Jeff Rothstein’s Five Decades of New York Street Photography are Magical

All images by Jeff Rothstein. Used with permission. 

“… the most memorable was the shot I took of Muhammad Ali,” says Jeff Rothstein. “Unfortunately the negatives are long gone, but luckily I still have a print I made at the time.” A true New Yorker, Jeff has been shooting street photography for over 50 years. He has seen it all – times change, attitudes evolve. For the younger generation, Jeff’s street photography allows them to see what the world was once like. For the older generation, his work offers a comforting dose of nostalgia. In each frame that he develops, you feel the love he has for the place he calls home. What is most evident when speaking to Jeff is his passion for the craft. He has the energy to create, to document, and to tell the truth. 50 years on from his first roll of film, Jeff shares with us the photographic fire that’s still burning strong.

“The most fun decade was the 70s. First and foremost, I was young and possibilities seemed limitless.”

Phoblographer: Taking it back to the early 1970s, what first got you interested in photography and what excited you the most about the street photography genre?

JR: I used to attend a lot of sporting events (especially Mets and Yankees baseball) and thought if I bought a “real” camera I could shoot photos at the games. In early 1969, I purchased a Kowa SET-R SLR. I continued to shoot sports for my university newspaper and eventually branched out to other subjects. I was majoring in journalism so shooting street photography was a logical way to go. Maybe I felt that I was recording a bit of NYC history.

“Of course there’s some strong work being shown on Instagram, Flickr, etc. but it’s overwhelmed by subpar images.”

Phoblographer: Looking at the public attitude to street photography, how does it compare now to when you first started?

JR: Ah! Big difference. In the past, strangers, for the most part, seemed more receptive to having their picture taken. Unlike today, there were relatively few people carrying cameras, so it was something out of the ordinary. Since the rise of the internet and social media, people are very wary of having their image taken. They’re not sure where it will end up. I have a number of shots in the past of kids playing on the street. These days it’s a very sensitive issue so I really don’t attempt to shoot kids anymore.

Phoblographer: Five decades of shooting street. Considering subcultures, societal norms, and architecture, which was the most fun and productive decade for you to shoot?

JR: The most fun decade was the 70s. First and foremost, I was young and possibilities seemed limitless. Where else but in NYC at that moment in time would I have had the opportunity to photograph both John Lennon and Muhammad Ali in public? Also, the city was a lot grittier then, hence more interesting to shoot. As far as production, I’m probably more active shooting today. For most of those years, I also had a regular 9-to-5 job, so my time to shoot was somewhat limited (though I made the best of it). Today I spend most of my time on photography.

Phoblographer: How do you feel about today’s street photography community and culture? Do you feel the craft has moved forward or backwards?

JR: In general, forward. When I started shooting I wasn’t even aware of the term street photography. Now there are so many online outlets to display work, plus many collectives worldwide. That’s in addition to all the books dealing with the genre. On the negative side, all these outlets (especially social media) also show lots of mediocre stuff. Of course, there’s some strong work being shown on Instagram, Flickr, etc. but it’s overwhelmed by subpar images.

Phoblographer: Other than your shot of Mohammed Ali, do you have any other funny, bizarre or memorable stories you can share from when you’ve been out shooting the streets?

JR: Another memorable moment was the shot of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, taken in June 1971. This was way before their Dakota days, having just moved to NY. My friend and I knew they were going to be at a radio station at a certain time. Being big Beatles fans, we decided to go take a chance hoping to see them (and of course me hoping to get some pictures). When we got to the building we saw them get into a limo and speed off. We hopped into a taxi and actually told the driver to “follow that car!” When he heard who we were following, he also got caught up in the excitement. Anyway, when they arrived at their destination (Apple Records offices on Broadway), I jumped out of the cab and only had a few seconds to take a few photos. I actually followed them into the lobby, and took one more pic of John before the elevator doors closed. They were with their manager Allen Klein, who was giving me a look that probably meant “enough already.” That was the only time I ever played the paparazzo.

Phoblographer: You have a book, Today’s Special. Can you tell us about how the title of the book was created?

JR: Thanks for mentioning the book, Dan. The title is taken from the cover image. It shows a menu board in front of a coffee shop on Bleecker St. in Greenwich Village in 1979. Someone had written the word “me” under Today’s Special. I think it was a good choice for the cover and people seem to like the title.

“I would make 8×10 prints up and mail out submissions to publications. I also had a physical portfolio.”

Phoblographer: I’m sure you have too many images to count – how did you get your work down to 48 final images for the book? What was your selection process?

JR: Yeah, getting it down to 48 images was difficult. My publisher, Robert Dunn of Coral Press Arts, and I both worked together on the selection, sequencing, and design of the book. I think I started with about 100 images for this project (of course I have thousands in my archives). We then pared those down to the final 48. I thought that amount was enough to hold the reader’s attention. Printing costs were also a factor. I also cut the images off at 2006, though of course I still continue to shoot today.

Phoblographer: Today it’s so easy to share your pictures. Before the digital boom, how did you get your pictures seen by people, most importantly, the right people?

JR: It wasn’t easy. I would make 8×10 prints up and mail out submissions to publications. I also had a physical portfolio.

“If you’re street shooting, you can’t live and die with each shot.”

Phoblographer: You’re from Brooklyn; a true New Yorker. Talk to us about your relationship with the city, what it means to you and how you feel about it in the present day.

JR: Yes, I was born, raised, and lived in Brooklyn for many years. That was before Brooklyn was hip! I’ve lived in Greenwich Village since 1988. I’ve seen the city go through numerous changes throughout the years. It’s a much safer place to live now, though it’s lost a lot of the grittiness and character it had in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. You see the same CVS , bank, or Starbucks on every block. Most of the old mom and pop shops are long gone. That being said, there’s such a diversity of cultures, older architecture, and people that it’s still always exciting to hit the streets.

Phoblographer: Finally, for someone reading this, ready to pick up a camera for the first time to photograph the city they were raised in and love, what advice would you give them?

JR: If you’re street shooting, you can’t live and die with each shot. So much of it is about failure because you only have control over a limited amount of factors. Treat people with respect and don’t try to embarrass anybody with the photos you take. Most importantly – have fun!

You can see more of Jeff’s work by visiting his website.