See NY’s underbelly through these controversial characters

Photographer Miron Zownir spent nine years candidly capturing the city’s underbelly and the people who kept it alive

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Miron Zownir’s RIP NYC
1986Photography Miron Zownir

Photographer Miron Zownir has seen some serious highs and lows in his career – an experience that leaves him prepared for the horrors that often unfold in front of his lens: “Before I arrived in NYC in 1980 I had lived in Berlin and London so I was ready for the rotten apple from the beginning.” He’s riffing on his time spent photographing the city at a time when it was reeling from “decades of abuse and battery”, as the book’s foreword – written by poet, singer and actress, Lydia Lunch – puts it. Zownir continues, “Rents were still cheap, crime was high, most of the Lower East Side, Harlem and the Bronx were dangerous slums, the establishment was uncomfortable and scared, and the police corrupt or helpless to guarantee any protection. But NYC was bursting with a sexual and creative energy that was overwhelming.”

For much of the 80s, Zownir ‘gradually discovered’ the city. “Starting from my first encounters in the streets to the time when I had an apartment in the East Village and several jobs as doorman, or bouncer, in different night clubs, like Danceteria, the Mudd Club, or the Roxy,” he reveals. “We’re talking about nine years that I lived in New York City without any real backup or security.” He says that he never knew if he would last another month, particularly working as a freelance photographer. “My life was as adventurous, unstable and uncertain as the life of most of the people that I documented – with the exception of those people that were homeless.”

“Rents were still cheap, crime was high, most of the Lower East Side, Harlem and the Bronx were dangerous slums, the establishment was uncomfortable and scared, and the police corrupt or helpless to guarantee any protection. But NYC was bursting with a sexual and creative energy that was overwhelming” – Miron Zownir

Through his black and white portraits of sex workers, drug addicts and the everyday person on the city streets – now published in his new book RIP NYC – he quickly discovered the areas where he could take the best photographs; “Times Square, the Bowery, the Lower East Side, the east and the west Village, and the dilapidated piers,” he advises. “There is no schemata to where you meet interesting people or subjects. I definitely had no travel guide for tourists telling me where to go to and the internet wasn’t existing yet. But I discovered very quickly which areas were more exciting or picturesque. New York had so many hot spots and I was ready to dive into any adventure. It was a matter of intuition, chemistry, personality and charisma. The way you approach, behave and connect. Some people were not aware of me, some ignored me, some got angry, others excited. It was the whole range of human emotions and possible reactions.”

For someone who hasn’t returned to New York in over 10 years, it’s hard for Zownir to envision how the city looks, feels and lives today, but he’s sure that the heady days of the 80s are long gone. “I assume it’s superficially cleaned up: ‘family gentrified’,” he muses. And with a nod to Lunch’s foreword, he adds, “to say it with Lydia’s words, ‘white washed of all its kaleidoscopic perversions in order to make it safe for anyone who could afford the ridiculous rents charged for shoe box size apartments’.”

RIP NYC – published by POGO Books – is available now. To see more of Zownir’s work, click here

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