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A New York street photographer keeps on clicking

Vivian Cherry is nearly 90, but her career is blooming with the publication of her first book.

By Susan HartmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 26, 2008

In Bloom: Vivian Cherry restarted her career at an age when many retire.

Mary Knox Merrill – staff

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New York

Twice a week, Vivian Cherry – a veteran street photographer – leaves her midtown Manhattan apartment and gets on a bus.

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"I never have any idea what I'm going to shoot," she says of her routine. But she does have a destination in mind – maybe East Harlem, where she was born, or the Lower East Side.

When she arrives – sometimes finding herself on a block she hasn't seen in 50 years – she wanders past bodegas, through parks and street fairs, like a patient hunter.

"I try to be invisible," Ms. Cherry says. Thin and white-haired, clad in jeans and sneakers, she pretty much blends into the street. "Once somebody sees you, everything changes. You don't get what you're looking at."

When somebody catches her eye, Cherry doesn't hesitate. She explains wryly that if that person calls out, "'Don't take my picture!' I just say, 'I didn't.' And I walk away."

For 60 years, on and off, Cherry has been photographing the enormous changes and small mood shifts of New York City streets. As a young woman, working for prominent magazines of the '40s and '50s such as Parade and Pageant, she caught a world that was on the verge of vanishing: She shot cattle being herded across the cobblestones of the Meatpacking District and hushed crowds watching the tearing down of the Third Avenue El. Now approaching 90, she is still fascinated by the city's changes: In a rapidly gentrifying Manhattan, she recently shot a weary Mexican father on a stoop, his sleeping daughter draped across his lap.

She's one of the last surviving members of the Photo League, a cooperative of photographers that in the '30s and '40s embraced social realism.

At an age when it might be easier to slow down, Cherry is not only passionately engaged, she's experiencing a sense of arrival. Her first book, "Helluva Town" – 82 black-and-white photos of New York City in the '40s and '50s, with her commentary – has just been published by powerHouse Books.


Though she's thrilled about the book, it's her new work that absorbs her.

Pointing to a neat stack of her photos on her coffee table, she says, "I'm trying to hit all the boroughs," and adds, "I haven't been to Staten Island yet."

What drives Cherry forward is her curiosity about the world, and an ability to bounce back after setbacks. At 87, three years after breaking her hip, wrist, and ribs when she was trampled while shooting an antiwar demonstration, she is learning to write music, using the software program "GarageBand." She has just signed up to study meditation. And, as always, she has a close circle of friends – some young, some old.

"I've seen his band about 500 times," she says about a longtime musician friend who'd invited her to his opening at a Lower East Side bar.

"She's interested in everything," observes Barbara Head Millstein, former curator of photography at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, who organized Cherry's show there in 2000. "I've gone down the street with her," she adds, "and she disappears. She's gone off to pursue an image – it's almost like an urge that can't be satisfied. It doesn't matter if you, or the public, are interested – it interests her. That's what makes her photography so fresh."

When she was young, Cherry didn't take a straight career path: She started out as a modern dancer, performing professionally while still in high school. "But I wanted to try everything," she explains. "I just wanted to see what the world was like."

Her mother, a piano teacher, died when Cherry was 14. And at 19, she left home. Needing to support herself, Cherry answered a nightclub ad for a dancer. "It was awful," she says, laughing about the job. "People smoked and drank; after all that rehearsing, nobody looked at us. I thought I'd weep."