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.
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.