photography

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Photographer Alex Harsley Created An Artists’ Hub In the East Village—And Now He’s Trying To Save It

Alex Harsley and daughter Kendra Krueger in the 4th Street Photo Gallery (Photos: Tara Yarlagadda)

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?’”

A New York street photo shot by Alex Harsley.

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.

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The Photographer Documenting DIY Culture in Brooklyn and Beyond

La Rhaata on the subway, New York City 2017 (photo: Walter Wlodarczyk)

Those who proclaim the spirit of New York City is dead would be wise to look away from the fresh horror that is the CBGB Target and instead fix their eyes on the work of photographer Walter Wlodarczyk. There, you’ll find a vibrant collection of musicians, performance artists, dancers, and other experimental creative types. As Wlodarczyk’s solo exhibition There Is Only One Of You demonstrates in an impressive 160 or so photos, thriving artistry is still alive and well here. Keep Reading »

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‘Store Front’ Photographer Karla Murray Races Against Time to Document ‘Fun and Funky’ NYC

(Photo courtesy of James and Karla Murray)

Longtime East Village photographers James and Karla Murray installed a structure in Seward Park recreating the Lower East Side’s Cup and Saucer, which closed after more than 70 years in business. Now, they’ve set up a gallery show featuring photographs from their “Store Front” books just a few blocks away at The Storefront Project (70 Orchard Street). The exhibit, “Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York,” pays homage to the mom-and-pop shops of the Lower East Side and will remain open through August 12. Bedford + Bowery chatted with Karla Murray about her hopes and thoughts on the changing neighborhood. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

(Photo: Tara Yarlagadda)

BB_Q(1)

I hope the opening reception went well.

BB_A(1)We got a lot of love and support from our friends and store owners as well. The granddaughter of Moe Albanese [of] Albanese Meats & Poultry on Elizabeth [Street]. Really the last butcher in Nolita. A neon sign fabricator who created the sign for Trash & Vaudeville and refurbished the Russ & Daughter’s sign was in attendance as well.

(Photo: Tara Yarlagadda)

BB_Q(1)

Tell me about your hopes for the Orchard Street exhibit.

BB_A(1)The majority of the photos relate to the Lower East Side. You know, to relate back to the neighborhood that the gallery is in. We also have a smattering from our so-called other “favorite” ones, mostly departed stores like Zig Zag Records and the Ralph’s that you saw in the window. We included some others but concentrated on the Lower East Side because we wanted to continue our story. ‘Cuz certainly the Lower East Side has changed a lot with gentrification and different people moving in. Unfortunately, a lot of mom-and-pop stores have closed. Buildings have been knocked down—it’s not only the stores. They’ve destroyed a lot of old tenement buildings [that] have been replaced with newer developments. When that happens, what replaces them on the ground floor as far as retail [goes] is a massive space that usually doesn’t lend to a mom-and-pop store leasing it because it’s just too expensive.

(Photo: Tara Yarlagadda)

BB_Q(1)

Are you mainly trying to preserve the legacy of these buildings or do you think there is some hope for activists to see your work and get inspired?

BB_A(1)Oh, of course. The way we’ve always thought of it is a celebration of the businesses that are still around. We always photograph vibrant, lively businesses. That’s why we always put the address with the cross street because we want people to be able to go to the stores and shop at them. That’s really the key to their survival, [which] is that they need customers.

(Photo: Tara Yarlagadda)

BB_Q(1)

And how many businesses did you end up photographing as part of this project?

BB_A(1)It’s countless. Thousands of photos. There’s over 325 stores just in our first book. And we have three books on the subject. Too many to count and interviews with the store owners as well. It’s over twenty years now [that] we’ve been documenting these mom-and-pop stores.

BB_Q(1)

You [and James] have been East Village residents for how many years now?

BB_A(1)We’ve lived in the same apartment for 22 years now. So it’s been a long time. It’s changed a lot in the time that we’ve been there. To be honest: we wish we had photographed more. There’s many, many small businesses that we remember fondly, but frankly we didn’t ever take a photo of [them] because we didn’t think they would ever close. And then it was too late. It’s always been a race against time to document them because they seem to be closing almost on a daily basis. For the most part, if they don’t own the building they’re located in, with the cost of new real estate going up, the landlord will triple, quadruple [the rent]. One business, they increased the rent 15 times. I mean, no small business can absorb that kind of rent increase, so then they’re forced to close.

(Photo: Tara Yarlagadda)

BB_Q(1)

So how do you feel about new developments like the Target in the East Village? Do you feel that kind of bodes ill for the mom-and-pop businesses?

BB_A(1)We live on that street.That was all mom-and-pop stores. We documented them on film in the ‘90s. There was a pizzeria. There was a Permacut [Beauty Salon]. There was an old dive bar. Blarney Cove. There was a little bodega. There was a 99 cent [store]. There was a whole strip of store after store after store. Mom-and-pop places. They knocked all that down and built that development. I mean, you can go anywhere and shop in Target. You don’t have to be in New York City. That doesn’t make a neighborhood. To us, it’s the mom-and-pop stores that define a community. The very reason we moved to the East Village years ago [was] that we thought it was fun and funky and had a lot of cool and interesting shops. When those types of stores close, the fabric of the neighborhood suffers.

(Photo: Tara Yarlagadda)

James and Karla Murray will lead a walking tour from their Seward Park installation to the Orchard Street exhibit on Saturday, August 4th from 1-3 p.m. Check their Instagram and Facebook for further details coming soon.

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See Saul Leiter’s Striking East Village Nudes

(Photos: Saul Leiter Foundation, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York)

As the son of a distinguished rabbi and Talmudic scholar, Saul Leiter could have been expected to follow a similar path. But instead, he chose to pursue a more unorthodox life in the creative arts and showcased a rich side of New York through decades of photographs.

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Mad Props: Acme Studio Leaves Williamsburg For Bushwick

(image courtesy of Brian Colgan)

What may be the “most unique studio in New York” (and the only one to continually throw a party featuring a live llama) has left its longtime home on Williamsburg’s North 3rd Street and Kent Avenue. As of June 1, ACME Studio has moved its operations entirely to its Bushwick warehouse location on Meserole Street, as well as consolidated its business to focus on props. Keep Reading »

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Mysterious Masks, Creepy Collages, Cryptocurrency and More at Greenpoint Open Studios

Guests create collages at Amy Williams Studio (Photo: Tara Yarlagadda).

Out of more than 400 participating artists in the annual Greenpoint Open Studios this past weekend, Bedford + Bowery interviewed five zany (and impressive) artists you should definitely keep an eye on.

Check out our five artist Q+As below: Keep Reading »

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Meryl Meisler’s New Exhibition Captures the Diversity of the LES in the ’70s, ’80s

“Ring Toss at The Lower East Side Street Festival, NY, NY June 1978” (Photo Meryl Meisler / Courtesy of The Storefront Project & Stephen Kasher Gallery

Meryl Meisler, the New York-based photographer known for her images of the city in the ’70s and ’80s, will show previously unseen photos of the Lower East Side during those years in an upcoming exhibition. Opening May 3 at The Storefront Project, “LES YES!” focuses on the rich cultural history of the neighborhood and takes an unflinching look at the daily lives of the working-class people and immigrants who lived there.

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Art This Week: Developer Trays and Stylized Selfhood

(image via Elizabeth Houston Gallery)

Developer Trays
Opening Wednesday, March 28 at Elizabeth Houston Gallery, 7 pm to 9 pm. On view through May 5.

Though digital photography (whether on fancy DSLRs or iPhones with portrait mode) is inarguably king today, there are still people out there shooting film. Though not quite a relic yet, the chemical-laden process of developing and printing your own film in a darkroom is something many people may not understand or even be aware of. One of the key components of doing this is laying the soon-to-be photograph in a tray filled with developer chemicals, which steadily brings the photo to life. Artist John Cyr, a photographer and printer himself, has latched onto the developer tray as an integral object to the working photographer. His images, portraying developer trays that belonged to notable and unknown photographers alike, cast these practical objects in a light usually reserved for more “important”-seeming items. Their unique textures, stains, colors, and designs documented for posterity illuminate film development as a historically-significant art practice in itself. Keep Reading »

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Art This Week: Diaspora, Borders, and Healthcare

(image via Aperture Foundation / Facebook)

Home Away From Home
Opening Wednesday, March 14 at Aperture Gallery, 7pm to 8:30 pm. On view through May 10.

For some people, home is the place they have lived for their entire lives. But for immigrants, it’s not always so clear-cut. Photographer Taysir Batniji is originally from Gaza, in Palestine, but he is also French and splits his time between the two places. Members of his family, on the other hand, have ended up in America, in places like California and Florida. Batniji paid these people a series of visits, photographing and interviewing them about their sense of home and experience living in America. His new solo exhibition at Aperture Gallery combines these new images with archival material, such as old photographs and sketches of their family home made from memory, creating a portrait of generational memory and history contrasted with current lives. Keep Reading »

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Art This Week: Chapels, Cryptids, Self-Portraits

(image courtesy of Cooler Gallery)

Chiaozza Chapel
Opening Tuesday, February 13 at Cooler Gallery, 7 pm to 10 pm.

Everyone’s favorite Navy Yard industrial icebox turned gallery is at it once again with a new exhibition by artistic duo Chiaozza. While their show’s name, Chiaozza Chapel, may sound like an old piece of ornate architecture you’d learn about in art history class, their work is certainly very modern. However, it’s still an actual chapel, at least in the formal sense of the word. The duo has transformed a small 6’x7’ section of the space into a colorful, geometrical space for contemplation and gathering. If you’re old-school, think of the structure within as a kind of modernized, minimalist stained glass. Personally, I think it kind of looks like a nice, stylish condo for birds. Keep Reading »

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Artists of Color Explore Home, Feathered Friends Get Glamour Shots, and More Exhibitions

(flyer via BRN GRL SPK / Facebook)

This Is My Home (Too)
Opening Monday, October 9 at Casa Mezcal, 7 pm to 11 pm. $10 suggested donation. On view through October 28.

Today, according to my iCal, is Columbus Day. But for years upon years, many have called into question how much a man who accidentally found some land and was unrelentingly cruel to its Indigenous inhabitants deserves an entire day named after him. This is why many cities, including Austin, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles, have elected to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.

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Art Openings: Teacups Get Handsy, Ruminations on the Grid, Photography Galore

Tom Butler, analog photography (image via Foley Gallery)

Analog v. Digital
Opening Wednesday, August 16 at Foley Gallery, 6 pm to 8 pm. On view through August 26.

Nowadays, it’s common to hear that film photography is dead and that anyone can be a photographer who has enough money to get the iPhone with that fancy Portrait Mode built-in. Nothing like automated depth of field to convey the illusion of skill and craft! However, this group show at Foley Gallery seeks to uplift both analog and digital forms of photographic art.

The gallery defines “analog” as “the photographer using light sensitive paper or film in the process” and “digital” as “using hardware requiring a digital component (point and shoot, cell phone or dSLR cameras) regardless of how it was printed.” Fifty artists in total, approximately 25 in each category, will demonstrate the wide range of photography that’s still out there. It’s one of the rare times that focusing on the merits of “both sides” isn’t a totally useless thing to do.

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