Vintage Photos of New York and Boston That Look Like 'Stills from a Horror Film'

These street photos by Richard Sandler are "also a love-letter. A love-letter to our world and everyone around us," writes Jonathan Ames in the photographer's new book 'The Eyes of the City.'

by Richard Sandler; Text by Jonathan Ames
Nov 12 2016, 12:00am

Grand Central Terminal, NYC, 1990

The following excerpt is from photographer Richard Sandler's new book 'The Eyes of the City' (out November 15 through powerHouse), which features nearly 200 street photos taken in New York and Boston between 1977 and 2001. In the text below, which appears in the book as an afterword, author Jonathan Ames explains what makes Sandler so special to him.

I am very lucky to have Richard Sandler as my friend. He is kind to me. He's funny and odd and tormented. He's pissed off and peaceful; nutty and wise; compassionate and cranky; and I'm just really lucky that I get to love him and be loved in return. And then there's this incredible bonus with knowing Richard. His art. His photographs and his movies. With them, he changed my eyes. He changed my brain. He changed the way I take in the world around me. He revealed things I hadn't seen before, or maybe I had, but he gave voice to them and now I was sure that they were there.

But what did he show me? What do we see in these pictures? I think a good deal of what we see is rather scary. They're of a time, roughly the quarter century before the events of September 11, 2001, and so we get to visit the past quite viscerally—and what a joy to see people unguarded, not staring at our new slave master the cell phone—but these pictures also very much root me in the present, like a history class that teaches us what is happening now. So I think we see in these reflections from the past our half-asleep march to death in the now. We see people as they were, like the frozen corpses in Pompeii. We see them and look in the mirror. This is a document of how we lived before we died. These photographs are like stills from a horror film, and yet they're the pictures of our lives. Specifically our lives in the city. What a play we put on in front of each other on the streets, living so close the way we do, like mice in a burrow. A play of greed, decay, venality, beauty, longing, hidden meanings, coincidences, love, terror, mundanity, suffering, boredom, loneliness.

Tremont St., Boston, 1978

These pictures are in part screaming at us to wake up and open our eyes to what's happening, to see how it's all rushing by, to see god's presence everywhere, in every shadow, if there is a God, and in part, Richard is just putting it all down, making a record, exploring his own loneliness and mortality, compelled to document as a way to say he's alive, while pointing with equal wonder at beauty and horror, showing us and himself how life and death, in and out of the shadows of the scurrying city, seem to walk hand in hand.

And then of course there's just his joy in making art. Finding in the split-second moment that street-photography demands, the perfect composition, trying to capture the tail end of the present like a wisp of smoke before it disappears and becomes the past. He must feel like—I saw it and I caught it! So I imagine there is a great delight and reward in what he does, but it must also be a terrible obsession and burden this desire to record, to live at all times like a camera. To give us these images, like a gift, he has spent thousands and thousands of hours, decades really, always waiting, vigilant, ready to bear witness like an astronomer who has lost his mind and never relaxes in his watching of the night sky, desperately wanting to understand our ever-changing universe and to then pass on what he saw.

I couldn't do it, but Richard did teach me to open my eyes more than I ever had, to share his obsession, even a little, and when you do you see how the teeming life around us avails itself if we look for it, revealing its beauty and terrifying ugliness; its lunatic phenomena and secret messages; its dreams and nightmares. But, despite what I said earlier, these pictures are much more than a horror film. They're also a love-letter. A love-letter to our world and everyone around us. Richard's saying, I saw you, you were here, you were incredible, I love you, I loved you.

'The Eyes of the City' is out November 15 through powerHouse books. Pre-order it here.

And on Sunday, November 6, there will be a book launch, print exhibit, and talk to celebrate Sandler's release at the Half King in NYC. For more information, visit here.

WTC Tilt, NYC, 2000

Feed Me/Hungry, E. Village/57th St, NYC, 1993

Noose, East Village, NYC, 2001

Swollen Eye, Queens, NYC, 1979

CC Train, NYC, 1982

Furs, 5th Ave., NYC, 1984

Black Nannies/White Tykes, SoHo, NYC, 1982

Man on Skateboard, 54th St., NYC, 1985

Woman in Next Car, NYC, 1987

Prudential Center, Boston, 1978

Hasid and Hipster, NYC, 2001

Two Faces, 5th Ave., NYC, 1989