New York is a beguiling city to creatives. The city’s famous streets have formed a backdrop to some of cinema’s most recognisable moments. Goodfellas, West Side Story, Home Alone 2: Lost In New York. All undeniable cultural touchstones that not only encapsulate the beauty and undeniable coolness of the area but their respective timeframe.
It’s not only the moving pictures that have attempted to capture the feeling of the Big Apple through the years, with photographers taking to the streets armed with their camera. One such figure was James Jowers, who scoured the boroughs of the great city in the 1960s, in search of his muse and in the process snapped the cities inhabitants in the midst of their mundanity. Think of it as a pre-internet version to Humans Of New York.
The 1960s was something of a turning point for photography in America as it became more widely regarded by the masses and finally accepted amongst the art fraternity, allowing it to mature into a fully-fledged art form. Individuals once ignored now saw their work exhibited amongst some of the country’s most established institutions as well featured in newly erected commercial galleries. The rise in interest from these places naturally affected the popularity of photography and so the success of few planted a seed in the mind of the many.
James Jowers was one such amateur mesmerised by the idea of recording the changing world around him. He gained his first taste of life behind the lens in the early 60s during his time in the United States Army. Whilst serving, he was taught the basics such as darkroom techniques. On departing national service, he endeavoured to learn more. His first step was to move to New York, the city that would become the main basis of his images. He stayed at various addresses during these years, whilst supplementing his hobby working as a night porter at St Luke’s Hospital. Working the night shift allowed him to explore his new home and explore his interest further but he wished to learn more about his craft. In 1965 he sought the tutelage of Lisette Model, and became a student and in later years a friend of hers. A respected photographer in her own right, Model won the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship the same year Jowers became a member of her ‘Workshop For Advanced Photographers’ class.
Model’s teaching methods greatly influenced the burgeoning photographers work and shaped his creative output. It transpired that they both shared the same artistic interest – documenting what was in front of them. This can be evidenced in Model’s description of her class as she implored her students to “abandon routine and imitation enabling the photographer to come to his own source of vision and expression. The camera is an instrument of detection. We are surrounded everywhere by images, most of them invisible to our eye because of conditioning”. These words had a profound effect on the young artist, with his work never much deviating from his mentor’s words.
Although he showed promise Jowers didn’t pursue art as a career like Model’s other protégés. In a letter penned later in life, he writes that his “efforts in photography have always been more as a vocation than profession”. Though he did not achieve the lasting commercial success or the recognition of that of his peers, his work should still be considered of vital importance to this day. Just glancing at his oeuvre you’re given a snapshot of the lives of his subjects, people that are enjoying the fruits of living in a decade that choose to deviate from history’s path and basking in their surroundings – a city like no other.
Words by Daniel Eggleston