[The Jefferson Theatre on 14th Street between Second Avenue and Third Avenue (now the Mystery Lot.) By Brian Rose]
Brian Rose moved to East Fourth Street between Second Avenue and the Bowery in 1977 to attend Cooper Union. A few years later, Rose, in collaboration with fellow Cooper Union graduate Ed Fausty, set out with a 4 x 5 camera to document Lower East Side neighborhoods.
After the completing and exhibiting the photo project in 1981, Rose stored the photos in his archives, not to be seen again for nearly 30 years. And Rose moved on, working on various projects while living in Amsterdam for 15 years.
Rose revisited the streets of the Lower East Side with his camera some three decades later. And you can see the results in "Time and Space on the Lower East Side," a self-published book contrasting the Lower East Side in 1980 with 2010. (He is quick to point out that the book is not meant to be a trip down memory lane.)
As you may have seen, he released the book several weeks ago. In a feature on the book, Cool Hunting noted that "'Time and Space' breaks from the before-and-after mold by rejecting strict side-by-sides of the changed landscape ... Part of Rose's talent is his ability to look past nostalgia to find character in the neighborhood then and now."
We caught up with Rose via email to see how things were going...
How would you describe the general reaction to the book so far?
"Time and Space" has gotten a very positive response from people here in New York, though interestingly enough, I've gotten more sales online from out-of-towners than locals — a number of them from overseas.
Living here, one forgets sometimes the fascination that New York holds for people around the world. The Lower East Side as the historical entry point for immigrants, and its role as cultural incubator, is integral to the overall image of New York as a world city. As New Yorkers we often take a parochial view of our city and this neighborhood in particular. We may be justified in our sense of ownership, but the reality is, New York and the Lower East Side belongs to something much bigger than ourselves.
It could take a while to sell the book — this may not be the ideal time for an expensive photo book — but I have no doubt that the interest is there, and that in the long run, people will value this 30 year encapsulation of a key period in the history of the Lower East Side.
[On East Fifth Street between C and D. Rose was standing near Fourth Street]
You have said that the book isn't any kind of sentimental journey. Any nostalgia looking at the 1980 shots?
Part of my anti-sentimental position has to do with a photographic stance. Personally, I have lots of emotional attachment to the neighborhood. I was once the chairman of a housing organization in the East Village, and I met my wife on East 4th Street almost exactly where the cover photograph of the book was taken.
Like many, I shed a tear or two when the Mars Bar closed a while ago, though I was only in there once or twice. But I try to maintain an objective eye as almost a moral imperative. Suzanne Vega in the foreword to "Time and Space" relates the story of how she wrote her song "Tom's Diner" through my eyes, as one who saw the world through a pane of glass. She saw it as a kind of romantic alienation, and perhaps, it was to some extent. But I believe that some of us are tasked, by choice or by inclination, to be cold blooded witnesses to the environment we have created and inhabit.
Do I feel nostalgia for the 1980 Lower East Side, the place where I first made my stand in New York? Absolutely. But I don't see "Time and Space" as a trip down memory lane. It's as much about the present as the past.
[On the Bowery looking north toward East Fifth Street — now JASA/Cooper Square Senior Housing and the Standard East Village]
You had been living abroad for several years. What compelled you to return to NYC?
I lived in Amsterdam for about 15 years, but I never completely left New York. I kept my apartment on Stanton Street, continued to work for my best clients, and flew back and forth way too much.
I was in Amsterdam on 9/11, watched the towers fall on TV, and felt that my whole world had shattered. I was back in the city a week after to connect with friends. One of my best friends, the songwriter Jack Hardy, who passed away last year, had lost his brother in one of the towers. I walked around like a zombie for weeks not really knowing what to do, and decided I needed to creatively re-engage with the city, to do something that addressed what had happened. Eventually I arrived at the idea of re-photographing the Lower East Side as a way of taking measure, a way of examining both change and continuity in the part of the city I knew best.
How do you feel about the Lower East Side as a neighborhood today?
The Lower East Side once felt like a separate world to me, but it feels much more integrated into the overall ebb and flow of the city now. All of lower Manhattan has dramatically changed, not just the LES. There are so many more people here than before. So much more money. So much more commerce of every kind. The changes have been wrenching for many, the results not always happy. There have been tragic losses of historic buildings, not to mention the dislocation of people. But the Lower East Side has not been this dynamic since, perhaps, the early 20th century when immigration was at its peak.
People don't understand that in 1980 the LES was hanging on by a thread, every night the sirens wailed as one more building was torched, one more life was snuffed out by drugs or murder. Yes, we saw ourselves as heroic artists scratching out songs and paintings against a backdrop of urban apocalypse — you can see it in the pictures — but that time is gone forever, for better or worse. As I write in "Time and Space," the future is rushing in, reoccupying the old tenements, and transforming a place known more for the slow resonance of its history. Even my photographs from 2010 are beginning to look like artifacts of a time gone by.
Brian Rose Photography
This is the book's official website.