The Forgotten City
“1980s-era New York was an edgier, riskier, dirtier, tenser, more dangerous and chaotic place” says Steven Siegel, a photographer who has been chronicling New York City for over forty years. Siegel grew up in the shadow of the New York skyline, just over the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey. The city was a part of his earliest memories: its presence was inescapable. In the mid-1970s, he began the first of many teenage trips across the bridge — with his camera.
His work from the late 1970s, throughout the 1980s, chronicles a city that we simply don’t see anymore. There was nowhere he didn’t visit or photograph. “Some of my photos from that era were taken from the tops of bridges and within city-owned properties that were nominally closed off to the public. In that era, many of these locations were open and accessible.” Needless to say, post 9/11, it is unlikely that those images could be recreated.
Siegel faithfully recorded what he saw: the beauty of the sun setting over a concert in Central Park, to the degradation and squalor of other parts of the city. His work unflinchingly shows the “appalling human and social cost” of the time. He says “Those who might be nostalgic for the edginess and riskiness of the 1980s were surely not the people who were growing up in the South Bronx and Bushwick”.
And always, he photographed the people of the city, capturing its “astonishing” diversity. In his own words: “New York is not one city. It is — and always has been — a collection of hundreds of neighbourhoods. Each of these neighbourhoods has its own delicate social fabric.”
His street portraits bring a liveliness and joy to otherwise sombre scenes. The characters in front of his lens transcend their surroundings. We are inspired to ask ourselves — where are they now? And where has that city gone?
Steven Siegel’s images are held in many public and private collections, including the New York Public Library and the Soho House Collection. He has been featured in the New York Times, among other publications. You might enjoy reading this interview with him (with images) about the subway junkyard in Jersey City that existed thirty years ago. It’s pretty surreal, to say the least.
He has literally thousands of images of New York from that era: priceless moments for someone who lived there at the time, or who is interested in the history of the city. Please just contact me if you would like to see more.