Post election New York. Despite the shocking result — Trump mustered barely 10% in Manhattan where his fraudulent antics have been known for decades — beauty is still to be found in the ordinary. The morning sun glints off of aluminum studs stacked upright in a construction supply business. Hearts pop colorfully (maybe cheerfully) from the doorway of a bar as a figure darts by. Two pictures, less than 30 seconds apart.
Mark Byrnes writes:
…most who page through WTC will contemplate Manhattan’s relentless transformation since a turbulent and mythologized 1970s. Change has come through economic shifts, public policy decisions, and tragedy. Rose’s work provides a clear, visual understanding of what the city has lost and gained through it all.
Please support WTC by pledging to my Kickstarter campaign.
Your help is needed!!
WTC is book about the Twin Tower, their presence and absence, and about the rebuilding of the city after September 11. It is also a tribute to New Yorkers and all who carry a piece of this great city with them. It is a book that commemorates rather than exploits, a book that preserves memories, both painful and hopeful, and celebrates, however cautiously, the resilience of this city in the face of adversity.
Please make this book possible with your support on Kickstarter.
A little indulgence on my birthday — a photograph of myself made in 1980 while doing the Lower East Side project with Edward Fausty. We were out shooting with the 4×5 view camera, and Ed took this picture. I was 25 years old. Looking very determined and focused.
WTC, my book about the World Trade Center, is now complete. It starts with pictures made when I was 22, and comes all the way up to the present. All the pieces are in place, the last being a wonderful essay written by Sean Corcoran, the photo curator of the Museum of the City of New York. I will be launching a Kickstarter campaign on April 17, which will then run about a month. Stay tuned.
Sean writes about the way in which the book came together:
Looking through his archive recently, he realized he had created something very profound and personal that he needed to assemble and share. Serving as a form of personal catharsis, Rose’s words and pictures reflect on the nature of tragedy, remembrance and resilience. He never obtained special access to photograph from particular vantage points, but rather he stood amongst New Yorkers and captured views from the sidewalks they tread every day.
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.
A recent comment on my blog led me to do some research on the time when I first put down roots in New York. It was the summer of 1977, and I had just come by train to the city arriving before dawn, and parked myself in an all night coffee shop in the West Village waiting for the Village Voice to be thrown off the truck. It was 60 cents back then, which was kind of expensive when you think about it, but it was the indispensable weekly at that time, and if you were looking for a place to live downtown, you had to get the Voice for the classified ads.
Since I was going to be studying at Cooper Union in the East Village, I was looking for a place on that side of town. And it needed to be a sublet because I was only at Cooper as a one-semester exchange student. I skimmed dozens of ads, most of which were advertising apartments for $200 or $250. You could easily get an apartment on the high end of that range in the West Village. Or you could get a 2,500 square foot loft for $350 a month in Soho or Tribeca. Maybe even get a 5 to 7 year lease. If you played your cards right, you ended up buying one of those lofts for $50,000, which would now be worth millions of dollars. The sticking point for me was that those lofts often came with a “fixture fee” of several thousand dollars to cover the cost of the things – heater, lights, appliances — inside what was basically a raw loft. There was no way I could come up with that kind of money.
East Village apartment listings 1977
But there were lots of more modest apartments in the East Village, and really, all things considered, I had a lot of choice. In fact, there were dozens of choices, and all in the $200 range. Never mind that many of the buildings were crumbling, and anything east of First Avenue looked like Berlin in 1945. I realized very quickly, however, that I would be making a lot of phone calls and looking at a lot of apartments.
So, there I was, planning on a long day of house hunting, when I saw this:
Cooper Square Vicinity, near NYU, New School, 2 rooms, $800 for whole year. That couldn’t be right I thought. $800 for a year! Well, it turned out to be legit. A philosophy professor at NYU was taking a temporary job teaching at Tulane down south, and decided to sublet his apartment for a year. It was in a city-owned building, pretty rundown, but on a largely intact block, East 4th Street between the Bowery and Second Avenue.
I took it, and by noon I had an apartment in Manhattan, and spent the rest of the day hanging out in the city. In the evening I headed for Penn Station to return to Washington, D.C. (where I was living) with the idea of bringing my stuff up in a week or two. As I got onto my train, the whole station was plunged into absolute darkness. Fortunately, my train had auxiliary power, and we sat in relative comfort — it was still bloody hot — and the police kept coming on board urging us to stay put. The entire city was blacked out. The following morning when power was restored we pulled into Washington and I saw the dramatic headlines about the rioting and looting that had convulsed large parts of the city overnight.
A few weeks later I moved into my tenement on East 4th Street. My professor never came back and the apartment was mine. And after a semester as an exchange student, I applied to Cooper Union and was accepted. I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but I was one very fortunate guy.
In the Shadow of the Highway: Robert Moses’ Expressway and the Battle for Downtown
— © Brian Rose
One of my Lower East Side photographs is part of an interesting exhibition about one of Robert Moses’ last projects, a proposed elevated highway that would have connected the Holland Tunnel to the Williamsburg Bridge and an offshoot to the Manhattan Bridge.
New York Times article about Seward Park site — © Brian Rose
Had Moses not been stopped, Soho would have been largely destroyed, and highways would have torn through parts of the Lower East Side. A piece of that imminent destruction had already taken place when I made my photograph above — a view of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area from the Williamsburg Bridge. Thousands of mostly low income residents were evicted from their tenements to make way for the highway, and nearly 50 years went by before a plan was approved to redevelop the site in an economically balanced way. Although they will have the right to return, it will be too late, unfortunately, for most of the original displaced residents.
Frances Goldin and Brian Rose
There were a number of reasons that Robert Moses, the powerful master planner of New York, was finally stopped. After ramming one infrastructure project after another through neighborhoods all over the city, the tide had turned, and the primacy of automobile-centric planning lost favor. Foremost in opposing Moses and his acolytes were activists like Jane Jacobs, whose book The Death and Life of Great American Cities championed the fine-grained urban fabric of Greenwich Village and similar neighborhoods, and called for their preservation. Other activists took up the cause of low income people, the most at risk from the planners’ bulldozers. Frances Goldin, pictured above, was the most tenacious and eloquent of the Downtown activists.
She and Jacobs represent different perspectives of neighborhood activism, but both were essential in turning things around, and reasserting the right of ordinary citizens to defend their neighborhoods, and, in fact, participate in the planning process. While Goldin is most known for her political actions — her flare for street theater and colorful demonstrations — it was her espousal of neighborhood planning that may be her greatest legacy. Under her leadership, along with the planning expertise of her partner Walter Thabit, the Cooper Square Committee prevented the destruction of a six block strip of the Lower East Side, and in the end, saved or built a thousand units of low income housing. She also led the decades-long fight — after stopping Moses — to redevelop the Seward Park urban renewal site so that it includes a significant percentage of affordable units of housing. A lot of people were involved in these struggles, but she was the glue that held it all together.
Frances Goldin, City Hall Blue Room, 1990 — © Brian Rose
It was my privilege to work with her on the steering committee of the Cooper Square Committee. She and I were very different sorts of players — an array of adjectives come to mind to describe her — brilliant, charismatic, persuasive, indefatigable, optimistic. She was a socialist, Jewish, a quintessentially sharp-tongued New Yorker. I was an artist, soft-spoken Virginian, middle class, protestant background, a Jeffersonian idealist. We clashed at times, but my respect for her deepened over the years, and I think hers for me. One of the things I tell people about Frances is that for all her fierce radicalism, she was ultimately pragmatic and capable of compromise. She got things done. And is still getting things done at the age of 91.
Here’s a recent article in Bedford and Bowery about the history of the Cooper Square Committee.
I knew about Adam Purple back when I photographed the Lower East Side in 1980. He was impossible to miss riding around on his bicycle dressed in tie-dyed purple. I made the photograph above of his famous Garden of Eden, which consisted of concentric rings planted with flowers and vegetables.
Purple was an eccentric character, to say the least, and from what I could tell, a man of rather severe temperament. So I steered clear. But that was a superficial judgement for sure. We all thought his garden was amazing, carved into the rubble of one of the many vacant lots of the Lower East Side, one of the many individual and group efforts to reclaim land that had been abandoned by property owners.
Later, in the 80s, Purple’s creation became caught up in a range war like the cattlemen and the sheepherders out west. The housing activists wanted low income housing, and the garden activists wanted community gardens and green spaces. Adam Purple was a single minded gardener and an artist — and he wasn’t interested in building bridges with other political elements of the community. That was the downfall of the Garden of Eden, though I don’t blame him for it. He was who he was.
Above is what got built on Adam Purple’s Garden of Eden. It isn’t lovely. It is low income housing providing shelter for dozens of families. There are no shops built along the street to provide opportunity for small businesses and to bring life to the neighborhood, and there is barely any architecture to speak of. But the apartments are decent and affordable, and the area is safe and convenient to everything.
Imagine, if you will, a different scenario in which a sensitively designed complex of affordable housing was created embracing the Garden of Eden at its center. It could have been glorious. But it would have taken vision, something the housing activists and the city planners lacked. And I’m not sure that Adam Purple with his fierce independence would have gone along anyway. After vanishing for many years, Adam Purple was seen again on his bicycle around town, carrying cans and the like for recycling. He died on his bike on the Williamsburg Bridge.
Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.
A few days ago I went to Alex Harsley’s East 4th Street Photo Gallery to document his amazing space, a couple hundred square feet chock-a-block with prints running up and down the walls, even on the ceiling, attached to cords with clothespins. I brought along my son Brendan, who is 16 and needed to do a school photography assignment that involved making photos containing other photos.
Yes, that’s a 4×5 view camera, and yes, I’m wearing my dark cloth superhero cape as Alex salutes. I was there for 3 or 4 hours taking pictures — very slow going in such a tight space. I used my monorail camera so that I could use a wider lens. Most of the view camera images I’m doing these days are made with a field camera, a boxier, more compact camera with fewer movements, and a stiffer bellows, making it difficult to put a 65mm lens on it. But lightweight and portable. The camera above was previously my workhorse architectural camera. Few architectural photographers use view cameras any more, settling for the ease of digital SLRs, despite their limitations. Clients don’t know or care at this point. If you care, however, it’s an Arca Swiss camera with a Schneider 65mm lens on a Gitzo tripod and a Manfrotto ball head.
However, when I want highly detailed images to possibly print large, the view camera is still the way to go. I scan the negative at high resolution and make prints — like my last two exhibitions — up to 4×5 feet. The MIT mural shown in my earlier post was made from one of those 500 Mb scans. Anyway, I hope to have some images of Alex’s gallery to show in the near future.
I’ll be on vacation for a week to a place with limited internet and cell phone service, so don’t expect any posts till I return. Outta here.
Here in the East Village we are in shock over the explosion and fire that have leveled three historic tenement buildings on Second Avenue at East 7th Street. At present, there are missing people and numerous injured.
This is the downtown of the East Village, the heart of the culture and subculture that makes this place special, from high to low, the Beats, the Hippies, the Punks, and all who have chosen, or who have been chosen, to live in this crazy part of the world.
From 1966 to 2008 there was Love Saves the Day, a vintage clothing and bric-a-brac shop in the building now a heap of rubble. Above is a picture I took passing by not long before the shop closed.
Love Saves the Day.
The exhibition I am a part of at the MIT Museum (Photographing Places: The photographers of Places Journal, 1987-2009) includes interviews with the various photographers, which can be listened to through headphones at audio stations in the gallery. The interviews are broken up into short thematic bites.
My interview was done live over the internet with some editing done later. It’s fairly spontaneous commentary about my thinking and way of working. When I refer to “my book,” I’m talking about Time and Space on the Lower East Side, which is now sold out. And when I refer to “Cervin,” i’m talking about Cervin Robinson who was a consulting editor to the original Places magazine — an architectural photographer — and author of Architecture Transformed: A History of the Photography of Buildings from 1839 to the Present.
Here are the clips:
The Lower East Side project:
A few weeks ago, an exhibition opened at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts called Photographing Places: The Photographs of Places Journal, 1997-2009. Places Journal was originally a print magazine dealing with issues relating to architecture and urbanism. Each issue featured an extended photo essay centered on a particular location. In 2004, just after I had begun re-photographing the Lower East Side I was asked to contribute to the magazine. I was approached by Cervin Robinson, the architectural photographer, who was a contributing editor to the magazine. Cervin is also the author of a Architecture Transformed: A History of the Photography of Buildings from 1839 to the Present. I knew Cervin from all the way back in 1980 when I first exhibited by photographs of the Lower East Side. Cervin was for me, and many other photographers, a mentor and great friend. I’ve written about Cervin here and here.
Blow up of a Places Journal cover by Joel Sternfeld — © Brian Rose
I traveled up to Cambridge with my wife to attend a reception for the exhibition, which included four of my photographs, one of which was printed wall-size at the entryway to the show. The exhibition, curated by Gary Van Zante of the MIT Museum, features the work of about a 20 photographers whose images ran in the print version of Places. Places still exists, by the way, as a multi-dimensional website, and still presents photo essays focused on the built environment.
Almost a third of the photographers in the show were present at the reception, which was great. A couple of us had barely made it on time because of snow-delayed trains coming up from New York. I had very nice chats with Kate Milford, who was showing her photographs of downtown Brooklyn, and Lyle Gomes, who had photographed the landscape of the Presidio (former military base, now park) in San Francisco. I also spoke with Lisa Silvestri who has photographed post Katrina New Orleans. And best of all, the ageless Cervin Robinson was present.
Inside the door of the exhibition there is a blow-up of a cover of the former magazine with an image of the High Line by Joel Sternfeld in its former wild state. And two more images from that series are in the show.
Above are my prints in the show — two from 1980 done by me and Edward Fausty working together, and two from 2004 when I had just begun re-photographing the Lower East Side. This is the work that eventually comprised Time and Space on the Lower East Side, my now sold-out book. It was in Places Journal before anywhere else.
Here I am standing in front of Delancey Street 1980 at the entrance to the exhibition. I knew that my image was going to be used big, but I didn’t realize it would be this big. Pretty cool! The next day my wife and I walked all the way from MIT to the Back Bay station in Boston through the frozen snow clogged streets. Spring is just around the corner.
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.
Tucked inside the block behind the New Museum on the Bowery is a narrow alley that terminates in the center of the block. Access is from Rivington Street between a clothing store and a lumber yard. That’s the colliding nature of the neighborhood, which is moving upscale at a fast pace. Freeman Alley, as it is called, contains a restaurant, an art gallery, and the rear entrances to various businesses.
Not so long ago, it was a dark and fearful place just off the old Skid Row Bowery, and in fact, the Bowery Mission, which still feeds and houses the homeless, has a door onto the alley. My work space is just around the corner on Stanton Street, but two large loft buildings stand between my back windows and this inner sanctum of the block. It not a dangerous place any more, and a steady stream of diners walk through it to the restaurant Freeman’s at the end of the alley.
Freeman Alley has atmosphere, which is something that cannot be said about the newly cleaned up Extra Place, another mid-block alley just two blocks to the north on East 1st Street. That alley was once an equally desperate looking place just off the Bowery right behind the punk club CBGB. It was a great place to photograph your band, or perhaps, engage in other more nefarious activities.
Freeman Alley and Extra Place are two of the only alleys in Manhattan, a feature common in many cities, but almost non-existent in New York. Silicon Alley, a term used to describe the burgeoning tech industry in New York, is a misnomer.