Home sweet home.
The Brooklyn Bridge, 100th anniversary, 1983 (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose
Happy Independence Day!
After a number of years, the fireworks return to the East River. The above photo is a reprise of one of my “best hits.” A picture taken in 1983 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge. Thanks to a connection to the developer of the South Street Seaport, I had a spot among the rocks and sand at the edge of the river. There were a few other photographers around, but I was the only one crazy enough to shoot with a 4×5 view camera. And unlike the others, I used a wide angle lens to take in the entire scene.
Fortunately, it was not too windy, and I tried about a dozen wildly varied exposures. Because of the calm, smoke hung low in the air, and the second tower of the bridge is barely visible in my photograph. Remarkably, the negative is razor sharp without the slightest camera shake. It makes a great large print.
In photographing New York, one is frequently confronted with world famous icons — the bridges, skyscrapers, monuments. It’s all been done. But rather than worry about it, I just treat everything equally, seen as any pedestrian might see it. The trick sometimes is not about framing the extraordinary thing, but rather treating the extraordinary as a normal and unprivileged part of the landscape.
And then add fireworks!
My contribution to the book done by my ICP class, Photographing New York: the Lower East Side. Three images of street basketball in Sarah D. Roosevelt Park. This is a world I know well having spent years playing on New York City courts. My knees are shot now, but I still get out there now and then. And I work with my 15 year old son, Brendan.
There are moments of peak action, bodies in perfect equipoise, the kind of thing you might see in Sports Illustrated — even on the playground. But I’m more interested in the faces transfixed by the ball somewhere out of the frame. The various shapes and sizes of the players — tall and lean, short and dumpy. The transient moments, the downtime, the shuffling for position between plays, the walk off at the end of the game.
Above is a preview of the book done by with my ICP class, Photographing New York, the Lower East Side. Each student selected some aspect of the neighborhood to photograph, and we then put the work together as a book using Blurb, the online print on demand service.
It’s a pretty cool book, done in just eight weeks time. And it’s a wonderful teaching process — although a bit stressful — in that it demands working in a focused purposeful way on a tight schedule. This is the third time I’ve taught this class, the third book, and each one is different. Each class has it own dynamic, and its own collection of personalities. Some of the photographers are relatively experienced and have a good grasp of things creatively and technically. Others are still struggling to find their way.
The challenge is to get everyone working individually and collaboratively with the goal of creating something potentially lasting — a document of place and time — and a tangible object that is publicly available. Working together like this elevates the discussion, asks each student to consider larger issues, and locates their work in the context of the important photographers who have made the Lower East Side their subject.
Clayton Patterson, the documentarian of the Lower East Side, whose raw videos of the Tompkins Square Park riots of 1988, brought him to prominence, has decided to quit New York for the Austrian spa town of Bad Ischl. Okay…
A few choice quotes from the article in the New York Times:
“There’s nothing left for me here,” said Mr. Patterson, who, at 65, is still a physical presence, with his biker’s beard, Santa Claus belly and mouth of gold teeth. “The energy is gone. My community is gone. I’m getting out. But the sad fact is: I didn’t really leave the Lower East Side. It left me.”
Maybe for Detroit? For Berlin? For deep into Brooklyn — maybe even the Bronx? It’s true that things have changed in Lower Manhattan, profoundly changed. There was a period of time that began in the ’70s and gradually tapered in the ’80s, when the LES was cheap and edgy (and scary), a place where an underground scene could flourish. These moments are always fleeting, and at some point you realize as an artist that you have work to do that is independent of the scene that nourished you. If your work is about the scene, then follow it wherever it goes.
“What Clayton is telling us is that his world is gone and that he’s going too,” said Alan Kaufman, a writer and a friend of Mr. Patterson’s. “This ought to send up a red flag for someone. It’s remarkable, really. It’s kind of like Atget quitting Paris.”
Kind of like, I guess. Atget, whose work documenting the changing face of Paris, is indeed synonymous with that city. But what has always connected me to his work is not so much Paris itself, but the eye of Atget, his visual intelligence, and the expression of beauty as he found it.
To Daniel Levin, who directed “Captured,” a 2008 documentary about Mr. Patterson and his work, the plan to leave New York was further evidence of the city’s cultural decline. “Sadly, ironically, New York is displacing the people that made it what it was,” Mr. Levin said. “The entire city has become a playground for money, wealth and sterilized housing, and that’s not what’s traditionally made it interesting.”
People tend to think of Manhattan as New York. And historically, Manhattan was an all inclusive place with slums and mansions, industry and offices, white collar and blue collar side-by-side, the entry point for foreign immigrants and young strivers alike. In the past two decades, Manhattan has shed a good deal of that diversity and become more homogenous. While many urban centers in the United States declined, Manhattan absorbed more and more people and money. But New York, “the entire city,” remains as diverse as ever. Except for certain enclaves, perhaps, the other boroughs are not exactly “a playground for money, wealth and sterilized housing.”
Tell the hundreds of thousands of people schlepping every day on overcrowded subways to get to work that the city is a playground. And who are these newcomers who have swelled the city to the highest population in its history? Are these the 1% who occupy the “sterilized housing.” There is something wrong with the way we are talking about this city and what is actually happening to it.
I wish Clayton Patterson well in his move to Austria. There is a time to leave, and a time to find more comfort in life. I’ve written in the past about Patterson’s work here. It’s not so much about individual pictures, but ensemble, as installation. I really liked the last exhibit I saw of his work. He’ll be missed around here.
I will be teaching a class at ICP this spring called Photographing New York: The Lower East Side. Each student will photograph some aspect of the neighborhood, and the class will put together a book using Blurb, the print on demand web platform. It’s a lot of fun, for me and the students, but it’s also a pretty challenging assignment because it all happens in a relatively short period of time. For those who are not used to making photographs on a deadline, it can be quite a shock. And then a book has to be laid out and printed in time for the last class.
Both times I’ve taught the class it has been nerve wracking, but then, exhilarating, once the finished book was in hand. It’s a little bit like I what I just did in putting together my book on the Meatpacking District. It all came together in a matter of months — photography, image sequencing, and book design. If you’re up for it, there are still spots open in the class. Just go the ICP education website and sign up. I’d love to have you.
One of the photographs from Time and Space on the Lower East Side appeared in the Sunday New York Times .
50 years ago a number of blocks of densely occupied tenement housing along Delancey Street were razed and thousands of low income families, mostly Puerto Rican, were displaced. Robert Moses attempted to build a freeway across Lower Manhattan directly through Soho and the Lower East Side, and these blocks were the first to be cleared. The highway was stopped, but the vacant lots remained a political battleground for decades. A rebuilding plan, reached by neighborhood consensus, is finally moving forward. This article explains why it took so long.
It’s a shocking story of corruption and racism. It centers around Sheldon Silver, the New York State representative from lower Manhattan, and one of the most powerful politicians in Albany. If there is justice in the world, it signals the end of his ignominious career.
Prior to my recent book — Time and Space on the Lower East Side — I worked with established publishers in the Netherlands and here in New York. The results were mixed, both in terms of quality and distribution. I can’t complain too much in that I did not have to bring money to the table for any of them. But I never made a dime on those books either. The Lost Border, the Landscape of the Iron Curtain was available in a few bookstores, but most of the sales were on Amazon. It’s still available on Amazon, but I have acquired a number of copies and plan to offer signed books on my website sometime soon.
By the time I got around to doing Time and Space, the publishing landscape had changed, and I knew that I would probably have to pay for the book myself — either that, or send out dummies and wait months and months for someone to respond, if ever. So, I decided to take control, put up the money (partially raised on Kickstarter), and distribute the book myself. I ended up working with Bill Diodato, a photographer with a publishing sideline called Golden Section Publishers.
I realized from the start, that the economics of my book — in an edition of 1,000 — would not make it possible to sell via Amazon, which demands a much larger cut of the retail price than any brick and mortar store. I would lose money on every sale. So, I began seriously cultivating relationships with independent book stores. It helped that I could tell them that Amazon would not be undercutting them, and it helped that I had a book with a local New York theme. Nevertheless, I expected my online sales to equal or approach store sales.
I’ve done pretty well online, but the reality is that 75% of my sales have been through bookstores. It depends, of course, on the kind of book you have. There are photo books that sell primarily to collectors, and you’d rarely find them in local shops. Dashwood Books on Bond Street in Noho caters particularly to the collecting crowd. As far as I know, it’s the only shop in New York that exclusively sells photo books. The other stores sell to the general public, albeit a rather sophisticated NYC public. They curate their offering carefully, and simply do not have the space to carry everything.
Time and Space and my upcoming book Metamorphosis, Meatpacking District 1985 + 2013 were designed to stand out on display tables, which is where you have to be in stores. Once your book is on the shelf with only the spine showing, you’re dead. My assistant and I have spent days visiting the stores that carried Time and Space making sure that the book was prominently displayed. Ultimately, you want a stack of books — it’s psychologically more enticing — and you have to make sure the stores reorder before they run out. Otherwise, weeks can go by before they get around to calling for more. No matter how good your distribution, nothing replaces these in person visits.
We all know that bookstores are under severe pressure with ebooks replacing hard copy, and amazon.com undermining prices. Moreover, independent stores are not always as savvy as they could be. But unless you are famous, or have a big promotional budget, the primary way to reach the public is still through these stores. You know who they are in Manhattan: The Strand, St. Mark’s, McNally Jackson, Rizzoli, and the various museum shops. And ironically, Time and Space has done really well at John Varvatos, the clothing shop that occupies the former CBGB on the Bowery. Photo books can be fashion accessories.
Despite the digitization of photography — or perhaps because of it — we are in a golden age of photography books. There are now numerous websites, blogs, and Facebook groups that review or sell photo books, and all of that virtual infrastructure helps build community and encourage sales. But without local bookstores, where one can browse, discover, pick up and feel, fewer photo books will reach the public. Simple as that.
There’s been lots of discussion about whether Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen brothers is an Oscar-worthy masterpiece or a dismal failure. Whatever the case, I’d like to briefly touch on the look of the film. The story takes place in 1961 Greenwich Village and the main character wanders the streets and cafes of the area, familiar terrain to those of us who were a part of the folk scene in New York. My participation came much later, the late ’70s and early ’80s, but even today, the look and feel of the place has changed very little.
A scene from Inside Llewyn Davis, East 2nd Street
To my eye, the neighborhood is a richly colorful landscape, in parts beautiful, in other parts tawdry. McDougal and Bleecker Streets where the folk scene was centered remains a tourist district with mediocre restaurants and cheap gift shops. But there’s also Porto Rico coffee, Caffe Dante, and Mamoun’s falafel, places that have survived decades. Even Ben’s Pizza is still there in all its fluorescent and formica glory. Caffe Dante was where I used to hang out with Suzanne Vega and Jack Hardy plotting to shake up the world with our songs. It’s still great for atmosphere, but the coffee at Third Rail a couple of blocks away is on a different level. But I digress.
People have criticized Inside Llewyn Davis for portraying the folk scene as a ghostly shadow of its true self. Suzanne Vega called the movie “brown and sad.” The movie, indeed, is visually muted and dark. The Coen’s obviously filtered the color giving it that old color look–like an Instagram filter.
But the past is only Instagrammed in our minds Or in prints and slides that have faded and color shifted over the years. When Dave Van Ronk–who the movie is sort of, but not really about–and Bob Dylan inhabited the neighborhood in the early ’60s the look of the place was undoubtedly as brightly hued as it is today. My guess is that the Coens and their art director were inspired in part by the iconic photograph on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan where he and Suzy Rotolo walked down the center of Jones Street on a snowy thinly lit day.
One can argue that the Coens wanted to remove their movie from the present and give it a dreamy long ago quality. But at this point, color filters are an overused device. Moody, slanting light streaming through windows, has also become a cliche supposedly evoking the past. Think of Spielberg’s Lincoln.
In my book Time and Space on the Lower East I tried to make the point that the past and present are not mutually exclusive realities. They are part of a continuum of experience. They are both here now in vivid color. And the sky on a sunny day is blue.
As many of you know, Cooper Union, the esteemed tuition-free art/architecture/engineering college is in the midst of an existential crisis. The Board of Trustees has proposed charging tuition to solve the school’s financial problems. Alumni, students, and other friends of Cooper are fighting the change.
I have 100 copies of my book Time and Space on the Lower East Side left in the first (and only) edition. I am donating 50% of the sales to the Cooper Union annual fund between now and the end of the year. Just type in “Cooper” in the discount box, get the book for $60, and help this important institution at a critical time and get a copy of this collectible book.
22 books sold. $755 raised for Cooper. Keep it up!
Here’s what it says on their “about” page:
Bettery Magazine is an online publication featuring the people, places and ideas that are changing our urban landscapes today. In giving their unique foresights an international stage, Bettery Magazine aims to encourage the creative thinking poised to reshape and revitalize cities around the globe.
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.”
It has been one year since Time and Space on the Lower East Side was published, and over 800 of approximately 1,100 books have been sold — well on the way to selling out. At the moment, I have no plans to go to a second printing. So, the first edition is undoubtedly something worth collecting. You can always go to my website to purchase, or to one of the independent booksellers in Manhattan like the Tenement Museum store above. I am now shifting gears to working on a new book, WTC, partnering again with Bill Diodato of Golden Section Publishers. This book will focus on the skyline of New York, principally the Twin Towers and their replacement One World Trade Center, and includes pictures from 1978 to the present.
I found this recently — the blog I Fear Brooklyn. Bob Hill, who keeps the blog wrote a short but wonderful encomium to Time and Space on the Lower East Side. Hill writes:
…Time & Space presents the New York that we talk about when we talk about New York. The beauty of this exhibition being Brian Rose set out again a few short years ago, this time to document the same East Side a full three decades now removed. If anything, these photos serve as a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. But they also leave a sense of setting out again at twilight, if not the very awkward feeling it’s much later than you know.
Of all the things written about Time and Space, this is my favorite.