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Interview with Barbara Mensch, author of South Street

South Street by Barbara Mensch South Street is Barbara G. Mensch's evocative tribute to the lost world of Lower Manhattan's Fulton Fish Market. In this interview she discusses living there in the 1970s and the photographs in her work

Q: When did you first come to South Street?

Barbara Mensch: In 1979. I knew that the downtown area below the Brooklyn Bridge would be affordable. Back then, the waterfront was still remote and out of the way. This neighborhood was SO AMAZING! The quality of light that came from living in a place so close to the river, where there were no skyscrapers to block the sun, was unique. It was a challenge to walk around the neighborhood and capture on film those dramatic shadows on the cobblestone streets or the way the light gently fell on the peeling storefront facades. Also, I was very inspired by living so close to the Brooklyn Bridge. To this day, I never get bored taking pictures of this remarkable structure. But most of all, I was very moved by meeting all these weird neighborhood characters.

Q: Who were these neighborhood characters?

BM: Back then, there were many "old timers" in the neighborhood. They were men who were retired from their jobs as ship captains, longshoremen, or workers at the Fulton Fish Market. They would just come around and drink at Carmine's or The Paris at certain hours of the day. I have pictures of some of them at The Paris, but I was not allowed to photograph inside Carmine's bar. There was one old man who had a rag shop down the block from where I lived and used to put out Dumpsters filled to the brim with just shoes. I have a picture of that in the book. Ultimately, though, it was the nocturnal world at the Fulton Fish Market on South Street that captured my complete and utter fascination.

Q: Why was it so important for you to resurrect this early work twenty-five years later, and create a new publication, South Street?

BM: Well, that's a really important question, and I can think of a million reasons! Back then, when I learned of the new plan to build a shopping mall and destroy the piers, I predicted that one day the Fulton Fish Market would completely disappear from that location. Fast-forwarding to the present, not only did all my predictions come true, but on a larger scale, many of the things that happened to South Street twenty-five years ago have a real relevance today.

In many ways the men who worked on South Street were soothsayers, who were sensitive and aware enough to foresee the future. In my book, there is a photograph of wall graffiti scrawled in one of the locker rooms decorated with pornographic images that reads, "Fuck the Corporation." The mistrust of the corporation was alive and well on South Street many years ago. After all, the fishmongers were being outmaneuvered and outsmarted by corporate officials who wanted to gain control of their turf. Back then, and during the waves of investigations by former federal prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani, there were many men on South Street who were hauled off, one by one, to stand in front of a grand jury and hear how they had broken the law by stealing fish out of boxes or collecting $20 a truck per week to park on city-owned streets; some were suspected of avoiding disclosure to the IRS or of being organized crime family members. In the end, those men had to pay a price, one way or another, for their "crimes."

There was a lot of wisdom to be learned from a group of tough, serious, and hardworking men, who lived in an internally policed world governed by their own philosophical and moral principles, and by their old-fashioned ideas of loyalty to one another. Trust and loyalty in human relationships were not to be taken lightly, and ultimately, "your word was your bond." When I was down there, I sought out the old timers. It was these men who really lived by their moral codes. I could almost imagine what South Street was like fifty or a hundred years ago by staring into their countenances. There was this one old fishmonger, Frankie T—I must have photographed him a hundred times lighting up his cigar, his dark, piercing eyes staring into my lens as he puffed away. It seemed that those were the last of a breed of men, to quote from my oral histories, "that didn't fear life." They were the real "tough guys who could get up in the middle of the night, leave their families, and go to work." They were truly worthy of respect.

Q: Talk about taking the actual photographs.

BM: Photographer Bruce Davidson referred to this subject matter as very "difficult." Besides the obvious complexities in trying to understand how to photograph the general chaos of a night's activity on South Street. I really had to learn about the market and how it operated. It was a very complicated and symbiotic relationship that existed among these workingmen, and I had to learn to dissect each task, each nuance of the work activity. I had to make order out of apparent chaos. Also, for a long time due to the FBI investigations, there was a tremendous amount of mistrust and anger toward photographers, understandably. Photographing in a very hostile environment is very challenging—there is a point where either you give up or continue. For many months, I always had to have eyes in the back of my head. I worried about getting my cameras damaged or destroyed, or early on, I worried about physical harm, particularly at night if I would wander in the loading zones, in between the trucks, and in the pitch dark.

Q: What motivated you, a young woman and all alone, to get up at two o'clock in the morning, night after night, to do this project? What made you want to make these pictures?

BM: It was such a compelling place—the market was visually amazing, and images presented themselves to me virtually every night. I loved to wander the market looking for images. One night, I was in the Old Market Building. There was a row of hand trucks chained up with the mysterious name "Joe Bones" carved into its wooden sides. It was extraordinary visual experiences like that which really inspired me. I loved the mystery and intrigue that seemed to surround every photograph. The old men's faces, the young men's faces intrigued me. I was experiencing a side of life that I had never seen before, men working in the harshest of conditions night after night. They seemed to stand outside of time. Instinctively, I knew there was real wisdom to be found by gazing into the eyes of the old timers. Capturing their world on film virtually became an obsession.

Phillip Lopate wrote in his introduction that the portraits are reminiscent of the characters in Visconti films like Rocco and His Brothers and La Terra Trema. I was deeply influenced for the longest time by artists like Vittorio Di Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and Luchino Visconti. Although they were filmmakers from the neorealism school, many of the images in their movies could be read as stark black-and-white still portraits. With that in mind, I wanted South Street to have a certain "feel" to it, and a certain texture. The book is very cinematic. And you can feel the grittiness of the street.

Q: How do you see this photo project fitting in with your recent work?

BM: Well, in the end I think I am really a storyteller. I like epics. Photographing South Street took more than four years. My current work, which is my epic story documenting the heart and soul of New York City on the brink, yet again, of monumental change, is taking fifteen years! Sometimes I think I am crazy for working on the same theme and subject matter for so long. But then I think of Eugene Atget. How many years did he spend photographing Paris, unnoticed, going about his business? As time passes, where would we be without that extraordinary record?

Q: Out of the many compelling images in the book, I am particularly intrigued by the gun pictures. They are very disturbing. Can you talk about those images?

BM: I went back and forth deliberating whether or not to include them. I really couldn't tell the story of South Street without those pictures. I truly believe that in the minds of those young men, who were playfully asserting that they used those weapons, guns were synonymous with protection. In my book there is a very moving passage from one of these young men who talks about losing his father at a very early age. The father is murdered in an underworld gun battle. The son grows up with the idea that at all costs, he must do whatever he can to provide for his mother and the rest of his family. I think they were unconsciously trying to express to me that in their world, guns were part of their way of life.