A secret garden behind my building on Stanton Street.
In the previous post I compared two images taken on the corner of the Bowery and East 4th Street made in 1977 and 1980. Now, 35 years later, I am still hanging around the neighborhood. I’ve lived overseas, of course, and have hardly been sitting on a stoop passively watching the world go by, but this part of New York remains my base of operations.
It is a dramatically changed place to be sure — for better or worse. I said to someone yesterday, that the impetus for everything I’ve done as a photographer springs from that moment I arrived in New York on a train in 1977, the day of the blackout, the summer of the serial killer Son of Sam, the year the Yankees won the World Series and the Bronx was burning. I ended up here in this neighborhood.
A few contemporary street views:
Cooper Square in flux. A picture taken just after the wreath laying in honor of Peter Cooper, the founder of Cooper Union.
A mashup of buildings, boxes, snow, and trash — a midwinter medley.
More architectural wonders arrive in the neighborhood. Ian Schrager’s hotel, 215 Chrystie — forcibly wedged into the urban fabric — designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron under construction around the corner from my studio.
In 1977 I was fully engaged in shooting color, and although I still had a black and white lab set up in my tiny East 4th Street apartment, once I began making color prints, I took down my lab and never looked back. My early color work tended toward spontaneous quick grabs of things seen while going about my business. The picture above was taken while making the three block walk to school just up the Bowery to Cooper Square.
There was a Shell station on the corner of East 4th and the Bowery, and I used to walk cater-corner across it. I came upon a family dressed in colorful plaids and stripes moving in a little group, and photographed them compressed against several other people passing by, or filling up at the gas pump. The low winter sun cast a shadow of the gas station sign against the moving mingling of coats, and that was enough to make a photograph. It was about a moment more than about place — about phenomena more than information — although one may take note of the Mercedes filling up at the pump, or the fact that gas was 75 cents a gallon. You can tell it’s New York only because of the tenements glimpsed in the rear. It’s a cool picture — a keeper.
East 4th Street and the Bowery, 1980– © Brian Rose/Edward Fausty
Three years later, standing in almost the same spot, I was onto something else all together. I had assimilated my instincts for formal elements into a carefully considered investigation of place, a documentation of the Lower East Side made in collaboration with Edward Fausty. In this picture, visual anecdotes are still present — the little knot of kids in the background, the reflection in the pool of water — but instead of chasing after them, I am allowing these moments to play out within a broader scene.
In the first image I am following my instincts and showing off (a little bit) my visual chops with the camera. In the seond image I am trusting my instincts to show rather than tell — and I am relying on the viewer to bring something to the process. In a sense, asking the viewer to look with me at this place and to discover its multi-layered details.
Interestingly, you might notice that the gas station has closed. The pavement has been torn up, and dirt and rubble have accumulated. There are abandoned cars strewn about, and the kids are hanging out in the middle of the street oblivious to traffic.The door to the apartment building at right stands open to anyone off the street to enter. In 1980, when this picture was taken, New York was still in economic free fall. Eventually, a subsidized housing project for seniors rose on this lot. A drably monolithic box of good intentions, it’s still there today.
When I moved to New York in 1977, I lived on East 4th Street between the Bowery and Second Avenue. It was a relatively stable block compared to East 3rd, which was the location of a large homeless shelter with dozens of derelict men milling about in the street much of the day. The picture above was taken between 3rd and 4th Streets on he Bowery. Why it didn’t make it in my book Time and Space on the Lower East Side I can’t explain. Things fall through the cracks.
The buildings in the photograph are still there, relatively unchanged, but the facades have been cleaned up, and just to the right, there is a shiny new apartment tower with a 7-Eleven in the storefront. Why anyone goes there I can’t imagine since there are any number of better stocked bodegas and delis nearby. I guess the Bowery is 7-Eleven’s idea of a flagship location. It was a pretty rough scene in those days, and I have no intention of romanticizing its gritty authenticity. It certainly was authentic — and they were not serving Slurpees.
It was also a time of great creativity. CBGB was in the next block with the usual gaggle of black jacketed musicians out front, and lots of artists occupied lofts in or near the Bowery, the legendary end-of-the world skid row of New York. The apocalyptic nature of the neighborhood was both a scourge and an inspiration — at least it was for me. I wrote songs about the place, and of course, I photographed it.
The reality, however, looking at the photograph of myself above, is that we artists and musicians were to a great extent middle and upper middle class expats from the suburbs, products of America’s finest schools — and white. I was going to Cooper Union. Free tuition notwithstanding, it was an elite place, and you didn’t stumble in by accident. A recent article in Artnet News postulates that most successful artists come from relatively privileged backgrounds, and certainly, from my perspective, that is absolutely true. The starving artist is largely a myth, though no doubt there are easier and more reliable ways to make a living. And the other reality is that most artists are not doing fine art, either by necessity or by choice. They are in media, design, illustration, branding, advertising, commercial photography and film, etc. New York is full of these jobs — more now than ever.
Going back to the Bowery and the Lower East Side of the 70s and 80s — art was not so much born out of the decay and poverty of the neighborhood, as it was the place we chose to make art, to reinvent ourselves, to run away from mom and dad, and for many, to waste time. It was cool, and a little dangerous. It helped that it was cheap — my parents had basically cut me off financially — and I often got by on pizza slices and falafel. When I graduated from Cooper, debt free, I began photographing the Lower East Side. But 4×5 film was bloody expensive, and I struggled to complete the project. One day, however, a check arrived in the mail — for $9,000 — which (looking it up) would be worth over $27,000 in today’s dollars. A relative had died and left me the money. It saved the day, and made the LES project a success. There was also a grant from New York State, and the Seagram Corporation bought a dozen prints for what would eventually become the collection of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. The print sale happened because of a connection made at Cooper Union.
There’s nothing wrong with sudden windfalls or connections made in school, but let’s put aside the idea that artists are impoverished denizens of rotting neighborhoods. That’s not to say that gentrification has no impact on artists who need workspace to paint or create installations. It does. The truth is, however, that artists are entrepreneurs who calculate profits and expenses like everyone else — who network and negotiate — who create works that are often very expensive to produce. It helps to start with some money, and success breeds more success, fairly or not.
Do I still believe that art can express the highest aspirations of humanity? The deepest emotions? Can it still address the social and political issues of the day? Yes. That’s why I started, and why I’m still doing it.
But now, on to my next Kickstarter campaign.
As Cooper Square gets a makeover, and Cooper Union “reinvents” itself — students entering the school now pay tuition for the first time since 1859 — Peter Cooper sits protected, for his own good we are told, in a box at the center of the square.
Some of us still hold out hope, that when Peter emerges from his plywood prison, his pioneering school will have returned to the mission he set out for it: tuition free, open to all, at the pinnacle of higher education in America.
That hope now rests primarily on a lawsuit brought against the Board of Trustees of Cooper Union accusing them of violating the school’s charter and squandering its resources. We wait — alumni and friends — with mounting anticipation for a positive decision from the judge of the New York State Supreme Court.
Please visit the website of the Committee to Save Cooper Union to learn more.
Art school, protest, and how I got to Cooper Union
Before transferring to Cooper Union in 1977 I was attending MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art). It was an expensive private art school — tuition is now just over $39,000 per year. I remember the college president telling the incoming class in a welcoming speech what percentage of students would complete their degrees and go on to find careers in art. It was a discouragingly low number.
Previously, I had studied urban planning and architecture at the University of Virginia, and art school was difficult step for me. But my interest in photography had blossomed, and I saw myself becoming a fine art photographer down the road. At first, the diverse course offerings for obtaining a BFA were daunting — I hadn’t done any drawing or painting before — but I became increasingly appreciative of the interconnectedness of the different media, and as I became more confident in my abilities, I began to evaluate the students around me as well as the quality of the professors I was studying with.
It was a mixed bag. Many of the students seemed more enamored of the art lifestyle than the actual practice of art. And many of the professors, especially the entrenched tenured ones, seemed to be coasting as artists. There seemed a lack of ambitiousness all round. A large faculty art show in the college gallery confirmed my suspicions. The work was weak and directionless, and to me, it was insulting to those of us paying a ton of money to attend the school. So, a friend of mine and I engaged in a little guerrilla action, creating a flyer printed in black courier type that panned the faculty show and suggested that our tuition money was going to waste. We taped these flyers up everywhere on the campus — on walls, doors, in classrooms, restrooms, inside drawers and underneath desks. It caused quite a sensation.
I should say here, however, that some of my motivation was simply unearned hubris, and that some of my professors were excellent. Furthermore, not knowing what things are like at MICA in these days, this should not be construed as criticism of the present school. However, I was right about needing a more challenging environment, and as a result, began looking into exchange programs with other art schools. Above all, I wanted to explore color photography. It was 1976, and color was just becoming a viable medium outside of advertising and magazines, and seeing that Joel Meyerowitz, one of the pioneers of color photography was teaching at Cooper Union, I knew where I should go. I did my one semester exchange, hung around unofficially for another semester auditing classes, using my student ID good for a year, and eventually got in as a transfer student. The dean of the art school later told me they accepted four out of 450 applicants for transfer that year.
It had to be Cooper. My parents had pretty much given up on me and my educational wanderings, and had cut off my funding. Cooper, of course, was tuition free, making it possible for me to continue my dream even without parental support. A full telling of the story would describe in detail how life-changing the experience of attending Cooper was. How terrific the teachers were. How brilliant the students were. How it was understood without questioning that we were artists, and would go on to be artists in the real world, in New York City just outside the door, our campus and hometown. And that’s what happened for me. I was able to immediately begin an extended photography project upon graduation, and have been pursuing my dream for 30 years since.
Art School, protest, and (the end?) of Cooper Union
On Saturday I attended both Show Up, the annual end-of-year student show at Cooper Union, and Step Down, the renegade art show on the 7th floor of the Foundation Building just outside the office of Jamshed Bharucha, the college president. As those of you following the news already know, the president’s office has been occupied by students demanding that he and the chairman of the board of trustees resign. The sit-in was precipitated by the decision to begin charging tuition to close a budget gap brought on by financial mismanagement and the lack of imagination and leadership required to fix the problem. This alteration of Cooper’s central mission of providing free education to all, regardless of economic status, threatens to destroy the egalitarian meritocracy that has made this place a unique treasure.
Step Down is an openly polemical show full of anger and biting humor. The work was provided by students, alumni, and friends. I donated my book Time and Space on the Lower East Side with a letter to the students who are leading the effort to save Cooper Union. The letter explains that Time and Space would not have happened without Cooper, and that it reconnects, for me, the gap between the present and that time when I first arrived in New York City. The student protest at Cooper goes far beyond my modest flyer of 1976, but both actions, on different levels, are about the quality and the value of education.
The book is displayed on a table, and you can read my letter below. (Click on the letter for an easier to read view)
The art blog Hyperallergic wrote about Step Down:
…the exhibition Free Cooper Union put together, in only a week’s time, is probably one of the most significant and symbolic shows of the year. …this is an important exhibition, singular in capturing a raw provocation to authority. It’s an endeavor as worthwhile as it is rare.
As I was leaving the 7th floor, I pointed my camera out the window and made the photograph above across Cooper Square. Normally, when a university constructs a major new building it gets named for a prominent donor who helped make it possible. At Cooper the NAB, or New Academic Building, is a grand architectural statement bereft of a benefactor’s name. A large part of Cooper Union’s financial woes are connected to that fact. It was a complex real estate deal so they say, but, in a nutshell, the trustees chose to borrow the entire cost of construction, and now find they are unable to make the mortgage payments. As a result, they have shifted the debt to the students and abandoned the mission as expressed by Peter Cooper that education should be as “free as water and air.”
A few more thoughts about Kickstarter prompted by two recent articles, one in the New York Times by David Pogue, who writes a popular tech column, and the other by Jörg Colberg in his blog Conscientious. Kickstarter, for those of you who haven’t heard, is an internet fundraising platform for creative projects. It’s only been around for two years, but has become–at least in my circle–ubiquitous. Everyone says to everyone, oh you should raise the money on Kickstarter. As if it’s a sure fire way to fund your dreams. It could, indeed, be just the ticket. But based on my successful experience with it, I’d say don’t do it unless you are really serious about your project, your prospects for funding, and your ability to follow through on that dream and the promise that is made implicitly with your backers.
Consider, for instance, that your core backers–at least to get started–are your family, friends and colleagues. In the process of asking them for money you may discover that those with the means to support your project may, in fact, be extremely stingy. Some may strangely disappear into the woodwork, or become suddenly unavailable. Others will surprise. People who you thought were only casually interested in your work, some with very little money, will jump right in with a substantial donation. In running a Kickstarter campaign, you run the risk of damaging relationships with friends, or finding out things about your friends that you, maybe, would rather not know.
In the end, fortunately, I was able to extend my network further and many backers were people unknown to me, some who heard about the project from the publicity I was able to generate, and some who were part of the Kickstarter community–people who get pleasure sifting through the projects offered on Kickstarter’s website, supporting those that interest them. Ultimately, that is what this is about–building and tapping into a community of people who want to share in the creative process, who appreciate the simple notion that dropping a few bucks into the offering basket will sustain something worthwhile. Like church, the fulfillment is often more spiritual than tangible. In my case, however, my 85 backers were essentially pre-ordering my book, and as it has turned out, getting it for less than the final retail price.
David Pogue in the Times, seems to regard Kickstarter as another of those Internet phenomena that makes sense to a younger generation of early adopters while leaving the rest of us baffled. At least that’s the rhetorical device the savvy Mr. Pogue uses to frame the subject, knowing, of course, that most of his readers probably haven’t yet heard of Kickstarter. He focuses on a handful of tech products that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars above their original goals. Product concepts that took off virally, given the fact that backers do not get a financial piece of the action, seem stupefying, even crazy. For my book project, there was no runaway viral infection. It was more of a slow fever that occasionally spiked up. Much of the time I just sat hunched over my computer screen in a sweat, monitoring the trickle of donations, sending out emails, thanking backers, and generally being a nervous wreck.
Reading through the comments about the Times piece I am surprised at the number of negative responses. A lot of people have trouble with the idea that project backers aren’t investors in the traditional sense–and that the money comes with no strings attached. It seems like cheating. It is clear that Kickstarter breaks all the rules and shakes up the establishment. The gatekeepers who control the flow of money, who man the curatorial/institutional ramparts, can finally be circumvented. The democratization of the marketplace has always been the promise of the internet, often unrealized. Kickstarter harnesses that promise, at least on a modest scale.
Talk about modest. Despite Pogue’s touting projects that achieved megabucks on Kickstarter, I managed to scrape together $11,000, enough to partially fund my book Time and Space on the Lower East Side. As a freelance artist severely buffeted by the winds of the “great recession,” I have trouble landing commercial photography assignments, much less acquiring the money to pursue book projects costing tens of thousands of dollars. There are few grants available for artists in this country. We do not, apparently, as a society, believe that government should support individual artists. And most institutional support of the arts goes to other institutions like museums, symphonies, non profits that promote the arts but do little for struggling artists. Every year thousands of artists apply for NYFA (New York State) grants, and the relative handful who get selected receive significantly less than the $11,000 I made on Kickstarter. Every year hundreds of photographers apply for Guggenheim grants, and four or five get selected. Last year I applied for money from the Graham Foundation, a Chicago based organization that funds architecture related projects, mostly to academics. It was a long shot, but I applied for money to photograph the architecture and landscape of megachurches putting a good deal of effort into the application. Had I been selected–I was not–I would have received much less than $11,000. And what do you do once you’ve applied for one of these grants? You sit on your duff for months while committees of the wise decide how to divvy up a pittance.
I have always avoided saying this, but I will now. Applying for these grants is a waste of time. It’s time to walk away. Kickstarter, and other up and coming models, offer a much better way to raise money for individual artists. It isn’t perfect. Jörg Colberg of Concientious has problems with the all-or-nothing aspect of Kickstarter. He thinks there should be more flexibility in setting goals. His point is well taken, though I understand why Kickstarter does it. Additionally, Kickstarter is a business, and both they and Amazon, which handles the dolling out of money take significant chunks of the pie. But seriously, I am prouder of my recent Kickstarter achievement than the New York State grant I got way back in 1980 or the NEA photographic survey grant I got in 1982. Except for a few projects I’ve done which were initiated by non profits–projects I did not choose on my own–I have been shut out of by the grant giving institutions since then. With Kickstarter I was able to mobilize my resources, take control of the process, and work with others to realize my goal.
It’s time to make the grant gatekeepers irrelevant, if they aren’t already. It’s time to walk away.
While reading the New Yorker I came across a quote attributed to late choreographer Merce Cunningham. From Joan Acocela’s article:
…stories or even themes put the spectator in the position of someone standing on a street corner waiting for a friend who is late: you can’t see the cars or the buildings or the sky , he said, because “everything and everyone is not the person you await.”
Likewise with photographs. If you latch too much onto familiar visual narratives, other meanings, other connections, will not be made. This is true both for the image maker and the viewer.
With that caution in mind, here are six recent images of the Bowery made with the 4×5 view camera. I did them in conjunction with a class I was teaching at ICP, and as part of my ongoing project to photograph the Bowery. The block above includes the New Museum on the left, the Bowery Mission and the Salvation Army building, the tall one in the middle. The latter are vestiges of the Bowery’s skid row past, though they and a couple other organizations still provide services for a more scattered homeless/street population. The gentrification of the Bowery, however, is proceeding rapidly.
Some of the roll-down window gates were recently decorated by artists. This one is by the notable graffiti artist Kenny Scharf.
The townhouse at left is from 1817 and is one of the few protected landmark buildings in New York to have its status rescinded. The owner wants to demolish and construct an office building. From the Villager:
(City Councilwoman) Chin noted that she has supported many landmark designations on the Bowery. “But in this instance, I have to look at the bigger picture and find a balance. There is an opportunity to help the community recover from [the World Trade Center attack], which it hasn’t done. I just hope that the advocates will see my point of view on this and that we will have the opportunity to continue to work to preserve the historic character of the Bowery. But on this building we will have to differ.” Chin said.
The reality, of course, is that the Bowery and lower Manhattan is a boomtown.
It is true that the Bowery exhibits a ragtag collection of buildings from many different time periods. It does not present a unified urban landscape in the way that historic rows of townhouses dominate parts of Greenwich Village, or blocks of cast iron loft buildings define the streets of Soho. Nevertheless, there is much architecture worth saving, though sometimes one might have to peel away some of the layers to get to it.
Another similar sized townhouse from 1785–the Edward Mooney house–a well-maintained landmark containing a Chinatown bank.
A year ago I discovered the origins of the Houston/Bowery wall, a slab of concrete that hosts a regularly changing display of graffiti and street art in various media. The wall always seemed odd to me because it was free standing and stood a couple of feet away from the party wall of the building behind it. Where did it come from?
The answer came on a visit to Film Forum when I saw the great quasi-documentary film On the Bowery made in 1957 by Lionel Rogosin. In one of the scenes, Ray Salyer, the main character waits with a group of Bowery men looking to be picked up for day labor. Behind him a game of handball is being played against a detached wall, unmistakably the same wall that survives today, except that it is now encased in a more expansive and user-friendly surface. But underneath, the handball court wall remains.
Opening scene from Martin Scorcese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door, 1967
Last week while putting together a slide show of Lower East Side images for a class I am teaching, I came across a video of the opening scene of Martin Scorcese’s first feature film Who’s That Knocking at My Door made in 1967. It’s a street brawl–a choreographed violent dance–played out on the corner of Houston and Bowery in front of, you guessed it, the former handball wall, now graffiti wall.
Houston and Bowery, mural by Faile, 2011 — © Brian Rose
As you can see in the film and in the photograph above, Houston Street was widened after 1957 and the distance from the street to the wall was reduced. So, it turns out this lowly urban artifact has quite a distinguished pedigree, not only as the canvas for the current series of murals, but as an architectural extra in two classics of American cinema.
An auto repair holdout in the midst of increasing opulence on the northern end of the Bowery. A beautiful, mild, November day, I decided to go out with my view camera and just work this corner. Was there about an hour and shot four or five different views including the one above–this a digital snapshot version.