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.
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Cherry went on to dance at two well-known Manhattan clubs, La Conga and Le Bal Tabarin, then worked as a dancer at a carnival in upstate New York, as a modern dance soloist at The Roxy in Manhattan, and appeared in a Broadway show called "Sadie Thompson."Skip to next paragraph
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But injuries forced her to take a break from dancing, so she found a job as a darkroom assistant at a news photo service.
"It was accidental," she says of becoming a photographer. "All day long, I was looking at these photos, and I thought 'I can do that.' Then a friend gave me a camera, and I took it into the street." One of the photos taken that day is in her new book; it's an intense close-up of a raggedy-looking boy in Hell's Kitchen, laughing.
Though she resumed performing, appearing for a year in a Broadway revival of "Showboat," she notes dryly, "It was just a job. Photography felt more meaningful to me than dancing."
In 1947, she joined the Photo League and studied with its cofounder, Sid Grossman, whose gritty photos of Coney Island and Little Italy she admired. "But even more important was what happened after class," she explains, "everybody going to Sid's loft, talking about photography, looking at each other's work."
The League's documentary approach suited Cherry: She shot photo essays on Navajo and Pueblo Indian health, and on a West Virginia doctor who treated miners, for Scope, a medical publication. But perhaps her most affecting story is "The Fourteen Days of Antoinette," about a city kid going away to a public-sponsored summer camp, commissioned by an ad agency.
Cherry got to choose the child. "I went to this gym, where all the kids were being checked out by doctors," she says, "and saw this little thing" – Antoinette, a dark-haired 10-year-old girl in a dress. "I said, 'She's the one for me.' She had an impish face and was a sensitive child, a softie." Cherry adds: "I wasn't. I was a tomboy."
In this series, Cherry shows the isolation of a child leaving home for the first time: She shot Antoinette in front of her Chelsea apartment, tentatively holding onto a street sign and blowing a bubble, then packing her clothes, and later getting on the Staten Island ferry. "She was very upset, grabbing onto her mom – that was the goodbye," recounts Cherry.
In 1957, Cherry stopped taking photos – as much because her assignments had started to feel routine as because the magazines she'd been working for were folding. Also, she'd given birth to her son, Steven, and didn't want to travel.
During this hiatus, she supported herself and her son doing various jobs, and tried other creative pursuits: "I made a film about Halloween," she says, and she made jewelry and collages, painted and drew. Her 50s were tumultuous, she says: She went through a protracted divorce, her third, and a serious illness.
Then in 1987 – at 67 – she returned to photography. "I was shooting some collages – and I started enjoying it again," she says.
Her work from the late '80s and '90s is drenched in color: An elderly man walks by a mural that's as yellow as a sunflower. A beautiful young woman's tattoos reflect the pale blues and greens of a Japanese print. But she began missing the stark contrast of her old work: "Now I'm back to shooting in black and white," she says with the assurance of someone who has come home.
But Cherry remains restless. Fascinated by new technology, she heads downtown to Apple's Soho store once a week. There, she works with a young musician who is teaching her to use "GarageBand" to score a CD of 30 new images of people riding the subway and bus.
"Some are talking, some are yawning," she says about the passengers in her photos. "I want to write music so people watching will feel the movement of the train.
"So far, it's nothing," she adds. "I'm just playing with sounds and beats. But it's my first try."