He’s a Fifties’ boy from the Bronx, peppery, bantam, and tough–Jake La Motta with an SLR. His knowledge of New York and gelatin silver printing is vast. Not for nothing is he called the “last of a vanishing breed.” But Sid Kaplan is alive and well, thank you, busy documenting the changing face of his beloved town.
He was born in the Bronx in 1938 and began photography at age ten. He grew up at a time when color film was coming in, but serious photography still meant black-and-white. And he was very serious from an early age, attending The School of Industrial Arts, hanging around Peerless Camera Store and the Police Athletic League to pick up information and tips. There were also meetings and shows at the Village Camera Club, but behind it all, an intensely practical nature and steely determination. He took tons of pictures, printed them in darkrooms rigged up in bathrooms and kitchens, then went out and took some more. If he found himself in a tough neighborhood, he learned to mind his own business, honing his eye and sense of the street.
Kaplan was a prodigy, winning prizes for his beautiful prints, but early on divided his photography into “personal” work–images he took for himself–and “professional” work where he printed the photographs of other people. It was a flimsy Chinese wall, but ensured a kind of purity, even though the two spheres informed each other throughout his career.
Many facts of which are known, while others, for various reasons including legal, are downplayed. As a young man Kaplan joined Compo Photocolor Lab, known for its mural-size prints and work on the 1955 Museum of Modern Art exhibit, The Family of Man. “Those were the guys I learned from,” he said. “Where did most of those guys learn to print? The military.”
Kaplan also learned through sheer volume and repetition, often clocking 60 to 80 hours a week. He also began to print for great photographers like Halsman, Steichen, and the Capa brothers, Robert and Cornell.
In 1968, he set up his own shop, Custom Work Darkroom, in quarters on east 23rd Street that overlooked Madison Square Park. There he worked with more illustrious clients including Allen Ginsberg, Duane Michals, Eugene Smith, and Robert Frank, with whom he developed a lasting professional relationship.
Which isn’t surprising, because in addition to his vast knowledge of chemistry, Kaplan brings to the printing process his own sensibility as a working photographer. He has a great respect for and knowledge of light, as well as the ability to listen to and work intuitively from a photographer’s description of the scene and atmosphere photographed. Which takes imagination in addition to technical know-how.
When Kaplan began printing for the legendary photographer of The Americans, Frank hovered. He had apprenticed for photographers in Switzerland, and had deep knowledge of chemistry and exposure, as well as exacting artistic standards. “He knew exactly what he wanted,” Kaplan said, “and exactly what the paper would do.”
But after the first batch, Kaplan was given an old print to follow and more or less left alone. By then, he had racked up a lot of experience: “when it gets drilled into you for so many hours…you can do a lot of it when he’s not around.”
Beginning in 1972, students at the School of Visual Arts also benefited from Kaplan’s knowledge, as do participants in his annual summer workshop held in South Dakota, of all places. A diehard New Yorker, his tastes are somewhat eclectic and unpredictable. Teaching in the Badlands? No problem. And for thirty years, he’s returned annually to Philly to photograph the Mummers’ Parade and a club associated with it because he likes their costumes and blue collar ethic.
But for most of his life, he’s concentrated on his beloved New York even as it’s changed nearly beyond recognition. He’s captured the dismantling of the Third Avenue L, the ever-evolving Lower East Side, Madison Square Park in all seasons, and Times Square from the 1950s when it served as the de facto photo district, providing a steady stream of actors, models, and hit shows to support the photographic trade.
If the aforementioned resume seems a little sanitized and glib, it is. For discretion, certain colorful stories and situations have been omitted, though perhaps a hint is in order. During our lunch, mention was made of a nude model with a Pilgrim hat and musket, that may or may not have been a centerfold, and sotto voce, of a “strange underground” of men who paid $5 apiece to shoot unclothed or barely clothed women. Today that goes by the classed-up name of “boudoir photography,” and ladies in all states of undress are available with a few taps of the screen. Reference was also made to a hasty shredding/disposal session at his studio. In talk as in his life, there is a mix of high and low, a delight in the range of human behavior and odd situations tossed up by the world.
One is the class he teaches each summer in South Dakota. “No self-respecting workshop would want to have us,” he said of fellow teacher, Howard Christopherson. Who Kaplan sized up pretty fast: “When you’re a mutt, you can smell another mutt quite a distance away.” But there they are, driving caravan-style under the big sky from Minneapolis to Lily, SD. Which is a long way from Hunts Point in the Bronx.
Kaplan has been around and seen a lot: half of New York torn down and put back up again, black-and-white displaced by color, film replaced by digital, the fine art of printing tossed aside as everyone grabs snaps on their phone. But he’s still here, doing his thing. There have been shows and honors, richly deserved, but always played down. Self-promotion isn’t his thing; craft and art are.
I know him from Flo Fox’s Non-Camera Club, a monthly supper where he arrives late and is received like a king. Which he is when talk turns to photo chemistry and printing. The jokes stop and the craggy face comes alive with boyish wonder. Amid friends, without pretense or pomp, the Bronx boy with a heart of gold rules.
– Catherine Kirkpatrick
On December 6th, 1941, Pearl Harbor wasn’t a place on the mind of many Americans, if they knew about it at all. Located on the island of Oahu near Honolulu, it was home to thousands of servicemen and the U.S. Pacific fleet. Danger was thought to be elsewhere, in the war spreading across Europe. America, protected by sea and strong isolationist sentiment, wasn’t involved.
That changed the next morning when hundreds of Japanese planes dropped from the sky just before eight. Swooping down on the naval base, they bombed, torpedoed, and strafed till twenty U.S. vessels and hundreds of aircraft were crippled or destroyed. When they departed two hours later, the harbor was black with smoke, the water strewn with wreckage and crumpled ships. Nearly 2,500 servicemen perished, 1,177 of them entombed in the USS Arizona when a bomb struck the ammunition magazine. It was the day that changed the course of America, and sent the destinies of a generation spinning.
Unlike recent conflicts, Word War ll was a shared burden that cast a long shadow over many families. As troops headed overseas, people pitched in at home. Many women went to work in factories like Rosie the Riveter, and millions volunteered for the Red Cross, while others contributed in unique, personal ways. One of these was Josephine Herrick.
Herrick was born in 1897, the third child of a prominent Cleveland family. During World War l, she served as a Red Cross nurse in her home city, then attended Bryn Mawr, and later the Clarence H. White School of Photography in New York. There she mastered the technology and art of the discipline, exhibiting her work, winning several awards in shows at the Cleveland Museum of Art. In 1928, she opened a photo studio with her friend, Princess Miguel de Braganza, an American socialite who’d married a man of royal Portuguese descent. Located on East 63rd Street in Manhattan’s Silk Stocking District, the studio specialized in portraits of debutantes and children. Before Pearl Harbor, as conflict grew in Europe, Herrick joined the American Women’s Voluntary Services, training photographers to document news events and educate the public on blackouts.
When America plunged into war, she mobilized thirty-five photographers to photograph servicemen heading overseas. A copy of the image along with a personal note was sent to each man’s family. It meant a lot because photography then was not the casual, ever-present thing it is now. It required a camera–out of reach for many in the Depression era–as well as knowledge of exposure, film stock, and printing. During those hard times, many families did not have pictures of sons heading off to fight, many of whom would not return.
On a sunny June day, I had the chance to look at some of these negatives and images at the Josephine Herrick Project. Located in an old, nondescript building in lower Manhattan, the office has a view of the Brooklyn Bridge, but wouldn’t win any prizes for décor. But that’s not what it’s about. It is an organization dedicated to important, fundamental things–like creating images of sons so loved ones could hold onto them when they were gone.
Tucked neatly in glassine envelopes, the negatives fill several wood boxes. Collectively they are the portrait of a generation, individually the picture of some mother’s son. To hold them is to feel the pulse of history. You wonder how each man fared, if they were wounded, whether they made it home. You hope they did, though many did not.
Also in their archives is a book of photographs Herrick took on a navy ship after the war. The setting is New York harbor on a day so sunny and bright it is easy to forget that the American Century was paid for with American lives. In the background the city rises, not yet too tall or threatening, preparing for its moment as the capital of the world.
The images are simple, but not simplistic, with a brightness that goes beyond the weather: the war was over, the troops were coming home, and for that day, maybe a little longer, equilibrium and happiness reigned. My own father served and survived, as did the father of Maureen McNeil, Executive Director of the Josephine Herrick Project. One day in the Pacific, she said, he drew kitchen duty on board his ship. He tried to get out of it, but couldn’t, and when the ship was attacked by kamikazes, it saved his life. Three thousand people died.
In the book I was delighted to find a picture of one of the men Herrick had photographed shipping out. He’d made it back, and sun in the pictures and outside in the street seemed a little bit brighter for it. For a moment the shadow of history had a soft edge.
After the war, Josephine Herrick went on to many other ventures, including a collaboration with Howard Rusk to photograph and teach photography to wounded veterans. Though she died in 1972, the organization she began continues her good work. Through dedicated volunteers and partnerships with local organizations, it brings the gift of photography to children, teens, adults, and seniors who otherwise would not be exposed to its healing powers and visual magic.
– Catherine Kirkpatrick
The title of her thesis is complicated. At least till you look at the pictures then more becomes clear. Like the fact that Alexa Telano is very talented, imaginative, and witty. She recently completed her senior thesis BFA photography exhibition at the Pratt Photography Gallery. Called The How-to Guide on Being a Woman as Told by Men, Retold by a Woman, it addresses gender issues with a light and humorous touch. You enjoy looking at the work. It makes you think, but not in a hard, unpleasant way. It slips in through your funny bone. I have the Self-portrait House Wife card on my refrigerator, and don’t plan on taking it down anytime soon. It makes me smile. Here are some of her thoughts and images.
AT: “My work uses photography to challenge gender roles, norms and stereotypes. I work with images as objects to reflect the way women are treated as sexual objects, void of personality. I am also interested in the material items we assign to gender and how objects can play a role in power dynamics among genders.”
“This is not an issue from the past nor is it just a contemporary one; objectification transcends through time, making these issues more complex and damaging as it does. I am reacting to these issues by posing myself like, as well as appropriating images of, idealized women from the 1950’s and in contemporary times. Some of these photos have a theme of subservience that is caused by our patriarchal society. Others are less submissive, and actively challenge objectification. Overall, I wish to subvert the patriarchy, as a way to feel powerful in my own body.”
“Using humor, satire and “tongue-in-cheek” moments in my photography is a way for me to discuss these issues so that not only other people will understand, but so I can personally process them. This humor serves as a platform for discussion about these issues, with the intent for people to recognize something within themselves.”
As herself: a self-portrait that brings to mind Vivian Maier. Stay tuned…
– Catherine Kirkpatrick
Way before Cindy Sherman, from the dawn of photography, people have dressed up in front of the camera. Because the camera captures them not only as they are, but as they wish to be. Fashion and photography are a natural fit–what other medium could convey the infinite variety of human style, as well as the vision and aspiration behind it?
Darleen Rubin met Rollerena in the 1970s when New York was on a downward splurge. Bankruptcy loomed, crime was high, entire neighborhoods had fallen into decay. Pundits thought the city was through, but people carried on, some even turning the gritty streets into a personal stage set.
Though Rollerena was born in Gravelsnatch, Kentucky,* he immediately stood out in the Big Apple. In September of 1972 he went into The Opulent Era, a shop specializing in old Vaudeville clothes, selected a bathrobe and skated off down the street. He whirled into a bar called Dancing Danny’s, and the place went wild. A star was born.
As befitting a celebrity, Rollerena’s wardrobe became ever more glamorous, with signature pieces like the Turtle Clutch and the Rose Fur Hat (worn the night he danced with Rudolph Nureyev at Studio 54, where he always got in).
Darleen Rubin is professional photographer whose fashion, lifestyle, and celebrity pictures have appeared in the New York Post, W, Men‘s Wear Magazine, and graced the cover of Women’s Wear Daily. She has also spent many years documenting people and change in her West Village neighborhood.
On a warm spring day in 1973, she was chatting on the street with a friend when a vision streaked by. A quick shot captured a tall figure in a flowing gown with a knapsack, pale hat, and something rising over his head like a halo. It was Rollerena. He honked his horn, executed some swirling moves, and his signature back kick. It was love at first shot, and when they were introduced, the two became fast friends.
Rubin has been documenting his looks and moods ever since. In a city full of stars, Rollerena has always been exceptional. Haunting thrift stores long before it was hip, he has created over the years ensembles that rival the wildest offerings of New York Fashion Week. Mixing designer threads with no name treasures, he shows a flair for the dramatic as well as the humorous: look at any Rubin photo of him and you can’t help but smile. He is a grace note in the dreary dirge of everyday living, an orchid in a field of weeds, always memorable and outstanding, uniquely himself.
She has captured it all, including his early props which included a bicycle horn, circus baton, and special star wand he used to “bless” people. He ventured into Bloomingdales, and once came upon an escalating road rage scene. But he whisked out his wand and tapped the would-be fighters on the forehead, after which they were too dazed and confused to continue. “People, cars would stop,” said Rubin, “they’d never seen anything like it.” Then he would skate off, leaving the scene happier than he found it.
When I started this post, I thought it was going to be about clothing and style, then realized it wasn’t. It’s not about outer stuff, but inner truth. Rollerena has been photographed many times by many people–amateurs, professionals, tourists and paparazzi–but never more lovingly than by his dear friend, Darleen Rubin. Against a changing urban backdrop, their unique partnership has endured over many years and produced not only wonderful pictures, but many moments of joy and fun. What began with a quick shot, blossomed into lasting friendship.
Sometimes one person can change your life just by showing up. They make things richer, brighter, and more meaningful in ways we can’t always express or understand. As Rollerena came into her life, so Darleen came into mine. We met in January, 2010 at an exhibition at the Salmagundi Club. I was looking for people to write about for the blog, and ever game, she agreed, opening a door to things I never imagined.
Her work inspired me to write not only about photography, but about the changing city beyond the frame. When I think of New York, it is her pictures I see–the brooding streets and rotting piers, the grit of hard times, the tremendous heart of people who press on despite challenges and fear. Seeing them not only makes you smile, but more willing to go on. They give you strength.
So thanks for the memories and pictures too. In poetry and friendship, I tip my hat.
*According to a September 2011 interview with Darleen Rubin and Rollerena
Around the world women live very different lives. Many try to balance work and family, while others devote themselves to a singular calling. When Venezuelan photographer Mariliana Arvelo came to New York in 2002, she stayed at the Centro Maria, a residence for young women run by Catholic nuns from Spain and Latin America. Slowly she got to know them and began photographing them. Here are some of her images and thoughts on the project.
“My first reaction was to the contrast between the residence and its chaotic environs in the area of midtown Manhattan known as Hell’s Kitchen. I was planning to stay just a few weeks while I looked for an apartment, but this changed as I got to know the nuns who lived and worked there.”
“These nuns are full of stories, but are generally very closed with respect to their private lives. They work all day cooking, cleaning, fixing things, doing laundry, and praying. At first the nuns weren’t willing to let me photograph them. They didn’t understand why I would want to take their pictures.”
“But after living there a few months and building closer relationships with them, gradually I was able to take more and more photos. The focus of the project was to take the portraits in key spaces of the house, places where they were most, or places over which they felt a sense of ownership.”
Mariliana Arvelo is a Venezuelan photographer based in Brooklyn, NY. She is a graduate of the New England School of Photography, and her work has been shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including the Art Forum program from the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University; the New England Photography Biennial at the Danforth Museum of Art; the Photographic Resource Center exhibition DOCUMENT (Boston); the ARC Gallery (Chicago), and the Soho Photo Gallery (New York).
Arvelo has published work in the the Christian Science Monitor newspaper, the magazine ReVista, Harvard Review of Latin America, and the Annual International Photography Awards Book No.6.
She is also the owner of a successful photography business called Stylish & Hip Kids Photography, and for the past five years has led the photography program for seniors at The Hope Gardens Senior Center in New York City. She has served as an artist in residence at The Creative Center at University Settlement, teaching cancer survivors, and in 2013, taught children’s workshops in Calcutta, India.
– Catherine Kirkpatrick