems as though amateur painters make up the vast majority of the clown painting genre. I have bought kitschy clown paintings at thrift stores for my own collection. So it is refreshing that Life’s a Tightrope at Studio 659 takes on this theme with a creative, ambitious zeal, presenting the work of fine artists rather than amateurs. Many of the artists appear to feel the same way I do about clowns – there is a decidedly dark underbelly lurking beneath the surface.
The Unique Thrift Store chain is a far cry from the cool store on Lincoln Avenue of my youth. After I graduated from high school a semester early, my mom and I would go on junking and photo documentary jaunts down Lincoln Avenue. Among my favorite places was a Unique Thrift store a few blocks north of Irving Park. It is there that I picked up this super neat, albeit still not terribly valuable old Kodak camera for a pittance.