All the roads in Alex Harsley’s life have led him to photography (many of these roads he traversed as a young man keen on tearing up the streets of New York on his sweet motorcycle). Specifically, what he calls “information photography.”
“I like discovering things nobody knows. And that’s how I got into photography…I had this way of seeing things before they happen. And then getting there as it was happening.” He gestures to a photograph on the wall near him, where a man and woman stand under streetlamps on a New York night. Two drops of blue from the streetlights—almost like splashes of paint—stand out from the yellow and black hues of the photo. This is a signature technique of Harsley, who’s spent much of his life experimenting with the ultraviolet spectrum by pulling different colors out and plopping them where they normally wouldn’t be seen. But Harsley is fixated on a different detail at the moment. “The way that woman’s heel is, for instance. Minor things in the image that say a lot…I’m always looking: ‘Well, how can I push this medium even further now?’”
I first came upon the 80-year-old founder of the nonprofit Minority Photographers Inc. while wandering around East 4th Street and seeking to escape the 90-something degree heat on a ruddy June day. He was resting on a chair outside of his narrow storefront, above which was painted, in charming print, “The 4th Street Photo Gallery.” Harsley invited me inside, where I met his daughter, Kendra Krueger, who had recently moved back to New York to help her dad with the gallery’s needs. These include archiving and digitizing countless photos shot over a lifetime and monitoring a GoFundMe campaign that they had set up to meet the demand of rising rents, hefty property taxes and loss of storage space as the East Village gentrifies.
Despite the efforts of nonprofit Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association—who rents the space to Minority Photographers and supports affordable housing in the area—to keep costs down, their rent has jumped from $1200 to $1400 a month and another ten percent hike is expected in the coming years. In order to stay afloat and keep the gallery—which has been a collective for artists of color for the past four decades—going until at least its 50th anniversary, Harsley has reached out to the community for support by asking for donations and giving participants a photographic print of their choice in return.
“There’s enough people out there that I have invested heavily in that, now, they can start paying something back for what I have helped them. I’m looking at hundreds and hundreds of people out there, saying, ‘I need some help now. Help me,’” says Harsley.
When I return the following week, Harsley—surrounded by a backdrop of hundreds upon hundreds of photos hanging on the walls and connected by clothespins—narrates his life story, which is enough to fill a half-dozen books, let alone a short article. Harsley grew up in a multi-generational household of 15 people in South Carolina, headed by the patriarch—his great-grandfather—who took care of him when he was born. Being born in the late 1930s, Harsley saw most of the young men of his era go off to war, but he was raised for the farm life. “I was basically brought up and taught everything I needed to know about running a farm. Horses. Vegetables. Fruits. Different seasons for different things. Making specific objects in case something broke. Like welding, for instance, with just a hammer. So, I had these interesting skills.”
From a young age, Harsley was tinkering with different objects, which foreshadowed the extensive exploration he would do in terms of researching photographic techniques. A key moment was when his mother took him to a photo gallery for a family portrait as a child, and he spotted the black photographer taking their photo. “And it was like this magic stuff was happening in this box. Did all these funny things and gave this tiny little picture. And I was like, ‘How’d you do that?’” Harsley says, mimicking his sense of wonder as a child, which he still possesses in abundance.
But Harsley never felt at peace in the South. As the child of a Baptist father born into a Methodist household, the family marked him as an outsider. “That’s when my mother was asked to come and get me and take me out of that environment. They could no longer handle me, as the saying goes,” recalls Harsley with a knowing smile. So his mother, who had been working in New York to support her family, brought him up to the big city in 1948. Harsley hung out with a bunch of kids who had survived the hardscrabble years of the war on the streets of New York. He also inadvertently sneaked into museums—one of the gatekeepers of the art world—thereby absorbing the strange dual nature of life in the city.
As a young man in the 1950s, he used to ride down to Washington Square Park. One day, a fellow in the park sold him a $15 camera, which he promptly took apart and examined. He was hooked. Not many years later, he would become the first black photographer in the New York City District Attorney’s office. He had first got a job working as a messenger in the district attorney’s office. “That was the beginning of equal opportunity. And the white structure was bringing in us folks,” says Harsley. “They had a photography department, and the person up there, I got to be friends with [him]. And realized he wanted to get a job working in the clerk’s office. So it was a good opportunity for me to take his job.” Harsley laughs, his voice crackling slightly.
But being drafted into the army in the early ‘60s derailed his plans. He re-enlisted, as he thought he would be able to use his service as a way to enter photography school. But the army had other plans for him, and he was unceremoniously shipped down to Alabama. Back to the “negative reality that I escaped many, many years ago as a child.” He stayed in his post and refused to go into the main town, and described being taught “very bad technology” which could be used to chemically kill or maim people. He was subsequently sent to a new posting in Massachusetts. After he returned from his service in the army, he realized it was time to get serious about his photography. He freelanced for a variety of publications and committed to research in a less destructive chemical technology than what he had been taught in the army: photographic techniques, which he honed as a supervisor in the Color Lab.
Meanwhile, he was also a bit of a self-admitted “playboy” when he moved into a place over on 11th Street called Paradise Alley in 1964 (Bedford + Bowery previously interviewed Harsley for a piece on the complex in 2013). “Paradise Alley was notorious. I didn’t know that. Where artists come and create troubles for everyone else.” He lets out a light laugh. “To me, it was like moving into paradise, literally. They had all these beautiful women. They had parties every night. Nobody complained.” It was around this time that he met Shelagh Krueger—Kendra’s mother and Harsley’s wife.
The photographer became acquainted with a lawyer in the office where Shelagh worked as a secretary. The attorney was irate that a building on Madison Avenue, which had a connection to Winston Churchill’s family, was being torn down for a high rise. Moreover, the appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court was also next to the building, and Harsley said the lawyer felt this new high rise was going to “cast a shadow on this important institution.” Literally. So the lawyer struck a deal with Harsley: take a photo of the building and preserve its glory, and I’ll help you set up a nonprofit art organization.
And that’s how Minority Photographers Inc. was born in 1971. The gallery came along not long after in 1973. The gallery hosted workshops over the next four decades and cultivated artists from communities of color like Dawoud Bey— a 2017 MacArthur Fellow that Harsley lauds for his writing ability as well as photographic talent—and David Hammons, who “was important to the [art] culture because he knew how to make fun of it in the most ridiculous way.” Minority Photographers also provided guidance to women photographers like Cynthia MacAdams. Harsley exhales deeply when describing her work. “I shiver when I look at that woman’s work. Wow. Techniques that she came up with. Difficult techniques. She’s the best. Ever. Ever.”
Harsley takes me on a tour of his life’s works. Photographs of celebrities like Miles Davis and Muhammad Ali scatter the walls and old-school cameras line the desks. But most of the people in these photos are ordinary New Yorkers, like a girl standing in a snowy landscape in front of a laundry sign. Some of the individuals Harsley have photographed have even spanned decades of contact, such as a series on his neighbors in the Village and Lower East Side. And yet, Harsley makes them appear extraordinary through his lens and often captures them in heated moments of history, such as during the riots in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the ‘60s. He had been heading to Bed-Stuy to put up placards advertising Minority Photographers when he crossed paths with a black photographer he knew who was working for The New York Times. “He said, ‘Don’t go in that area. The people’s going crazy rioting!’ I didn’t have the camera, so I had to rush back here and rush back out there,” says Harsley.
Besides displaying his work in the 4th Street Photo Gallery, Harsley has exhibited in numerous other galleries from New York to the Netherlands. His creative experimentation also extends to the audiovisual sphere, including videos that his daughter Kendra describes as “hypnotic” and “deprogramming experiences.” And he also loves installations, he says, pointing to what may be his most eccentric work to-date hanging from the ceiling. “Anti-Gravity” consists of fiber board from which lollipops dangle. “I was in the hospital for a while and they had bad news about lollipops. So I decided I could stick the lollipops on the ceiling,” says Harsley. The installation moves in accordance with the sounds in the room, and it took him 18 years to complete.
Why is it so important for the legacy of Minority Photographers to live on in the 4th Street Photo Gallery? Harsley wastes no time in answering. “I figure it’s important in terms of history. Their history, mainly, that’s here. And they have something in place that they can come back to and recognize. More and more people are starting to come back and say, “He’s still here?!” He chuckles before stating the gallery’s unofficial purpose. “It’s become like a museum now…the first museum [of photographic technology] in New York City.”
The 4th Street Photo Gallery is located at 67 East 4th Street. Store hours are Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday from 2-8 pm and Friday and Saturday from 3-10 pm (closed on Mondays). You can find their GoFundMe here.