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History through the eyes of a photographer: Alex Harsley’s oral history

Village Preservation is honored to share our oral history with Alex Harsley, released this past December. In the early 1970s Alex Harsley founded, and today continues to operate, both the East Village’s 4th Street Photo Gallery and Minority Photographers, Inc., a non-profit established to support marginalized photographers. Alex’s oral history joins our collection, which includes interviews with some of the great artists, activists, business owners, community leaders, and preservation pioneers of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. It captures and preserves their first-person perspective on the important events they witnessed or participated in which shaped our neighborhoods, city, and sometimes our nation and world.

Alex Harsley’s oral history page on our website.

Alex’s oral history has so many fascinating facets. But one particular element struck me — a history-changing event Alex documented early in his career in the East Village, to which he had a very personal connection.

To provide some context, Alex talks about how photography — and by extension, his photo gallery — can share and offer knowledge:

So photography, it opens up all these different doors of knowledge. And it’s just a matter of how that kind of knowledge actually comes together.

…that was the whole nature of the gallery: to give the artist a chance to show what they really wanted to show, without any kind of censorship attached to it… So the workshop that I had, and the situation I had, you had a myriad of different people with different ideas about who they are and what they’re really all about. That will actually add to the overall inquiries, in terms of who are the people you want to reach, in terms of the information that you’ve providing on the wall? And to me, that became very critical, that information on the wall. So the information, first and foremost, had to be deciphered completely by the artist who was creating that. Once they deciphered that, now they have a better understanding of what that information is really all about. And what part of the mind that information’s going to and how it’s affecting that individual in their mind because now it’s affecting them.

– Alex Harsley from his Village Preservation Oral History

This brings us to the striking event which Alex documented. Issue12 of Osmos (Alex’s) gallery’s online journal. Entitled The Day Nixon Resigned: August 9, 1974,” relates how Alex captures real time moments of New Yorkers consuming the news that their commander-in-chief had stepped down.

In the oral history itself, Alex mentions a personal connection to the Nixon Administration.

So by 1971, I got to know some people who was helping Nixon become president, speech writer. Out of that came my access to whatever knowledge I wanted to get. I told him I wanted to meet a certain person, who was the last of the historical people, to write something about the photochemical process. So they set up a meeting with me and him, and I got to know him, and talk to him continuously, and he explained to me that the whole process was over. And that the whole electronic process will be taking over the photochemical process…

– Alex Harsley from his Village Preservation Oral History p. 30

The morning after President Nixon resigned, Alex hit the streets of New York to document people’s reactions. Visit this online exhibit on Osmos’ site and see samples of how Alex captures, in real time, New York City and its people learning of and reacting to the historic and life changing news of a United States President resigning.

While looking through these photos, one is struck by something else Alex shares in his oral history:

So at this point in time, I’m looking at all this stuff around me. And one of the main books I try to keep out, and most people don’t realize, is this book here [holds up book]. This was the beginning of the electronic process: Xerox! Okay? From there, it evolved into what it is today. They haven’t changed that much. And the Victrola, with the record. That hasn’t changed at all, interestingly. They’ve gone to solid state, but it’s essentially the same thing within a solid-state device, in terms of storing information. To me, it was just a matter keeping up with all of that. And then getting that necessary information.

– Selection from Alex Harsley from his Village Preservation Ohttps://media.villagepreservation.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/13141036/Alex-Harsley_VillagePreservationOralHistory_December-2022.pdf#page=7ral History p. 31

Alex discusses changes in technology throughout his oral history. August 9, 1974 is a particular moment in history that illustrates just how differently we consume news and information now. But one can also draw comparisons. This is the type of insight the work of artists like Alex gives us. His photography demonstrates something we may not conclude from reading a book or watching a documentary–something that is important but ephemeral. Realtime moments of change and how humans react to this change.

The photographs on Osmos’ website show people, mostly solitary but sometimes in small groups, consuming the news via a newspaper. This is something we rarely see today, as most people read news on their personal electronic devices, be it a cell phone, tablet, or computer. What is striking is that only one picture has people consuming this information together. Most shots are of individuals grappling with this news in a solitary manner — head bent down reading the latest information about the future of their nation. Replace the newspaper in their hand with a phone and one can think of many recent historical events where you may have stumbled across such a scene, such as January 6th or the 2022 midterm election. New Yorkers, heads down, grappling with something that may change their lives forever. We bemoan the isolating effect of these devices, but here we have evidence of people consuming news in a solitary manner that looks very reminiscent of today. The tools may change, but the action has not necessarily changed that much. This can provide both comfort and insight–something history can do as it also drives us to reflect on change. As we create new systems, try out new ideas, and evolve our society, the record that Alex and other artists provide give us vital context and memories so that we do not try to advance society in a vacuum without history.

We have that moment, the morning of August 9, 1974, documented thanks to the artistry and vision of Alex Harsley. Author Lynne Tillman says of them “These pictures represent that fateful event in a way I’ve never seen before—witnesses to how the political becomes personal.” An apt description of Alex’s work on this project and beyond.

Whether Alex’s connection to the Nixon Administration inspired this project or not is unclear. But it echoes Alex’s statement shared at the top of this blog, that photography opens up doors to knowledge, and that includes knowledge of our collective history. Join us in celebrating this history by listening to or reading Alex’s oral history with Village Preservation.

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