Clayton Patterson: Beauty Mark
On ViewPrinted Matter
March 10 – April 25, 2021
The Lower East Side has a long and tumultuous history. Traces of past eras are hidden in plain sight across every street corner, storefront, and old tenement building, visible even under the veneer of wealth and gentrification that has invaded one of the oldest and most ethnically diverse parts of Manhattan. At Printed Matter’s St. Marks location, one particular chapter of this history is represented through the photographs of local legend Clayton Patterson. This series of more than 300 images, carefully selected from Patterson’s archive by curator Gryphon Rue, covers a relatively brief but volatile period between 1985 and 1999, during which Patterson played an important role as documenter of the vibrant culture, crime, and transformation of the neighborhood he and his partner Elsa Rensaa moved to in 1979. Some of the portraits in this street-side window exhibition are of passersby outside of Patterson’s front door at 161 Essex Street. Many are portraits of drag queens, gang members, orthodox Jews, street kids, and homeless people. Still more are of street signage, graffiti, well-known locations like CBGB and historic events like the police raid of the encampment at Tompkins Square Park in 1988. Patterson’s photographs stand out for their faithful directness. Patterson photographed his neighborhood every single day for over 30 years, and the many iterations of his subjects reflect their daily comings and goings over the years. His photos almost have an ethnographic quality achieved through his sincere approach to documenting the various counter-culture scenes, styles, and ethnic groups of the eras he witnessed, focusing on the individual as an icon of the collective. But Patterson’s pictures are rapidly becoming historical photography, as the neighborhood he captured in such methodical detail has nearly disappeared. That things have changed is no accident. Patterson’s relentless documentation of this fact is evidence enough of the truth, that violent policing and the “rebranding” efforts of New York City mayors have stifled the spontaneity of the city’s artists while relocating the problems of crime and poverty by ruthlessly pricing out and incarcerating the criminalized and impoverished.
A photo of the iconic entrance to CBGB (now a John Varvatos store where imitations of 1980s LES fashions are sold for upwards of $300) hangs near the middle of the diamond shaped window display, empty, a ghostly visage nearly fading into the grey of the concrete surrounding it. Below this picture is one of former mayor Rudy Giuliani making his way through a crowd of reporters escorted by police. His face is turned away from the sun, dark shadows are cast over his eyes. Clustered around are other pictures, of tents and fires, police holding onto head wounds and checking pulses (yet no pictures of their violence, which Patterson was arrested many times for capturing). Around these pictures are portraits of people smiling, of many types and pigmentations, various ages and styles. The display is a collage, but it gives the distinct impression of a memorial for the dead, though many pictured are still alive.
The people come and go throughout Patterson’s pictures, often appearing multiple times in different clothes, with different expressions, in different places. All just evidence of the flow of real life. The man with an eyepatch. The street kid with piercings and orange hair. The man with shifty eyes. The woman with long fingernails. There are too many to describe, too many to understand how they might all have lived, or what they might have said right before being photographed. For a passerby on the street, a newer resident who may have no connection to these photographs, these photographs are liable to be misinterpreted as representing a time much like the present, since many of the styles of the 1980s and ’90s have returned, and the political conflicts of those decades have only accelerated. But the ubiquity of self-branding through images on social media has altered our perception of time so significantly that the particular iconicity of the past may be no longer accessible. The significance of Patterson’s photographs, as any interview with him makes clear, does not lie only in their aesthetic quality but in the spontaneous, uncapitalized, and unselfconscious unfolding of life they reference.
Taken as a whole, there seemed to me no consistent thread or intention behind the selection process on Rue’s part, aside from a desire to show the eccentricity, variety, and beauty of the people and times Patterson captured. The pictures are grouped together by series but scattered in their focus on events and individuals, each placed in jarring contrast to those surrounding it. There is nevertheless a charm to the scattered memorial, a chaotic memory of things gone by, without particular focus, because life simply happens without particular focus.