Thursday, August 7, 2014

Metamorphosis: A Conversation with Brian Rose

“One belongs to New York instantly," said Tom Wolfe, "one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” Be this as it may, contemporary New York City endures so much civic upheaval and cultural scrubbing of its past that a half decade there can feel like a half century. I'm enamored of photographer Brian Rose's new book Metamorphosis: Meatpacking District 1985 + 2013. In it, Rose juxtaposes photographs of Manhattan's lower West Side in the mid-1980s with new photographs of the same locations and of locations nearby. The result is graphic: the Meatpacking District of the Ed Koch-era is long gone, vast stretches of hulking factories and desolation replaced by bright commerce and busy residents. What's particularly powerful about the book is its accidental nature, as Rose happened upon the '85 negatives and, surprised, and moved, felt compelled to revisit the sites and document the changes, letting commentary accrue in the spaces among the images. The photos are striking: large, vibrantly colorful, dramatically composed yet intimate in their documenting of particular city details. Some of the before-and-after comparisons are literal—a block-long fruit stand now houses Hugo Boss and Moschino boutiques—and some are subtle—a building remains, but shiny cars distract from its decrepitude. Throughout the series, in media res construction points to the changes coming.

In his introduction, Rose says this about the locally infamous High Line: "I love it—it's a perfect conjuncture of preservation and contemporary architecture. I hate it—it's too crowded much of the time to be fully enjoyed." Such a counterpoint informs many of the photographs in Metamorphosis, but Rose leaves the judging to his readers. Not so the inimitable Jeremiah Moss, of Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, who wrote the book's foreword, which is characteristically informative, mournful, and stoic. (My 2012 interview with Moss is here.) Moss writes: "Those of us who remember, who dream that gorgeously decaying world as it existed right up to the end of the last century might sometimes wonder if we were imagining it." Brian Rose's book is a reminder that that world did exist, in all of its grimy, crumbling, hazardous glory. One wonders what the area will look like in another thirty years, and who will be there to remark on the clash between then and now.

Recently, I virtually sat down with Rose to discuss Metamorphosis, photography, and the past.

Brian Rose
Could you talk a bit about the origins of the book?

It was the winter of 1985 and I was looking for something new to photograph. I'd recently finished projects having to do with the Lower East Side, the Financial District, and Central Park. So, for several days I wandered with my 4x5 view camera through the Meatpacking District and up into Chelsea. Everything was frozen—probably me too—and I did not feel terribly inspired. The film ended up in a box, and I never printed any of it. A year and a half ago I opened the box and scanned the negatives and was stunned to see these simple, but carefully composed, pictures of a semi-abandoned stage-set New York. I posted some of them on my blog, and Jeremiah Moss did a story on them on Vanishing New York. People started clamoring for me to do a book. So, last summer I began re-photographing the Meatpacking District, repeating many of the original shots, and making new images as well.

In the introduction you write, "This is New York. You cannot live here if you cannot abide change." That says: 1) change is inevitable, and 2) change must be accepted. Do you find the many changes in Manhattan since the mid-80s positive? What in your opinion has the city lost in its continual metamorphosing?
14th Street, 1985
14th Street, 2013
Change in a dynamic city is definitely inevitable, and unless you are inclined to perpetual suffering, you have to accept it. That doesn't mean you can't complain—I get worked up about stuff like anybody else. But there are many ways to push back against the onslaught. For years, I was actively involved with a housing group on the Lower East Side. We successfully secured permanent low income housing for hundreds of people, saved buildings from destruction, and influenced the design and scale of new development in a large urban renewal area. It didn't stop the tide of gentrification, but we deflected it and channeled it to the benefit of people.

Every change, however, involves loss. Sometimes it's painful, sometimes you just shrug your shoulders. There are a million more people in New York than there were when these first photographs were taken. There have been two stock market crashes. We weathered the Reagan years, then the Clinton years. And there was 9/11, the most traumatic event in the history of the city. It was an event reflecting the global nature of New York, which we often forget living in our individual neighborhoods, that there are forces affecting this city that we have little control of, that are beyond the scope of our complaining about the loss of our favorite bar or diner on the corner.

In the early '80s it was possible to imagine New York going the way of present-day Detroit rather than way things have turned out. You'd stand in the middle of the desolation on the Lower East Side or over in the Meatpacking District and say to yourself, "This is fantastic! This is beautiful!" And there was a kind of perfection in that moment. But in another moment you'd realize that it was a lie. That people were dying of AIDS, that people were strung out on drugs, that buildings were burning down and lost forever. Manhattan used to be a complete city with rich and poor neighborhoods, with blue collar industry, and iconic ethnic neighborhoods like the Lower East Side or Harlem. It's more homogeneous now. The old timers hold onto their rent controlled apartments, but for many newcomers it's an unapproachable Oz, too expensive, too glamorous. The diversity of the city remains, but it has expanded outward to the boroughs.  

You write also that you hesitate to say much textually, that you want the images to do the heavy lifting. What story do these photographs narrate?

Washington and Jane Street, 1985
Washington and Jane Street, 2013
I had a professor in art school who believed that images should have an "open ended" quality. And it's something I took to heart. What it means is that such images have multiple meanings, or there is ambiguity in their meaning. That they can be as much about the unknown as the obvious factual reality in them. In a similar vein, I've always said that I want people to find their own way in my photographs. I want to engage and provoke, but not preach. I want people to overlay their own mental maps of the city onto mine, and in the process look at things differently, see things freshly, re-examine their relationship to the familiar. The story in these pictures is yours as much as it is mine.

What do you feel is the cultural value of nostalgia?

Nostalgia is a normal component of human nature and society. But I think it can become fetishized, decadent. You can luxuriate in the imagined past and denigrate everything new. As a photographer I'm looking to bridge the gap between past and present, if that's possible. To find another kind of relationship with time that isn't simply before/after.

I'm always curious about what complementary photographers feel about the Instagram and Hipstamtic craze, specifically the use of pre-set filters that cast images in particular moods and tones, suggesting different eras or times of day, etc.. Are you a fan of this movement? Do you resist it? As a photographer who works with film and negatives, do you find digital manipulation problematic in any way?

It's curious to me that people view the past as if through a filter. I think it's largely because the past is commonly seen as grainy black and white film or faded color snapshots. Well before Instagram filmmakers were using filters to psychologically evoke the past. And they there still doing it. Look at Inside Llewyn Davis by the Cohen brothers in which the colors are muted and there's bluish cast over everything.

When I began scanning my 1980 Lower East Side film a few years ago, and more recently with the Meatpacking negatives, I realized that I could recover all the vibrancy of the originals. The past didn't look like the filtered past, it looked just just like the present. To me, that was startling, a kind of epiphany. I immediately decided that I wanted to mix the old and new images together in Time and Space on the Lower East Side. I wanted to confuse one's perception about what was then and what is now. With Metamorphosis, it made more sense to do a number of exact before/afters, but the equal color fidelity remains an important aspect of the book.

This wouldn't be possible without the ability to scan and work in Photoshop. The color in the old negatives had shifted, and if you tried to make analog prints, they'd look unbalanced and clogged up. So, I've embraced the technology, but only in the sense that it can help me do what I do. The idea of manipulated imagery goes all the way back to the early days of photography and film. It's a legitimate thing, but I'm still in love with camera-based images. It's not reality, actually, but it's connected in a very basic way to a common sense of visual perception.

Do you have a favorite image in the book, either from the past or present?

I'm not sure I have a favorite image, but I do have a favorite moment. I had set my camera up on the corner of Washington and West 13th Street in front of the Standard Hotel in order to duplicate a rather bleakly empty image from 1985. I stood there about 15 minutes waiting for something to activate the frame—something that made this different from a mundane before/after. Suddenly this bright red vintage car, top down, full of guys in sunglasses comes screeching around the corner, and I nailed it. It was the perfect distillation of what had happened to the area, the crassness, the excess. But it's also funny and harmless. It's just another moment.

Have you metamorphosed demonstrably since 1985? Do you see any of yourself in the juxtapositions of these photos?

I tend to think of myself as invisible in my photographs, though I know it's probably not true. When I began shooting large format color in the street in 1980, it was in many ways a new way of working. And in 1985 I was still discovering a process of investigating the urban landscape. Now when I go back, I'm aware of so much more. Not only has a lot of history unfolded in New York, but a lot has happened in photography. What I feel most of all is a sense of reconnecting with myself, a closing of a circle that began long ago.

Photo of Brian Rose by Rodger Kingston
All other images copyright 2013 Brian Rose

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