New York City, 1997
Hotel 17, New York
After a conversation one morning with a barista on Prince Street, curiosity and the need to find more permanent lodgings lead me to a hotel near Union Square. Hotel 17 was a local hub for rising artists, actors, drag queens and photographers. Thinking that perhaps this was fate, I decided there and then to make this the launch pad for my new city. The following week I checked into a room on the 5th floor. The window had a view of the neighbouring rooftops, in an Alfred Hitchcock kind of way it became a source of constant fascination, offering a ‘behind the scenes’ insight into the workings of my new neighbourhood. The room itself which was covered in original 70's flock wall paper consisted of a single bed with a chenille bedspread, a writing desk and a lamp for reading. As simple as it was it had everything I needed to begin my new life with.
It was n’t long before I was taken in by the local community. There were weekly invitations to social events ranging from talent nights at Jackie 60, a new underground club in the Meat Packing District. There were also writer’s talks held at the local bookstores, where surprise guests such as Susan Sontag, an early inspiration from my art school days would drop in.
Once a month the hotel would host an art night, converting it's spare rooms into pop-up spaces and galleries for performance based and visual artists. Walking the corridors of this 7 story building, particularly on Art Night often felt like being on the set of a David Lynch film. You could never be too sure who you'd run into around the corner or what you would find behind the next door.
The longer I stayed on the more I came to accept that random events were just part of daily life there. One morning, I'd wake and find an elaborate shoot taking place outside my door (fashion photographers such as Ellen Von Unwerth would often use the location for their editorials). Another morning, NYPD would be sealing off a door with police tape where a body had been found.
The hotel roof top had a flat, black tarred surface with a panoramic view of Manhattan. There were walls facing off in a various directions meaning it could be used through out different times of the day depending on the angle of the sun. It was by pure accident, the perfect roof top photography studio. Using a scrim which I erected on sunny days to diffuse the light, I assembled my medium format camera and quickly got to work.
'A' Train to 125th Street
For a photographer, New York City towards the end of the 90's often felt like living in a giant playground. The topic of terrorism was barely on the agenda and people in the creative industries were supportive towards experimentation and pushing boundaries. One of the things I liked most during this period was to utilise the city’s unique locations and transport system. Often I'd set up photography shoots on the fly in subway stations and within the subway carriages themselves. The 'N train' with it's sunflower yellow emblem was my local line. When I was feeling adventurous I'd ride it to Times Square and change to a Harlem bound A train to 125th Street.
To my surprise the local model agencies Ford, Women, Karin's and Next were all very encouraging when it came to sending their people out for these kinds of projects. The look at that time for editorials was 'edgy' and 'heroine chic', which in photography talk means shooting 35mm using whatever available light you can find. Often this ended up being the overhead fluorescent tubes at the subway or the neon signs on 42nd Street Times Square.
West 17th Street Darkrooms
A nightly visit to one of the city’s 24 hour darkrooms soon became a therapeutic ritual for me. The amber safe light and the sound of dripping water from the wash trays offered a creative sanctuary away from the stress and noise of the city during the day. Sadly I this whole experience is all but lost to today’s digital photographers. Not that sitting in a cafe with a laptop these days, enhancing irises and retouching lip lines is a bad place to be. One just can’t compare pressing the print button on an Epson to the paternal like rocking of a print in a tray of developer, watching ever so patiently as the image starts to take form.