- In Pictures
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Women photographers document life on the Lower East Side
BY SCOTT STIFFLER | If you want to see for yourself — in sharp black and white and crisp, dynamic color — why veteran New Yorkers get misty when rhapsodizing about the Lower East Side of both now and then, invest an hour or so to fully digest the photographs currently snaking their way around the first floor walls and columns — and the second floor hallway — of the 14 Street Y.
That’s where you’ll find, until February 29 and maybe a few days after that, the exhibit “STREET.LIFE.LIVE. Women Photographers of the Lower East Side.”
Curated by Shell Sheddy and featuring her work as well as that of Rebecca Lepkoff, Silvianna Goldsmith, Marlis Momber and Anna L. Sawaryn, “STREET.” is a remarkable collection not simply because it functions as a time capsule charting everything from art to activism to the revolving ethnicities who took turns dominating the neighborhood. It does that, of course, with potency and skill.
The exhibit’s more impressive achievement (and its own contribution to local history) is how it successfully graphs the past and the present so that subject matter shot decades apart says more about what we have in common than it does about what we’ve lost. There’s loss, of course (Shell Sheddy documents murals that have long been painted over, and artists who’ve passed). But there are also images that could have been captured decades or days ago (Anna L. Sawaryn’s pinhole photographs of churches and tenements, devoid of people and taken during the winter, are literally frozen in time).
“I would go by it all the time,” says Sheddy of an old dive captured in the photo “Mars Bar.” For Sheddy, “It was an everyday bar that had a lot of character, always good for a whisky or a beer. You could draw, and they’d put it up on the wall.” The particular mural she captured outside of the bar in 2009, she recalls, “was just one of a long series” that came and went. “Some were simple, some were complex. For a dive bar, it had such an artistic, independent spirit.” Don’t bother scouring Second Avenue for it, she warns. “It’s not there anymore.”
What remains unchanged, Sheddy says, is a sense of vibrancy and living history throughout the Lower East Side. Sure, she observes, it’s not what it used to be — but what part of New York is? “People still come here,” she notes, “for independent creativity and social responsibility. We have community groups that helped save St. Mark’s Bookshop and fight for affordable housing. There are people here who care about one another, who care about creating opportunity for everyone — not just for those who can afford it.”
All of the women who contributed to “STREET.” (with the exception of Uptown resident Lepkoff, who comes back for sculpture classes) live on the Lower East Side and continue to patrol it, cameras in hand and at the ready.
Of the photos she’s been taking since the 1930s, Lepkoff says, “When I stepped through my apartment door onto the street, I found my subjects. It was the street, all the people, the tenements…the life — that was what I had to capture.”
Free admission (photos available for purchase). Through Feb. 29, on the first and second floors of the 14th Street Y (344 E. 14 St., btw. 1st & 2nd Aves.). Available for public viewing Mon.-Fri., 6am-10pm; Sat., 7am-9pm; Sun., 7am-9pm. Closing reception: Wed., Feb. 29, 7-9pm (all artists in attendance). For info, call 212-780-0800.