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.
Born and raised on a farm in South Carolina, in 1948 Alex and his family relocated to the Morrisania section of the Bronx. As an adult, he worked as a messenger, traveling around the city and developing an interest in looking at and photographing what he saw. A self-taught photographer, Alex got a job as the first black photographer at the New York City District Attorney’s office in 1958. After a time in the Army, he worked as a freelance photojournalistic photographer, honing his ability to construct an image and tell a story. During this time, he photographed Black political leaders, musicians, life in Harlem, and countless people and cityscapes, amassing thousands of images.
In 1971, Harsley was set up with a non-profit arts organization, which he called Minority Photographers, Inc. For over fifty years, he has used this organization to support marginalized photographers, offering educational sessions, salons, mentoring, career advising, and collaborations with artists. In 1973, Harsley opened the 4th Street Photo Gallery, to show not only his own work but the work of other Black photographers. Within a decade, the gallery was known as a springboard into the world of fine art photography, and has continued to support and launch careers in teaching and art-making, and to function alongside Minority Photographers, Inc.
Today, the 4th Street Photo Gallery features Harsley’s photographic prints––which he changes daily––vintage cameras and technology related to photography, and work by other artists. He continues to create new work and to advocate for a museum of photography to focus on the medium’s history and technological advances in the photographic industry, artifacts used in the photographic process, and the contribution of photographers to the broader field of fine art.
Transcript of Audio Clip:
“Alex Harsley is the name. I was born in 1938, in South Carolina; a place outside Rockhill called Newport. And I’ve always been interested in learning about everything. So when I was born and raised, I was always given an extra hand of being taught how to do all kinds of interesting things. So that was my beginning…”
“…So I got that peace of mind early on, so I could stay focused on mainly keeping this gallery active and alive. So when people come in, they looking around: ‘Oh! You changed things!’ [laughs] I say, ‘Yeah, that’s very important. I do that every night.’
It’s like a routine, for me, to actually change the show every night. Especially the window. I have a running group of people who count on my window, in terms of information. So I have to always keep that in the back of my mind, I have to always change the window. Because they’re counting on what I’m putting in the window, in terms of learning something from it. Occasionally, I put something in the window, they come in, and they ask about it. A whole conversation about something in the past, about some individual, whatever happened, whatever. It’s mainly a communication medium that I use, in terms of displays.
All the images here in the gallery, essentially, is not for me. It took a while for me to take my ideas, in terms of what I really wanted to do, off the wall, and put what the public really wanted. And being able to satisfy that public, in terms of information that I’m now providing them. So…they essentially educated me, in terms of their needs. They kind of, like, told me, if you want to survive, you’ve got to satisfy our needs. So I had no problem about doing that because most of the things that they like I fall in love with! Things I normally was ignoring. All of a sudden, I say, that’s beautiful. I should have put that stuff out earlier!”