Intro by Trevor andrew
Text/ITW by Elisa routa
Sue is one of those New York photographers who froze music legends on shiny paper, capturing a blessed period, that we shall never again see.
I arrived in New York, not so long ago. Everything that happened in the past has always fascinated me. I always felt that it was better before. But this new New York where art, music and skateboarding were connected is such a creative place, so rich. Maybe what I do now and the photographers who capture it all on film will make the teenagers of tomorrow dream. I hope so. I reckon that most of them won’t have as much impact as Sue, or know how to capture the moment as good as she does. So many of her photographs have become classics, that not to show them would be like hiding a part of the NYC musical or skateboarding history. I love Sue’s work, because most of her photos are still burning in my spirit, when I see them, I feel like I was there, next to her, when she was taking them. She let me become a part of history, through her eyes. I’m really grateful to her.
I think that the last time I opened a history book must’ve been when I read « Metronome » by Lorant Deutsch, if you can call that a history book.
I almost died of boredom. Before I go on, I’d just like to apologize beforehand to all the teachers, archivists, writers, curators and to any other person who practices a heritage-related profession, for which I have an immense respect.
Yes, sorry for all the family trees I have just literally torn down with these few words, but I have a hard time accepting this latest craze; to expose everything like a work of art and take the credit for it, like an ancestral trophy that we pretend to have won on our own. When at the end of the day, we didn’t lift a finger. We were all born in the 20th century, and we all grew up with Stéphane Bern as our only (living) historic cultural reference. (A gay French TV presenter/writer who specializes in fame and royalty.) Yes, I love to exaggerate. I’ll try and keep t a more realistic road. Obviously, I’m aware that culture depends on history, that it’s history that brings people together, that it’s a country’s story that identifies it and that it’s a man’s story that makes him good or bad. History is inside each and every one of us, from the moment we hear to our grandparents talking about the past… the moment we start crying in front of « Saving Private Ryan »…the moment we get our first scars, be they visible or invisible. I think scars should be classed as historical monuments. Oh, yeah, another example; even Kaamelot was a success! (Kaamelot is a small French TV production, set in Medieval times.)
Illustrated stories are always prettier than just words. Real stories, not just the ones we tell ourselves. Talking about real stories, Sue Kwon has hundreds to tell us, because she’s lived them for more than 20 years now on the streets of NYC, and has managed to immortalize them for us thanks to her trusty cameras. Her stories, she tells them through pictures, sometimes with digital, sometimes with a Rolleiflex TLR from the 30s, « Because with the Rolleiflex, people in the street seem more at ease in front of the camera. They accept it faster, it’s less bulky, less threatening, more gentle maybe. » Looking at this New York photographer’s photos, it’s like being in one of those drive-in cinemas, sat in the grass or in Grace Kelly’s famous V8 Rover, feet on the dashboard, watching history fly by. 20 years in pictures. That’s also what she wanted to share when she published her last book « Street Level-1987-2007″. »
I remember the first time I held a camera. I was 13 and had kept on and on at my dad to lend me his one. I took 3 photos with it before dropping it on the floor. Camera’s dead.
» Then, a short time after, Sue left for Paris, and wandered by chance into a gallery where Sebastiao Salgado was showing some of his work. And there, in her head, a flash went off, blinding: When I saw his photos, I found them utterly intriguing, brutal and painful. I’d never seen such a thing. That was when I realized that photojournalism wasn’t just about watching the news on TV or looking at a picture in the papers. I understood that one photo was capable of capturing a second in a life and helping us to remember a story. Just one photo. His photos of Sahel were so gracious, poignant, full of lucidity. They hit me, haunted me. How did he manage to portray such hard reality with such elegance? How could I perceive such a beautiful reality when it portrayed the story of such a desperate man? I then realized that Salgado respected his subjects and it was important to him that their fate was portrayed with honesty and decency. That’s why the photos were so beautiful to me.
Two decades later, it’s Sue Kwon’s work that we shall go see at galleries, from New York to Copenhagen, cutting through Tokyo. Her photos have flown across the world, into the living rooms of the biggest Hip Hop stars in America. Her little eye spied on the likes of Notorious Big, the Beastie Boys, the Wu-Tang Clan and Trouble Andrew. « The first time I met Trevor, it was in Tokyo in 2002. We’d just landed in Japan, and we all met up in this restaurant to have a bite to eat and drink gallons of saké. We were all suffering from jet lag and I remember, there were three people asleep on a tatami. I took a photo of them, and it wasn’t until later that I recognized Trevor on it. At that time, we didn’t know one another but everyone always said nice things about him. Pretty quickly, I realized that he was really a great guy, down-to-earth, a real genius on the slopes, with a raw talent for telling stories. » Since then, Sue has become his official photographer, with no title ‘cos she hates that. She tells her story in a few short words. »
I almost go into convulsions when people ask me to describe myself.
» She hates being the centre of attention. So it’s the famous streets of the Big Apple that became the apples of her eyes, her targets.
She has immortalized all of them. Like Vivian Maier, she’s madly in love with her town, the streets and the stories they tell: « It’s the town where everything is possible ». And then, there are people. Like Christopher Walken. The famous American actor had played « The King of New York » in 1990, which is probably what Sue liked about him before they met. “It was like time had stopped. You hold your breath because at that particular moment, you don’t need air anymore. » His voice and his presence are enough. He’s a gentleman and a true professional who makes your work easier for you. Maybe I’d have preferred him to be… weirder. But he just said « Sue, do you want a cup of tea? »
So I made peace with history thanks to Sue, when she told me her story.
Never tired, forever hunting in the streets of NYC, armed with her Rolleiflex.
It’s always so exciting, every single day, because my work is unique and I never know what privileged and particular moment I’m going to get to capture on my film.