Newsstand, Street Portrait 1993
It intrigued me that the newsstand vendors who were often immigrants were surrounded in such detail with the over-the-top symbols of Americana at that time.
If I took my 86th street route to the subway, I passed this newsstand on 86th which would take me to my real downtown job. And I began to carry a Rolleiflex TLR camera with a tripod to work with me.
It was raining, something you can't see because I'm surrounded by the newsstand - and I ASKED the vendor if he'd mind my photographing him.
He wanted, and this is usual, to know what it was for. In those days he was nervous that it was for the government. Or maybe it was for a newspaper.
There were no tablets. No iPhones. And the web was nothing we knew about. It was also pre-nine-eleven. And I thought that he might have been a Moslem.
So that played through my mind. How this Moslem (not that I knew for sure) was not only surrounded by magazines like Juggs, Gent, Rifles, Gardening, Glamour etc. but that he made his living selling this, newspapers, and cigarettes.
I did have a slight advantage in that while I talked to him the camera was already on the tripod, the cable release was screwed in, and I knew him. At least in terms of buying a newspaper to read on the subway. And he didn't want to offend a good paying customer.
So he nodded that it was okay. And with that I took two shots at a very slow shutter speed, maybe 1/30th of a second. One shot came out blurred, but this one worked, though it was very contrasty because he had bulbs in reflectors lighting the top and creating a very high contrast scene.
I thanked him, and continued off to work.
It was (I guess still is) an amazing negative because the Rollei TLR Zeiss lens was one of the best ever made, and it was on a tripod, and there was enough depth of field so that I was at what we used to call "the heart of the lens."
We studied lenses then. Where was the "sweet spot?" Generally any lens is better stopped down two stops or so, but my friends and I would hang newspapers (ah they appear again in the story) on the wall and then examine them with grain enlargers.
And so I made a very good 16 x 20 print, one of my best efforts in terms of darkroom printing on fiber paper. Lots of burning to get the tops of the newspapers not to blow out completely.
Dodging on the guys face to try and pull back some detail. (Did he have to wear a dark jacket that day?)
And a bunch of other little things to bring it all out. And the fact was that at 16 x 20 you could read the ingredients in the boxes of candy.
I can look now and tell you that cigarettes were: $2.35 a pack.
And after the print was dried, flattened, matted in an archival bevel mat, and placed into a clear plastic bag, I brought it with me the as I headed towards work and stopped off at the newsstand and offered it as a gift to the newsstand guy.
He looked at it, and shrugged. He didn't want it.
I did my best to explain that it was really good. And showed him how you could see all this great detail. And he laughed about this idea.
Where, he asked, would I hang such a picture?
In your house, I said. In your living room.
And do you think, he replied, that I want to be reminded every day of what I do in this country. Let me tell you something. In my country, I was an engineer… and the story went on from there until I was so depressed that I took the print with me to work and didn't show it to anyone.
How sad it all was. Here he was surrounded all day by this crap, and I was offering him another reminder of what he was doing to make ends meet. That he was selling the very odd mixture of American dreams that surface in newsstands, and had to do this. But no - he surely didn't need to be reminded of it when he was at home.
(Oh, how self-involved I was - and still am. Here I am looking at the technical things, and I'm happy that I took the photo, but now when I look at it, I see a man being crushed by our interests.)