In the early 1980s, the photographer Bud Glick worked for the New York Chinatown History Project (NYCHP) — today the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) — capturing the lives of the neighborhood’s denizens. From intimate portraits of people in their apartments to documentary-style pictures of the activities that filled the streets, his photographs record an older generation’s experiences of Chinatown, just as it was undergoing a transformation from an influx of immigrants and young families seeking fresh futures.
Glick is now embarking on a project with MOCA’s co-founder Jack Tchen to reconnect with the subjects of his photographs. After the series was exhibited in numerous places between 1981 and ’86 — the New York Public Library, Queens Museum, Henry Street Settlement House, and Chicago’s Beacon Street Gallery, among others — Glick revisited it in 2010 to digitize the negatives and make large prints. Since sharing it online, he’s managed to identify over a dozen individuals in the the pictures, as people have recognized friends or family members and reached out: one woman noticed the face of her late grandfather in a group of men celebrating Chinese New Year on Bayard Street; the son of the owner of a seafood store saw his great uncle smoking a cigarette and carrying a bag of scallops; a 35-year-old saw himself as a toddler, napping in his grandfather’s lap while the man read the newspaper on a stoop.
Glick has already met and spoken with a number of these subjects; he and Tchen intend to interview as many as possible to learn about their histories and present-day lives, with the goal of piecing together a broader narrative of Chinatown as told by its residents. The pair is also hoping to exhibit the photographs along with the newly told stories — both in a gallery and online — and will invite visitors who recognize anyone to get in touch. Glick estimates that he has about 450 rolls of film to dig through, and only about 50 photographs are now on his personal website. Although the images are over 30 years old, he considers the series a work in progress.
At the time, Glick considered himself an outsider, and struggled to approach strangers and ask for their permission to take their photograph. He gained access to many people through his NYCHP coworkers, who would accompany him to facilitate encounters and translate conversations. He entered senior citizen centers and garment factories; he captured celebrations and funerals that took over the streets. Most of Glick’s subjects don’t stare down his lens, but he’s clearly too close to have simply been a fly on the wall.
“It felt particularly difficult to get beyond the surface in Chinatown,” Glick told Hyperallergic. “There was a fair amount of (completely understandable) rejection and actual anger on the part of people that I approached … There were also a lot of tourists, a lot of white people coming in, taking pictures, and a lot were obnoxious; even if they weren’t, people don’t often want a stranger sticking a camera in their face.”
Sometimes Glick would walk away after receiving a rejection, but he would also persist. Very often he would return with the finished print, which could lead to invitations to enter homes. His photographs of “bachelor apartments” in particular serve as a reminder of a certain type of societal structure: older men lived together in these cramped spaces, their community separate from that of younger families. Like many of the small businesses that have shut down, such apartments are no longer around; the entire fabric of Chinatown, really, has transformed since Glick was roaming the neighborhood with his camera.
“All communities change,” Glick said. “However, the incredibly rapid growth and change distinguishes Chinatown from many other communities. What felt big at the time now seems small. Chinatown has expanded tremendously. It seems qualitatively different now.
“Looking at the Chinatown of 30-plus years ago, I realize what a unique and fleeting time it was,” he continued. “Within that community of young immigrant families, there still existed (in the same place but in many ways separate) a remnant of a much earlier immigrant experience.” With his current project to continue the dialogue around these images, he hopes to now help illuminate the immigrant experience today.