BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | If you want a glimpse into what the gritty and colorful Lower East Side looked like in the 1980s and ’90s, walk by the windows at Printed Matter / St. Mark’s, on the corner of Second Ave.
You’ll find taped up there 300 of documentarian Clayton Patterson’s neighborhood photos. They’re snapshots into another era, from decades ago. And yet many feel as if they could have been taken yesterday.
The shots were assembled by Patterson’s friend Gryphon Rue, an artist, musician and curator working across disciplines. Patterson gave Rue rare access to his voluminous photo archive, setting him loose to pick whatever he wanted to use.
The resulting exhibit, “Beauty Mark: Clayton Patterson,” went up on March 10 and runs through April 25.
The photos in the two windows show local gang members and punks, Pyramid Club drag queens, cops and people being arrested, homeless people in the Tompkins Square Park Tent City and lots of locals — teenagers striking poses, lovers embracing, proud parents with their babies, Bengali immigrant families.
Some of the images’ running themes include gentrification, riots, old storefronts and police brutality. On the other hand, some shots humanize the cops, showing them in light moments and unguarded poses. In one image, an officer points an old-school Polaroid camera back at Patterson.
Many of the photos were snapped in front of the door a.k.a. “The Door” of the documentarian’s Essex St. building. (Due to all of the tags on it by local graffiti writers, the door also became known as “The Wall of Fame.”)
In an era before digital photography, Patterson would then tape up the developed prints in the place’s ground-floor window in an ever-changing display that became known as “The Hall of Fame.”
Inside the Printed Matter bookshop, there are also three portrait-size photos of drag queens from Patterson’s Pyramid Club series.
Johanna Rietveld, the bookstore manager at Printed Matter / St. Mark’s, said the exhibit has been a hit, connecting with people, including locals who personally know the photo subjects.
“It’s been really nice to see how it draws people in and people spend a lot of time looking at it,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of people recognize old friends, people they know. People come in and say, ‘Who took the picture?’ and that Clayton took a picture of them and ask if we have one of them. People saying they haven’t seen people for 20 years and wonder where they are now.”
She said there has been a lot interest in a photo of a man sporting a black beret named Twilight.
“Quite a few people recognized him, hadn’t seen him forever,” she said.
It’s not clear yet if the three portrait-size photos — high-quality photo prints — of the drag queens inside the store will be for sale. They are a limited edition of seven each.
Patterson and Printed Matter will share in any proceeds. Rue is not getting anything. For Patterson, it’s not about the money anyway.
“Printed Matter is a place that I support,” he said. “Gryphon Rue is a brilliant musician.”
Patterson noted that Rue played the saw at a show of the documentarian’s work at the HOWL! Happening gallery, on E. First St.
As for Twilight, Patterson remembers him well.
“He did leatherwork,” he recalled. “He was from the Caribbean. He ended up on the cover of one of the Rolling Stones albums — three guys sitting together on a stoop on the Lower East Side. They shot it on St. Mark’s. They set it up, with Mick Jagger. … Of course, they always set those shots up.”
As for what happened to Twilight, Patterson said, “I’m not sure. He’s one of those guys that disappear.”
But his photo by the L.E.S. documentarian remains.