In early 1972, I spent a week with William Burroughs in London, photographing a cover story for Rolling Stone. Burroughs’ radical ideas about power, control, and money touched me deeply. When I returned to New York, I began photographing the financial district in a whole new style. I’d never taken photographs like this before–but I knew at once I’d hit an exciting groove. Thanks for the inspiration, William!
An Interview with Charles Gatewood
Sensitive Skin Magazine: What is it that initially drew you to Wall Street? It’s so much different than your subject matter at the time – rock stars and bohemians – and later – alt culture.
Charles Gatewood: I grew up in the Missouri Ozarks, and I was eager to leave Missouri and see the world. After graduating from the University of Missouri (Anthropology and Art History), I hitch-hiked to Manhattan and took a look around. I was especially struck by lower Manhattan’s eye-popping urban landscapes, the granite canyons, towers of glass and steel–eyeball kicks for sure!
After graduate school, I knocked around Europe for a few years, and learned photography by interning with a group of Swedish photographers. In 1966,I moved to a Lower East Side tenement tub-in-kitchen apartment ($52 a month), had business cards printed, and declared myself a Fine Art Photographer. Later, in 1970, I rented a half-raw loft at 141 West Broadway, near Towers Cafeteria (later called the Odeon). I was close to the financial district, so I began taking photo walks there. It was especially interesting on Sundays, when traffic was light and only a few pedestrians were around.
In January, 1972, I spent a week with William Burroughs in London, doing a feature for Rolling Stone magazine. Burroughs’ ideas about conditioning, power, and control stimulated me, and when I returned to New York, I began to explore Wall Street as metaphor, a poetic photo-rant about neo-fascist architecture and wage-slave robots, the cold glass-and-steel environment that said The World is a Business.
I worked on this photographic essay from 1971-1976. The New York State Arts Council gave me two fellowships to continue the work, and when I published a small edition of WALL STREET, I was awarded the Leica Medal of Excellence for Outstanding Humanistic Photojournalism.
SSM: I just love the photograph we’ve used for our cover for this issue – the man partially hidden behind the pole. Did you time that perfectly, or just get lucky? Or both?
CG: I saw the pole/wall composition immediately–all I need was a faceless businessman. I lined up the shot, and took pictures of every person who walked behind the pole. I worked it for about an hour–until bingo, the magic happened. I’m really proud of that photograph.
SSM: That photograph, and some of the others, look very painterly. A couple of people didn’t believe me when I first showed them the shot – they were sure it was a photo-realistic painting! How did you get that effect, back in the pre-Photoshop days?
CG: I studied Art History at the University, and all the photographers I liked made strong, well composed pictures. As for my pictures having “that look,” I used slow, super-sharp Panatomic-X film, and printed the prints in cold, silver tones that gave the dark mood I was seeking.
SSM: When you shoot these days, do you still use film? Or have you stopped fighting the good fight and moved to digital?
CG: I used film until a few years ago–but when I saw how what digital photography could do I was amazed. I now keep a small Lumix LX-5 in my pocket, and you can’t believe what that camera can do. If I’d had the LX-5 as a child, I would have been a photographer as a child, I’m sure of it.
SSM: You took these photos in the early ‘70s, which was the last time the country’s economy was as depressed as it is now. Wall St. looks really bleak and depressing in these photographs – is that really what it looked like for the most part, or was it a look you sought out?
CG: New York City in the mid-70s was flat broke (tabloid headline: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD)–and I tried to capture that financial desperation in my pictures.
SSM: Nowadays, of course, with the economy in the tank, Wall St. and the one percenters are doing better than ever. Have you ever thought or revisiting Wall Street for an update? The contrast might be amazing…
CG: Give me a break–I’m seventy years old, and my back hurts from carrying all my gear. If Wall Street wants, it can revisit ME.
SSM: Does Wall St. strike you as a subculture as insular and unusual, in its own way, as the tattoo, piercing, rock star or porn worlds?
CG: Wall Street symbolizes greed, corruption, and money addiction. Picture a tribe of white men in expensive suits chanting, “Greed is Good,” and you got it.
SSM: What sort of photographs are you taking these days? What inspires you?
CG: I have to admit, my digital technology has changed my seeing. Late yesterday afternoon, I took about fifty pictures of the sun cutting patterns on the carpet beneath a blowing curtain. One picture is absolutely killer, and I never would have taken that shot with old-school technology.
SSM: Isn’t there a new Wall Street book coming out soon, with an introduction by William S. Burroughs? I know he did the intro for Sidetripping, is this something he did specifically for the Wall Street work, or does it just fit?
CG: Yes indeed. I looked through all my Wall Street negatives and printed about thirty new images. This summer, I played with layout–juxtapositions, sequences, and so on. The book looks great–I just sent the dummy to the designer, and when it’s ready I will get permission to use of the Burroughs texts and put it on the New York market. I’m excited–the expanded version has twice as many photographs, and with the Burroughs text, it sizzles!
SSM: You’ve got a career retrospective, spanning 50 years, running at the Robert Tat Gallery in San Francisco till November 30. How do you think the Wall Street work fits in with your earlier, rock portrait work, or the later modern primitive stuff? It seems to me that what ties together your work is a certain fearlessness – your lens never shies away from the power, fame, danger, sexuality or perhaps even downright weirdness of your subjects. Would you agree? Or is there something else that I’m missing that you’d like to talk about?
CG: New York in the Seventies was a crazy place, and you had to watch your ass. I went anywhere–drug scenes, riots, dangerous neighborhoods. The New York Times hired me for “alternative” stories. Gallery owner Marge Neikrug called me “gutsy.” I was only mugged once, and then I chased the creep and got my camera back. Much of my work is dangerous in one way or another. Wait until Wall Street executives see my new book WALL STREET with the blistering Burroughs text–they may come to get me. Just remember–I’m fearless, ha ha.