Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
The Bowery, like Broadway to its west, follows an original Lenape footpath spanning the island of Manhattan from south to north. In the Colonial era the area was filled with farms (Bowery comes from the Dutch word for farm: Bouwerij) and evolved in the late 18th century into a thoroughfare of handsome houses, stores, and respectable places of entertainment before sliding into disrepute in the post Civil War era. By the turn of the 19th century, the neighborhood and the street were infamous for prostitution, dive bars, derelicts, and a bad reputation that would continue through most of the 20th century. In 1970, when R. D. Smith turned up on the Bowery with his camera, the street was known as Skid Row. Even though the city took steps in the early 1970s to disperse the vagrant population, flophouses were still common in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before gentrification of the neighborhood began to accelerate. The last of the flophouses, White House Hotel, located between 2nd and 3rd Streets, operated until 2014; plans are currently underway to convert the four-story building into a nine-story luxury hotel.
Growing up in affluent New Canaan, Smith’s father worked in New York City and Smith remembers hearing about the Bowery and being told never to go there. So perhaps it isn’t too surprising that, early one winter morning, when he was a 21 year old photography student at Paier School of Art outside New Haven, he and two other students drove to New York City and headed straight for Skid Row.
The three parted ways to photograph the city. Smith remembers being very idealistic at the time. “I wanted to experience the Bowery first hand, the people and the place. I was surprised to find a dignity…that I did not expect.”
Smith exposed two 36 exposure rolls of Tri-X film over a period of about two hours. Earlier this year, the City Museum added 18 of the resulting photographs to its permanent collection.
Smith asked permission from each person before he photographed them. Though curious about the individuals and their stories, he didn’t feel it was appropriate to ask questions, so their interactions were limited to small talk about how cold it was, etc. When he asked an elderly woman whether he could photograph her, she initially refused. As he was walking away, she changed her mind. Smith said, “I have always wondered why she called me back.”
The only person whose permission he didn’t ask was the sleeping man. Smith said, “The only reason I printed it was because you cannot identify the person in the photograph. There were men sleeping everywhere in all kinds of positions and they were easy prey, but that was not what I was looking for. The sleeping man effectively communicates a very real situation anonymously.”
Smith hasn’t visited the Bowery in around twenty years, but he’s aware of the changes that have taken place in the neighborhood.
“There will always be homeless people and as a society I don’t know what can or should be done. I have very strong feelings for the people I met that cold December morning in 1970 and want to protect them as human beings. I care very much about where and how their photographs will be displayed and used, it must always be to honor them and never to exploit them…. I continue to feel they were to some degree victims of circumstances, whatever they may have been. No one, no one, would ever aspire to wind up on skid row.”
Born in Pittsburgh in 1949, Smith now lives in Guilford, CT, where he continues to photograph. He’s shown his work extensively. You can see all of the Bowery photographs acquired by the City Museum on the Museum’s Collections Portal, and view more of Smith’s work on his website.