I recently had the privilege of participating in David Harvey’s “At Home With David Alan Harvey” workshop in New York City. For 8 days, David and his staff opened up his Williamsburg loft to 12 aspiring photographers to get a firsthand experience of the New York photographic world. Each of us worked on an individual project and participated in daily critiques, as well as impromptu studio visits from photo editors, National Geographic staff, book publishers, and representatives from David’s photo agency, Magnum. Classes were held in the studio of NatGeo photographer Robert Clark, across the hall from David’s loft. It was a rare opportunity, made all the rarer by the fact that he probably won’t continue giving workshops in his home.
The exposure and instruction were first-rate; David pushed each of us to explore themes, dig deeper, get closer, trim the fat, let go of the “almost” pictures, forget about the shots we missed, and build a body of work that had style and impact. He pulled no punches, and at times it was hard being in the room when he was bearing down on a fellow photographer who wasn’t “getting it”…but in the end, every single one of us came away with work that was on a higher level than what we came in with.
I’m posting here the results of my workshop project, which was a somewhat lyrical exploration of the New York night, focusing on the hip Lower East Side. From a visual standpoint, I was attracted to all the colors of artifical night light: neon, blue stage lights, red -gelled interiors, halogen street lights. From a thematic viewpoint, I was looking to capture what I saw to be the prevailing mood of the nightlife on the Lower East Side: a world of people searching for something, sometimes finding fleeting hints of it, but generally lost in the darkness of a place that is ultimately apathetic to whether or not their band makes it, or whether they find love, or how cool they look. The Lower East Side is one of the great bastions of the “Tragically Hip”, and to me there is some poignant irony about it all; so many people who yearn to be different, to rise above, to express themselves as artists, to escape the conformity of their upbringing…and all of them drowning in a sea of sameness: tattoos, pork pie hats, rock bands, wallets on chains, cigarettes outside the bar…I don’t think I really scratched the surface of that theme in my piece, but it was there with me the whole time. There were moments when I saw it all in a more positive light, when I thought of this great teeming world of art and music and young people out doing their thing, hooking up and breaking up and living out the dramas that are the stuff of rock and roll songs…but mostly it struck me as a sad. lonely kind of scene, with a retro-upon-retro style that no longer seemed to have much substance to it…kind of a Foucault’s paradise of endlessly circular self-references…
David’s advice to me upon review of my portfolio was to get looser and edgier, to develop a stronger “personal style”. On one level I feel I succeeded, but the quandary now is how to really “own” the changes I’ve made in my style, and what further changes to make to come into a style that takes the best of the old old stuff, the best of the new stuff, and puts me on the path of “authorship”.
For me, shooting in New York was a challenge. I lived in the Big Apple for three years and there was no love lost when I moved away. Like an old girlfriend said to me, “New York is like a bad lover”–you give and you give and for the most part she is totally indifferent, except for every now and then she throws you some shred of love and approval, which makes you hungry for more, so you stick around waiting, hoping…And then there’s the overcrowding, the absence of nature, the noise, the smell, and the overwhelming presence of anxiety, frustration, and alienation. Being there puts me in a “Taxi Driver” state of mind, which is not a state of mind I really like to be in.
At the same time, I really do love playing with night light…So I guess the real question is where to take this thing from here. I’m thinking maybe I could take pieces of this idea south, to small towns and regional music scenes, where I might find a little more soul, a little more humanity. I think maybe I’d like to add a stronger element of “Americana” to it. Maybe make it a piece about the “American” night…Or hell, maybe I’ll just suck it up and head back to the LES for another dose of postmodern blues, New York style…
Anyway, here are the ten photos that made it to the final slideshow, followed by the outtakes:
And some of the better outtakes: