Artist Spotlight: Barbara Alper
A freelance photojournalist with a career spanning 40+ years, Barbara Alper's eye focuses on landmark moments of social change, as well as intimate observations of everyday life. Evident across Alper's body of work is her desire to show viewers scenes of solidarity -- both on a grand scale as well as face-to-face on the streets where we live. It is this humanistic sensibility that drew the attention of the New York Times, leading to Alper's longtime association with the USA's newspaper of record.
We invited Alper to talk about some of the themes that recur in her photography, including recent forays beyond the safety of her New York City apartment during the Covid-19 lockdown.
The assignment to shoot Captain Don Leslie the Sword Swallower was one of my earliest jobs. It was for The Boston Phoenix, a weekly newspaper, and I became one of their main photographers. Capt. Don was “performing” at Faneuil Hall Market in Boston, a place I didn’t regularly frequent. If not for this gig I’d never have seen him. I arrived to find lots of people crowded around. At the start of the show his wife, standing at his side, held up an enlarged image of an x-ray showing the sword all the way down his throat, into his esophagus, to prove that it wasn’t a magician’s trick. As he started taking it in, I watched people’s faces, their expressions and reactions, and that said it all, that was the photo.
Another job for The Phoenix was to photograph the Bette Davis – Marilyn Monroe look-alike competition held at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). It was a scene like none other I’d photographed, and a challenge: the room was crowded making it difficult to get any space or distance from the Bettes or Marilyns, there was lots going on everywhere I looked. I had to narrow it down and guess who the winner might be in order to get shots of those contestants strutting about in character. It was a fabulous evening, and luckily the two I focused on were the winners.
I’ve always loved taking pictures of anything and everything wherever I go, and not just for jobs. It was easier to shoot in public pre-social media; people were less “camera conscious” and not as guarded as they are now.
Looking back, it’s almost hard to believe New York subways looked like this given how clean they are now. There was graffiti everywhere, inside and out, and the cars were dirty, gritty, and very crowded, filled with a diverse group of people, in race and style. The whole scene was a visual assault, I had to photograph it. Graffiti was a public art form that dominated the space, and riders were part of it. The city and the subways are cleaner now, but they had a lot more character then. That’s the trade-off. What an era.
Characters everywhere, that’s what New York City streets were full of, and this “Jesus Saves” man was a regular around mid-town Manhattan. We still have lots of characters, only now they’re grungier, or more outrageous. In Times Square they wear costumes and want you to pose with them for money. Women can be topless, like men, and it’s legal. The only place you would’ve seen topless women when Jesus Saves was walking around was in the strip clubs nearby. He knew where to be.
I used to love photographing the marches, it was history in the making and I wanted to be part of it. I believed in the causes and was compelled to photograph and preserve them. I didn’t know if or where my pictures would get published, but that wasn’t my reason for participating.
In terms of this picture, we’d already experienced the leak at Three-Mile Island, so The Anti-Nuclear Rally was important. Thousands of people marched thru mid-town and ended up in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow for a huge free concert with major names participating.
The protests for women’s rights and the right to choose was a cause close to my heart. I covered the demonstrations here in New York City and also travelled to Washington to participate in the big ones there. They were jam packed, filled with great energy and camaraderie, with signs and shouted slogans. It’s hard to believe we’re still fighting for these and other civil rights now, including equality among all people.
Back then, I could move around freely, and there were less restrictions. The demonstrations were generally calm and controlled, though police stood nearby with billy clubs just in case. Sometimes I had a press pass and used it, other times not, it didn’t matter much. Now, photographing these events is not as much fun. There are all kinds of restrictions, barricades and limited access, and lots of cops in control preventing people from going in or out except at designated points.
I’m not the type of photographer who runs to shoot wars, I avoid dangerous situations, like what we’re seeing today. It upsets me to watch these demonstrations that started out peacefully turn into rioting and looting when outside agitators joined. Trying to disperse the crowds, the police shoot tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets at them. It’s been horrifying to watch and sadly I fear joining even the peaceful demonstration to take pictures. I respect and appreciate those photographers who can put themselves in the middle of a fight to shoot it, but I can’t anymore.
I love traveling and exploring new places, especially with my camera. It’s a great trip when I’m walking around having fun discovering things and photographing.
I was walking around Paris one evening when the perfect photo presented itself. There, along the Seine, was a couple embracing with Notre Dame in the background. Paris is known as the City of Lovers, and here they were, in front of me. I couldn’t have set it up better if I wanted to.
On a trip to Cancun, I included a visit to Isla Mujeres, which translated means the Isle of Women. Instead of women though, I saw these two men on the beach embracing, with matching tattoos on their butts, they were perfect. I spoke with them and they didn’t mind my taking photos of their behinds.
Benches on the Upper West Side with tulips in New York City, 2020
Even with social distancing and stay at home orders, I had to get out and see how my neighborhood looked during this pandemic. I took my camera out for a walk. The streets were quiet, hardly any traffic, yet it was Spring, the weather was beautiful, and trees and flowers were blooming. Seeing the two empty benches in the middle of Broadway (on the Upper West Side) with tulips behind and hardly a car in sight, in either direction, seemed to sum up the moment.
Nuns in blue habits taking a group selfie, 2020
One Sunday I walked over to The Conservatory Garden in Central Park, as did others, for a look at what was in bloom. I photographed the tulips; they were spectacular and irresistible. But then, just as I was getting ready to start heading home, a group of nuns arrived. Spotting them in their blue habits taking a selfie with the tulips was a perfect moment, and I got the picture.
Barbara Alper's photography comes to FFOTO through a special partnership with Getty Images Gallery. Find a selection of prints by this artist, available in three sizes, at FFOTO.com