Last month the NY Times reported that it “was welcome news to learn this week that Peter D. Barbey, a Pennsylvanian with an inherited fortune derived from clothing and textile businesses, had bought The Village Voice with the goal of returning the newspaper to its central position, long since vanished, in the city’s cultural firmament.” Now I don’t know if the paper has already gone through the changes that Barbey sought but the most recent issue has an article that is journalism at its best, a profile of a photographer named Marcia Resnick who I became acquainted with in the 1980s through one of my closest friends, a woman named Laura Kronenberg who was one of Marcia’s closest friends as well.
The article is an amazing tale of how Marcia became one of the city’s best known and respected chroniclers of a now lost Bohemia, driven out by the high cost of real estate—the same economic pressures that forced Laura to move to Williamsburg where she lived a sad life until her death in 2010. In some ways Laura’s death from alcoholism was related to the loss of Manhattan as a hothouse for artists and poets. Perhaps if it were still a place for a poet, a photographer, a musician or a sculptor to get a foothold, Laura would still be alive. It is a credit to Marcia’s innate talents that she remains a powerful and respected presence in the city.
Marcia made many famous photographs over a long career that continues to this day but none as famous as this one of John Belushi:
The story of this photo can be seen on the website “This Long Century”:
In early September 1981 I spotted John Belushi in the New York after hours club AM PM. I asked him when he was going to do a photo session with me for my series Bad Boys: A Compendium of Punks, Poets and Politicians. He said, “Now”. I didn’t believe him, until upon returning home at six am I saw a limousine waiting in front of my building. I turned on the music as John and his entourage filed into my loft. I then directed John to an area lit by strobe lights and I began shooting.
John paced around like a caged animal, fidgeting incessantly. He seemed unable to sit still for my camera, uncanny for someone known for being deliberate and fluid when performing. “Where are the props?”, he queried. I first gave him sunglasses, then a scarf. He requested a beer, then a glass. After donning a black wool ski mask that he took off a nearby mannequin, he settled into a chair. Only his eyes and mouth peeked through the openings in the mask. The large, ominous and anonymous ‘executioner’ had finally reached his comfort zone.
A year after she took this photo, I accompanied Laura up to Marcia’s loft to hang out. In 1982 I was working as a consultant at Mobil Oil and working through the final stages of what amounted to PTSD from my days in the Socialist Workers Party, a cult-sect I had left in late 1978. It had manifested itself as a low-grade fever and kept me from enjoying life.
At the time Marcia was married to Wayne Kramer, the guitarist for MC5, the legendary Detroit based rock group that had been managed by John Sinclair, the leader of the White Panthers. Maybe because I was so shell-shocked by my time in the SWP, it didn’t occur to me to chat with Kramer about 60s stuff. I was also too ready to lump any “downtown” people into the general category of Bohemia, a lingering prejudice from my Trotskyist days.
As it turns out, Marcia was much more politically committed than I ever realized, not that Laura had much interest in filling me in. Her main topic of conversation when it came to Marcia was her photography and the wild times they used to have scoring drugs and hanging out with Andy Warhol’s entourage. As was the case with Laura, the “sixties” meant cultural as well as political rebellion. The Voice article states:
Soon after graduation, Resnick moved to Manhattan to attend NYU on a full academic scholarship. Almost immediately she started gravitating toward the Sixties counterculture then emerging on college campuses across the country. She joined the Students for a Democratic Society and began participating in anti-war marches. In 1968, when she was seventeen, she read Burroughs’s Junkie and promptly asked a friend to inject her with heroin every day for a week. It would be her first experience with hard drugs. (“I wanted to experience it and sought it out,” she says.)
On the advice of an NYU professor, Resnick transferred to Cooper Union and thrived for three years while she developed as a photographer and artist. She documented the Columbia University protests of 1968, and a photo of her at the demonstration, her body blocked by a police officer’s baton, appeared on the front page of the New York Times.
Marcia also had developed a feminist consciousness:
More specifically, she wanted to confront men — especially after returning from a trip to Egypt in July 1977, where she recalls being leered at and objectified by the men she encountered.
“You have to look at the time it was — it was right after women’s lib got big,” she says. “Men always photograph women. I was interested in what it would be like to photograph men. What kind of exchange would occur. The female gaze is very different.”
Of course, Egypt has gotten much worse since 1977. Women are not just leered at, they are raped and usually with impunity in a nation where all rights have been attacked under the rubric of a “war on Islamic terrorism”.
Besides the interesting information the article provides about Marcia’s evolution as an artist, it is a powerful commentary on the transformation of New York into a hedge fund manager’s amusement park. Everywhere you look, old and affordable neighborhoods are being transformed into condominiums, CVS’s, HSBC’s, and restaurants where a pasta dish cost $35.
“Everything is different,” Resnick says, shifting her gaze from one side of Canal Street to the other. She and Bockris have just hopped out of a cab at the corner of Canal and Washington in Tribeca. They’re making their way to Resnick’s old loft, where she lived from 1975 until 1990, and where the majority of the photos in her book were taken. Resnick now lives in the West Village, having sold the space to Lou Reed’s widow, Laurie Anderson. Even as a lifelong resident of a city that never stops changing, she’s amazed at how different her old neighborhood looks. “That building wasn’t here. Neither was that one,” she says, gesturing toward a pair of shiny new condos that flank the red-and-white-brick ex-warehouse that served as her home and studio for those fifteen years. She shakes her head. “Let’s cross the street.”
Today’s journey to Tribeca began in the East Village, where Resnick and Bockris sipped coffee at Veselka, the popular Ukrainian restaurant, and reminisced about the old days. Though he’d initially resisted the idea of seeking out the old loft, Bockris, 66, eventually hailed a cab, telling the driver to head west.
“This part of Christopher Street used to have more small businesses, mom-and-pop shops,” Resnick pointed out during the drive.
“I’m glad the Village looks mostly the same,” Bockris had offered. “This is Hudson, right? I used to walk up this street from my place to Marcia’s place.” As the cab neared Canal, Bockris had his hand poised on the door handle.
Now Resnick is in disbelief. “That’s my building: 530 Canal Street,” she says. “I used to have river views, but now my river views are blocked!” She pauses to watch some construction workers next door as they put the finishing touches on the interior of another steel-and-glass luxury residential complex to the west of her old building. “It was just this summer last time I was here. How’d that happen so fast? It’s amazing.”
Back in the sixties, when I was at my dogmatic worst, I used to sneer at the counter-culture. When I visited Laura in the late 60s at the Bowery loft she shared with her husband Tony Long, a good friend of mine who died in 2001, we used to argue about whether I had made the right decision to join the SWP. She was opposed to the war in Vietnam but did not think that socialist revolution made any sense. After I lost touch with Laura for the next 10 years as I lived around the country building party branches in Boston, Houston and Kansas City, we finally reunited at a high school reunion and remained good friends until her untimely death.
Now that I am a bit older and wiser, my view of social change is a lot more nuanced than it used to be when I saw an American revolution as a repeat of the 1930s with the added dimension of gays, Blacks, feminists et al. I suspect that in many ways the loss of creative expression in places like New York as it turns into a haven for Russian oligarchs living in $20 million apartments will deepen the alienation of ordinary people against what Allen Ginsberg called “moloch” in 1961. Long before I became a political rebel, I was a cultural rebel. When things begin to change for the better in this lost society, the two strands will likely come together and pose a challenge to the status quo unlike any we have seen since the 1960s or maybe its entire history for that matter.
For information on Marcia’s new book “Punks, Poets and Provocateurs” that the Voice article was celebrating, go to http://www.marciaresnick.com/.