Capturing Life, and History

Photographer Allan Tannenbaum recalls New York in the 70s, working with John and Yoko, and the horror of 9/11

17 Mar 2020 | 09:37

In 1973, Allan Tannenbaum became the staff photographer for the Soho Weekly News, which was started that year by publisher Michael Goldstein to cover the burgeoning local scene. I joined the staff in late 1974 and met Allan, who stayed with the paper until it closed in 1982. After capturing the artists, musicians and everyday (and everynight) life of downtown Manhattan in the 1970s, he went on to cover, among other things, the first Gulf War, the Philippine Revolution, unrest in South Africa, the West Bank and Gaza. He also took some of the last photographs of John Lennon. We reconnected a few years ago on social media and he recently agreed to talk about his work. We met in his Tribeca loft, where he lives with his wife Debora.

On John Lennon and Yoko Ono

In 1980, John and Yoko were doing “Double Fantasy,” and the Soho News did a story on Yoko. She came here to shoot the cover, and she said, ‘Oh, this reminds me of when I used to live on Chambers Street.”... And I said I need to do some black and white and she invited me up to the Dakota the next morning ... And John came down and he was all smiles and everything ... And then we walked around Central Park and I got my shots in the park, and then that kind of iconic shot of them on the corner in front of the Dakota ... [A few days later] John came down and Yoko had set up the other photos for him, and he goes ‘These are great. And you know what? I like you. You really capture Yoko's beauty.’ Wow. So, John saying that to you, yeah, you remember that.

And then we were joking around and he was making jokes about how difficult it was for the Beatles to make decisions about the photos and all of that. And we made an appointment for me to come back on December 8, with more prints. Right? And so I was in the darkroom on December 8, I was finishing up I was preparing to go up to the Dakota. And that's when I got the news ... And I didn't believe it. But I stopped what I was doing. I grabbed my cameras, went to the hospital, found out he was dead. I went to the precinct, to the perp walk. And I spent the whole night out in front of the Dakota, taking pictures.

On 9/11

So Debora and I had been out the night before to an event at Christie's, where I donated a print, and then we went out for sushi. It was typical New York evening. And the next day was brilliant. Sunshine, beautiful morning, late summer. And our bedroom faces the World Trade Center. And we were feeling good and then all of a sudden we hear jet engines so loud that it sounds like it's gonna fall on Reed Street. That's how loud it was. And I go ‘He's too low, he's too low.’ And then you hear the guy throttle up, you know, increase the speed, you can hear that. And we held on to each other, we knew there was going to be a crash. And then BOOM! And we look out the window and we see this fireball on the World Trade Center. And Debora started to cry. And right away I go, ‘It’s terrorism, it’s terrorism, it wasn't an accident.' So I just grabbed my cameras and ran out. I even forgot to put socks on. I just put my sneakers on and I ran out with my cameras and started shooting.

I started shooting at Greenwich and Chambers and you could see this airplane-shaped gash in the side of the building with flames and smoke. And then I walked down West Broadway and it was around Barclay Street where all of a sudden I hear this sound and there's another explosion practically over my head and I picked up my camera and said, ‘Well, this might be my last picture.’ But I shot it and then I ducked behind a building and all this debris came flying in the street ... And then I was trying to get a little closer to the plaza, but a cop said, ‘No, you can't go there. It's too dangerous.’ And you know, by that time I'd covered a lot of hotspots around the world, so I had a pretty finely tuned sense of danger. And I said, ‘Yeah, he's right. It's dangerous. I'm moving up to Broadway.'

And I was on Broadway and Fulton when I hear this sound, like a giant rending metal, you know, just shredding metal like a monster just tearing a building apart and that's what was happening. The building was collapsing. I couldn't see it, but I could hear it. And then all of a sudden, this multi-story jet of black smoke and debris comes out into Broadway. Right? And I just shot that, another time where I thought, ‘Oh, last picture,’ and I start to run.

On New York and Soho in the 1970s

It was an era of freedom, excitement, fun. And you didn't need a lot of money. The city reminded you of what New York was like in the 40s and 50s. It was still like that, to a big degree. Now, I go to Hudson Street and I look up and I see Hudson Yards, and it’s f***ing Dubai ... So, you know, it's completely different. Yeah, New York in the 70s was dangerous. It was dirty. It was destitute. But what an exciting time, a great time.

And Soho being the center of the art world, the whole art world. And because of the inexpensive spaces, all in one small geographic area, and not just painters, but sculptors, video artists, dance companies, musicians, performance artists, theater spaces. All concentrated, with that synergy, that cross pollenization of creative ideas. It was magic. It really was. It was magic.

Allan Tannenbaum is the author of the book "New York in the 70s." To see more of his work go to sohoblues.com and sohobluesgallery.com

Interview has been edited and condensed.

"Yeah, New York in the 70s was dangerous. It was dirty. It was destitute. But what an exciting time, a great time."