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Photographic Retrospection by James Bloom

Updated: Mar 29


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Following my mother’s death in May of 2017, one tenth of my life ago already, I was clearing out the apartment on East 72nd Street, where I had grown up, when I found a treasure I had forgotten about for a third of a century. It was an extra-thick, three-ring, loose-leaf binder, decorated in colorful characters from the Beatles’ animated film Yellow Submarine. I had been given it by a childless family friend when I started elementary school during the final months of the ’60s. Since a first grader had no use for such an item, my mother put it away, thinking it might age into an interesting artifact to give back to me when I entered high school. 


I had put the binder to good use. Within its covers, chronologically arranged in protective plastic file pages, were the negatives and contact sheets of forty-eight rolls of black and white 35mm film I shot around Manhattan when I was in high school. Beneath it, in the same cupboard, was a cardboard portfolio from the same Yellow Submarine school stationery set, in which were negatives and contact sheets from a dozen rolls of medium-format black and white film I shot on several trips to Coney Island during the months preceding and following my graduation from college. Worried that the negatives might go missing when I shipped them back to my home in Spain, I quickly bought a photo-scanner and spent the next couple of days scrambling to scan them. I soon realized that the best of the lot were more than mere juvenilia.


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I started taking black and white pictures a month after my fifteenth birthday when I nabbed a sought after spot in my school’s photography elective. There were two levels, introductory and advanced. Each lasted a semester and you could only move on to the latter if you had completed every assignment satisfactorily in the former, and achieved a coveted ‘distinction’ on at least a third. The classes were taught by the revered Mr. Z, who looked like he had stepped out of a black and white group photo of the Beat Poets thirty years earlier, and was accordingly considered the epitome of cool by us students. He also taught the film-making elective, available to juniors and seniors only, to which I dearly hoped to move on in due course. It was rumored that Mr. Z had been at NYU film school with Martin Scorcese, was friends with Lou Reed, had gone out with Patti Smith, had photographed Debbie Harry…in the nude. 


Mr. Z maintained that taking pictures of people made photography too easy. We would only have that privilege if we made it to the advanced class. First we needed to learn composition free of reliance upon the appeal of human subjects. We were given weekly assignments like: light and shadow, contrast of textures, shades of gray, a natural landscape (no animals allowed), the built environment (no statuary permitted), or abstract still life. Most of us needed examples of how to take such pictures, while the school, which was highly academic, required that its creative electives be at least half theory and history of whichever art students were learning. As such, we spent a lot of time looking at and hearing about slides of prints by Mr.Z’s favored photographers: curvaceous vegetables or seashells by Edward Weston, striated desertscapes or misted mountainsides by Ansel Adams, x-ray-like photograms of hardware or collages of neon signs by Man-Ray, and decaying downtown New York City building facades captured by Mr. Z himself.


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Mr. Z’s assignments gave me a welcome excuse to get out of the house and away from the avalanches of homework in ‘important subjects’ beneath which my classmates and I lived under constant threat of being buried alive. At first, these walks took me all around my own neighborhood, the Upper East Side, at that time the only remaining uniformly gentrified residential area in Manhattan, as well as to every part of Central Park, only the southern two-thirds of which, up to the 86th Street Transverse, had previously been familiar to me. This got me moving among, and frequently talking with, people whose race, class and/or age was different from my own, and that of almost everyone with whom I usually had the opportunity to interact...which soon began to do my emotional well being, not to mention my social skills, a great deal of good. From the start, I ignored Mr. Z’s injunction not to make photography too easy and took plenty of pictures of people, shooting both candids in which I went unnoticed and unposed portraits of subjects who knew they were being photographed.


Looking over my contact sheets and scans some forty years later, and selecting from them what to include in a book, my preferences in choosing subjects gradually came back to mind: children and old people because they were less self-conscious about being photographed. About trying to capture images of other teenagers, or people in their twenties, I was wary due to a handful of early bad experiences in which I was sworn at, or even chased away, for no reason. Regarding young women from a similar background to my own– of whom, unlike many of my male peers, I was not normally shy– I was wariest of all. After one such woman had noticed me snapping her and her strapping, preppy boyfriend kissing on a bridge in the Park in gorgeous light after a rain shower, I watched horrified through the viewfinder as her expression morphed into a sneering leer. She pushed her boyfriend away and said something to him, gesticulating angrily in my direction. The boyfriend then marched over, grabbed my camera, which was around my neck, opened its back, tore out the film, warned me that I was lucky not to get my camera and face smashed, and stalked away. Walking home dejectedly, I wondered whether they were simply awful, or I had unwittingly attempted to make a record of some clandestine tryst. 


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Thankfully though, the vast majority of my photographic interactions were uplifting, ameliorating even. Take the portrait of the two old women in shawls on a stoop. I can still recall my conversation with them that day about coming to New York in the wake of the First World War and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When I saw the picture had turned out nicely, I went back to their building with a pair of 8x10 inch prints of it and pressed intercom buzzers until I located the lady on the left. She was so pleased with it that she invited me to visit her walk-up apartment, which was decorated as if it might have been in Bratislava half a century earlier, where she duly served me black tea and poppyseed cake. I think it is worth mentioning here, because it has now been largely forgotten, that the area of Manhattan east of the demolished 3rd Avenue elevated railway, from 59th Street Bridge in the south to Gracie Mansion (the Mayor’s official residence) at 89th Street to the north, was, for most of the 20th Century, not only heavily German, but also Hungarian, Czecho-Slovak, Serbo-Croat and, oddly, Irish, which saved it from the bijou bougie blandness that characterized the Upper East Side between Lexington Avenue and Central Park. How I wish now that I had more fully documented those vanished people.


I am hopeful that a couple of the subjects of my pictures may yet be familiar to at least one other person who sees them. I am thinking, in particular, of the portraits of two stagestruck, elderly, homeless men, both caught in poses of dramatic delivery. Either of them could often be found around the southeast entrance to Central Park, standing and delivering beneath the gilded statue of General Sherman, or at the edge of the Pulitzer-Pomona Fountain, although I snapped them at alternate haunts. The one lifting aloft his hat and wearing a tight tee-shirt featuring biplanes, is standing by a bank of The Pond in Central Park. He used to recite what he claimed was his ‘original and unique’ free verse, although listening to him a few years later, while taking a college course featuring a lot of Whitman, I realized this was not quite the case. His opposite number, raising the Black Power fist, while seated on the steps of St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church around the corner from the Museum of Modern Art, turned out to be another copycat who, I eventually figured out, was passing off muddled verses by Langston Hughes as his own improvised poetic orations.  


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Once I progressed to Advanced Photography, my perambulations widened to encompass all of Manhattan below 110th Street, the northern border of Central Park, with an emphasis on the waterfronts of the East and West Sides below 14th Street, which were then still desolate post-industrial landscapes well suited to solitary wandering. Look closely at the images chosen for this retrospective and you will see clues to this, such as the ghostly presence of the Manhattan Bridge or the rusting riveted posts of disused elevated highways. My love of waterfront abandonment culminated in an excursion to Ellis Island. Nine years later it would reopen as The National Museum of Immigration but when I obtained permission to make a guided visit, along with my oldest friend who had followed me in finding solace through photography, it had been abandoned for a quarter of a century. All of my great grandparents and all of his grandparents had passed through the Island and the pictures we took there on that bright wintry day, many nearly identical, despite our having taken them independently, remain for us both, over forty years later, a shining hour amidst the generally grim grind of our half-dozen years in secondary school together.  


Digitally removing dust from, adjusting the exposure and contrast of, or simply cropping these images of that world now lost to time, with each of those operations taking only seconds to execute, and amounting to just a few minutes per picture, brought back to me vividly how achieving the same results manually, optically and chemically in the darkroom took hours upon hours. Take changing contrast, for example; this required choosing different grades of photo printing paper to begin with, and then varying the ratio of the aperture, or f-stop, on the lens of the enlarger in relation to the number of seconds the paper was exposed to its light. I find it incredibly strange that almost no one under thirty-five years of age has any idea that cropping a photograph used to have to be accomplished by manually raising the precision lens bearing head of an enlarger along its meter tall aluminum post in order to further magnify the size of the negative image it was projecting, thereby cutting off more of whatever was at the edges and ‘enlarging’ what was in the middle. Nor is anyone who was not once a devotee of black and white photography any longer aware that each time this was done, you had to place a little magnifier-and-mirror device that looked rather like a toy microscope at the center of the easel at the base of the enlarger and adjust a knob at one side of its metal head until the tiny grains of silver halide that comprised the image on the negative came into focus. 


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Neither are the young (lucky them!) cognizant of the nightmare of keeping strips of film free of dust in storage and how, prior to printing from these, you had to painstakingly go over the chosen negative with a dense, silky, little brush made from the fur of a squirrel, marten or badger, which was attached to a rubber bulb that you squeezed to puff out small gusts of air. And if you missed one single bit of that dust, your print– which had taken ten, twenty, thirty minutes to get sized and exposed and focused just right, and then to process in a tray of developer, followed by one of stop-bath, and another of fixer, each of which you had to mix up yourself from bottles of concentrate, keeping them as close as possible to ideal room temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit– was spoiled and had to be done all over again. Yet, in spite of the interminable fuss, at the time I found the muted red ‘safe-light’ of the darkroom, the solitary hush that prevailed there, and the fastidiousness that had to be practiced in it, conducive to the self-same, otherwise elusive tranquility of soul evoked in me on the all day urban jaunts during which I took my photographs.


Although I definitely did have a sense that the dilapidated New York I was recording could not last– that it must inevitably be swept away and slickly replaced, same as the vanished wooden incarnations of Manhattan I had seen in collections of daguerreotypes and sepia prints at the International Center of Photography or the Museum of the City of New York– I had not the faintest suspicion that the mechanical and chemical analogue photography I was practicing would, before I reached middle life, become an obsolete technology that survived solely as an atavistic art like print-making and book-binding, or weaving cloth and sewing clothes by hand. In the shorter term, two other things I never anticipated were, first, that Mr. Z would decamp at the end of my tenth grade year, leading to the cancellation of the school’s film-making class, in which I had been so eager to enroll, and secondly, that when I got to college, I would take far fewer pictures. 


I discovered only three locales that I considered  photogenic in the stunted New England city where I attended university. These were a dilapidated late 19th century commercial hotel turned flop-house called the Arrowani, an Art Deco stainless steel prefab greasy spoon named O’Rourke’s, and the forever frozen in the ’50s Holiday Skating Rink. I shot a few rolls of medium format film at each. When I took the best of my prints from these round to the sole photography professor at my small university, seeking admission to the only non-beginners’ photography class he offered each year, a directed independent study seminar in which the students were meant to critique and encourage each other, he sighed, “Now there’s something I’ve seen before…several times a year since I came to teach here.” 


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During a semester off, spent back in New York, working by day at the Gotham Bookmart– a long gone gem of a second hand and rare bookstore, fittingly located in the middle of the Jewellers’ District– while trying but failing to write a coming of age novel by night, I took to making trips on the subway way out to Coney Island, home to the world’s first, and until the ’50s best, amusement parks. During the ’70s, it sank to a nadir of drug-riddled danger and decay. By the time I became a habitue, it had improved somewhat, so as to be merely forsaken. While a number of the backdrops to the pictures I took there survive to this day, such as Spook-a-Rama or the Wonder Wheel, I arrived in the nick of time to record others long since disappeared, like Dante’s Inferno (Spook-a-Rama’s competition) or Stauch’s, the last public baths left in the City. When I returned to college for my final term and made a last bid to get a place in the elusive photography seminar, the Professor now nodded appreciatively and declared that my Coney Island pictures showed promise, before adding, “But if you were really serious about improving your work, you’d have signed up for this class before your ultimate semester…so I’m afraid I’ll be reserving the few remaining places for students who are more committed to photography as an art form.”


I ventured out to Coney Island a few more times after I graduated, on weekends when I was free of the entry level job in a Wall Street training initiative, which my mother had procured for me through a family friend and pressured me into accepting. By the autumn of 1985 though, I had quit in order to leave New York and travel in the South Pacific. I took a fine, little rangefinder camera with me, and during the following year, shot some two dozen rolls of black and white film, which I was waiting to develop when I managed to get access to a darkroom somewhere. Had things gone just a bit differently, I might now have the makings of a companion volume to the current one, documenting urban and rural Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia in the mid-’80s, but about a year after I left home they were all ruined. 


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I was in a canoe that lost an outrigger off a tiny island between Bali and Lombok. The two boatmen, three other travelers and I were promptly tipped into the ocean. We were clinging to the capsized boat, being slowly swept out toward the open sea, when we were, against all odds, spotted and saved. Miraculously, I did not lose my backpack, which floated just below the surface like a cargo container fallen from a ship, held up by the buoyancy of my thick, rolled up, closed-cell foam camping mat. My camera and rolls of film, however, were stored in a worn zip-loc plastic bag that had developed small perforations and no longer closed properly. People in their thirties or older may recall that rolls of 35 mm. film came in airtight plastic canisters into which you were meant to replace them once the roll had been shot, wound back into its cartridge and removed from the camera. I had idiotically disposed of my canisters in order to save a tiny bit of space in my pack. Consequently, my film rolls did not make it, nor did my two journals of that year, written mainly in fine point marker and similarly stowed, which bled into crinkly and colorful illegibility. 


A handful of years earlier such a setback might well have left me wishing bitterly that I had drowned. By then though, thanks in part to changes wrought in me by my photographic peregrinations, I was overjoyed not to have perished along with the record of my journey. I barely took any more pictures for half a dozen years until I began documenting my future wife and child, when one was pregnant with the other, among the rainy hillsides of West Yorkshire and, briefly yet memorably, amidst the megaliths of Malta. But that was photography of another order undertaken for different motives. To photography as an art, as to New York as a home, I would never again return other than recollectively.  


 

James Bloom grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he took up black and white photography in his mid-teens to divert himself from the narrowness of his social circle and the demands of his private education. He left New York City at the age of 22 to escape the seemingly inexorable fate of pursuing a career befitting his upbringing. To begin with, he worked his way around the world as a beekeeper, a library assistant, an English conversation coach, a water bailiff and, repeatedly, a waiter. During his late 20s, he served time in PR and hack business journalism, settling in his 30s into two dozen years of teaching English literature, history and philosophy, while raising a family and thereafter. His memoir, In Search of the Blue Duck (2020) is about his round the world trip in his early 20s. He currently lives in an old house in the historic center of Jerez, Spain with two rescue dogs and his artist wife, who motivated him to edit the best of his teen photography into New York in the 80s. His website is www.jamesbloom.org





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