Elisha Cook Jr

Allan-Ludwig-photo-by-Julie Dermansky

Still out there each day with camera in hand documenting what has surfaced overnight, photographer Allan Ludwig aka Elisha Cook, Jr recently shared with us some of his thoughts on the changes that he’s witnessed in his downtown Manhattan neighborhood and more:

You’ve lived here in Soho for decades.  At what point did the changes in your neighborhood become most apparent?

Around 2003, I noticed that the new stores in my neighborhood were — for the most part — only selling expensive items.  I no longer recognized my neighbors’ faces on the streets. Tourists and shoppers were everywhere. I knew then that I must turn my lens onto the graffiti and street art here before it all disappeared.

allan-ludwig-graffiti-nyc

dylan-egon-photo-allan-ludwig

And what are some of the changes that you have observed in the street art that surfaces here these days?

It has largely lost its edginess.  Much of the street art here has  gotten exceedingly commercial.  It’s often difficult to tell the difference between what is sanctioned and what is done without permission. Street art and ads have become increasingly interchangeable. And too many “street artists” these days seem to use public space primarily to promote their gallery shows.

Dee-Dee-was here- photo-Allan Ludwig

Dasic-Fernandez-photo-by-Allan-Ludwig

What do you suppose has caused these changes?

The monetization of it all.  And I feel that the street art festivals have not only legitimized an underground movement, but have created an elite — not all that different from the mainstream art world.

 We’ve noticed that you tend to focus your camera on illegal works, particularly tags and bombs. Why is that?

Because they are real and raw. I love their poetic spontaneity. I can feel the artist’s pure passion and love for it.

graffiti-bomb-on-truck

graffiti-bombs-photo-allan-ludwig

Not everyone would agree with you! Any thoughts about Mayor de Blasio’s proposed efforts to keep the city graffiti-free?

I don’t see any point to it. It’s a misdirected use of funds. The money should be used, instead, to help the homeless.

We noticed that you were daily documenting the impromptu David Bowie memorial in front of his home. Did you know Bowie personally?

I live just down the block from him, so I’d see him from time to time around the neighborhood. But, no, I didn’t know him personally. I would simply nod in acknowledgement and respect when I saw him. I sensed that he was my kind of person. But I did not want to invade his privacy.

david-bowie-soho-memorial-photographer-allan-ludwig

And what about the memorial? What spurred you to photograph it daily and in such detail?

I loved it! I loved that it was spontaneous and inclusive. There was no hidden agenda!

Interview conducted by Lois Stavsky with Tara Murray

All photos by Allan Ludwig aka Elisha Cook, Jr, except for the first one — featuring Allan alongside Buff Monster — which was photographed by Julie Dermansky; photo 3 features Dylan Egon; photo 4 features Dee Dee  and photo 5, Dasic Fernandez

Note: Hailed in a range of media from the Huffington Post to the New York Times, our Street Art NYC App is now available for Android devices here.

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BilliKid

Approaching his 80th birthday, Allan Ludwig, aka Elisha Cook, Jr., can be found just about every day in downtown Manhattan photographing the writings on the walls.  With a BFA Degree in Painting and a PhD in Art History from Yale University, he explains his passion for graffiti and street art.

BilliKid-street-art-in-NYC

How did the name Allan Ludwig become Elisha Cook, Jr.?

When I first started posting photos of graffiti on Flickr, I was advised not to use my real name. I chose to identify myself as Elisha Cook, Jr. because he is my favorite actor. The name stuck!

So that’s it!  When did you begin working as a photographer?

Almost 60 years ago. I was in my 20’s.

What attracted you to the field?

I started drawing in my room as a child. But I had difficulty drawing faces. I never liked the way my noses looked. And when I tried to erase them, I’d end up making holes in the paper. It drove me crazy! I decided that it would be easier for me to capture a face with a camera.

street art and graffiti on 11 Spring Street

Had you any influences back then? 

When I was about 13, my neighbor Max Coplan, an accomplished photographer, taught me how to use a camera.

When did the writings and images that surface on public spaces begin to engage you?

In the early 80’s, I walked into a school playground on Grand and Baxter and discovered that its walls were filled with graffiti. I was intrigued. But as I only used black and white film at the time, my earliest photos of graffiti are in black in white, and I wasn’t documenting it regularly.

What spurred you to photograph the streets so methodically since 2000?

My neighborhood had begun to gentrify. Changes were happening rapidly. Overnight the rent on a local restaurant soared from $4,000 a month to $16,000. I wanted to document these changes. And as soon as I switched from black and white film to color, I began noticing street art.

11 Spring Street

Have you had any particularly memorable experiences while photographing graffiti and street art?

I once came upon a love letter written by a woman from England to Faile that was posted onto the building at 11 Spring Street. She had assumed, incorrectly, that Faile was one person and single. I photographed her love letter and posted it onto my Flickr photostream.   When the woman discovered her letter online, she asked me to remove it – which I didn’t. But the story doesn’t end there. She had just returned from Zambia with a love potion. She decided that the time was right for her to visit NYC to meet Faile.  She would set up a meeting to buy a print from him. Surely, the love potion would work!

Did it? What happened? Did she ever meet Faile?

She did, but she encountered an unanticipated problem. When she inserted the love potion into her mouth, it distorted her speech and facial expression. She did meet the object of her love, but she decided against using the love potion. And that’s the end of the story.

Wow! What is it about street art and graffiti that has so captivated you?

It’s the thrill of discovery. There is something magical about it.  I also love its inclusiveness and democratic nature.

11 Spring Street

Have you any thoughts about the street art/graffiti divide?

Most of the street artists I’ve met were trained in art schools, while the original graffiti writers didn’t have any kind of formal art education.  And when the street artists started making their mark on the legendary building at 11 Spring Street off the Bowery, the writers felt that they were not getting enough space or respect.  I remember walking by one day to discover the entire building sprayed all over with silver paint.  There definitely is a divide.

What about your perception of the divide? What differences do you see?

Graffiti is a highly refined art.  It is beautiful. The first generation of writers created an entirely new aesthetic.  They invented a whole new language. Yet few people can understand it and appreciate it. Street art is far more accessible.

There are many folks out there who consider the illegal writings that you photograph vandalism. Have you any thoughts about that?

It’s a non-issue. It’s meaningless. It’s a political fiction invented by politicians and lawyers and the police who enforce it.  It has no validity.

graffiti and street art on 11 Spring Street in NYC

How do you feel about the move of street art and graffiti into museums and galleries?

The commercial world sucks the credibility out of graffiti and street art.  It takes it out of its natural setting.

How do you feel about the role of the Internet in all this?

I think it’s wonderful. It makes everything even more accessible. I have Flickr contacts all over the world.

What do you see as the future of graffiti and street art?

I see it as the most important international movement in world art since American pop art. It’s here to stay.

All photos by Elisha Cook, Jr. Except for first two BilliKid paste-ups of Elisha, images capture NYC’s legendary building at 11 Spring Street, 2006-7

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