By Ronit Pinto
When Naomi Rosenblatt took me to meet Alex Harsley for the first time, she said, “Ronit, I have a treat for you.” I thought she was talking about a donut or a latte. Instead, she brought me to a tiny photo gallery on 4th street on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, around since the ‘70s, and oh, what treasures are inside. Alex is an unassuming black man in his seventies (though he can pass for much younger). A once self-proclaimed “ladies man,” I believe he now lives alone.
Epic, iconic, a New York staple, photographer Alex Harsley has been on the scene since the ’50s, with striking, unafraid glimpses into the street life, nightlife and daily lives of residents in NYC and beyond; including legendary such as John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan and Muhammad Ali. Harsley formed Minority Photographers Inc. in 1971, now an internationally recognized non-profit organization, in his own home on Essex Street – pictured below – and then opened the 4th Street Photo Gallery two years later, where he has exhibited and inspired generations of artists young and old ever since, and kept a welcoming, mentoring salon with hours as unusual and irregular as its founder. To me this environment speaks and reeks of home.
His photos depict street life, human life, art life and celebrity life and in defining the narrative for this particular issue, I gotta say that Alex Harsley’s photos really hit ‘home,’ and brought the issue home for me.
Speaking to Honeysuckle’s ‘Home’ issue, Harsley’s work has not only “captured” New York as home to so many, but as a man he has also created a home for so many through his organization, his artistry and his work.
To some, home can be a treacherous place. At times, full of comfort and at others, full of pain. At the end of the evening, we’ve decided it’s up to each of us to define and create our own space regardless of what anyone else does or says around you. Whether that be through art, with others, as a community or however you choose to build it.
So the plethora of photos in 4th Street – which we sifted over many days and with much difficulty – depict his rural upbringing in the South, his early adolescence in the Harlem Projects, then later of the varied street life here in NYC, as well a his own time spent in Auvergne, where he recovered after a horrendous motorcycle accident.
We chose our selection based on both sad, nostalgic, anonymous homes, as well as the strong arts activism that NYC-as-home continues to provide. From the last posters of William S. Burroughs on the Lower East Side to the final graffiti marks of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Harsley reminds us that the fires of creativity can also be a home and help create Home. So with this we leave you and with the first photo of the series, the explosive, raging fires of whatever ‘Home’ is to you.
We’re certain you will enjoy and appreciate the brilliance of photographer Alex Harsley as much as we do.
Outside of the artist’s house on Essex Street on a snowy night
Houston and Bowery, 1981 household fire on a cold night, NYC
Only in New York. (Fancy furniture on a dirty parking lot)
Sammy Follies on Houston Street in front of the last home of ‘Joe’s’ and today’s Whole Foods NYC
“Vacation House” with skylight, NYC
Beginnings of the Minority Photographers, Inc., 1971 at the artist’s own home. A nationally recognized non-profit, it has been legendary in giving distinguished photographers their first significant New York solo exhibit.
The 4th Street Photo Gallery is located at 67 East 4th Street, New York, NY. Learn more about current exhibitions and Alex Harsley at 4thstreetphotogallery.com. Stay tuned for more work from Alex Harsley in our CANNABIS print issue!
**A version of this article appeared in print in Honeysuckle Magazine’s HOME issue, spring 2017 edition. Read the entire issue here.