Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Duane Michals - Empty New York

On Thursday, November 8, I went to hear photographer Duane Michals speak at 192 Books on 10th Avenue about his new book, Empty New York. Michals began making photographs in 1963-64 after falling deeply in love with Eugène Atget’s documentation of the streets and architecture of Paris. Atget was relatively unknown at the time; most of his work was published posthumously by Berenice Abbott. Michals wanted to see the environment of New York City without people. He said that when you peer into a room with even one person inside, you see that person, not the room itself. He began photographing early in the morning and pressed his camera lens against the windows of empty shops and restaurants. Michals said he saw these places like stage sets, waiting for the cast to arrive. Everything is a performance: a barber in his barbershop is doing the barbershop act, the bookseller in the bookshop is doing the bookshop act. Little dramas.

Going off on so many tangents throughout his talk, I made note of some of Michals’ most interesting points. He learned everything he knows about photography on the job. He said going to school for photography is a waste of time, and that anyone interested in pursing the art should just “go out on the street and take pictures.” He believes that if you do attend university, you should leave school asking more questions than when you arrived. This particular point resonated with me, because school tends to drain artists of their creativity when we’re forced to learn and follow so many rules – something I experienced – and for most of us, the only question we were asking when we graduated was “what the hell am I doing?” (I’ve been incredibly lucky to have overcome that.) Michals said that those constraints stopper creativity and it’s much harder to unlearn the rules than it is to learn them in the first place.

He hates MoMA because he thinks of it like a factory in both design and content, which I found ironic due to his connection to Andy Warhol. I wrote a piece on Michals in August of 2016, detailing my introduction to his work and about finding an issue of GROUND Mag with his photograph of Andy Warhol covering his face with his hands, and the subsequent cover story. While Michals was speaking, he brought up Warhol, and described him as “one of the most boring people” he’s ever met. I couldn’t help but laugh, given my [unfortunate] attraction to anything Warhol-related, which is initially what lead me to discover Michals’ connection to him.

He mentioned Ralph Eugene Meatyard, a photographer whose work has always made me uncomfortable, and said, “We should not be surprised that an optician became a photographic seer.” He also had a lot to say about portraiture, declaring, “Most portraits are lies,” and, “The biggest con men are the big smilers.” This reminded me of what he said in the GROUND Mag article about selfies, and how much us heading in that direction photographically troubles him.

He called himself the “antichrist photographer,” because of his love for digital, even throwing out, “Fuck film! I love digital!” He tore down everything a purist photographer would believe, though at 86 years old with a massive body of work, it seems he’s earned the right to be called an authority on the subject and no longer worry about the purity of the art form.

When he was finished speaking, those of us who wanted our copies of the monograph signed queued up. I was first in line and had a chance to tell him that the quote I loved from his article in GROUND Mag has been hanging on my mirror in my apartment for the last four years. He asked me to recite the quote, and actually spoke aloud about that idea momentarily.
He signed my book: “Hello Chelsea…. Goodbye. Duane Michals

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Searching For Soul

Last July, Jeremiah Moss's book 'Vanishing New York: How A Great City Lost Its Soul' hit bookstores. Last Thursday, I attended a panel at the Museum of the City of New York, where Moss and three others had a discussion about the impact of hyper-gentrification on the city. It was thrilling to be in a room full of other people as passionate about this subject as I am, as I'm the only person across all of my groups of friends who cares about this at all.

I read (almost) exclusively historical non-fiction about the city these days, and the list of books I've devoured is growing. This is a subject I've been passionate about for a couple of years, and Moss's book helped to clarify exactly what is going on in New York; from the High Line's massive impact on the west side, to mail-order services killing the local shops, to the "glass monstrosities" built on the rubble of entire city blocks, razed for the elite to move in.

During the panel, Moss elaborated on a point he made in the book: the people who are moving into the city now, into areas steeped in historical and cultural significance, don't have a shred of nostalgia for the neighborhood in which they've chosen to reside. For example, folks my age move into the East Village on the wings of trust funds, spend $4,000/month on studio apartments in glass boxes, and turn a blind, ignorant eye to how that section of the city came to be trendy in the first place. Moss said, "Nostalgia gets a bad rap in our current culture," and I couldn't agree more: that's exactly why the soul of this city is slipping away. In this age of instant-gratification and Instagram stories, most millennials won't care if a historic corner store is bulldozed, as long as a shiny new restaurant rises in its place.

However, after the four speakers on the panel had brought their conversation to a close, and opened up a Q & A with the [at capacity] audience, one person made a comment that has stuck with me. Susan Mayer is a 74-year old graphic design teacher who moved into a tenement building on the Lower East Side in her late teens/early twenties. It was the kind of space where the bathtub was in the kitchen, a cubicle in the corner that looked like a phone booth held the toilet, and two faux fireplaces did nothing to heat the $65/month apartment, and it was the kind of place where the whole building was a community, everyone knew their neighbors, and people would stop to say hello.
Susan said, "The soul of the city resides in the lived-in spaces."

From the outside, it's getting harder to see the remains of the old New York, the cultural beacons in the form of bars, restaurants, and event spaces that were the hangouts of so many influential artists, writers, and taste-makers of past eras. I make it my business when reading about any particular area of the city to frequent the neighborhood as often as possible, and to look for remnants of the past. Right now, I'm reading John Strausbaugh's 'The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, a History of Greenwich Village,' and I've been hopping off the train at West 4th with my camera every chance I get. My Roaming project has always been about New York from my perspective, and there's been a subconscious shift toward the more historically significant areas within the last year. It's much more difficult to access those lived-in spaces, but I'm hopeful they still exist.