Volume 79, Number 29 | December 23 - 29, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo by John Penley

One of the photos from John Penley’s new blog.

Activist refocuses on photography, starts new blog

By Patrick Hedlund

East Village rabble-rouser and “Slacktivist” leader John Penley recently launched a photo blog of his work comprised mainly of shots in and around Tompkins Square Park. The park is the longtime stomping ground of Penley, who describes himself on the blog as “one of New York City’s most notorious anarchist activist photojournalists.”

The site features a collection of portraits of park denizens, including Aron “The Yippie Pie Man” Kay, Jerry the Peddler, longtime park manager Harry Greenberg, and one of our own freelance photographers, J.B. Nicholas.

Penley, who formerly shot for the New York daily newspapers and The Villager, put down his camera more than a decade ago due to professional fatigue, but continued his involvement in community organizing.

After spending the summer of 2008 protesting against rapacious development on the Lower East Side, Penley decamped to Erie, Pa., for a brief time, returning to the city this year to resume his activist work.

Before leaving for Erie, Penley left his entire photo archive — about 30,000 to 40,000 negatives — with New York University’s Tamiment Library for safekeeping. One of his photos recently turned up in an N.Y.U. newsletter, he noted, and the college has a contract with him to one day create an exhaustive online archive of his work.

After a decade hiatus, the tattooed lensman began shooting again while living in the northwestern Pennsylvania city, eventually landing some of his work in the Erie Art Museum.

Penley has recently focused back on Tompkins Square Park, which continues to be a hive of activity for preservationists and punks alike, and which has earned similar attention from popular grassroots blogs like Bob Arihood’s Neither More Nor Less, musician Eden Brower’s Slum Goddess and EV Grieve.

“Altogether, we’re doing a documentary service to the neighborhood that is quite unlike anything else you’ll see in the world,” said Penley, citing the work of bloggers and others, like Lower East Side documentarian Clayton Patterson. Penley added that his days of taking “if it bleeds, it leads” shots for money are over. “I’m looking for beauty in my photos now,” he said.

All the pictures are taken with Penley’s outdated film camera, lending the images a gritty wash befitting of some of his subjects.

“I don’t have the money for a digital camera, but I’m pretty happy with what I’m getting out of this,” he said, acknowledging that he’s been couch-surfing since returning to New York this summer. “I’m a good photographer — what can I say? I’m hopeful a lot of people are going to start looking at it to see when their picture gets on there.”

Penley has plans for the site to continue growing as an ongoing chronicle of the area “to establish a documentary historical record of neighborhood people” — that is, as long as he’s able to stick around. “I’m seeing this as a long-term project,” he said, “until I become homeless and have to leave the neighborhood.”

Penley’s blog can be found at http://jpenleypixcom.blogspot.com, and he encourages viewers to use and share the photos as they please.

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