I don’t take my two eyes for granted. One of my earliest memories was when I was five years old. My father was having an outpatient medical procedure to remove nasal polyps. Evidently the doctor had been drinking and made a mistake, causing my dad to be blinded in one eye. This added to other psychological problems I would find out much later stemming from his overall poor health.
A few years later, in April 1968, another image stands out: my family was watching the nightly news in our tiny living room in Brooklyn seeing footage of Dr. Martin Luther King being assassinated. Two months later, the violence on our black & white television was repeated when Bobby Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles. I was sixteen years old. It felt like both the country at large and my immediate circumstances at home were spinning out of control.
I felt the need to capture the experience, and control my world. During my junior year of high school (1967) I bought my first 35mm camera, a Kowa with a fixed 50mm lens. It cost $70 which seemed like a lot of money. I remember taking it to school and photographing my classmates hanging out in the school yard. Like many “coming of age” photographers I was extremely shy. The camera was an excuse to engage with others. “Hey, can I take your picture?”. It was a way to start a conversation.
I lived in Canarsie, a working class neighborhood in the far southeastern tip of Brooklyn. When I got my first job in Manhattan, I took my camera on the subway. The first part of the ride on the L train was above ground. The subway snaked through bombed out neighborhoods that looked like an Afghan city after the war. The dilapidated apartment buildings along the tracks in East New York and Brownsville were less than ten feet from the train. I often rode in the first car and watched the view through the front window. I had never been anywhere and didn’t realize how bleak the city really was. In September 1968, the school year began with the New York City teachers’ strike. Public schools were closed for 36 days and racial tensions between blacks and whites intensified. I began taking photographs of the teacher demonstrations in Brooklyn which resulted in being threatened by one of our neighbors.
There was a drive-by shooting across the street from the housing projects where I lived that summer – a microcosm of the violence that the whole country was experiencing. I wasn’t old enough to vote in the 1968 presidential election but remember my disappointment and anger when Nixon won.
While still in high school I worked part-time at King Karol, one of the largest independent record stores near Times Square in Manhattan. The commute by bus and subway took almost 90 minutes but once I set foot in Manhattan it felt like a different world. Most of the people who I worked with were five to ten years older than me. I felt more comfortable with them than the teenagers I went to school with in Canarsie.
The music and my interest in photography provided a refuge from growing up in our tiny apartment in the projects. After a few years, I had the opportunity to move to Brazil. I jumped at the chance. In Rio I became an editorial photographer and worked for several magazines. After my two-year experience in Brazil, New York was a logical place to relocate. Other cities in the United States didn’t have anywhere near the same opportunities for editorial work.
When I returned to the city in 1978, I found a rent-controlled apartment near Central Park on the Upper West Side, close to the neighborhood where I was born before our family moved to Brooklyn. This was during the days of disco and the American hostage crisis in Iran. The Apple Macintosh computer had not yet been invented.
Most parts of the city had yet to be gentrified. New York was going through hard times and still feeling the effects of the 1975 fiscal crisis. People were afraid to ride the subways and it was common to see apartment doors with all kinds of elaborate locks. Mine had a steel bar rigged diagonally to the floor. One of the senior editors I worked for in Brazil visited New York shortly after I arrived. He introduced me to Howard Chapnick at Black Star, a legendary independent photo agency that was established shortly after World War II. Black Star needed help for the editing of their archives going back 35 years. During my first meeting with Chapnick, he brought in a stack of a few dozen plastic sheets of 35mm color transparencies with a loupe and asked me to do a quick edit. Ten minutes later, after seeing the results, he offered me a part-time job.
At the time, all the photography agencies and international magazines had offices in Manhattan. The French agencies Sygma and Gamma had offices in the city, as did Magnum and several smaller boutique agencies. We were still living in an analog world then. It would be another 20 years before the industry went digital. Most of my commercial assignments were shot in color but like many photographers of my generation, I loved photographing in black & white. Color was a distraction.
Things began to come together. One of the highlights was meeting Ruth Ansel, the Art Director of the New York Times Magazine, who after seeing my work assigned me on the spot to photograph a feature story on the impact of gentrification in the city. She gave me a four-day assignment. I ran around the city photographing places on the list we compiled. They were all located in Manhattan. A few weeks later, I went to the newsstand on Saturday night, and anxiously waited to see the six-page spread of my work. There is nothing as exciting for a photographer to see their work published in print. Especially if it’s the New York Times Magazine.
During this period of six years in New York, I was out of the country for half of each year. Returning from Europe and Asia gave me a fresh eye and new perspective on my native city.
I took my share of risks photographing the way I did, especially during the late seventies when it felt like New York was unraveling. I rode the subways in the middle of the night and ventured into unsafe places where I didn’t belong. But I was preoccupied making photographs. The camera served as a protective device, giving me a purpose and sense of security.
New York is still in my blood. I can still feel the rhythm of the city. Even after all my years of living on the west coast I still speak with a New York accent. I was fortunate to leave the city when I did. The distance helped me see clearer, focused my perspective. In some ways, looking back at these images feels like a rite of passage. I graduated from the Brooklyn projects, traveled the world, and returned to where I was born on the Upper West Side. Upon my return, it felt like a different world psychologically. I felt different as well.
I don’t take my two eyes for granted. Photography has helped me make sense of the world. It’s provided meaning, perspective, and much joy in my life. After close to fifty years it still does. When I think back, I can’t imagine who I would be today if I hadn’t found photography.
By Geoffrey Hiller
Geoffrey Hiller is a photographer whose work has been published in magazines including Geo, Newsweek, and The New York Times Magazine. He has completed several photo essays and is the creator of Verve Photo – The New Breed of Documentary Photographers.