In 1984, photographer Tria Giovan moved to New York City’s Lower East Side after graduating from college. She wandered the streets, photographing from her home on Clinton Street. The melding of cultures, and humanity, that she encountered were all caught through the viewfinder of her camera. When she left the neighborhood in 1990, the work languished, without being edited or scanned, until the Covid-19 pandemic gave her the opportunity to revisit her images.
At college she had been introduced to the city through the many students who came from the city. She was drawn to the energy and vitality, as well as the opportunities it presented. But it was a random person she met at a party on Suffolk Street that would steer her to the Lower East Side. “He recommended the Lower East Side as affordable and safe – despite what many thought about the area”, she said. “I believed him and found an apartment on Clinton Street. I am thankful I met him – whoever he was.”
Giovan would spend her free time from her job as a photo assistant wandering the streets and exploring the neighborhood, and creating the photographs that have become a time capsule of the Lower East Side in the 1980’s. The work invites curiosity and nostalgia about a place that has been greatly changed since she lived there. The series is now published in the book Tria Giovan: Loisaida New York Street Work 1984 -1990.
The neighborhood and its community
The Lower East Side was as gritty, authentic, and humble as much as it was exotic, vibrant and colorful. The melding of the cultures and humanity that she crossed paths with inspired her.
As Sean Corcoran, the Senior Curator of Prints and Photographs at the Museum of the City of New York, writes in his essay for the book, the city in 1984 when Giovan arrived was a changing place. New York was slowly coming out of the financial crisis that had rocked the city for decades before. The city had suffered population loss, economic damage from the loss of businesses, high crime rates, homelessness, and drug abuse. The Lower East Side was a poster child for all of this.
But that was not all there was to the area. The Lower East Side also fostered robust and diverse communities of immigrants who took pride in their cultures and homes. All of which would find its way into Giovan’s photographs, and her memories of the time she spent there.
“My immediate neighborhood, specifically the corner of my apartment building at Clinton and Stanton Streets elicits many memories. I often photographed from my window and on the street below. People, or entire families, would gather on the fire escapes – it was their place to hang out, like an extra room of the apartment. We would acknowledge each other, wave, or smile. When there was a street event, or fire engines, or police sirens, or a brawl – all attention was directed downward.”
In 1990, Giovan left the neighborhood when she began photographing in Cuba. Her negatives languished in boxes, the majority of which had never been edited or printed. But that changed during the Covid-19 Pandemic, when Giovan began a dive into her archive, and began the process of editing, scanning, and sequencing the photographs into book form.
“It has been a luxury to edit all this imagery with the discernment of almost 40 years of photographic experience”, she tells. “Unknowingly, I created a time capsule: a visual record of a 1980s Lower East Side that is now a completely different place. No doubt the people who settled there in the 1940s would have said the same about the 1980s. Part preservation, part humanistic engagement, this project contributes to an historical visual legacy of the ever-evolving, always evocative Lower East Side.”
In looking back at the work, Tria Giovan also hopes that the viewer will see in the photographs the vibrancy and community that she worked to capture. “I hope that the energy and vibrancy of this unique neighborhood and its diverse community translates. It was my home for over 6 years and I loved living there, so I hope the photographs reflect my affection and respect for the place and the people I encountered.”
Tria Giovan: Loisaida New York Street Work 1984 -1990 is published by Damiani Books and can be purchased through their website.