West Street — © Brian Rose
Frank Christian, Somebody’s got to do it — cover photo © Brian Rose
Frank Christian, songwriter and guitarist died on December 24, 2012. One of the mainstays of the Greenwich Village folk scene, Frank was the epitome of cool sophistication and wit. I made this photograph for his first album back in the 1980s. The back cover shows him in his apartment in the Village, and I’ll get that up once I have a chance to scan it.
With Jack Hardy and Frank gone, two of the leading figures of the music scene I was immersed in have left us much too young. Frank was 60. He will be sorely missed by all of us.
Washington Street — © Brian Rose
It was the winter of 1985, and I was casting about for something new to photograph. I had completed projects on the Lower East Side and Central Park, and later that summer I would begin shooting the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, a project that would continue to occupy me up to the present. For reasons I cannot recall, I walked over to the west side with my camera and spent several days photographing the meatpacking district. I began from the West Village, the scene above relatively unchanged today. The yellow and black sign warning illegal parkers that the air will be let out of their tires remains attached to the wall of the building almost 28 years later. In 1985, David Dinkins was running for Borough President–he would later become mayor.
Washington and Gansevoort Street — © Brian Rose
In the morning the meat packing district was a vast open air scene of carnage. Sides of beef were hung from hooks that slid along overhead conveyors. Men in bloodied white coveralls grappled with the carcasses. By mid morning the hubbub of the city’s meat market subsided and the cobblestone streets took on a look of abandonment, astonishing in the heart of such a great metropolis. As evening approached another kind of meat market took over–this one human trade–as prostitutes prowled the empty streets, many of them transvestites, overly tall females tottering about on high heels, while men in black leather sought the anonymous doors of sex clubs.
Gansevoort Street — © Brian Rose
In 1985 a restaurant called Florent opened on Gansevoort Street. For years it was a late night destination for the downtown social set, gay and straight alike. It was hard to find, and took a certain fortitude to navigate the urban hell/paradise surrounding it. It was not expensive, but for me, blowing all my money on 4×5 film, on a whole other plane of existence. You can see it on the left, the glowing neon florent in the window. A website with the sign still glows on the Internet here. A recent article about the former owner Florent Morellet is here.
Washington and Little West 12th Street — © Brian Rose
If you look up some of the business names, you see that many still exist, like J.A.W.D. above, operating out of the Hunt’s Point market in the Bronx. That’s where most of the distribution of meat, fish, and produce is handled for New York in modern refrigerated facilities. The red door to the left of the truck was the entrance to the Mineshaft, probably the most infamous of the men’s sex clubs that dotted the meatpacking district. It was closed later in the fall of 1985 at the height of the AIDS crisis.
Washington Street — © Brian Rose
The entrance to the Mineshaft in the winter of 1985.
Little West 12th Street — © Brian Rose
In 1985 the high line was a nameless unused rail viaduct that ran down the west side of Manhattan all the way into the West Village. It cast ominous shadows over streets and vacant lots. The elevated rail line once served the docks and factories lining the Hudson River. It replaced the tracks that ran down the middle of Tenth Avenue–Death Avenue it was called back then. The picture above was taken where the beer garden of the Standard Hotel now is.
Washington and West 13 Street — © Brian Rose
The desolation of the meatpacking district by day was profound, but many parts of lower Manhattan were also quite empty. Things were changing, however, and the Soho gallery scene was already well established, and Tribeca was beginning to take off. Nevertheless, in the winter of 1985, the meatpacking district slumbered undisturbed through the daylight hours.
Washington and West 13th Street — © Brian Rose
Just as in the loft neighborhoods further downtown, there were artists living and working above the meat market below. A telltale sign were the gas heating units that looked similar to window air conditioners. If you didn’t have much money you only ran these for part of the day, and I remember visiting some pretty cold lofts in those days. The other thing that made the meatpacking district less attractive for living was the stench of the meat businesses–it permeated everything.
West 14th, Hudson, and Ninth Avenue — © Brian Rose
Ninth Avenue — © Brian Rose
The parking lot above is the present location of the Hotel Gansevoort.
West 14th Street — © Brian Rose
The “apple” store on 14th Street.
West Street and Tenth Avenue — © Brian Rose
The Liberty Inn shared its odd shaped building with the Anvil, another of the neighborhoods sex clubs. The Anvil is long gone, but the Liberty lives on as a rent-by-the hour hotel.
Tenth Avenue and West 17th Street — © Brian Rose
So much has changed in the meatpacking district and the adjoining gallery area of Chelsea that I hesitate saying anything at all. What was once urban desolation is now the epicenter of fashion and art in the western hemisphere. The High Line is no longer a rusting hulk, but… I’ll let you fill in the blank. I love it–it’s a perfect conjuncture of preservation and contemporary architecture. I hate it–it’s too crowded much of the time to be enjoyed. But what can you do? This is New York. You cannot live here if you cannot abide change.
Even as the money sloshes through the streets of the meatpacking district, we are reminded of our fragile hold on this island as the waters of Hurricane Sandy flooded the couture shops and art galleries along the Hudson. Our ultimate fate may yet be determined by the melting ice of Greenland.
Today is the first day of my class at ICP, Photographing New York: The Lower East Side. We will look at work, mine and the students. And talk about the Lower East Side, and how to approach making photos of the neighborhood. Beyond the geographical, the question is, what is place? And how can you define and describe it?
Please support Time and Space on the Lower East Side by clicking on the Kickstarter badge at right.
Have been working on another grant application–this time with the Design Trust for Public Space. They have commissioned photographers in the past to explore different aspects of the urban landscape. This year the theme is “five borough farm,” a project to survey and document urban agriculture around the city. The stipend is only $5,000, but one is also assured of an exhibition and publication. Just one photographer selected. I’d be perfect for this.
Last night I went to the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in Greenwich Village to see Suzanne Vega perform her musical play “Carson McCullers Talks About Love.” Years ago, Suzanne worked up a monologue based on the character of the author Carson McCullers–one of several female personalities that she has been drawn to, or taken inspiration from. It was, at that time, a minor but affecting performance. She has now developed the idea into an ambitious portrayal of the writer with songs and music co-written with Duncan Sheik. The songs exhibit many of the familiar melodic and lyrical qualities of earlier Vega music; some are complete stand-alone songs; others are intended more to support the narrative of the play. At least that’s my take on hearing them for the first time.
Suzanne assumes the character of Carson McCullers, with whom she shares a striking resemblance. She walks on stage as herself, gives a short introduction, and then dons a wig and removes her makeup at a mirror to better resemble the tomboyish McCullers. Like her earlier McCullers performance, it is essentially a monologue, but now there is occasional verbal interplay with a pianist and guitarist who remain on stage throughout the play.
It is not necessary to have read Carson McCullers to appreciate the play, though it certainly doesn’t hurt to be familiar with her work and that of other mid-century American authors who she came in contact with, or compares herself to. One song, in fact, is full of boasts about how she, McCullers, is better than Harper Lee. Although there is sadness and tragedy in McCullers’ personal story, Vega portrays her with a good deal of feisty wit and bravado.
For Suzanne, doing this play is a labor of love, beautifully realized, bestowed upon the audience.
Saturday evening I went to the University Settlement for a slide presentation, which I thought was going to deal in part with the Lower East Side. It did begin with historic photographs of the neighborhood by important photographers like Jacob Riis and Berenice Abbott, but the contemporary work shown was from other places–four dyspeptic views of the dark side of American society–post Katrina New Orleans, foreclosure misery in Florida and Cleveland, Indian poverty at Pine Ridge, and a fashion show for women in prison. The program included Alan Chin, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Andrew Lichtenstein, and Anthony Suau.
One of the photographs shown by Anthony Suau depicts a Cleveland sheriff carrying out an eviction. It was the winner of the World Press Photo of the Year in 2008. One website compares this image to the famous Eddie Adams street execution photograph from Vietnam. The assumption is that warfare has come to the streets and homes of America. To me, the photograph is more ambiguous–a police officer stepping through a house strewn with trash, fearful that danger lies beyond the next door. We know it is an eviction, but we know little else of the circumstances. There are different possible scenarios. The larger issue of what led to foreclosures across the United States is the back story, not the immediate one of a fearful step forward by an officer with his gun drawn.
All of the subjects presented by the five photographers are serious, non trivial areas of inquiry, and I was impressed with the skill and commitment of the photographers, but ultimately I have grown so weary of this kind of you-are-there photojournalism that I can barely look at it any more. Surely this is the opposite of the reaction desired. The idea is to expose injustice and shock viewers into action. I am afraid that most people, like myself, tend to look away. The historical Lower East Side pictures were shown as inspiration and motivation for the slides to follow. The biggest difference between the older work and theirs is the difference between showing and telling. Modern photojournalism tends to more openly interpose the photographer between the story and the viewer.
That said, however, I don’t have a new paradigm of photojournalism to offer, and I am aware of the limitations of what I do, which is also a kind of photography that seeks to address social issues, if in a more round about manner. All I can say is that I am, and have been, searching for a way that is more inclusive and acknowledges the complexity of issues and the inherent difficulties in conveying visual meaning.
In the photograph above–taken yesterday–there is a person just barely visible in the midst of the shopping carts and bags. What is the meaning or value of this kind of photograph? The sharp sun and shadows, the colorful plastic bags, the crazy incongruity. I do not expect every picture to answer the questions raised, but over the course of my work, I do hope that some threads of meaning become recognizable, some justification emerges, for what is inherently an exploitative enterprise.
Just before going to the University Settlement event I was pleased to meet Kristin Ellington of the multi-media firm Funny Garbage. We talked about the Lower East Side, my photographs, and her interest in creating a website dealing with the neighborhood, history and the present. I am looking forward to seeing her project take shape.
Jack Hardy, the extraordinary song craftsman, and one of my most cherished friends died last night of cancer. New York Times obituary here.
From The Boulevardiers by Suzanne Vega:
(I am the tall lover of the city, Jack the quick and fair.)
He loves the city with the bricks and broken bottles
and the pretty little flowers as they grow against the wall.
He is dark, he is tall, he is the tallest one of all of us.
You are bright and quick and fair
and seems that you have lost some hair
but this is all right.
This is OK. We do not mind.
We write and fight and sing
and this is fine.
This is the cover of one of Jack’s earliest albums. I did the photograph. It was originally a blank LP sleeve, and we called it the White Album. At some point a record company picked it up and a proper cover was made. I don’t remember the location of the photograph, but it was undoubtedly somewhere in Greenwich Village, or very possibly near my apartment in the East Village.
When I met Jack in 1977 he was a charismatic figure full of a sense of personal destiny. The picture above expresses some of that ambitious confidence–and an image carefully cultivated. Later, the trajectory of his career leveled off, but his songwriting skills did not. If anything, they grew and deepened over the years.
Jack Hardy — © Brian Rose
This photo found on the internet is from the same session as the one above. I do not seem to have the negatives, although I haven’t finished looking. I may have some prints. I am guessing that I gave the negatives to Jack shortly after they were made, and they may be in his archive. Nothing was digital in those days, of course.
Arrived somewhat late to an impromptu memorial concert at Banjo Jim’s, a small club in the East Village. I sang The Skyline, my song about 9/11, which was partly a response to Jack Hardy losing his brother in one of the Twin Towers. I did it a capella, less than perfectly, but I give myself some credit for bravery. Several people did wonderful versions of Jack’s songs, and we ended with Go Tell the Savior led by David Massengill with one of the verses sung beautifully by Jim Allen. I hear that a bigger, more formal memorial is being planned.
I came across a photo of mine in the West 4th Street subway station–part of a large installation called “Made in New York,” which features the work of New York City based architects. It’s the image on the top row, second from left, of the Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College by TEK Architects.
The liberal marxist San Franciso Giants beat the right wing brownshirt Texas Rangers last night in the World Series. Such is the state of our politics on this election day. Somehow, I think we are all going to come out of this election as losers.