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Meet Ner Beck, NYC Street Photographer
On view now through July 3, 2014, is NER BECK’s NYC Street Oddities: A Photo Exhibit. Over 30 recent photographs are on display at the Grand Central Branch of the New York Public Library. Ner has had a lifelong interest in overlooked street art found on his daily walks in neighborhoods throughout the city. Also on display are a few select photos of colorful prism-like reflections on windows from another of Ner's collections. Ner recently answered some questions I had about his work, his inspiration and, of course, selfies.
New York seems to be essential to both your process (walking around and taking pictures of what you find) and the end result of that process (your art). Are there any other cities that you have been inspired by previously? Any places on your wish list that you’d like to get to and photograph that you haven’t had a chance to visit yet?
Every time I visit another city or country I find similar subjects to photograph. It is not so much where to shoot but what you see that others walk by and miss every day. I was always visually attracted to the character of old neighborhoods in other cities throughout the United States and Europe. When traveling, I am constantly looking to build on my collection, but nowhere else seems to have the same power, grit, humor, attitude and explosive energy as New York. My finds are completely random, so any place I plan to visit in the future could become my new next adventure.
While we're on the topic of New York, are there any neighborhoods that are particularly fruitful for producing good art? Any neighborhoods that haven’t yielded much success?
In fact, within a radius of 10 blocks of where I live on the Upper West Side, has yielded 90 percent of my best work. Maybe it is because this is where I have spent most of my life and where I am most at ease to spot these little characters and the stories they have to tell. I have gotten great stuff everywhere, including all the other boroughs and their unique neighborhoods. Every area possesses its own special characters lurking within each block, waiting to be found and documented. Some of what catches my attention are things that have been accidently dropped or lost; time-worn, tattered surfaces; overflowing trash cans; small, crazy construction sites; hurriedly handmade signs; and mom-and-pop stores that express their owners' style or family heritage. To me, the streets are an ever-changing canvas that is repainted daily by the people of this city.
In a previous interview, you said that you started shooting street art around 45 years ago. What would you say is the biggest change in your process between now and then? Technology? The city itself? Something else?
This form of photography started as my senior project in art college in Philadelphia. I put down my camera soon after that and had a graphic design business in New York for the next 45 years. Recently, I started street shooting again and it is now my "senior" project all over again. Back in 1966, Philadelphia was basically untouched on the surface before historic renovation and the strong economic upswing began. The streets still had an endless supply of original outsider/folk and other street art created by old-time residents for their aging businesses and homes. The city was in pretty rough shape at that time, and that became my first visual hunting grounds. I frequently fled the darkroom at school and headed outside packing my World War II-era Leica and rolls of Agfachrome color slide film that yielded the deepest blacks and the most vibrant, wet, glowing colors. That little old Leica fit in the pocket of my jeans so I could travel in risky areas without displaying a camera around my neck like a piece of jewelry. Today, I use a point-and-shoot digital Nikon that fits in my same old-style jeans' front pocket. No one pays any attention to me these days when I am shooting on the streets because everyone is taking millions of pictures in public places every day.
What do you think of Instagram? Do you use it, and what do you think about the notion that it allows anyone to create—at least on a very basic level—artistic photography?
I do not use it, but it looks like great fun. If you are referring to special effects filters, I never apply them to my work, even though I have all the Photoshop software one would ever need. I like to stay as close to the reality of what I find, so the image has to remain almost as is. I never move, add or subtract any of the parts or objects when shooting or processing. Some of the images and the stories they tell seem almost too good to be true, and that's what makes them such amazing finds.
2014 really seems to be the year selfies crossed over to complete cultural saturation. Are you a selfie advocate? Do you have a take on the idea of the photographer as the focus of their own art?
I try to stay on the observing end of the camera. I get my fun from aiming my camera at these funny and oddly beautiful anthropomorphic characters staring up at me from the street. It will be fascinating to see in 100 years how this generation of "everyone is inadvertently a photographer" will be historically documented and portrayed. If you want to see a really early selfie, check out the masterpiece painting by Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, done in 1656.
What motivates you to continue taking pictures? I realize that there could be a lot of different motivations, but I'm curious as to what it is that makes you wake up in the morning, grab your camera and go out shooting as opposed to, say, just hanging out and drinking your coffee and doing something else.
My daily inspiration comes from the city itself and the people who have used these streets day after day for almost 400 years. After lunch is my get-lost time of the day when I take my eyeballs for a walk. Several years ago I had open heart surgery and a few weeks after that I jumped right back into my crazy-insane business work pattern. My doctor said, "Keep it up and you will ruin all the good work your gifted surgeon did for you." I realized I needed to do something to lower my risky stress levels, and this enjoyable form of giggle-art was the perfect solution for me, my mind and my heart.
Do you have a favorite book of photography?
I cannot say I have a single favorite book, but I am always seeking out and poring over any photography books on primitive, folk and outsider art. I also love books about early urban areas and how they evolved and visually collaged themselves over generations. Photographers that have inspired and imprinted on my work would be Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Aaron Siskind, Cartier-Bresson and Matthew Brady. Artists would be Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, Motherwell, Jasper Johns, Dubuffet and Magritte.
Are there any books, websites or other resources you would recommend to someone who is interested in exploring photography, either creating it themselves or simply admiring it?
The best resource would be books or any media about the history of photography from its beginnings around the 1830s to the present day. Some photographers I can relate to would be: Weegee, because he added humor, shock and surprise to his work; Eugène Atget, for his beautiful translucent Paris shop window reflections of the 1920s; and Vivian Maier, who worked for 40 years as a nanny and shot over 150,000 photographs on city streets, never showing her work and whose undeveloped film was recently discovered in a storage locker. The book New York, Empire City: 1920-1945 is another case of found and rescued negatives and prints. The story of Matthew Brady and his pioneering Civil War images, and ultimately the sad ending to his career with his bankruptcy when Americans were no longer interested in seeing his pictures after the war, is fascinating. My final suggestion to others would be to find a photographer or artist whose work you cannot stop looking at, then learn everything you can about them. The best place in the world to explore all that is at our very own New York Public Library.