The Gentry of the Bowery

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Famed punk club CBGB may be on its the way out, a victim of the unlikely new interest in gentrification of its landlord, the Bowery Residents’ Committee, a homeless group, which is planning on doubling to $40,000 the venue’s rent. All of which made for an ironic backdrop to the CBGB 313 Gallery’s new photography exhibit, “Back to the Bowery”, which opened last week and is up through April 8. This is a nostalgic look back on the glory days of Bowery slumming and suffering.

Young downtown scenesters and aged CBGB alumni browsed the walls splattered with the expected collection of mid to late 70s punk portraiture, unnumbered and untitled. The gallery operates as a bar most nights and the narrow passage in front of the bar makes for crowded viewing and limited display space. Would it be punk any other way? The show, curated by Megan Day, CBGB photographer Jon Santanello and painter Walter Steding, was made up of representative shots of downtown New York and its most famous punks, the gentry of the Bowery if you will, some in color but mostly in black and white, so that the intermittent pools of color pull the eye forward through the show.

I browed past Mr. Santanello’s work, which introduced the show, and which felt like so much other right-time right-place color and grit concert photography. He had a tendency toward a lazy shutter, blurring his subjects — Joey Ramone and Siousxi Sue — and saturating their faces with warm orange stage light. The collection deepens with the thoughtful black and whites of Billy Name, whose soft portrait of a still beautiful Nico captures the lifeless, slack-eyed head tilt of the lead singer in a light that almost makes you forget the bloated junkie she soon became. Roberta Bayley’s beautiful profile of Debbie Harry looking into an unseen mirror as she applies lipstick, more conscious of her reflection than of the camera, eclipses Ms. Bayley’s group shots, which look too much like dark snapshots.

My personal favorite of the old punk masters is Godlis, whose larger than life Joey Ramone kicking over a mic stand invests the ever slouching rock star with the photographer’s vitality. Then there’s his portrait of Patti Smith, which unlike the more famous Mapplethorpe shots, is soft and kind, even feminine, quite different from the scowling creased face that made a generation of youngsters flock to the Village to giggle while being growled at. Godlis perpetuates the punk obsession with morbid self-affliction in “Richard Lloyd, Hospital, NYC, 1977” in which a cigarette frames the young singer and his IV in dissipated smoke.

Godlis is followed by Walter Steding’s colorful oils, peacock feathers in the midst of the salt and pepper photography of Ebru Yildiz, Mark Sweeny, Fernando Carpaneda, Sharon Smith, and Anton Parish. Mr. Steding presents the usual roster of 70’s punk stars. Andy Warhol and David Bowie are, as they always were, for sale. It was about then when I realized just how much of the show I’d seen before.

What makes the show worth seeing, and what makes it a New York City based show and not merely a re-hashing of famous shots of famous punks, is the little known Josh Wertheimer, who generated a lot of interest in those looking to buy. His urban landscapes use human subjects to illustrate their environments. You have to look three times to date his capturing of 9/11. At first glance it looks like nothing more than birds flying away from a distant cloud. His Brooklyn rooftop vantage lent itself to the distance and isolation so many felt that day and later forgot in the chatter and myth that followed.

Mr. Wertheimer has been taking pictures for six years now but his work looks seasoned. Of one photograph depicting children riding bicycles around a church on a winter’s night, he told me, “I wanted to photograph this as timeless. I just cut out the cars and there it was.” The picture indeed looks as though it was plucked from anytime, any New York, a quality evident in much of his work, including the two surrounding photos, which are not from the show. A Philly native, Wertheimer has lived in New York for 15 years, working as a sound engineer for the CBGB concert venue and shooting on his own time and dime.

All and all the show was a success. Many at the packed opening were struck by the reasonable prices and versatility of work. Much of the work is almost canonical, and most all of it has certainly been seen before, but rarely has it been placed together. Introducing Mr. Wertheimer along with the established photographers shows a conscious desire by the curators to continue the ideals of punk rock art, however illusive: a young, fresh, saturated life view. Title cards and price list be damned, the work was good and there is no substitute for that.

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