Cinematic scenes of 1970s New York

Cinematic scenes of 1970s New York

With the publication of ‘New York 1978’, photographer George Wright looks back his glittering images of a city full of glamour and grit.

While studying graphic design at the Wimbledon School of Art in the early 1970s, George Wright took a class with John Benton Harris, who introduced him to the work of Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, and Tony Ray-Jones. A purist at heart, Benton Harris advised Wright not to pursue commercial photography although few other professional options existed at the time.

In 1974, Wright was short listed for the Arts Council’s first major photographic bursary, but the award went to the Magnum photographer Ian Berry. “Feeling at a bit of a loss but having done some test shots of models whilst working as an assistant, I inadvertently became a fashion photographer,” he says. “I was never going to be an Art Kane or a Guy Bourdin but it paid well and I had not given up on the Sunday Times and Observer colour supplements.”

In 1978, Wright went to visit an English friend, Rick Gallagher, who lived on New York’s Lower East Side with the dream of using it as the departure point for a Robert Frank style road trip across America. But the city captured his imagination with its indelible blend of elegance and decadence unfolding on the streets like a Hollywood blockbuster come to life.

“New York in 1978 was still referred to as ‘Fear City’,” Wright remembers. “The New York Ripper was still at large and the Son of Sam mass murderer had only recently been apprehended. On every pillar on every subway station platform was scratched the word ‘PRAY’. Comatose bodies littered the Bowery, porn shows were ubiquitous in Times Square and the city was bankrupt.”

Suffice to say, Wright never went on that road trip. With the publication of New York 1978 (Café Royal Books) he looks back his glittering images of glamour and grit that crackle with the electricity and life.

“Every day was like being in a scene from a movie set in the city or from a page by the writer Joseph Mitchell,” says Wright. “There were pictures to be taken everywhere: kids shoot jets of water from water hydrants at passing motorists, saxophonists practicing jazz on fire escapes. I was only once warned to be careful by a passing cab driver while I was photographing on the derelict West Side highway and not to stray in the vicinity of the Anvil or Manhole clubs.”

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