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From the Bronx to the Bowery, 21 Photos of 1980s New York

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Welcome to In Focus, a new feature where writer Hannah Frishberg profiles some of the great street photographers of New York City's past and present.

For more than 30 years, Steven Siegel has been photographing New York City. After living in the city for more than two decades, he's since moved back home to the New Jersey suburbs, but he can't help but return to his "Dream City" when he can, seeking out that "holy grail of street photography." While he's found beauty in the New Jersey Meadowlands, Alaska, and Upstate New York ruins, nothing compares for him with the "tidal wave of humanity" on a busy Manhattan street corner. The selection of photos here are some of Siegel's most iconic shots from the 1980s, a time when, he suspects, the amount of pictures taken in Times Square on any given day numbered in the dozens. Indeed, people often assumed he was shooting for a newspaper, as the concept of recreational street photography was so rare most found it inconceivable.

Have you enjoyed photographing the changing city, or does it make you sad and jaded?

Well, the only constant in New York is change. And, of course, one has to be ambivalent about that. From a photographer's standpoint, it's fascinating to return to a location that you photographed five or ten years ago and to note the changes and to record the changes. New York is changing and it always has been. New York has been driven by commercial forces from the time of its founding by the Dutch. The only issue is the pace of change, which varies greatly by borough and neighborhood. Fortunately, in the outer boroughs, there are still lots of places that have retained their idiosyncratic character, their authenticity. Check back in five years, though!

The truth is: New York is, in reality, hundreds of cities. I've been photographing New York for decades and the city is so dense and complex that I can still encounter a neighborhood in New York and be utterly surprised.

Do you find New York today less photogenic than it was a few decades ago?

Photogenic is such a subjective word. I never get tired of street photography, and I really do believe that Manhattan street photography in particular is unique and always will be, precisely because of the mix of people on the street and in the subways from all over the world. So a striking Manhattan street photograph might include a juxtaposition of a business person next to a homeless person next to recent immigrants. New York is eight million people from all over the world living in relative peace, which is hopeful for the whole world, that people in such close proximity can get along. The essence of New York is and always has been forced interaction with strangers every step of the way. For most Americans, that's incredibly anxiety producing. They're used to their bubble, their personal space they can control. Random interactions, that's what New York's about, and that's what street photography's about. We as photographers, we want to tap into it because the power of a great street photograph is the power of people who don't know one another passing by like ships in a night, and what that says when you have a picture of New York, Midtown Manhattan with a high powered businessman passing a homeless man on the street. That high powered businessman, if he were in suburban New Jersey, would never pass a homeless man. He would never have to confront that. He'd be in his limousine. So street photography is all about documenting that, which is what cities are, especially New York. People from all around the world being in close proximity.

What kind of camera do you use?

35mm old Nikon camera, Fujifilm. I've had the camera for 10 or 15 years. Before the Fuji film, I used Kodachrome till the day Kodak eliminated it. I have irrationally held on to film photography. At some gut level, I hold onto film photography because I hold on to the craft, even though the craft is no longer necessary. I guess for me, my entire body of work is film, and when I leave this earth I will leave behind a body of work that is one medium; my portfolio will be consistent. At some deep psychological level, because I put up with film for all the years and all of its inconvenience, it's a badge of honor to continue to use it. Digital is so easy; a monkey could photograph with digital. That's incredibly depressing to me.

When I was photographing 20 or 30 years ago, there were very few street photographers, because it was a hard thing to do. Street photography was so rare that people on the street did not understand why anyone would be photographing their neighborhood. Many assumed that I was working for a newspaper. They couldn't conceive someone would be photographing an ordinary neighborhood for no apparent reason. Now photography is everywhere, and the number of pictures taken in Times Square every day is in the millions. When I was photographing Times Square in the '80s, the number of pictures taken in a day was, I suspect, in the dozens.

You have some landscape photography on your Flickr, as well as many shots of Jersey - have you ever found a comparable subject to photograph, besides New York?

The New Jersey Meadowlands is a special place for me. I love the idea that photographers can find hidden beauty in places that many people find to be conventionally ugly. But look again, and you can find the beauty.

How would you say today's ruin photography compares to your work in the '80s?

Of course, there's far fewer ruins today in New York and the surrounding areas than there were thirty years ago. It's fairly difficult to find an abandoned building in New York City today; 30 years ago, they were everywhere in the outer boroughs. As for ruins photography generally, it's become almost fashionable and stylish. It was an eccentric pursuit when I was doing it decades ago, now it's become almost a mainstream hobby.

What's the best picture you didn't take?

I've been photographing for more than 30 years. There are thousands of photos that have gotten away when you do it for that long. It's too painful to even catalogue, more difficult than cataloguing your dreams. The best salve is to take more photos. With photography, you are at the mercy of forces beyond your control, so you do the best you can.

Tell me about the shot of the man throwing the brick?

He was a guy that I knew and it was a posed shot so it looks a bit more edgy than it actually was.

How about the one of the people on the Bowery? Did you talk to them?

I definitely engaged them. You can usually tell when the photographer engages the subject. The Bowery has a fascinating history. The Bowery in the 1980s was the city's skid row. Alcoholic men would go to liquor stores, get drunk and fall onto the sidewalk, so you'd have to step over their bodies walking down the street. Long gone. Sometimes people were nice and sometimes they were aggressive and confrontational. I'm quite fortunate that I never had any physical violence directed at me in all the years.

The subway dream series? Where did you find those cars?

Those photos were taken in the late 1980s in a subway scrapyard in Jersey City. Incidentally, the scrapyard is s still there, but the subway cars are long gone. It was an amazing location, truly surrealistic. The New York skyline and the Statue of Liberty were in the background. Just amazing! One of my films from that period has a scene inside one of those cars.

Have you considered publishing a book of your photography?

I've been trying to get a photo book published. It's very tough. I do believe that my 1980s New York images are marketable, because they're historical photos that you can't go out and photograph today. It just goes to show that if you last long enough, some of your photos may eventually acquire some value as historical artifacts.

Who are your biggest influences and inspirations?

I'm aware of the old masters—Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus. It's hard to identify any single influence, but I guess what always has driven me to photography is I'm a naturally curious person. I love to explore places, and if I'm going to explore I might as well bring my camera. That's why people do urban photography, street photography, and ruins photography. They just love going discovering and visiting the world around them. And I'm one of them. The New York metropolitan area is such an enormous collection of human settlements that connect in direct and subtle ways to each other. Either you're interested or you're not, and if you are, chances are you might as well enhance that enjoyment by photographing it.

For more of Siegel's photos, check out his Flickr.
—Hannah Frishberg
· In Focus archives [Curbed]