“People forget how bad the subway was. And tourists love the photos because this is what they usually see in the movies and many are sort of disappointed that it is no longer like that. I give them a chance to live it vicariously. A bit of history that isn’t all that long ago. Still, something they missed. If it was still like that, most would ride once and after, use cabs to get around.” — John Conn
Every generation laments the current state of affairs, whether it’s 1520, 1890 or 2015. As time marches on, the aspects of life we grow attached to change, and sometimes that’s pretty tough to take. And with all the whining and lamenting over “better days” the nostalgia flows freely.
At the moment, New York is in the midst of a little cultural phenomenon that I like to think of as the “fetishizing of filth” — and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way; I am one of its greatest proponents. Everybody seems to miss the days when NYC was nasty and dirty and filled with thugs and crime and drugs and shit that everyone and their mother likes to call “real.”
What is “real” today is invariably what was sub-cultural once upon a time. It doesn’t take much awareness to look around and see how mainstream culture routinely appropriates the oddities of the City’s underground or the rawness of street culture; it always happens. The tattoo craze is the most mainstream these days. A few years back it was graffiti and street art — now in museums and galleries. And remember those other dudes a few years earlier than that? Basquiat, Haring and Warhol, once underground freaks, now Icons of American culture.
In December I found myself wandering through one of those pop-up holiday fairs by the park at Columbus Circle. There were the requisite Peruvian woolens, hand forged jewelry, and sundry holiday fluff. Then, amid all the cliché, directly next to a booth selling all things truffle, was some amazing photography from the late ’70s and early ’80s — original New York images of subway cars, stations, tracks, trash, graffiti, and generalized urban filth and the humans who lived in it back in the day.
I was transported, as the artist was when he took them, “I grew up in the South Bronx. Always in the streets. I like the streets. That’s where the people are. That’s where you have movement.”
Having caught the tail end of the ’70s in the City, I remember “fondly” taking the elevated N train with my aunt to see my grandparents in Astoria; the cars covered with graffiti. And then there was that last J train in the system that I faithfully rode (at all hours of the day and night) out to East New York Brooklyn to see my teenage boyfriend; No A/C, windows open, not a wall unpainted, shaking and jittering through the labyrinth of track that wound through Brooklyn in the heat of the City summer. Ah, sweet filth.
Getting to talk with the photographer and seeing some more of his images, I was struck by the distant familiarity of the City he captured. His eye, for a moment, was my eye — or had been long ago.
How were these pictures, so bleak and filthy, selling in our new New York… right next to the truffles?! How did we as a culture get from point A to point B? From the Summer of Sam, the garbage strikes, and the burnt ruin of the South Bronx to $2,000-per-month, 400-square-foot studios in East Harlem and $500,000 lithographs by Keith Haring?
When artisanal gin shops dot the streets of Bushwick and stylized “Warriors: Coney Island” t-shirts sell for $50 in high-end novelty shops on the refurbished boardwalks of the outer-boroughs, what is “real” anymore?
But, why do we even care? And does it matter?
New Scientist blithely reminds me every night that reality is not much more than a figment of my imagination, and yours and yours and yours.
Maybe the strength of John’s images, like so much great creative output, derive from the transience of their content. It’s unlikely that NYC will ever look like Conn’s images again. And for those who witnessed it, we can still hear The Five Stairsteps reassuring us that “things are gonna get easier.”
In NYC today, perhaps the only “real” question left is, “for whom?”
To see (and purchase) more John Conn original photography, like the images above from the Subway Series and a Bowery flophouse (circa 1974), search “TheConnArtist” on ETSY. A true New Yorker!