For over 30 years, every since his days as an NYU film student, Robert Herman has roamed the streets of New York City with his camera in hand to photograph the sights and people of his urban home. The New Yorkers, shot from 1978 to 2005 on Kodachrome color film, is his collection of candid photos captured as the city underwent major changes to become the sprawling metropolis we know today. Many of the images depict the vibrant life and energy that defined New York in the ’70s and ’80s–gritty, loud, marked by colorful graffiti, as dangerous as it was thrilling. As neighborhoods like Soho, Little Italy, Tribeca, Greenwich Village, and the Lower East Side were transformed by gentrification, the New York City that Herman grew up with all but disappeared, making this photo series a nostalgic documentation of the past as well as a beautifully cinematic visual delight.
According to the photographer, “These photos tell an authentic story of New York City: not a series of skyline cliches but real New Yorkers living and working in their own neighborhoods. As someone living alongside them and also struggling to make a living, I identified with the fragile vulnerability of the subjects of my photos. The New York I saw was not the hip, glamorous place depicted in fashion magazines or Hollywood movies. New York was the lives of overlooked, anonymous people struggling to endure in this harsh yet vibrant city.”
For Herman, the project also represents his personal journey as he struggled to understand his own place in the city. As the photographer wandered the streets, he battled depression, emotional turmoil, and manic episodes that would later be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Photography was an outlet that allowed him to express his feelings of being an outsider, to develop his sense of self, and, ultimately, to grow and thrive in the concrete jungle. He says, “Through the lens of my camera, my vulnerability met theirs at the moment of exposure: a photograph of someone whose heart is open to a stranger’s camera says more about a New Yorker than I ever can in say in words.”
Herman published a book of his The New Yorkers photos thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign funded in 2011. Check out the photographer’s website to purchase a signed copy of the book, or Amazon and other retailers for more editions.