New York Winter, Tompkins Square Park.

New York Winter, Tompkins Square Park.

Back in 2008, Vivienne Gucwa quit the three jobs she’d been working after having been disowned by her parents at the age of 17 and decided to finish getting her degree. To cope with the stress, the native New Yorker took long walks around her home neighborhood, the Lower East Side, and eventually decided to start photographing what she saw. “I bought a really cheap camera off of Amazon because I couldn’t afford a smartphone,” she laughs. Six years later, she not only has a proper phone, but her lush, evocative cityscapes have garnered over 54,000 followers on Instagram, over 1.7 million followers on Google+ (she was an early “suggested user”), and a coveted sponsorship from Sony (her days of point-and-shoot are long gone).

It all started with Tumblr, the platform she settled on when, in 2009, she decided to share the photos she’d amassed (“I literally googled the word blog because I had no idea what that was, and Tumblr came up”). A few months in, her site caught the attention of Bedford + Bowery’s predecessor, The Local East Village (there, I assigned her to shoot the final night at Holiday Cocktail Lounge as well as a St. Patrick’s party thrown by the Hells Angels). The response she got from her photo essays there encouraged her to write more, and now her photos and writing have been published in a new book, NY Through the Lens.

The foray into print seemed like a good excuse to catch up with Gucwa, so I gave her a ring.

Winter on the Lower East Side.

Winter on the Lower East Side.

BB_Q(1) So, you started shooting before you could afford a smartphone – was this pre-Instagram?

BB_A(1) No, no. There was a lot of buzz about Instagram and how great the community was and everything and I felt left out from that community because I couldn’t join it at the time.

BB_Q(1) Now you’re on Instagram in a big way.

BB_A(1) It’s really funny, I did eventually get a smart phone and I ended up working for one of the top iPhone photography apps for a year.

Rooftop graffiti in Chinatown, looking toward the Brooklyn Bridge.

Rooftop graffiti in Chinatown, looking toward the Brooklyn Bridge.

BB_Q(1) Was there one photo that really made things take off for you?

BB_A(1) I went out in a blizzard the first winter I was shooting and I went to Central Park and walked around and took a photo of Bow Bridge. That changed so much for me because after I shared it, I got approached to have it used in ad campaigns and book covers and album covers and all that. That was one of the things that changed my perspective in thinking about seriously pursuing photography.

Snow at Night, East Village Lights

Snow at Night, East Village Lights

BB_Q(1) What was it people responded to about that photo? Was it the way you framed it when you took it, or the editing after?

BB_A(1) I’m not sure – I think it was the framing and also I do quite a bit of retouching on my work. I’m into exploring how tones influence nostalgia and how they make people nostalgic for places they might not have ever been. So I was conscious of making that photo appear the way I wanted it to look. It’s done in these very particular monochrome tones. Composition and shooting are such an integral part of the photo process but playing around with them in post is the beautiful art of it, and exploring color or lack of color and playing around with contrasts and playing with all the elements that make a photograph sing has been really interesting to explore.

BB_Q(1) You mentioned nostalgia, which the Lower East Side and East Village are certainly steeped in. To what degree is that an element in your work?

BB_A(1) I’m fascinated with looking at something that’s there in the present but combining it with my own memories of how I experienced it when I was younger, because I grew up here. A lot of my photography is definitely an homage to a New York of the past even though I’m photographing in the present. As I keep exploring New York City with a camera I’ve gotten more into evoking different time periods with my style – and I think I’m maybe trying to hold on to different eras of New York in my head that I’m fascinated by. I’m a huge fan of Woody Allen movies and I’m fascinated with those sorts of representations of New York because the New York of Woody Allen isn’t necessarily a New York that exists in reality at all. To some extent, in some of my photos, that might not really be a New York that really exists except in my mind.

Ludlow Street at Night, Snow.

Ludlow Street at Night, Snow.

BB_Q(1) Now that you’re doing travel photography for a living, has it given you some perspective on the navel-gazing New Yorkers are prone to? Does it make you realize there’s a wider world out there?

BB_A(1) If anything all the travel I’ve done has made me more hyper-focused on my type of nostalgia photography with New York. The more I travel and experience other cities the more I fall in love with New York, I think.

BB_Q(1) But some people go so far as to photograph random street corners just so they can have a document of them when they inevitably change in a few years. Isn’t that a bit much?

BB_A(1) If you’re residing in the East Village or Lower East Side or West Village, I think it’s really important to understand the legacy of everything that came before you, but I don’t think it’s possible to hold on to everything. The beauty of New York is that it has always been a constantly changing city. What’s happening now might be happening quicker than in previous generations, in terms of things turning over a lot really quickly, but I don’t think it’s possible to keep things in the sort of static state as I feel like some people would like.

BB_Q(1) Have you been tempted to make the leap into the more traditional gallery world?

BB_A(1) I did one group show very early on and it was a really fun experience. But I think the photography world is in a very interesting predicament right now in that there’s this whole world of online photography where people have huge followings on Instagram, where people are doing beautiful photography, and then you have the art world that exists in this separate sphere on the side. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next five to 10 years – I don’t feel like they’re merging that quickly. I certainly decided to focus more on sharing my work socially online versus going the traditional route of limited edition prints and gallery showings, but I think that’s more because I started 6 years ago and I’m a product of my online environment.

BB_Q(1) Is there a location or a scene in New York that you find yourself going back to in hopes of getting that perfect shot?

BB_A(1) I’m completely obsessed with photographing the snow at night, especially around midnight. If there’s a snow storm I love the feeling of being in that environment and capturing people who are experiencing that because I think it’s such a special circumstance in New York City – everything’s silent and there’s this beautiful calm that washes over the city.