Still Pursuing His Passion For Photography At Age 86 In His East Village Gallery

As a South Carolina transplant, Alex Harsley photographer, and founder of a Black-owned studio and alternative exhibition space says that life is what you make of it. He was a self taught photographer, and after working as a photo messenger was hired as the first black photographer working for legendary Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan. Today, he is 86 years old, and is still at it running the East 4th St. Gallery in the East Village.

| 26 Feb 2024 | 06:12

Alex Harsley was coming of age in the segregated South Carolina in the 1930s, when his family moved to the Bronx just after the end of World War II. In New York City, he said he found his neighborhood was surprisingly integrated, especially compared to the Jim Crow south. Through school yard friends of different ethnicities, he said it first began to open his eyes to the wider city. He first began photographing sports events that he became involved in including row skating and bicycling. That is how he got introduced to photography. As a young man, he was also dazzled by the photography equipment and would check it out at local department stores, without any inkling that it could be a career. At the age of 21, he got a job as a messenger for a photo studio and that gave him access to a photo lab. Walking through the city as a messenger, he noticed a whole new world that he had not seen or experienced before. After approximately six months, he came to the realization that he possessed the freedom to photograph as he pleased. This revelation, he said, empowered him to capture diverse subjects that caught his interest or that he believed would captivate others.

This newfound sense of liberation sparked a drive within him unlike anything he had experienced before. It fueled his passion for photography and ultimately pushed him to pursue it as both a personal passion and a profession.

Eventually, that led to him being hired as the first black photographer to work for the DA’s office in the late 1950s.

Although he was working as a freelance photographer, it was an assist from from Bill Safire, the former New York Times political correspondent who at the time was a speech writer for Richard Nixon who helped him establish his own firm Minority Photographers, Inc. in 1971. During his day, he photographed a wide range of sports figures and celebrities from Mohammed Ali to jazz performers including Miles Davis, many of whom made their way through the Apollo Theater

He continues to operate his gallery today on East 4th Street in the East Village between Broadway and Bowery. But as he recalls, Harsley’s life was far from picture-perfect when he started out in the segregated south.

What was your childhood like growing up between Newport, S.C., in the 1930s and 40s and then moving to the Bronx as a youngster?

“Basically, first and foremost, I learned how to survive being cheap. From a kid, just, it was really bad times when I was born in the environment, I was raised in. Some days you went without eating...

So when it comes to me, basically here in New York City, it was always getting just enough to survive to that next day, to get to the point where I could survive to the next year...Working as an artist, most people have to survive on whatever they can. So I basically decided to survive.”

How did your move to New York City help develop your passion for photography? I think you said while you did have one close friend who was white in South Carolina, but it was largely segregated and you were amazed that the city seemed more integrated than what you grew up with in South Carolina. And also your participation in sports put you into a more integrated world. And you began photographing some of the sporting events.

I moved to the Bronx in 1948 from South Carolina. I was 11 years old. From the kids that I played with was a mixed group of kids and mixed ethnicities. I lived directly across from public school playgrounds. I got into photography in 1957, which means that there were about 10 years between me coming to New York and finding a profession.

Prior to that, it was about fishing for a profession. I remember efficient preferred professions essentially, I was trained in all the trades. When I came to New York City and went through school. I came out of school there was no real jobs me working in the trades.

The only job that was left to me to get here and in New York City was that of a messenger and that gave me access to walking through the streets and understanding what was going on in terms of the culture.

So I was able to mix in and become a part of the New York City landscapes. Right off the bat I started going through stores looking at various cameras, I find equipment which I was interested in there was a major stores and subsequently I worked in two of those major stores without really realizing I was going to become a photographer.

I see a photo of Mohammed Ali that you took on your studio wall. How did you meet him?

Ali, who was well known at the time was considered by some to have betrayed America when he refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War. He was at the Apollo Theater, and I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. He asked me to take the photo on the wall. The other photos of Ali, I took because I wanted to take them.

What is Minority Photographers, Inc. and how did that come about.

Between 1968 and 1969, the world was changing and changing fast. I was doing some intensive research in the area of photography and various techniques. And I came up against some questions, I wanted to ask someone who had some sort of knowledge. And at that point, I was introduced to a guy named Dr. Lloyd E. Varden. [Varden was considered an expert in the photographic field and related sciences. and was an adjunct Professor of Photographic Sciences and Engineering at Columbia University in New York 1951–1968.] And I began to communicate with him. I also wanted to get to know what was going on in the rest of the world. My girlfriend and her friend were were working with Bill Safire as a secretary and stenographer. Bill Safire was a speech writer for the beginning of the Nixon campaign. So, in the back room was another person who was basically a lawyer working, I guess, in different areas of civil rights. And he decided that I needed a nonprofit organization.

And out of that came the Minority Photographers, Inc. It was a trade. The deal was that I was to go downtown and document a court house building...On the other side, 26th Street was an historic brownstone where Winston Churchill’s daughter lived during World War II. So, he wanted those two areas documented. In return, he would create a nonprofit organization for me.

I wasn’t looking for a nonprofit organization, by the way. It was given to me. It was given to me as a trade for doing a job.

And advice you’d give to young kids starting out in photography today?

”Find something interesting and carve out a niche documenting it.”