Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Alec Quig and Will Steacy discuss Steacy’s work and what it means to photograph “the rough side of town.”
Will Steacy is like the lovechild of Charles Bukowski and Dorothea Lange. I first saw his work when he won the Magenta Foundation Emerging Photographers Award. His writing drew me closer. The son of a Philadelphia reporter, he is the author of the first blog“target=”blank I was ever compelled to read in its entirety. He seems to live on an elevated, rawer, more immediate plane of existence; sometimes I’m compelled to poke the motherfucker to see if he’s real. His work embodies a kind of classic sincerity and conviction that today is endangered. When you encounter something rare and surprising, you do a double take. As we talked, my curious scrutiny melted into stone-cold admiration. He’s already a legend in my own mind.
At the time of our discussion I was climbing north, between two cities that seem in their crumbling opulence more than anywhere else to be the face of the times: New Orleans and Detroit. Meanwhile, Will watched the entirety of the twinkling continent slide under his feet, traveling by air from Manhattan to California. Upon landing, he slung his camera over his shoulder and walked, through the middle of the night, from LAX to downtown Los Angeles. While images of Bernie Madoff and AIG execs flashed endlessly on our televisions, we puffed cigars and talked about cajones, the fate of the American city, and an Atlantic City boardwalk bluesman named Sammy.
Alec Quig There is one word that precedes this talk: cajones. You and your work have cajones to spare. I look at a mind-numbing quantity of photographs, and yours have more balls than most I see combined. How does that happen? Where does the courage come from?
Will Steacy It all changed for me in 2003 when I was almost murdered in a robbery. At the time I was working in a sneaker store and two guys came in before closing and put a gun to my head, tied me up, dragged me down to the basement and robbed the place. As I lay on that floor with a gun to my head, I thought that was it, I was going to die. But as I lay there I closed my eyes and suddenly this thing swept through me, I can’t really describe it in words really, but this thing told me that it was not my time to die, I had not yet done what I was put on this earth to do, I had not even begun it. When I opened my eyes the guys were gone. And obviously I was still alive.
AQ And suddenly, your eyes are open a little wider.
WS That thing that I had not yet begun was my art. That night was one of the greatest nights of my life. Since then I have devoted everything I have to my art, this gift, this thing that is the reason I am alive. Shit, I was supposed to die that night. Coming that close to death will change a man. Life has had a new meaning since then, and I wake up every day happy to be alive, happy to chase this dream, to follow this thing. But at the same time I am willing to die for it as well.
AQ So the requisite energy and courage flow from that.
WS My work is about being alive. My photographs are about life. And I push it as far as I can with every photograph I take. Sometimes this puts me in some very tight situations that could go many ways. I think a lot of it is about instincts—how well you can judge a situation before it goes bad. I grew up getting mugged, robbed, held up, and I have been in that place many many times when a situation instantly goes from something not feeling right to there being a gun in my face and some dude taking my jacket that my mom bought for me. That’s what makes it interesting, you usually have to fight for the things worth having. I’m the kind of fighter who likes a little blood in my mouth before I get going.
AQ I want to know why you’re pulled towards seedy places. Is it finding humanity in the inhumanity of it?
WS My work is about living. The camera allows me to ask questions, to truly see and think. And best of all, it is my connection. It allows me to penetrate the surface.
AQ But the homeless, the dangerous, the cheap strip joints, the ugly parts of town—is it because it’s what you know, coming up in Philly? Or instead, because it’s foreign?
WS That’s just where I am right now, perhaps it is where I have always been, perhaps it is all I know. I don’t really know. But those words can mean so much more. What might be dangerous might also be thrilling. There is guts, heart, passion, love and death in the dangerous.
AQ There are those people on Flickr talking about you and your work, some responding negatively, as if it’s a posture, saying, “I don’t buy it.” Although this kind of shit is par for web forums, it’s like, What is there not to “buy?” Even if you were raised in Chevy Chase, you’re defined by the work you’re doing. You have the photos to prove it.
WS Yeah. I know what you’re talking about. That was in response to a blog post I did a while back—people missed the point of what I was saying, chose to focus on one or two sentences, and take them out of context. But hey man, it’s the Internet! A place where the big mouth anonymous, people who love to hear themselves talk, choose to hide. These guys love to serve up that haterade, and as far as I am concerned, that’s great, I hope there are free refills. If you got something you want to say to me, just be real about it, be meaningful and thoughtful about it. I love intelligent dialogue.
AQ I can understand why people would scratch their chins at a white guy going into the bad part of town with his view camera to take pictures. But the fact of the matter is, America—and the world—is comprised of a million worlds, a million different realities. So of course we’re going to gravitate towards different worlds.
WS I recently got into a heated fight with someone who I have known for years and years. He said he had major problems with the work I was doing, that he didn’t understand the route I was taking, and that cities were not meant to be viewed in the way I was showing them. He didn’t agree with how I was choosing to address what he called “urban decline.” He claimed that not everyone could afford the white picket fence, so why is it not perfectly fine that these areas of the city exist in where they do? He thought I was being condescending by saying that there was something “wrong” with these places in my artist statement. I was really floored by this.
Then I thought, well, that is exactly what this work is about. There are tons of people in our country who share his point of view, It’s those people who won’t understand why I’m doing the work I’m doing. If someone has issues with the work I’m doing, that’s good, that’s the point. I asked my friend: is there not something “wrong” with violence, drugs, no local economy, a failing public education system, awful health conditions, abandoned buildings, streets in need of repair, etc.? These problems should not exist as they do in one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world. I hope that anyone who views these things as anything else but wrong will take a good hard look at my pictures and imagine themselves living in these places.
AQ It’s easy to forget that this exists, that this is life for some people. These people are invisible—though everyone hears, vaguely, about it. Places get reputations, and we gesticulate and weave myths about the worst parts of our cities; but few see it, whether in person, or in photo or video, on the news…it’s invisible.
WS Down These Mean Streets, my current project, examines fear and the abandonment of America’s inner cities. I am interested in the parts of the city you don’t want to be in at night; the part of town you drive through—not to—with the windows rolled up and doors locked.
AQ The places your parents warned you about.
WS Yeah. The work has been fueled by America’s preoccupation with national safety, protecting our country from foreign forces, while we’ve lost sight of what it is we’re fighting for. We have forgotten our own cities, neighborhoods, and streets. By addressing the overwhelming loss and despair that prevail in our urban communities, I want to make a modern day portrait of the American inner city.
AQ At night, in the light of broken up, crooked streetlights, neon, and police sirens.
WS I have a set routine, photographing only at night with a large format view camera, I am walking from the airport to the central business district of American cities, photographing my journey.
The route that I take is very important. I’m choosing to focus on the areas in between. “The rough part of town,” as opposed to the central business district and airports themselves. The relationship between the CBD and airport, the geographical placement of each, is very important. This is a project I have had in mind for several years now, and as a recipient of The Tierney Foundation Fellowship this year, I’m able to fund it. Problems and issues can not be solved if they are not first identified. I believe in this work. Yes, of course, it is partly about me and what I am doing, what I may or may not be risking or feeling.
AQ And this is spurred by reading things like The Death and Life of Great American Cities, American Project, etc.
WS Yeah, how cities were built in relation to housing and neighborhoods surrounding the local factories, warehouses, mills. And how de-industrialization has impacted those areas today, wiped them out. The geographical reference of the the airport and CBD also instantly provides an understanding of where I am and what the area is like. The fact that people only vaguely know these areas and no one walks through them is the whole point!
In most cities, people are instantly able to understand and visualize this area from their experience going to and from the airport. It’s an area they wouldn’t walk through. I ask, why wouldn’t you walk through it? “Because it’s dangerous,” they say; and I ask, Why is it dangerous? As the son of a newspaper reporter and grandson of a newspaper editor, my aim is to reveal a truth. I honor and continue the tradition and values that they lived by. I want my viewer to put themselves on that corner in that neighborhood and really think about it.
AQ One of ol’ Walker Evans’s famous quotes is, “I feel that art is aristocratic and an artist is an aristocrat.” Though, like most, I imagine your attitude towards Evans is one of respect or even reverence, much of your work seems … like a challenge to that mentality.
WS Diego Rivera once told Edward Weston that the artist is a worker—whether or not he lived the life of an aristocrat or a worker is another thing. And Evans, who I admire greatly, was perhaps responding to the stark contrast between his subjects in the deep south and his contacts within the art world.
AQ It’s easy to see people like Friedlander, de Kooning, Schnabel as workers as opposed to aristocrats like … Eggleston. ’Cause, you know, they’re getting dirty, wearing themselves out. And of course the pre-Renaissance painters were tradesmen. I suppose it’s just evolution, especially over the past few hundred years, that’s flipped the script.
WS I approach everything with the intensity and blue collar toughness that I learned on the job site. Art can be anything and everything, and I think the beauty of it all is in what you make of it, how you let if define your life. There is no “art is for rich people” or the privileged. If art is anything, it is all of us, it is to be alive, it is the human experience, whether it is cave paintings, a guy jerking off on a canvas, or a gun to your head. It is what it is, too big for words.
AQ The Evans quote is striking for the very certitude with which he makes a categorization. It’s something you want to contradict and question immediately, because it’s so one-sided. I’d say the artist is simultaneously an aristocrat and a worker, and people usually focus disproportionately on one side of that equation.
WS As a former Union Laborer, I tend to side with Rivera, but that is just me. Photographs from Vietnam, and, today, photographs from Abu Ghraib, have shown us injustice and brutality that, even today, just when we think we have seen it all, we see something like that and it slaps you in the face. There’s nothing aristocratic about those images. But perhaps they’re not “art.” Some images end up in a white box and others end up on the front page of the Times. Why does it take fifty years for some images to go from the Times to the galleries?
AQ Well, that’s another thing. You’re the son of a reporter. You can write like hell, and your photos are “realist.” Your work is a lot like being a journalist, and if I’m not mistaken, you’ve said so yourself. If someone told you that your work walks a tightrope between art and journalism, what would you say?
WS I never know what to say when people ask me what kind of work I do, or when they tell me I shoot this way or that. My work is all heavily influenced by social events, and with each picture I take I’m interested in the story, the guts. And this is perhaps where my journalist blood takes over. Most of my photographs have a piece of writing to accompany them. Writing is very much a crucial part of my process and how I see. There is something that happens in the gradient between photographs and writing. The two merge into a single form, into a different medium.
AQ Well, it’s usually amazing and illuminating to hear the stories behind images, but it also takes some of the enigma away, narrows the scope of interpretation.
WS Here lies my dilemma: at almost every gallery show I’ve had, the curator is not interested in the words. And this is understandable. Their focus is to sell photographs. Text for them gets in the way, becomes a distraction. And in terms of journalism, my photographs are too abstract, or deemed “too-fine art.” My work comes from both places, but sometimes feel like it’s fragmented. Maybe I haven’t yet figured out how to create a blend between the two that works, or I haven’t yet figured out a way to live with that fragmentation. There is always more work to be done, new stories, new ways to show this or that, and perhaps when it does feel finished and complete and there’s no more work to be done, and then I’ll be done, and it’ll be time to put down the camera.
AQ On that note, let’s talk about the story behind Sammy. This picture knocked me flat on my ass the first time I saw it.
WS I was walking along the Atlantic City boardwalk and I kept hearing some of my favorite blues songs. As I got closer I discovered a man singing over instrumentals coming from a homemade speaker attached to a push cart. I stood for a while and listened to this man, who called himself Sammy, sing his fucking heart out.
WS He eventually took a break and I introduced myself. We got to talking about my camera, which at first he thought it was some sort of homemade video camera. He said he had many video cameras that he’d rigged up, and that he made videos of himself. We spoke for about an hour trading stories about fighting and musicians and places we have been, how his father used to spar with Joe Louis and how he taught him as a boy to fight south paw, and how through the years he always won his fights by switching to lefty in the middle of a fight. And how he isn’t homeless, and he rents a room from a Vietnamese couple and they trust him and have given him a key to their place.
And the stories began to repeat in one form or another, but this time more exaggerated and impressive. His hat collection went from fifty-nine hats to one-hundred and ten hats, one time he beat up seven guys at one time and another time he beat up twenty-nine guys at a time. I was instantly devastated. I began to question everything he told me. While he spoke I drifted off in thought. About occupying the lowest rank in society. How people don’t want you in front of their stores. People won’t even look at you. And I ultimately decided in that reality sometimes exact numbers don’t matter so much. What is real in a world that is already unreal?
AQ Singing the blues, in darkness, through this unbelievable DIY mic-amplifier.
WS He would sometimes put the wire and the microphone in this picture around his neck, so his hands were free to change songs or put change in his pocket. In some ways Sammy is functioning at the most basic levels of human survival, literally just getting by. But at the same time, he is he is truly alive. Whether or not he actually was a good fighter or played at the Apollo doesn’t matter, here is a man who didn’t know where his next meal was coming from, but sang his fucking heart out every night on the boardwalk. Maybe this “homeless” guy on the boardwalk wailing his heart out is really just telling us his story. And I hope that someone listens. I hope someone really listens.
Will Steacy‘s work will be on display at the New York Photo Festival, along with other recipients of the Tierney Fellowship, in the Tobacco Warehouse, Brooklyn, May 13–17, and at New York University’s Gulf & Western Gallery (opening reception June 4).
For more from Alec Quig, visit his website: here.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.