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Meet the Photographer: Ner Beck
On view now through October 30, 2013 at the St. Agnes Library is NER BECK: An Exhibition of Photographs of Lost and Found New York City Street Art, Part 2. His exhibition of over 30 all new photographs, captured over the past year, will be displayed at the St. Agnes Branch of the New York Public Library. As a New York City graphic artist and designer, he has had a lifelong interest in overlooked street art found on his daily walks in neighborhoods throughout the city. Besides his fascination with face-finding and found art there is also a section on display of colorful prism-like reflections on windows.
What led to your interest in becoming a photographer?
I was educated, trained and earned my living as an Art Director and Graphic Designer. While in art college I also studied photography. For my senior project, back in the late '60s I started shooting street art. Forty-five years flew by, while doing design, and now for the past two years I am back again on the streets of NYC with my camera.
What led to you photographing what many people would consider trash? What makes you see the beauty in it?
As a kid my mother would take me on antique and junk hunts. We frequently visited a scary, run down 90-year-old dealer whose home/shop looked like a haunted house. We were always hunting for buried treasure. She could find the most beautiful and interesting objects that everyone else had missed. Her gift to me was how to make "something out of nothing." And that is the core of my content today.
What is your inspiration in your art?
Everyday, common, ignored, forgotten, discarded and decayed pieces of New York City.
Are there any photographers or artists that have influenced your work?
Some of my favorite photographers are Walker Evans, Cartier-Bresson, Berenice Abbott, Eugène Atget, Aaron Siskind and Weegee. Artists would be Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Jasper Johns, Ernest Trova and Dubuffet. I also have always been attracted to outsider, primitive and folk art. I am forever amazed by the energy and directness of children's drawings and sculpture.
Do you have a routine for when you are out taking photographs?
Yes I do. With my camera in my pocket I start out each day taking random walks for several miles on the streets of the city. At the end of the day I download my latest images. Later, I start selecting and editing the best of that day's shoot. Then every few days I evaluate and convert my new discoveries into final pictures.
What are you trying to communicate with your art?
I hope my art encourages people to enjoy and pay attention to the small visual pleasures of this big city. Try searching out beauty in everyday things that are usually ignored or that we race past. Find inanimate objects that can convey something about our own feelings and emotions and that we can actually empathize with. Sometimes still objects even seem to have a voice that speaks to the viewer. It is fun to watch inanimate things come to life as you take the time to observe them, and that's what everyone seems to enjoy the most.
What is the best advice you have to give someone who is just starting out?
Shoot with your eyes first before you ever look through your camera. Try to always keep in mind what it originally was that made you stop in you tracks and want to capture, possess and visually freeze whatever it is that caught your attention. Then when you are finishing the final image in your computer or darkroom remember to bring back that emotion or feeling that your mind's eye originally observed beyond what your camera mechanically captures.
What's your favorite piece of art that you have created?
That changes every day. If I had to pick one at this moment it might be "Paranoid Street Tree." There is so much charged raw emotion in that tree. His branches above his face look like hair standing on end. His face is in panicked pain. He seems to be locked in his tree well surrounded by hot bricks. That one photo seems to really connect with New Yorkers and their urban existence. I can't help but laugh when I think that could have been the perfect street tree in front Edvard Munch's house.
What are you working on at the moment?
I never know what I am working on each day. Whatever jumps out at me on the street and says "shoot me.... I have a story to tell" sets the direction. I have no control over subject matter. I can say that when I first started this walking-shooting adventure a few years ago most of my images were happy, humorous and friendly. Lately my collection has turned the corner to several darker almost scary confrontational images. Some of this stuff even gives me the chills. An early comment from a viewer who wrote in my visitors book was that my early work was "juvenile." That gave me a giggle. I sometimes wonder how that same person would label my recent images.
What else should we know about you and your work?
What is important to me is to never touch, move, manipulate or arrange anything when I find something that I want to photograph. The art has to be "as is." These scenes are usually created as a random juxtaposition of elements. I have revisited several of my old locations and many of the originals have been repainted, cleaned, swept away by weather or headed for landfill. But I am always searching for new creatures, faces, window reflections, mini-environments, strange architectural details, quirky holiday characters and unintended visual statements. One viewer described my work as "Weird and Wonderful." That's a big compliment.