Ned Otter holding up two versions of a photo by his father, Robert Otter. The original is on the left, and the digitally enhanced version is now on view at The Caring Community as part of a retrospective of Robert Otters work.
Ned Otter reprints his fathers vintage Village photos
By Bonnie Rosenstock
Shortly after Robert Otter moved his wife and three children from Huntington, Long Island to Greenwich Village in November of 1960, the ad agency art director seamlessly transformed himself into a photographer. Mysteriously, with no in between or apparent apprenticeship to a photographer, says his son, Ned, Robert Otter opened a freelance photo studio on Sixth Avenue between 36th and 37th Street. A decade later he would give up photography for real estate just as effortlessly, but according to his son, the happiest period in Robert Otters life was the 1960s, when photography was his creative outlet and he was his own boss.
Opening today is a nostalgic retrospective of Robert Otters decade-long love affair with his art and his neighborhood. The exhibit is co-sponsored by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and the Caring Community, a senior services organization. Its Executive Director, Arthur Makar, is thrilled to showcase the photos, because a lot of our seniors could probably remember the places from when they were first in the Village.
Otter took pictures of wherever he lived, including Chelsea and the Upper West Side, but mainly Greenwich Village. When he passed away suddenly in 1986, he left behind a couple of hundred negatives and some slides stored in an old, green file cabinet in the basement of the apartment building on Christopher and Washington streets where the Otter family resided and which he was managing at the time. Ned Otter, 48, has spent the last two years almost exclusively trying to get the word out about his fathers work. If I can keep things going with my dads archive, then no one would be happier than he that his art can help my art, says Otter, a professional saxophonist with his own record label, Two and Four Recording Company.
After years of deadening non-musical gigs to support himself, like Wall Street computer programming, Ned Otter says that he can no longer sell his soul. Curating his fathers photography is the first project hes been involved with thats not only truly artistic but also in demand. The show will highlight around fifteen framed 11 x 14 black and white images, plus photos as large as 40 x 60 mounted on foam board depicting local residents, mom-and-pop establishments, street life and iconic institutions and buildings. Theres the Bleecker Street Cinema, now sadly a Duane Reade; a shot of a densely-peopled Washington Square Park (for a demonstration?) with two-way traffic speeding up and down Fifth Avenue; and a night shot of patrons playing checkers in a smoke-filled Café Rienzi at107 MacDougal that is one of his fathers favorites.
Because Ned Otter, an amateur photographer, is skilled with computers but not darkroom techniques, he has created digital prints from high quality scans of the original black and white negatives. Thats the best of both worlds because the photograph is film, yet the correction can be digital, he explains. Because these old negatives were dusty, scratchy and dirty, they needed a lot of post-processing to make them come alive.
Since May 2006, Otter has been selling his fathers photographs on Third Street and Sixth Avenue. (About 110 images are also for sale on his website.) People often come up to him and ask if he has a picture of the building they live in, or a photo of what their street looked like 45 years ago. If its MacDougal or Bleecker, I probably have it. He was enamored of the folk scene and the young energy, says Otter. That part of the Village isnt protected, so large, ugly structures that dont fit the neighborhood are going up fast. If its Sullivan or Thompson, they are quiet residential streets, or Charles and Perry, they havent changed much, except for the cars, he observes.
Robert Otter used a twin lens reflex camera, which produced large, square negatives. Ned Otter has cropped the photos to make them rectangular. His father printed only about five percent of his images, which he signed using a stamp signature on the back. Otter senior was terrible at dating or labeling photos, so his son has had to research many of them. For example, Ned would love to know more about the young, barefooted woman in the photo on this page, and what the message she is holding contains. But sometimes he receives unexpected revelations from people who recognize their relatives and neighbors, like the man who identified his dad in a photo standing in front of Minetta Tavern.
Other people have seen the photos in the past, but theyve never gotten the treatment that they will have at the Caring Community, which has a nice feeling, says Ned. I think my father, who was a non-traditionalist, would appreciate the fact that his stuff is being shown in a place that is not a gallery. That its happening in the Village, a place he really loved and photographed over and over, is long overdue and meant to be.