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Alex Harsley’s Photography is a Portal to an Earlier New York

Issue 268

Amba Guerguerian Dec 21, 2021

All photos provided by the artist.

On the north side of East 4th Street, between Bowery and Second Avenue, in a small window-front shop is the 4th Street Photo Gallery. At any given hour, you might see Alex Harsley, 83 and wiry with a crooked cap, sitting in a chair, either at the back of the gallery watching the news or editing a video project or outside on the street, where the photographer observes the block he’s known since 1974.

The gallery’s walls are lined ceiling to floor with 13” x 19” photographs. Basquiat gazes sheepishly; notes pour out of Coltrane’s sax, Muhammad Ali, a lot of Ali, looking down at you, up at you. New York embraces you. A woman sunbathing at Coney Island. Children playing behind fences. Sunday bike races in Harlem. Bohemians and beatniks in Washington Square. Syrians selling clothes on the once-cobblestone streets of Lower Manhattan. Dancers twisting on a stage. The photographer’s daughters, his ex-wife. The Palisades. The World Trade Center. Heightened, digital edits of images that were taken on film. Athletes, naked women, crowds. Images sit among stacks of old cameras, floating mobiles, stacks and stacks of old photos.

He exchanges old photos for new ones every few days, paying special attention to those in the front window. “The window belongs to the neighborhood,” Harsley says. He puts up different combinations, then takes note while that display is up of who responds and how they respond.

Easter Sunday in Central Park, 1970

Harsley waves, chuckles, checks in, says “alright,” as people walk by the gallery. A woman and her daughter. “She’s the one,” he whispers after they walk by, alluding to a community board drama he’d just told me of. “I got off that a long time ago,” Harsley says of the board.

He and an old superintendent with a jingling ring of keys smile at each other. “He’s been here about as long as I have,” says Harsley.

Another man walks by, stopping in awe in front of the window as a fluffy Pomeranian circles his feet. “Oh man, this is great!” he says. He has that look in his eyes that says he’s traveling, memories flooding back. “This is what this neighborhood used to be like.”

Coming to post-war New York in the aftermath of the Harlem Renaissance solidified Harsley’s belief that he should do something, be someone.

Those who were once Harsley’s contemporaries have mostly been obliterated from the East Village, replaced by mediocre, expensive restaurants, empty galleries and CVS stores. He always has a story about one of the instances someone tried to kick him out of the building.

“The conspiracy was to get rid of all the poor people, including me.” While Harsley isn’t poor, he doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the people on the street. The gallery — which sticks out like a true vestige — has stirred things up on the block over the years.

“They tried to beat my door in! Late one evening while editing, I took a nap. I woke up after the dream that I was having started exploding. I could see that a foot had just kicked the window. Then again, BOOM, and I could see it hit the window and bounce back … I opened the door and he took off and ran down the street.” Harsley said that the men then ran from one apartment building on the street to another, demanding pay. “Now I knew what was going on.” This was in the early 2000s, a critical time for the East Village as it solidified its identity as a desirable neighborhood in a rapidly gentrifying city.

• • •

Orchard Street at night in the mid-80s.

The photographer was born in 1938 around Rock Hill, South Carolina to Methodist landowners. By the time he was four, all the men in his family had been taken by the war. He raised his younger siblings; his mother had moved up to New York. “Ever since I learned to walk, I’ve been working.”

“We were a proud people. We had land. Them white folks wanted to live on our land. And I was taught to be proud.” The confidence Harsley learned as a young child on a cotton farm helped propel him through life and inspire confidence in others.

When Harsley was 10 years old, he and his little brother and sister followed their mother north to Intervale Avenue in the Bronx.

“My main interest was acclimating into this reality here from working on a farm. Everything was completely different. All of a sudden, there’s kids!” Harsley got to play for the first time. “We were latchkey kids.”

Coming to post-war New York in the aftermath of the Harlem Renaissance solidified Harsley’s belief that he should do something, be someone. “Seventh Ave was lit up from 116 to 125. It was wonderful. A lot of the people I came up around came to be somebody.”

“In ‘53, ‘54 there was this ad in the back of the comic books about learning to draw. I sent the ad in. The guy came to the door. My mother said, ‘You can’t afford to do this! Get out of here!’” And she shooed the man away.

In 1955, when Harsley was 17 — the same year his step-father passed away in his arms in East Harlem — “my mother said to go down to 42nd Street to the unemployment agency and get a job!” As a foot messenger, he developed a desire to photograph what he saw on the streets. “This is Midtown Manhattan, mind you [three snaps of a finger]. It’s happening that way.”

Soon after, he got a job working at Peelers camera store. Working in the darkroom, he began to understand the complexities involved in making a photograph. By the time he was 21, Harsley was tapped to run the photo department at the office of Manhattan DA Frank Hogan. He finally had access to photo supplies, from top-shelf cameras to endless rolls of film.

A young Alex Harsley when working for the Manhattan DA.

Working for the DA provided Harsley the financial freedom to finally experiment with photography styles and equipment. He shot two to three rolls of film a day. Before the digital click, that was a lot. “Being brought up on a farm I had no idea what each day would bring. … It was the same with photography, a matter of feeling once I got the camera and would go out looking for the right image, the image of the day.”

He was drawn to certain images. “Fences, for instance. I always had trouble with fences since I was a kid. And when I came to New York they were even more ridiculous. … Then there was people. Faces of people — it’s speaking. I don’t have to say anything. All I have to do is take it, put it on paper and everyone else will see what I see.”

He went to the Apollo Theatre, shot Miles Davis in 1959. Later he would photograph Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, Al Sharpton.

Once deep into the art of street photography via the photojournalism and documentary photography he was doing, Harsley was drafted in 1961, “and that was the end of that.”

• • •

After a tour with the army, Harsley reenlisted, lured by the promise of further study in photography. Instead, they sent him (unknowingly and unwillingly) back to the South, where he worked in a chemical storage depot in Anniston, Alabama. He was exposed to leftover toxins from chemical testing during previous wars, for the A-bombs. He felt violated; he wasn’t where he belonged. He hadn’t signed up for this. Twice now, war had taken him away from what he loved.

Eventually, he protested enough that the army yielded and sent him to Ft. Devons, Massachusetts, where he was able to experiment photography for the better part of four years. Upon returning to New York City, he would emerge as a freelance photojournalist, a street photographer and a master color technician.

• • •

“When I moved downtown in 1964 … you had the likes of all the jazz musicians in town on Avenue B. I saw jazz musicians serious on heroin. It was sad. That was the beginning of the end of the black clique that was down here, that was slowly but surely dismantled so it doesn’t exist anymore.”

Sun Ra at the Village Vanguard

“When I was in the army, there were all these different movements going on,” he said. “I was left out of all that so when I came back, I was like, on my own!”

In 1971, he founded Minority Photographers, a non-profit that provided professional mentorship to marginalized artists. This also helped him create an artist community in the neighborhood, where he would hang his mentees work on the fences that originally inspired him to photograph.

Through the organization, Harsley would mentor the likes of Dawoud Bey and David Hammons. Once he told me he feels some sort of responsibility for the premature death of Jean-Michel Basquiat — who he would see lingering on the other side of 4th Street, staring at the gallery like he wanted to come in — as if he could have turned the young artist’s trajectory around if only he’d invited him to cross the street. It showed that he really felt a sense of regret.

“Photographers that come in get stuck in that stupid stereotype of Black photography,” says Harsley, who detests the thought of artists being pigeonholed. “What I’m doing in here is counter to what they’re doing out there. So my photography is not really about the [political] issues, it’s about art. But I take the issues and put them as the context.”

• • •

“That was the beginning of the end of the black clique that was down here, that was slowly but surely dismantled so it doesn’t exist anymore.”

Over the summer, Harsley’s photographs were hung at Pioneer Works cultural center in Red Hook in an exhibition curated by his daughter, Kendra Krueger. I noticed a motif: explosions. A burst of trash on the sidewalk, fire hydrants burst open, a plume of smoke in BedStuy. There was a video, too: Images and sounds of New York overlay each other. A woman dancing on a pier, people coming off the Ellis Island ferry, a parade, George Bush talking on Sept. 11, 2001, the towers falling. (More explosions.) I felt as though I was hallucinating, watching the “Freedom Tower” blend into the sky behind it.

In an ongoing response to 9/11, the artist has made hundreds if not thousands of videos similar to the one described above. He has left analog photography behind and stitches together clips shot on old camcorders and newer ones from an iPhone, his new favorite camera. (The transition from analog was not seamless; he hated the first digital machines: “The first programs out there were very difficult to use and you had to be seriously stupid to know how to use them.”)

An old photo and a new one juxtapose each other in the 4th Street Photo Gallery (Hudson River from Battery Park & the Filmore East in the late ’60s).

Harsley’s videos contain self-composed music and industrial sounds that have a doomsday effect. In addition to footage from the day of the attacks, they always feature dance perfor- mances, planes in the sky, a digital chamber with Y2Kesque icons floating around it. The artist was ahead of his time. The videos, which he started editing over a decade ago, look like they were made by cutting-edge GenZers in the current style of maximalism and deep-web-inspired art.

Talking to Harsley — who in high school, spent hours in the library doing self-assigned research — you get a feeling that he will always know more than you could even wonder about. Why, then, has he edited the same video innumerable times?

“What’s up with the 9/11 obsession?” I asked Harsley, who lost a close friend that day and refers to the attacks as “9-1-1.”

“Everybody responded to it. People are still responding without having an understanding of what they’re responding to. It fucked everybody. … The whole community was turning against each other. All these homeless people with issues looked at the Chinese people and saw they were getting more of the American dream than they were getting. … And that’s left over from the Korean War! All these different cultures have been demonized over time,” he shakes his head. “I go to the Pakistani store, across to the Indian store. They’re all here! Am I supposed to hate them? Some people do. How ‘bout that?”

“The confluence with dance?” I ask.

“It even happened in the arts. All of the sudden it was all about aggression. If you look at the choreography, it’s about disassociation. [The dancer is] dealing with the trauma. … Different parts of the family taken to war or sent to jail. All from that 9-1-1.” That day it finally hit me that for Harsley, 9-1-1 isn’t just 9/11. It’s the intensification of corporate globalization, neocolonialism, what he sees as a new world order. And the heaviness of it all.

• • •

Hot summer, 1969, Houston St

On 4th Street, there is a man made of wire named Alex Harsley. I hope he never leaves. He is a New York I want to know, that I only get glimpses of.

“It can never go backwards,” he said once, when I asked him how he envisioned the neighborhood’s future. “This is an upscale, intellectual community, all professionals.”

“Do you even have a hope for the future?”

“The future exists. I am hopeful by continuing a running document of people living in the neighborhood. I created content. I create a lot of content. It’s ongoing. Everyday you have to be famous. There’s no time off. You gotta do something in order to continue that legacy of content.”

We talk shit together about the corporate yuppies in our midst and their lack of interest in the vanishing communities around them. “Your generation is easily coerced,” he says.

He laughed when I mentioned the Tompkins Sq. Park riots one time. “The people refused to leave. That hasn’t changed.” Still, homeless people gather a few blocks over in the southwest corner of the park, near the chess tables, where they always have. A few blocks away, Harsley sits behind a window that, reinforced with plastic, won’t break from a blow.

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