I haven’t been to the Lower East Side in at least six years. Everyone tells me the place is transformed: “You won’t recognize it.” However, the last time I was there, it was already un- recognizeable. The great elevated train tracks that ran along the Bowery were gone and the street looked somewhat naked without its looming presence: too wide to be a street, too undistinguished to be a boulevard. The recently-completed New Museum of Contemporary Art had just moved from its previous location in SOHO to a sleek new building designed by a pair of trendy architects I had never heard of (and whose names I immediately forgot.) The El-less street had no resemblance to the Bowery I knew which was dark and menacing, peopled by drunks and derelicts, with its ever present sense of danger (especially for a woman). I think the loss of the El marked the end of the Lower East Side that I had known growing up. The derelicts and their flophouse gradually disappeared, unable to survive in the new, harsh light.
Many years ago, when I was in my mid twenties, I went down to the Lower East Side with a Brownie camera and took a roll of film of architectural details I wanted to incorporate in my paintings. I put the dozen muddy little snaps away in an envelope and stored them with a bunch of other old photographs. Thirty years later, I re-discovered them, had them printed and enlarged and, much to my surprise discovered they weren’t so bad after all; with a little cropping I had a pretty arty bunch of ‘50s New York street photography. I came up with some great material to incorporate into my artwork. I also wrote down some of my memories of the area and by inquiring, managed to get several friends to tell sweet stories of their own. With the help of graphic designer Bob Callahan, I made a small book out of them, and, not eager to spend time trying to find a publisher, I printed up a hundred copies at the local copy shop and they came out pretty good.
So, here I am, with a boxful of unsold books in my studio. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum got rid of a bunch and I sold some when I did a performance piece using projections of the photos, but that still leaves me with a lot more to get rid of. This is a cautionary tale; if you want to self-publish, do it “on demand.” It may cost more, but you don’t find yourself with boxes of books lying around. I went into an artists’ bookstore in Chelsea recently to see if they would be interested in them. “Oh no”(sight unseen) was the reply. “We’re inundated; every artist publishes their own book and then tries to unload it on us.”
My daughter recently suggested I go down to the places I photographed so many years ago and take my photo at the sites. Now that would make an interesting “before and after” book! I wonder if I should publish it myself?
Anyhow, if you would like your own personal, signed copy of A Vanished Era: The Lower East Side, a photo essay by Renee Kahn, you can get one for the bargain price of $15, shipping included, Just send me a check or pay me when you see me. I don’t take PayPal.