Shooting From The Inside
For those who embrace the crowded
island of Manhattan as home, it is
know simply as “The City.” Seen from
above, a collection of miniature worlds
live above, below,and in between one
another. Each world, if it is lucky, will
have a handy photographer to remove
the veil and shoot from the inside out.
A Cooler Past—
[ THE 20's, 60's, & 80's ]
When was New York at its finest, was it the Roaring Twenties, the Bohemian Sixties, or the Decadent Eighties? In its brief life span New York City built itself a reputation of being a cool place to live. As neighborhoods were raised from the rubble of factories, the first signs of culture appear when Uptown money and Downtown style mix. Since the 1920′s trust funds and bootleggers have shared mint juleps, girlfriends, and fists in basement speakeasies. Night life was the common ground for all New Yorkers to exhibit their style. After the homemakers of World War II had their “15 minutes of fame,” the vacant loft buildings of Soho were the new scene. In the 1970′s artists living in converted factories were the rage. Uptown rushed through the lofts sweeping up their favorite art personalities and paintings to match because this party would not go on forever.
By 1980 Steve Rubell was in jail and Studio 54 finally closed. Andy Warhol’s Factory was no longer a party, but an Empire. There was a new crop of faces making their way through the club scene and German born photographer Wolfgang Wesener was there to see it all. Working as a carpenter at a chic club called Area, his chance encounter with Boy George ignited a collection of portraits of that defined an era of decadence. While nearly twenty years later photographer, writer, and attorney Alan Behr would bring a camera into the closed halls of high society for a glimpse at the rich and sometimes funny.
Right Place, Right Time—
[ WOWE ]
Behind the scenes of the 80′s club Area, were a crew of carpenters who would transform the interior every four weeks. Once a month, Wolfgang Wesener was part of a team that would build a new fantasy for club goers, by completely reconstructing the interior. One day, at the height of his fame, Boy George came to meet with the owner of Area. The house photographer was no where to be found. Knowing that Wesener took pictures the owner asked him to grab his camera. At the time Wesener was living around the corner in Soho. When he arrived back at the club, he snapped a shot of Boy George and the owner. As Wesener told me on Thursday night, the editor of Details magazine got a hold of the picture and said to his photographers, “This is what I want you to do!” holding up Wesener’s picture.
[ HAND HELD FLASH ]
There is a beauty to simple solutions. Working in a dimly lit interior of a club, portraits could be challenging. Before the era of ISO 104,000, the limitations of film meant that Wesener had to use a flash, or as he calls it a Blitz. Wearing a Leica D-Lux 5 and a corded Leica SD 24 flash, the night of the opening, he explained that “This was what I used, only not as small.”
Wesener had two major obstacles to overcome in his images. The first problem was the dimly lit club interior. In order to soften the light in the subjects and create more attractive portraits, he would hand hold the flash above or off to the side of the subject. A homemade reflector softened the light, giving the pictures their signature look.
With his equipment in place, the second obstacle was access to subjects. The paparazzi had to stand in the que, while Wesener had total access to Area as carpenter. He said, “Everyone already knew me, so I could go anywhere I wanted for pictures.” The combination of ingenuity and an insiders pass made for a perfect cocktail. His day job was officially over as he put down his hammer in favor of the Blitz.
[ INSIDE THE TENEMENTS ]
Over time, these images have taken on a new meaning. New York Social photography came out of the darkness in the 1880′s when Jacob Riis took a 4×5 camera and some flash powder into the Lower East Side Tenements to document to horrid conditions. Before art galleries and hipsters began to repopulate the Lower East Side, its history of squalor dates back to its immigrant roots. Riis, an unemployed Danish immigrant, started working as a police reporter. He believed the conditions in the slums were supported by their lack of visual exposure. Deciding that photography was the first step in affecting social change he carried his police camera into the alleys where sun never touched. The book “How the Other Half Lives,” added words to Riis’ images and was partly responsible for the New York City’s first social reform programs.
Similar to Riis’ work Wesener gives the audience a glimpse at a fleeting night scene. At the time, his pictures might not have looked much different than the party pages in W Magazine or Vogue. Artist like Julian Schnabel and Keith Richards are still on the scene, though Richards might only be sipping on water. The difference, between the 80′s and today, is marked by the pre-pubescent faces of up and coming stars and friends who are no longer around.
In the recent Scorsese Film, Fran Leibowitz says that all the talented people died in the eighties. She would love to resurrect everyone and show them how the second tier talents filled in because the first rate ones had died. Looking at a young Madonna, prior to her British accent, next to William Burroughs, you can’t help but think Wesener watched the torch pass from one generation to the next. Gone were the true West Village bohemians of the 60′s and in were the East Village start ups like Madonna. Within a few years, Andy Warhol, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring would all have passed. It would be another ten years before the eighties would become fashionable again, and the admirers were not even born when these pictures were made.
Faith + Light—
[ Medieval Portraiture ]
From a photographers perspective Wesener’s images bear a strong connection to Medieval portraiture. The figures of pre-Renaissance painting glow as if there is a light directly above their heads. Fourteenth century painters were not concerned with ambient light, preferring to throw light were it was needed most, with no regard for accuracy. The rule was; if it was important it must have light. Another famous artist of biblical influences was Any Warhol, who modeled for Wesener. Both men used a divine light which rains down on their subjects, washing away the imperfections, and elevating them to religious icons. By using his “Blitz, or hand held flash,” Wesener added a star quality to the famous and a boost of encouragement to the newcomers. He presents each person in the best light possible, illuminating them to heroic heights. Cross dressers, super models, and musicians, under the Blitz everyone received star treatment.
[ ALAN BEHR ]
Nearly two decades later, Alan Behr’s work, on display, focuses on the “Park Ave Scene.” In contrast to Wesener’s world which does not wake up until noon or go out until eleven, Behr’s world is up by eight and asleep before midnight. This social documentary gives us an insider look at the evening gowns twirling around fundraisers and fashion shows. A newcomer to New York might encounter more closed doors than open ones, which is why being on the inside helps. Behr who is also a writer and intellectual property attorney, did not set out to create a body of work. There was no letter writing campaign or courting social planner for him to take pictures. He photographs the world around him.
With a touch of James Bond, ladies in slinky cocktail dresses build a fantasy that Behr never confirms or denies. For those who can escape into fields of champagne flutes, the night time is a chance to live out the fantasies inaccessible during the day. Behr acts as the master of ceremonies ushering us through the half waking world where dreams and decoration side step our rational selves.
Working in a tuxedo seems natural for the Behr as he clicks his way through the club rooms of New York’s prestigious hotels in search of unique moments with a point and shoot Leica CM (yup that’s film). When I asked him why he chose to work with a point and shoot he said,” I can’t carry an M camera inside my jacket pocket, its too big. I need something that is small and fast. The half a second auto focus delay of digital point and shoots is like an eternity. I have two Leica CM’s and I guard them carefully.”
Social scenes are easy pray for a critical eye. The roving photographer can make people nervous, especially those who closely guard their public images. The endearing quality of Behr, is unlike an opportunist paparazzi, he is not out to make anyone look badly. He enjoys funny, sincere, or beautiful moments to those which would embarrass. He admits,” I am against the whole sneer or smear style of photography.” The opportunities to reveal a more scandalous side of high society might seem too good to pass up. No one makes mistakes like the over-served at an open bar. But when we consider his other favorite pastimes of travel and writing, it becomes easy to see why he prefers the role of the quiet observer. While he is not disturbing anyone, the trip goes on endlessly.
[ DAISY'S WORLD ]
If F. Scott Fitzgerald had a house photographer, it would have been Alan Behr. While debutante Paris Hilton populates X-rated websites, Behr’s image show the young Paris caught dancing, fully dressed and with her parts properly covered. By side stepping the raunchier side of night life, there is a literary tone to these black and white pictures. The images revealed themselves as photographic sketches, for an unfinished novel. If it was a hand gesture or the pattern on a suit, the details are all important.
The series “Naked At The Ball” is not dominated by a single image. Even though some of the subjects are more notable than others, like Donald Trump, artist Jeff Koons, or Heiress Hilton, they are share equal roles in Behr’s nightly vignettes. And while there is no major mystery uncovered, carrying a camera through the night feels like an effort to share in the scene rather than criticize one. Maybe better than our own memories, he strings together a narrative of couture dresses and hand stitched lapels. Where recognizable faces dissolve into the glittering chandeliers, Behr draws from life, like a painter. The curtain is pulled back from the New York social scene, until the last bottle of champagne is finished and Park Avenue is sound asleep.
Alone In The Crowd—
[ EDWARD HOPPER ]
While the Leica Gallery was over flowing, there was another exhibition show sound asleep. Painter Edward Hopper could be the lonely brother of Wesener and Behr. His paintings are rooted in the blanks moments between doubt and reflection. On view at the Whitney Museum, the paintings counter balance to the exciting nights as Hopper paints the morning after. His subjects are rich and poor, who share lobbies, taxis, and doorways. Hopper never lets us forget that for every fantastical evening there is an sunrise waiting for us tomorrow. Sometimes glaring, other times soothing, we all have moments where we are not quite sure what we are doing. Regardless of our daily uniforms, we can all understand the space between success and failure. The contrasting exhibitions give the full New York experience which is never one dimensional. Life in “The City,” is impossible to define. While travel guides are constantly in search of the newest catch phrase, New York is a feeling which is best taken in doses. By understanding the range of wealth, creativity and culture, can the weirdness of New York City be truly appreciated.
I would like to give a special thanks to Jay and Rose Deutsch, of the Leica Gallery, for hosting the opening.
Leica Gallery: 670 Broadway, 5th Floor. New York, NY
For additional images and information about WOWE aka Wolfgang Wesener and Alan Behr please visit their respective websites below.