Rivka S. Katvan is a New Yorker by choice. The Israeli-born photographer moved to the Big Apple in the 1970s to go to college. One night, an actress friend took her backstage at a Broadway theatre, where she would later do the famous series of photographs immortalizing the lives of actors. However, long before she discovered her taste for the world of theatre, she trained her lens on what was around her: the streets of New York.
Nothing destined Rivka S. Katvan to become a photographer. One day, walking down a hallway at the School of Visual Arts, where she was studying jewelry design, she caught a glimpse of a photography criticism seminar. Through the open door, the professor beckoned her in. The scene seems to come straight from a Hollywood movie, but this is really how Rivka S. Katvan discovered her vocation: “He said, come in, join us, and that changed everything. I only had an Instamatic, and that pushed me to buy my first real camera. And next thing I knew, I had my first studio in New York!”
Honing your eye in the street
To an aspiring photographer, the streets of New York offer invaluable practice opportunities. There is always something worth capturing. Rivka Katvan finds inspiration right on her doorstep: “I started by photographing my building superintendent and his children. I lived in a nineteenth-century building without an elevator, which had the advantage of being a few steps away from the School of Visual Arts… This didn’t prevent me from constantly running late! I’d made friends with my neighbors, including a woman of Italian origin who was nearly ninety years old. She had the energy of a twenty-year-old! I remember her sitting on her bed, with her large crosses and the linoleum floor of her apartment, which I loved to photograph. She had spent her life there; her husband had left her but she had stayed.”
Rivka S. Katvan honed her eye on her first sitters. She learned how to get up close and personal with the people she photographed. Her unlimited sympathy incites them to open up in front of her camera. Whether faced with Broadway actors, Sing Sing inmates, or New York passersby, she deploys the same method: collecting and retelling the stories of her sitters. “I really see myself as a storyteller!,” noted Rivka Katvan.
Even when she photographs inanimate objects, she weaves poignant visual stories. As in her series entitled Reflections, devoted to mannequins displayed in shop windows, from which emanates an unexpected melancholy: “Mannequins are objects, they cannot speak to you, but they are a part of this city: they literally blend with the New York landscape when iconic monuments are reflected in the shop windows. In this photo where the Empire State Building is outlined behind the mannequin, for example.”
The magic of New York
When you first look at the NYC in Black and White series you are struck by one thing: it’s impossible to tell when the photos were taken. Take the image of the little girls playing in the street, twirling their dresses: this could well be taken in the 1950s. Yet some photographs are clearly dated: one shows a recent Black Lives Matter protest. Or the photo taken in the subway, which shows a man’s face illuminated by his smartphone screen. All the images, however, are surprisingly consistent in terms of color and style.
Rivka S. Katvan began photographing in black and white for economic reasons: in the seventies, color film was more expensive. These days, however, even when she uses a digital camera, she often converts her photos to black and white, which lends them ambiguity: “In street photography, color plays an important role. Black and white is timeless. It is difficult to know at first glance what decade the photos date back to!”
Rivka Katvan recalls a photograph of two women smoking on a fire escape in a typical New York building: “The photo looks like it’s from the 1940s.” But Rivka Katvan remembers taking the photo from the High Line Park in the borough of Manhattan: the park opened in 2009…
Don’t go anywhere without your camera
The photographer has taken a few breaks from working with Broadway stars: when her daughter was born, for example, or to devote herself to other projects, such as jewelry making. But throughout all these years, she never abandoned street photography: “I never go out without my camera!”
Her love of street photography is inseparable from her love for New York, the city of a thousand faces that she adopted as her own: “I love to go for a walk when it’s nice out. Sometimes I explore neighborhoods I’m less familiar with: the Lower East Side, for example. I get some exercise, and it gives me a chance to take pictures!”
Unlike her backstage work, street photography allows Rivka S. Katvan to seize chance opportunities arising on all sides: “Backstage, you work in one place, with people you know. It’s easier to stay focused; you feel like an insider. In the street, it’s a different matter. I prefer to stay unnoticed: I have a small camera, which allows me to pass as a tourist: nobody pays attention to me! I also have a long focal length lens to take pictures at a distance.”
The photographer, an extrovert by nature, often chooses to approach passersby whom she finds photogenic. She compliments their attitude or style, which often leads to interesting encounters. A young man whom she found to have a lot of presence in the street invited her to photograph his hairstyling salon. Other artists have asked her to take pictures of their studios. Although her husband, also a professional photographer, finds her methods amusing: “He says to me: you have some guts!” Just enough for the quaint New York scene.
By Joy Majdalani
Joy Majdalani is a Paris-based writer and content creator. She specializes in technology, art, culture, and social issues.
To learn more about Rivka S. Katvan, visit her website.