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Clayton Patterson: shoot to thrill

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Clayton Patterson has collected over a million photographs of New York’s club kids, riots, artists and outlaws – making him one of the city’s most prolific outsider documentarians

Tonight, after a decade-long closure, legendary Lower East Side documentarian Clayton Patterson is re-opening The Clayton Gallery & Outlaw Art Museum on the ground floor of his home and studio at 161 Essex Street, New York, formerly home to shows by Dash Snow and Genesis P-Orridge. To celebrate, we revisit his Cult VIP profile by former visual arts editor Francesca Gavin, taken from the June 2009 issue of Dazed.

It takes a certain kind of obsessive to accumulate over 2,000 videotapes and one million photographs, but that’s exactly what photographer, documentarian, artist, activist, gallery owner and tattoo champion Clayton Patterson has done over the past 20 years in New York’s Lower East Side. To say that Patterson strikes a memorable figure is an understatement. He’s bulky with grey frizzy hair, a beard, gold teeth, tattoos and signature hand-embroidered baseball cap, and he has made a career of documenting downtown New York, forming an archive of the city’s grimiest fringes.

Born in Calgary in West Canada in 1948, Patterson studied art at Nova Scotia College of Art, where he met his partner, the fellow documentarian Elsa Rensaa, in the early 70s. After spending some years teaching, the pair moved to the Lower East Side in 1979. Apart from the fact the area was “a cauldron of creativity”, the real attraction was cheap rent. “When we first got here it was very different,” says Patterson. “Lots of people made their living in these tiny spaces – making caps, gold chains, fixtures. It was an industrial-based, do-your-own-thing, make-a-living place. And there was a very large creative community. You could really feel it.”

Inspired by the area, Patterson started taking photographs with the Pentax Rensaa had given him in 1972. Initially, his emphasis was on documenting the streets. “In certain areas in the early 80s, just pulling out a camera was a dangerous enough feat in itself,” he recalls. “Often those kinds of shots would have a certain tension or quickness, a certain reality to them.” Patterson had a talent for getting even the scariest gangsters to smile for his camera, and he began exhibiting the images on a board in the window of his home-gallery space at 161 Essex Street, which he and Rensaa bought in 1983. His street photos soon led him into the weirder edge of the Lower East Side and he started documenting the area’s more experimental clubs. “I’ve never really been a fan of anything, so when I met different people I’d be invited into a scene and would document it through that person.” He started taking his camera to the Pyramid Club, looking at the work of more creative drag artists like Peter Kwaloff (aka sunPK) who pioneered inventing wild, alternative characters rather than simply emulating Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor.

The camera gave Patterson a function – a way to be involved in a scene without being obliged to engage in conversation. His approach wasn’t completely voyeuristic but it gave him distance. He was obsessive in his documenting. “If you go to an event and you take 700 photographs, it’s almost like having a slow-motion re-enactment of the night,” he says. “I like that whole idea.” Strangely, through the drag clubs, Patterson became immersed in New York’s burgeoning hardcore scene, which he discovered through the skinhead bouncers. He became a stalwart at riotous gigs by bands such as Bad Brains and The Cro-Mags.

Patterson was always drawn to the energy around emerging scenes and eccentric characters – people like Roger Kaufman, who he photographed cutting off his fingers and toes. There’s a sense that Patterson likes to provoke and he was always drawn to people with the same desire to push those creative boundaries. “The definition of society kind of changes by the behaviour on the outside,” Patterson points out.

“I don’t have a specific memory of meeting Patterson. At some point he was just there,” recalls cult critic and long time Lower East Sider Carlo McCormick. “He was the guy who had the camera. Now everyone has a camera, but it’s hard to take a picture of anything happening because too many people with cameras are in the frame.” While Carlo was at the heart of the East Village art scene alongside artists such as Keith Haring and Basquiat, Patterson was closer to the darker political edges.

In 1986, video artist Nelson Sullivan introduced Patterson to handheld video cameras, at the time cutting-edge technology. It brought a whole new edge to Patterson’s obsessive documentation. “I love how he caught authenticity by virtue of being on the super-front end of a new technology,” says Deitch Projects curator Kathy Grayson. “That is something we can never recreate, until I guess we make video cameras that are invisible or the size of a pin or something.”

Patterson became a pioneer with a video camera – placing himself at the heart of leftfield politics. In August 1988, Tompkins Square was a kind of refuge for the city’s homeless. When the police tried to close it down, enforce a curfew and evict the homeless, the area’s squatters, activists, punks and homeless united. The result was a riot, all captured under the gaze of Patterson’s video camera. His footage filled the mainstream media, shaming the police, and he went to jail for ten days in 1988 for refusing to give up the original copy of the videotape. Today, amateur film footage is the mainstay of mainstream news and testimonies, but Patterson set the precedent.

Alongside the creativity, the Lower East Side in the 1980s was a no man’s land of drugs, violence and crime. “The Lower East was in shambles, there was open drug dealing on every other corner. The parks were littered with needles and human waste,” recalls Scott Dillin, a uniformed police officer and later undercover narcotics detective from 1986 to 1997. Patterson and his camera were there throughout the process of police clampdowns on the area – a response to the area’s gentrification. He was arrested 14 times (and counting) for videoing or photographing in defiance of police orders. “I remember Clayton Patterson as a person that used to antagonise the police at every turn of our narcotics operations,” says Dillin. “He just seemed to be out doing his thing whenever we were in the neighborhood doing our operations. The police always had an ‘us against the world’ attitude back then and we thought that he was a scumbag, for lack of a better word. I have since retired from the police department after 21 years and have come to know Patterson personally and respect him. I realised that he was documenting the Lower East Side, not just fucking with the police.”

You can’t help getting the feeling that there is something in Patterson’s make-up that enjoys agitation, but he has made differences. He was strongly involved in the fight against New York’s archaic health laws that made tattoos illegal, and temporarily became president of the New York Tattoo Society. He’s been criticised as a voyeur and publicity seeker. Yet as McCormack notes, “there is a dynamic of mutual exploitation between subject and photographer that is continuously fraught with conflicts.”

Not everything was political about Patterson’s approach. To make a living, he created hand-embroidered baseball caps, which became a surprise hit on the late-80s fashion scene. In 1986, after getting a guy in a shop to embroider one of his drawings on a hat, he started selling his own designs. Patterson and his wife would go to bankruptcy sales and pick up old machinery to make their own embroidered one-off numbers. He made caps for Mick Jagger, Jack Nicholson, the Pet Shop Boys and David Hockney, while Matt Dillon would buy a new design after every film he made.

In 1986, Patterson and Rensaa also opened the Clayton Gallery and Outlaw Museum in the storefront of their home. Not surprisingly, the emphasis was on the eccentric with shows from people such as fetish photographer Charles Gatewood, swastika painter ManWoman and Genesis P-orridge of Throbbing Gristle – as well as Patterson’s collection of small plastic bags used to package heroin.

As the 1990s moved on, people like Aaron Rose and Alife began to inject a new wave of creativity into the area crossing over between art, skateboarding, graffiti, and fashion. Patterson’s storefront exhibited people such as Dash Snow and Swoon in their infancy, and he showed the entire Irak crew at one point. “One of the first art shows I went to was something Patterson had cooked up with Dash Snow and Nico Dios in it,” Kathy Grayson recalls. “I don’t remember it too clearly but I remember the energy there. It was lawless, free and fun. I think more influential than providing actual shows was how Patterson inspired these guys in other ways. He has the ‘old New York’ energy that these young guys really want to recapture.” Shop owner, publisher and all-round creative A-Ron the Don is currently working with Patterson on a new book of his front door photos.

“The result was a riot, all captured under the gaze of Patterson’s video camera. His footage filled the mainstream media, shaming the police, and he went to jail for ten days in 1988 for refusing to give up the original copy of the video tape”

Agathe Snow created a Yellow Brick Road installation in Patterson’s storefront this January, just as Wall Street fell. He describes it as a vision of the American dream exploded and imploded, in dire need of repair. Patterson documented Agathe’s first 24-hour dance marathon in 2005, and Snow sees the pair as a very vital fixture in the LES. “They were always a very discreet and private unit,” she says. “It’s as if their very presence stamped any moment and made you aware of the surroundings of yourself, as if that very moment could have gone down unnoticed, but their presence made it breaking news and would be part of history.”

Two downtown boys, Daniel Levin and Ben Solomon, recently hooked up with editor and producer Jenner Furst to create a film about Patterson and the changing landscape of the Lower East Side entitled Captured. “We have known Clayton Patterson since high school. We were both born and raised in downtown Manhattan. Patterson would bring us back to his gallery and show us his photography. Seeing these images, and the massive amount of work that he had accumulated over the years, it became obvious that something had to be done with it,” says Levin. “We started to make Captured as a way to give life to Patterson’s work. Not only to tell his story, but also the story of the neighbourhood and its characters before the transforming effects of gentrification.” It’s a testament to the edginess of the people featured in the documentary that the film was refused from the local Tribeca film festival – an indication of the lack of experimentation in modern New York.

Thanks to the property boom, the Lower East Side’s community is disappearing through the cracks in the streets. The area was named as one of the most endangered places in America by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2008. Underlying Patterson’s documentation is a passion to highlight and resist how development has changed the area so dramatically. “I collected the highly talented outside-the-box characters, which I am hoping will have a lasting message – that the outsiders will eventually be understood and their message will make a change in society,” he explains. Everything about Patterson’s approach was non-elitist and accessible. As he points out, “Anybody could have done what I did.”

Lead image: Cochise, President of Satan Sinners Nomads, 1992, photography Clayton Patterson