Forget the disco era, the 1970s in New York City was all about danger. With pimps and prostitutes populating the streets, an economic collapse and a crime-filled subway system, the streets of Manhattan were gritty and dark. Photographer Leland Bobbe's captured it all, the rawness of New York at its societal and economic low. Leland’s award winning photographs tell more than they are showing. The photographer's images delve beneath the visible surface of the world we see and provide a glimpse of a hidden dimension that lies beneath. Like a poker player that a blinks, each image has a "tell" ... a crack in the facade that allows us to delve more deeply into the psychology and inner workings of his subjects.
As huge fans of Leland’s work at Hamburg Kennedy, we were thrilled with the opportunity to delve deeper into his process and a better understanding of the images we have been in admiration of for the last four decades.
1. Among your works, is there an era or individual photo that is your favorite? Why?
I’ve been taking photographs for many years and have done many different projects as well as individual pictures. I’m sure that if I thought about it I would be able to choose a favorite from each project. If I had to choose just one photograph however, it would probably be my photo titled Black Swan, which is a shot of at thrown away umbrella standing upright on a street in NYC with many blurred legs running through the frame that surrounds the umbrella perfectly. This was part of series of photos I did of thrown away umbrellas on the street titled Stormy Weather. I love this shot because of the mood, composition and randomness of a scene that people see every time it rains in New York but don’t necessarily stop to really see it. A once needed object tossed away like trash. It’s very New York and so am I.
2. Is there something you can get from a candid photo you can't get in the studio? Or vice versa? What is your preference?
There is something that I get from a candid photo that I can’t get in the studio but it works both ways. While I enjoy the complete control I have while working in the studio (light, the ability to direct etc.) there is a real rush I get from shooting candidly on the street. For me there is never anything preconceived about street photography. I never know what I’m going to see. I see it and then the next second it could be gone. I find that to be very exhilarating.
3. Which photographers influenced you, and how did they influence your thinking, photographing, and career path?
In all honesty, that many other photographers have never influenced me. I find my influence comes more from a state of mind fueled by rock and roll, Miles Davis’ music and great films. A boldness and simplicity runs through my work. In all of my portraits, although the subjects vary greatly, I always direct them in a similar way; which I think reflects my personality. I am a fan of photographers Steve Pyke, Garry Winogrand, Richard Avedon, and Harry Callahan and painters Mark Rothko and Edward Hopper. I find that the photos that might make me a bit nervous and uncomfortable to shoot are often my best.
4. What motivates you to continue taking pictures economically, politically, intellectually or emotionally?
I think the same thing that motivated me to pick up a camera in the first place still motivates me today. Simply put, I see things that I want to capture.
5. What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started taking photos?
How much time I would eventually end up spending in front of the computer years down the road.
6. What is your favorite work from the 1970s New York series?
This is a tough one and I’m going to take the easy way out and pick two. The first is titled The Life. It’s a shot of two prostitutes standing on 8th Ave near 42nd street with extremely glum expressions while the back of a man passes by in the foreground.
The second is titled Hydrant and is a shot of two down and out men on the Bowery against an old crumbling brick wall with a fire hydrant spewing water on the left side of the frame.
As I’m writing this I’m realizing there is something very similar about these two images. They both have the main subjects to the right side of the frame while an element of movement is occurring on the left side . . . a man walking by in one and the flowing water in the other. To me this similar element gives the sense of time moving forward even though the subjects are stationary and look totally stuck. Now that I think about it, even the first shot I mentioned, Black Swan has this element. I like this juxtaposition.