Our current exhibition "Larry Racioppo: A Retrospective" highlights the work of photographer Larry Racioppo, a native Brooklynite who has documented the borough of Brooklyn (and New York City) for over 40 years. It includes photographs from his collection, and features many of his Brooklyn-based photo projects such as Brooklyn Churches, Theatres, Coney Island and Prospect Park, as well as photographs and photographic equipment, books, ephemera and archival material from his storied career. His latest book "Brooklyn Before" shows the vitality of his native Brooklyn, stretching from historic Park Slope to the beginnings of Windsor Terrace and Sunset Park. The black and white photographs pull us deep into the community, stretching our memories back more than forty years and teasing out the long-lost recollections of life on the streets and in apartment homes. The pages of Brooklyn Before depicts the intimacy and roughness of life in a working-class community of Irish American, Italian American, and Puerto Rican families, and is shown with honesty and insight. Brooklyn Before has been selected as one of "9 Gift Books for the discerning New Yorker" by the New York Times. Below, Larry takes us on a visual journey of his path in photography and a look at what inspired his work.
In October 1970, I bought a white 1954 Nash Rambler for $120.00 at a yard sale in Morgan Hill, California to drive back home to Brooklyn. At a San Jose pawnshop there were two 35mm cameras in my $30 price range. I chose the heavier one – a Nikon rangefinder, which I later learned was a classic and a real bargain. I was 22 years old and wanted to become a photographer.
From San Jose I drove north to Washington, east to Idaho, south to New Mexico, north again to Chicago, then east to NYC. After driving almost 6000 miles, I crossed the Verrazano Bridge on December 8th. I had $8.00 and several rolls of film to process.
Back home with my parents in Sunset Park, I took a photography class at the School of Visual Arts, a job with the telephone company and began photographing my family and friends in South Brooklyn.
I never felt comfortable at SVA so I rented a small storefront in Sunset Park and set up my own black and white darkroom. I bought a small paperback book on photography and carried it everywhere, reading and re-reading every section.
I returned to college and graduated in 1972. Over the next few years, I completed a Masters degree and worked as a cab driver, cameraman, waiter, photographer’s assistant, bartender and carpenter. But no matter what I did to earn money, I kept photographing and printing. Looking back on it now, I smile thinking of my eager young self. I walked around South Brooklyn with my camera and a hand-held light meter, recording each exposure in a 2 x 3 inch spiral notebook.
I soon found out that it is much harder to photograph strangers than family members and friends. I learned that I had a few seconds to connect with my potential subjects, to have them take a moment and agree to be photographed. I got better with practice and eventually understood that some folks liked to be photographed while others did not. And some I just had to ask a second time.
By 1972 inexpensive apartments in South Brooklyn were becoming hard to find so I felt lucky to rent a small floor-through between 6th and 7th Avenues. I converted the bedroom to a black and white darkroom and the living room to a small studio for portraits and still lifes. My apartment’s limited electric capacity supported only one small air conditioner so choosing to put it in the darkroom sealed my commitment to photography.
My darkroom had no sink so I used the hallway bathtub for the final wash. I sat on the edge of the tub and rotated prints by hand for 20 minutes.
From 1973 to 1975, I worked for long periods of time as a photo assistant in a Manhattan commercial studio. I liked it but deep down always preferred photographing back in my neighborhood.
In January, 1977 I had my first solo exhibit the neighborhood at the f/stop Gallery on 7th Avenue near 8th Street, Brooklyn. The ‘gallery’ was an exposed brick wall across from the service counter of a small photo store. Its owner Sal Granese, an accomplished photographer himself, offered local photographers a place to display their work. My friend Jim Mokarry designed the invitation.
For the opening reception I made a few pounds of meatballs and my girlfriend Laurel Mamet baked three carrot cakes. We served the food with warmed red wine to family and friends who came – on a cold and snowy Sunday afternoon. I exhibited about a dozen 8 x 10 inch black and white prints, dry mounted on white 9 x 12 inch boards. Almost every one of these images is included in BROOKLYN BEFORE, and 40 years later I expanded my written introduction to the book’s preface.
Looking at the photographs in BROOKLYN BEFORE and those in my Brooklyn Collection Retrospective, I can see that my interest in photographing working class family life and religious expression may have begun in South Brooklyn in the 1970’s but has continued for the next 40 + years. I’ve returned to photograph some of my First Communion subjects as brides, and again as mothers baptizing their children.
In October Tabla Rasa Gallery hosted a small exhibit and book launch for Brooklyn Before. My cousin Camille photographed her daughter Melissa – the First Communion Photographer from page 22 - standing with me in front of the framed photograph of Melissa with a 110mm camera.