Located at the corner of West 129th Street and Lenox Avenue is a small specialty coffee house that serves rich coffee, an assortment of pastries and bagels. The shop has a rustic feel: The entire floor is covered with dark mahogany-colored wooden planks. The brown tin ceiling adds to the space’s antiquated décor, but the photos on one sidewall represents a contrast to the coffee house’s old world theme.
The works are part of FutureSelf, an exhibit by Lauree Feldman, a photographer who holds a contract with Getty Images and has an office in Harlem. Feldman first began her career as a technical animation photographer and later made the transition to stock photography. Her journey to Asia eventually led to her production of "Eye on Asia," an exhibition of black and white silver bromide prints that chronicle her travels.
Her images stir emotions from her viewers and the minute we saw them displayed at Lenox Coffee, we knew we had to speak with her. Check out her incredible story as a photographer and how she uses her lens to view the world...
How did you get involved in photography?
I grew up just north of New York City, in a town called Ossining. I was always interested in photography. I’ve always been visual, and looking through a lens was another way to see. When I was a child, I wanted to be a Life [magazine] photographer. Well, they went out of business when I was 13. I had my first career crisis because I wanted to work for Life. I was sure I could take those pictures. I wanted to be in those places, but the reality was that I became the family photographer. My father always had cameras, but he could never use them. He would cut everybody’s heads. He’d have everybody sit on the sofa during Thanksgiving and he would have them from their necks down and take pictures of their feet. When I was a little kid, I was like, “Dad, I can do better than that.” In high school, I shot my high school yearbook [photos].
When I got out of school, I wanted to get into commercial photography, so I found my way into corporate communications. Corporate communications in those days were multi-projected slideshows, so it was all animation-stand technical photography. It was a matter of technology that killed that industry. Now, when people talk about slideshows, there are no slides in slideshows. It’s PowerPoint.
A couple things happened. For me, it was cataclysmic. I had a photo studio that I shared with a couple of guys on 30th Street in the 1980s, and I was also a student at Columbia [University]. The 1980s was also the height of the AIDS epidemic, and everybody died; all my partners died, my clients died. It was like living in a plague. I woke up one day in 1991, and I was like the last survivor standing there. The industry was decimated because there were so many gay men who were creative. They were doing the designs; they were doing the productions; and my partners were all gay. All of a sudden, I couldn’t take one more shot. It was like I had it up to here, and I couldn’t do it anymore. And exactly at that time, PowerPoint came in. So I closed the store and never looked back.
Now, I work for Getty Images, but the work I have here in this shop and other exhibits that I do, has nothing to do with Getty. I'm drawn to nature and landscape photography; this is something that I want to do, and I do it for myself, for my friends or for the hell of it.
I noticed that you’ve also done film photography, and then, years later, you switched from film to digital photography. Is there a reason why you focus more on digital now?
I stayed with film until 2002. The reason I stayed with it was because I shoot for an agency - a stock agency. Then, it was Index [Stock Imagery]. Now, I’m contracted by Getty [Images]. The digital cameras that first came out that were good enough for the agencies were far too expensive to carry around town. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Nikon and Canon started to make cameras that had good enough resolution and megapixels that the agencies would accept.
When I made the switch, I was spending $30,000 a year on film processing. That’s a whole lot of money that I can spend on something else or save. The other thing is the environment. E-6processing, or color film processing, was a dip-and-dunk procedure. [That’s] bad for the environment. You’re working in a lab. You’re working with those chemicals. You’re breathing them. You’re touching them. [It’s] bad for the workers. Digital photography takes care of all that.
What has been your experience in Harlem?
I mostly worked out of my apartment for about 20 years. Then I reached a point a few years ago where I really needed a space where I could invite clients to come and look at works or work on projects or have a meeting. I didn’t want to be in a big commercial building downtown. I liked to take my dog to work, so I was looking for a place where I could get a lot of square footage for not a lot of money and where I could take my dog out in the afternoon for a walk. Harlem answers every need. It’s close to every train. I can get anywhere in the city.
It has a lot of diversity, which I like. When I was going to Columbia, it was all African American. It’s become much more diverse. It has the West African community. The Muslim community has expanded. I can walk down the street, and I can talk to people and go here and do this, and, at the end of the day, I’ve touched 10 different nationalities and I haven’t really left the neighborhood. The first time I experienced a lack of diversity and a culture was when I went to Vietnam in 1988. All of the different groups that we know, all of the different Asian cultures – where were they? It was just Vietnamese. All of a sudden, I realized how much I appreciated, in New York, the diversity of cultures.
Were there any other countries that you visited besides Vietnam?
I finished Columbia in 1986. The following year, I went around the world. I had this idea to go to Mount Everest and see the mountain. I bought a round-world ticket, and I left on Columbus Day because I thought that was a fortuitous day to start this circumnavigation around the globe. I went west. I went to San Francisco, Honolulu, Hong Kong [and] Shanghai. I did a three-week tour in China with a tour group. Then, [I went to] Singapore, Bangkok [and] Mumbai. Then, I traveled over land across India and up to Kathmandu. That took about five or six weeks. Then, I joined a trekking group, and I trekked for three weeks in the Himalayas and then went up to Everest. I spent several weeks in Calcutta, where I was doing some research for an idea for graduate work.
How did that trip shape you as a photographer?
When I came back, I went to the darkroom, and I printed up beautiful black-and-whites. I made an exhibition called “Eye on Asia.” One of the things that I noticed was that I shot a lot of street portraits.
People come to you when they see a camera. Kids come like flies. They swarm all around you when they see a camera, and they pose. So I ended up taking a lot of street portraits, which gave me a lot of interaction with the people. It also gave me the opportunity to really become friends with them afterwards. As I was printing these pictures, I started to make up stories of who these people were and what their names were. I created this whole universe of friends.
Have you ever done any food photography?
Not really, but I have to say that I’m drawn to shooting street food. There are some of the things that they cook in pots in Thailand, and it’s colors and spices and things that I’ve never seen before. I have street food shots but not really studio shots.
People come together over food. When you’re looking at another culture through a lens, food often gets into it. You can’t shoot people without shooting food.
To see some of Feldman's works, visit www.laureefeldman.com.