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Issue No. 17 - Enigma

Lawrence Schwartzwald, 'The Art of Reading'

Lawrence Schwartzwald, 'The Art of Reading'

Image Above: ©Lawrence Schwartzwald, ‘New York City transit bus driver on break,’ Tribeca / Courtesy of the artist.

Back in the early 70s, probably 1971 or 1972, I picked up a copy of André Kertész’s On Reading, which was recently published. I was impressed by and a bit envious of his black-and-white photographs of people in different cities around the world engaged in the act of reading. Kertész was a native of Hungary (b. 1894), but he also lived in Paris and New York where he created many of his images. He traveled to Venice, Tokyo, Manila, Buenos Aires, and elsewhere, photographing his subjects. On Reading was first printed in 1971, coincidentally, the same year Diane Arbus (b. 1923) took her own life at the age of 48. Her posthumous collection of images of unconventional, marginal subjects – a Jewish giant with his family, nudists, dwarfs, transvestites – titled Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, was published a year later to coincide with a retrospective exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art.

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Image Above: ©Lawrence Schwartzwald, ‘Man at the counter of a pizza cafe,’ 10th Avenue / Courtesy of the artist.

In 1971, I was eighteen and had just quit my sophomore year of college in New York. I was surviving, temporarily, working as a waiter at a neighborhood diner at the corner of 90th Street and Broadway on the Upper West Side. I started my shift each morning, five days a week, at 7 a.m., at about the same time a dozen or so “regulars” began sauntering in to claim their favorite tables; seniors who were mostly stylish, elderly women. They were witty, dignified retirees; many were widowed. They would usually linger, alone or in small groups, for hours, often ordering a side of toast or an English muffin with a cup of coffee, taking advantage of the unlimited free refills. One of the “regulars” was an affluent-looking senior with a basket of brown hair and a fixed, melancholy frown. She didn’t socialize, and spoke in a soft, pleasant whisper: “Oatmeal.” Her lips barely moved and she uttered those two syllables as if they were one each morning, no exceptions, five days a week. I don’t recall her murmuring another word, but I suppose she must have.

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Image Above: ©Lawrence Schwartzwald, ‘Reflection in shop window,’ Soho / Courtesy of the artist.

After a few months I left the diner, and briefly traveled on my own through Europe – Paris, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. After my return, I hustled from job to crappy job before enrolling at New York University, and eventually moved into an undergraduate dorm steps away from Washington Square Park. The landmark Strand Bookstore was nearby; imagine an indoor book mall in a secular version of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I was there so often it became a surrogate home. I was a voracious reader then and I loved to walk—to take “grand obsessional walks,” to quote Henry Miller—across Manhattan. And I was always observing, eavesdropping, stopping at a café or the long counter of a coffee shop now and then to read James Baldwin, Knut Hamsun, Kafka, Jack London, the short stories of Isak Dinesen and Flannery O’Connor. I was fairly ignorant about photography in those days, and didn’t own a camera, but in the late 70s I was eager to see for myself what all the fuss over Diane Arbus was about. So I plunked down the $12.50 for a paperback edition of the monograph. I turned the unnumbered pages reverently, doting over each of her gutsy images, marveling at this visual artist’s superior intuition bordering on the clairvoyant.

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Image Above: ©Lawrence Schwartzwald, ‘Security Guard,’ Mulberry Street and Spring / Courtesy of the artist.

One among the series of eighty portraits startled me: the fifteenth. I recognized a familiar face—the fragile, sullen visage of my erstwhile customer. The square, 8 ½ x 8 ½ black & white photograph had the caption: “An elderly couple on a park bench, NYC, 1969.” She is wrapped in an elegant sheep’s wool coat with roomy sleeves and her brown eyes appear troubled and downcast. The dark brim of a mink hat, like a bleak halo, crowned her thick, well-organized mass of hair. Her hands are clasped together through the straps of a shiny black handbag. She is holding onto the cord handle of a shopping bag. Her stout, mostly bald companion has a calm demeanor and is sitting close beside her. He is wearing a simple suit, a white shirt, a patterned, narrow tie. His left elbow is resting nonchalantly on top of the bench, touching her right shoulder; his unseen hand supports the back of his large head, which is tilted in her direction. They are both looking around, seemingly unaware of the photographer. I recall staring at the image for a long time, spellbound, trying to fathom its understated message, if any, and feeling oddly confident: inspired by the unexpected juxtaposition of art and real life.

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Image Above: ©Lawrence Schwartzwald, ‘Man reading about the Preacher Richard Allen with the help of a magnifying glass,’ Broadway near Columbia University / Courtesy of the artist.

Much later, in the early 90s, I began to photograph, as an amateur, poets and writers at reading events around the city: Allen Ginsberg, Gwendolyn Brooks, Denise Levertov, and others. I had been given some encouragement, picked up a better camera, and after a few weeks my first published photo ran on page one of The New York Times—a “weather photo” during a heat wave on July 10, 1993. A few weeks later the New York Post ran a celebrity photo of mine – Marisa Tomei made up to look pregnant on the film set of The Paper. For the past twenty years I’ve worked as a freelance photojournalist. I’ve continued to read, mostly poets. Now and then I would snap a literary figure or an image of someone – sometimes a celebrity – reading a book, newspaper, or other printed matter. In 2001 my candid shot of a book vendor on Columbus Avenue, with a scandalous bit of derriere exposed, made a minor sensation. He was reading one of his own books for sale beside a cardboard sign that read “ROMANCE BOOKS 1.00.” It ran large in the New York Post and soon after a reporter for The New York Observer wrote a hilarious column about it (“Wise Cracking on Columbus Avenue,” July 23, 2001) after interviewing the “portly peddler.”

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Image Above: ©Lawrence Schwartzwald, ‘Mercer St.,’ Soho / Courtesy of the artist.

Since then I have continued to seek out the readers, despite, and sometimes because of, the shuttering of bookshops and the ubiquity of the web and impersonal electronic reading devices. I discretely photograph my subjects, most are solitary and often incongruous, desperate, or vulnerable, engaged in what seems to be a vanishing art—the Art of Reading.

Lawrence Schwartzwald, 2014

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