Volume 76, Number 14 | August 23 - 29, 2006

Photo by Alex Harsley
“LES, Essex and Stanton, NYC 1985,” by Alex Harsley, right.By John Ranard, photo by Ranard Picture Show

Like a ‘barbershop’ for photographers on E. 4th St.

By John Ranard

You will find photography’s best kept secret in a nondescript storefront on E. Fourth St. between Second Ave. and the Bowery. Inside 4th Street Photo Gallery sits Alex Harsley in front of rows of 16-inch-by-20-inch, black-and-white prints hanging salon style from wooden clips, like clothes on a laundry line. The photographs are all taken by Harsley, a few as many as 40 years ago. There is a beautiful portrait of Muhammad Ali and one of John Coltrane, both in their prime, and numerous poetic New York street scenes. The photographs on display change according to Harsley’s mood. The theme of the current show, up until September, is snow, New York in winter.

The gallery serves as more than a showcase for Harsley’s work. Some of today’s “Uptown” photography artists had their early exhibitions in this space. Andres Serrano, Don Hogan Charles of The New York Times and Dawoud Bey of Columbia College Chicago come to mind. David Hammonds, the contemporary art world’s master trickster, placed a stuffed cat in the window a number of years ago, which became one of Harsley’s more controversial exhibits. Pedestrians walked by, stopped and scratched the window trying to get the pussycat to move only to discover the animal was not alive. 

Bey sees 4th Street Photo Gallery as serving a similar role to the community as the neighborhood barbershop — a place where photographers of all stripes stop and visit. Robert Frank was an occasional visitor when he was more mobile and not summering in Novia Scotia. Although the lights are often off, you will know Harsley is inside if the front door is open. He pops to life ready to engage in conversation as a visitor walks across the threshold. Harsley has “been there, done that.” Ask an articulate question, he will give you an articulate answer. You may even get an education.

On a recent afternoon, three young Japanese women wandered in and inquired about the huge light bulbs on the top shelf. According to Harsley, these are 5,000-watt studio bulbs given to him by Hiro, staff photographer at Harper’s Bazaar from 1966 to ’74.

“If you left the lights on more than eight minutes they would get too hot and could explode,” explained Harsley. Quickly, he realized the women didn’t understand a word, and so he resorted to pantomime, gesturing with his arms the appearance of an explosion. The performance was befitting a show at La MaMa Theater across the street.

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