On view now through May 28, 2013 at the Mulberry Street Library is NER BECK: An Exhibition of Photographs of Lost and Found New York City Street Art. Ner, a New York City graphic artist and designer, has had a lifelong interest in overlooked street art captured in photographs. These images are found on his daily walks in neighborhoods throughout the city. I spoke with Ner about his photography and his philosophy.
Ner Beck with Street ArtDo you always have a camera with you when you walk? Do you walk with a destination in mind or does your eye lead you in one direction or another?
Every day after lunch I take my eyeballs for one of my get lost walks. I started doing random extended walks after my heart surgery several years ago as part of my rehab. I found walking and photographing at the same time relaxed me and actually lowered my stress levels. I never intentionally looked for images, they just appeared to me. A long time ago I stopped hunting for pictures and now at this stage images just pop or merge off the sidewalk and streets. As time passed, my senses and vision became sharper and now these subliminal/hidden images appear constantly.
Orange DoggieWhat led to your interest in photography as a medium?
I started in Art College wanting to be a painter, then drifted towards graphic design and photography. My photography is strongly influenced by abstract painting and graphics combined. I also have always been a big fan of primitive, folk and outsider art and humor has always been an important component in my work.
Do you start to see faces in other things after one of your photographic jaunts? (for example, in your dinner?)
I shoot lots of food outside but I try to shut off my radar when I return home. My wife Bobbi Beck (also an artist and NYPL exhibitor) warned me that if bring my camera to the dinner table ever again, my food goes in the trash can (which strangely enough is where I find some of my best images on the street).
Broadway Sleeping Beauty (Window Reflection)What in art (and in life) do you draw inspiration from in your photography?
Artists and photographers that have inspired and imprinted on me were Robert Rauschenberg, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Eugène Atget, Aaron Siskind, Weegee, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Jasper Johns, Dubuffet, Cartier-Bresson and all children's artwork. My daily inspiration comes from the city and people of New York and the streets they travel on. One person that I am so appreciative of is Mayor Bloomberg for the Million Trees NYC program. I have always been drawn towards sidewalk trees. Finding emotions and almost human features on their trunks, bark and limbs. I see a real connection visually and emotionally between New Yorkers and their trees. Many of the trees I have photographed seem to express the same characteristic of city dwellers with their resilience, toughness and ability to survive and continue to flourish in adverse urban conditions.
Do you meet many people in the process of taking photographs in NYC? You must have some great stories.
People always interact and react as only New Yorkers can. Many people are puzzled when I am stopping and observing some ordinary object with all the intensity of an archaeologist or a crime scene investigator. A neighborhood therapist and friend who went up to see one of my exhibitions at Morningside Heights Library commented "Ner, after seeing your pictures I walked straight home, keeping my head down and dared not to look around for fear of seeing faces everywhere." In another incident a sidewalk food vendor questioned me in a very hostile voice about shooting in his cart a pair of side-by-side bagels. For me they made a perfect set of eyes. I exclaimed "Look it's an owl!" I assured him I was not from the Health Department. He didn't know whether to call the Police or a Psychiatric Center.
Ner Beck Exhibition at Mulberry Street LibraryMounting an exhibit at the library is more than just about the photographs themselves. You often find innovative ways to display your photography at the library — how do you devise solutions to creative spatial issues when you display your work at different libraries?
What I love about setting up exhibitions is the variety of exterior architectural styles and the dramatic interior spaces at each neighborhood branch. I started out by scouting out and visited over 35 libraries that had potential exhibition wall space. They varied from the early stately Andrew Carnegie branches, to Mid-Century buildings, then on to ultra sleek and beautiful contemporary glass and steel structures and even reiamagined/repurposed buildings such as your very unique Mulberry Street Branch. Our library exhibitions have ranged from small display cases holding as little as only six pictures up to larger rooms and staircases able to display over fifty pieces of art (Ner's wife Bobbi Beck also displays her artwork at NYPL). We do all the room designs and picture layouts in advance on our computers by creating documents that are the actual size of the room. As soon as you mount an exhibition, that specific library space transforms into an art gallery. But, the main purpose of doing an art exhibition at libraries is to interact and engage fellow New Yorkers of all ages and backgrounds and to stimulate a visual dialogue.
What are some of the most interesting comments you have received in the comment books?
"What a wonderful and different way to observe the world."
"This beautiful exhibition speaks for true love for a city."
"Authentically hilarious in a down and out dirty way."
"This way of looking should be an assignment for NYC high school photography students."
"Your exhibit was my serendipity for the day."
"Tickled my brain cells."
"That's why NYPL rocks! Artwork like this!"
"Amusing, clever and a tad weird."
"I applaud your capturing everyday miracles."
"Thanks for making me laugh, makes me appreciate the city in a friendly way, perfect for NYPL."
And my all time favorite comment...
The most touching comment was at Riverside Branch in the Lincoln Center area. A visitor wrote:
"I am applying to The Fashion Institute of Technology here in New York, currently in the admissions processes. One of three portfolio questions for the photography major was "Talk about a time you were inspired by a photo gallery exhibition you saw, or a magazine spread." Now I have never been to a real photo exhibition, I've seen a few, but none that really inspired me and that I could really name. Then I remembered that the library close to where I lived held a monthly showing of artists in many mediums, including photography. I went over to take a look this week and found the "Ner Beck – A Photographic Exhibition of Lost & Found New York City Street Art." Now in all truthfulness I went to the library that day to find some photos I could maybe write about and get this question answered to some satisfaction. But looking at these photos, I really was inspired. Beck's combination of color and grit in his photos is intoxicating to me. I never really thought to look at street reflections and the amount of color and the allusion of over lapping images (without the use of Photoshop) in his photos was really grabbing to me..."