Remembering Vivian Cherry
By Ashley Yu
The song “New York, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down” by LCD Soundsystem embodies perfectly the sentiment that the New York we all know and love is nothing like the gritty city of the past. It is only in photos that we can recreate the restlessness that plagued this concrete jungle. Photographing the inhabitants of the city back in the 40s and 50s, Vivian Cherry was one of the first female street photographers to capture the thronging masses going to and fro the island of Manhattan. Though Cherry passed away on March 4 in her home of Albuquerque at 98, her images of New York City of halcyon days remain iconic.
Having injured her knee as a young woman, Cherry suspended her dance career to work in a photography lab, of which she was complete inexperienced. But once she picked up a Graflex camera, she would kick start her reputation as a street photographer, before the era of @humansofny. From her images of children sitting on a stoop in East Harlem, to her documentation of the Third Avenue El--a railway that ran from Manhattan to Harlem and to the Bronx that became defunct in 1953, we look back on Cherry’s images as historical records, as beautiful time capsules that immortalised a milieu that would never return to the city. Cherry’s photographs are a stark reminder of the constant reinvention of New York City and what we have demolished from its landscape.
Born into a family of Russian immigrants in 1920, she spent a majority of her life in Manhattan and the Bronx. She witnessed the rise of the Beat Generation and Abstract Expressionism, resulting in her her refreshing style that was to contradict “the older photographers working at this time to make pictures that looked like paintings,” she says in her interview with AnOther magazine, “but reality was coming up.” Before her death, Cherry’s images were being exhibited at Daniel Cooney Fine Art. Menawhile, she was also writing her book on her Third Avenue El series, featuring many unpublished photographs.
Vivian Cherry is survived by her only son, Steven Schmidt.