Alex Harsley: New York’s last iconoclast
The 81-year-old self-taught photographer who spent decades nudging the art world forward is now having his moment.
Photographer Alex Harsley and his 4th Street Photo Gallery, in New York’s East Village, are having their long-overdue moment – one for which Harsley has prepared for decades. Curators and collectors are stopping by; so are TV channels and podcast producers.
For years, Harsley, 81, sat in the sunbathed storefront of his word-of-mouth wunderkammer. Now you can find him in the back, still nudging the photo and art worlds forward, just as he has done for the past 47 years since he founded the nonprofit gallery that he has single-handedly sustained.
The back perch is better, the artist says, at this time of life, when he is given to taking it all in and thinking on it.
Next to him are his Mac laptop, his digital editing setup, a stack of DVDs and a 1950s strobe-light meter.
The gallery’s walls are swathed in an ever-changing show of his archival prints – a testament to Harsley’s propensity toward the prolific, both in images and life experiences.
There are his signature atmospheric street scenes; portraits of John Coltrane, Miriam Makeba, and Jean-Michel Basquiat; abstract architectural studies; and the shot of Shirley Chisholm campaigning in Times Square and of an isolated Muhammad Ali, parked on an empty street, his eyes seen through a crack in his car window, lost in thought.
The pictures are held up by old-school clothespins – a direct reference to the early days when Harsley hung his photos on a Houston Street fence to get the work out there but also, ever the gallerist, to gauge both passersby’ reaction to it and what they were, Harsley says, “willing to buy in” to.
Draped among the photographer’s prints today are his bellows, analog and digital cameras, each representing an era of photo technology, along with a wooden camera reflecting Harsley’s sense of humour. There are canisters of 777 developer, GE flashcubes and bins of prints to leaf through and purchase. The darkroom now accommodates digital printers.
Out front, in the street, is an almost permanently parked 1968 Dodge Dart GTS with a large penguin in the driver’s seat. The contrasts, inside and out, would seem to sum up Harsley – were he easily summed up.
Harsley is affable and quick to laugh, and highly strategic in his thinking and doing, taking things apart, in his hands and in his mind, and piecing them together in unexpected combinations and commentary.
His observational, often narrative images straddle without contradiction fine-art and street photography. They capture the lyricism and humanity of urban life, and black urban life in particular – visual love poems in which the threshold between photographer and subject seems to dissolve. He is a master printer. He is also a noted experimental video and multimedia maker who shot the seminal video “Phat Free” for artist David Hammons, capturing him kicking a metal bucket down East Village streets. (The video was the highlight of the 1997 Whitney Biennial.) If Harsley’s photos mirror his heart, his complex videos mirror his “elastic” mind.
Outplaying the rules
The artist was born in “whistlestop” Newport, South Carolina, in 1938. His first exposure to photography (and electricity) was having his portrait taken at a Woolworths in nearby Rock Hill.
He is entirely self-taught, and much of who he is can be credited to his having had to take up his family’s peanut farming and cotton picking as a young child – his outlook, expertise and grit; his clear-cut understanding of the exchange between work and money, and that every problem is meant to be solved; his facility for repurposing tools; his aversion to credit (cemented delivering payments from his father to the landowners while not seeing him get ahead for it); his learning to outplay the rules in the segregated South.
In 1948, he moved with his mother to New York, where there was a “new set of rules” to decipher. He hopped turnstyles as a kid, excited to explore. He liked it so much he later found work as a messenger – a job that gave Harsley, a black man, somewhat of “a pass” to traverse the economic, social and racial strata of the city at that time.
He was inspired by record album cover photos; the visual conversations between competing magazines like Look and Life and their constituencies; the creativity of the Lower East Side; and by photographers Lee Friedlander and Hiro – and he was determined he would do what they did, but better.
He picked up a pocketable 35mm camera when everyone else was shooting 12-exposure, square, two-and-a-quarter format.
“My format was rectangular,” Harsley says animatedly. “I realised I’m on to something new. I had 36 exposures in my camera and nice lenses, so I could easily get all these different images and take that back and get a contact sheet and make prints from them. So that meant I had to learn about darkrooms.”
He got a job in the photo department of the district attorney’s office, where he taught himself how to use the darkroom and make fine-art-quality prints.
At Christmas in 1959, he had his first photo show – at a store on 125th Street.
“That was my introduction to exhibiting my work,” he says. “I realised I liked going to look at my work in the window.”
He moved to the Lower East Side, was shooting professionally, and, in search of some camaraderie and conversation, started Minority Photographers in 1971 out of his Essex Street apartment.
The group is still in existence, but its name is a bit of a misnomer: Harsley has embraced and encouraged all.
“My first group of people who I figured would come in would be black photographers, but Jewish photographers, you name it, they all showed up,” he says laughing.
He has also been an ongoing source of support for women artists, Cynthia MacAdams and Denise Keim among them, a rarity in a world that has long left its female voices behind.
The black barbershop of photography
Minority Photographers kept expanding and its hours extending.
“So that just took off,” says Harsley, laughing again. “I realised I created a monster. I was given a monster. So it was just a matter of, what am I going to do with this new monster? It’s going to get me in a whole lot of trouble. It’s having a lifelong child with a lot of issues.”
Eventually, Harsley “needed to go back to thinking in my apartment”.
He opened the nonprofit 4th Street Photo Gallery as a venue for the group and its work in 1973, when artist-run spaces were not uncommon. A photography gig had secured nonprofit status for him, and the city offered him a derelict, dust-mite-filled space on East 4th Street.
The block at the time was home to Ellen Stewart’s landmark La Mama theatre and Millennium film co-op. Rod Rodgers, the black choreographer, secured his dance company space there soon after.
The neighbourhood was dodgy.
“Most people operated, I would say, by paranoid energy, because you never knew whether or not the place was going to get burned down or you’re going to get mugged. It was always on the edge down here. It was the beginning and end of something.”
The block’s then largely Latino community leaned toward the conservative – while the gallery did not shy from the controversial. “The neighbourhood wasn’t really accustomed to art,” explains Harsley, whose openings and unique mix of multicultural artists often spilled onto the sidewalks, amid domino and bingo games set on folding card tables.
Fourth Street Photo remained just under the radar, but many of its artists made it big. Artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Curtis Cuffie and Vincent Smith, and photographer Robert Frank were regular presences. Shows included the work of Cuffie and Terry Adkins (saxophonist David Murray performed at their opening) and the photos of musician Vernon Reid. Artist Andres Serrano, whose work Harsley had curated for a group show long before Serrano broke convention with his Piss Christ, would also stop in.
“At a time when there were hardly any exhibition venues in New York showing photographs, 4th Street became an affirmative platform for the medium,” notes photographer Dawoud Bey via email.
The gallery came to be known as the black barbershop of photography – a hub to gather and exchange information, see who is doing what, and simply shoot the breeze.
Today, the block’s high-end nail salon and chocolate shop are both evidence of its more recent residents and the surrounding luxury co-ops. Yet Harsley’s anachronistic, plant-filled 1970s storefront with its hand-painted window has remained at the centre of its creative dialogue. Photographers, artists and cognoscenti continue to arrive by word of mouth. Local residents now dare to peek in. Bey, a MacArthur “genius award” winner, can often be found in conversation with Harsley in the back.
“Fourth Street has been an important social nexus for forming community,” says Bey. “When I first started visiting there, I hardly knew any other photographers. But visit by visit, through attending openings and spending time there, I met a whole community. And it was a community of black, brown, white, Asian and other photographers, everyone from [artists] Abelardo Morell to Spencer Tunick.”
Keim, who shared a show at 4th Street Photo with Magnum photographer Eli Reed, recalls: “One time, Andres Serrano came to visit with one of his photography books for Alex [Harsley]. Andres said Alex gave him his first show in New York City and it was a thank you gift. Alex said, ‘I didn’t think you’d become so famous,’ and Serrano said, ‘Neither did I. The only difference is that I shop at antique stores now instead of thrift stores.'”
“What I admired about Alex,” Serrano says via email, “was how open he was to the people who came to him to show him their work. I imagine Alex is doing the same thing he’s being doing for more than 40 years. I’m not sure what has kept Alex going except his drive. It’s rare to find someone who remains true to himself and to his ideas the way Alex has. He’s a New York institution.”
Championing artists of colour
The gallery’s rent has risen well beyond its original $50 per month, and its property taxes are high. Altogether, its overhead – managing and manning the gallery (often past midnight, when artists still drop by); overseeing its 24/7 security; keeping up the space and its digital equipment; purchasing photo supplies; archiving inventory; and fending off constant city grime – amount to more than $2,700 per month. Harsley does it all. He takes no salary. He has supported the gallery by selling his own work (an iconic portrait of Muhammed Ali sold at June Kelly Gallery for $20,000) and by working for other artists.
“The part-time work that I got was working with the people that I helped create the jobs for – to be able to pay me to help them do the jobs,” Harsley relays in his singular phraseology.
He shot more videos for Hammons (one has Hammons repeatedly bouncing a basketball off a white canvas) and others. He also helped hang shows. He made attempts at artists grants but came to realise, “I could make more money myself than relying on them. I would spend six months and only get $1,000.”
He has supplemented the rent by skimming his savings, and with some unemployment cheques and loans from family, and has gathered (and welcomed) donations of equipment and cash along the way.
“Alex Harsley’s persistence has been the sole reason for the survival of 4th Street,” Bey reflects. “In the 40-plus years I’ve been frequenting the gallery, there’s been a sea change both in terms of photography being broadly absorbed into the art world and art market, as well as a shift in nonprofit institutional culture. Both have made it difficult to sustain an organisation and institution like 4th Street.”
Throughout, Harsley has stuck to his mission, championing and shaping the careers of an untold number of photographers and artists, coaching them on the pitfalls of the high-art world, especially as they affect artists of colour.
“Most of the people who get into the higher forms of art recognise there’s a certain etiquette they have to stay in. Otherwise, if they go over that, they’re going to get kicked out. And immediately forgotten. It’s a very tight game when it gets to the ethnicity of a person,” Harsley explains. “Different photographers, different artists come here. Some spent years. Not one year – 10 years. Some 15 years. Some 20 years.”
The new internet neighbourhood
The long haul is something Harsley seems to embrace. He is an avid long-distance cyclist who rode upstate until age 78, when a biking accident felled him with a near-fatal head injury. He is now back on his bike – an obvious metaphor for Harsley’s approach to life – but these days, he stays closer to home.
Today the space is part salon, part gallery, part shop, part “historical outpost”.
Harsley’s daughter Kendra Krueger pitches in, and helped organise and hang Harsley’s retrospective Entanglements at the Sheen Center last summer. She is working with her father to envision the future of his archive, now housing “hundreds of thousands” of images.
“Part of the strategy moving forward,” Krueger explains, “is that we want to create an accessible research archive so that theoretically folks can subscribe in and have access to some of this content of [artist] interviews and videos and works in progress and all of the old [Minority Photographers] flyers and newsletters that document the history of the artists who have come through this space.”
A photography museum is also being planned. “The concept,” says Krueger, who has taken a seat in the gallery with her dad, “is to partner with institutions that could help store, inventory and maintain the collection,” which also includes photo technology and history books. Harsley is also hoping to restore rotating exhibits to the gallery space.
“We also want to create work-trade situations where folks can both help with the inventory process and have access to some of the rich material,” Krueger adds. “The idea is that a connection is created between the history and work of an older generation of artists with a new, younger generation, which has the opportunity to build off of what has already been done. This intergenerational legacy exchange is very important in our work.”
For Harsley, the recent media is an opportunity to bring the archive to the attention of a wider public: “That’s another critical thing about the new neighbourhood: The neighbourhood becomes the people you communicate with over the internet,” says Harsley. “By having these kinds of dialogues with the rest of the world, they’re able to know what I’m doing here and to value what I’m doing in terms of supporting it.”
Fourth Street Photo wants to be ready for the digital age, Krueger explains, but at the same time to continue offering access to “an authentic experience” of photography’s past. Its emphasis is not on commodifying or growing bigger; the small collective has struggled outside the largely white-run institutions, but it has also appreciated the freedom this has offered.
‘It only takes one seed’
Writer and critic A D Coleman, a longtime friend of 4th Street Photo’s, credits the longevity of New York’s “longest-running alternative photo space,” to Harsley’s “communitarian impulse”.
“For decades,” Coleman says, “Alex put vast amounts of energy into keeping that space open and available for others to use – unusual for an artist in any medium. His emphasis on mentoring, usually in one-on-one relationships rather than classes – again, highly unusual. Those activities nourished his own work …. He has managed a lifetime of continuous creative productivity in New York City, and close to a half-century’s visible presence in Manhattan, even if off the beaten path … [through] a degree of savvy about surviving and even thriving in the cracks.”
Over the phone, Reed explains: “So much bullsh*t is allowed to ride loose, and Alex isn’t like that. For a community to survive and last, you need people like that. Several people got their start from meeting Alex. Alex just keeps rolling on in his own way. That’s what a true artist really is.”
“I’m a multimillionaire,” Harsley says with some satisfaction. “Not in money. But in fact. In terms of what I’m able to give back over the period of time I’ve given back. And the people that benefitted from that, economically, and the amount of money that it took to do that.
“The people I communicated with, and were close with, they all became somebody. Then I have to look back at myself: Well, who are you? If they become somebody, that makes you equally somebody. But you have to be comfortable knowing this is what you’ve achieved. And be able to grow from that. And move deeper into helping somebody become somebody. And that way you rise even higher.
“Growing up on a farm, I realised it only takes one seed to grow something. It’s just a matter of how that seed is planted, where it’s planted …. There’s people that dropped the seeds in me, and I subsequently carried these seeds on.”