Video shot and produced by James Matthews.
As an 11-year-old Alex Harsley swapped the dusty cotton fields of South Carolina for the vibrant streets of New York City. “The lights are on,” he said, remembering his first impressions of the bustling metropolis.
Harsley, 73, is a self-taught African-American photographer – and, in later life, exclusively a video artist – who flourished in the rich visual patchwork of New York. He says he was failed by his public school but sought refuge with an informal network of photography enthusiasts. “The education system [was] essentially not on my side at all,” Harsley said.
As a young photographer, Harsley combed the city looking for unusual streetscapes to capture – “buildings with empty lots…garbage strewn all over the place.” That was how he first discovered the Lower East Side, an area which inspired his photography and that he moved to during the mid-1960s. He also photographed the sparkling New York jazz scene, including John Coltrane and Ray Charles at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem.
In the late 1980s, Harsley had transitioned to moving pictures and he worked with African-American artist David Hammons to produce Phat Free – a seven-minute video featuring a man in a long coat, Hammons himself, rhythmically kicking a bucket up a street. The piece was eventually displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art and original DVDs sold for $20,000, according to Harsley.
The army provided Harsley with an opportunity to study photography after he was drafted in 1961 and decided to reenlist to secure an education. “The slogan was: ‘Either you take a chance with us, or you take a choice with us’,” he said. Later on, Harsley worked as a photographer for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and as a color printing technician.
Harsley also opened the tiny Fourth Street Photo Gallery, where he is still based today. The gallery is long and narrow, and decorated with Harsley’s black and white prints held in place against thin wire struts by wooden clothes pegs. One of the few framed photographs is a large and intense portrait of a young and confident boxer, Muhammad Ali.
The gallery is Harsley’s workspace where he edits his video pieces and keeps track of the latest technology. “I am 100 percent into it,” he said. Harsley also hosts exhibitions that feature up-and-coming photographers, as well as meetings for the local artistic community.
In 1971, Harsley founded Minority Photographers, Inc., a non-profit organization to help aspiring artists. As a mentor, Harsley helped some of his protégés achieve international recognition, including Andres Serrano – a photographer of Honduran and Afro-Cuban origins who became renowned for his controversial image Piss Christ, a crucifix allegedly submersed in the artist’s own urine.
Harsley, however, has not achieved the same recognition as other artists who first exhibited in the Fourth Street Photo Gallery. “People aren’t ready for my stuff,” he said.