By James Maher
Name: Alex HarsleyJames Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.
Occupation: Owner, 4th Street Photo Gallery
Location: 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and the Bowery
Time: 3 pm on Friday, Jan. 17
Last week, Alex Harsley talked about his tough upbringing in the early 1940s in South Carolina and his move to the Bronx with his mother a few years later... we're starting with the last paragraph from last week's feature...
I settled down in Brooklyn, figured out that was a bad place to live, got divorced and moved to the East Village, around ’65. I got a motorcycle and I had parties continuously, living on 11th Street and Avenue A. I was in this haze. It’s now a very important historical place — 501 E. 11th St. Every place I’ve lived in they’ve destroyed.
Eventually I had to leave there and move to 155 Essex St. I was in the middle of heaven. When I was a kid, Sunday was the worst of all the days. It was bad. You got dressed up in the morning and you had to stay dressed up all day. And don’t you dare get anything on this outfit. Lord have mercy on you. I was brought up in ‘Hell and Damnation.’ Then, these other folks, they celebrated Sunday for real. They went out and sold stuff. It was a major retail area. Every Sunday the world would come to my area and I would go out and say, ‘Wow.’ I came in near the end of that.
Things began to change and I was squeezed out of that in 1972, when I got this space. The person I was collaborating with had a major brain hemorrhage and I freaked. By 1973, I had opened it up as a gallery. I started my own nonprofit art organization called the Minority Photographers. The Minority Photographers was a loosely knitted organization that was drawn together by a common need and a common understanding and need for somebody to talk with. You’d always have somebody to talk with. Once I created that, everybody flocked to it, because it was a window. Then it became a door and then it became a pathway.
From 1973 to 1976, different people started coming. There were people coming out of mental institutions in one corner and people with PhDs in the other corner. Not one of them knew the other one, but they were in my reality. I tried to get all these photographers organized. It was up to me to put the pieces together. It formed a coherent body. It was like the kids I grew up with when I first came to New York. Everybody filled a role of the unified structure. Each person had a job to do. It was all about the interaction with each other.
And once the interaction began to grow then the network began to grow and each one began to understand that the network was what it was all about. I created a lot of problems for a lot of people because of that group.
I also showed up here without the community support, with all these crazy people surrounding me. I stuck out like a sore thumb. They took issues, serious issues. [There were elements] that saw black groups as less than, because most of the black men around here coming out of the war were left to their demise, drinking Sneaky Pete, as the saying goes, that took them to the grave.
I was never part of that but I identified with that. It took a certain amount of time to let them know who I really was, far outside of my color, far outside of all those suspicious people that they saw coming in here without really understanding who these people really were.
I began to understand that I was breaking a lot of rules. There’s a very sophisticated type of casting that goes on. There were no real black folks down here on the Lower East Side. After the Italians left there were a few, a little jazz, a little bit of this. When I came in, black folks were pitted against Italians. You look at the police force and you could see how the caste system actually operated. It picks the beast to do its thing to keep everything in place.
I found the car [Dodge GTS Dart] in 1974. I grew up studying about cars. I went to a trade school that taught me about cars and the fundamentals of the machine itself but I never got a chance to actually practice any of that stuff.
When I got the car it was on the way to the junkyard. Everything was wrong with it. I worked on that car for 10 years, 1974 to 1984. In 1980, I had to take the engine out because it failed. I was always working on it. It was a joke, ‘When you gonna get from under the hood? Do you ever drive it?’ Of course I had just drove it, was racing it, and it broke. I was always fixing it because I would jam it. Awesome power. Let’s run it up to 100 real fast.
A lot of people hated me and hated my car. They had broken in the radio, punched the tires, you name it. It got vicious. I’d fix it and clean it off. It was about me being here without getting their stamp of approval, but they wouldn’t give me a stamp of approval. So the car became the symbol of me and eventually people began to fall behind the wayside.
I came up with the idea of putting the penguin in the car to see what would happen. Initially I had the owl. I put the owl and then the penguin in the car to keep it company. The best art project I had ever done; the most popular thing I have ever done. It worked. People started sitting on the car and the car stopped having problems. This spirit just took over the car.
So now I have to keep it. It was a major attraction for people who have feelings. People recognize the life that’s there. It attracts different people. The bird population didn’t like the owl. They started shitting on the window, on the car. They’re shitting on the owl. I come from the south so I know most of the wildlife on the block. It was a great hit with the tourists and other people who walked by. I don’t know how many thousands of images of that are on the Internet.
I began to get more involved in video and in the computer thing. By 1999, the whole Lower East Side began to change and I had to decide whether I wanted to retire, but I decided I wasn’t going to turn and run. Then I got a notice last year that I have to pay real-estate taxes on this place. Now I’m going through my archive. It’s like picking cotton.
I figure I should do a project on Muhammad Ali. At some point that’s going to go into a book. I went to photograph him at his training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. I went down to photograph him as a historical object. I had finally figured out how to document him. He was going to spar for the first time in the training camp, which was a big day. I had to get a photograph of him floating. I had to put him up outside, stand him up, have him smile, do a wide shot with the place in the background, do a tight shot, do angle shots, say, ‘Thank you mister,’ and leave.
But I went down there and said, ‘I have nothing else to do, what do I got to worry about?’ It was up to me, so I took full advantage of that and in the process of that I got these nice images. I never really liked working for these people because they edit out the good stuff. They’re looking for certain shots and I got that, but that’s not what it’s all about. The rest was done for me.
Read part one here.