In the 1970s, photographer Leland Bobbé drove cabs around New York City at night to support his “daytime job" as a drummer in a band called City Lights that played the downtown scene. Chauffeuring the civilians of the city around was the perfect way to diversify his knowledge of its serpentine streets and the charming, as well as not-so-charming characters that inhabited them. Returning to the most dynamic locations in the morning after he’d earned his fare, Bobbé would capture the morning after the night before in a way that dissected the soul of the city.
Sometimes the scene set itself and Bobbé would merely have to have his camera at the ready. Other times, he’d go out looking for the shots and take his photographs at hip-height, which he found to be a good way to get a view of the city from an angle that’s riddled with a suggestive intrigue. It also just so happened to be a fabulous way to take photographs on the sly, without running the risk of getting caught. After all, who wants to get on the bad side of a gin-soaked pimp who’s tripping over hypodermic needles and fighting off intoxicated ladies of the night?
The Bowery, a now-trendy neighbourhood in southern Manhattan was full of filles de joie, with Bobbé’s images showing how open negotiation over the price of a night would unfold in broad daylight without so much as a raise of an eyebrow. Whole buildings, crumbling from lack of upkeep were void of human life so became rancid slums – still palatial through the eyes of the city’s squatters and homeless community. Crime peaked with muggings and rapes not just expected but accepted as the way things were in certain parts of the city at certain times of the night. Crack and heroin infested the veins of the city – literally, and there wasn’t so much as an attempt at nonchalance where drug deals were involved.
“In the 1970s, New York City was a wild and dangerous place. This was before the city was gentrified so different neighborhoods had distinct personalities,” Bobbé told us, reflecting on how things have changed. Last month, 18 of the photographer’s street images were added to the permanent collection in the Museum of the City of New York, a presumably proud moment for any native New Yorker. The city was in decline but managed to maintain a grit, charm and a magnetism that makes these images somewhat hypnotic. They pave the way for a walk through the vacant streets of an alien city; worlds away from corporate company buildings, sleek apartments and artisan coffee shops that now form its identity.