Monday, November 28, 2011

Alex Harsley and 4th St. Photo

Photo: Brian Rose

In 1973, Alex Harsley was the first Black man to open a photo gallery in New York City- The 4th St. Photo Gallery. He was the only African American photo gallerist then- a unique distinction one would think he would have well lost by now in a city so culturally diverse and inundated with galleries of every type and reason. Then again, how many people of any color have run a gallery in Manhattan that long? No, we're not talking some multi-thousand sq. ft. gallery in Soho, Chelsea or the Upper East Side. His is a modest storefront operation where photographers of every style and demographic have gone to meet other photographers since well before the internet and chew the fat with whoever happened to be there- be it the enthusiastic, aspiring unknown having his first show, or the the old curmudgeon from around the corner named Robert Frank.

One of the first things you realize about Alex Harsley is just how unimposing he is. He sets you at ease, does not inflict his ego upon yours- rare in a city where everyone makes it a point to tell you everything that they think they are within the proverbial New York minute. And despite the fact that he wasn't exactly welcomed with open arms upon first arriving on 4th St.- after nearly forty years, "the lights still turn on." Or as he puts it, "If they had left me alone, I probably wouldn't have lasted so long."

Alex is not a bitter man, doesn't dwell on the negative, whether dealing with racism or the other multitude of obstacles life throws your way. He looks at the big picture and how things fit in context, in history, in current and future society. And that is, no doubt, at least in part how he has been able to adapt, overcome and survive since he founded Minority Photographers, Inc. in 1971 to address the obvious lack of opportunities for minority photographers. After his own first show, Alex was taken to task by none other than A. D. Coleman in a scathing review. He then made it a point to confront Mr. Coleman in person, not so much to even the score, but to see where the man (the critic) was coming from- yeah, he turned it into a learning moment. The two would remain cordial, long enough to see Mr. Coleman himself get ostracized for giving one too many critical reviews when it came to one particularly well connected photographer.

In a city that almost commands you to reach for the top whatever the cost, Alex never sought out the limelight; he kept his bearings, never lost his base. It's the same steady, quiet kind of confidence and perseverance that allowed him to ride a bike in NYC well past his youth and well before the advent of "bike lanes." Something I could never summon the courage to do. 

After you've gone to all the big blockbuster shows in NY and played street photographer extraordinaire on the city corners of your choosing, make sure to amble down Loisaida way between Bowery and Second Ave. and discover one of photography's most under celebrated resources hidden in plain sight. As long as the lights are on, a wealth of info, experience and hospitality awaits you.

PS- Before I moved, Alex advised me against a very common (and surprisingly unhealthy) darkroom practice- I rolled my eyes with a face that screamed... what, really, you sure about that!? And he shot my youngblood self back a look that said- you wanna be a fool, stay a fool! That's another reason he's survived so long, so well- nice as he is, he doesn't readily suffer fools.

No comments: