For 25 years, Toby Old has had a photographic dialogue with Times Square--at different times of the day, in all lights, and during all seasons, with its multitude of events, parades, theater, sports, sex shops and industries. In the tradition of Weegee, Robert Frank, and Diane Arbus, Old’s photographs capture a strange and wonderful world. Drawn to the visually compelling and frenetic energy of the Crossroads of the World, Old has an inimitable way of situating us in the eye of the storm, so that we slow down and can simply observe and absorb the juxtapositions he captures in just one click. In a fraction of a second, his square-format camera, in capturing the freakish moments of the fringes of our culture, presents his vision of America.
Collected in Times Squared (Chameleon Books), Old takes us inside a world that brings together the edges of New York into one seamless tapestry of a New York that has all but disappeared. It is the photograph that keeps a memory alive long after it has faded into the dark, and so it is with Old’s pictures that we remember what was not so very long along.
Speaking of his earliest years, Old recalls, “My first contact with photography was when I was five years old. My father was an artist, primarily a painter, and he often used photography to create a kind of 'sketch' for his paintings. One day he invited me into the darkroom that he built in our house, and I watched as the white paper was magically transformed into an image. I was hooked.
“At college, I majored in biology, and then went on to earn a degree in Dentistry. During those years, I dabbled in music, painting, and photography, but hadn't really committed to the arts yet. It was not until 1971, when I was drafted into the Army, that I first began to experiment with photography. Fort Bragg, where I was stationed, had a photo/dark room, and I often sought refuge there. The darkroom manager taught me the basics.
Following my Army stint, I moved back to Minnesota and practiced dentistry. I reconnected with some of my artist/ photographer friends, and started collecting photo books of renowned photographers. In 1975, I made the decision to move to NYC, and to become an artist.
“In the mid-seventies, I moved to Soho, the epicenter of the art world. It was such an exciting time! It was here that I met artists like Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, John Chamberlain, and established photographers like Ralph Gibson, Larry Clark, Mary Ellen Mark, Charles Gatewood, Robert Frank, and Sid Kaplan. I also met writers like Norman Mailer and Allan Ginsberg. We often congregated at places like the Spring Street Bar, One University Fanellis to have drinks and just hang out. There were openings every night at galleries like Leo Castelli, Sonnebend, OK Harris and lots of parties in artists lofts. The scene was electric.
“I was living in Chelsea during the eighties and would frequently walk up to Times Square. It was a time when the area was transitioning from street hustlers, sex shops and erotic theaters, to the more 'tourist friendly' neighborhood, it is today. I tried photographing the area but wasn't able to make pictures I was happy with.
“In the mid-nineties, I was teaching a class at ICP, and decided to take them to Times Square. While shooting the area with them, something clicked--this time, my pictures started to work.
“My biggest challenge in shooting Times Square was how to make sense out of the density of visual information there. How could I find clarity amidst this confusion? So like my other projects, I just kept going back to the area, day and night, and kept shooting. There were always huge crowds of people around and plenty of energy. This was a time before everyone had a cell phone and everyone was a photographer. People were not as concerned about being photographed. Of course there were exceptions. Every now and again, someone would get upset, but nothing like it is today. It seems like people on the streets today are tired of being photographed and surveilled to death. “
Old’s work does not focus on the bizarre as an object of mute fascination, but instead brings us into a world that is very high energy, almost ready to explode with action. He walks the line, documenting the fringe without making it appear as a sort of sideshow. It is quite a talent to allow us to be voyeurs without becoming gawkers of a sort. As a result, his photographs become an exciting cocktail of drama and glamour, with a certain edge that one can only find in a period of history that has passed us by.
Speaking about the appeal of this period of New York history holds in popular imagination, Old notes, “From my perspective, the 1970s in Soho was so interesting because of all the incredible art and talent around at that time. It was one of those periods of history that was white hot—like Paris in the twenties and thirties.”
And, as his photographs reveal, indeed it was.