In these fraught moments, when some rejoice and many despair, I find comfort in Duncan Hartley’s photographs.
Hartley had pursued several careers. Most recently he was in charge of multimillion dollar donations for prestigious health institutions. But he began as a photojournalist in high school, and continued ‘shooting’ for 50 years. The photographer’s “eye” that could tell the story behind a face helped him breach the facade of deep-pocketed givers.
Hartley is readying a book of his New York photographs from then and now. “Then” was 1957 to the Bicentennial. “Now” is as recent as last September, when he revisited the Feast of San Gennaro for the umpteenth time. Paging through his work, online now at duncanhartley.com, I am struck by the contrasts between despair and joy even in the supposedly halcyon days. In black and white, a man in a tailored suit, nicely groomed, bent over bags of newspapers gleaned from trash cans. Passing by a legless veteran playing the accordion in Times Square are two haughty women, described by Hartley, in the language of e e cummings, as having “comfortable minds.”
In contrast to the harried commuters and the desolate staircase at Grand Central Station and the man with the Armagedon sign — is the 1974 photo of an African American couple — he in bell bottoms, she in a kilt skirt, facing each other, holding both hands, titled “Loving Couple Enraptured.” And the 1976 color image of a jubilant crowd in the bleacher ready to welcome the tall ships — with the twin towers in the background.
Hartley documents the passage of time. At Grand Central, men look up phone numbers in the display of telephone books and we people watch at the now defunct Empire Diner. He shows us how Little Italy – with Canola Man and Pretzel Man — has gradually accessed Chinatown, by picturing a gaggle of girls from different ethnic origins and an elderly Asian couple lost in the San Gennaro crowd.
I take photos. I come from a family that placed a high value on photography. I grew up in Baltimore, where we revered the work of A. Aubrey Bodine. I like to take photographs of people. I like to think I have “an eye” for a good shot. And I am in complete awe of these pictures, each with its compelling story.
He shows us poignant. He shows us despair. He shows me that — no matter how fraught I think today’s political situation is — life will go on. New York will go on. We will all get through this.
Full disclosure: the photographer is a friend and compatriot at my church. But I am among the last and least in a queue of experts and luminaries who offer fulsome praise for his work.