Luc Sante Talks About New York in the 70s, Street Photography, and the Magic of eBay

Michaelangelo Matos
·13 mins read

We should be getting tired of reading about the New York of the seventies and early eighties by now, a time and place that has comprehensively supplanted “The Sixties” as publishing’s stop-it-already nostalgia locus. But that period won't settle for the maverick historian Luc Sante, whether he’s recalling his first, shocked glimpses of Patti Smith in 1975 or mapping the ground surrounding the Beastie Boys’ formation. Besides the late nineteenth and early twentieth century setting of his twin monuments to the vivacity of the slums, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1991) and The Other Paris (2015), New York at the apex of punk, disco, early hip-hop, and multimedia club culture has been a consistent focus for Sante—yet it feels startlingly new every time he revisits it.

There’s a lot of that era in Sante’s new collection, Maybe the People Would Be the Times, though it’s hardly a memoir. (That’s The Factory of Facts, 1999.) This is his second collection of arts essays and criticism (the first was Kill All Your Darlings, 2007), with sections on music (including the Patti and Beasties items), memoir, writers (“The archives at hplovecraft.com includes an apparently endless list of pop songs—not all of them death metal—that quote or refer to his tales”), photography (his consideration of the strange afterlife of the photographer Vivian Maier is aptly rendered in detective-story prose), and, finally, obituaries (Glenn O’Brien, Rene Ricard) and envois. The most piquant of the latter is Sante’s ode to a Mudd Club drink ticket; the most stirring, “Commerce,” a series of snapshots of a scrappier New York City that the mid-eighties’ money train put to an end.

Sante, who teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College, also freely blends fact and fiction to a far greater degree in Maybe the People than he did in Kill All Your Darlings—like a record producer doubling an instrument with a synthesizer to, paradoxically, make it sound more lifelike. Pieces such as “The Seventh,” a brief panorama of a block party that ensued when a car crashed into a building in Sante’s neighborhood (“People went back to bed or dominoes or television, but it almost looked as if they had just evaporated, like spilled beer on a car hood in the sun”), or “12 Sides,” a series of vividly imagined ownership histories of a dozen old 45 rpm singles—present a bind to an interviewer. They spur curiosity about the real-world specifics the author cunningly leaves out, but are so whole unto themselves that they make prying any further feel frivolous. As Sante writes of one of his lodestones, the Belgian crime writer Georges Simenon, “The work may look like a body, but it contains entire populations.” GQ spoke with Sante the afternoon following the first Presidential debate.

A postcard made from street posters circa 1985, found in New York by the author.
A postcard made from street posters circa 1985, found in New York by the author.
Courtesy of Luc Sante

GQ: Did your publisher suggest another essay collection? Or did you put this together on your own?

Luc Sante: Steve [Connell of Verse Chorus Press] did suggest another collection. And I knew it was about time—the last one came out thirteen years ago. I tried to put together something about a year and a half, two years ago, and it wasn’t coming together. And then all of a sudden it did, you know? It felt like, “Oh, yeah, all these things have always belonged together.”

What feels different about this compared to the last collection is the increased amount of fiction, the way it floats into the pieces and into the book, almost unbidden. A lot of that comes from things you wrote for your blog, Pinakothek, which was largely about photography. Did that format allow you to monkey with things uninhibitedly?

It did. That’s true. And it accounts for some of it, although some of it is salvaged fragments from an abandoned novel, too. The other way in which it’s different from the last collection is, almost everything in this collection is incredibly personal, even some of the things that don’t seem like they are.

Would that include the cover photo, from 1979?

Well, yeah. I took that myself. I was in Tier 3, a club that flourished for a little more than a year on West Broadway, just south of White Street. It was a little narrow building that had this three-level club, hence the name. First floor, there was a bar—it was a bar and grill at one time—and the [former] restaurant part was where the bands played. It was tiny. I remember seeing Madness there—they had, like, twenty people, so that reduced the effective crowd that could witness them by at least a third. Upstairs, there was a level where people just hung out. And on the top, there was a place where people showed movies—their own movies, generally.

I have no recollection of what band was playing when everybody’s peering out through those windows. I know I saw a lot of great acts there. And it may have been a night where I wasn’t that interested in what was going on, because I was kind of outside the room taking pictures. I borrowed a camera for the occasion; I almost never owned a camera. And I have, like, a dozen shots from that night.

Did you have the photo before the title?

The title was there immediately, because I’d been engaged a couple years ago by Vice to write something memoiristic for the last issue of their music offshoot. I have played that album [Forever Changes by Love, from 1967] at least once a month for the last fifty plus years. It’s probably my favorite album of all time. That was the first song [the full title is “Maybe the People Would Be the Times, or Between Clark and Hilldale”] I connected to on that album. So it was always in my head. And it became natural to think of that as a way into this memoiristic format for writing about music.

I started writing to all these photographers [who] were taking pictures in lower Manhattan clubs in the late seventies–early eighties, asking them if they had audience pictures. If they did, the crowds were so well behaved—they were just sitting there, you know? Laura Levine had all these great shots of the Public Image riot at the Ritz, but they were too riotous. Then I realized, you know, I have this picture I took. I’ve never actually published a photograph I took before but it seemed like the right one.

Your Georges Simenon piece has a line that stopped me cold: “He was in every way undertaking a leap in class.” Is that sort of class striving, or at least refusal of class as a barrier to ambition, something that you can detect in someone’s work, even without knowing it in advance?

Hmm. Well, I do have my eye out for it, you know, because it’s a story of my life. With Simenon, of course, it’s ultra-personal because he’s effectively a neighbor. You know, he’s from the same background as I am. Same place, basically. And it’s something I’ve witnessed in people before. Yeah, I think I can often tell, if only by process of elimination.

Your memoiristic writing is really clear-eyed and clear headed. How much do you go back to primary sources when you work on them?

I had to look up a few things here and there. Also, at the time, I was an observer—I never kept a diary or anything like that, but I did keep clippings. For example, for the Patti Smith piece, everything I quoted was something I clipped and kept in a folder all these years. For both the title piece and the Beastie Boys piece, I had to look up what exact years different albums came out, and to particular points of genealogy of New York City radio. But basically, they all come from my memory, because the years 1968 to 1982 are pretty much engraved in my head. I know I’ve forgotten all kinds of things. But I can go into those years and walk around—where I really can’t do that for the last thirty years.

What is the oldest item in your library?

I have some Tintin books that my grandmother gave me in the sixties. Probably the earliest book that I bought myself that I still have I got through Scholastic Book Services in seventh grade, called The Incurable Wound, by Berton Roueché. Roueché was the “Annals of Medicine” guy in The New Yorker in the fifties, and sixties, and it’s a collection of nonfiction stories about medical crises. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this incredible movie by Nick Ray called Bigger Than Life. James Mason stars as the typical American bus driver—right, James Mason [audible eye-roll]—and he’s prescribed cortisone for some kind of ailment, and it turns him into a megalomaniac. The original story [it’s based on] by Berton Roueché is called Ten Feet Tall, and it’s in that collection.

I read tremendous amounts of whatever I could find of that kind of narrative nonfiction beginning when I was in my early teens. And I think that marked me very early on. I never became a reporter, but I think the idea of orchestrating actual occurrences into a kind of novelistic flow is something that I’ve always striven for.

You teach the history of photography at Bard College. You’ve said that prior to writing Evidence (1992), a book of NYPD crime photos, you had not written about photography, but had you been reading about it before that?

Yeah. I remember reading books from the library. Time-Life had this multi-volume series, which they sold in installments—the Life Library of Photography. There’s this one particular volume in that collection, Documentary Photography, and it covered Walker Evans and Robert Frank, and it also mentioned Diane Arbus, Garry Winograd, Lee Friedlander, as well as the other of the FSA photographers. It completely blew my mind. I would take it out over and over and over again.

After I got kicked out of Jesuit high school, I went to a public high school, where they had resources such that I learned developing and printing and use of an SLR [single-lens reflex camera]. I remember going on assignments in New York City and taking pictures and coming back thinking, ‘Geez, these are all like pale imitations of Walker Evans. I’m never going to get any better as a photographer, so I’m going to quit while I’m ahead.”

My parents, as a high school graduation present, gave me an SLR—a cheap one, a Yasuka. I studied in Europe for part of a year, and traveled around Europe on a Eurail pass. And I decided not to bring a camera: I was going to take pictures with my mind. I’d occasionally take snapshots, when somebody let me borrow a camera. That was pretty much it until before the point-and-shoot era of the nineties.

Did your parents subscribe to Life or Look magazines?

They did subscribe to Life.

Would that have been your earliest encounter with professional photography?

An important source in my early life was my father’s sister. With her husband, they were newsagents in a small town in Belgium—newspapers, magazines, and a certain amount of books. They were not very literary people, but they knew that we love to read. So they would fill a box with just random shit every once in a while and send it to us, and it would be a collection of magazines, newspapers and paperback books of every description. So I think even before we subscribed to Life, we would get issues of Paris Match, which was the French Life.

You write a lot about secondhand culture, in particular the yard-sale seven-inches of “12 Sides,” so I wondered if you ever watched TV shows like Storage Wars or Pawn Stars?

I would occasionally watch Pawn Stars on the elliptical trainer at the gym, and it kind of grossed me out. All these shows are about big-money pop culture collectibles. So it’s like the stuff I’m interested in, but with all the poetry taken out and all the money put in.

I like Storage Wars much more. Again, it’s big guys who look like professional wrestlers, but they bid on the contents of storage lockers without seeing what’s in them. The atavistic attraction there is: What’s behind the door?

That’s also much of the story behind Vivian Maier.

Very much so. Vivian Maier also came into public view around the same time as those shows were coming onto TV, and it was also when Tumblr came around. Suddenly, you could just look at images. You didn’t have to buy books to do it, or magazines. It was a precursor to what Instagram is now.

Yeah, I love Instagram. It’s now the only social media I do. I’d say 75 percent of my friends are on Instagram, which they weren’t on Twitter, which freaked me out anyway, and Facebook, which I quit over ten years ago. But also, I don’t really collect photographs anymore. I mostly quit when I put out my book Folk Photography in 2009, because prices were getting too high and eBay was getting skunky.

But eBay has been amazing. I would check into eBay at some point in the evening, and I’d be on there for five, six hours just looking at photographs. It was an astonishing experience, because I would learn so much from that. Things would go up on eBay, and I’d realize, “Holy shit, this is a phenomenon that I’ve never seen described in any literary source.” Sometimes I’d buy the pictures that were cheap enough.

I teach these classes and history of photography, and many of them are really informed by that experience—to the frustration of my students, because often I’ll be lecturing on the topic where I can’t really give them a reading because there’s only either been incredibly dense academic writing, which I can’t read, or hobbyist publications that nobody can read.

I waited to ask about the debate last night. What is your intake ability with Trump? I need my doses heavily mediated beforehand.

Yeah. My girlfriend went over to a friend’s house to watch it. And I couldn’t do it. I just refused. I knew exactly what it was going to be like. From everything I’ve read, and a few clips I’ve seen, it was exactly what I thought it was going to be. In general, I’m distancing myself from news these days. I mean, I’m trying to stay informed. I check a few sources every morning. This was one of the reasons I had to quit Twitter, even beyond the doom-saying that was freaking me out. Watching this, wallowing in this shit, is not advancing me; I’m not changing anything. By doing it, it’s only making me feel worse. So I will keep my distance, and try to retain as much of my sanity as possible.

Originally Appeared on GQ