Richard Sandler
NR Magazine, Vol. 10

Richard Sandler began photographing the streets and scenes of New York City in 1977. Shooting on the go, Sandler’s images capture a sense of a place that has, in the intervening years, long since disappeared. Yet, looking through Sandler’s book of this work, The Eyes of the City (2016), these shots remain as striking and poignant as ever, cutting through the surface to directly confront issues such as poverty, race, crime, and social and economic upheaval. The human element of the mechanisms of modern city life give these photographs their distinctive, thoughtful and powerful touch – something that takes on a more tangible form in Sandler’s films, The Gods of Times Square (1999) and Brave New York (2004). Filmed over the course of the 1990s, both films track the transformation of Times Square and the East Village, respectively, into soulless, sanitised spaces. Sandler’s interactions with people he meets whilst filming drive the narrative, and give an alternative version of events to the architectural and cultural ‘improvements’ that are used to justify city redevelopment. Sandler’s more recent film, A/K/A Martha’s Vineyard (2007), marks a shift away from this cultural critique to focus on bigger issues – crucially, colonialism and the impact of that on writing out the histories and legacies of indigenous tribes. This is not as distant from Sandler’s earlier street photography and video work as it may seem, as it is giving voice to alternative stories that continues to drive this work. A few days prior to our conversation, New York experiences its worst blackout in 42 years, since the last one occurred in 1977. It seems a fitting moment to look back over Sandler’s practice, which has changed almost as much as the city itself; his commitment to asking questions and confronting uncomfortable issues, however, remains much the same.  

NR MAGAZINE: There’s a timelessness to the emotion of the people in your photographs of New York. Are there similarities between what’s going on in these images compared with today?  

RICHARD SANDLER: There’s a dramatic difference. It’s not at all the same city, except for the fact that New York is always attracting people, and it’s always been ruled by a wonderful randomness. Getting on the subway, there’s a wonderful mix of people in every carriage, and so that’s more or less intact, but the demographics now are radically different. New York has become ridiculously expensive, but the New York I was photographing in was very inexpensive. It attracted the most down and out people, and artists making their careers with no money. Downtown New York was filled with artists who were constantly pushing the boundaries. It was an inexpensive place to live, and people with money didn’t want to live there because they were afraid of the crime, the dirt, the grittiness of it all. So, that city and this city bare almost no resemblance to one another anymore. It’s become commodified, and it’s boring now by comparison. I mean, it’s still probably, maybe, the coolest city in the world. There are still quite a few artists in New York that are broke and living on the margins, but they have to work three jobs. There’s not a lot of time to do you art, that’s all changed. Money is anathema to culture, in the sense that the people making art need a place to live, to eat, to get by. I understand why that change happened but, at the same time, I liked it better the other way.

NR: When you began filming The Gods of Times Square in 1992, did you anticipate the scale of change that was about to happen in New York?

RS: I did anticipate that, and that was also the change in my work. I started in ’92 with pictures and, then, they were moving pictures. I still carried my film cameras with me, but I also had a video camera with a good microphone. But yes, starting in the early to mid ‘90s, the handwriting was on the wall. Times Square was going to change, East Village was going to change, and New York became this cash cow; this money making machine. All this has an incredibly inflationary effect on the cost of living. So yes, when I started shooting The Gods of Times Square, New York was changing, and it was going to change and keeping changing.

NR: Your latest film, A/K/A Martha’s Vineyard, is shot differently to your earlier films, focusing on the natural environment rather than New York City. What’s the significance of that shift for you?

RS: The significance is that, A/K/A Martha’s Vineyard is about a completely different society based on completely different ways of living. It’s a four chapter movie told from the perspective of the Wampanoag tribe. The first chapter explores the tens of thousands of years that preceded European arrival, and there’s no way to document that except by documenting a culture that was living sustainably and harmoniously with nature. The idea in this movie is to try and wrap the viewer’s mind around the way of life that is utterly different to the one we live in now, so that’s why it looks completely different. It also coincided with my change from video to film because Martha’s Vineyard is shot primarily on film (Super 8mm, 16mm and 35mm motion film). The Gods of Times Square had to be shot on video because the beauty of video is that you can shoot at night. Being a one person crew, I didn’t need anyone standing next to me holding a boom; I didn’t need anybody else it was just me and those people I met. I couldn’t go out there with a crew because I had to make personal contact. They had to trust me enough to talk to me.

NR: Do you find people interact with you differently depending on whether you’re using still photography or video?

RS: I mean, with still photography everything’s changed now. It’s a different kettle of fish because you can be looking at your phone and using your finger to swipe and also making a photograph at the same time. Nobody knows now if a photograph is being made on a phone. If you have a still camera, you may get the idea. But, on the street, I find that people want to talk and make connections. That doesn’t happen so much in still photography, because for me it was like: shoot, take a picture, keep moving. I would barely make more than one photograph. With The Gods of Times Square, I grew up on the streets of New York, I grew up going to Times Square, playing hooky, going to the pool rooms, the sideshows, and the penny arcades - all before New York was even remotely dangerous. And I felt very comfortable there. Once I got into video, I realised I loved it and turned up at Times Squares with the idea to make this documentary about the religious zealots and the function of this place as a ‘speaker’s corner’. I’d show up and say, “you got something to say? I’m here with a camera. Talk. Here I am, I’ll ask you a couple of questions maybe, but just talk. What do you want to say? Here’s a mic, you want to talk to people? Here it is. These movies of mine are going to be seen, speak your mind, go ahead.” And you know, a lot of people want to talk.

NR: Watching your films and looking at your photos, there’s both a sense of anonymity and familiarity at the same time. Does that reflect the mood of the city or is that a reflection of your approach?

RS: Well, I think it’s both. My approach was to either make pictures where people were not looking at me, or where they did see me and yet, their looking at me was somehow revealing of what was going on inside them. I was not ever asking permission. I was shooting on the fly, shooting quickly; make a picture, move on, make a picture, move on. I wasn’t out there to talk, I wasn’t out there to make friends. Plus, it was an easier time to photograph in some ways because, strangely now, people fear their image could be out on the internet. They don’t want to be photographed, so in a funny way, it’s much harder to photograph now, even though cameras are much more ubiquitous than then. But I did it with such intention. I wasn’t sneaky, you know, I was in people’s face. I was using the flash a lot on the street and there’s no way to disguise that a pictures been taken if you’re using the flash. I did it with no fear. I mean, if I feared something I wouldn’t photograph it. Every once in a while something bad would happen, someone would get mad at me, couple times I got punched. But I just figured that that, you know, was the occupational hazard. When people look at me it’s cool, I like that, and when they’re not looking at me, that’s fine too. So that’s why my book’s called The Eyes of the City. It’s not just me who is the eyes of the city, it’s the people looking at me. There’s a lot of photographs in my work where people are giving a sidelong glance or responding to me - usually it’s before they turn angry, and there’s a question on their face … that can be good too.

NR: The Eyes of the City recalls the early days of the modern city and the camera, which was referred to as the eye of modern life. Does that correspond with your work?

RS: Very much so. I’m very much part of a tradition. And modernity is pretty much defined by the use of the camera; the modern world is a world with cameras. Prior to that, there was a world with painters, sculptors, lithographers, etc. But you can see the elements already there, in the middle of the nineteenth century when photography had barely taken off, you see painters doing what photographers would be doing. You could take it back to cave paintings if you want also - this idea of making an image to freeze time. Perhaps it’s because we’re fearful of mortality itself that we want to freeze an image, freeze a moment in time whether it’s a painting or a photograph. I think we’re always walking around, aware that we’re not going to live forever, you know, and photography (and art more generally) is a way to create something that will outlive us. Maybe these make up pieces of a longer life; I won’t go as far as to say, ‘immortality’ as nothing lasts forever, but if photographs are processed correctly, they will last hundreds of years. We’re image makers. Every time you make a picture and you freeze it you know it becomes a metaphor. It’s also good for us to have these moments to look back on. When I show my still photography, people remark that the city is so different, and that was my intention when I took them.

NR: When you look back on some of the photos you’ve taken, has perception changed in any of them over time?

RS: The distant past is easier to understand than the recent past, which is still filled with uncertainty. It’s unsettling a little bit because, you know, if you’re over 40 years of age, then the things you are seeing in my pictures are actually things you saw as a kid. You now see them in a different context with time,  and you see the differences in culture changing. But at the time same time, you know, that’s not the larger issue for me anymore. The larger issue for me is dealing with colonialism and dealing with the effects, the worldwide effects of colonialism. ‘Cos now when I look at this country, I see it through different eyes. My life’s work as a photographer has been a progression from cultural critique to asking more questions, deeper questions about culture itself and that inevitably leads to questioning colonialism, capitalism, racism, sexism, classism and all those ugly -isms out there. I want to graduate from the cultural critique of America, which my stills and The Gods of Times Square are. I was just a street photographer, but a street photographer with questions; a street photographer with a photojournalistic approach. But, I want to ask deeper questions because these hold the possibility of some kind of structural social change, towards living in a kinder, safer, more sustainable world.

October 2019

Katsu Naito
NR Magazine, Vol. 8

When Katsu Naito arrived in Harlem in 1988, it took him two years before he would begin taking photographs of its residents. It would take him a further twenty years to develop the negatives – a decision he consciously made. The photographer was cautious to build up the trust of the community before pointing his camera in their direction – demonstrating a careful consideration and tenderness that radiates from his work. Sensing that Harlem, which was still recovering from economic devastation from the 1970’s, was in the midst of unprecedented change, his body of work from the nineties offers an insight into a lost neighbourhood. These images make up ‘Once In Harlem’, which captures an extraordinary level of trust between Naito, as photographer and, ultimately, ‘outsider’, and the people who stand in front of his camera. Similarly, the body of work ‘West Side Rendezvous’, published in 2011 but taken around the same time as the Harlem work, evokes the emotive quality that make Naito’s images so compelling. The mutual respect between Naito and his subjects - in this case, transvestite and transsexual prostitutes in New York’s meatpacking district – is timeless, even if the run down backdrops have long been replaced by gentrification. Naito moved to New York from Japan in the mid-1980’s, having secured a job as a chef. Inspired by the street photography of Diane Arbus, a colleague introduced him to his first Leica camera – to this day, Naito explains, he still shots in black and white analogue format.

NR MAGAZINE: The photographs from your book ‘Once In Harlem’ are all from the early nineties, but were only recently developed; why did it take so long to develop them, and what surprised you the most from seeing these images for the first time?

KATSU NAITO: There were a few reasons it took so long to be published. I worked in Harlem as part of a personal assignment between the late ‘80s and early ‘90s – and I always knew that I wanted it to be published in years to come. Harlem had started to change; towards the end of the ‘80s, abandoned buildings were being given a second lease of life, as parking lots or renovated buildings. I was living through all of this, and I wanted to share these images of Harlem when people had forgotten about it. This was the main reason that I kept the negatives in a box in the corner of my darkroom. I started working towards printing in 2013, going through many test prints in order to find the right quality for the final print – this took a long time. I try to put life into the print, as I think it’s important to seal emotional quality into it. I really felt the power of photography after printing this series – seeing how these plastic negatives could bring back to life an image after twenty years. As the images started to show in the developing tray, tears dropped onto my cheek, from the surprise.

NR: As a photographer, do you feel it is your responsibility to document the lives of groups of people who can get forgotten amongst society?

KN: I feel strongly about that. People on the edge of society have hidden beauty in their heart, a quality that’s hard to draw out – but it’s something that I wanted to capture with my camera.

NR: Having moved to New York in the 1980s from Japan, did photography give you a sense of control over being in a foreign environment?

KN: Carrying a camera gave me a license to be on the street; it can break language and cultural barriers. It can give control, but I do also believe that it’s necessary to have trust between both parties.

NR: When taking someone’s photograph, what do you look for in their self-presentation?

KN: I only ask the person to stand in front of my camera and communicate through their composure, I often ask myself “how close can I get?” There’s a moment of unawareness towards the camera; when I feel that, I start to taking photographs.

NR: What role do the people in your photographs play; are they a part of the composition, or does the act of taking their photo establish a connection with them as a person?

KN: It’s both; the composition and an emotional connection with the person is very important for me. But this must happen in an organic way – a connection with them must come first.

NR: Has the way people respond to being asked to have their photograph taken changed at all over the years?

KN: I don’t expect people to accept my offer of being photographed. In the instances when the answer is no, I wouldn’t chase them for a photograph. This doesn’t happen often though - for some reason almost everyone would say yes to my camera.

NR: As for the way you approach taking a photograph; has that changed over time?

KN: I must be comfortable enough to walk the area. If I’m not comfortable, I can’t make my subject comfortable, so location scouting and understand the atmosphere in the area is the first thing I do. It can take an hour, or months, depending on the project. This is the way I have always approached the way I takes photographs, ensuring I respect my subjects. This hasn’t changed, and it will never change.

NR: Why is shooting in black and white important to you?

KN: I only work with black and white film, that I process in my darkroom. It’s necessary to have total control over every step of the process – and I think, most of all, shooting in black and white is the only medium that really emphasises three dimensional reality in a two dimensional format.

NR: What is the most valuable thing you have learnt from taking people’s photograph over the years that you have spent photographing New York?

KN: Living in New York City can be like riding an emotional rollercoaster every day. The fundamental aspect of it, though, is simply the human element.

NR: There is a timeless quality to your work; is this deliberate? And if so, is it a crucial aspect of the photos you take?

KN: Yes. Something that is always on my mind is making photo sessions simple. The person is in front of my camera and they are the main subject. I wouldn’t want to add any meaningless props unless they are already there, and the person has a natural relationship to them. I wanted pull out what they have inside of them.

NR: In terms of having control over an image, how does the process of analogue photography compare with the instantaneousness of digital photography?

KN: There is a quality that I can’t describe with words that can be seen in a gelatin silver print. I often call it “capturing the air”, or “capturing the temperature”. I think it’s is difficult to see this type quality in digital photography.

October 2018

Terry O'Neill
NR Magazine, Vol. 8

When thinking of some of the iconic stars of the 20th century, it’s likely that an equally iconic photograph of them has been taken by Terry O’Neill. Having inadvertently found himself at the epicentre of the glitz of the swinging sixties, O’Neill cut his teeth amongst the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Born in London, he had wanted to be a jazz drummer, and, accordingly, took a job with British Airways as a photographer, with the ambition of working up to a flight attendant which would have allowed him four days a week on the ground in New York – and a way into the jazz world. Yet, a chance snapshot of a sleeping man, who turned out to be the then-home secretary, RAB Butler, gave O’Neill an unlikely way into photography. His embracing of an emerging youth culture is a testament to his distinctive eye; working ahead of the curve, both his subjects and images alike would come to have resounding influence. Over the course of a luminous career, O’Neill has worked with legendary names – from Frank Sinatra, and Audrey Hepburn – to David Bowie and Nelson Mandela. Across an extensive oeuvre, the unique partnering of star power with the quality behind the persona conjure up a bewildering sense of awe. Behind the glamour, though, lies the pragmatism of O’Neill himself. 

NR MAGAZINE: Of all the photographs you’ve taken over the years, is there one that stands out as a personal favourite?

TERRY O’NEILL: I think it’s Sinatra on the Boardwalk (1968) - that was the first time I met Frank Sinatra. I already knew Ava [Gardner], and told her I was headed down to Miami to work with her ex-husband - she said, “I’ll write you a letter.”  So I go down to Miami and I’m waiting for Sinatra to arrive. I look up and see these men approaching, and I started to take pictures. Sinatra and his guys came right up to me, and I nervously handed Frank the letter. He read it, looked and me and said to his boys, “it’s okay. He’s with us now.” And that was the start of a long working relationship I developed with him. He was a legend.

NR: Do you ever look back critically on any of your photographs?

TO: Oh, of course. Sometimes when I go into the office and I’m shown the negatives of my work, I’m surprised that I took so many pictures. At the time though, when I was working, I never looked back. I was always looking for the next job.

NR: Are you always in control of the image you take, or are there incidences where the outcome is entirely accidental?

TO: I think, except for a few, it’s all incidental. I love the work of photographer W. Eugene Smith, and so I was inspired to take photos of what I saw on the street. Sometimes the best shots are the ones you are lucky to catch.

NR: Is there a certain characteristic you focus on, and like to draw out in your photos?

TO: I wanted to capture the subject just a little off-guard. If not that, I’d try to find that specific moment that defines who they are. With the photo I took of Terence Stamp and Jean Shrimpton, for example, the assignment I was given was to capture the “face of the Sixties”. Theirs were the first two faces that popped into my mind. I decided to get in really close and crop it in, so you are just left with this intense stare.

NR: How do you control the portrayal of ‘star power’ in your photos of high profile celebrities?

TO: I was never really bothered by all of that. I started out at the same time that many celebrities did too – movie stars, and rock stars.  There was only ever one time I was asked to leave, when shooting Steve McQueen. But I did sneak in a few shots beforehand!

NR: In terms of the poses that your subjects adopt, are they agreed upon beforehand - or entirely natural?

TO: I’ve done both. When I was asked to take photos of the newest Oscars Best Actress winner, I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want the big smile, holding up the award. I wanted to know what it looked like the morning after -  when it all hits you that you’ve just won an Oscar, and your salary has just gone up by millions. I asked Faye [Dunaway] to meet me by the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel at 6am. I was friends with the guy who ran the pool, and he snuck me in. I set it all up - the papers, the breakfast, the Oscar. And she sat there. Many people consider that photo to be one of the best images of Hollywood. 

NR: In the time since you started out, what is the most significant change to take place in terms of celebrity photography?

TO: Selfies! And the fact that stars have too much control over their image now. In order to work with a celebrity, you have to deal with managers, publicists and the managers of the publicists, you have to give up approval and rights. By the time the photograph runs, it doesn’t even look like the person you shot! Everything has been approved by everyone - except for the photographer. In that sense, we’ve lost a lot; a lot of great pictures will never be seen, let alone even taken. It’s a shame. Everything is staged and then made to look better. It’s no longer just a great photo of someone.

NR: You’ve said there is nobody today that you’d want to photograph, what could change your mind on that?

TO: I was very lucky that I worked at a time when stars like Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, The Beatles, even David Bowie, were around. If you invented a time machine and send me back to the ‘60s, then I’d change my mind!

October 2018