As a former self-described ‘mediocre’ graffiti artist and taxi driver photographing the streets of New York since 1978, Matt Weber has explored countless miles throughout the city and seen a little bit of everything.
The subjects in his photographs range from fights to embraces, from the homeless to 5th Avenue, from Harlem to Coney Island. The sensibilities in his work portray a photographer who has always been in tune with the rhythms, the community, and the ideals of the true New York – both the good and the bad.
But Weber didn’t purposely set out to become a photographer:
It had nothing to do with wanting to be a street photographer. I was driving a taxi and I saw so many crazy things on the street that I kept saying, “Damn, I’ve got to buy a camera.” Driving a taxicab in 1978 on the night shift at four in the morning in mid- town, if you saw the movie Taxi Driver, that was the world that was out there. There were prostitutes on the corner, Times Square was crazy; it was a dangerous part of town. I was robbed in my taxicab at double gunpoint.
Very few taxi drivers went up to Harlem. I chose to go up to Harlem because I couldn’t disrespect someone and not take them there unless they looked like they’d rob me. I saw some crazy things: knife fights, people having sex on the streets, and all of a sudden I was like, wow, I better get a camera. Then, once I got one, I was constantly looking around and people were like, “This taxi driver can’t keep his eyes on the road!”
Weber’s work is democratic. He photographs the reality of the city, and no subject seems to be above or beneath him to capture. He shows equal respect to all his subjects.
While many of his photographs have an inherent beauty to them, it is clear that he doesn’t set out to romanticize the city. The romantic moments come as they come, just like everything else. This is alluded to in the title of a 2014 documentary that focuses on his life, More Than The Rainbow. In the film, Weber explains one of the photographs: “But even a rainbow, I want to frame the rainbow with something in the foreground. I don’t just want the rainbow. So I want the sign that says $39 dollars a day, which I got – the hotel sign. You know, I want more than just the rainbow.”
As he began to study and take photography more seriously, the breadth of and understanding in his work improved as well.
My other inspiration was the changing neighborhood. Every neighborhood was losing its stores. “Oh man, that Jewish deli is gone,” “Oh I used to buy my heroes there for 45 cents,” my comic book store was gone, the automat where you put a quarter in and a little piece of pie comes out, where I used to go with my grandma was gone. Suddenly, everything was fancy GAPs and Banana Republics and all these chain stores and banks were opening everywhere. I wanted to start getting pictures of what was left. It was to preserve stuff in my mind.
My early work was basically just documents of the city with a couple of interesting street pictures just thrown in. Then, at one point, I just wanted to see some other photography and learn a little more about it and so I bought a few books and went to a few exhibits and at that point I was like, holy shit, there’s this whole world that I didn’t understand. I learned about Winogrand and Cartier-Bresson and a few of these other photographers.
While some photographers have a distinct look to their photographs (and Weber’s does as well), he does not think about style in his work as a look. Instead, he thinks more about his style in terms of the content in his photography. It’s the people he chooses, the moments that he notices, the emotions and the stories that he sees and understands.
I can’t say my style doesn’t exist, but it’s more of a sensibility. Style is more about what you shoot than how you shoot it. As I get older, I start playing games with arranging colors and trying to make nice photographs without just trying to shoot life itself, but shooting life itself is kind of rewarding. You get happy moments, you get love, you get sad moments when people are lying on the street, and you get angry moments when people are fighting. You get a whole range of emotions.
Weber’s career spanned a stark city turnaround from a dilapidated, creative haven for outcasts in the late ’70s to a global city of wealth and entertainment in the post 9/11 world.
I found maybe a hundred shots that were really good that I didn’t think had any value back in ‘88. I didn’t even mark them. Image after image after image and it took 20 years for those images to gain significance. Pictures of the Lower East Side and now they’re significant. Alphabet City, it was crazy; look at that abandoned car in the middle of the lot on 4th street with old junkies around – or Times Square.
Everything’s going to change. You actually know that. The only thing that’s constant is change.
And of the neighborhoods he likes to photograph these days:
There are not many left. Obviously Coney Island, but even that project is almost at an end after they renovated it and almost half of it is gone. I like the subways. I was a graffiti artist as a teenager in the early ’70s, so I spent a lot of time decorating the tunnels. It’s weird, but when I think back to like ‘73 when I was running with these crews in the tunnels, I was fearless. I’m not fearless anymore, but a weird confidence comes over me sometimes in the subway, where I feel like, “This is my fucking train,” even though it’s not. I remember when we used to get like that: “Excuse me, can you move so I can spray paint that?” We were just like little mutants running around. When you get four or five people together you start thinking you can do anything. So I’m thinking sometimes like, “This is my fucking train, I’ll take your picture any day I want.” Of course, that’s not true.
As you might imagine, Weber has many interesting life stories from exploring the streets of New York, but here is my favorite:
I missed a shot on 94th street. This guy was in a wheel chair and he was squabbling over money with another guy who had a fork. I’ve never seen that before. The fork was held up to his neck. I was with my daughter though and I wasn’t going to risk her over a shot. I couldn’t say, “You stay here while I go photograph the guy being held up by a fork.” How often do you see a fork in someone’s throat? It’s usually a knife or a gun, not a fork. Forks are way down on the list of implements to use to take money from somebody.
And while he no longer drives a taxi, shooting out the window, Weber’s contemporary work is just as prolific and interesting.
More photos from Weber: