On Photography

Last week I posted a couple of hundred old photos of the early 90’s NYC music scene on our facebook fan page. A lot of the photos had been seen before, and many of them were from my book, “Scraps”, but only a handful of people had gotten a chance to really look through them as a group. The response was overwhelmingly positive. The internet is a powerful engine, and having the ability to share them so easily was exciting.

I’ve always felt that photos need a chance to age in order for them to develop their full power. While William Eggleston’s images of the south were likely shocking in their simplicity at the time they were taken, the passage of years gives them exponentially more power. A portion of this power comes from nostalgia, but it is also due to the forward thinking eye of the image- maker; the ability to see important details where most people see the mundane. Some of the reaction to my images was based on a sense of nostalgia (we’re all getting old), but I’d like to think that as a group, they capture a sense of the time and place that becomes even more apparent as we move away from it.

When I started to get interested in photography during high school there was no internet to provide a window onto the world of images.  Instead I was limited to the photo books in the local library.  These consisted mostly of how-to books and a few art survey books.  My parents also had a couple of photo books laying around as well- like a huge Avedon book from the 60’s. I remember being drawn towards images of people. I connected with the images that weren’t about the camera person but instead about the situation.  I was moved by images that told simple stories. Avedon’s grainy blurry images struck a chord with me as well. I never liked things that seemed too perfect. Over time I discovered Friedlander, Frank, and Winnogrand. In high school I got to take a photography class and spent endless hours in the darkroom. I was that kid that took most of the photos for the yearbook and school paper. I loved seeing my photos in print, it gave me a sense of power to be able to kind of force people to see things as I had seen them.

By the time I was ready for college I knew that I wanted to be a photographer, but I didn’t want to go to art school. Somehow I intuited that the work that I was drawn to couldn’t be taught- or that if it was taught it would screw it up. My work would become somebody else’s… or some such nonsense. In college I ended up with a BA in Religious studies because by the time I had to declare a major I realized I’d already completed one in religious studies. In addition I took one photo class a year and happily I did learn a lot about image-making, but also about trying to get to the bottom of what I was doing. I think the most important thing that I learned in class was how to look at my work, as well as the work of others, for what it is, and not what I want it to be.

When I was a sophomore I took on a major project, documenting the street vendors of Astor Place. At the time, the late 80’s, the gentrification of Manhattan was starting to shift into high gear, and this daily street market was under threat. I loved the market because one could find almost anything there. One blanket would hold spahgetti and an electric guitar. Another vendor might have porn videos laid out next to the bible, Marx, and a portrait of JFK. On one visit I found a book called “Invisible City”. The seller wanted a lot of money for it, 7 dollars. Most books were 1 or 2, and I was broke. I walked away but quickly ran back when I realized I had to have it. The photographer, Ken Schles, had documented the changing East Village a few years earlier, and in the book I saw a past that was still almost present. It painted a romantic picture of a bohemian life that I longed to live, and it had a huge impact on my photography at the time. The contrasty, night vision rendering of community would shape my work for the next few years. In the spring of 1990 I spent several hours a day at the market, and watched as the police made more and more of an effort to sweep the vendors off the street. Eventually they scattered and the city continued its march towards prosperity.

At the same time music was more important to me than school and I went to shows at least 3 nights a week, often with my camera around my neck. I photographed bands I liked, and then, when my I started a band with friends, I photographed the bands we played with. I had a cheap Nikon and even cheaper lenses. The only time my images looked sharp was when they were over developed because the high contrast deadened the blur. In a way, this worked out to my advantage. They gave the images a distinct look that hold them together. I liked blurry, and it worked for these images that recall a blurry sort of time.

About the time that I was getting out of college, gentrification was in full swing and rents in the East Village were pretty much doubling each year. I first ended up in a cramped apartment with college roommate that was cheaper than most at 800 bucks a month. However, with my messenger job, and a few other side jobs, I wasn’t able to spend as much money or time on photography as I liked. A few months later I went to a party at a friend’s apartment and immediately fell in love with it. It was a grungy, tiny, apartment on Ave B, which was still pretty rough. It had a nostaligic charm, though, as it was unrenovated, with a 1950’s fridge still chugging away, and a bathtub that would have been in the kitchen if someone hadn’t thrown a wall around it. When I professed my love for the place my friend told me I could have his room, and the 150 dollar a month rent that went with it. A few months after I’d moved in, a friend asked me if I knew the photographer Ken Schles, as he lived in the building. It sounded familiar and then I realized that the book, “Invisible City” that had shaped my psyche was mostly shot in the building.

The cheap rent allowed me to concentrate even more on my photography, my band, and my art. It was a time of peak creativity for me and I loved it. Time and responsibility caught up with me a little bit. I fell in love, we bought a house, I had to get a job, had kids… The job wasn’t oppressive by normal standards, but it felt like my time of wild creativity was coming to an end. Having to get up and go to work each day, then come home and work on the house wore me down. Then the kids…. forget about it. I’ve had the ability to continue being creative since then, but not with the reckless abandon of my youth. Looking back at these images has been really inspiring to me. I want to find a way to get back to that feeling that anything is possible, and forcing myself to reflect on that time is helping.

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