Here is the third teaser from an extended piece of writing by Kurt Easterwood of Japan Exposures. Kurt has produced a fantastic deconstruction and analysis of Shore’s‘West Fifteenth St. and Vine St., Cincinnati, Ohio, May 1, 1974’ featured in ‘Uncommon Places, The Complete Works’. The image in question can be seen on the right hand side of the image below and you can find the full PDF underneath the image or right here.
In this installation Kurt looks at Shore’s presence in the scene itself….
As our last stop on this exploratory journey, a ﬁnal sightseeing viewpoint as it were, let’s ponder for a moment one more spot at the corner of Vine and Fifteenth, the spot Shore placed his tripod and set up his view camera to capture this scene. Shore’s presence, and the position of his tripod and camera, is referred to, if not exactly reﬂected in Lee Friedlander-like fashion, by the out of focus “Bus Stop: No Standing” sign that could be nowhere else but directly in front of where Shore was standing. We smile at the sign like we do at other occasional ironical signage in Uncommon Places — e.g. “MECCA” (p. 129) or “John F. Kennedy said: “ART IS TRUTH”” (P. 133) — as if Shore were thumbing his nose at the municipal establishment that would deign to tell him where he could or could not stand his tripod.
But telling people where they can or cannot stand in the form of municipal anti-loitering ordinances has long been a tactic used by city governments and police forces to exert undue control over citizens in lower-income areas. Three years before Shore took his photo, the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down Cincinnati’s own anti-loitering ordinance as unconstitutional. The ordinance had held that “It shall be unlawful for three or more persons to assemble, except at a public meeting of citizens, on any of the sidewalks, street corners, vacant lots, or mouths of alleys, and there conduct themselves in a manner annoying to persons passing by, or occupants of adjacent buildings.” In a footnote to his opinion, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote that, “The alleged discriminatory enforcement of this ordinance ﬁgured prominently in the background of the serious civil disturbances that took place in Cincinnati in June 1967,” by which he was referring to race riots in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Avondale that spread over into Over-the-Rhine.
The sign can then be read not just as a joke of Shore’s own making, but as an ironic and not necessarily unintentional questioning of Shore’s right to be there, assembling these elements in a manner annoying to persons passing by, “an alien element impeding the activity on the street.” READ MORE
The second teaser from an extended piece of writing by Kurt Easterwood of the awesome Japan Exposures. Kurt has produced a fantastic deconstruction and analysis of Shore’s ‘West Fifteenth St. and Vine St., Cincinnati, Ohio, May 1, 1974′ featured in ‘Uncommon Places, The Complete Works’. The image in question can be seen on the right hand side of the image below and you can find the full PDF underneath the image or right here.
A huge thank you to Kurt for opening this great piece of writing up to the Photo Book Club community.
Fifteenth and Vine is in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine (or OTR) neighborhood, one of the oldest parts of the city. It came to prominence — and indeed acquired its name — from the many German immigrants who worked there in the 1800s and later settled in the area and built many of the homes and buildings that stand to this day. By the turn of the century, Cincinnati, along with cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, was home to one of the largest Germany immigrant communities in the United States. However, while already in a long, slow decline in the ﬁrst half of the 20th century — in particular, its many breweries were hit hard by Prohibition — OTR’s fortunes declined rapidly after World War II as so-called “white ﬂight” began to take hold, with residents moving to outlying suburbs and retail businesses following them shortly thereafter. The deteriorating structures became a source of cheap housing for a successive wave of ﬁrst poor whites from Appalachia and then African Americans displaced from the historically black neighborhood of West End that had been demolished in part by the construction of an expressway — an expressway that if not a literal escape route was at least a ﬁgurative thoroughfare that helped pave the way for whites’ exodus to suburbia.
At the time when Shore took his photograph, the population of OTR was only around 15,000, a signiﬁcant drop from a population of 45,000 in 1900. One-third of these remaining residents were African American. By 1990, less than 10,000 people lived in the area, 71% of them African American. 5 In 2001, Vine Street and the surrounding areas were the scenes of a race riot when an African American teenager was shot and killed by a member of the overwhelmingly white Cincinnati police force. As of this writing, Vine Street and various other places in OTR are part of a massive urban renewal project, and indeed most of the land and buildings in the 1400 block of Vine Street, which comprises much of Shore’s photo, are now owned by a tax-exempt, private, non-proﬁt corporation called The Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., or 3CDC, which has renovated or is in the process of renovating the structures for loft apartments or retail spaces. READ MORE
Kurt Easterwood of the awesome Japan Exposures has produced an extended piece of writing on one of Shore’s images featured in ‘Uncommon Places, The Complete Works’. The image in question can be seen on the right hand side of the image below and as well as finding the full PDF underneath the image or right here, this is the first post also featuring an extraction from the full article, this time an extended introduction to the full article.
A huge thank you to Kurt for opening this great piece of writing up to the Photo Book Club community.
I would like to explore Uncommon Places: The Complete Works by looking at a single photo, a photo that like all the photos of Uncommon Places can only be referred to by its caption, “West Fifteenth St. and Vine St., Cincinnati, Ohio, May 1, 1974”, which appears on page 43. This photo was not included in the original publication, and while it would certainly be a useful exercise to discuss why not, I would rather take Shore’s inclusion of the photo in the revised edition to mean that for him the photograph is an important part of the complete work.
It is tempting to be self-deprecating on the photograph’s behalf and acknowledge that it’s true there is nothing particularly compelling about this photo that would cause it to stand out in relation to the other photographs in the book, but saying that would imply that Uncommon Places: The Complete Works contains stand-out photographs. It does not, which is precisely why it is such a wonderful book to look at. The power of Uncommon Places is not the sort where each turn of the page knocks us back into a sublime revelry. Its power rather results from an accumulation of what Gerry Badger has called “quiet” photographs 3, and it is this quiet tone that allows us, if we are so willing, to journey along with Shore, and occasionally to step off and linger a bit at stops along the way, to explore further.
Several years ago when I got my copy of Uncommon Places: The Complete Works, this ordinary, dare I say nondescript, photograph taken in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1974 caused me to dwell and ponder a bit longer than the others. For personal reasons (I had a suspicion I had once been on this section of Vine street during a visit to Cincinnati in 1987), and for graphic, visual reasons (there was something in the denseness of the signage on the left side of the photo, and a single, dominant sign on the right side that visually appealed to me), I felt compelled to explore the photo further. What follows is an account of this one stop on Shore’s larger journey — my journey within a journey, we could say — and what I found at West Fifteenth and Vine in Cincinnati. READ MORE
Super excited for this ‘mini-series’ which will be posted over the last week of our Stephen Shore month. Kurt Easterwood of the awesome Japan Exposures has produced an extended piece of writing on one of Shore’s images featured in ‘Uncommon Places, The Complete Works’. The image in question can be seen on the right hand side of the image below and as well as finding the full PDF at the bottom of the post or right here, there will be 4 posts coming up with little sneak peaks.
A huge thank you to Kurt for opening this great piece of writing up to the Photo Book Club community.
“A few years ago when I got Stephen Shore’s revised Uncommon Places book, I couldn’t get over how familiar the places looked to me, though surely most of the towns and places he shot I’ve never been to. But one image was more familiar than any other — a street scene from Cincinnati. “I’ve been here!”, I remember exclaiming to myself, and I started to take notes about the image. Now five years later, I’ve used Shore’s photo (and my notes) to visit that photo, that place, one more time.”
Thanks to Simen Edvardsen who runs the blog ‘Enthusiasms’ here for this post comparing and relating Shore’s ‘Uncommon Places’ with the moods and thought’s of Jack Kerouac in ‘On the Road’. This is a fantastically rich article which I hope will be enjoyed in it’s entirety.
(And if you still have not seen Uncommon Places, the video is found at the bottom of this post)
On the Road is the fictionalized account of a number of road trips Jack Kerouac took across America together with his friend Neal Cassady and an assorted menagerie of other characters in the late 1940s; Uncommon Places is the photographic account of a number of road trips Stephen Shore took, chiefly alone, through the 1970s, armed with an 8×10 camera and color film. I promised earlier that if I could get over myself, I would describe these two together, as I think they are in many ways similar and in some other ways dissimilar, but in almost every way illuminating in light of each other. Well, I got over myself and besides, I only finished reading On the Road recently, so here are some thoughts.
On the surface, the one thing that ties these together is the road, but I think there’s more to it than that. For one thing, they both take a particular interest in the unparticular, the mundane, the scenes that we pass through every day without consciously registering them. On the Road is written in a streaming way that is by turns impressionistic and quite frankly incoherent, with little to no meaning but with a certain poetic beauty, and an almost photographic depiction of the little things, which we can see as the literary analogue of the super-detailed scenes of everyday life in Anywhere, USA that Shore would later depict with his large format 8×10 camera. The characters, and especially Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady, have an exaggerated but sincere fascination with everything, large and small, significant and insignificant. Kerouac was inspired by and tried to incorporate the free-flowing and vividly detailed letters Cassady wrote to him and to other of his friends — his wife described him as having a photographic memory — and this kind of raw curiosity and visual sponging-up of every detail is both analogous to the mega-negatives that Shore later exposed to the everyday world he passed through and captivating to read (for me, anyway). Here’s a wonderful little passage from Part Four of On the Road, which describes a trip from Denver to Mexico City — it’s an exalted overfascinated curious little monologue by Dean:
Oh! This is too great to be true. Gurls, gurls. And particularly right now in my stage and condition, Sal, I am digging the interiors of these homes as we pass them — these gone doorways and you look inside and see beds of straw and little brown kids sleeping and stirring to wake, their thoughts congealing from the empty mind of sleep, their selves rising, and the mothers cooking up breakfast in iron pots, and dig them shutters they have for windows and the old men, the old men are so cool and grand not bothered by anything. There’s no suspicion here, nothing like that. Everybody’s cool, everybody looks at you with such straight brown eyes and they don’t say anything, just look, and in that look all the human qualities are soft and subdued and still there. Dig all the foolish stories you read about Mexico and the sleeping gringo and all that crap — and crap about greasers and so on — and all it is, people here are straight and kind and don’t put down any bull. I’m so amazed by this.
All this from passing a few houses on the road. Stephen Shore, decades later, found that he didn’t need to focus on anything in particular, because his film was so huge and slow that it preserved approximately every detail you could ever desire and still had room for cramming in a piece of bacon should you so desire, so instead of putting one thing or another in center his images are for the most part in focus front to back and there are these little wonderful details that you don’t notice because no one forces you to stop and look at the everyday (dare I say, the daily meh), but Shore captures them and shows them to you, if you wish to look. On a second or third look, or even a fifth or fifteenth, you can still find details you didn’t notice on any of the previous viewings. I don’t know about you, but I can’t but admire the fascination and sincere interest in ordinary stuff — I’m too much of a sucker for the extraordinary and special which we can’t have every day anyway, and if I could only learn to enjoy the simple stuff and take in the world in the way one does when visiting a truly foreign country for the first time, life would be so much more interesting and exciting. Babies have this ability and I wish I had kept it, and admire those who do.
So, there’s all this detail, and Shore lets it sit there waiting to be discovered, instead of putting it left, front, center, in the rule-of-thirds-prescribed position, or anywhere else where you might expect it. Instead, he looks at lines and perspectives and puts on these displays of composition — not just a buzzword used as a placeholder for “I like your pic” on Flickr, see — that are nigh unparalelled in photography. I think if you took a bunch of transparencies, put them over Shore’s pictures and drew out the lines and stuff, you would have yourself a textbook in composition. Stephen Shore’s uncommon pictures of common places are real marvels of lines, really formal but nice. And there, my pairing of these two books starts straining and feeling forced.
I mean, both Shore and Kerouac are on the road, and both document it in their chosen medium, and both photobook and novel eventually became landmarks in their respective traditions, both capturing the zeitgeist and signaling, legitimizing a form of expression (art photography in color and the beat, “spontaneous prose” and then-vulgar lives of the Beats, respectively). Both are concerned in some way with the ordinary. But really. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty (especially the latter) are amoral adventurers who experiment with drugs, sex, breaking the law, peeking over the edge of life down to death, testing the limits of friendship, alternatively doing dirty jobs and living off momma’s grace to sustain themselves, digging the world, and generally being genuinely counterculture. They are obscure and searching. Stephen Shore, both the man and his photographic persona, seem quaint in comparison. He’s two decades too young to be a Beat, and according to interviews he once dressed up as a jungle explorer of the 1800s for the task of driving around the fucking country in a car, abiding the law, risking nothing, and taking pictures. His edginess consists of his choice of film (color) and something that would be called guerilla art today: distributing postcards he’d made of Amarillo, Texas (with nothing vulgar or interesting on them, in fact they looked like ordinary postcards) at store stands. His days as one of the cool kids are over when he turns to the road. Besides, he’s already famous, as famous as an art photographer gets, anyway.
That’s one of the important differences between Shore and Kerouac on the road, besides the obvious. Jack Kerouac was an obscure writer until he woke up the morning after he late at night had bought the freshly printed NY Times from an all-night newsstand and read its glowing review of On the Road — or so the legendarium that is the critical introduction to my copy of the book has it. Stephen Shore’s minibio up until his road trips, in contrast, looks like this: first photo kit at 6; calls up Edward Steichen, curator at MoMA, and sells three of his photos at 14; hangs around Andy Warhol’s Factory, taking pictures and getting to know Andy, from 17 and on; second living photographer to have a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 24; experiences the greater America outside NY for the first time on a road trip around the same time. He was a successful artist and a naive youth when he set out while Kerouac was unknown, struggling, almost as naive but probably more world-weary when he hit the road. In common, they had a search for something, anything, whatever: meaning, or another of the eternals that we humans seek and seek and have sought since the dawn of time.
Of course, my slamming of Shore is only my youthful love of rebellion, otherness, edginess, which On the Road has in spades (though it’s no longer shocking, because, well, we’re used to that kind of stuff now) — even as I acknowledge that going the other way just for the sake of going the other way is stupid, that going the opposite way of the herd is no better than mindlessly going along with it. Shore’s project is by far the most mature, but also, I suppose, less fun. Both the view camera with its hyperdetailed images and the kaleidoscopic by turns hyper-aware and impressionistic, unconscious looking at the world that happens in On the Road are examples of what Shore calls “a heightened awareness of the world.” Shore is meticulous, both because he wants to be and because his large, slow camera forces him to be; Dean Moriarty is as fascinated by the world as Shore but he has the attention span of a goldfish and rather than slowly setting out to capture everything he almost accidentally inhales it. The characters in On the Road sound like they’re high (which they often are) even when they’re not. If Shore’s hyperawareness is achieved by the equivalent of meditating calmly in a cave for a decade, Dean and Sal’s is like ODing on life. No wonder Stephen Shore is still alive and will probably live to be both seventy and eighty (random unknowns notwithstanding) while both Kerouac and Cassady, the models of the characters in On the Road, died relatively young.
I’ve mentioned hyperawareness several times now, and it’s undeniable that the technical equipment has a large part in achieving this for Shore, while Kerouac’s and Cassady’s hardly can be attributed to their typewriters. View cameras are large, tripod-operated, slow, and they produce enormous negatives/slides (I was amazed when I realized the pictures in Uncommon Places the book are just a tad larger than the film that was exposed to produce them). The fact that a tool had something to do with it sort of destroys my neat as hell ten-years-of-meditation metaphor, but it’s true. Interestingly, Shore mentions in one interview — sorry, I didn’t keep notes while researching this post, so I don’t have a link — that he was actually more anonymous and drew less attention with his view camera than with his previous small 35mms. What was a spontaneous process in the precursor to Uncommon Places, the photographic diary Shore kept on one of his first road trips (in 1972) and which was exhibited to unglowing reviews as American Surfaces (guess what subject matter he chose), where he photographed everything casually with a small camera, became an involved process in Uncommon Places. He photographed his pancake breakfast early on, and where previously he would have reached for the camera, snapped a pic and then eaten, all while sitting, he now had to put his tripod-mounted camera on a chair, set it all up, focus via ground glass and everything, and when the picture was finished his pancakes were long cold.
On the other hand his newfound anonymity-by-hiding-in-plain-sight allowed him to photograph streets without having anyone complain or act up; the long-haired kid lurking around with a not always obvious camera that he was in American Surfaces wasn’t always welcomed. But then again Uncommon Places has few people in its pages, even in the Complete Works edition I have that contains some 100 pictures previously cut to keep the price down, including some more portraits and interiors. What is more important is that it forced him to or facilitated his looking at patterns, at lines, at corners and shapes, at the picture as a two-dimensional thing, and it resulted in his virtuoso performance as a photographic composer. Everything’s almost always placed so that there’s an underlying order. Poles and cables are everywhere, perspectives recede into the sharp background and your eyes are led into the picture as you switch between looking at the shapes and colors on the one hand and the 3D scene they represent on the other. All the while Shore doesn’t actually touch the scene. He can’t: his scenes are buildings, other people’s shops or homes, the urban landscape, stuff too heavy to move or choreograph other than by moving the frame, and he has only natural light to illuminate the stuff.
The details and the composition is illustrated well by the picture of Merced River, above. In recent years Shore has been making a series of small-run photobooks with iPhoto, and one of them consists solely of crops from Merced River. While this might have been a cheap gimmick from just about anyone, from Shore it works. At least the web-size pics I’ve seen of it. The technical quality is, of course, up to par, as you’d expect from the equipment. But there are so many details and patterns in this picture that, particularly when looked at up close, or as in Shore’s little book in crops, they stand up as individual pictures.
Uncommon Places is the only photobook I own. I love the photos in it. I can praise their subject matter, their exposure and composition and light and tonalities. But what appeals to me about both Uncommon Places and On the Road, as a young person and as someone who often feels like an outsider, not an interesting outsider with a backstory and a sidekick but simply one on the outside looking in on life, is the search and the guts. Out on the road, experience things, genuinely, without scarequotes around the experiences to protect from the criticism that inevitably comes from expressing a real, honest feeling about anything, and above all, live while you’re alive and worry about death while you’re dead (which is to say not at all) — that attitude is so full of life and so much of what many aspire to be, it’s pathetic, romanticizing and awesome. And here the pairing of these two books again falters, because when Shore talks about his project he talks about solving aesthetic problems, while Kerouac says things like:
… I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’
While Stephen Shore also occasionally mentions that before the set out to do American Surfaces, he hadn’t seen much of the world outside New York and he wanted to rectify that, often he talks more about aesthetics and whatnot, maybe because his project has nothing to do with that search for meaning, purpose, a life that we find in On the Road, or maybe — and this is what I prefer, since I want him to be an actual adventurer and I want him to be someone I can identify with, even as I consider that this might be simply wishful thinking — or maybe he’s simply older and slightly embarrassed about the illusions of the road he had when he set out. In one interview he says he didn’t set out to copy Jack Kerouac or Robert Frank (another photographer who produced a seminal work documenting America, called The Americans, published around the same time as On the Road and with an introduction by Kerouac). He says that who he was really emulating was “a young painter who picks Jack up outside Cheyenne and takes him to Denver”, but “with a camera instead of a paintbrush.” That young painter did not make an impression, to say the least. I can’t even remember him, and I just read the book. So maybe his project isn’t that exciting in the meaning-of-life-searching way.
One last thing. Both books have a sad undercurrent. There’s one picture of Shore in Uncommon Places, not counting one where only his feet are visible, and it’s a self portrait taken in his apartment in New York. In it, he’s staring emptily (if not angrily) into the camera (detail from that picture). The picture doesn’t fit in with the rest at all and yet strangely does, since it exemplifies the man behind the project, and maybe a little bit of his soul. Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac, too, is a sad person. He is extremely extraverted compared to everyone I know, yet also sad and introspective (something I can more readily recognize in myself), and he has illusions of or hopes for the road that turn out to be nothing but disappointments. He is looking for something, for anything to make his life great, he’s having fun but also can’t shake the feeling that he’s been cheated out of whatever vague glob of happiness the dream promised him, and in the end, a lot is experienced (and isn’t the journey the point?) but nothing is accomplished. After his trips, Kerouac continued to seek meaning while he was struggling to write his road novel and get it published. When it finally was published, he couldn’t handle it, and his last years of life weren’t exactly characterized by the cheerful joy and hyperawareness of the best and most optimistic passages of On the Road.
In the end, we don’t know anything (except, per Socrates, the preceding fact) and especially so when we’re young. We seek but we don’t find. In fact I think the answer may be not to play the game: excessive introspection and meaning-seeking, while not exclusive to introverted and intellectual wannabes, always stands in the way of happiness. Happy people never look like the aforementioned intellectuals with big thoughts and huge doubts. Throwing yourself on the road and trying to live in the now is certainly one way to combat this, but whether or not it’s a success is a different question altogether.
Invisible City is well known to those who know it and unknown to those that don’t! How do you feel about it being so rare, and considered one of the greats, while many who cannot afford it, have not been able to see it.
I wish more people could see it. I feel it has never really been widely known. It went out of print soon after it was published. It was never my intention for it to be so rare. Relatively unknown and yet delighted in, maybe that’s a good definition of it being in a certain kind of club? A good thing people will be able to see it here in this club then. But books of this sort need to be held and flipped through, that I know.
Books take on their own lives, if they are successful, and go on to have their own histories. I have a few stories around the book. Books reflect back on you. And although this book is relatively obscure because of its rarity, it’s given me a few stories to tell. Walker Evens called his book, American Photographs, his “calling card.” For me, Invisible City was a life-line into a career as a working artist. It has gone places I’ve never been to, spoken to people I’ll never know. It’s always been underground and under the radar. Something people ‘in the know’ seem to know about—whatever that means.
It’s a small private book, and it has affected people in a personal way. But as its creator, I can’t objectively gauge its impact. And I don’t think anybody creating a work of art can ever truly understand what impact one’s work has had. It’s hard enough to know one’s own mind, let alone someone else’s. Sure, over the years I’ve gotten some glimpses. Pre-internet, I’d get the odd phone call. Sometimes people would want to visit, or even send me small gifts. One time I got a phone call from Italy, from a fashion house that said that Robert Frank had told them to call me. I found out through them that Invisible City was a favorite book of his and he was throwing some work my way (eventually there was an ill-fated gallery connection from him too. And it was through that that I eventually met him). One call was from Robert Robertson, the DP who was working on Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers at the time. Over the years I found it had had a huge effect on many people in the photo and especially the film industry, but at the time it was considered too ‘raw,’ and too ‘hard’ for the main stream.
But the world has changed. I’d hear that some teacher was showing it to their students, or there was a lecture about it. In time, I’d be asked to give lectures about it. But not that many people contacted me early on. During that time I kept lamenting that the only good photographer was a dead one. I was still struggling to make ends meet. John Szarkowski at MoMA told me that the museum would have to support my work because it was important and galleries wouldn’t want to hang my pictures on the wall because they were too ‘difficult.’ Unfortunately, John retired soon after and the support wasn’t all that forthcoming as the photoworld and museumworld morphed into something else.
So the book didn’t have a direct impact on my career, not at first anyway. It took a few years. Over time though, it’s been cumulative, and it hasn’t abated. Not in the least. I’d hear of creative meetings in all sorts of creative industries—after the fact, where the book was referenced, but rarely did anyone bother to call me. In that, the book had a strange trajectory. Immediately upon publication, the New York Times selected it as a notable book of the year, but there were not many copies yet in distribution because of a decision to sell most of the copies abroad. Copies were slow to surface in US bookstores and it was considered out of print within a year. When first published, a local favorite bookstore, St. Mark’s Books, had it on their hip new arrivals table. I was really proud of that, but within a week it was hidden behind the cash register because so many copies were being stolen.
You had to know that it was there and you had to ask for it. To me it was frustrating. How were you to know about a photography book you had never seen? I worked so hard to make it happen, and when it did, immediately it went into hiding. Peter Galassi at the Museum of Modern Art put it on display for the More Than One Photography exhibition, but left it in a vitrine, so nobody could leaf through it or even touch it. Somehow, the book was out there, but it was also hidden. Early reviews came with some caveats. I don’t think the book was that well understood at the time when it first came out. The Times review said I was making obvious connections to Weegee. Others thought I had copied Ed Van der Elsken’s Love On The Left Bank—Susan Kismaric at MoMA showed me that book after she saw mine. I love that book, but I had never seen it before.
Because of its rarity (it sold out really fast) the price went up quickly and it was lost to a more general public. I couldn’t even afford to buy copies on the secondary market. It stayed hidden away in collections. How do I feel about that? It’s funny, you want something to be successful, but you think that it being a success would cause certain things to happen, which isn’t necessarily the case. I guess I was naïve. When Jack Woody published my book, he also put out that same year Joel Peter-Witkin’s first book and Herb Ritt’s first book. Personally, and in the long run, I think my book is as important as theirs, but they got the museum shows and they got the fame. The attention my book got was pre-internet word of mouth. I see now that it is people of a certain age and from a certain milieu who mostly know of the book. There were no photography book geeks to speak of back then. There were lovers of photography books, but it wasn’t such a vocal and distinct appellation to like photography books. And of those that did their voices had little impact in the larger photographic community.
Not that long ago I was in the office of Phil Block, the director of the school at the International Center of Photography, and while he sings the praises of Invisible City (he was an early and ardent advocate, an early champion of photography books as well) he says that younger people just don’t know about it. To test this, I asked students walking into his office if they’d heard of the book. Most all said they never heard of it. With less than two thousand copies in a world of seven billion people, I think that’s quite understandable. But then again, you just don’t know its impact. In 1999, I got an email from the Dutch photographer and curator, Machiel Botman. He and the curator Wim Melis of the Noorderlicht Foundation for Photography wanted to make my work the center of a festival that included a slew of some very impressive photographers (I don’t want to leave any names out, so please look at this link). They said, “We love Invisible City, what have you been doing lately?” That exhibition led to the publication of my second book, The Geometry of Innocence, published by Hatje Cantz, in Germany, 13 years after IC came out.
I hadn’t a clue that there was an audience of people that knew of my work outside the U.S. I felt like one of those old forgotten jazz musicians who had to go to Europe to find their audience. So, in that sense, I wish my work wasn’t so obscure to people. It’s been a long and somewhat hard road. I’m lucky that I can still work and explore new avenues of ideas. By and large, Invisible City was my passport to entry. I’m proud of its successes. From all the responses from people over the years who have sought me out to tell me what impact the book has had on their lives, I would think that more people would like to know about it. But with few copies about and people being so precious about them, I can understand why more people don’t know about it. I wish Invisible City more luck in the coming years. More is hard to say.
In 1968 Swedish photographer Anders Petersen walked into Café Lehmitz, a bar located on the Reeperbahn, the red light district of Hamburg. Sitting down at a table with a beer, the photographer was soon engaged in conversation with a young man, his camera sitting on the table top, when he got up fro the table to use the menʼs room, Petersen left his camera on the table, and when he returned from he found the barʼs clientele
photographing one another.
Seizing the opportunity, Petersen asked if he too could photograph the bars clientele; a
mixture of sailors and dock workers, strippers, prostitutes and their pimps, along with poets and small time criminals; all of whom occupy the fringe of society, and signalling the beginning of a project that would occupy him on and off for the next two years.
In the raw and gritty black-and-white images, that have now become a signature of
Petersenʼs oeuvre, we experience in Café Lehmitz, not a voyeuristic view of this
atmospheric, smoke ﬁlled world, but a collaborative visual dairy. Petersen has fully
integrated himself into the Café Lehmitz family, with it becoming a new home.
Whilst this work is often graphic, even brutal at times, it is a very intimate and sensitive
work, with Kate Bush, curator of the Barbicanʼs ʻIn the Face of history: European
Photographers in the 20th Century,ʼ an exhibition which included the Petersenʼs series,
describing Café Lehmitz as a ʻZeigeist book,ʼ she continues, ‘It has a powerful identity and is totally of the moment. But Petersen is also important because he was very much a
participant in the social life he was documenting. His work has that integrity of engagement that great personal reportage requires.’