All photos © Matt Weber
Q: When we met about 15 years ago, you were a camera totin’ cabbie with an incredible eye. Which came first—the camera or the cab?
MW: I decided to drive a cab in 1978, when the minimum wage was still $2.60 per hour. If one drove a twelve hour shift, he or she could earn around $100 on a good night—terrific money back then. I had been doing oil changes on huge tractor trailers in Brooklyn for the minimum wage, and took home around $80 a week. Driving was much better.I found exploring NYC fully for the first time a lot of fun. It took around three years before it became very monotonous. I would see ridiculous things on the street from time to time, and I often thought or said, “If only I had a camera!” In late 1984 I walked into Competitive Camera (right across the street from Madison Square Garden), and bought a Canon AE-1 and a 50mm lens for a total of $200 and began shooting NYC from my taxicab.
Q: How did that project start and evolve?
MW: Even though I was a novice, I knew exactly what to photograph because I had already been collecting old advertising signs and was very fascinated by the remnants of the old pre-war New York, which were still everywhere. The 1980’s were the beginning of the non-stop gentrification of NYC. Much had already been done by developer Robert Moses and others, but the ‘80s were when it started to happen everywhere all at once. The rent in Manhattan doubled and then tripled in just a few years, and then the gold rush was underway. Stores and buildings were disappearing at a crazy rate and I was happy just trying to capture as many of these older places as possible. I wish I had shot more, as I didn’t realize how completely NYC would change, but I did have to drive a few passengers around to make a living.
Q: Looking at these photos now, they are historic documents that capture a slice of time in the history of New York. How do you feel the city has changed since then?
MW: Some neighborhoods like Chelsea and the east village are almost unrecognizable these days. Williamsburg in Brooklyn, too. There are two very different points of view regarding how the city has changed which are constantly being bantered about. Some see the new city as sterile and others welcome the safety of the new town as a very wonderful thing. The fact that artists (without trust funds) are no longer able to live in New York is sad.
Q: As a photographer, do you sense a different vibe in New York now compared to the late 80s and early 90s? Is it safer or more challenging now to do street photography?
MW: It has changed a little bit in just the past five years or so. Since everyone is constantly taking selfies of themselves, the idea of iPhone photography has become more accepted. Some people are doing great work with phones and I don’t have any problem with it. At first I felt it was bad that a photographer no longer had to pay his or her dues, but now the saying “everyone is a photographer” is true and we don’t have a choice to fight it. Good photos don’t care how you took them and where I was once a purist who argued in favor of film, I know that a good picture is all that matters, and will happen regardless of equipment or training.Amateurs can get lucky on their first day with a camera and the amount of pictures being made everyday is almost incalculable. I don’t know what it means, but I think the bar has been raised a lot and that makes getting noticed and succeeding harder than ever before! In 2004, when I published my book, Urban Prisoner, people in the “art world” were sneering at street photography. Even thought they still might look down on the genre, they would all cut off their pinkies to own a few of Robert Frank’s signed 16×20’s.
Q: How do you feel you have evolved as a photographer since these photos were taken?
MW: I still leave my house each day with zero expectations as the street will either provide me with something great, or it will be stingy. In 2007 I started shooting a lot of color film and in 2014 I finally made the transition to digital photography. Being a fairly aggressive street shooter, I was spending at least $500 per month on film and processing. I couldn’t afford that any longer. Digital has made a few types of pictures easier to make. Of course there are some advantages to film, but they have been discussed ad nauseum.
Q: In 2014, Dan Wechsler shot a documentary film, “More Than The Rainbow,” was made about you and fellow New York street photographers. What was that experience like, and what was the reaction to the film?
MW: It was a five year project which was certainly fun and I’m glad it happened. I was never allowed to see the film till I was sitting in a movie theater, so I had no ability to ask Dan to make any edits. It was his film, not mine, and I had to respect his ability and sensitivity to how he portrayed me. Looking back at the film, having seen it a few times, I might have wanted to change a couple of things but that’s to be expected. So far it hasn’t been seen by as many people as we had hoped, but apparently getting a documentary film on Netflix is very hard. Maybe one day.
Q: What is it about black and white that you like over color?
MW: To be honest, you have to go back to 1985 and consider that color film was very difficult to process at home. You could spin it in a Jobo tank but the results were usually mottled. Cibachrome was incredible but also very toxic to handle. The cost was also prohibitive, so black and white was far more logical in almost every way. Then when you look at all the great photographers one had to learn from, with the exception of Eggleston and Meyerowitz. There weren’t too many color artists to admire and try and emulate. Ansel Adams taught me all I needed to know about developing and printing with his three books, The Negative, The Camera and The Print. Being able to push B&W film made shooting at night much more fulfilling and the magic of the darkroom was what got me and most other photographers I have talked to. It just seemed like magic as the latent image suddenly appeared in the chemicals under the orange safelight.
Q: Which photographers, past and present, do you admire and are influenced by?
MW: I suppose the list includes all the usual subjects. I started to admire Erwitt since his sense of humor was second to none. Then when I became more knowledgable about the history of photography, I learned that Walker Evans had done all that I could ever hope to do myself. He even collected rusty old Coca-Cola signs which is something I had done late at night in my taxi! Of course then there was Robert Frank who has probably influenced more people than anyone. Winogrand is another legend who’s influence is still huge, and his legacy will cast its shadow over street photography for a very long time…
Q: Finally, let’s talk about gear. What is your go-to camera/lens? Are you shooting film or digital these days?
MW: Canon AE-1’s and A-1’s were followed by a pair of Pentax 6×7’s before I switched over to a pair of Leica M6’s. Digital cameras are no longer meant to last for twenty-plus years as there is always a new and better model waiting for you to gobble up. I hate to fall prey to the temptation but after a couple of years there will be a slightly better camera, and if it can do some things which my current one can’t, then I’ll buy it.
Its all about what the camera can do, and in my case, all I care about is quick and reliable autofocus. I’m 57 years old and my eyes are just starting to go, and if the camera can focus better than I could manually, that’s a big deal. I am not a good student since I find all the menus daunting, and (fellow photographer) Mike Peters took me through all the variables step by step. I loved the simplicity of the M6 in that there were just two dials / settings to worry about, and then the focus which was often just left at 8 feet, with the great depth of field of the Leica 28mm Summicron.
I recently bought a Panasonic Lumix GX8 and I am fairly happy with its performance, but hate the smaller batteries. The GH3 and GH4 had larger batteries and they would last almost all day, while GX8’s battery always seems to die sooner than I would like. As I said, next year I expect there will be a new camera which will perform better and then I will be tempted to buy it. If it can increase the amount of keepers I get, then unless it’s priced like a Leica, I’ll probably splurge and buy it.