This is not an overnight thing. These deep layers of grime in the skin take years not months to develop. I know this man, I have seen him for the last 6 years, spoken to him, bought him a coffee or two. He has always been polite but I got the feeling he would rather have not been engaged in conversation. He has never been clean, always alone and usually asleep. I have heard people remark that the ‘homeless’ are lazy, usually drunk or drugged up to the eyeballs and always trying to get something for nothing, I guess some are. The reality for most of them is that to sleep at night invites hideous intrusions into their lives that we can only imagine the horror of, so they sleep during the day. The night is a safer place, a complete reversal of how most of us live our lives. Night is for being on your guard, for having to be alert, for looking over your shoulder and hoping you survive for another day. Another day to be stepped over, ignored or ridiculed.
This photograph was taken in August 2013 and I have only just realized that I have not seen him since then. I really hope he made it through the bone chilling cold that New York has suffered and has not become yet another member of Hart Island’s growing population. To point a camera at someone who could survive for a year on what it cost to buy is a humbling experience for me. I understand the paradox.
It is a hard call, but grime is only skin deep.
A new year, another chance to dream of things to come. A new purpose and determination to right the wrongs of our day to day existence, to stick to our resolutions and be better human beings for the people we love and love us. We change the things we can, we find a way to cope with the things that evade our control and we dig deep inside ourselves to climb above the obstacles that life puts in our path. I just cannot imagine opening my eyes every morning to the stark reality of ‘nothing’. No shoulder to lean on when the journey gets tough, no arms to get lost inside and to feel the comforting safety of their embrace. No laughter shared, no hand to reach for when the storm comes, no reassuring voice telling you that it really will all be okay and not to worry. To live without these simple things, things that we take for granted would bring the best of us to our knees. The strength of the human spirit is remarkable in its ability to carry on regardless of how hard the struggle to survive has become. The images below demonstrate just how remarkable.
‘To live without hope is to cease to live’ Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky
Four very different images of the same piece of brick and steel. The Empire State Building has dominated the skyline of New York City since 1931. Named as one of the wonders of the modern world, it stands on 34th street and is a visible icon for the American dream. The most photographed building in the world (according to some) but it has a mood and essence that changes with the seasons. Over the years, a plane has hit it, over thirty people have thrown themselves to their death from it, celluloid gorillas have hung from it, countless films have set their beginning or end here. Some people have even run up the internal staircase with 1576 steps, a record of 9 minutes and 33 seconds to complete the task to reach the 86th floor. Over 100 million people have traveled on its winches and pulleys (that’s an elevator to you, lift to me) at high speed to marvel at the view from the observation deck. If you ever get yourself here, come have a look. From a distance you think ‘Is that it?’ When you get close, it becomes what it is. A magical part of what we want America to be!
On the corner of Spring and Bowery stands the magnificent German Bank Building. Decades of urban scrawl cover its granite facade and it has been the home of commercial photographer Jay Maisel and his family for nearly fifty years, he still maintains his studio and gallery there. With six floors and seventy two rooms, this breathtaking monument, now an official New York City landmark, stands as a defiant symbol of past glories while around it the ‘Bowery’ is modernized by a plague of eye watering neon and glass. I know that one day some bright young spark from City Hall is going to commission an army of cleaners to descend on 190 Bowery and wipe away all traces of a character that no longer fits into its surroundings. Until then, we can only marvel at its unique, graffiti embellished beauty.
For me, there is something devastatingly moving about this photograph. Fragile, isolated and alone, a very elderly homeless woman sits in the burning heat of a Lexington Avenue summer afternoon. If I hadn’t taken it myself and came across the image with a caption declaring that it was shot on the streets of some third world country, or outside the walls of a refugee camp, I would have believed it. Amazing to think that Bloomingdale’s is only a couple of blocks north of her and the opulent stores on 5th Avenue a few blocks to the west.
Difficult to photograph and hard to comprehend.
Click on image to enlarge
I can’t decide if there is more impact close up or with a wider shot taking in the environment. Isolated images that show the details of the face tend to make a more dramatic portrait style photograph but sometimes the surroundings can add that touch of ‘location’ that anchors the image. The shots below were all taken on the first day of summer. The lost at the bottom of the world and the never likely to be found of New York City.
Where the sidewalk ends and nowhere begins will always be a mystery to me. The first photograph almost hurts, empty eyes lost in some thought, some memory, somewhere that is not here and now, I guess. Holding on?
The second, on the Upper East Side, is someone I see all the time. Always surrounded by trash, like a nest. He is oblivious to the world around him, the biggest disconnect of all, I think.
Finally, on 5th Avenue and proudly announcing his upcoming birthday, this guy always hides his face behind a cardboard sign. ‘Clothes, socks and a Metro Card’ not that much to ask for really. ‘Jesus loves you’ I hope so, someone should!
‘In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends’
Martin Luther King Jr
Vulgar of manner, overfed, Overdressed and underbred, Heartless, Godless, hell's delight, Rude by day and lewd by night; Bedwarfed the man, o'ergrown the brute, Ruled by boss and prostitute: Purple-robed and pauper-clad, Raving, rotting, money-mad; A squirming herd in Mammon's mesh, A wilderness of human flesh; Crazed by avarice, lust and rum, New York, thy name's "Delirium."
Byron Rufus Newton (1861-1938)