Tuesday, April 28, 2009

New York Profile: Will Steacy

This certainly isn't my first introduction to photographer Will Steacy, but it's by far my favorite. He's raw, uncensored and real, and Will's latest work, Down These Mean Streets, documents the gut-wrenching sights he witnessed during midnight strolls through America's inner cities. Armed with nothing more than his large format view camera [the kind where you get under a dark cloth] and a wrench for protection, Will walked from the airport to the central business district of each city capturing what's alive on the streets as we're comfortably asleep. And not only does Will take incredible photos, but he's quite the storyteller as well...


What's the history behind "Down These Mean Streets?"
When I was a kid my father and I on the weekends would spend days wandering railroad tracks. We didn't talk much. But we would walk together, waiting for a train to come, or discovering something on our journey. These walks meant a great deal to me and at times I suppose my father and I were both alone within ourselves, lost in thought or some day dream. For my senior thesis at NYU I was going to walk the railroad tracks from New York to Philadelphia and back, photographing my journeys. I didn't end up doing it, but it's a project I never forgot and gave way to other ideas which are connected to this work. In many ways I feel as though my work is all the same, it is one long journey in which the ashes of one project give birth to new ideas and the next project. All of my past work influences my current work. I am who I am and I see and react to my environment in the only way I know how. My photographs are a record of these experiences and interactions. I have lived in cities all my life and growing up in a city I have always had the most direct experiences with inner city life and those experiences at a young age had a great impact on me. While they hurt and frightened me as a boy, they also taught me very early on the order of things, the social dichotomy of the inner city.

What cities did you tour?
• Queens/Brooklyn
• Chicago
• Philadelphia
• Atlantic City
• Los Angeles
• Detroit

And over the summer I plan on checking out Newark and St. Louis. There are many cities I would like to do and for every project I work on, I am never satisfied and want to keep working, but I must stop myself and move on to the next project.

I would like to return to Detroit. The devastation in Detroit at times reminded me of a post Katrina New Orleans. Detroit is in great need of many things and it perhaps has fallen harder and quicker than most cities since the deindustrialization of America. But with that said, Detroit can also be a model. This is such a crucial time for Detroit and many other cities in America. I mean right now, things can get either a whole lot worse or they shift gears and begin re-invention. I think Detroit is important not just in terms of preventative measures and new ways of urban planning/renewal but as a leader of revitalization for cities with the environment as a major factor. I wonder as the auto industry shifts gears towards new environmentally aware designs and manufacturing how this might create jobs, how will this impact the local economy, what can the city of Detroit gain by keeping a progressive mind and eye toward the future, how can the same leadership and forward thinking that put the Big 3 auto makers on the map and a once thriving middle class be applied to environmental action in many other aspects of city living/urban planing. America has become a consumer, a country of importers, can we change this?


What hours did you work?
I have shots from all hours of the night, they range from sunset to sunrise and all the good stuff in between. There are two parts of the night, before midnight and after midnight; I enjoy both. After midnight though things get better, the people become a little bit questionable, the stakes rise and there is this silence and stillness of the city night that just feels amazing. At times I have felt like the city is mine and I have the most romantic and thrilling time just wandering around by myself discovering things. It's just me and the city streets.

How would you describe your sentiment on the streets?
Oh man, I could chew your ear about this. Of course there is an element of fear and if you asked me a year or two ago what one of my greatest fears are, one of them would probably be walking through the inner cities at night by myself. But a lot of the picture taking process for me is pushing the absolute limits and often times most of those limits are my own—my own fears, breaking my own boundaries and challenging myself. If you don't push the limits and take a risk, then you are not living. Our experiences are what define us, particularly our failures and fuck ups. Those ultimately help us better understand ourselves and who we are on this Earth. That to me is one of the great things about art, it allows us to understand a little bit better the human condition and make sense of our environment.



Scariest stop? Most vivid memory?
Detroit and Baltimore are the toughest cities I encountered in all of my travels. I want to say Philly is up there, but I'm biased because I am from there. In Detroit there were so many abandoned buildings and walking around at night I kept seeing people dashing in and out of the shadows, in and out of these buildings and homes, and that definitely kept me on my toes. In each city I have been, I've experienced and witnessed some scary things. In Atlantic City I saw a body seconds after a man leaped from a parking garage, in Chicago on one corner people breaking into a car while on the other side a man was passed out in front of a corner bodega as bored wild teenagers kept running in and out of the store, each time leaping over him. Right after I passed them, a guy walked very quickly towards that corner with a gun in his hand. I dont know, after a while it becomes a blur. The night is filled with desperate and lonely creatures, sometimes I have had interactions with people who at first I was nervous when they came up to me and they definitely were people who if I didnt have this big heavy camera set up taking a ten minute exposure I probably would put my head down and keep walking not wanting any trouble, but really people are people and sometimes people are curious and just want to talk. Or, on second thought as I write this, perhaps I am an easy target and people know if they shoot the shit for a couple minutes they can probably loosen me up and get a couple bucks or the change in my pocket for a good story or something. There is always some kind of tax that needs to be paid and one must always respect that, this is America after all.

Favorite character along the way?
Sammy, who I met in Atlantic City on the boardwalk. He was singing over the instrumentals of some of my favorite blues songs. We got to talking about cameras and some of his equipment, which you can kinda make out in the photograph. We spoke for an hour trading stories about fighting and musicians and places we have been. Sammy did most of the talking and he had some great stories at first. Like how his father used to spar with Joe Louis and how he taught him as a boy to fight south paw and how through the years he always won his fights by switching to lefty in the middle of a fight. And about the time he performed at the Apollo in Harlem. But then the stories began to repeat in one form or another, but this time more exaggerated and impressive. His hat collection went from 59 hats to 110 hats, one time he beat up 7 guys at once and another time it was 29 guys. I began to question everything Sammy had told me and thought about the different realities that Sammy and I lived in. I thought about his world, a world in which people pass by you all day either ashamed and uncomfotable and throw a quarter into your change cup or look the other way in disgust. I thought about a world in which you are the lowest rank in society, people don't want you near their businesses, in front of their stores, in their bus stations, on their subways, or to even look at you and what that world must be like. And I decided in that reality sometimes exact numbers don't matter so much. What matters is what keeps you alive, what gives you hope and inspiration, what you dream about. And in a place where one is sleeping on the streets and begging for their next meal, what is real in a world that is already unreal? When I look at this picture I imagine Sammy singing those songs as if he had written them and lived them, and I kinda think that his life wasn't far off from those songs and maybe this homeless guy on the boardwalk wailing his heart out is really just telling us his story

I love that you send copies of your work to the people you've photographed...
I am still in the process of printing this work, but yes when I take someone's picture I always get their address and mail them a print. Sometimes people don't have an address and they give me a friends, brothers or whatever and I hope that some of my subjects at some point get to see their photograph. Atlantic City is somewhere I go to a lot in the summers and I hope to find Sammy there still wailing his heart out. I look forward to being able to give him a photograph. I think most photographers do the best they can at keeping in touch with their subjects and showing them the work. That is such a rewarding part of it, the photograph is a record of that experience they both shared, and there is always a beginning and end of that photo. I think the photo is usually the middle of it.

Do you have a favorite photo or city?
Well, New Orleans and Philadelphia are two places I love and over the past couple years have been so incredibly close to moving to both but something keeps me in New York. Yes, every photographer has their favorites and I would think most of the time it is because of the experience associated with making that image. Whether you waited all day in one spot for the sun to hit that building at the perfect angle with most amazing yellow late afternoon summer light and just at that second the most beautiful woman you have ever seen walked by in red high heels and just as you snapped that shutter she flung her hair back with a gentle whip of the neck and glanced back at your camera lens. Trust me, everyone has their favorites. (And the above picture is one I have not taken, and something I just imagined as I was answering this question, but perhaps one day I will have one like that.)

See Down These Mean Streets in its entirety:
• The New York Photo Festival opening reception on Thursday, May 14th, 5-7pm. The Tobacco Warehouse, 26 New Dock Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn, NY.

• A solo exhibition will open at New York University's Gulf & Western Gallery (721 Broadway, NYC) on Thursday June 4th, 6-8pm. On view until August 8th.

37 comments:

blessingsgoddess said...

Excellent blog. Well done.

Kelvin said...

Thanks for ur reply:)

आदिती said...

Congratulations! You are in 'Blogs of Note!' You are blog is nice!

Braindizzler said...

Very very good blog...

pve design said...

Gorgeous photos, they make me sad.
I suppose that is what an artist can do - cause one to be emotional.
pve

Courtney said...

So true, Patricia! All of Will's work has strong personality and emotion...and they put me in a world so foreign to my own. I think that's what makes me so interested in his pieces -- they teach you about humanity and force you to live with open eyes, unable to ignore. He's incredible!

reyjr said...

blogag blogag!

congrats!

reyjr said...

PS. why is your daughter furry?

The villager: said...

I'm a UK person, but I did visit New York in 1986, including a lift ride up the World Trade Center.

It's hard to believe the terrorist attack that subsequently brought down the towers.

I know the indomitable spirit of New Yorkers will always continue; despite the many challenges - of more deprived areas in particular.

Courtney said...

Reyjr: Because she's our dog :)

Vanessa Tuau said...

Amazing images - I just sat and stared and enjoyed soaking them in - just beautiful, Thank You, Vanessa (Australia:)

mo_inoh said...

What a really cool blog. I love the storys and pictures. Great idea.

jae said...

Courtney - these are mesmerizing. what an incredible project. they do make me sad...it's as if this is happening on a far away planet and yet it is right under our noses.

Debra said...

Such an eye! They stir so much emotion and thought! It amazes me how two people can look at the same object and see so many different images.

Stephanie said...

These are so intense. They remind me a lot of where I live. I know exactly that feeling he is describing about being out in the city after midnight - it's a strange mixture of exhilaration and fear.

Iva said...

wow! very nice! Great job on the layout, very nicely put together :-)

allie in g'town said...

I too was stopping by to tell you that you're listed in "blogs of note" today but i see i've been beaten tot he punch. Cheers!!!

Beatriz Kim said...

These pictures are so evocative, dark, mysterious, and scary. Isn't ironic? The richest, most powerful nation on the planet...can't clean up the mess inside out veins.

These photographs are disturbingly, though provoking, and brilliant!

I can't imagine walking the streets at those hours...even if you're a man and happen to carry a well-rehearsed gun.

We need artists like him, to keep us informed of our nerve center.

The Peanut Butter Blur said...

that's an awesome blog. i seriously wet my pants reading it. so this question may come off a little weird, but how do you get that smart and knowledgeable about stuff? cuz idk anyone like that around me, but i read most of ur recent blogs and it's mind-boggling how much you know and how well you write.

Michelle Parks McCourt said...

these are very cool.

Dani said...

I enjoyed coming by your blog - what beautiful photographs and entriguing posts! Hope to see you drop by mine sometime in the future. For now, CONGRATS on the Blog of Note!

Bonita_(^,^) said...

wonderful blog!! visit me back...!thanks

Arja from norway said...

I love the picture of that abandoned car-wreck, but you might do it even darker by working with the curves in photoshop?
(I'm a photographer and just wanted to give you an idea, you must listen to your own heart!)

deluxejr said...

Nice blog. In terms of artistic pictures are beautiful but if you want to see more awful pictures I think you should come to Romania.

Nice blog again. Keep up the good work ;)

Sexy Blonde said...

wow, nice...

J said...

Excellent blog/post! Am I reading correclty, did Mr. Steacy use film and a dark room on these photos? Great to see the dark room lives on!

darcey said...

I know where that first photo, "The Forum" is located here in Philadelphia, but it's not a bad area. I think it's across the street from some loft condos and a Trader Joe's. Nonetheless, they are beautiful images.

Rachel said...

This is truly amazing work. I love the raw images that match the raw environment.

Thanks for sharing his work!

Cesar said...

The photography is amazing!

I love that we are able to get more out of the photographs after reading the interview, and getting to know a bit more what is running around in this man's mind!

Good stuff.

Lori Jablons said...

Courtney, these photos are incredible. Looking forward to more!

:) Lori

JOSEPH GELB said...

you got a blog of note

Naomi said...

"Down these mean streets must walk a man who is not himself mean, who is untarnished and unafraid"
- Raymond Chandler

Courtney said...

What an amazing project. Thank for sharing not only the photos, but the interview with us as well. This was a fascinating and fantastic post.

you said...

I like this. we love this

cash84366 said...

i really like your blog cause its different from the rest it bring back thing that happen in the past the let people not to forget about this thank u.

Mary Jo from TrustYourStyle said...

I love this interview and the whole concept of shooting at night. It reminded me of Wegee at first but then took a whole other direction. Wonderful!

No.35style said...

very interesting!