In Conversation: Gun Roze on his series MANHATTAN 1982
"Toronto is a kind of New York operated by the Swiss". The late actor Peter Ustinov offered up that stinging (and enduring) observation in 1987. That quote popped into my mind while working with Gun Roze on the sensational collection of 51 compositions we've put together for FFOTO, which includes many works previously unavailable to collectors.
In 1980, Gun Roze began regularly visiting a close friend who had moved to New York City. During these trips, he plunged headfirst into a vibrant culture that felt radically different from his experiences in Toronto. Fascinated by all that he saw, in 1982 Roze started making photographs of life at street level in Manhattan, creating an engrossing visual history which captures the daily (and nightly) rhythms of New Yorkers.
Drawn to the city, Roze became a resident of Manhattan from 1997-2015, making a career as a Master Colour Printer and immersing himself full-time in his adopted home base. Time passed, and the negatives for MANHATTAN 1982 were filed away and forgotten. In 2012, while organizing his archives, Roze rediscovered his stash of negatives, and immediately recognized the significance of these photographs made during his young adulthood.
In this conversation, Roze shares recollections about the photographs he made in 1982, his impressions about how the nature of street photography has evolved between then and now, the distinctions between uptown and downtown style, and more.
Craig D'Arville, Co-founder, FFOTO
Craig D'Arville: Manhattan in the early 1980s forms the inspiration for your series MANHATTAN 1982. Can you set the stage for us, and talk about your personal discovery of New York City at that moment in time?
Gun Roze: In 1980, a very good friend of mine moved to New York City. She had an apartment and I was encouraged to come and visit her. I would follow her where she went, and then we would go out and explore. Coming from Toronto, which was still quite conservative, everything was more underground — all the interesting things in Toronto were happening underground — but New York was aboveground. To me, I was suddenly in a candy store of visuals and experiences; it was all right there in front of me and I felt like Alice in Wonderland. I was immediately enchanted and realized that the freedoms that I was witnessing - freedom to dress however you please, and how uniquely New Yorkers conducted their lives, it was all so different from what I knew in Toronto.
Craig D'Arville: And that exposure to a less-inhibited energy among people and places forms the genesis of this series.
Gun Roze: Yes exactly. By 1982, after raving about New York to friends when I’d come back to Toronto, I thought the best way to show my friends what it was that was exciting to me was to document it. And that's how MANHATTAN 1982 initially came about; as a way to share what I was experiencing. I consciously bought as much 35mm film as I could and, over two trips, made these photographs. It was very personal. I had no ulterior motive or intentions down the road.
Gun Roze: Well, cameras were a rare presence, out and about in public. Generally, the only people that had cameras were professional photographers, people working for the media and maybe the odd person, so it was a rarity to see somebody with a camera. My hot corner was Fifth Avenue at East 57th Street, because I felt like there was so much going on at that intersection, and, I got a lot of glances but never scowls or that kind of thing. It was more a curiosity, like: "Who is this guy?" Because keep in mind, Bill Cunningham was doing his thing for W Magazine and he was well respected and highly regarded. It was an honour to be captured by Bill, and then hopefully you'd be featured in the next issue. You know, for New Yorkers, that was a big game. People would dress for his coroner. It was a fashion game; a style-slash-fashion game. So that curiosity might have been there. Also, I wasn't threatening in any way; I just stood there with my camera out and people could feel that the energy coming from me wasn't negative or creepy in any way. I never really encountered any resistance.
It was very organic and I got a lot of cooperation. Completely different from today. And my approach was to clearly aim my camera at them, and even walk up to within six feet of a subject, and sometimes they would look into the camera and often, very nonchalantly, be given permission to photograph them. I think I maybe experienced one or two moments of resistance, and I did have some people say to me, "Which magazine are you working for?" My response would be to tell them that I just love New York, they look wonderful, and I wanted to take their picture. And that was it.
Craig D'Arville: We're skirting around the idea of documenting style, which is a huge subset of social media accounts these days because people like to look at how people pull looks together. One of your preferred corners on the Upper East Side but you also made plenty of photographs showing a more "downtown" style. Were you paying attention to the subtler signifiers of class and status, and the different types of in-groups?
Gun Roze: I'd say that back in the early 80s,between uptown and downtown, there was a big divide; there was a clear divide. Uptown people did not go downtown. Downtown was not chic and hip back then; it was rough but it was the artist Mecca, right? And that was a just a known divide. That was the big difference. So downtown was all the experimental and highly creative aspects of fashion and culture -- Punk was still happening, but New Wave was kicking in. Disco was still kind of lingering but fading out. So all that was going on, along with all the working people down there.
Craig D'Arville: Was there a generational divide? Any intermingling between uptown and downtown folks?
Gun Roze: Always the younger kids; they are the ones who are more adventurous and... probably the wealthier young kids would go downtown to the Mud Club or wherever to experience the pulse of the city, and to learn what was really going on musically and artistically and creatively. But the older set, the established wealth and all that, uptown was their zone. There weren't even art galleries down there that could draw the big money -- a huge change compared to today.
However, things were really bubbling up from nothing in the early 80s. New York was rebuilding itself in that decade and would transform itself over the decade.
Craig D'Arville: Right. The city went bankrupt. Gun Roze: Exactly, in the mid-1970s the city was bankrupt. That's why you could feel this incredible energy that cultivated a real "anything goes" attitude. A rising-out-of-the-ashes kind of thing. There was nothing to lose. So that was downtown.
Craig D'Arville: As a young person from Toronto experiencing that energy, you were drawn to clubs and performance spaces. What got your attention when you went out at night?
Gun Roze: I think just anybody could get my attention. I mean, I didn't always photograph because sometimes I just wanted to go dancing, and it's very difficult to do that with a bulky camera, right? And I was not that kind of going-out person that literally had their camera with them all the time. It was just certain times. So the pictures from the Roseland Ballroom happened because I wanted to photograph the band. And then I'd notice interesting people around me. It was really packed. And there was a variety of looks -- from preppy kids to the New Wave, and punky goth kids. There was never any tension between the groups. We were all there for the same reason: To have a good time. And of course back then people could smoke anywhere, indoors or out, so that's there's so many cigarettes in the photos. That was just the norm, right? And if you didn't like it, you left.
Craig D'Arville: What about the Halloween pictures. Those have so many great details that are specific to the pop culture of the time.
Gun Roze: We didn't have anything like that in Toronto but in New York... Basically it wasn't a parade; in the West Village it was more like a roving party. Hundreds; maybe even a couple of thousand people gathered. It was unpredictable, it was wild. Yes, people were drinking, and doing drugs, and smoking, but it was a joyous celebration of a variety of people coming together, you know, New Yorkers and tourists. And it was an opportunity to freely express yourself as you desired. Drag was a huge presence around Halloween. Drag hadn't become commercial or mainstream yet; it was still being introduced, so a lot of people could be in drag, somewhat safely, on Halloween and live out their fantasy and get away with it. This is also right at the start of the Aids epidemic.
Craig D'Arville: Your photograph of Marsha P. Johnson is a standout portrait in this collection.
Gun Roze: You know, I didn't spend that much time in the West Village, other than the odd walk. I just wasn't socially aware back then, or tuned into the issues of the LGBTQ community, even though I am a member of it. My photograph of Marsha came about through a bit of good luck. I was walking down Christopher Street and from about a block away, I saw this very colourful peacock-like character that I was just magnetically drawn towards. I was so enchanted, but I had no idea whom I was talking to. I said,"You look so lovely. Can I take your photo?" And Marcia said, "Of course", and I got that big beaming smile. I got one photo and then I took another one of the person that Marcia was hanging out with, talking to on a stoop. That was it. I just felt such an uplifting feeling from that encounter. I only found out that it was Marsha P. Johnson when I rediscovered my negatives in 2012 and a friend of mine said, "You photographed Marcia P Johnson!" Such a great discovery to make in my archive.
Craig D'Arville: There are several notable people in some of these photos. And you continue to identify people in these pictures, right?
Gun Roze: Gyda Gash is another recently identified notable New Yorker. These IDs came about, once again, through the Facebook photography group, Manhattan Before 1990. I posted the portrait of Gyda to the group recently because so many people who had seen the photo in a recent exhibition had been speculating who she might be. Once identified, I learned that Gyda is a native New Yorker and musician; since the late 1970s she has played in several punk/goth/metal acts, including being a current member of both Sabbath Warlock and The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Anyway, I'm researching her and I guess somebody had tipped her off from the Facebook group because I received a message from Gyda saying, "I think that's me. Can we talk a little bit more and figure out the context?" I told her when and where I made the photograph and she was able to send me another photograph of her from that same year, with that same red hair, which confirmed the ID.
Craig D'Arville: Let's talk about your rediscovery of these photographs.
Gun Roze: Right. So in the beginning, I made little prints to show my friends in Toronto. Then, the box of negatives was put aside and that was that. I didn't think about them again, even when I moved to New York in 1997. When I had access to my own colour darkroom in New York, and could print whenever and whatever I wanted, I would have my mother randomly select boxes from my archives, which were in storage at her place. She'd send down a box or two whenever she could. In 2012, a box arrived that was labelled MANHATTAN 1982 and I thought, "My God, what did I photograph 40 years earlier?" -- and now here I am, living in Manhattan. I cracked open the box and started to relive the images. I thought there was really something worth rediscovering there, and began printing them and posting them our viewing board. My colleagues would come by and ask, "Who shot these incredible images?" When they heard that I made them, they insisted that I had to do something with them -- a book, a show -- s that ignited me in 2013 to contact galleries and begin work on a book.
Craig D'Arville: You reached out to art dealers. Did you get many responses?
Gun Roze: Brian Clamp, of ClampArt was coincidentally curating a group exhibition called "NYC c. 1985", featuring works by some really renowned photographers. Of course, I didn't know what was going on behind the scenes when I sent my package, and the response from Brian was, "Gun, your timing couldn't be more perfect." Three of my MANHATTAN 1982 photos were included in that show: "41-Fifth Avenue", "59-7th Avenue South" and "58-Riviera Cafe/West 4th Street"
Gun Roze: Yes, one more. Gianni Versace. You know, we would go shopping at the Macy's at Harold Square. One time, my friend and I get there and could tell that something big was going on. Camera people were roped off but there was a little bit of space, and I was brazen back then, so I found a place. This fellow is there, in a suit; I didn't recognize him, nothing was registering, but he was obviously promoting something. I pulled up my camera thinking that I should photograph this man. The media around me had all been invited while I had kind of slithered in. They went, "Hey, what are you doing here?", that kind of thing. Gianni turned towards the commotion and I went 'click' and then got ousted from the press group. I then saw the sign saying who he was: Gianni Versace. I still didn't know who he was as he hadn't become a big name yet in North America, and definitely not in Canada.
Craig D'Arville: What are you working on these days?
Gun Roze: I still make street photography, but I prefer to call it street-based photography now. When I rediscovered my negatives in 2012, it got me back out on the street in Manhattan, making pictures, but with a new approach. My thinking was, "I live here now, why am I not recording New York life from a resident's perspective?" Since I moved back to Toronto, and due to the resistance from a lot of people, if I can't get a great shot of somebody, without them being aware that I'm photographing them, then I'm not interested. I don't want people posing, and that's just all you get now. Either that or complete resistance. What I've moved on to is just capturing anything on the street that attracts my attention and impresses me of whatever reason. My subject matter can be anything from discarded objects, to animals, to textures. I've even veered off into a very abstract series, which is still street-based, but up to interpretation by the viewer; it could be movement, or whatever. That's organically how I've arrived at what I'm doing now.
Photographs from Gun Roze's series MANHATTAN 1982 are available in five sizes, starting at $370. View the complete collection. Send inquiries to team@FFOTO.com