The Insider/Photographer Claudio Nolasco

February 8, 2012/ 5×12.org

The block was quiet on a recent Sunday afternoon. A young Puerto Rican man, heavily tattooed, stood slackly in front of MS Groceries on South 1st Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His back to the bodega, he engaged with a friend standing to his right, but concentrated more on watching the street through thick, black frames—a dog strolled by and momentarily caught the attention of others standing on the street, a few souls from the neighborhood gathered to gossip. Bisected by the busy, wide pavement of Borinquen Place and just east of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the block’s air of casual calm would occasionally dissipate for a moment as a car barreled by. On the opposite corner, a construction site sat unconstructed—eventually toxic waste will be cleared from the soil, a one-time corner gas station becoming a spiffy retail and rental building. It was not a busy as it used to be on a Sunday afternoon.

This is life on an anonymous Sunday spent in South Williamsburg. Photographer Claudio Nolascogrew up on this block, and has spent much of his adult life making record of moments like these. For most of the last 22 years he has lived in one of the block’s goliath, six-story brick buildings. At eight he moved here from the Dominican Republic; it was 1989, and Williamsburg was a different place.

Nolasco focuses less on the skinny-jean clad intruders to the world he grew up in and more on the few facets of that life that remain intact, friends like Robert Negró, the tattooed Puerto Rican, hanging out on the street on a sluggish Sunday afternoon, or flowers and new, white candles next to a glowing TV screen. Educated at Cooper Union and now a student in Columbia’s MFA program, he spends his days navigating two distinct worlds: one, the primarily white world of fine art, and the other, east of the East River, where he might simply wander down to the front of his building if he wants to catch up with the characters of his youth. He enjoys Williamsburg’s art and bar scenes (especially the Canada-themed bar ‘Ontario’), but he laments the loss of the neighborhood’s noisier days, in which on any given Sunday South 1st Street might have been closed off for an impromptu block party.

“I don’t want to make a documentary. I want to make something that is maybe more poetic,” Nolasco said on a recent afternoon spent in his studio. His voice is booming and he speaks with conviction, but he is also quick to admit when he is unsure of himself. When describing his images, he often uses terms like “exalted,” and “poetic,” sometimes “transcendent.” And the work often is. In one image from his current work-in-progress, “Trees of Heaven,” sunlight dangles from the leaves of trees on the Williamsburg waterfront. An apparently homeless man is the focus of the shot, but he is too distant for the viewer to comprehend his misfortune, only a glowing backlit sheet draped over his figure. In another photograph, window reflections glisten on pavement, fluid like the bottom of a swimming pool. His images are meticulously crafted in black and white, compositions of precise angles and lines, warm shadows, afternoon sun and glinting, reflected light. Nolasco sees his images as a sort of epic half-truth; they speak of the “other” Williamsburg, but not from a perspective of otherness. Instead they are imbued with warmth and familiarity, though still somehow maintaining a sense of physical, dreamy distance from the space. “He’s not some young punk going into Williamsburg and making images with his DSLR,” said Susan Morelock, a colleague in Columbia’s MFA program, outside of which Nolasco is relatively unknown. “Claudio has lived there his whole life and is bringing a really authentic point of view to the changes that are taking place in Williamsburg.”

Photographer Allen Frame notes that Nolasco’s work has continued in the same vein throughout his career, though becoming somewhat “bleaker.” Frame taught Claudio as a young photographer at Cooper Union, and used his work in a 2005 show he curated at Art in General in Chelsea entitled “In This Place.” “In that work, [in] which he talked about as commenting on the gentrification of Williamsburg, I found actually less ‘critical’ comment than autobiographical embrace,” said Frame. “A lot of it seemed to me more about the familiar, about his ‘owning’ that location regardless of its visual appeal and comfort.”

Nolasco came to photography as a young adult, only picking it up as his medium of choice as a sophomore at Cooper Union in downtown New York. He doodled in elementary school on the backs of notebooks, and on afternoons spent with his mother at her Williamsburg textile factory job, he would divide his time between drawing, reading, and homework, keeping to himself so as not to interrupt his mother and the other factory workers. (His father, a doctor, remained in the Dominican Republic, and he does not see him very often.) As a child, he liked to draw, dreaming of one day making comic books. According to Nolasco, it was in junior high when he first declared his passion for art, after a science teacher was looking for a way to keep Nolasco occupied and out of trouble, and assigned him the task of drawing diagrams for the class. He applied to LaGuardia High School, the prestigious Upper West Side arts school, and was rejected; instead he went to the more technically oriented High School of Art and Design on the 57th Street and Second Avenue, where he was generally bored and spent a lot of time skipping class to draw on the East River Esplanade. “I guess you’d call him a punker. [He had] wide pants, colored hair—I think it was blue,” said Gilberdo Hungria, a friend from childhood who recently moved back to Williamsburg from Florida. “Outsiders I guess you could call us.”

It wasn’t until Nolasco entered the Cooper Union’s Saturday Program, a free arts program for High School students, that he realized he could be an artist professionally. In the program, students with all levels of professional art experience have a chance to learn mediums like drawing, painting and graphic design, as well as develop a portfolio to help them get into good art schools. Marina Gutierrez, an artist and director of the Saturday Program who has been a friend and mentor to Nolasco for over a decade, recalls him thriving in the program.
“I thought he was a great student. The way he thinks of himself … its like two different pictures. I remember this student who came on time, did all his homework, participated, contributed, and generally was an ideal student. He thinks of himself as a delinquent.”

Nolasco is a product of a youth spent in hard scrub Williamsburg, but there is also a version of the space that is the product of his work. His images showcase a space that is edited to produce a certain effect: there are not images of thugs looking thuggish or downtrodden, ramshackle homes. It is as though his images seek to dispel stereotypes wholly on their own—instead they are mostly images of beautiful moments, and when not actual beautiful moments they are moments made to appear beautiful through Nolasco’s clever camerawork. There is also what Nolasco describes as a “calculated distance;” an unwillingness to interject too much of himself into his images. It is often reflected in physical distance from his objects, but also in the cool abstraction of the black and white, in the strong lines dividing many of his images into distinct sections.

Thomas Roma, Nolasco’s photography professor at Columbia and a “narrative non-fiction” photographer who has spent much of his own career photographing Brooklyn, says he has criticized Nolasco for making “beautiful objects” that lack “grit.” According to Nolasco, Roma at one point even called him a coward for the lack of anger and personal investment in his images (“For me it was a slap in the face, because I kind of knew it,” said Nolasco). Roma has urged him to stay away from making images that are poetic interpretations of the space, and Roma says has been “shocked” by his progress toward doing so over the past year. Nolasco has switched to working primarily in black and white and focused more on photographing people. Another series he is working on, about a splintered bi-racial family that has moved from Williamsburg to upstate New York, entirely focuses on human relationships and family drama. Compare this to his work done during his senior year at Cooper Union: in “South to North: Williamsburg Brooklyn,” long, nighttime exposures of buildings and parking lots render people conspicuously absent. “His inclusion of portraits and scenes of people is a good choice—to recognize the ‘community’ and suggest his place in it and more about context,” said Frame, his Cooper Union professor. “I think all these choices are good, more complicating. They make the work more layered and still more particular.”

Nolasco though, has no interest in leaving behind his poetry. “I’ve been accused of being romantic, and being sappy. I don’t have a problem with those things,” he said. “There’s certain things about photography that are very problematic, particularly as they relate to things like ethnography and classification. You’re searching for these images that are supposed to tell that story of the place.”

As a student at Cooper Union, Nolasco was constantly confronted by issues of race and class, and became hyper-aware of the way minority groups are often portrayed within a Euro-centric art world. Gutierrez suggests that it is these social tensions that may have drawn him to photography in the first place; Nolasco does not disagree.

“Most [art] schools don’t really have a healthy representation of diversity, certainly not in the way they’re taught. Its always ‘the other’ and when its defined as ‘the other’ that’s an incredible limitation,” said Gutierrez. Photography, she says, may have been a safer medium for Nolasco, less subjected to incorrect interpretation and ill-placed criticism.

Nolasco recalls one particular moment in which he was confronted by these ideas: as a sophomore, he was returning back home after a morning spent shooting in the neighborhood. Back on his block, he found a neighbor berating a “hipster girl” who had been hiding behind a parked car taking photos of a group of dealers with a telephoto lens. The neighbor, a 6’4, 300-something pound man named Frankie, chastised her for treating them like animals in a zoo. “He’s saying all these things, like ‘You haven’t bothered to know who these people are, you’re just making these images.’ And as he’s saying this, I’m looking down and I have this camera and these rolls in my pocket. I lived in the neighborhood, but I wasn’t doing those things that he prescribed.”

“I didn’t realize what it meant to take a photo of someone with no real knowledge other than that they were an interesting subject,” he added. “You don’t take a picture of someone because they look interesting.”

Nolasco was so disillusioned with the art world after Cooper Union that he spent a year doing odd jobs and working construction with Gutierrez’s boyfriend. He eventually got a job as an administrator and instructor with the Saturday Program, but even then he failed to make very much art for six years, until he came to Columbia.

***

On a recent Saturday in his Columbia studio space, Nolasco edited down images for the MFA’s programs Open Studios, in which MFA students open up their studio doors and let the public in for a peek at their work. Weeks before the event, Nolasco’s work had been done; he now concentrated on making final decisions about which images hang on the walls, selected from hundreds that he had shot since January. On one wall, he hung images from his “Tree of Life” series. On another, images from his series about the family transplanted from Williamsburg to upstate New York. He fretted about whether to leave up five color images in the series, worrying that they seemed too much like movie stills (in the end, they stayed up, but mostly because he just didn’t bother to take them down). He also constructed a series of photo books for himself and the three other photographers on the floor; he thinks that online books are a much more accessible platform for photography than gallery settings. He worked on Susan Morelock’s book, obsessing over getting the exactly correct shade of blue, though to the amateur eye, the four different print outs he’d done looked exactly the same. If anything, he is a hard, intense worker who is prone to fixating on the details. His friends and mentors suggest that it is likely these qualities that have thrust him into the art world; he has worked hard to make a living as an artist despite growing up with a lack of money, resources, and artistic role models. He is a self-described geek who builds his own computers (“it’s cheaper”) and, according to Gutierrez, always irons his clothes. Aisha Bell, another colleague from the Saturday Program, notes that he works hard to control his image. “I think is there is a need to control the way you are perceived by others. That is definitely something prevalent in minority groups that are moving into the majority space, especially if it’s an elite space. Because there is the perception that you will be attacked regardless.”

Nolasco found his stride as a teacher at the Saturday Program (indeed, nearly everyone interviewed made mention of what a great teacher he is), but at Columbia, he is pushing himself to think more conceptually, to further define his voice as a photographer, and through that, his visions of his own neighborhood.

“I think he needed direction. I mean, he got some direction from interacting here. Everybody here is a practicing artist,” said Gutierrez. “He was seeing other artists do things, and he was shooting photography, but not with intensity.”

At the Saturday Program, where he spent over a decade as a student, undergraduate assistant while at Cooper Union, and employee, Gutierrez and Bell frequently still call Nolasco for help—locating stuff around the office, fixing computer troubles. Around the space—a crowded, cluttered open room filled with papers, canvases and varied art supplies. There are relics of his time spent there in varied forms: an unexplained photo of his head Photoshopped onto a giant yellow star on the wall, a burlap Guayabera shirt that he constructed as part of his entrance exam for Cooper Union. In the neighborhood, most of his childhood friends usually only catch up with him for a few minutes here and there as he’s coming and going, but they generally enjoy the work he’s making about the space. “I notice his pictures are things that have been here since we were little kids. No one would think twice about it, but then you see it in his picture. It’s a lot of stuff I grew up seeing everyday, but it’s in a different light,” said Negró, who has also been Nolasco’s subject at times. “I never thought of looking at it the way he sees it.”

His family, Nolasco says, is more apt to think he’s wasting his time. His mother is supportive, but still regularly asks if he’s painting, “because that’s her idea of what an artist is”; his father wished he would be a doctor (though Gutierrez notes that he “would be a neurotic, hypochondriacal doctor.”)

Nolasco is a street photographer, but not in the tradition of his influences such as Walker Evans and Robert Frank. His work is not strict documentary, nor is it taken from the position of an outsider. They are loaded images, necessarily populated by emotion even if they try to resist such a thing. And, as Kerri McDonald, a writer for The New York Times’ Lens blog, notes, they come at a time when the art world seems to have more room for interpretation within documentary; his work comes at a time when photographers like Melissa Lyttle and Thomas Roma prefer to use the word “nonfiction” to describe their photography, rather than documentary.

Asked to review Nolasco’s work, McDonald noted that his work “would be stronger if he were to go into more community moments,” and move more towards photographing people rather than empty spaces and ivy-covered fences. A particularly strong image, she points out, is one of another childhood friend, Timothy Alvarez, standing on the street in front of his building as out of focus children rush towards the camera. “I almost feel like he could be closer in some ways,” she said. His work is testimony to the difficulties of being an insider in what is usually described as an “outsider” medium.

In one image, a man stands with his eyes almost closed in front of a bus stop on the street. Exactly half of his face is illuminated from the left, the other half cast in shadow. He appears as if in a dream state, standing on the sidewalk of Williamsburg but in his mind visiting somewhere else entirely. He is a big man, in a hooded sweatshirt and quilted jacket. He seems displaced in his calm, the light seems cold. The man is Nolasco’s friend, Gilberdo Hungria, who he has known since they were kids going to raves and trying to sneak into bars. Yet, the image seems taken with the reserve of a total stranger. There is a distance in his curiosity about this seemingly out of place person, rather than an aura of knowing and understanding.

It is with these images, though, that Nolasco seeks to bring more of himself to his work. In the photo book he constructed for his show, after a series of scene-setting images, the image of Hungria stands on a page of its own, like a division between his old ideas about photographing the space—people-less, cold—and his approach. He used to feel awkward about photographing his family, but on the next page an image of his mother appears, sitting at the kitchen table, staring up from the thick-stock, matte-finish with a sour expression. The book ends with four more images of friends and strangers from the neighborhood, and ad text from The New York Times for a luxury apartment rental from January of this year.

“When I was doing those night photos of the place, I was pissed. I was upset that all these people that I knew were leaving, that everything I knew changed, that suddenly all these places that I used to be able to afford I couldn’t afford. Then there was a real sense of loss,” he said. “Now its not so much that I lament it, but I am certainly conscious of the change.”

He named his photo book “Saudade,” after a Portuguese word that lacks any immediate translation into English. In his 1912 book, “In Portugal,” the writer Aubrey F.G. Bell makes an attempt: saudade, he says, is “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present.”

[photo: Claudio Nolasco]