1970s Bowery in black-and-white

Photographer Ed Grazda captures the spirit of the Bowery in latest book.

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Edward Grazda of New York City and Chilmark has forged a successful career during four decades of documenting people and places. His work has appeared in the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, among other publications, and his photographs are in the collections of such storied institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

However, as a young man, newly relocated to the Lower East Side of New York, Grazda was living on the cheap, renting a loft space while he tried to break into his chosen field. In the 1970s the photographer, along with a number of other aspiring artists, settled into the area — many finding affordable homes or workspaces in and around the Bowery (the name for a street as well as a neighborhood in lower Manhattan).

At that time the Bowery was infamous as a skid row. The neighborhood was home to flophouses, bars, and stores offering cheap goods, and vagrants populated the area. Grazda had developed the habit of taking his camera with him everywhere, and he captured scenes around the city and, specifically, the Bowery. He gathered a selection of pictures of the homeless men who haunted the derelict street and made a dummy book, but decided that the time wasn’t right for publication. “I realized that I didn’t want to try to get the photos published then,” says Grazda. “It was too intrusive. I didn’t know the guys. I saw them every day. I didn’t want to violate their privacy or dishonor them.”

This month, with the subjects of these early photos long gone, powerHouse books will publish “On The Bowery: New York City 1971,” a collection of Grazda’s black-and-white photos. The selection paints a portrait of life among the derelict denizens of the area, and also tells the story of a lost time in New York City. After the 1970s, the vagrant population around the Bowery started to decline, and since the ’90s, the area has become increasingly gentrified. Today the Bowery is virtually unrecognizable as the neighborhood captured by Grazda during his time living there.

“I wanted it to be sort of a visual walk up or down the Bowery,” says Grazda of his latest book. “It starts during the day, and ends at night. It’s basically a walk on the Bowery, and the faces that were there.”

The 50-plus photos in “On the Bowery” are unaccompanied by any text, but the faces and attitudes of these down-and-out men manage to tell an engaging story. And it’s not all heartbreak and hopelessness. While there are, of course, some images of men looking completely dejected, sometimes slumped in doorways or lying passed out in the street, a lot of the characters of this real-life drama come across as very human and even happy. There’s a sense of camaraderie in some photos, and a feeling of strength and survival in many.

In 2017 powerHouse Books published another book of Grazda’s photos taken in New York during the same time period. That book was titled “Mean Streets,” named after the 1973 Martin Scorsese film that depicts the hardscrabble life in New York at that time. “On the Bowery” is a companion book to that one, with a focus on a specific area. “The other book was more random, with shots from all over the city and downtown,” says Grazda. “This is a more specific, focused project.

“‘Mean Streets’ showed little vignettes of things. The Bowery book is really about the faces. These faces are gone.”

On Sept. 22, Grazda will take part in the Brooklyn Book Festival as one of three panelists in a forum titled “Landscapes, Music, & Street, Three Photographers in Their Time.” The other participants will include Grazda’s longtime friends John Cohen and actress Jessica Lange, both of whom also had books published by powerHouse in 2019.

Grazda’s book will be available on the Island at A Gallery and online at powerhousebooks.com.