Photo by Charles Hahn
Richard Sandler, a street photographer and filmmaker, was born and grew up in Queens, NY. He published his book The Eyes of the City by Powerhouse Books as well as directed and produced the documentary film The Gods of Times Square. His innovative work is part of the permanent collections at such institutions as the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas. He was awarded the New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship for photography, a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellowship for filmmaking, and a New York State Council on the Arts fellowship also for filmmaking.
Richard’s book contains photographs
between 1977 and September 2011
Catskill, New York
Saturday, September 25, 2021
Catskill is a town of roughly 11,000 people and almost 124 miles north of New York City along the Hudson River. Cheri and I, riding in our rental car, pull up across the street from Richard’s apartment. Richard is waiting outside for us, not far from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge which crosses the Hudson. Richard is a tall and slender man who looks much younger than his age of 75. He wears a black beret, jeans, hiking shoes, a pair of modern glasses, and a Leica film camera dangling down his side by a strap around his neck. We say hello and we exchange pleasantries as Richard explains he doesn’t have too much time. “My car is broken down and I need to jump on a train to New York City in a couple of hours to look at a new one.”
He invites us upstairs to his apartment on the second floor. As we enter, we walk down a hallway to the living room. The walls of the hallway are lined with Richard’s incredible black and white photographs he printed himself in the darkroom within the apartment. The living room is filled with artwork and printed photographs framed on its walls. Bookshelves filled with books line the apartment. Under the windows that face the street, roughly 1,000 vinyl record albums are lined up on the floor with a turntable at the center. There is a couch facing the window on the opposite wall with two end tables and a saxophone on its stand off to the side.
Richard is a gracious host, and the apartment is kept quite clean and tidy. I have many questions to ask Richard, but the time seems to go quickly. Very proud of his record collection, Richard plays a few of his records during our visit, asking many times, “What would you guys like to hear?”
Photo by Charles Hahn
I glance down to see the saxophone on a stand. “Is that another passion of yours?” I said, nodding towards the instrument. It didn’t seem to take much prodding as the sax is swept up, and Richards starts playing. The window is open, and he serenades a lady sitting on a bench on the opposite side of the street. She smiles up at our window, and Richard has a look of delight in his eyes and continues to play.
After a while we get to talk a little bit about photography. I shoot a few photographs of Richard and he shows me his darkroom.
Richard in his darkroom
Photo by Charles Hahn
Time flies by and it’s time for Richard to catch his train to the city. We drop him off at the train station in Hudson, another small town about 20 minutes north of Catskill and g the Hudson River. We agree to a phone interview the next available weekend and say our goodbyes.
Sunday, October 8, 2021
“Richard, you mentioned in a YouTube video during a B & H Photo workshop that you had taken a workshop instructed by famous street photographer Gary Winnogrand. Can you speak a bit about how that went down and is there anything you particularly remember from that time with Winnogrand?” I asked. “When I first started photography in 1977, I was living in a house of a psychology professor named David McClelland at Harvard University. I was with other wonderful people living in a communal situation. We would have incredible people come over to the house to visit. People such as Buckminster Fuller, Harvey Cox, Timothy Leary, and John Cage. Just an unending stream of people who were sort of in the far-left, liberal intelligential community. It was in that house that Mary, McClelland’s wife, gave me her Leica camera. Mary had a darkroom in the basement, and she taught me how to print photographs.”
“In 1977 a guy named Ben Lifson, a photography critic at the Village Voice, was teaching a one semester class at Harvard. Ben allowed me to sit in on one of his photography classes and that’s when I learned that Gary Winnogrand was going to instruct a four-day workshop in Boston. So, I signed up for his workshop and to my amazement there were only about seven people in attendance for the class.”
“The first night Winnogrand gave a talk separate from the workshop at the Photographic Resource Center in Boston. He spoke with a slide show and there were no less than five-hundred people there. I didn’t realize what a star he was at that time. As part of the workshop the next two days, we went out in the street as a group, shot pictures, and developed them in the darkroom each night. We came in the next day and put our pictures on the wall. We as a group with Winnogrand talked about pictures. When we put our pictures on the wall, Winnogrand did not say anything most of the time. He just looks and he walks away. Then he looks at more and walks away again. If he likes a picture, he would tap it with his knuckle and moves on. No words. A couple of the kids in the workshop got pissed off because Winnogrand wasn’t talking about pictures. The kids wanted more direction from him: What makes a picture work? What doesn’t make a picture work and why? But that’s not the way Winnogrand operated. The way he operated was he tapped the picture, he tapped one of mine. One of the other students said, ‘What does the tap mean?’ Winnogrand said, ‘I can’t tell you what that means. All I can tell you is it’s got the energy. It’s got the juice.’”
Richard goes on, “Winnogrand wasn’t playing with our heads or anything, but he was superstitious. What Winnogrand said was ‘If I start talking about what makes a picture work, I may upset the muse or the magic, whatever you want to call it that makes this stuff work in the first place. I only want to talk about the ones that work. I don’t want to talk about the ones that don’t work and why. I think it’s more helpful to say this one got the juice. So, you go back and you look at your work and you find out for yourself. You learn yourself.’ That is all it was about and it never went beyond that,” Richard said.
“All pictures are about form and content. Sometimes the form is stronger and sometimes the content is stronger. The best pictures are the ones where the form is threatening to overwhelm the content, or the content is threatening to overwhelm the form. Winnogrand was so articulate during his speeches, but during the workshop, he was never critiquing other people’s work. So, when he looked at our work during the workshop there were very few pictures that got the knuckle of Winnogrand,” Richard laughs.
Photo by Charles Hahn
Photographing in the Subway
Richard has taken many photographs in the 1970s and 80s in the New York subway. “Shooting on the subway as far as I was concerned was way more challenging than shooting on the street for lots of reasons,” Richard said. “One is you can’t keep walking in a subway car. If you take a picture, you’re trapped in the car and it’s hard to disguise what you’re doing. You’re kind of winging it and you have to have big balls to do it. Although, in my pictures, I’m not photographing particularly dangerous people, I’m looking for romance or something. I’m looking for that angelic kind of moment that transcends. The subway is just like a vehicle, where everybody is in kind of a daze. Being underground, people are not so much aware of the time. It’s like a nebular wall. The subway is the bloodstream of New York where the squeaky sounds rhythm you into an hypnotic state. Thoughts start running and your world starts flashing before your eyes. It feels like the most honest part of New York to photograph people in. On the street you put on airs, but in a subway, you’re just thrown into a car with a random sampling of humanity. Each car has its sort of people and dynamic or odd juxtapositions and it’s a good place to photograph if you want to be juxtaposing people. People are just more revealed and revealing on the train than on the street.”
“I wasn’t thinking of anybody’s pictures except maybe Walker Evans’s pictures. Evans would sit on the subway with a hidden camera using a cable release where his pictures were utterly disguised. During that time the subway was different; it was way more dangerous than it had ever been when I was photographing it.”
“Did anyone approach you after you shot a photo and asked you what you were doing?” I asked. “Yes, absolutely, and I learned ways throughout the years to defuse situations. I never got mugged or hurt on the train and evaded trouble. In one case I had to run because a bunch of kids were surrounding me. It was two o’clock in the morning and they were going to roll me for my camera, and I was so adrenaline-juiced that I outran them. It was the 103rd Street stop on the Broadway line.
“I only got hit a couple of times, and that was on the street, not on the subway. I got creamed by one guy, but I was able to blunt and duck most the assault.”
Photo by Richard Sandler
“I have a son that I would stash with my parents, and I would get on a train and into the city. I was pretty obsessed. But I also knew I couldn’t get hurt, and I had to watch my ass.”
Using a Strobe on the Street
“When did you start using your flash or your strobe while shooting on the street?” I asked. “From day one, the people who mentored me in Boston taught me how to use the flash with a long shutter speed. They showed me how to meter for the ambient light, bring the shutter down to maybe an 8th or a 15th, or maybe a 25th of a second for the ambient light using a shutter priority. I only used it on dark days. That way I could use F8 at 15th of a second for the ambient light and use a little bit of flash. Just enough to have the foreground stand out from the background. I would deliberately underexpose for the background. The 25th or 8th of a second wound create blur in the background but would create utter sharpness when the flash went off, creating a ghosting.”
Photo by Richard Sandler
“How did you get acclimated to get into people’s faces with a flash?” I asked. “I don’t know where or how, but I could do that thing. When I think about it, it was so audacious. I wouldn’t dare do that now. When I first started photographing, I was in Harvard Square in Cambridge and I shot a photo of a guy and it looked so cool to me. I thought I wanted to do this all the time. So, I did it in Boston and when I hit the streets in New York, I did it too. In New York I was home. I came back to my hometown. I was a brash kid.”
“I occasionally shot with Bruce Gilden who was originally a childhood friend of mine. Very often we would walk around together.” I asked, “Did you both shoot flash during the same walks when you were together?” Richard replied, “Yes, and occasionally there would be a gang-bang: He got his picture and I got mine. We are from the same world he and I. We were recognizing the same characters. Bruce was very helpful to me when I moved back to New York, and he also started before me. Bruce made some amazing pictures. In 1973 or ‘74 Bruce made his Coney Island book which was utterly brilliant. He introduced me to the photo world of New York in the late seventies-early eighties.
A Meeting with John Szarkowski at MOMA
“I took my pictures to MOMA. Probably 1984 or ‘85. The deal was you could take your pictures to MOMA on a Monday and pick them up on a Thursday. If they wanted any of your work for their permanent collection, they would leave a note in your portfolio case. So, I went there to pick them up on my appointed day. There was a lobby that accompanied the photography department. Sitting at the receptionist desk was a woman named Susan Kaczmarek who was second in command at the photography department at MOMA or Oz. I call it Oz because John Szarkowski and she were like the wizards of Oz. They were the makers of popular photographers. Particularly Szarkowski because he was like a god. He was Oz.”
“So, I approach the desk and Kaczmarek asked me my name and handed me my folder of photographs. I turned around to leave and immediately standing behind me was John Szarkowski. Comes up to my face and says, ‘I saw your pictures, I know who you are. I like your pictures.’” Richard goes on, “Szarkowski closed his eyes and shook his head once or twice. With his eyes closed he said, ‘I liked them very much.’ He opened his eyes, looked at me, and said, ‘I hope you receive the recognition you deserve before you’re seventy years old,’ and walked away. That comment was somewhat prophetic because here I am now, my book is published, and I’m seventy years old,” Richard quips.
Richard goes on to say his style of street photography is a little late in getting to MOMA. He believes there would have been a better outcome if he applied five to ten years earlier.
Photo by Charles Hahn
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