I walked into Milk Gallery for the opening of Isa Brito’s new exhibition Passengers with my mind already set on what I would report. As the invite recounted, Isa Brito moved to New York from Brazil in 1984 with a Kodak Instamatic and just $200 in her pocket. Passengers is a selection of her photographs from the following years; candids and portraits of those urban subjects most achingly romantic to young eyes, of hustlers, club kids, and queer youth, junkies, graffiti, and garbage.
I was going to contrast the cast of Passengers with the hip, young crowd that Milk was sure to bring out. Look, they wore Converse, as we wear Converse, but the company wasn’t owned by Nike then. See, there’s that same East Village corner I traverse, but the phone booths are long gone, and Act Up literature isn’t papered at street level, it’s now monumentalized in neon at the New Museum; I took a photo of it on my phone just the other day.
The angle: my generation of New Yorkers—moneyed media monsters—romanticizes the gritty, authentic New York of the past. The tone: playful and a little disdainful. The evidence: gallery-going girls toting handbags by Chanel ($1500-4500), Proenza Schouler ($600-2400), and 3.1 Phillip Lim ($500-900); Isa press posing for a crew of digital SLRs and iPhones; most of the photos dating from 1986-1991 (most of Milk attendees born around the same time?). That’s how my notes for the night start. But then, the feet under me throbbing in my $600 heels, I took a walk around the show.
Isa’s photographs are cool, yes. There’s Iggy Pop and Annie Sprinkle and Woody Allen. There are youth with hair in their eyes and cigarettes dripping from their mouths. The images are beautiful. They feel immediate, the subject animated, the woman behind the camera, present. The night before Isa’s opening, I had watched Tamra Davis’s documentary of her friend Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Radiant Child, on Netflix, and had cried. Isa’s photos made me hurt like Jean-Michel and Tamra’s world did, not because I felt like I’d missed a better time, which I often do, but because I sensed that these kids were like me, just kids.
Brito on her own work: “The melting pot that is NYC proved to be the eye candy I was looking for and didn’t even know. I couldn’t get enough. Going out everyday, photographing everything, every encounter, and every love affair. I feel very connected to the hustlers, the children and the old people. I feel that I am them. Sometimes I would run out of film and still shoot with an empty camera. I remember precise moments from over 30 years ago, the light, the stance and the poetry. Anyone can be whatever they want. New York is famous for being a blank slate for people. People come and stay, people lose and find themselves, people get old here. Life passes.”
Isa’s opening was not occupied by my usual suspects. Everyone, and not a sceney “eh-vree-won” but ones of every, was there. “What are those, mob guys?” my companion pointed out. I saw the obligatory art kids in New Nu Rave and grunge revival gear. I saw NYU-variety frat guys and girls that looked like the girls from Girls. I saw mothers with their babes, probably programmers, fat fashion followers, and fellows sweating in their suits. There was this 5-foot-something-small Mickey Rourke lookalike. At the DJ booth, a romper wearing, gotta-be-6-foot woman bounced by herself. Younger, older, hip, and decidedly not—all these New Yorkers genuinely seemed to be connecting with the work.
Passengers is about people and New York City’s ripped insides. Who doesn’t love that Iggy Pop number? 1987 New York, people born in 1987 living in New York—last night at the opening, it all felt the same. People, especially young people, just want to connect. We want to be part of something, to ache, to express, to fuck, to dance. We’re biology, we feel hurt the same, whether it’s early AZT-era or 9/11 (look for the alarming Twin Towers Etch-a-Sketch photo in the exhibition, the only off-date image) or now. We have and will continue to search for meaning, and try to create it in documents like photos.
I noticed a lot of pictures within Isa’s photos—pin-ups in the back rooms of clubs, family portraits tapped beside a cab meter, layered graffiti, New York Daily News covers, a poster of Aladdin Sane Bowie in the background of an image from the late ‘80s; a continuum of image making.
Two of my favorite images in the show, “Torches” and “Procession,” depict one dark night on the Williamsburg Bridge in 1988, a small, torch-lit procession on their way to a gay wedding. We just paraded for pride this weekend, and the world is a different place, but I couldn’t help think what a great idea that would be, to march over the pink bridge by fire at night again, now with gay marriage legal in this state.
An interview with Isa Brito:
How did you and curator Callie Barlow first connect? How did the show come about? You’re both so beautifully alike, you could be sisters.
I met Callie through a friend, Adrian. He had been a long time admirer of my work and thought Callie would be the perfect person to work on a photography project and she absolutely was the perfect person. It was a pleasure working with such intelligent and talented person. People said we could be related and I take that as huge compliment.
What did you think of the turnout at the show last night? Did you have old friends that came? Are you still in touch with any of the subjects from your photos?
The turnout was fantastic! So many friends and new ones too. My cousin Zeca came from Brazil especially for it, he was in many of the clubs with me back in the day. One of the subjects, the performance artist, Billie Madley, was there. I kept in touch with her off and on through the years. Many of the people in the photographs are no longer in NY, and many of the moments were just brief encounters, not long term studies on people’s lives.
Living as a young person in New York today must be so different than it was when you first moved in the 1980s. What are the most drastic differences you identify? Similarities?
I was very wide eyed 20-year-old. No drinks or drugs for me. I was just so happy to survive each day that passed. NY was much grittier, but yet, in my eyes, everything was very fancy and exotic. People used to deny my requests to be photographed a lot more often. Now everyone says yes and gives too much, actually. Times Square use to be so beautiful in the middle of the night, always moving, but full of staple characters, balmy air, real light bulbs. Romantic. I used to like to go to Howard Johnson and have coffee before going home in the wee hours and enjoy the regulars in the nearby tables. I guess I was one too after going there enough. NY is still full of energy and poetry.
Passengers runs until July 1st.