words Ellie Brown
Richard Sandler began photographing the streets and scenes of New York City in 1977. Shooting on the go, Sandler’s images capture a sense of a place that has, in the intervening years, long since disappeared. Yet, looking through Sandler’s book of this work, The Eyes of the City (2016), these shots remain as striking and poignant as ever, cutting through the surface to directly confront issues such as poverty, race, crime, and social and economic upheaval. The human element of the mechanisms of modern city life give these photographs their distinctive, thoughtful and powerful touch – something that takes on a more tangible form in Sandler’s films, The Gods of Times Square (1999) and Brave New York (2004). Filmed over the course of the 1990s, both films track the transformation of Times Square and the East Village, respectively, into soulless, sanitised spaces. Sandler’s interactions with people he meets whilst filming drive the narrative, and give an alternative version of events to the architectural and cultural ‘improvements’ that are used to justify city redevelopment. Sandler’s more recent film, A/K/A Martha’s Vineyard (2007), marks a shift away from this cultural critique to focus on bigger issues – crucially, colonialism and the impact of that on writing out the histories and legacies of indigenous tribes. This is not as distant from Sandler’s earlier street photography and video work as it may seem, as it is giving voice to alternative stories that continues to drive this work. A few days prior to our conversation, New York experiences its worst blackout in 42 years, since the last one occurred in 1977. It seems a fitting moment to look back over Sandler’s practice, which has changed almost as much as the city itself; his commitment to asking questions and confronting uncomfortable issues, however, remains much the same.
NR MAGAZINE: There’s a timelessness to the emotion of the people in your photographs of New York. Are there similarities between what’s going on in these images compared with today?
Richard Sandler: There’s a dramatic difference. It’s not in at all the same city, except for the fact that New York is always attracting people, and it’s always been ruled by a wonderful randomness. Getting on the subway, there’s a wonderful mix of people in every carriage, and so that’s more or less intact, but the demographics now are radically different. New York has become ridiculously expensive, but the New York I was photographing in was very inexpensive. It attracted the most down and out people, and artists making their careers with no money. Downtown New York was filled with artists who were constantly pushing the boundaries. It was an inexpensive place to live, and people with money didn’t want to live there because they were afraid of the crime, the dirt, the grittiness of it all. So, that city and this city bare almost no resemblance to one another anymore. It’s become commodified, and it’s boring now by comparison. I mean, it’s still probably, maybe, the coolest city in the world. There are still quite a few artists in New York that are broke and living on the margins, but they have to work three jobs. There’s not a lot of time to do you art, that’s all changed. Money is anathema to culture, in the sense that the people making art need a place to live, to eat, to get by. I understand why that change happened but, at the same time, I liked it better the other way.
NR: When you began filming The Gods of Times Square in 1992, did you anticipate the scale of change that was about to happen in New York?
RS: I did anticipate that, and that was also the change in my work. I started in ’92 with pictures and, then, they were moving pictures. I still carried my film cameras with me, but I also had a video camera with a good microphone. But yes, starting in the early to mid ‘90s, the handwriting was on the wall. Times Square was going to change, East Village was going to change, and New York became this cash cow; this money making machine. All this has an incredibly inflationary effect on the cost of living. So yes, when I started shooting The Gods of Times Square, New York was changing, and it was going to change and keeping changing.
NR: Your latest film, A/K/A Martha’s Vineyard, is shot differently to your earlier films, focusing on the natural environment rather than New York City. What’s the significance of that shift for you?
RS: The significance is that, A/K/A Martha’s Vineyard is about a completely different society based on completely different ways of living. It’s a four chapter movie told from the perspective of the Wampanoag tribe. The first chapter explores the tens of thousands of years that preceded European arrival, and there’s no way to document that except by documenting a culture that was living sustainably and harmoniously with nature. The idea in this movie is to try and wrap the viewer’s mind around the way of life that is utterly different to the one we live in now, so that’s why it looks completely different. It also coincided with my change from video to film because Martha’s Vineyard is shot primarily on film (Super 8mm, 16mm and 35mm motion film). The Gods of Times Square had to be shot on video because the beauty of video is that you can shoot at night. Being a one person crew, I didn’t need anyone standing next to me holding a boom; I didn’t need anybody else it was just me and those people I met. I couldn’t go out there with a crew because I had to make personal contact. They had to trust me enough to talk to me.
NR: Do you find people interact with you differently depending on whether you’re using still photography or video?
RS: I mean, with still photography everything’s changed now. It’s a different kettle of fish because you can be looking at your phone and using your finger to swipe and also making a photograph at the same time. Nobody knows now if a photograph is being made on a phone. If you have a still camera, you may get the idea. But, on the street, I find that people want to talk and make connections. That doesn’t happen so much in still photography, because for me it was like: shoot, take a picture, keep moving. I would barely make more than one photograph. With The Gods of Times Squares, I grew up on the streets of New York, I grew up going to Times Square, playing hooky, going to the pool rooms, the sideshows, and the penny arcades - all before New York was even remotely dangerous. And I felt very comfortable there. Once I got into video, I realised I loved it and turned up at Times Squares with the idea to make this documentary about the religious zealots and the function of this place as a ‘speaker’s corner’. I’d show up and say, “you got something to say? I’m here with a camera. Talk. Here I am, I’ll ask you a couple of questions maybe, but just talk. What do you want to say? Here’s a mic, you want to talk to people? Here it is. These movies of mine are going to be seen, speak your mind, go ahead.” And you know, a lot of people want to talk.
NR: Watching your films and looking at your photos, there’s both a sense of anonymity and familiarity at the same time. Does that reflect the mood of the city or is that a reflection of your approach?
RS: Well, I think it’s both. My approach was to either make pictures where people were not looking at me, or where they did see me and yet, their looking at me was somehow revealing of what was going on inside them. I was not ever asking permission. I was shooting on the fly, shooting quickly; make a picture, move on, make a picture, move on. I wasn’t out there to talk, I wasn’t out there to make friends. Plus, it was an easier time to photograph in some ways because, strangely now, people fear their image could be out on the internet. They don’t want to be photographed, so in a funny way, it’s much harder to photograph now, even though cameras are much more ubiquitous than then. But I did it with such intention. I wasn’t sneaky, you know, I was in people’s face. I was using the flash a lot on the street and there’s no way to disguise that a pictures been taken if you’re using the flash. I did it with no fear. I mean, if I feared something I wouldn’t photograph it. Every once in a while something bad would happen, someone would get mad at me, couple times I got punched. But I just figured that that, you know, was the occupational hazard. When people look at me it’s cool, I like that, and when they’re not looking at me, that’s fine too. So that’s why my book’s called The Eyes of the City. It’s not just me who is the eyes of the city, it’s the people looking at me. There’s a lot of photographs in my work where people are giving a sidelong glance or responding to me - usually it’s before they turn angry, and there’s a question on their face … that can be good too.
NR: The Eyes of the City recalls the early days of the modern city and the camera, which was referred to as the eye of modern life. Does that correspond with your work?
RS: Very much so. I’m very much part of a tradition. And modernity is pretty much defined by the use of the camera; the modern world is a world with cameras. Prior to that, there was a world with painters, sculptors, lithographers, etc. But you can see the elements already there, in the middle of the nineteenth century when photography had barely taken off, you see painters doing what photographers would be doing. You could take it back to cave paintings if you want also - this idea of making an image to freeze time. Perhaps it’s because we’re fearful of mortality itself that we want to freeze an image, freeze a moment in time whether it’s a painting or a photograph. I think we’re always walking around, aware that we’re not going to live forever, you know, and photography (and art more generally) is a way to create something that will outlive us. Maybe these make up pieces of a longer life; I won’t go as far as to say, ‘immortality’ as nothing lasts forever, but if photographs are processed correctly, they will last hundreds of years. We’re image makers. Every time you make a picture and you freeze it you know it becomes a metaphor. It’s also good for us to have these moments to look back on. When I show my still photography, people remark that the city is so different, and that was my intention when I took them.
NR: When you look back on some of the photos you’ve taken, has perception changed in any of them over time?
RS: The distant past is easier to understand than the recent past, which is still filled with uncertainty. It’s unsettling a little bit because, you know, if you’re over 40 years of age, then the things you are seeing in my pictures are actually things you saw as a kid. You now see them in a different context with time, and you see the differences in culture changing. But at the time same time, you know, that’s not the larger issue for me anymore. The larger issue for me is dealing with colonialism and dealing with the effects, the worldwide effects of colonialism. ‘Cos now when I look at this country, I see it through different eyes. My life’s work as a photographer has been a progression from cultural critique to asking more questions, deeper questions about culture itself and that inevitably leads to questioning colonialism, capitalism, racism, sexism, classism and all those ugly -isms out there. I want to graduate from the cultural critique of America, which my stills and The Gods of Times Square are. I was just a street photographer, but a street photographer with questions; a street photographer with a photojournalistic approach. But, I want to ask deeper questions because these hold the possibility of some kind of structural social change, towards living in a kinder, safer, more sustainable world.