22 May 2017 08:41AM
I was born, in 1946, four days before the photographer Richard Sandler, and so I was particularly intrigued to encounter his work as a documentarian. But that’s not all. In the early 1970s, I came from Britain to New York to study with a master of mysticism. In the early 1970s, he went from New York to Britain to study with a master of acupuncture. We both later turned our attention to the visual arts. We both eventually ended up upstate. Sandler, meantime, was a macrobiotic chef (that I never was, though I cooked a mean moussaka).
Our paths crossed last Saturday at Davis Orton’s show of Sandler’s photographs of 1980s New York, when and where we both lived. To those who didn’t, but know New York today, his meticulous images are hardly recognizable.
It was a rough city then. Broke, torn at the seams. 73rd and Broadway, my block, was better known as “Needle Park”. The homeless were a major feature of life on the Upper West Side (Ronald Reagan was in the process of sabotaging the social safety net). The subway, inside and outside the cars, was violently disfigured with graffiti. You didn’t walk in the park at night, and it wasn’t that safe in daytime. Cigarettes were 75 cents a pack, but cocaine was the drug of choice, flooding into the nasal passages of society. The China Club was my hangout (I was once there alone at eight in the morning, except for Jagger and Bowie sitting at the bar in deep conversation).
Sandler was a student of the great New York street photographer Garry Winogrand (“Watched him like a hawk”), and there couldn’t be a teacher better than Winogrand, who died in a clinic in Tijuana in 1984, leaving a vast body of work that is rightfully considered a seminal contribution to the great Twentieth Century canon launched by Cartier-Bresson, Weegee, and Arbus. His retrospective, at the Met in 2014, was a staggeringly complete record of the times.
Sandler’s own photographs have frightening immediacy, but, like Winogrand’s, they weren’t shot from the hip. Each, carefully framed, represents a moment captured by an unusually intuitive and perceptive eye—normal stuff and situations that we mere mortals would just glaze over. That’s the art of the documentary photographer, and what an art! Imagine if the camera had been invented in the fourteenth century.
Our dear, beloved, recently departed Bill Hellermann had an eye too, but for landscape, not so much people. His Hopper-esque pieces in the Davis Orton show, printed from slides, of 1980s New York storefronts, bars, diners, and juice stands, are also deeply evocative.
Catty-corner from my Ansonia apartment was Gray’s Papaya, with the best hot dogs in town. Whoever came up with that combination was a genius. And it’s still there, miraculously, as the neighborhood now commands multi-thousand dollar rents and limos glide by constantly, and the subway station is safe and respectable, and Amsterdam is no longer forlorn, and the park is a pleasure.
But at what loss of character? Marvelous photographs, so worth preserving.
Davis Orton, 114 Warren Street, Hudson, thru June 18.
Richard Sandler, New York, 1980s
William Hellerman, “Orange Julius”, 1980s