“The ’70s were a great time for street photography in New York,” said Ed Grazda as the opener for a talk he presented recently on his new book “Mean Streets: NYC 1970-1985.” The attractive compact book includes 100 full-page black-and-white images that the photographer (who splits his time between homes in New York and Chilmark) shot in the 1970s and early ’80s around Manhattan.
“Street photography was coming into its own,” he said in an interview with The Times. As a young aspiring photographer in the early 1970s, Mr. Grazda moved into a loft on Bleecker Street and started shooting around his neighborhood and other places in the city. At that time there was a flourishing artists’ community in the lower Manhattan area that includes Greenwich Village, the Bowery, and Little Italy. Among the artists living and/or working in the neighborhood at the time were Robert Frank, Robert Mapplethorpe, Susan Meiselas, Gilles Peress, and Chuck Close. People were drawn by the availability of affordable studio/living spaces. “It just seemed like there were infinite possibilities,” said Mr. Grazda. “It just had this feeling that you could come here and get a cheap space and become whatever you wanted.”
Mr. Grazda eventually went on to a highly successful career as a photographer. His work has appeared in the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, and is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MOMA, among other institutions. “Mean Streets” is his eighth published book, and the one that has brought him back to his roots as a photographer.
“I was just shooting pictures as I walked around,” he recalls. “Not working on any specific project. Just honing my craft.” The photographer never printed any of his NYC photos from this period, but he kept them inventoried, and about two years ago, he revisited the images. Going through 700 contact sheets, Mr. Grazda selected 100 images with no particular theme in mind. “I wasn’t looking for specific things,” he said. “I just went through the contact sheets and printed the pictures that jumped out at me.”
The selection gives a wonderful glimpse into the gritty world of NYC during the days before the massive cleanup and rampant gentrification of the city. The majority include people — hookers, street preachers, drunks, three-card monte players, and a lot of people just hanging out on the street or in parked cars, in an era when hot days with no AC brought people out of doors to just hang.
These candid shots are compelling, but equally dramatic and emblematic of the period are some of the unpopulated images — a burning TV set, graffitied walls, the interior of an empty bar, scrounging stray cats and, surprisingly, an owl sitting on the sidewalk.
There are a couple of images that Mr. Grazda took from his sixth-floor window of a glowing statue of Christ that was once located on the roof of the Holy Name Center. The image is so striking — towering over the forlorn streets — that a shot was included in Martin Scorsese’s 1973 film “Mean Streets,” about small-town hoods in Little Italy. Mr. Grazda borrowed the film’s title for his book.
Some of the photographer’s images from the neighborhood were used in a recent documentary about the Ravenite, the Gambino crime family’s social club, which was located across the street from Mr. Grazda’s apartment building. The short film was screened at Pathways last weekend, along with a talk by the photographer.
One of the focuses of the documentary, as well as what is evident in looking through the book, is how much the neighborhood has changed since the 1980s. Mr. Grazda commented on the differences between the area (where he still has an apartment) now and then, saying, “For one thing, a young artist can’t afford to live here now, and there’s no longer a kind of community quality. There were a lot more mom-and-pop shops and other small businesses. Back in the day you knew the people on the street. Now you go out and it’s pretty much tourists. It’s much more homogenized.”
In the introduction to his book, Mr. Grazda writes, “The loft — ‘World Headquarters’ — was to be my base for 40 years. From there I traveled the world to photograph: Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Thailand, Burma, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan. Between 1970 and 1985 I was away almost five years. But I always returned to the streets of New York. By the late 1980s the Christ statue was gone and the streets had lost their soul.”