Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Out and About in the East Village

In this ongoing feature, East Village-based photographer James Maher provides us with a quick snapshot of someone who lives and/or works in the East Village or Lower East Side.

By James Maher
Name: Nancy Blum
Occupation: Artist
Location: Seventh Street
Time: 4 p.m. on Sept. 24

I’ve been here 30 fucking years. I’m from an area called Mainline, Philadelphia. I went to college in Amherst, and I graduated early, specifically to come to New York because I’m an artist. In the 1970s, New York was it – it’s self-explanatory.

I babysat in Tribeca for many years for very wealthy people – loved that. My first job in New York was as an au pair — you’re not paid, but you live in the apartment, and I took care of two little girls. The youngest one, who was three at the time, [later became] the chief curator at the Guggenheim Museum a few years back.

I moved to the East Village in 1988 because I got a job with Irving Penn. His photography studio was on 16th and 5th, and I used to bike to work. It was unbelievable, and I think of him every day. He was extremely important in my life. He was a genius. He rarely spoke. He was extremely intense. He only thought about work, and he was a very civilized man, a real gentleman. In all the years I worked for him, I never once heard him raise his voice or get short tempered, even though we were under a lot of pressure.

Mr. Penn’s studio was very bare. His philosophy was if we can make it out of cardboard, we make it out of cardboard. It was old-school, old world, to the bone. We always stopped work at 5, and we always started at 9. It was a small studio with very few of us, and you could never make a mistake. I knew a girl who worked there — she misspelled one name wrong and she was fired that day. You could not make a mistake – just absolute precision. I adored him, I don’t know what else to say. He was unlike anybody I had ever known.

I was relatively young when I worked for Penn. I met a lot of famous people, and most of them were really unimpressive. I’m going to be honest, there were some who were fantastic, brilliant, but a lot of celebrities were real morons and just shockingly so. They were uninformed, very narcissistic, very superficial. I could say that because I spent time with them – they came to the studio for a couple hours and sat for Penn. Most of his portrait work was for Vogue. He rarely did any private work. He didn’t like to be paid by the sitter, because then you’re in a way obligated to flatter the sitter.

I was a portrait photographer for many years. I was mostly a child photographer. I turned down the Trumps. When I worked for Penn once, New York magazine called, this is 1989, and Donald Trump was going to be on the cover with his wife, and they wanted Penn to shoot the cover. He said no, and they asked if he knew anyone. I was standing right there in the office, so he put them on hold and said, ‘Nancy would you like to photograph the Trumps?’ And I said, ‘No thank you.’ And I was broke. That one picture could have paid my rent for a year, no question. I was really particular.

Eventually ... I gave up the money from the photography, and I said, no, I’ll just starve, and I starved. The reason I stopped was I went to photograph Robert Rauschenberg in 1992 for an art critic named Henry Geldzahler, the curator of 20th Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After I took the picture, Bob said, "I don’t know why you’re doing this Nancy. This is not who you are." I just met the man. He said, "You’re an artist, go home and make some art." So I went home and I made Bob a drawing, stayed up all night, walked over at six the next morning and put it through his mail slot. He loved it. He sent it to where he lives in Florida and put it on his wall in his bedroom. And this man didn’t like anything. So that’s when I knew I was on the right road.

He then gave me a great job. It was unbelievable. He gave me a job to go into his personal closet and archive and organize all his private possessions that he had since the 1940s — his private shit — letters from Cy Twombly, hot dog wrappers, really expensive little Etruscan sculptures. I remember thinking it was unreal.

So I’ve been really lucky, but you have to take risks in life. I was really destitute for many years. You had to live by your wits, but I wasn’t the only one. It’s a very hard life. I paid my rent. You could do it then, you could get it together. You could come up with the $300 for rent. I feel very sorry for young people today – you have to work your fucking ass off.

We'll have Part 2 with Nancy next week: "I’m passionate about the East Village, and I find that I have neighbors who feel the same way."

James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.


afbp said...

NO drama/bs----very impressive :)

Anonymous said...

Well said Ms. Nancy! Living your life that way YOU want to!

Anonymous said...

Oh how wonderful. The Rauschenberg show at MOMA was inspiring. I went like five times. My impression was that he was this beautiful person who always tried to encourage others. That's rare, especially these days. I'm sure you were involved with the show. I can't wait for part 2.

Giovanni said...

Celebrities are just poor people with more money and better makeup.

Anonymous said...

This is a great interview! People like this are why I still love the East Village.

derek berg said...

Fascinating! I'm a photographer and in the early nineties I called Penn's studio looking for a job as a master black & white printer. Penn answered the phone himself, which left me speechless for a moment. In fact I expressed my surprise and he said simply that everyone else was at lunch. A very down to earth conversation with a legendary photographer Unfortunately there was no job.
Thank you Nancy.

Anonymous said...

I love her candor and take no prisoners disposition. What a strong and intelligent woman. You go girl..

Anonymous said...

Great interview, I'm looking forward to Part 2.

dm said...

This is so great! Psyched for part 2.

Sarah said...

This is great.

Nancy Blum said...

A few corrections time-wise:
I moved to New York in 1977 & lived many places: TriBeCa, UWS, UES, Gramercy Park & the EV. I started working for Irving Penn in 1981. I moved to Ninth Street in 1988 where I still live.