Over the past seven years, I have been working on three new series of photographs, selections from which are featured here. These and other photos on my website are available to purchase in limited edition, fine-art prints. See print ordering info here.
When I started “The Chair Pictures” series, I thought of it as a natural extension of my street photography—but street photography brought indoors. Into my apartment. I had been photographing New Yorkers on the street since moving here six years earlier. From the beginning my approach was always the same: I’d spot someone who caught my eye for some reason, walk up to them, and ask if I could take their picture. More often than not, people said no, but when they said yes—and when the chemistry and the light were right—a kind of magic occurred.
While I considered my street photos to be portraits, taken on-the-spot, I was interested in exploring studio portraiture where I’d have more than a minute or two with a subject and more control over the environment—background, lighting, and so forth. One day, I had an idea to take pictures of all different people on the same simple wooden chair in a corner of my apartment. My subjects would again be people I’d spot on the street or subway, at the gym or a bar—strangers, for the most part, whom I’d invite for a sitting. I took my first “Chair Picture” in 2015 and continued the series until I moved out of that apartment in 2019.
After about three years of working on The Chair Pictures, I began feeling I’d explored as many permutations as I could think of with nothing but the wooden chair. I returned to my first love, street photography. While I continued to take the kinds of street pictures I had in the past, I also found myself intuitively breaking one of my own rules: To ask if I may before I took someone’s photo. The first picture I took in the Sleepers in the Park series is also the first presented here: a young couple asleep on the grass, their bodies intertwined. There was something so arresting about the graphic quality of their pose, as well as the tenderness expressed by their embrace. I couldn’t resist.
From then on, I actively looked for people sleeping in parks when I went out with my camera; this was something I saw only in the summertime in New York. Although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, I see now that these pictures were the exact opposite of The Chair Pictures. Rather than bring the outdoors in, here I was capturing what is normally done indoors—inside one’s bedroom—outdoors. Sleeping is such a deeply private—even intimate—human activity (or is it a mode of inactivity?) and I was fascinated that anyone could even attempt to sleep in public. It suggested a vulnerability and trust that I found moving. But also, spooky.
In late 2018, a significant change in my life occurred: I became the owner of my late partner’s West Village apartment. The two-bedroom place was large—large enough to house Oliver’s beloved 125-year-old Bechstein grand piano, which was still there. I didn’t play piano. It was too large to move. I regarded it as a beautiful piece of sculpture and renovated the apartment around it. I turned one half of the apartment into a white-walled photography studio, with the piano right in the middle.
I moved into my new home in April 2019. A couple weeks later, I had a shoot with a guy I’d hired as a model. (By now, I was interested in trying something new, exploring another genre: nudes.) I pulled out my wooden chair and took some photos, but it was as if the relationship between us had fizzled; the chemistry was no longer there. Then I suddenly thought of the piano bench; its legs were as shapely as those of especially muscular calves, but it had a dainty elegance at the same time. I placed it in front of the stark white wall. The naked model perched atop, and, as I began snapping pictures, I knew in an instant that the piano bench and I were about to embark on the photographic equivalent of a romance.
Unlike the chair in “The Chair Pictures,” which has an almost Amish austerity, the piano bench has a personality that comes through in photos. A model has to step up, even show off, to compete with that small but sturdy, modest yet flamboyant, old but timeless, beautifully crafted piece of furniture. One day it hit me why. It’s not just what it looks like; it’s also what it represents to me. The piano bench is Oliver incarnate: commenting, smiling, observing, enjoying the beauty—the human music—of the various men photographed on it.