Alex Harsley’s new exhibition, an investigation into his six-decade-plus photography career at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works, is a big deal. In terms of reach, this is probably the biggest of his life. And yet, the octogenarian artist does not exactly make a lap of honor.
“I’ve gone way beyond that stuff,” he says, referring to the retrospective nature of the exhibit, which includes New York street photos, artistic portraits and video experiences from years ago. 1950 to the present day. “I’m in a whole different area [in terms of] expose now.
We sit inside the 4th Street Photo Gallery, a cramped East Village storefront filled with old cameras, darkroom equipment and prints — thousands of prints, all lining the walls. walls and stacked in piles of undetermined age (they can be loaded -rolling at this point). Harsley has occupied the space for 48 years.
“This,” he says, pointing to the space around it, “is like an installation. “
Indeed, 4th Street is like a living and breathing work of art. What has historically been an exhibition space for emerging photographers today is more like Harsley’s office or personal studio. At almost every waking hour of the day, you can find him working – scanning slides, editing photos, hanging and hanging up his work. At 83, his days of wandering the streets of New York City with a camera in hand are mostly over, but he still has dozens of archives to sift through.
“Alex really doesn’t have a feeling for his own work,” said Vivian Chui, exhibition director at Pioneer Works, who co-hosted the show with Harsley’s daughter, Kendra Krueger. “He really just wants to take pictures. He doesn’t think about his heritage, he doesn’t think about where his job was. He is always much more focused on the direction of his work.
Harsley was born outside of Rock Hill, South Carolina, in 1938, and raised on a rural cotton farm. He only saw a car or electricity once or twice a month, he recalls. That is, until the age of 10, when he moved with his mother to New York.
After a stint in the military in his late teens, Harsley returned to town, bought his first camera, and learned to manage in the darkroom while working as a photographer in the District Attorney’s Office. Then the young photographer left: producing 35mm images of faces and places in New York; capture activists, athletes and musicians in action.
In 1971, half a century ago this year, Harsley founded Minority Photographers Inc., an artist-run, apartment-based nonprofit that showed the work of up-and-coming image makers. Two years later, it is the headquarters of the group: an abandoned space on the ground floor offered by the city on the cheap, thanks to the 501c3 status of Minority Photographers. This was the birth of 4th Street Photo. This is the same space Harsely sits in today.
4th Street is therefore out of place in the now hyper-gentrified district that it is easy to walk past the place and not even see it, as you would for a travel agency, a phone booth or another vestige of the neighborhood. And yet, Harsley still gets his fair share of walk-in visits to look at his work; many even buy it. During our interview, a mother dressed in athleisure came to pick up some fingerprints for her college-aged daughter, who had just moved into the neighborhood. I asked if they had seen the show at Pioneer Works. They said they had no idea how to get to Brooklyn.
For Harsley, an artist largely ignored by museums and galleries in his career, passers-by looking to buy a piece of New York history are his customers. And he’s okay with that. “It’s not about me and my name,” he said. “It’s a question of content. So I like to stay behind the [work]. “
But that doesn’t mean the photographer doesn’t have fans in the art world. If overseas visitors make up half of Harsley’s collector base, then the other half are fellow artists, many of whom have at one point been affiliated with 4th Street Photo or minority photographers.
For generations of promising photographers from the 1970s to the turn of the century, 4th Street was a site of community, mentorship, and, perhaps most importantly, wall space. Among those who have exhibited in the gallery are Dawoud Bey, David Hammons, Eli Reed and Andres Serrano, while others known to have frequented the space include Robert Frank, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Cynthia MacAdams.
Harsley, for his part, has stories about them – and he would surely be happy to share them if you stop by. (Bey was a “serious con artist,” he said with awe; Frank “sold his soul to the devil.”) But listen, and you may also detect a latent tinge of bitterness. It’s the chip on the shoulder speaking: Success never came to Harsley like he did to those heavyweights, even though he saw himself as a mentor to many of them.
“When I started Minority Photographers, I had to fall behind. I have worked very hard to help others be successful, ”he said. “But during all of this, I had to sacrifice my own interests.”
The mood remained heavy for a second, before Harsley enlightened it with a joke: “If I had known I was going to be in the same place. [50 years later], I would have said: ‘Let’s do something else!’ ”
“I don’t know if I believe that,” Chui said when I reminded him of the comment. It’s not that Harsley has lost a great legacy in the name of 4th Street and Minority Photographers; these projects are his legacy. “The association and the gallery were so special,” she said, “it’s hard to imagine he didn’t do that.”
“Alex Harsley: The First Light of DarknessIs visible until August 22, 2021 at Pioneer Works.
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