20 Mar Mall Stories
When I was a freshman in high school, I became somewhat obsessed with photography. I was “that guy” who took most of the pictures for the school paper and the yearbook. I knew that I wanted to be a photographer, but I didn’t want to go to art school, or journalism school for that matter. I intuitively knew that it wasn’t right for me simply because it was right for me. I never wanted to take the “correct path,” there was something that seemed too soft about it. Yet, when I got to college at NYU, I immediately started taking photography classes. As a non-photo major taking photo classes, I was comfortably uncomfortable in this setting.
In the spring of 1989, when I was a sophomore, I took a color photography class that wasn’t in the art school. It’s hard to explain, but NYU had several different colleges. Classes in the art school tended to have extremely arts-focused people, and it felt competitive and careerist. As a young “rebel,” I hated careerism or anything that seemed focused on success. The kind of work that took place in this setting seemed to focus on finding a gimmick that made the person’s work easily identifiable. I had some good classes in the art school, but I didn’t feel like I belonged there. The color class in SEAHNP (School of Education and Health Nursing Professions) was filled with a much more varied cast of characters. In all honesty, the students weren’t as strong, but my teacher (whose name I have long since forgotten) was manic, inspiring, and supportive. I recall that she implored us to watch “River’s Edge,” and introduced me to a bunch of other work that had a profound impact on me.
Until this point I had shot almost exclusively in black and white. This was partly because I could print black and white images myself. However, it also had to do with how black and white was a simpler medium to control, and in my mind, black and white was serious and color frivolous. As a kid looking through photo books in the library, I learned that the best photos were made in black and white. For the most part, I wasn’t interested in color work that I saw, except for William Eggleston’s photos. They were serious in their focus on the seemingly frivolous.
As I started to shoot color slides, I searched for a subject to focus on. At the time, I was dating a girl who went to college on Long Island. On one visit, we went to the mall and I was overwhelmed by the colors, the space, and the social interactions. I immediately saw the possibility of capturing what I loved best in the work of some of my favorite photographers: Robert Frank, William Eggleston, and Garry Winogrand. For Robert Frank I thought of the Americans– and wanted to capture the late 80’s as he had captured the late 50’s. Since everyone was in the malls instead of the diners and the roadhouses, I realized that the mall was the new public square. It was clear that it was all about commerce rather than commonwealth. In terms of Eggleston, I wanted to capture the color of that world since it was so much about color. Like his work, I wanted to catch those ephemeral notions of color and taste that represented a distinct time and place in history. It was Winnogrand who I was most enamored of at the time. I loved the way he captured stolen moments.
I wasn’t as skilled as I might have liked. Despite my love of photography, I had a crappy lens on my bottom of the line camera. I didn’t have the best aim and slide film was very unforgiving, so a lot of what could have been great pictures, weren’t. In the end, I definitely captured something – and in a way the amateur feel lends something special to the group of images. At the time they were taken, there were only a few images that really jumped out and worked on their own. However, I knew that as a body of work, they would gain a lot more meaning over time. I showed them at a couple of rock shows at the time, but then I stuck them in a drawer and waited. Last fall, over 20 years later, I took them out and scanned some. I put them on my facebook page and people seemed to really get it. Last week, I spotted a web site called howtobearetronaut.com. They had posted some Bruce Davidson photos of NY. I decided to send them to the editor there, and a few days later they were going viral. Within two days, they had been shared with others nearly 10,000 times, and as I write this they seem to have crashed the server because the site is down.
Clearly the images are connecting with people. 10 years ago I published a book of band and travel photos called, Scraps. That book included short thoughts about music and touring written by other musicians. I have been working on a book like this for my mall series with writing by a lot of other people- detailing their mall stories. Both books cover the same time period, with different visions and points of view and I hope to combine them into one larger work in the future.
Buzzfeed link for mall images
the set on facebook
an example of images with spoken work – as seen in scraps