All photos by Harvey Wang
Apr 21, 2021
Revisiting photographer Harvey Wang’s Brooklyn of the 1970s-’80s
Amid a pandemic that has hit New York City incredibly hard, there is some comfort in revisiting beautiful images from previous trying times
In New York City, the pandemic has taken more lives and shuttered more businesses than anywhere else in the country. The total number of reported cases since the beginning of the pandemic has surpassed 900,000 in the city and is inching towards the million mark.
As I thought about what a new New York could look like, I returned to the work of Harvey Wang, who brilliantly documented how the city—and Brooklyn specifically—changed during the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
Park Slope, 1986 (Harvey Wang)
Attempted suicide, Brooklyn Bridge, 1979 (Harvey Wang)
In 1977, when he was just 21, Harvey became the very first intern at the Village Voice, assisting Fred McDarrah, its legendary photographer and photo editor. Harvey shots clubs and rough-edged street scenes, but he noticed something else: Older immigrants were leaving and “into the void poured … artists, musicians, and creative young people,” he says.
“As a young person, I thought it was a unique moment of change,” he tells me. “But of course the city is constantly experiencing change and transformation.”
Coney Island, confirmation girls, 1977 (Harvey Wang)
Coney Island, 1980 (Harvey Wang)
Coney Island, 1981 (Harvey Wang)
Temperamentally, Harvey was the right photographer for the time. “I was always drawn to capture what I felt was being lost—places, moments, professions.” (Professions like seltzer bottler, matzoh baker, junk collector among others, which his celebrated 1990 book “Harvey Wang’s New York,” focuses on, with a forward by none other than Pete Hamill.)
George Williams, seltzer bottler, Canarsie (Harvey Wang)
Naftalie Lichtenstein, Matzoh Baker, Brooklyn (Harvey Wang)
Mary Morisi, pasta maker (Harvey Wang)
Max Morrison, junk collector, 1986 (Harvey Wang)
But given the city’s desperately bleak economic situation, he was also right stylistically. And he spent no small amount of time in less-fashionable Brooklyn, having lived in Downtown Brooklyn, Ditmas Park, Carroll Gardens and Windsor Terrace, as well as Manhattan. “I had an aesthetic appreciation for the urban landscape and I’d fallen in love with the Depression-era photographers so was attracted to scenes that were reminiscent of those images.”
With so many things to shoot in a city like New York, what was it that stopped him cold and lured him take a picture?
“Sometimes the thing that caught my eye was the play of light and geometry,” he says. “But in portrait work, it was the person, their story, and the setting that excited me. I’ve always wanted to let people who are rarely heard from tell their stories in a dignified way.” As the borough changes yet again, I hope someone with Harvey’s skill and sensitivity is taking note.
Park Slope, 1986 (Harvey Wang)
Polar Bears, Coney Island, 1981 (Harvey Wang)
Sol Berhardt & Mollie Ballis, social dancers, Brighton Beach (Harvey Wang)
Eddie Day, Cyclone brakeman, Coney Island (Harvey Wang)
If you enjoy these photos, check out his excellent Instagram feed here.
For the Camera Curious: “I started with a Nikkomat in high school, and used Nikons until I bought a 1939 Leica IIIC. Eventually, I mostly used a Leica M2 and Hasselblad 500C.”
Coney Island, 1986 (Harvey Wang)
Marathoners, 1984 (Harvey Wang)
Brighton Beach, NYC, 1980 (Harvey Wang)
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