Local artist, designer, filmmaker, and documentarian Clayton Patterson will be hosting a series of five Sunday Salons for the BMW Guggenheim Lab to introduce participants to the real faces of the Lower East Side. In anticipation of this series, and the screening of Captured, a film about his work, our blogger caught up with Patterson to get an inside understanding of the man who has dedicated his life to capturing the stories of one of New York’s most radical, and radically changing, neighborhoods.
It doesn’t take long for me to realize that Clayton Patterson likes to be seen as an outsider. He uses the word to describe himself just moments after I meet him in his cluttered Essex Street gallery in New York’s Lower East Side. Stroking his wild-looking long, gray goatee, and adjusting his self-embroidered leather baseball cap, he uses the word over and over again as he tells me the story of his life.
In fact, he tells me, being an outsider is what brought him to New York in the first place.
Patterson grew up in Calgary, Alberta, the oil-fueled business capital of western Canada, which is not particularly renowned for its progressive worldviews. After graduating in printmaking from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, he couldn’t find room to stretch his fins in the small pond of Canadian art.
“I wanted to swim in the biggest pool possible. So I came to New York,” he says.
After finding Brooklyn too sterile and SoHo too prissy, he eventually landed himself in the then rough-and-tumble Lower East Side. The night he and his long-time partner Elsa Rensaa moved into their apartment, they watched someone get shot across the street.
Patterson had grown up in a working-class neighborhood, had gone to bad schools, “so I had an empathy and identity with the people,” he says.
“We liked the energy. We liked the vitality. We liked the raw creativity that existed. I liked the fact that it was unlimited about what you could do.”
Since that day, Patterson has obsessively devoted himself to documenting the faces, movements, and history of the Lower East Side. While the famously artistic neighborhood has been the apple of many a parachute documentarian’s eye, Patterson’s archives hold 25 years of day-to-day memories of one of New York’s most rapidly changing areas.
Those memories now crowd every surface of the gallery we sit in. They populate photos, books, paintings, pieces of gang members’ clothing and graffitti, empty dope bags, and rolls of videotape of everything from rock concerts to drag shows to the 1988 Tompkins Square Riot. It was the video of the latter, Patterson says, that solidified his role as documentarian and activist in the neighborhood when he went to jail for refusing to give up the tape to the courts.
“Photographing and filming gave me access to the world I was living in in the Lower East Side. At the time, there was nothing sexy about it. The Lower East Side went for years with no history, because it was about the disadvantaged. It was the inner city—who cares?” he says. “But I was on the front lines. I was pushed into the role of social documentarian. That was placed on me; it wasn’t really something chosen by me.”
“If you’re an outsider or somebody who’s not connected to some real serious power, if you don’t have your own history,” he says, “it will be washed away. Now, thank God I have the history of it.”
And indeed, even a cursory look through his archives reveals a telling picture of the neighborhood that no one else may have bothered to record.
As an example, he flips through his recently published Front Door Book—a collection of two decades’ worth of photos of neighborhood characters outside the heavy, graffitied front door of his gallery. As the pages turn, styles change from punk to grunge. Children grow into teenagers, and faces age. Then many of those faces disappear at some point, lost to gang wars, AIDS, drug overdoses, or jail.
Patterson knows them all by name. And as he rattles off the list of their stories and struggles while he snaps a photo of me in front of the door, it strikes me just how deeply he is embedded in this world of outsiders.
I ask him where that leaves him.
“Gee,” he says, furrowing his brow. “I’ve never thought about that. I guess…” he trails off for a moment, deep in thought.
“Well, I guess around here I’m an insider.”