Back in the early ’70s, probably 1971 or 1972, I picked up a copy of André Kertész's On Reading, which had recently been published. I was impressed by, and a bit envious of, his black-and-white photographs of people in different cities around the world, all in the act of reading.
I was a voracious reader then and I loved to walk—to take “grand obsessional walks,” to quote Henry Miller—across Manhattan. And I was always observing, eavesdropping, stopping at a café or the long counter of a coffee shop now and then to read James Baldwin, Knut Hamsun, Kafka, Jack London and the short stories of Isak Dinesen.
Much later, in the early ’90s—still reading a lot, mostly short stories and prose poems—I began to photograph (as an amateur) poets and writers at reading events around the city—Allen Ginsberg, Gwendolyn Brooks, Denise Levertov and others. I received some encouragement and picked up a better camera. After a few weeks my first published photo ran on page one of the New York Times—a “weather photo” during a heat wave on July 10, 1993. A few weeks later the New York Post ran a celebrity photo of mine (Marisa Tomei made up to look pregnant on the film set of “The Paper”) and for the next twenty years I worked as a freelance photojournalist.
I continued to read, mostly poets. Now and then I would snap a literary figure or an image of someone, sometimes a celebrity, reading a book, a newspaper or other printed matter. In 2001 my candid image of a book vendor on Columbus Avenue, reading one of his own books and with a scandalous bit of derriere exposed, made a minor sensation. It ran large in the New York Post, and soon after a reporter for the New York Observer wrote a hilarious column, “Wise Cracking on Columbus Avenue,” about the image after interviewing the “portly peddler.”
Since then I have continued to seek out readers—despite (and sometimes because of) the shuttering of bookshops and the rapid growth of the web and impersonal electronic reading devices. I discretely photograph my subjects—mostly solitary and often eccentric, desperate, dignified or vulnerable—engaged in what seems to be a vanishing art—the art of reading.
All of these images are candid, with the exception of Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen and Zach Galifianakis. In each of those impromptu photos, I requested the celebrities to pose with a book.
All photos ©Lawrence Schwartzwald, 2013. No reproduction without express permission. Lawrence Schwartzwald's images are available for license via Splashnews/Corbis.
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