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Larry Racioppo
March 24, 2020

I’m restless.

I’m 72 years old and have been “sheltering at home” since March 7th. I’m not sure which I miss more – seeing my grandchildren or exploring the outskirts of New York City. I’ve spent many quiet hours photographing its waterfront and abandoned interiors.

Almost every day since the 7th, I’ve scanned panoramic and large format negatives or made pigmented inkjet prints, and I expect to continue this routine in the weeks and months ahead. I’m lucky to have the means and equipment to do so, but man do I miss being out photographing. I’m trying to internalize the advice of my friend Steve Basso

"Taking it one day at a time and am grateful to be retired with a studio upstairs. I am using the time to develop work with more thought and reflection in sync with my present life. So far it seems to be going well."

Here are some of the photographs I’ve made:

Former 53rd Street Pier, Sunset Park, Brooklyn
Former 53rd Street Pier, Sunset Park, Brooklyn
Pool, McCarren Park, Brooklyn
Pool, McCarren Park, Brooklyn
Baggage and Dormitory Building, Ellis Island
Baggage and Dormitory Building, Ellis Island
Greenpoint Hospital, Brooklyn
Greenpoint Hospital, Brooklyn
Domino Sugar Plant, Brooklyn
Domino Sugar Plant, Brooklyn

I’m happy for all the younger photographers taking the opportunity to be out and about in our seemingly empty city. I’ve been enjoying their excellent work online, in the New Yorker, New York Magazine and the New York Times

From time to time I’ve had the opportunity to teach photography. One of the most important concepts I offered my students was to think of photography as farming. I encouraged them to enjoy both the sowing (picture taking) and the reaping (processing and printing), and to use the time in between for maintaining equipment and looking critically at their contact sheets and prints.

Following Steve’s advice, I am revisiting a lot of my past work, especially the still life images I made but rarely printed, and never showed.

Back in the 1970’s I answered a New York Times ad for a Photography Assistant and wound up working for Phil Marco. When I started in his Manhattan studio, I had no idea that Phil was one of the world’s most successful still life photographers. During my two years there, I learned a lot about photo technique and lighting, but most of all I learned to look, really LOOK at things.

I began picking up interesting objects on the street and bringing them home to photograph. (I moved to Rockaway in1991 and continued my collecting on the beach.) I started with a 35mm camera and available light. Over time I invested in large format cameras and electronic studio strobes.

Around this time I discovered the work of German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch. His book Joy Before the Object, now out of print, was another influence.

Joy before the object
Joy before the object by Albert Renger Patzsch

It’s not surprising that a Brooklyn street photographer would begin creating still life images with things found on the street, with pieces of rusted metal instead of seamless paper as a background.

Apartment Mailboxes
Apartment Mailboxes
Lampshade Form
Lampshade Form
Work Glove
Work Glove
Broken Broom
Broken Broom 

Some objects like this lamp base have a story. While walking my dog, I noticed a broken lamp put out for garbage pickup. As I hurried toward it, so did a street scrapper. Since I wanted only the base, and he wanted the electrical cord and metal lampshade frame, we shared a laugh while we divvied up the spoils.

Lamp Base
Lamp Base

I’ve been photographing in Coney Island since 1971, through its decline and tenuous rebirth. One of my favorite places was the Dragon’s Cave, “a dark ride” near Nathan’s. It closed, was revived as the Spookhouse by the Coney Island Hysterical Society, then closed again. I happened by one day in 1997 when the caretaker was chasing away two photographers who had tried to squeeze inside, through a partially fallen metal gate. He saw me watching and commented “ The nerve of those guys…this is private property!”

Of course, I instantly agreed with him. But did note that I too was a photographer, and explained the lure of getting inside unusual places, especially if they are off limits. Much to my surprise, he said that if I were interested, he would let me in. Pushing my luck, I asked if I could return “tomorrow with my big camera” and he agreed. I was there early the next morning.

Dragon's Cave, 1979
Dragon's Cave, 1979
Spookhouse faces,1997
Spookhouse faces, 1997

Later that year the metal gate fell down completely and people began entering. This made the Spookhouse a potential liability, so the owners had it demolished. I was in Coney Island as demolition ended and salvaged an eyeball.

Spookhouse face eyeball
Spookhouse face eyeball

Sometimes people bring me things knowing that I will want to photograph them. A friend gave me his grandfather’s camera.

Kodak Camera
Kodak Camera

A neighbor threw out a leaf-filled, broken backyard shrine.

Mary Statue
Mary Statue
Statue in my studio, 2011
Statue in my studio, 2011

Growing up in South Brooklyn, I knew a lot of gamblers, men who were always hoping to make a “big score”. I made mine in 2003. While photographing at an East New York construction site, I noticed some doll heads mixed in with bricks and other rubble.

Heads and Rubble
Heads and Rubble

I picked one up, then another, then a few more, then a lot more. I couldn’t believe my good luck as I piled up the misshapen heads. I stuffed as many as I could fit into a large black contractor’s bag. As I struggled to drag the heavy bag to my car a few blocks away, I thought of the greedy villain in The Jungle Book who drowns clutching an overflowing sack of gold coins.

There were no other doll parts on this site, no arms or legs just heads. I brought home almost 80 heads and looked through them more closely. I discovered that there were about ten distinct types of heads, and that each individual one was uniquely crushed or mangled.

So far, I’ve photographed nine of them against a black background with an 8 x 10 inch view camera using both black and white and color film.

Black and White head
Black and white doll head
Dolls' head in color
Caption
Color Head
Color Head

As much as I like these photographs, there’s something creepy about photographing dolls. Maybe it’s all the Chucky the Killer Doll movies on TV. Maybe it’s the Hans Bellmer photographs I’ve seen. 

Before beginning my self-quarantine, I enjoyed one last day of photographing along the waterfront. I went to Gerritsen Beach and walked along the Salt Marsh Trail where I found yet another doll’s head to bring home to photograph.

Gerritsen Beach
Gerritsen Beach 
Dolls' Head
Dolls' head

Please protect your self and your loved ones during these difficult times, and if so inclined, read (or listen to) Love in the time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Check out more of Larry's work, now available on our digital collections page!

Comments / 11 comments

I love these photos and reflections. Especially the still lives taken with the 8 x 10 camera. Thank you, Larry, for keeping us informed of your newest work and thoughts.
March 30, 2020, 4:12 pm  
I enjoyed reading this, you are talented Larry
March 30, 2020, 4:33 pm  
Larry, Loved the article, enjoyed the images and learned a few things. I was a fan of Phil Marco’s work, delighted to see you expand on what you learned. Your post is much appreciated in the time of Corona. Best,
March 30, 2020, 5:35 pm  
such a beautiful, contemplative and perfect post for these times.
March 30, 2020, 8:48 pm  
Wonderful. Like attending a Larry Racioppo talk. I do love your work and as much I love your conversation about art. Thank you for adding that to my day.
March 31, 2020, 12:24 am  
Larry, this is a fabulous post. Not only is it great to see the panoramas and your other work, but it's good to hear how you are approaching "sheltering" at home. A lot of us older artists are using the quiet time to, in a sense, become our own historians . . . going back through older work, sorting things out, reworking unfinished pieces, and re-orienting our priorities. We are fortunate that we are in positions to do so. Thank you for sharing. -- Virginia
March 31, 2020, 10:38 am  
Thank you for your blog, Larry! Words AND pictures! How therapeutic!
March 31, 2020, 5:40 pm  
Larry this is a great article and the.pictues of new York offer comfort in these difficult times. As much as i enjoy the photos your storytelling and recall of the past has been an inspiration to me and opened up areas of feelings about my own past that I thought had been long forgotten. Many thanks and looking forward to new work when things return to normal.
April 3, 2020, 3:47 pm  
Who would think a knock around guy like you Larry who can hang sheetrock or drive a cab and survived NYC in the 70s has such talent. Good Stuff my friend a modern day Charles Bukowski of photography. Be Well
April 5, 2020, 3:28 pm  
Thank you for opening my mind to the depths of the environments that we pass each day on the streets of our beloved Brooklyn. I yearn to be back on them again.
April 17, 2020, 4:47 pm  
My book is being printed as we speak ( I hope ). I'll keep you posted. Bernie
May 10, 2020, 10:32 am  

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