A New York State of Mind

Mike Lee © Donna Rich

When you think of street photography, you invariably think of New York City. Whether it’s the city’s size and diversity, the never-ending hustle and bustle, or as Susan Sontag put it “the conglomerate of bleeding energies,” there’s just something about New York that brings out the best in street photography.

It’s no coincidence that some of the legends of the genre did some of their best work in the five boroughs. If you drew up a list of great NYC street photographers, your list might include Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Elliott Erwitt, Bruce Gilden, Mary Ellen Mark, Joel Meyerowitz and Bruce Davidson. But you would have left off another dozen who could have arguably been just as deserving.

Mike Lee’s interview last month with fellow NYC street photographer Sean Pomposello had us wanting to take a deeper dive into what makes the city so special. So we put Mike on the other side of our Q&A to talk about his love for the city that he has called home over the last three decades.

While Mike is not a native New Yorker, his images show that he has the city in his soul.

Focus on the Story: When we think of the top cities for street photography, Paris and New York probably make everyone’s top five. What do you love most about New York City when it comes to street photography?

Mike Lee: New York is legendary for its urban dynamic and ever changing landscape, both of its people and its architectural fabric. Along with Paris, Tokyo, and Sao Paulo, New York is undeniably one of the most recognizable cities in the world. And, New York is more than just Manhattan. It is a city of five boroughs.  Beyond the landmark concrete canyons of downtown and midtown Manhattan, there is a mosaic of people and places to document. Among the best places are Brooklyn, for example, as well as Jackson Heights and Corona in Queens. Remarkable sights also abound in the Bronx and Staten Island.
Still, the legend and natural cinematic expression of the city are exemplified in Manhattan. Manhattan represents the vision the world has seen for generations.

So what I love most about New York? Personally, it is all about finding the right moment in time in which to work. The time I chose to work on a daily basis began four years ago while documenting the city as it transitioned from a metropolis recovering from aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to its uncertain future in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 U.S. presidential election. I made an effort to document both the rapid changes in American society as a new wave of immigrants changed the visual fabric of the city, as well as the halcyon social changes, like advances in LGBTQ rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the rise of populist political movements embodied in Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

At the same time, New York was losing its grip on the old economic and community structures that made the city such a wonderful place. While the city always changes, the rapid transformation of solid neighborhoods, particularly in Manhattan’s East Village has sped to a breakneck pace. Mom and Pop storefronts that were around for decades are being replaced by bank branches and corporate chain stores. Stable, affordable housing is being wiped out and transformed into boutique hotels and condominiums. So, I made an effort to use photography to freeze the visual impacts of market distortions and societal change as best I could.

The best way to do it is by going to the streets. You cannot catch the world in a moment any other way, particularly here.

FOTS:  A tougher list to compile might be the top five street photographers associated with New York City. Who is at the top of your list and what is it about their work that shows they “get” New York?

ML: My main influence as a photographer in the way New York is portrayed is Saul Leiter. He was never a traditional street photographer in the Winogrand tradition, but instead was an artist and a professional who took chances with composition and equipment.  He sought out the unseen details. He also had a healthy philosophy regarding how he lived his life and approached his work. I respect that, and learned a lot—not just in how he produced stunning moments of beauty—but also in how he lived.

FOTS: We imagine you take a lot of images during your daily commute and regular activities. And we know that a lot of visiting photographers spend a lot of time at all the usual suspects, the East Village, Central Park, the High Line, Times Square etc. But what are some of the hidden gems that they should be seeking out or do such things exist?

ML: I love the East Village because of the character of the changing neighborhood, and also love downtown Manhattan. Beautiful, dramatic light and shadows in the morning, particularly in the fall, early winter, and lunchtime give more of a sense of who people actually are. As an aside, New York is unusual because there remains a large, vibrant mass of people in the streets during the day. This is not just in Manhattan, but also in downtown Brooklyn and some of the large new immigrant communities in both Brooklyn and Queens. Most importantly, I recommend Harlem, which is another community at risk due to gentrification.

I also like the older parts of Greenwich Village and Hell’s Kitchen. Also, New York is just not Manhattan. Brooklyn’s Sunset Park is home to one of the largest East Asian communities in the country. Vestiges of “old” New York in areas such as Bay Ridge remain. But, for me, I love to work in downtown Manhattan. There’s a certain dynamism that isn’t seen as much as Midtown.

FOTS: Some of your work is currently exhibiting at the Art Thou Gallery in San Francisco as part of the gallery’s owner’s homage to New York City. Some of the pictures in the exhibit were taken inside of a restaurant. Those seemed a little different than most of your work that we’ve seen. Tell us about those images.

ML: The works convey the idea of the Italian neighborhoods in New York City. While nearly the entire Italian community has left its historic Manhattan neighborhoods of Little Italy and the lower Greenwich Village, moving  on to the outer boroughs and the tri-state suburbs, vital fragments remain. Restaurants serving both locals and the burgeoning tourist industry persist, including the trattoria depicted in this exhibit. While the generations before have moved on, the life of the city remains, building a link from the past, present, and onwards to the future.

In the process of making these photographs, I began to see how my own attitude to my work was evolving. I was less interested in the “taking photos of people walking down the street,” and instead delving into the personal. I thought about the times I sat alone for dinner, and how my observations as a writer developed eventually toward photography. I cannot say this series changed me, but it certainly nudged me a little further into a literary interpretation of what I created visually.

FOTS: You’re also an accomplished fiction writer, as well as the managing editor of a union newspaper. How does that work relate to your photography? What kind of synergies are created by the coming together of your different passions?

ML: I always was a writer, and whenever I picked up a camera, in the Texas days back in the 1980s, I photographed with an eye to illustrate time and place for the novel and several short stories that I wrote then.

In 2012, I had finished another novel and a smattering of short stories. While re-reading the work I completed, I noticed how cinematic the writing was and I had the idea that I could do the same thing with pictures.  I felt then it was time to take a chance. I realized from reading these stories that I needed to be more aware of my immediate surroundings and the people there.

So off I went, beginning in the summer of 2012: first with a cell phone, and later with a battered Nikon DSLR.

I see no difference in writing and photography. They are both aspects of a single person’s creative output. I can write a story and take a photo. I manage my time well and have been able to produce a great deal of work in both forms.

Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I get something published. One has to expect rejection, and on a daily basis as a photographer and as a writer. If you accept that certitude, then daring to create becomes rather easy—at least in my personal experience. As Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

While I often shy away from expressing political opinions in social media, I am a committed labor reporter and editorialist, and a photographer second. I believe in what I do and in the people I work for. The synergy this creates is coiled into a taut cable. It’s part of who I am.  Considering the current political climate, it is imperative for me to communicate in all the mediums I have at my disposal.

FOTS: We recently published an interview you did with fellow NYC street photographer Sean Pomposello. In the interview, he remarked that almost all of his work is in the five boroughs and that he’d be lost, photographically speaking, if you plopped him into a suburb or onto a beach. How about you? Do you get outside of the city much for photo expeditions? Is there a landscape photographer inside you yearning to be free?

ML: I can understand Sean’s view. Often I agree with him. New York is as much of me as I am of it. However, in my case, things can change. And they have. I must create different work. I’m becoming more interpretive and abstract in more recent work, and I intend to pursue this different path.

Is there a landscape photographer in me? We shall see how the story unfolds.

FOTS: What projects are you working on? What can we expect next?

ML: I am collaborating with Donna Rich on deeply personal, interpretive work that involves the intertwining elements of our personal histories and present lives, working toward a shared vision. While we are at the embryonic stage of the project, I will say that we see things in a parallel way, yet uniquely. Expect different series coming out both as partners, and as separate artists.I anticipate also, I will continue photographing the streets daily, as I always do.

All images, except where otherwise noted, © Mike Lee. You can see more of his work on his website.