Through the Lens. An Interview with NYC photographer Vivienne Gucwa

Vivienne Gucwa chats with great weather for MEDIA editor, George Wallace

Warm Glow of the Sun on a Winter City Night small
Warm Glow of the Sun on a Winter City Night small



The cover photographer for Great Weather for MEDIA’s new anthology, It’s Animal But Merciful, is Vivienne Gucwa. A NYC photographer and NY native, she grew up in Flushing and lives in Manhattan. One of the most followed new photographers on the NYC scene, she alternates between formal and mobile photography, has 141,000 subscribers on her FacebookPage, and her Instagram photos regularly pull hundreds of 'likes' within minutes of posting.

You may have run into her photographs on Flickr, ongoing, youtube or tumblr; on digital albums; in the National Endowment for the Humanities magazine, or on the Biography Channel. Her subject is Manhattan—and particularly the back alleys and bustling streets of Lower Manhattan, everything from the new Gehry skyscraper and Chinatown street scenes to the interior of the late great East Village dive bar, the Mars Bar.

Her work is known for presenting New York City as a multi-faceted character, "warm and welcoming one moment, angry and threatening the next," with a deft sense for the dualities of the urban setting—the relationship between what is durable and transient, what is fearful and awe-inspiring, what is opaque and hard-edged with what is unutterably alluring.

Here's a quote we like, from her website: "New York City is comprised of so many tiny urban worlds: planets and stars that inhabit a larger universe. Until I understood that fact, I couldn’t properly begin to understand how to explore it. When you come across a view that takes you out of your small urban frame of reference and plants you outside of that view and outside of yourself for a few moments, it’s a bit like finally coming to an understanding that the world you inhabit daily is just part of a larger picture."


GWFM: Whether it's people who have lived here or people considering it from around the world people look at NYC through their own lens, they bring their own preconceptions to it. What are some of yours?

VG: I've been on this journey in Manhattan for two years, so I think a lot about what certain scenes mean to me when I'm taking a picture. New York City is a complicated place. If you have a lot of money, it can be extraordinary. If you don't, it can be a vicious place. It's not easy to experience everything it has to offer on a limited budget, but it's still great because there's plenty you can enjoy without a lot of money.

But my photographs are definitely influenced by my view of New York City, and it‘s a complicated view. I'm 34 and I live in NYC now. But I grew up in Flushing, one of those kids coming into the cities in the 80s and 90s. It was my backyard then. My father was a pressman for the Daily News, he would take me in. Were there mean streets then? Yes. I remember being petrified. But that fear was mixed with a weird, romanticized view—the old New York, from Hollywood films. Sci Fi films. Woody Allen films.

So this view of my own place was shaped by my own experience and from popular culture Even music. You see I grew up as a musician, playing piano from the age of 3, with this crazy range of musical tastes, from Broadway and Cole Porter to weighty, emotional classical music. And rock— I wasn’t in a punk band, just rock.

So sometimes when I'm shooting, I'm calling on music for the pure emotion. Like Woody Allen's Manhattan, the opening sequence, with Rhapsody In Blue playing, how the music matched Woody's vision of New York City.


GWFM: You've mentioned in interviews your desire to do what you do photographically in other places around America.

VG: I haven't traveled anywhere else, yet, it's been New York City for me so far. Not that I mind, there's endless possibilities here. In a ten block chunk of midtown, in specific bodegas, in the same subway station every day, there's potentially an entire world going on there.

But it comes back to the fact that I really want to travel.

On one level, there is something that doesn't change based on the actual location, but when I take photos I'm thinking about everything that's gone into the scene I'm taking. The history, the cultural conflicts, the ways it might change. All this, and more, gives urban spaces richness and depth. So in every city, there are so many different places and experiences, a world of them.

Not only cities—if you're from an urban space, you may not understand how life goes on in a rural area. But I would love to explore other American cities. I love the scale, especially on rooftops. It puts you in your place.


GWFM: You're known for your use in photography of a range of technologies—from high end digital equipment like the SONY SLT-A55 to your i-phone. What are the challenges and opportunities of using cellphone technologies?

VG: Not just cellphone! Actually most of the photos aren't usually taken with the phone, but with better equipment. I also sometimes use simple point and shoot cameras. But with the phone you can just kind of be somewhere, and very quickly your phone is on and you can capture that moment. The people moments. I'm lucky because I don't do people photography, there are people in the photos, but they're usually walking away, or in the distance, that's on purpose. I'm not as hindered as others who do people photography.

When I take a photo I have a rough idea of where I want to go with it, but once I sit down with the software and as I start editing, it becomes something different.

There are those who say you shouldn't alter the image, if you're using software to edit you're degrading the pureness of the image. I'm on the other side of the fence, I do a lot of altering. To me a lot of the artistic process takes place after I take the image. Why not? Working in a darkroom is similar, you're engaged in an artistic process after actually shooting a picture. And with digital the advantage is, in a darkroom you work with one resolve, but with software you can process it one way then on another occasion, another way.

Not that I've used a darkroom—I've never even attempted that. I use my iphone, I use seven different editing apps. I like how it's tactile, when you edit you're actually touching the screen. And the iphone has a lot of choices, they have filters that mimic film photography, you can make the image grainy, alter the exposure, add motion. You have to get good at what you're doing no matter what technology is available to you.


GWFM: What’s our anthology name, It’s Animal But Merciful, mean to you?

VG: At first I thought that the phrase was trying to suggest a duality, as if "animal" is the polar opposite of "merciful." I mean you could imply duality because of the "but" in the phrase. But if you think about it, it's neither animal or merciful. An animal has multiple qualities. You could interpret the idea of ‘animal’ as something you need to become one with, or something you have to tame. There’s a lot of different possible meanings. An animal is an organism which possesses a totality of qualities—even the capacity for mercy, which the phrase suggests.

So It’s Animal But Merciful actually suggests to me the idea that it’s possible for a person to come out of an encounter an animal—the city—with the sense, out of that totality, for the merciful aspect. Of course a city can feel raw, dangerous. It can be hard to carve out your niche. Yet there’s so much to experience, and that can be wonderful. You’re meeting people and getting into situations all the time. There’s a whole universe of possible outcomes—you can come out feeling bitter or unhappy, you can come out jaded, but you can also come out with a sense of the merciful.

That’s how I happen to be feeling about New York right now. Some good things have happened to me after a lot of struggle for two years. So the way I’m feeling at the moment, I think the title It’s Animal But Merciful describes what experiencing the city feels like to me. Right now I’m feeling a lot of guarded hope.

To find out more about Vivienne, visit her website.

It's Animal but Mercifulis published by great weather for MEDIA in September 2012.