On the Street

Starting this week, the faces of 35 New Yorkers will gaze from photographs at commuters traveling through New York’s West Fourth Street Station. But unlike many of the passersby, the men and women whose portraits appear in the long corridors do not have apartments to return to. Artist Andres Serrano, best known for his controversial 1987 photograph Piss Christ, captured them instead on the city streets where they live for “Residents of New York.” It is the 63-year-old artist’s first public art project.

The works will be on display through the most pleasant weeks of the year, yet subjects are bundled up in enormous blankets and coats. The artist depicted people in the dead of this winter, one of New York’s coldest. Beginning in January, he shot almost 100 homeless people, often as they begged for money, around the city. “I walked around downtown, West Village, East Village, uptown, midtown, Upper West Side. I didn’t go outside of Manhattan,” says Serrano. “There were plenty of people in Manhattan for me to find.”

When Serrano would approach subjects, after explaining he was an artist, it would take him and an assistant around five minutes to set up the 4 x 5 camera on a tripod, and another 20 minutes to get the shot. “By the time I’m ready to take the picture they are doing what they normally do: they’re staring, they’re doing their own thing,” describes Serrano. Pedestrians, however, had a changed response to Serrano’s presence. “More than once, while I’d be taking someone’s picture, a passerby would put money in their cup,” he remembers. “One women said, “That guy passes me every day. He never gave me any money. He just put some money in my cup because you’re taking my picture.”

It’s possible the immediacy of potential documentation gave people a hit of self-consciousness. “They may feel a sense of guilt,” observes Serrano, who became mindful of his gaze, and the power it held behind a camera. “People that would be ordinarily ignored would be recognized only for a second because I was paying attention to them,” he noticed.

The project follows one in which Serrano paid people on the streets for their cardboard signs. This time around, he reunited with a few individuals, including a young couple. “The guy’s name was Red. When I went to take his picture, I noticed his eyes were yellow. He explained he had a liver condition,” Serrano recalls. “I took the picture. That was the first portrait. Two weeks later, another homeless guy came up to me. He said to me ‘You know, that guy Red who you photographed, he died.’ Apparently he was sicker than anyone realized.”

The portrait of Red now in the subway is likely the last image, and certainly the last professional photo, of him. “These people, you take them for granted, sometimes you don’t even see them,” says Serrano. “A lot of people don’t want to see the homeless on the streets because they don’t want to see them… Maybe it’s easier to look at them on the walls of the subways.”