August 12, 1988
Fresh out of the Army after a four-year hitch, I moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The apartment broker who got me to sign the lease made the 12x10 studio apartment I plunked down $1000.00 for the realtor’s fee (on top of the $500.00 deposit) seem like a luxury penthouse suite. The full bath was right down the hall, and my windowsill didn’t have too much pigeon shit on it. Through a soot-covered window that had to be propped up with a stick, I had a bird’s eye view of the other flats across the alleyway. It was just like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but without the alluring Technicolor or the even more alluring Grace Kelly. My tiny room never was graced by any soul other than my own, because I hightailed it out of there once I figured out I was living in a welfare hotel, where the guests were even filthier than the cockroaches.
The sonofabitch real estate guy must have seen this twenty-three year-old greenhorn coming a mile away. I practically had a neon sign on my forehead that read, “NAÏVE HICK.”
But, I didn’t care: I was in New York City, the capital of the world, the place where what matters happens, 24/7.
I was in town just two days off the Amtrak from West Virginia, when I heard on 1010 WINS news radio about the protests against Martin Scorsese’s latest release, The Last Temptation of Christ. There were a lot of Roman Catholics and, especially, Greek Orthodox Christians angry over the auteur’s screen adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial novel, which was deemed impossible to film – the Double Indemnity of its time.
An atheist at the time (I would later convert to Roman Catholicism), I worshipped at the altar of Martin Scorsese’s dark homilies to gothic Gotham. Taxi Driver and Raging Bull were my Holy Grails from which I drank every bloody, sweaty, frame. The very film that cemented my decision to plunk down all my Benjamins and move to the Big Apple was his black comedy, After Hours. A city so filthy, so cynical, so maddening – yet so damn electric – beckoned to me like a siren’s song.
I was almost flat broke. I was splurging on hotcakes and sausage links with O.J. at the Howard Johnson’s on Times Square every morning, and was down to my last $10.00. Great – just enough to buy a ticket at the Ziegfeld Theater on West 54th Street. I walked the 50-plus blocks (I had just two subway tokens left in my pocket, and wouldn’t be paid at my messenger job until next Friday). No more Hojo’s. For the next week, I’d be living off Campbell’s soup from the hotplate, saltines, and tap water. I still prided myself that I was still one rung above the Ramen noodles stage of student poverty.
I only had one roll of film to last me until payday. I “pre-visualized” the exciting photos of the protest I would get, of fist fights, people tearing down signs, rioting, and setting fire to the theater. “Better be careful to conserve my film,” I thought quite prudently.
Unfortunately, the demonstrations were much more civil than took part in my imagination. The acolytes who came to bury Martin Scorsese hadn’t even seen the movie they were condemning. Yet, they were orderly and polite, mainly hoisting their placards in silence as “tolerant,” loudmouthed liberals shouted epithets at them across police barricades. “It’s people like you that ushered people like Hitler into power!” And so on.
There was a minority of liberals of the old school who tried to reason with the protestors, but it was like trying to debate a brick wall. One young lady captured the essence of the truly tolerant. “IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM, THEN KEEP YOUR ADVICE TO YOURSELF!” read her poster. She and her two friends were pretty much the only people there that day that made any sense.
One old man standing in line to see the flick, obviously Jewish (the dead giveaway was the keepah on his head), was screaming at the Christians, “This movie is a masterpiece! It’s Scorsese’s magnum opus, a great work of art!” I asked him if this was going to be his second or third viewing, and he told me, “No, this is the first time I’m seeing it.” Then, how was he so sure this was such a great movie? He answered that he read Janet Maslin’s column in the Times, that’s how he knew.
Two hours later, after I burned the twenty-four exposures in my Ricoh KR-5, I went into the Ziegfeld, and assumed my seat for the ticket I purchased when I arrived. Needless to say, apart from excellent performances from Harvey Keitel and Willem Dafoe, this was not Martin Scorsese’s masterwork. Still, if I were Jesus, I’d do Barbara Hershey. Some women are just too tempting. Today, the film remains mainly a curiosity, more notorious than noteworthy. Scorsese’s at his best when he sticks to Ray Liotta slamming trunk lids on bleeding gangsters, while Tony Bennett and Saul Bass work their magic on the drive-by titles.
These prints are my photographic essay of the protests that day. Like a true professional photographer, I rushed back to my apartment, got out the brown bottles, and went to the communal latrine to develop the roll of these sacred images. I was so excited about the shots I got, that it wasn’t until one minute into the initial agitation that I realized I poured stop bath into the tank!
I dumped the stop and filled the can with straight developer, and constantly agitated for a solid hour. What I got were the most wretchedly dark and flat negatives imaginable. Still, the power of the compositions was undiminished. In a couple weeks at the Hunter College darkroom I made 8x10 prints of all the exposures, which I sold most of at an exhibition the next year.
Over the next few years, the negatives went into storage. During this period, a flood filled the basement they were housed in, the water mixing with chemical fertilizer that was also stored on the cellar floor. When I attempted to rescue my negatives years later, seventy-five percent of them were totally corroded by the Scott’s Turf Builder primeval soup. Among those graciously spared were half the images from my Last Temptation shoot.
I can only conclude that there was some divine force that wanted these photographs to survive two chemical catastrophes from which they never ought to have recovered. These negatives are the photographic equivalent of Lance Armstrong getting AIDS after recovering from cancer.
The Lord works in mysterious ways.
-- Rochester, Minnesota, December 6, 2008