Interview by Tom Sebastiano
Jeff Rothstein is a native Brooklynite who has been living in Manhattan for many years. He has been shooting on the streets of New York City since the beginning of the 1970s. Jeff considers himself an urban observer trying to capture the city’s environment – structures, signs and, most of all, the fleeting moments of people on the streets that will soon disappear into thin air.
To accompany the interview, we are featuring images from Jeff’s book Today’s Special, New York City Images 1969-2006, which was published in 2017 by Coral Press Arts. It contains 48 black and white images all shot on film, many evocative of a city that has all but disappeared. There was no way that I could pick a ‘best of’ from such an amazing body of work – they are, as they say, all killer, no filler – and so I have decided to run the interview over two days and include all of the images.
Enjoy our interview with Jeff – and make sure to come back tomorrow for Part II…
How did you discover photography?
At first, photography for me was a means to an end. I was a big sports fan when I was young and used to attend many baseball games here in NY. I thought it would be fun to photograph the players so I went out and acquired my first ‘real’ camera.
How would you describe your photography?
For want of a better description, I usually call it street/urban landscape.
Your photography centres around New York City’s streets, its people and buildings. Do you set out to cover different areas of the city, people or events or do you photograph as you go about your own daily business?
Both. Many times I’ll have a certain neighborhood in mind. I also carry a compact camera in my pocket as I go out and about.
I notice that in among your work of everyday street scenes there are many historic pictures featuring important events and famous people. What part, for you, do these pictures play in your work?
Everyday street scenes are really what I do. The only time I ever played the paparazzo was when I specifically followed John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I have a great story on that one but it’s a bit long so we’ll have to save that for another time! My Muhammad Ali shot was serendipitous. My images of Dylan, George Harrison, and Lennon were taken at concerts. All these shots of iconic people, though, are aberrations. I much prefer to shoot ‘real life’ situations.
Although shot over many decades, for me, there is a sort of timeless quality to your photography. Is this something you feel too?
Exactly. I feel the same way. Many of the images are both evocative of a certain era, yet, if you overlook the fashions, could have been taken today. I didn’t start out consciously trying to achieve that quality, but I realized it over the years. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I shoot B&W film, which I feel is more abstract and dreamlike.
You photograph almost entirely with film; what is it about film photography that suits you and your work?
Ah, Film. It seems that these days it’s hip to shoot analog (though I don’t particularly like that term, but I guess it differentiates it from digital shooters), but I’ve been doing it for decades. I enjoy the tactile and tangible nature of film. The digital image is a bit too sterile and unnaturally sharp for my taste I appreciate the imperfections of film. After all, life’s imperfect, isn’t it?
Why black and white film? Have you ever shot colour film?
To me, black and white film is more mysterious. As I said before, it’s more abstract with a timeless feel. It’s more about the subject, because you don’t have colour to help the image. I have shot many colour slides over the years. I currently have an inexpensive digital compact camera given to me by a friend that I use when I see something that will only work in colour. So, you see, I’m not a complete dinosaur! My colour images tend to differ from my black and white people-dominated street scenes. With colour, I tend to seek out more inanimate, graphic objects.
Do you have a favourite camera and lens combination or even film stock?
I’ve shot mainly with Nikon SLR’s and various compact cameras. Though the image quality is, of course, better with the larger cameras, I now shoot mainly with the compacts (mostly Olympus XA’s) because of their unobtrusiveness. I prefer 35mm (my main lens) and 28mm because the images they produce makes you feel that you’re right in there and part of the action.
Stay tuned for Part II of our interview with Jeff tomorrow.
See more of Jeff’s photography at:
All images copyright Jeff Rothstein.