Forty years ago, New York City was on the rebound, starting to pull itself together after a decade of destruction and disrepair. Although the city still suffered under the weight of near-bankruptcy, benign neglect, arson, and the mass exodus of the middle class to the suburbs, New York transformed into a flourishing enclave for the avant-garde.
Growing up in Toronto, photographer Gun Roze came to New York dreaming of being a part of it all — the city he fell in love with while paging through Interview magazine during the late 1970s. “It was my first deep introduction to what New York was about at the time,” he recalls. “Movies and TV shows had given me only fictional glimpses but Interview was on the pulse of the art, music, fashion, and nightlife. New York was a seductive city that compelled me to visit.”
In 1980, Roze made his first trip to the city. “I immediately fell in love with how New York looked and how freely New Yorkers behaved. I felt like this was the ‘school of life,’” he says. Inspired by what the city had to teach, Roze made two trips to New York in 1982, carrying as much Kodak color film as he could afford to buy. On the 40th anniversary of his series “Manhattan 1982”, Roze shares his memories of the New Yorkers moving through the city’s multiple worlds: the posh Upper East Siders, the striving career women of Midtown, and people in the downtown LGBTQ scene, where he snapped a stunning portrait of activist Marsha P. Johnson on the street.
“New York in the early ‘80s felt fearless and without limits,” Gun Roze recalls, reflecting on how wonderful it felt to be liberated from Toronto’s conservative culture. “There was an atmosphere of total freedom of expression. The streets were unpredictable and lively — all I needed to do was have my camera ready.”
Finding the subway too intense, Roze preferred to travel by foot, finding a fascinating array of people to photograph as he made his way up and down Manhattan. Enchanted by New Yorkers’ inimitable ability to stand out in a crowd, Roze chronicled their bold and innovative styles as they made their way down the street, transforming sidewalks into runways.
On Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, he photographed the ladies who lunch making their way from Bergdorf Goodman to Henri Bendel. On the Upper West Side, he snapped scenes of new money in luxurious furs, while down in Soho, he reveled in more bohemian styles. But it was the Upper East Side that most impressed Roze.
“I was drawn to its glamour and wealth. Here I got to experience what I had only seen in magazines,” recalls Roze, who preferred the comforts and safety of affluence. “Central Park was being upgraded but also a risky place to be in when it wasn’t daylight. 42nd Street was at its peak of being sleazy and creepy — too much for a fairly naïve Canadian.”
Forty years later, Roze’s photographs give us a glimpse of a way of life long gone, the innocence of the analog era now a thing of the past. Although New Yorkers have not lost their grit, passion, and determination, gentrification has also displaced many long time residents and multi-generational families. Roze observes, “I think this body of work serves as a reminder that our human progress hasn’t provided us with greater joy, harmony, or security.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books and magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.