The Photographer on the Block-II

ARTIST PROFILE (the raw, unedited 2nd interview)
Alex Harsley @ the 4th St. Gallery

When did you first come to this neighborhood?

In 1954 I took a bike trip down to Washington Square Park. This was a tight knit neighborhood, all Italian. I found I could walk through with peace if I didn’t make eye contact.

Favorite shot of the time:
I figured the neighborhood was gonna last forever, why take photographs? Then things happen in the 80s. DELAST:
Delancey—beginning and end of the crowds on the street. Things that will never exist anymore. Place of Entertainment. Electric Circus (the Dom)

In 1964 I came out of the army and I moved to 511 E. 11th St. Paradise Alley. Steel gates. Studio apt. on the second floor. End of the Beatniks and then the flower and peace generation; a crossover time.

I moved to Essex Street. 155 Essex. I moved to the center of a beautiful reality. I never liked Sunday til I moved to Essex. They swarmed into the neighborhood. All this life out there. I begin to photograph people. I knowI thought–let me get the document.

Do you consider yourself an artist or a documentary photographer or both?

I got ruined early in the game. I started looking through magazines. I wanted to be an artist but I could never draw. One of my favorite artists at that time was Michaelangelo. He sees this marble wall and he could see this piece that wants in the wall.

90% its about the document. Documenting something that happened, where the future and the past come together. That garden at MOMA or that mural in Chinatown. I started looking at the homeless crisis. Tomkins Square Park. The Bowery. 2AM-in the tents.

(pointing to a photo on the wall)

That snow storm. That was a socialist block on Bleeker where Robert Frank lived, still lives.

Somebody offered me a camera—I don’t know why. He sold me this camera for 15 dollars—that was a lot of money at the time. I had me this camera and I was so proud to have a camera. All this wonderment was mine and I wanted to find out more. By 1968 I was ready to embark on that total journey of the photographic process.

(he’s excited as he speaks, bending over making little circle with hands like an owl. Then he waves from side to side like windshield wipers gesturing as if he’s still in the dark room.)

NY wasn’t as racist as it is today. In the south the nearest people were white. I was friends with white kids. I didn’t play with other black kids.

All kids played with each other. It was refreshingly rewarding. Turned into this fairytale land. Always wanted to be near water. Eleven years old on the subway. Where should I get off now? I never knew where I was gonna get off.

There was everybody. This tier group. The only way to fit in is to be culturally intelligent. I introduce them to jazz, comic books, new toys, give them different values. I had to be not too intelligent, not too smart, not stand out too much.

Look at the time span: In 1839 photography starts and changes how we communicate and document truth and consequences. In the 1880s, the image moves.

(he points to more photos on the walls. His photos OF Mohammad Ali go $300 for the reproduction and $800 for the origina)

When I was born I was genetically different. The genome complex was changing. I’m of mixed, mixed blood. I was an illegitimate child. My father was 16. My mother was 14. Methodist vs. Baptist like Protestant vs. Catholics. Splits within the parallel universe. Duality everywhere. Gaian principle has to do with temperature and the sacred principle that holds everything place. We get positive and negative visual distinctions. We have the power to visualize things and take that vision and give it to someone else.


Same thing. My process is out of business. That’s where I am today. I’m at the end of this thing. That’s what makes me so different. I sit here on the computer all day trying to convert that into this. I’ve got to be selective about time, things closing in on me. Weird stuff. Scary stuff and at the same time I’m so into what’s out there visually. I can click on Mars Rover, Saturn, Saturn moons. What’s out there that I’m not supposed to be seeing? ESA. Wow! Artist was given spaces to work on Mars. It’s amazing. The rocky area. The mountains. Rock surfaces that looks like somebody was inhabitated there millions of years—you have to be able to look.

Population around the world. What makes people so different? They think different. Each one created distinct myths based on what they believe they are seeing.

By 1988 it’s over. I stop being a photographer like a smoker giving up cigarettes. It was a very bad habit that I had to get out of. I’m out of that. It took awhile. I did a lot of point and shoot, eventually into video. Now I’m working inside, pull back and responsible to my art form and the amount of time I have. I’m waiting for the weather to change to ride my bicycle.


Let somebody else do it? Photography’s on the way out. I start the organization to help people get in. I’m out there. I knew someone in the system who works for the PR firm with Bill Sapphire who writes Nixon’s speeches. I get interested in the 3D effect. Gabriel Litman.

So I go up to 79th, white beautiful large building, step inside this posh carpet, silent elevator, nice lighting. You don’t hear no music blaring out of these places. She’s there. Walk inside. There’s this labyrinth of books. Mr. Vonn wil be out in a few minutes. Finally made it to the wizard’s house.

I say I want to be a free radical in the educational system, go to the institutions, get people to think. So we get this conspiracy going, right?

He died of brain damage. The world disappeared from beneath me. This spatial place of Alice and Wonderland I was into and I had no footing and the next thing that took me out. Rod Sirling has brain damage—very young. The guy from the twighlight zone.

This creature from my early childhood returned. I was afraid to go outside to encounter this creature.

Old woman, weird—all hunched over, bag woman. Her job was to take me out so far that I would have no choice but to do something like jump off the roof.

I went out with my girlfriend—this Cuban-Chinese place on 86th —ohhhh. It was good. I got on the A, normally take the F. She shows up on the platform, so I get on the train, took me to Grand, and I’m walking across Delancey, strange feeling came over me, like a fear, grab my girlfriend, “let’s run.” So we cross Delancey to Essex and Delancey Street blew up. A gas explosion. I realize that I have to get rid of that thing. I go up on the roof—she’s down there. My best weapon is my camera and she starts to go away.

I knew I was suspect (to the government).

I was too close to the system.

Starts 1971 Minority Photographers for photographers who found themselves out on a limb but believed what they were doing was right and true.

Essex—apt. I put up flyers everywhere.
In one year inquiries from all over the world who need help.

Operation Contact. World photographers start a chain. Send contact sheets to other photographers. Post office shut down that system. Restrictions about Arts Groups.

By 1984, show in here. Really flipped the switch. Japanese photographer produced from a studio—serious upscale gallery type stuff. He came out with a book.

Politics and art don’t mix. Never mix because they want it for themselves.
In 1984 the East is the women’s movement. The west is for the men.

I didn’t know I was suspect.

I put up a show of women in bondage. People are ripping posters off the walls, coming together with the community against me. Racism is underneath. It’s out there. For people who know you to express that kind of rage towards you is the worst. I was totally busted. First time in my life, the bottom of my feet was sweating. My genetics come out. My feet was preparing to run for about fifty miles. Weird stuff. It’s all in me. Ok. Army. I’ll wake up my army. I got real soldiers in my army. Beginning of the system clamping down on arts. I get together this critical group composed of critical thinkers, good, independent thinkers, I’ll call them in. Real black women—intelligent, had someone for everyone in the community, had to keep my critical group from getting critical—its like a nuclear reactor. They (the community, women’s movement) was reduced to kindergarten level.

Andre Cerano and Robert Maplethorpe—1st show.

National Endowment; funding gets cut, every artist in this country lives in fear. Nothing is actually put out there. Non-existent in terms of having a mental impact. Don’t have a public.

ICP-Che Guevara

Due to what’s happening in the rest of the world—we have to do something. Something has to be done to change the direction that everything is headed.

Images are no more than a vehicle for additional information, historical in context.

I graduated high school and I thought, “The only way you gonna be somebody is to know somebody. How you gonna know somebody? I work at the district attorney’s office. Then I became somebody. I have friends. I’m dignified. Holgen—he was the DA at the time—got to see him once, because he was so reclusive. I needed them as much as they need me. I know some judges, people to back me up. I could take photos of anything. So I go in and take a photo of the Halas Salini who’s following after Marcus Garvey to resurrect the Muslim Movement and he gets a job at the DA too. He’s dignified.

I worked for housing in Rockaway. I seen that as a protective fabric against the outside world, territorial, it’s embedded. I seen I was born hardwired but I could change it in terms of evolving. I’ve been collecting spiders in the back. I get them to eat the roaches and then they get big and they’re aren’t enough roaches and go back and become cannibals. Anytime the intellect fails the hardwire kicks in.

I heard on the radio now, there’s workshops to help people with alzeimers. They use visual tools because people have forgotten how to se. There’s more pressure on old people to remember.

I got too good at visualizing. I was working with the light. So I retired. I was 29. I worked for the best color lab in NYC. I was paid well. You’re valuable to a company like that. It’s like google. I realize one day in the photo lab I can make rent, I save money and I learn to be creatively efficient.

Whitney Biennial. 1998 Gets written up for someone else but he wins and I see that this is something I can do. Working on a feature. Homer. Modern Day. The 1sst light how it all came together.

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