Crap. I’m only going to get 19 years? WTF? I am standing with my fingers knitted together, resting on the top of my head. A few feet away, there is a gun pointed at my face, and I’m trying like I’ve never tried anything to not pee on myself.
Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions and strong language.
Also, I am not looking at this guy so he won’t think I can ID him and that he has to kill me. I look up. On the opposite wall, just above the head of my new acquaintance, there is a Kodak poster. A woman in a red bathing suit is lying on a surfboard looking directly into the lens. She looks as if she is waiting for me to say hello or something. She smiles because she is pleased to have been photographed on Kodak film.
Glancing down at the gun’s business end, I think, “This is all on Diane Arbus.”
I was going to be like David Hemmings in Antonioni’s “Blowup.” You know that movie, yes? Well, you should. It influenced a generation of middle-aged men and teenage boys. It made them wannabe fashion photographers, drive a Jaguar XKE, shoot gorgeous models, and wear turtlenecks. In the late ’60s, if you couldn’t be James Bond, this was the next best thing. If you have absolutely no clue what I’m telling you here, read up. I’ll wait.
OK, let’s continue. Don’t forget I’m standing in a camera store with a gun pointed at me. I’d like to conclude that life insult with a positive outcome ASAP. (Note to self: write about all the weird shit I thought about while a gun was pointed at me.)
Back in New Jersey:
My girlfriend’s mother had me cornered in the kitchen. She was always kind of handsy, and I tried not to be alone with her. Sue, my girlfriend appeared, Mom backed off and said: “I’m going to show it to him.” She scurried from the kitchen.
“My mom has something to show you,” Sue said. Of course, I had no idea that my life would be forever changed in Sue Marcus’s kitchen in just a few moments. The most important thing that had ever happened to me in that house was some under the shirt plus.
I’m not going to write all that kitchen dialogue; it’s pure exposition. For the reasons mentioned above, I want to hurry up and get that situation resolved.
Sue’s mom had me sit down at the kitchen table. She laid before me a thick softcover book about 10 by 8. It was the catalog from the 1972 Diane Arbus retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum. I had never seen anything like that before. I didn’t know that anything like that had ever existed or could. Arbus’s images spoke to me as nothing had ever before.
Page after page was a “snap outta it” slap in the face. Some might say her pictures were “inappropriate” or “ugly” and “Why would anybody want to take a picture like that?” I knew precisely why. It was to be many years before I fully understood it. In all of Arbus’s pictures, she shows us a world that most are blind to. And she does it with empathy and love. She didn’t stand on the outside. There were no long lens coward shots here. Arbus became a part of whatever society she was documenting.
Several years later, I was fortunate enough to take a master class at The New School with Lissette Model. She had been Arbus’s friend and mentor. She told me Diane had lived in a brothel while photographing the prostitutes. She was fearless and brave and totally committed to her subjects.
What had I been doing? Camera Club High School Year Book bullshit. Lot’s of sunsets, cute kittens, and for some reason lots and lots of canoes. The jocks were always asking me if I had a picture of them at the last game, or the cheerleader girlfriend wanted to know if I got a shot of that fantastic split. Yes. As a matter of fact, I did. In my defense, I was 18 and in high school, so what the hell do you expect?
But I was bored with that kind of crap. It made me start to avoid taking pictures… it made me think I had wasted a lot of time. And, turtlenecks made me itch terribly.
Arbus blew my mind, curved my spine, and won the war for the allies. This was what I wanted to see and do. I wanted to make pictures that forced the viewer to contemplate a subject so totally unlike them and, in turn, see what I saw. And I was just like Arbus. From my early teens, I had gone through bouts of severe depression. I always had dark thoughts, “suicidal ideation,” it’s now called. Diane Arbus committed suicide in 1971. When I read that, it made me sad, and I ruminated on it for weeks.
Change, however, is easier said than done.
Because it’s one thing to wanna, but it’s another to commit to making those images. And even after you have committed to it, you still have to be brave enough to do it. Because it does take bravery to put yourself into the lives of people who are so unlike you. You ever go to a bar or another place with your “wingman/lady” to realize that having them along made meeting someone highly unlikely?
For me, being with other people when I go out looking for images is just like that. But I did it a lot because I was anxious about what the outcome would be. And of course, it was shit. (Except when I do it with my friend Mark McQueen or Lansberg or Fretz). Because it isn’t a group exercise. It’s a highly personal journey into awareness and self-awareness. It requires that you be empathetic and vulnerable. Something that a 19-year-old hasn’t learned yet. At least most of them haven’t. I certainly hadn’t.
Louis was the first person who talked to me at The School of Visual Arts. It was my second day, and I was in a long-forgotten class with him. He saw my Nikon F2 and asked to look at it. He had a Nikon FTn with a motor drive and a 500mm Mirror lens. It got us talking. He had lived in the city his entire life, and I found that fascinating. He thought I was funny and my having a pilot’s license was fairly cool.
One Friday afternoon, Louis asked me if I wanted to grab some Chinese food and crash at his place uptown that night. To meet someone who grew up in the city and knew their way around and were willing to share that information was priceless. At least for the kind of photography that I wanted to do.
I was actually afraid to roam and photograph on my own then. I had been questioning my resolve to do the photography that I knew in my heart that I wanted to do. I was too anxious. I was afraid, and I thought I was a coward. That’s why I always was in a rush to get back to Jersey or walked around with someone else looking for pictures. It got to the point that a month into the daily commute to school in the city, I considered quitting.
Louis lived with his parents at 215 West 90th Street in an apartment bigger than any house I have lived in. It was called a pre-war building, and his parents moved there right after getting out of Poland at the end of World War II. That’s another story I should write someday… but I’m kind of in a rush. You remember, gun and all. I was to meet Louis around 1830 at the camera store he worked in part-time, West Side Camera.
West Side Camera was on the North-East corner of 88th Street and Broadway. It was a small, sliver of a camera store—quite a forgettable place which I have never forgotten. The store was tiny. The entrance was on 88th street, with two windows looking out on Broadway. Entering the store, you were opposite the cash register sitting on a counter display case. The counter ran from the front about 30 feet to the rear of the shop. Customers could speak with a salesperson, and there was enough room for someone to squeeze by behind them. But that was it.
On the walls behind the counter were display cases of camera gear and racks for film and batteries. When I arrived at the camera store, Louis told me to come behind the counter and sit in the back. Next to where I was seated was a doorway with curtains instead of a door. I was told that was where the bathroom was. There also was photographic paper stacked up and a steep stairway to a loft back there.
Louis introduced me to his two co-workers. Nicky, the manager, was up in the loft and called out “Hello” to me. Skip, another lifelong New Yorker, grew up in the city like Louis, right around the corner from the store. He had been working there since he was a freshman in high school.
OK, I am going to digress here momentarily to tell you about Skip and something I witnessed several years after the events I am detailing. I’ve really got no other place to put it in this tale so this is good. Because it is funny. If you don’t find it funny, then you are way too young. Here you go, junior, you’ll need this. I’ll wait.
Once, when I stopped by the store, Skip was talking to a customer who had purchased a Kodak 110 film camera. He was trying to explain to the guy how the flashcube extender worked. See, those 110 cameras were tiny, and the flashcube sat too close to the lens and would cause red-eye.
Red Eye: It’s when the flash enters the subject’s eyes and bounces directly back into the lens, causing the person’s eyes to glow red in the picture like they were Satan. Kodak included an extension with the camera that fit between the camera and the flashcube. That way the flash was no longer at the lens axis. Only this customer was having trouble comprehending what the thing was for or what red-eye was even after Skip had explained it to him three times. Then the guy said something that I will never forget: “If I don’t use that extender thing, how long will the people’s eyes stay red?”
Good stuff. Good stuff.
Back to the current situation: I had been sitting on that stool at the rear of the store for a half hour. It was getting near closing time. Skip was counting out the cash register, and Louis was locking up display cameras. There was nothing for me to do, so I sat staring through the windows on the other side of the store that looked out on Broadway.
After a few moments, I noticed two guys peering through the windows, right back. I gave them a little wave, and one of them waved back. A few moments later, the one that waved came into the store to buy a 9-volt battery. When Skip told him the price, he said forget it and walked out. A few minutes passed, and then the other guy entered the store, asking if he could use the bathroom. Skip said, “No,” and the guy left.
Hey. Hmmm… that’s strange and…
The sensation of free-falling and a metallic taste in my mouth… My body knew what was happening before my brain did. “Hey. Hey Skip,” I yelled as he began locking the door, but it was too late. Two of them pushed the door open so hard it knocked Skip backward into the counter. Three were in the store, one bad guy for each of us. When Skip bounced off the counter, he spun around and positioned himself behind the cash register. Louis had been crouching behind a display case putting away cameras when the door burst open. And that’s where he stayed.
The guy who had waved back to me was pointing a pistol at Skip’s head. The guy who had wanted to use the bathroom stood on the opposite side of the counter from me. He was holding a large folding knife. The third guy stood at the door.
The guy with the gun hadn’t told me to put my hands up or anything, I just did it. Like I saw on TV. I thought if I was proactive and cooperate I wouldn’t get to die this evening. So, my hands were on my head, and I was fighting with 2 of my more familiar sphincter muscles.
The guy with the gun (Gun Guy) held it about a foot from Skip’s head. “Give me the money,” he screamed. I could tell he was scared because his hand was shaking. The guy opposite me had crazy yellow bloodshot eyes. I tried not to look at him either. That guy was scary as shit.
Gun Guy wouldn’t have had to ask me twice for the money. I would have thrown in a camera or two and some film. Skip had a different take on the situation. Skip turned the key in the register, LOCKING IT. Holy crap! I mean, the guy had followed up the give me the money thing with “I’ll kill you,” and I don’t think he only meant Skip.
After pocketing the key, Skip started walking towards me. The Gun Guy was yelling for Skip to stop or he was going to kill him. Then as Skip passed in front of me, Gun Guy said he was going to shoot me if Skip didn’t stop. So, of course, Skip started running. I peed a little. Knife Guy leaped over the counter and shoved me so hard I fell backward onto the floor. The upside was that Gun Guy didn’t shoot me.
For the first time that day, I thought that I had been stabbed… I peed a little more. Gun Guy told me to get up. For a moment, I thought he wouldn’t shoot me. Why would he ask me to get up? He could just lean over the counter and shoot me. I stood up. Put my hands back over my head and tried not to pee anymore or look at Gun Guy. Which is where we came in all the way back up there at the start.
This is going to get interesting now.
Knife Guy wasn’t more than a few footsteps behind Skip. First Skip went through the curtained doorway then Knife Guy who seemed pretty angry at the curtains. And they were gone. So Gun Guy, Door Guy, and I were just kind of hanging out. I didn’t know what was going on. The bad guys didn’t know either. I thought that this was kind of like a radio program with sound effects and all. Weird.
I heard Skip hit the stairs, thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk. Then there was a thud, and we all heard Skip scream, “Nicky, behind me!” Then a muffled “Pop”. It sounded like one of those party favor things. My first thought was that Knife Guy had a gun and shot Skip. It was eerie quiet for some length of time. Must have been just seconds but it felt much longer.
I turned towards Gun Guy, who had lowered the gun to his side. His expression reminded me of a thinking dog, you know, with the head tilt? Neither one of us knew what to do next. We just looked at each other. It was like he was my friend now. That was what I was mentally masturbating at the moment because I really really didn’t want to get shot too. The thought that fucking Louis was going to be the only one to make it out alive was really pissing me off.
Gonna break the fourth wall again: When something like this happens time and space and the ability to assemble cohesive thoughts just shits itself. I don’t know how you would process what was happening. You certainly don’t either. No matter how many movies you saw. Time had stopped moving and I was hearing a loud ringing in my ears. I felt like I was watching TV.
After an eternity, or maybe a few seconds, Knife Guy comes back through the curtains and he is staring at me while walking towards me hand on his chest. He’s got that blade in the other hand and he looks pissed. I know this time he is going to gut me like a fish. He kept getting closer, and I began backing up… right into the wall knocking the phone that was there off its hook. Then Knife Guy lunged at me. I moved my hands to protect my gut but he hit me with such force I went down on the floor again. And he fell along with me. My head bounced off the floor (don’t remember it hurting) right into his face… our lips touching in a kiss.
I would like to pause here for a moment… Yes, again. Just so I can mention something before I go on. It had been a pretty tough day up until that point. I think we can all agree on that… I’m certain that there are people much better able than I to handle themselves in this type of situation. Maybe better than I am about to but I can’t figure out how.
I mean come on… I wanted to get some Chinese food and hang out with my friend whinging about my inability to take an “authentic” picture. But instead, this kind of make-believe (not the fun kind) fantastical shit storm happened.
I thought I had just been stabbed… Again… and the stabber was laying on top of me. OK, that is it! I had taken all that I possibly could handle. Now I was angry and scared. I pushed with both arms… but I wasn’t moving and Knife Guy started growling at me and then my head exploded. I let out what Louis later described as a “blood-curdling scream.” I was moving every extremity to get out from underneath this guy. I was freaking the fuck out…
Now I remember it like the Coyote trying to get away from a falling anvil. Louis’s hand appeared before my face, and I grabbed onto that thing so hard that later Louis had a sprained wrist. He dragged me out from under Knife Guy. When I saw Louis’s face, I started laughing because I was so happy to see him. That was the most beautiful face I ever saw in my life. The laughing gave way to me gasping for air and I dropped to my knees right next to Knife Guy.
Let me pause here to catch my breath and to explain what had transpired in the moments just before Knife Guy had reappeared. When Skip had walked past me it was part of a plan that he and Nicky had worked out previously against the day that Skip would have to do something so God Damn stupid like just not giving the fucker the money. Nicky had been standing behind the curtain when the second guy came in and suspecting something was up, went up to the office where there was a 12 gauge shotgun.
Looking down from the loft, he saw what Skip had done. As Skip walked and then ran to the rear of the store, Nicky positioned himself kneeling at the top of the stairs. When Skip had made it three-quarters of the way up the steps he yelled “Nicky behind me!” and dropped flat. Nicky had a clear shot. The barrel of the shotgun was only about 18″ from Knife Guy’s chest when he fired. 9 pellets of lead 00 buckshot went completely through Knife Guy out his back and into the wall and shelves of photographic paper opposite.
Customers were returning photo paper for almost a year.
It was a kind of miracle that Knife Guy was able to turn around and walk down the stairs and through the curtains. Nicky stood, re-cocked the shotgun, and moved to the front of the loft where he could look down on the store. He took aim at the other two guys but the shotgun misfired. I’ve always thought that the spread on that thing would have taken me out so I was glad to not find out.
The misfiring shotgun was the only prompting that both Gun and Door Guy needed to exit the premises.
Back to my story.
Knife Guy was trying to get up. Nicky yelled from the loft, “Get the fuck away from that guy!” It had been so quiet for a few seconds that being yelled at startled me. Knife Guy was pushing against the floor, trying to get up. I backed up and noticed that there was a shovel leaning against the wall where the phone was. I grabbed it, turned back towards the guy on the floor, and hit him in the head with that shovel as hard as I could. I was going for a third time but Louis grabbed the shovel out of my hands. Knowing I was going to get shot and killed, then being knocked to the floor twice thinking I had been stabbed… and trying so God damn hard not to piss myself that… I wanted to make sure that nasty fucker wasn’t going to stand up. He didn’t.
Since I was closest to the phone, I dialed 911.
Right after I hung up with 911, two homeless guys with guns ran into the store. I said, “Holy shit, it’s happening again!” They both looked at me like I was an idiot. Then they flashed their badges. They asked if we were all OK. And we were. Then they looked at the dying guy who was still moving around. One of them said, “Yeah, let this one wait for a little while.” It was then that I noticed for the first time all of the holes in the dying man’s shirt. The other said, “I’m going to get a bottle of scotch for you guys… is that OK.” I didn’t think that was wrong.
It was the time between the unthinkable thing and police cars screaming down the street. I stood about three feet from Knife Guy’s head. He was face down, but still alive, barely. I kneeled watching the last few moments of the man’s life. I felt kind of bad about hitting him with the shovel. I felt sorry for him. Moments later, I found out what a death rattle was and he was gone. I don’t know why, but I looked up like I was going to see his spirit. I didn’t.
No one had noticed it but me. Knife Guy might have murdered me without a thought. Undoubtedly, he was about to puncture Skip. Yet in rolling waves, I felt ambivalence then sadness and elation that I was alive.
The store was beginning to fill up, and it didn’t take too many cops to do that. I opened up a ladder that had been leaning against the wall and sat on top of it. From there, I could see the entire store. Knife Guy had snuffed it behind the counter and was hidden from street view. Right past him was Louis talking to a detective across the counter like he was a customer. Beyond Louis, standing in the curtained doorway, Nicky and the two homeless cops looked like they had all become good friends. On the customer side of the counter, it was wall to wall cops.
It was getting crowded outside too. The cops had taped newspaper to the windows to block the view from the street. By the door trying to get in was a tall black man with an afro. It was John Johnson from ABC Channel 7, Eyewitness News! He was holding a microphone, and his press pass in one hand. In the other, he had cash. You know, he always seemed like a nice guy on TV. Now he just seemed like an asshole.
Still, at the top of my ladder, a detective asked me if my name was my name, and I said yes. “I’d like to ask you some questions if you wouldn’t mind coming down.” “I’m not coming down,” I replied. He shrugged and stood on the second rung and began to ask me questions. Almost immediately, someone yelled, “Everybody down.” My detective stepped off the ladder, and all the cops squatted like ducks.
The photographer did a series of shots making sure that he didn’t get any police in the pictures. Then he did a set of the room at different angles, all the while the cops squatting down and then standing up again. The photographer came over to my side of the room to have a look at the dead guy. He did his pictures and then asked for the body to be rolled over. For a moment I thought he wanted me to do it. Because the body had been facing down for almost an hour, Knife Guy wasn’t looking so good. The blood had pooled up on one half his body, which made him look very dark on that side and ashen purple on the other.
The dead guy on the left, lots of cops on the right, and I was alive. I realized that other than thinking I was going to pee myself and the occasional feeling that I was about to die, I felt that I had acquitted myself pretty well. A cop came over and offered me a wet towel. It was only then that I realized I had blood on my face, shirt, hands, and pants.
The cops wanted all of us to look at mug shots in the police station. On the way out, I heard they found Knife Guy’s knife at the base of the stairs. I only thought it was in his hand. The blade had dried blood and filaments of fabric on it. Knife Guy had been busy recently. His wallet was open on top of the counter, and I saw a photograph of a young boy. A cop who noticed me looking at it said, “That little boy is probably better off without that guy around.” I later found out that Knife Guy had recently gotten out of prison after serving a 10-year manslaughter stretch.
We all had to go to the police station to look at mug shots.
There were thousands of mug shots filling large green binders. Every one of those pictures looked like our guys. Nicky told no one in particular “We’re done.”
We all got driven home in police cars.
Now it is more years on than I care to think about.
What is the point of recounting this fairly horrible experience? It is the first time that I’ve ever written it down. The process of writing of course brought the experience front and center. A place that it has never occupied in my mind previously. You might wonder how that could possibly be? I’ve also never had a bad dream about the experience nor flashbacks or any other mental disturbance from it save for one thing.
I believe that is because of the poetic justice that took place. Three guys had decided to use deadly force to conduct a robbery of a camera store. The one person who was moments away from committing a murder instead was shot and killed. I’m not certain if my shoveling hastened the man’s death. I’m sort of ambivalent about that. It was pretty cut and dry who the good guys were in this.
The one thing I know that I do suffer from this experience and one other thing I witnessed 15 years later is a PTSD diagnosis. It manifests itself in a rather over the top startle reflex. Fireworks, screaming and assholes with loud pipes on their mid-life crisis also kind of freak me out.
I started this whole thing off talking about Diane Arbus. I cannot overestimate the importance of her photographs in my life. If you haven’t looked at her work for a while, please do. Especially if your thing is Street Photography. Have a look at Josef Kudelka’s work too. When you look at those images think about what had to happen before they were made and after. And think about the time that the photographer spent with these people. You’ve got to come away just knowing that those photographs are of relationships.
I’ve been doing what I do with photography for 40 years. Sometimes I even get asked about doing “Street Photography”. My editor at Monrowe Magazine doesn’t think my pictures should be called “Street Photography”. She thinks they should be called “Fine Art.” It makes me laugh because prior to 10 years ago I didn’t think my stuff was very good and I didn’t show it to anyone.
Back around the time of the robbery, I was struggling. It was much easier to contemplate quitting or doing landscapes than doing what was necessary to make the images that I wanted to. It was much easier than putting myself “out there.” I’ve got nothing against landscape, fashion, still life photographers but… It always comes down to the story and the story is the people and not the sunset or the trees or canoes.
That robbery… I used to say that it made me a real New Yorker. The few people who I told about it over the years it seemed to really impress. In the kitchen at parties the mention of it got everyone paying attention. That or mentioning the 10 years I spent in prison. I didn’t but it was fun to say it then watch the room slowly empty out.
The problem with being young is that no reference point for empathy exists. Until you’ve had your heart broken, your ass kicked, went hungry or didn’t have a place to sleep how can you understand these experiences in others? How can you appreciate struggle if you never have had to? These are the experiences that make a “Street Photographer” or whatever you wish to call yourself able to see. If you are afraid to make yourself truly vulnerable in the face of the people you wish to be able to photograph the opportunity evaporates.
That robbery, all that fear, and anxiety turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to my photography and my life. It gave me something in minutes that I might never have learned in a lifetime. Before that robbery, I tried being sneaky about how I made my pictures. Kind of hard to do with 2 or 3 friends standing around waiting for you. After all, it’s a scary city and who knows what can happen? It was kind of frightening riding up to the South Bronx which at the time was pretty much a bonfire and wander around taking pictures. I didn’t want to do that. My mother didn’t want me to do that either.
But then the robbery and its pointed unnerving lessons. A twenty-year-old thinks they have all the time in the world. If it doesn’t happen today, well maybe tomorrow. The lesson for me about potential sudden death and then actually seeing sudden death was how easily all the things that you were going to do can become the things that never got done.
Then of course there is the lesson about paying attention to your surroundings and being aware of how fast what you think is happening can become what you never could have possibly imagined. And being ready for it. I knew the changes in me were real when my girlfriend said to me “You know what I really hate about you?” “What,” I asked. “I hate that no matter what crappy thing has happened to you, you always find something good about it.”
There was the lesson of standing with Gun Guy who had lowered his gun and us looking at each other and shrugging our shoulders and how we were for the moment just 2 Bozos on a bus. Or the lesson of a very bad person dying and then feeling empathy because after all, they were a person… At one time somebody’s baby and they probably hadn’t planned as a child the life they lived. And of course with that right there you start to learn about the power of forgiveness which may have nothing to do with making images unless of course, you are able to see it in someone else.
And, I think these were things that Diane Arbus knew. Not the exact same of course but she saw the tenderness in the places that most don’t willingly look. I think after that night I did too. I’m not glad that I experienced it. But, having done so the knowledge of it gave me a certain power and strength to be unafraid of trying. Of putting myself “out there” and making myself vulnerable enough to see.
Whenever I think I might be entering an iffy situation in the pursuit of images… and I start feeling the anxiety, I ask myself what is the worst thing that can possibly happen to me? And of course, I already have a pretty clear image of that. But short of that I think I can handle myself. Because I always speak respectfully, I always smile, I have an exit plan and I wear good running shoes. In all the time I’ve been roaming around New York City making my pictures, I’ve not once ever had anything bad happen to me. I just don’t think that it will.
I mean, what’s the worst that can happen to me?
And, yes. It’s all true.
A thank you to Heather S. for her assistance with editing.
P.S. My Subway book is available through Etsy, and I’m raising money for an operation my mom needs:
About the author: Since 1975 Gerard Exupery has used photography to document the subways, streets, and people of New York. The opinions in this article are solely those of the author. Exupery studied at The School of Visual Arts and with Lisette Model at the New School. Though Mr. Exupery has been a photographer for more than 40 years, only recently, he has begun to show his work. You can find more of his work on his website. This article was also published at 35mmc.