Photographer James Bleecker is that Bleecker, or at least a member of the old Dutch family whose name is on the street sign. He credits the fact that he grew up surrounded by their narratives and their possessions for his fascination with the past and an almost willful turning away from the flat, unlovely pragmatism of the present. His pictures, especially his study of that fascinating place, Tuxedo Park, are full of ghosts and faded grandeur. At one point in our interview we teased him with our idea of torture tailormade for him: reality TV, fast food, ring tones. Although he shows—his most recent exhibition is a series of nighttime photographs of the High Line—he also frequently accepts commissions, often from historical societies and the like, to do what he calls ‘architectural portraiture’. And if you are an aspiring artist, he has this to say to you: ‘If you can’t sustain yourself with a fair dose of fantasy and sheer, silly confidence, you won’t make it.’
You know who you look like? I have to say, you look somebody in a 1940’s movie … you look like you’re from another era.
I’ve been compared to Alan Ladd—someone said with specific reference to the lock of hair. They said if you look at Alan Ladd, his hair does the exact same thing.
You are cultivating something, and we can see it around us in this room. You’re steadfastly resisting something. Would you say it’s a deliberate nostalgia? And does it inform your work?
I do love thinking about the past and I love studying art history and I used to think of it as that common sentiment called nostalgia. I was talking to a professor about it and he said it’s not nostalgia. He said in fact nostalgia, by definition, is a kind of sentimental reminiscing about something that you had during your lifetime and lost. He said what I have is not nostalgia because I’m imagining things that I never experienced … every time I go into a video store, I go straight to the classics section? Why is it when I’m on Madison Avenue, I’m drawn to Paul Stewart, or Brooks Brothers? – no scratch Brooks Brothers.
So what are you looking for in these things? Did you grow up this way?
Okay, let’s start there. Starting with the name: Bleecker. My family is Bleecker of the Bleecker Street, one of the old colonial Dutch families. We came here in the 1730s so my family has been in New York City for roughly 14 generations. If you grow up surrounded by old photographs and ancestor portraits, and in an old house that was built by your grandparents or your great-grandparents, in my case … I think that under those circumstances you have a different grasp of history than most people. I think in my case it gave me a slippery grasp of the present and it certainly made the present, particularly the present in terms of fad and fashion, much less sexy to me. If fads were like wonderful new flavors of ice cream, they were just flavors I didn’t taste. There was no sensation for me.
You grew up in Manhattan?
New York and Long Island, Oyster Bay.
Well Oyster Bay, like Tuxedo Park is a very rarefied place.
You know what was wonderful about it, because I know that the word ‘privileged’ is about to burst on to our lips, and of course it was, but perhaps the greatest privilege of it was that as children we were unaware of privilege. What I was aware of was that my parents loved beautiful things. We had the most beautiful yacht in Oyster Bay—not the biggest, not the most expensive. It was utterly exquisite. Her name was Serena and she was anchored proudly in the middle of the harbor and we had a view overlooking the harbor from our house, so every day when I came home from school there was Serena. And we could swim out to her …
It does sound like a gilded childhood, I have to say…
When we finally sold her, it was like losing a member of the family.
What I found interesting was the contrast between photographing something like Tuxedo Park and then going to something like the High Line (before its new design). Visually they’re polar opposites. One is very industrial and one is very exclusive.
That’s a good point, Sian. Aesthetically they’re polar opposites, and socially what they represent is a polar opposite. I’ve actually always loved factory towns – and I think I can tell you why—because to me they’re actually exotic. This gets back to the privileged childhood, I suppose. The first time that I ever saw a factory town, or an industrial town was when I went to college and that was the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. It was in the early 80s and Providence was going through bad times. I sort of dreaded being there for the first couple of years but I was fascinated by it, drawn to it.
Is it the ghosts you’re interested in?
I was drawn to lonely empty places. I still am. Even Tuxedo Park. Let’s compare Tuxedo Park to East Hampton. Superficially they have much in common. The houses are roughly the same size and the same age, turn of the century. But East Hampton, I’m not drawn to as an artist.
I find Tuxedo Park, as a concept, very fascinating, the pre-cursor of the modern-day gated community.
Tuxedo Park went through a very prolonged and painful downward spiral for much of the 20th century. It never recovered from the stock market crash of 1929. At least one resident committed suicide and several residents probably set fire to their houses right after the crash. It has not completely recovered to this day. If you look at real estate prices, you can buy a 40-room castle in Tuxedo Park for the price of a ranch in East Hampton. It’s an isolated place, in these hardscrabble hills … when you leave the gates of Tuxedo Park, you’ll have a hard time finding a donut. For me there was a melancholy about Tuxedo Park, very much a faded grandeur to it.
So it has got ghosts.
I read that you like Walker Evans because his pictures are without irony. Do you think irony is over-rated?
Yes, my pictures are not ironic. I like to say they’re not sophisticated although my wife will always contradict that and say that they are sophisticated except that you just don’t know in what way. But if I could tell you all the levels that my pictures work on …
I’m so glad you said that. I think things are so over-interpreted.
… do you think that Herman Melville had a sense of the 14 layers of meaning in Moby Dick? I don’t think so, and I really doubt that he cared.
If you could do it all consciously … you’d be stifled, you couldn’t move. What is your process then?
I am trying to capture what is timeless and I am trying to capture a sense of place.
A [phrase] that often comes up when people talk about my work is architectural portraiture … any good portrait is an insightful interpretation of a personality and since I see tons of personality in architecture, I like to think of what I’m doing as portraiture.
You take lots of pictures at night. I always think that New York very late at night when it is quiet is so wonderful.
Have you ever gone to a party and you think you’re going to go home and you want to go home but for whatever reason, you don’t, you linger. And there’s a small set of people that also linger and maybe you didn’t know these people when you arrived. But you get to talking to them and you have a couple of glasses of wine and all of sudden you don’t want to go home. You’ve passed a certain threshold and at about one in the morning, those people suddenly start to reveal themselves to you in a way that couldn’t have happened before midnight. Architecture can do the same thing—it’s a post-midnight phenomenon … the night is a very special time. It has a real poignant emptiness to it.
Were you considered odd at RISD?
You know, honestly at RISD I was really under the radar. I think I was one of the people that was just not noticed.
But that’s okay …
It’s never okay. It’s might be something that you say is okay, but it’s never okay. I’m sure it hurt. I was never a standout at RISD, not until my final year and, either by determination or talent or luck, I managed to win a prestigious award. And all of a sudden teachers were walking up to me saying: I think you have a future as an artist.