At my core I care about social issues
History, as Alan Bennett noted, “is just one f@cking thing after another.” It is the attribute of the camera that it can forensically excise a fragment from that endless stream of events, stilling it in a way that direct visual perception can never quite achieve. When made well, a photograph can crystallise flow into moment. Of course, the great majority of those everyday moments do not constitute what we have come to consider History with a capital H. And yet, in the Brownian motion of lived experience, actions and events impact one another in ways more fully understood in retrospect. It is in the tangential view that new insights are often later to be discovered.
Barbara Alper has spent over forty years documenting life in America and beyond. Her great skill is to be present, in the moment, in the midst. As she puts it: “When I’m shooting it’s like a form of meditation with nothing else going on except what’s in front of me. I work without preconceived notions or predetermined outcomes.” Her images of demos are shot from among; of pre-AIDS, pre-internet sex parties from within. The impact of 9/11 is suggested through the microcosm of acutely observed detail. War, remediated by a foreign-language television channel, is captioned (whether by accident or design) with an uncannily perceptive critique that it takes an agile eye to recognise and capture as it flickers across the screen.
Time, too, shapes meaning. Barbara Alper’s extensive archive of imagery not only speaks of the past but converses among its individual parts. Images of today lead us back to images from the previous century. They remind us of the way we were but had somehow not remembered quite that way; the struggles we thought we had won that remain still to be fought; the famous who fall from grace; the unknowns who nonetheless find iconic status within the photograph. These are not just moments preserved as images, but pieces from the infinite jigsaw of history. They help us see and understand the bigger picture. They offer us fresh perspective. They are images of moment.
What led you to become a professional photographer?
I’ve been taking pictures forever. I got my first camera (a Brownie) by selling Christmas cards when I was seven. Later I upgraded to an Instamatic. But it never entered my mind that photography could be a career. I studied social work in college. In one of my classes I used video, loved it, and wanted to transfer to the communications department. But everyone warned me that there weren’t any good jobs for women in that field, I’d just end up as a secretary.
So I stuck to social work and, once I graduated, moved to Boston. I had various jobs – a girls’ detention centre, an investment firm – but even though I was working in business settings, my friends were artists and photographers. And then it hit me: I can do that!
I got a good camera (Olympus OM-1) and took basic photography and darkroom classes. It came easily. Photography was the right path for me! I quit my job, and went to the Creative Photo Lab at M.I.T., headed at the time by Minor White [1908–1976] where they let me attend class for a year in exchange for working in the department. I felt lucky to be there. I didn’t need a degree, just the experience. I was on my way…
Do you have a personal ethic that helps you decide what you do and do not photograph?
If someone asks me not to take their photo, I don’t. When I am working as a photojournalist on a news job I’m an observer, a recorder. I would never manipulate the situation in order to get a better shot, nor would I manipulate a photo in post-production before submitting it to my editor.
Some of the first of your work that I saw was the remarkable series you made in various sex clubs in the early 1980s. How did that series begin?
I’ve always been interested in the way humans behave, how they interact with each other. I guess that was what had initially led me into social work. I’ve always been curious about sexual behaviour, but it’s not an easy area to explore, beyond the personal level. When I moved to New York City I met people who were open about sex in a way I hadn’t encountered before. One of them was the photographer Charles Gatewood [1942–2016] who had been photographing in the S&M world for years. He invited me to a party at the Hellfire Club after one of his exhibition openings; told me to bring my camera. I was fascinated, this was a new experience, and I got some amazing photos that night; some are still part of my portfolio. That was in 1981. Over the next dozen or more years I was invited to photograph at other parties held at different clubs and in other cities.
At the time, these images were remarkable for the way they made evident something that was underground. It appears that you were using flash, so it was no secret that you were taking photographs, yet everyone seems quite relaxed about it.
Charlie had posted signs at Hellfire saying that people would be taking photos. Most people took no notice of the cameras and just got on with what they were doing, others would pose for the camera. And yes, given how dark it was, the place was literally underground, I had to use flash.
I am fascinated by the way the flash reveals interrelationship of people that, in the dark, they may have been less aware of. What was it you wanted to bring out in this work?
I like exploring what’s generally unseen, private, hidden. We’re all a bit quirky, aren’t we? Seeing how others behave can be liberating – and a privilege – especially with behaviour that some would find ‘questionable’. I believe that people should be able to act out their fantasies and live the lifestyle they choose, so long as it’s among consenting adults. If it helps make for a happier life, all the better!
These images were made at a point when the sexual liberation of the late Sixties and Seventies was transitioning into the first phase of AIDS. How did this affect the communities that created and participated in these events?
I really came into the scene near its end. AIDS was devastating. Clubs closed, reopened for a while in a different location. Of course, all the sex had to be safe – no exchange of bodily fluids. But also, the scene changed. S&M was becoming mainstream, and the clubs got to feel a bit touristy.
Some ten years later, with the beginning of the Gulf War, you took a very unusual approach to documenting that event. How did that come about?
I’ve always photographed events or individuals on television, especially historically important ones, and if I couldn’t be there in person. When the Gulf War began in 1991 I decided to shoot it on TV. I was switching channels when I discovered the French station, Antenne 2, which has English-language subtitling. The captions were amazing. After a couple of weeks shooting I started editing the work and discovered in these images and captions this strangely subversive narrative.
I called the series ‘The Gulf Channel’.
How did this revealing juxtaposition of image and text arise?
The French presented a different take on the War than we did here in the US. Our news was more censored, but not the French. Maybe because the US was in favour of this war, and the Europeans were not. The series isn’t only about the war, it’s a commentary on it – about how the news is presented to us, who controls what we’re shown…
Where did you show this work and what kind of response have you had?
‘The Gulf Channel’ got little response here in the US. Perhaps because of its take on the war. In Europe it was a different story, they immediately took to my work. The first exhibition I had was at FNAC in Paris, which then travelled to many of their other venues. In 1995 the work featured in ‘Warworks: Women, Photography and the Iconography of War’, a major exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London with an accompanying book. It later travelled to Canada.
You were living in Manhattan on 11 September 2001. As someone who is both a photojournalist and an artist, how did you go about bearing witness to those first few days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers?
It’s never been my practice to run towards danger, I go in the opposite direction. Not the best attitude for a photojournalist, right? I was working for The New York Times when it happened. While everyone was rushing to Ground Zero, I knew there were other contextualising stories that it was also important to document. For the next couple of weeks I shot assignments, and went out on my own to document these other stories: the make-shift memorials, crowds along the West Side Highway cheering on the rescue vehicles… I found a clothing store, Chelsea Jeans, a block from Ground Zero that had its windows blown in. All the clothes inside were coated with the dust. That heavy ash – that dust – was what remained of the Twin Towers and those who perished there… It was a time I hope to never experience again.
[Left] © Barbara Alper ‘Times Square’ 11 September 2001
Except for a very few people, Times Square was empty on 9/11 following the attack on the World Trade Centre.
[Right] © Barbara Alper ‘Kids With Masks’ 19 September 2001
Kate, Lucy and Jenny Zwigard were out walking with their carer in their neighbourhood located close to Ground Zero.
What is it, do you think, that makes this indirect reflection on a violent tragedy so affecting?
The attack had a much wider impact beyond the Twin Towers and the people in them. Take that image of a single man in shirt and tie, rushing North on Broadway through Times Square. It’s deserted! A sight never before seen (nor since, until the Covid-19 pandemic), taken on 9/11. Or the young girls walking with their nanny ten days later, wearing gas masks… People can relate more easily to images like that. Images that show the wider effects giving some sense of the horror, and the fear, indirectly.
As New Yorkers we were all affected, one way or another. We could look straight into anyone’s eyes on the street, and we knew we shared the same shock and horror and loss and pain and sorrow. In that, we were unified.
[Left] © Barbara Alper ‘Anti-Apartheid, Cambridge, Massachusetts’ 23 April 1979
Student anti-apartheid protesters with placards urging Harvard University to divest itself of investments in South Africa.
[Right] © Barbara Alper ‘Protesting Police Brutality, Fifth Avenue, New York City’ 16 December 2006
Demonstrators in the Shopping for Justice march protest police brutality towards Black people and seek justice for the murder of Sean Bell.
One theme that recurs in your work and provides an interesting point of historical reflection is your coverage of the many protests and parades you have witnessed.
At my core I care about social issues; about people’s rights and freedoms. By photographing these events, I can share them with a wider audience… spread the word. I first started covering these in the late-Seventies in Boston, into the Eighties in New York and in the mid-Eighties when I went to Washington DC for Pro-Choice marches. I’ve been covering issues like these for more than forty years: Women’s rights, Gay rights, AIDS action, Climate Change, Anti-War… And it’s infuriating at times to realise we’re still fighting the same issues! Will we never make progress?
[Left] © Barbara Alper ‘Climate Strike Demonstration’ 20 September 2019
Students in New York protesting as part of a worldwide day of climate strike demonstrations.
[Right] © Barbara Alper ‘War Is Not Healthy’ 12 June 1982
A hippy with a hand-painted sign at an anti-nuclear rally in Central Park, New York City.
Such protests tend to reflect bitter divisions in society. I notice that you often cover both sides of the story. How do you see your role as a witness?
I think it’s important to show both sides. That said, in the Gay Pride marches, I walked with the marchers, capturing what they stand for, but looking around I’d see the haters with their ‘Anti…’ signs. It is important to show what people are fighting for, and what they’re fighting against. One side demonstrated love, while the other demonstrated disapproval and hate.
[Left] © Barbara Alper ‘Gay Pride Parade Protesters’ 29 June 1986
A homophobic counterdemonstration held opposite St. Patricks Cathedral during Gay Pride Day in New York City.
[Right] © Barbara Alper ‘Quentin Crisp’ 24 June 1982
English writer and raconteur Quentin Crisp (1908–1999) participates in the Gay Pride parade in New York City.
These events can be quite volatile. How do you keep safe while capturing the images you want?
I never really felt any threat, but then again I’ve always been careful and knew when I needed to get out of the way. Generally the counter-demonstrators are kept behind barricades. There’s always a police presence, now more than ever. It used to be easier and more fun covering these events. I could go in and out to shoot from different perspectives. Now the police have gotten much stricter, making it harder to move about freely.
© Barbara Alper ‘Pro-Choice Demonstrators, New York City’ 10 August 1980
Pro-Choice demonstrators at the People’s Convention held during the Democratic National Convention in New York City.
© Barbara Alper ‘Women’s March, New York City’ 2 October 2021
The Women’s March for Reproductive Rights protesting new abortion restrictions introduced in Texas.
Which of these many demonstrations made the biggest impression on you?
Honestly, it’s hard to narrow it down to one. The energy at the Pride marches is strong with a sense of unity. Of course, the Pro-Choice demonstrations in Washington in the later 1980s were so powerful; the feeling of solidarity. Abortion rights – I can’t believe people want to take that away from women. Again!
Working as a freelance photographer what lessons have you learned for survival?
Freelance life can be like a roller-coaster, yet knowing it was the right and only choice for me helped me through the down times. It’s not easy, and it takes over your life, but I was determined to support myself doing photography. You have to have an eye, of course, and you have to know where you fit in compared to all the other photographers out there. But to survive you have to really, really want it. You have to be determined, persistent, patient… and available. It doesn’t come quick or easy. And you have to be able to do the job well and on time.
One of the aspects of photography is that it shows us how things used to be. Are there particular photographs that you made that keep becoming relevant again?
My protest and demonstration images continue to be used regularly. I’ve had a few instances where there was a news event about people I’d photographed years earlier that brought renewed interest in those images. Recently, my photos of Harvey and Bob Weinstein, shot in 1989 for the Los Angeles Times, were republished worldwide when Harvey Weinstein was arrested and subsequently convicted of multiple sexual abuse charges. Editors found my images through the Getty Images Archive. Lucky for me the archive had them or I would have to hustle them around myself. In fact, being with Getty has brought attention to much of my earlier work.
How long have you been represented by Getty?
About eight years now. I was introduced to the director of the archive, and he agreed to have a look at some of my work. He came over, looked through folders of photos, then asked me to join the archive. I was hesitant at first, but it’s been a terrific experience. After all, no one sees my work if it’s just sitting in drawers and boxes. Being with the Getty Archive has given my photographs a whole new life. I’m also represented by Getty Images Gallery.
Yes, it is fascinating how the value of an image can evolve over time, as contexts change.
It really is, and it’s exciting. I’m currently going through my work with a colleague; right back to when I first started out in 1975. It’s fun and exciting, and we’ve found some real gems. The aim is to create an exhibition and produce a monograph.
[Upper Left] © Barbara Alper ‘Parental Guidance’ 1983
[Upper Right] © Barbara Alper ‘Husband Lib’ May 1980. A man wearing sandwich boards parades along Fifth Avenue, New York City.
[Middle Left] © Barbara Alper ‘People’s Convention’ 11 August 1980. Anti-war protestors at the People’s Convention in New York City, during the Democratic National Convention.
[Lower Left] © Barbara Alper ‘Welcome Home Hostages’ 25 January 1981. A sign in a store window in Miami Beach, Florida, referring to the end of the Iran hostage crisis, and the release of the fifty-two American diplomats and citizens from the US Embassy in Tehran.
[Lower Right] © Barbara Alper ‘Mime At The Met’ 2 June 1978. A mime at work in front of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City helps flag a cab for a couple of women.
Over the years you have amassed a photographic slice of American history. How might it be preserved for the future?
I’m in conversation with a photo archive about acquiring my negatives, slides, prints and ephemera once I am no longer working with them. We’re not quite ready to announce it yet, but that will be coming in the near future. It’s exciting and a great relief that forty-five years of continuous work will be preserved.
What have you learned over the years? What has photography taught you?
That things don’t necessarily come when you want them to, but will come when it’s right. It can take much longer than you expect. Time can pass slowly, then all too quickly. I’ve learned that you can’t always immediately recognise what’s in your own work and, over time, an image can take on a different meaning or degree of importance.
Barbara Alper was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1949. She holds a BA in social work from Michigan State University, subsequently studying with the renowned photographers Harold Feinstein and Lisette Model, and at the MIT Creative Photo Lab, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has been exhibited widely in North America, Europe, Asia, and Oceania. She has published extensively with long-term clients including such prestigious publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Time magazine, and Business Week. Her photographs are held in major public and private collections around the world including the Bibliothéque Nationale (Paris), Brooklyn Museum, the International Center of Photography (New York), the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (Paris), the Museum of Fine Arts (Houston), New York Public Library, and the Victoria and Albert Museum (London). She lives and works in New York City.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.