I’m sharing this NPR article for all the Unknown Creators out there. Its author, Ian Martin, shares his experience of writing a book about the underground rock scene in Tokyo. More significantly though, he touches on some of the trials and tribulations of small-time writers dealing with largely ignored subject matter. Why are we writing? What do we hope to gain from the experience? Does it matter if no one reads our creative output? If they do read it, do they even get it? That pretty well sums up my internal monologue about my largely ignored blog. At the end of the day, people like myself and Ian must accept the fact, no, revel in the knowledge that we do it mainly for ourselves. And that’s slowly becoming more acceptable to me. Good days and bad days, amirite?
As much as I hate to ruminate over validation of my efforts in terms of clicks, likes, comments, etc, or in my case the complete lack thereof, there’s a flip-side to that coin. I would also hate to wake up everyday knowing I was a hyper inflated, mainstream, highly overrated shit-show like Beyonce just as much. I’d rather die in obscurity.
To my extremely, shall we say, “eclectic” audience, I want you to know you are greatly appreciated. (Although at least one comment, just one, on anything on this blog would be nice. Not sayin’ just sayin’.) Just as Ian will not be abandoning his efforts to document the often overlooked underground cultural enclave of noisemakers he knows and loves, regardless of attention or indifference, nor will I abandon you.
And Ian, if you somehow find and read this obscure post, thank you for writing from the perspective of the Unknown Creator. I have immense respect for any passionate writer pursuing personally rewarding but obscure interests over robotic chasing of trends merely for a payday. I haven’t read your book, but I already know it would be an entertaining read. That being said, may your book sell millions of copies in every language and continue to inspire other Unknown Creators for years to come.
I remember the first time I used Google Earth’s Street View feature. It wasn’t because I was planning a trip or curious to see how my neighborhood looked or if I could see my car, none of that interested me. Strange as it may sound, I was looking for street views of the worst neighborhoods in North Philadelphia. I would be too afraid to wander around these neighborhoods with my camera, randomly snapping photos. But there I was, cruising down Kensington Avenue, taking in every inch of the gritty dilapidated area, soaking it all in from the comfort of my living room. Occasionally I could see people out walking the streets. Although their faces were blurred, those images excited me in a way I can’t quite describe.
I remember the first time I seriously considered writing a documentary film. It wasn’t to feature an inspiring teacher, or retrace my family’s lineage or that of a local band, none of that interested me. Oddly, it was supposed to center around a not quite historic, rundown old building housing degenerates, known as the Bush House Hotel in Quakertown, PA. I only got so far as interviewing one resident and a few neighbors, but the fact remains I am clearly obsessed with the photographic documentation of fringe society. The dirty, poor, addicted, abused, people who are so often ignored, that is the subject matter I want to explore through my lens.
As an amateur photographer, I fantasize about delving into underworlds and capturing the essence of realities far removed from my own. While Philadelphia has its share of gritty subject material, New York City during the 1980’s (before it was revitalized and Disneyfied) offers some of the best fringe photography I have ever seen. Unfortunately I missed out on that New York, being too young to experience it. Luckily, there were some others there to preserve those moments forever in great style.
Miron Zownir, a German photographer, spent around nine years photographing New York starting in 1980 at 23 years of age. The outsiders of society became his preferred area of interest. In 1995 he came back to Berlin. When traveling to Russia and Eastern Europe he created more analogue photographs of junkies, homeless and generally marginalized groups. His most famous collection of New York’s fringe society is called NYC RIP which was published in 2015.
Zownir’s peculiar approach to cover the city’s multiple-layered day-to-day lunacy was quickly recognised by the local scene as the TEUTONIC PHENOMENOGRAPHER (Village Voice). Shot in moody, expressionistic b/w, Zownir’s pictures from that period give a penetrating insight to inner-city sub-cultural spheres, which, in their original local context, have since perished in the boom of the 90s. His lens captured the untamed lust at the gay-parties, just shortly before Aids massively claimed its victims; the futile protest of artists and offbeat performers; the hopelessness on the Bowery; the shadowy world of hookers or junkies. Zownir’s photographs of the “Sex Piers” have become legendary documents by now. -Josef Chladek
Here are some excellent interviews with Zownir, where he discusses his choice of subject material in a way that resonates with me:
American photographer Ken Schles, at 23 years old, began writing his book Invisible City in 1983. He was living in a rundown apartment in New York City’s East Village. The building was boarded up by the landlord to prevent break-ins, as the area was a “shooting gallery” for heroin addicts. Incidentally, the boarded up windows gave Schles a perfect darkroom. He documented his surroundings throughout the 1980’s. His work is slightly more intellectual and polished. It is also less graphic than the more raw Zownir.
His most prominent monograph Invisible City/Night Walk, paints a deeply moving portrait of 1980’s New York’s underworld. It was published originally as Invisible City in 1988, then reprinted in 2014 with the companion release Night Walk.
Former taxi driver Matt Weber started documenting New York City in the 1980s and spent three decades collecting a series of images he called The Urban Prisoner. His black-and-white candids are tinged with emotions that range from loneliness to violence. Weber’s pulled back and documentarian approach gives his work a raw, gritty feel.
Martha Cooper is an American photojournalist born in the 1940’s in Baltimore, Maryland. She worked as a staff photographer for the New York Post during the 1970’s. She is best known for documenting the New York City graffiti scene of the 70’s-80’s. She was the first and foremost photographer of the emerging Hip Hop scene from the impoverished and deprecated South Bronx in the early eighties. This is evident in her release Hip Hop Files: 1979-1984
In 1984, Cooper and Henry Chalfant published their photographs of New York City graffiti in the book Subway Art, which has been called the graffiti bible and by 2009 had sold half a million copies. If you are interested in seeing a great documentary about New York City’s graffiti scene in the early eighties, check out Style Wars.
John Conn is a photographer for whom there is no Wiki, but he has a great monograph of the NYC Subway Late 70s to Mid 80s portraying the Wild West atmosphere of danger in New York’s subway system. Notice how the black and white imagery makes every stain on the walls more pronounced? It pulls the viewer in so you almost feel like you need a shower after viewing.
Sheldon Nadelman captured images of New Yorkers while working at Terminal Bar on 41st Street and 8th Ave. Taken from 1973-1982, his photos show prostitutes, pimps and homeless people around the Port Authority bus terminal. Sex workers would come in to drink cognac at eight in the morning before going out to walk the streets. The Terminal Bar closed when the owner didn’t want to pay $125,000 a year rent on property that now leases for millions. What used to be a bar in a neighborhood described as the ‘dirtiest, wildest and toughest’ has now become an upscale grocery store.
One constant remains among all of these artists’ work: the absence of persistent marketing to the point of mucking up the images. Today it would be quite difficult to capture such stripped down, raw human experience without inadvertently including a cell phone or ipad in the shot. I actually read a photographer who said he hates shooting New Yorkers now because there is nothing so mind numbing as seeing a bunch of people with their heads down looking at their phones constantly. Although there are signs of corporate marketing in the backgrounds, part of the appeal of NYC in those days was the predominance of independent businesses as opposed to the “Dunkin Donuts on every corner” abomination we see today.
Despite its problems, the old New York was rich in the culture of struggle. As such, it was a fringe photographer’s paradise. That mecca is gone forever now. Occasionally there are efforts made to fight back against mainstream consumer culture that whitewashes the reality on the ground in NYC neighborhoods. Here is an example:
Of all the things that had changed on planet earth since the dawn of its creation, gravity was not one of them. So the afternoon fourteen-year-old Ross Bronski lost control of his skimmer in the fall of 2114, it was every bit as frightening and painful as a boy crashing a bicycle in 1954 or a skateboard in 2014. The contraptions may have changed over the years, but the experience was timeless. One may even say a right of passage in a young boy’s life. The incident was inevitable.
The skimmer, with its powerful dual thrusters and light weight design, was built for speed, not safety. The rider straddled the vehicle and with the thruster facing downward. Upon starting up, it could hover just long enough to use a shifting gear to point the thruster backwards. Hitting the thrust foot pedal on the left propelled the machine forward with an immense burst of speed. This was called a boost, or boosting. The right pedal, or antithrust, could cut a boost short, but there was no way to completely stop in mid air. Skimmers were not capable of constant throttle. A boost was needed every few seconds to stay aloft. When one boost ended, the thruster would recharge for the next boost. Hence the term skimming, or repeatedly thrusting and descending through the air, like a flat stone skimming on a pond.
While uphill skimming was achievable, the momentum of downhill skimming was much more dangerous and thus highly exhilarating. A lightweight rubber track on the back and landing skis on the front helped cushion landings. Additionally, a brake for the rear track could be applied by a trigger on the handle bar steering controls. Steering was what made for a skillful skimmer. Like skiing, one had to be able to anticipate the clearest straight line before boosting and then pivot upon descent.
Ross’s skimmer, the Mongoose, was one of the more powerful and expensive models and thus the envy of all the boys in his neighborhood. It was a beautiful machine, silver with hints of orange trim and gleaming bushings. The mark of a powerful skimmer was the length of time needed between boosts. The Mongoose boasted an impressive 1.5 second delay. But perhaps what really set the Mongoose apart from other skimmers was the distinct screaming roar of the thruster, which grew in awesome intensity from boost to boost. When those commercials for the 2114 Mongoose X5 with the slogan “Mongoose: It’s on. You’re gone.” danced before Ross’s prepubescent eyes with their shots of pro skimmers pulling off feats of derring-do to a dazzling driving soundtrack, he was sold.
Of course Ross could have whatever he wanted, within reason. Short of buying him a weapon, Stella was content to let her son to whatever he asked. A fact that was utterly lost on Ross. When he asked for something, he got it. It’s not that he was an undeserving child, or especially materialistic either. He simply never learned to appreciate the value of anything because it was all easy come, easy go. He never considered other kids had to work to save up for their own skimmer or settle for the lower model their parents could afford. As a child of one of the elite members of such an unequal society, he was oblivious to the simple concept of work ethic. He was seen by his mother as a kid being a kid. His grades were decent at the Goddard Academy (the exorbitantly expensive private school his mother insisted he attend) and he flew under the radar, never getting in trouble of any kind. Despite his conformity in good behavior, deep down Ross felt there was something gnawing at him. It was a certain zeitgeist, a desire to act out – not in rebellion, but rather manifesting itself in his obsession with skimming.
The incident occurred outside city limits, at an abaondoned quarry the boys frequented often to sneak cigarettes, spray graffiti, engage in fist fights and of course, skim. With its sprawling expanse of earth peppered with ramshackle long-forgotten lean-to shacks, it was an ideal escape from their shirt-and-tie academic worlds. It was a deserted, dusty, veritable playground of boyish freedom. Best of all for skimming, the edges formed a curve from ground to side like a giant swimming pool, and its soft corners were perfect for thrusting around at devilishly heartpounding speeds.
“Come on Ross! Stop being a little bitch and skim!” yelled Kevlar, one of the neighborhood mates, all intensely eager to witness the Mongoose in action.
“That’s too much skimmer for you, Ross!” another boy taunted.
“Shut up! I’m goin’, I just gotta get ready!” Ross shouted from astride his skimmer, set high above the other boys on the quarry’s edge. It was midafternoon. The sun was behind him, and the absence of glare made for perfect visibility of his run. “Alright, you can do this, you got this…” Ross muttered to himself, far from earshot of the others.
“Just do it already!” Kevlar’s patience waned further.
“I’m tryin’, if you guys would shut up it’d be easier!” Ross’s reply was followed immediately by the roar of the Mongoose, met by huge grins on all the boys’ faces. It was “on” and Ross was about to be “gone.”
A second roaring boost and the fourteen year old boy was thrown forward at enormous speed, such that the boys could see his body jerk backwards as he struggled to grip the awesome power of the Mongoose. They yelled wildly as they watched awestruck, their privileged friend skim around the edge of the massive quarry. Ross was truly the star of the group that day, and it felt amazing. For a moment, they were all jealous.
BRRAAAWWWAAARRR!! The Mongoose screamed, kicking up dirt and Ross’s adrenaline as he skimmed ever faster. He was picking up some serious momentum now, and it was becoming harder to anticipate the safest direction for each boost. He was quite far from the boys who were now watching his run from across the quarry through viewfinders.
Then it happened. The young Ross was caught up for a split second too long in the grandeur that was being the envy of all the other boys and lost control of his coveted Mongoose X5. He was cruising at such high speed down the side of the quarry wall that he couldn’t bring the front of the skimmer high enough in time to avoid slamming into the ground nose first with a tremendous crash. While the Mongoose X5 may have been fully capable of negotiating downhill hairpin turns at speeds upwards of 50 mph, Ross learned that day his skimming skills were not. He was thrown over the handle bar controls with such force on impact he landed twenty feet away from his now demolished skimmer, unconscious as they both laid helpless in a cloud of dust and debris.
They couldn’t hear his scream from such great distance, but the boys winced at the silent, digitally enhanced crystal clear image of the horrfying accident in their viewfinders. Between gasps and “oh fuck!” expressions they continued to survey the area for a second to check for any signs of life. When the dust settled and they could only see a motionless figure laying in an unnatural position in the distance, they hurried to their skimmers and sped to Ross’s aid. One of them alerted the local emergency services but none dared to call Ross’s mother.
“Cough!” Ross’s eyes popped open and his body flinched as though he was awaking from a violent nightmare. The boys standing all around him swayed back, startled but relieved to rule out Ross’s death that afternoon.
“There he is! You just can’t kill this asshole!” laughed the ever sensitive Kevlar.
Ross used his last remaining bit of strength to slowly raise his middle finger in gratitude for his friend’s concern. Slowly he began taking inventory of his condition. Removing his dust caked cracked goggles, the sun was in his eyes now like a blinding wake up call and it felt like half the quarry’s dust was in his mouth. He weakly began spitting out dirt and wiping his face. He wasn’t to remain cognizant for long. Lying on his back, he leaned his head forward. One look at his mangled right leg and suddenly his brain allowed him to feel the intense pain of his injury. He immediately passed out again.
After the initial incident, the ensuing hospital stay and months of rehabilitation, Ross decided to steer clear of such dare devil antics as skimming the quarry. His mother was surprisingly mild in her reaction to what happened. This was partly because she was so preoccupied with something unfolding at work, but also because she viewed such things as a normal part of her son’s progression from boy to man. She wanted him to earn his scars and gain the lessons they offered. It was something she felt she’d never been able to do as a child but would have benefited from greatly.
Ross’s skimming days may now be over, but there was wisdom in Stella’s strategy. He would carry the lessons he learned in that quarry and on other boyish adventures many years later in the perils of deep space. He would remember that it’s not the ship that makes the man but how well he controlled it, and to take it easy in situations where he was inexperienced. And he would never again allow his image to his peers to interfere with his best judgement, especially not at high speed.
Édouard-Henri Avril (21 May 1849 – 28 July 1928) was a French painter and commercial artist. Under the pseudonym Paul Avril, he was an illustrator of erotic literature. His career saw collaboration with influential people like Octave Uzanne, Henry Spencer Ashbee and Friedrich Karl Forberg.
Having been commissioned to illustrate Théophile Gautier‘s novel Fortunio, he adopted the pseudonym Paul Avril. His reputation was soon established and he received many commissions to illustrate both major authors and the so-called galante literature of the day, a form of erotica. However, his reputation as a commercial illustrator of novels was established before he began illustrating the more underground erotic literature. These books were typically sold in small editions on a subscription basis, organised by collectors.
Erotica of that time received very limited prints and sometimes were limited to only 100 or so copies, or were sold only within exclusive circles of collectors. Because of the obscurity of Avril and his works, it is difficult to assess the real impact that his art might have had on culture.
Avril died at Le Raincy in Metropolitan France in 1928