Artist, photographer, and videographer Clayton Patterson has spent the past 33 years documenting life on the Lower East Side. A pivotal member of the neighborhood as well as the underground art community, he’s seen it all from the early days of drugs and violence to the area’s present state of utter gentrification. Patterson’s massive archive, which is believed to include over 500 thousand photographs, isn’t limited to photos and tapes, because he’s saved everything: press clippings, artwork by New York artists (himself included), protest banners, punk fliers, graffiti, even books full of stamped heroin baggies.
With the help of his wife, Elsa Rensaa, and the newly available video camera, Patterson was able to expose the frequent cases of police brutality plaguing the area in the late ‘80s. After witnessing the disgusting abuse of police authority during the infamous Tompkins Square Park police riot, where unarmed squatters, homeless people, and anarchist punks were violently attacked by police, he became more involved in resistant political activism. When he refused to give up his footage of the riot to authorities, which included scenes of cops who had illegally removed their badge numbers before bludgeoning citizens in the head and face, he was sentenced to and served 90 days in jail. After his release, he became an equally active figure in the neighborhood’s anti-gentrification movement.
Patterson’s work is currently on display at another LES cultural staple, Tribes Gallery. The show, called "93 ’til Infinity," features Patterson’s photos from the LES in the ‘90s, mounted on heavily graffitied walls done by downtown artists Mint, Serf, and the Peter Pan Posse. On May 21, Clayton’s anthological film Captured will be screened in the gallery’s back yard. The film is a fascinating look into the area’s past and the event should not be missed.
After walking around the East Village with Patterson, we sat down together in a park on the corner of Houston and Essex as the night grew closer and talked about his upcoming show.
Are you originally from the Lower East Side?
No, I’ve been in the Lower East Side since 1979. I’m originally from Western Canada.
When and why did you start taking pictures?
Elsa gave me a camera for my birthday in 1972. They used to have those little introductory cameras for sale at places like Rite Aid. It was a Pentax 125. They had it on sale there for a very reasonable price, and she bought it for me for my birthday. Big mistake.
What was the LES like in the ‘90s, around when the show was based on?
Well, it really kind of varied. I came over to Essex where I am now in 1983. At that time, one of the demarcation lines was Avenue A from Houston to Delancey. Below Avenue A was serious, and the deeper you went the more serious it got. And then this side between Houston and Delancey was like no mans land because there was really no reason to be over here, especially below Orchard Street. So this area was pure hardcore drugs. First night we moved to our place, we saw somebody get shot across the street. And then from Houston north to 14th Street, it used to be divided off. If you go back and look at maps of the East Village, it used to stop on Avenue A. Eventually the maps get redrawn and it went to Avenue B, and maybe by the end of the nineties it went to Avenue C. So that’s how much it’s changed. It basically wasn’t that populated in terms of like it is now where anybody can walk around doing anything. The World was down there, where we just walked by.
Oh yeah, Steve [Lewis]’s place.
Yeah, Steve’s place. That was like right off Avenue C. So that’s kind of what gave it its energy too. A lot of people would shoot up there, my friend Susan got shot there, and sometimes cabs wouldn’t even go down there. But because that’s right off of Houston, taxis would sometimes go there. But it was a great club. It’s interesting because when they mention club life they really mean a lot of different clubs. Like you know that band the Grave, which Basquiat was in; the first place they played was A’s, and anybody who was anybody had come through A’s, which was at 329 Broome Street between Chrystie and the Bowery. And everybody always talks about the Mud Club and Studio 54, but really there was other places like club The World that were great. Once in a while someone will mention A7, but that’s just because that’s where Keith Harring went. But in reality there was a lot of other spots down here that were really hot and happening, which really gave the juice to the whole world.
When you were photographing drug addicts and the generally disenfranchised, did you ever feel voyeuristic about it? Like, self conscious in taking the photo?
Oh yeah, of course. Wait, you mean if they were wrecked or something?
In that case no. You have to look at it like this: that was the environment. Real life exists in real-life situations, and if something like that is going on that was the environment. I mean, if you went to the North Pole you’d photograph a polar bear, right? My ambition for the most part was to make people look good. I don’t try to take shitty photographs of people—that’s not my ambition. But if I come into this part of town and photograph some guy over there, who, like, ODed or something… I mean, that was the life at the time, a record of what was. It’s equal to when in war, you photograph people getting shot because that’s war. Down here it was like a war zone. So I’d photograph people that’d be slashed and stabbed and shot, but that was part of the culture. I didn’t try to glamorize it or turn it into something heroic.
Captured is playing at the closing of the show on May 21. Can you talk a bit about the film?
Captured is really taken from my archives. The material comes from things that I’ve shot, or Elsa Rensaa shot, she’s my… We just got recently married. We were together for like 40 years, but because of the politics now we figured we better get married so that if one of us croaks we can still share the shit after one of us is dead. So the film is done by these three young guys, Ben Solomon, Dan Levin, and Jenner Furst. They’re all in their 20s. When we put it out to the festivals, because of the content—guns, drugs, politics, police riot—it really got banned and bounced from all the festivals. Then we did this thing on rooftops and 2,000 kids showed up in their 20s. I realized the cut-off age for the most part is about 35 and under. A lot of people in their 20s like it, and I think part of the reason is because the people that did it were all in their 20s.
Would you ever leave?
You know, I think about that a lot, and in a lot of ways I’d have to say yes. I mean I’m very attached to the area and whatever, but the area’s been rolled over—it’s not really what it was before. When I look across the street here I see H&R Block, I see Dunkin’ Donuts, I see Sleepy’s, I see Western Union, I see Federal Express… It’s just all corporate stuff that could be anywhere. The originality and the genius behind New York was really attached to cheap rent, and that period is over. Now it’s just people struggling, and it’s not that interesting anymore. It’s super expensive, and then you have people like Steve who’re still paying off things that he paid for already, and it’s just like everything here now is about money. So here you have a guy, just take Steve as an example, you know, a smart guy who works really hard, is very creative and original, but everything he’s working for he doesn’t get to keep because he owes the government. Well what’s that about? And then they’re making it almost impossible to do business here, and they’re really gentrifying it to the point of making it into…. You know, you have to remember that people think New York is the all time art place. Well, there’s no guarantee on that. The muse left Paris after WWII and came to New York. You have to realize it was in Paris for probably 150 years; you had all the Romantic movement, the Surrealists, and Cézanne, and all those people. Same with Rome after the Renaissance. Who would go to Rome to be an artist? Not that no artists live there, but if you’re thinking of a world message, that’s not the place. I’m thinking now it’s probably more like China and Beijing with Weiwei and all of that. I mean, they do everything they can to destroy art here. It’s just about making it nice, and art’s not about just being nice and everything being cool. It has to have an edge to it, and we’re losing that edge. So if I croaked here, and then I have this whole archive, people would come in after it, break it up and sell it, it would disperse. It’s just like, is this really where I want my stuff to be?
You should make a massive book.
Well, I’ve put out several books. I did the Front Door Book, which is about 500 pictures from in front of my door. I did a book called Wildstyle: History of a New Idea, I did Tattoo Messe, I’ve done Captured, the anthology of the LES. I did Resistance: A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side, which is also an anthology. I’m finishing up a three-volume Jewish history right now. But you know the truth is there’s no support for this stuff, so I have to do it on my own. I’m trying to start a Kickstarter to fund the Jewish book and things like that, but there’s no help for this stuff. Then you turn around and you’ve got a guy like Bloomberg who started out with seven billion dollars and now he’s got 20 billion. I’m sure it’s even a struggle to keep BlackBook going, and it shouldn’t be like that. The mayor should be supporting that because it supports nightlife, nightlife supports tourism, and tourism supports the economy of New York. But they don’t think like that. All they think is, "I want the money, I want the money," but nobody’s putting anything back.