Vintage New York Photos Reveal Gritty City Life, Before Anyone Had a Cellphone

richard sandler street photography

CC Train, 1985
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From 1977 to 2001, photographer Richard Sandler roamed the streets of New York City, capturing some of the most iconic street photography of this bustling city in flux. Using his Leica, he documented generations of New Yorker's caught in the whirlwind of change that almost 25 years brought upon the city.

In his book, The Eyes of the City, Sandler showcases the best of his photography, which captures everything from the urban decay of the 1980s to the ever-widening class differences, which is a recurring theme throughout his work. Sandler's subjects appear vacant and preoccupied, lost in their own worlds looking for love or wishing themselves anywhere but the graffiti-laden subway. It's this energy that fills Sandler's favorite photograph, CC Train, 1985, which also graces the cover of his book.

“I like this one because every person is looking at me or through me, but also looking at YOU, the viewer! Each person in the picture is a kind of question mark requiring your interpretation,” the acclaimed photographer tells My Modern Met via email. “The graffiti and clothing date it as the recent past, but it is their gazes at us that I find timeless and haunting. The best pictures are the ones that ask more questions than they answer.”

new york street photography richard sander

W 32nd Street

Today, Sandler reflects back on his time as New York's foremost street photographer. In a time when people look back upon a pre-9/11 New York with nostalgia, his work has continued to garner a strong following. “As the recent past ripens, it fades into the distance, but until it does, its meanings live in limbo and uncertainty. In our own time, ‘the recent past’ are the two decades just before computers, cell phones, and the internet, and most of us miss that time because, though we were not connected to the worldwide grid, we were more connected to one another.”

In fact, Sandler points to the rise of the cell phone as the main reason he stopped photographing New York's streets. “I don’t want people on cell phones in my pictures because they are essentially virtual; their bodies are on the street but their attentions are elsewhere and they walk around in bubbles,” he shares with us. “I like intensity in street photography and people on cell phones are boring.”

Richard Sandler's images from The Eyes of the City are on view at the Leica Store in New York City through November 28, 2017. He will also be hosting a talk about street photography and his work on November 10, from 6 pm to 8 pm.

Acclaimed street photographer Richard Sandler spent almost 30 years roaming the streets of New York City with his Leica.

Richard Sandler Street Photographer

Subway noir

richard sandler nyc subway photography

Subway swoon

richard sandler black and white street photography

Mortality and Cherry Coke

richard sandler nyc documentary photography

Grand Central Terminal, 1990

richard sandler candid photos in new york

Briefcases 57th Street

democratic convention richard sandler

Democratic Convention 1984

richard sandler photographer

Back to back subway

richard sandler nyc documentary photography

Bloomie's gal

richard sandler photographer

Woman and veil

richard sandler black and white street photography

6th and 57th Street

richard sandler photos of new york in the 80s

Macy's window

new york street photography richard sander

Madison and 32nd

richard sandler world trade center 1980s

WTC moon

Richard Sandler: Website | Facebook | Instagram

My Modern Met granted permission to use photos by Richard Sandler.

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Gritty Photos Capture the Real Street Life of New York in the 1970s

Photographer Spends 9 Years on One Street Corner Capturing Same Commuters Every Day

Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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