Stanley Greene

Although I’d undoubtedly seen photographs by Stanley Greene before then, it was only early in 2004 that I really became aware of him as a photographer, and my immediate reaction was to sit down and write an essay of over 2000 words, ‘Stanley Greene: Witness to the World‘, which I published on the web site I was writing for shortly after.

It is no longer available, but it is perhaps no great loss, being more a telling of the major phases of his life and work to that point than offering any real insight into his photography, and is really too long to include in a post here. Like much of what I wrote then it was cannibalised from the available information from a number of sources on the web and some in print, and I have no complaint that parts of it have in turn been recycled by other web sites (though often rather more lazily well on the wrong side of the borderline between research and plagiarism.)

Here at any rate is how I began the story of his life (with a reference to links removed):



Stanley Greene was born in Harlem, New York in 1949. His father, also Stanley Greene, had been a part of the ‘Harlem Renaissance‘ of the 1930s, an actor and an activist, who was blacklisted as a communist in the 1950s. He kept in the business only through minor roles in movies, his name not listed in the credits. Although his father encouraged the young Stanley to think of a career in acting, he decided he wanted to become a painter. His parents gave him a camera when he was 10 and he used the camera to photograph material for his painting.

Gene Smith

The teenage Greene also became politically active, joining the Black Panthers and taking part in the anti-Vietnam movement, refusing to serve there. In 1971 he met the famous photojournalist W Eugene (Gene) Smith, who encouraged him and offered him space in his studio. Smith advised him to study photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York to get a grasp of the technical side of the medium, and later to go to the San Francisco Art Institute where the focus was on aesthetics.

California and New York

In California, Greene photographed the music scene, sending pictures of new punk and rock bands to the music magazines. In the mid 70s he helped to found the Camera Works Gallery in San Francisco, and it was while curating a show for this that he made his first visit to Paris in 1976. Dissatisfied with his life in California, he moved back to New York in the early 1980s, taking a job with Newsday, one of the larger regional newspapers in the USA. He hated it, being constantly sent to cover such minor events as delicatessen openings.

Paris Fashion

Eventually, in 1986, he was fed up enough to decide more or less on a whim to go back and live in Paris, where he had met a group of photographers who styled themselves ‘poets of photography’. Greene became a fashion photographer. Despite his success and easy lifestyle – including a taste for heroin – he was not content, haunted by the ghost of Gene Smith and the nagging of his example and his advice to photographers “You have to give something back.”

I was reminded of this by a set of Greene’s early pictures, (Never Quiet) on the Western Front, published by Lensculture,  none of which I’ve seen before, which set me off on revisiting much of his work around the web. As well as photographs there are also a number of articles about his work and interviews, and I thought again about the piece I had written in 2004 when I read in Stanley Greene’s Redemption and Revenge published by Lens in 2010 the photographer’s comment to the question of why he had brought out an autobiographical work:

I wanted to set the record straight. I kept hearing people say, “Chechnya was when you really started to be a photographer.” And that’s not true. I was shooting back at the Berlin Wall, but nobody knew about it.

And I thought, well those who read my piece a few years earlier certainly did – and knew too that you were a photographer before the Berlin Wall. And given that we were looking at around a million page views a month there were probably quite a few who had read at least the first few paragraphs even if they didn’t all struggle to the end of page 4.

So far I’ve only got halfway through the 25 minute interview with him in 2013 on Italian Vogue – though I’ll watch the rest later today, as he makes some interesting points. Including his observation “When you shoot film you really have time to think“.  I don’t entirely agree with this, and perhaps he also weakens his own point by going on to say he seldom ‘chimps’ when working on digital. I try to remember to take a test picture at the start of each event I photograph to check things are working properly, but seldom look at the pictures again until I’m sitting on the train on my way home. Digital does give you the choice of  being able to work differently – and in a way that I think as he does – divorces you from the situation, but you don’t have to take it.

There is a shorter interview with Green on PhotoRaw in which he also talks about digital and the attraction of film to him as well as about “Brains, guts, humanity” and the problems of being a photographer nowadays. It’s perhaps an interview that would have been better with just audio, or accompanied by a few stills, as I find the image of the photographer gets rather annoying after a minute or too.

You can of course view very many fine stories by him on Noor, the agency he was one of the founder members in 2007, one of several agencies that seem to be continuing the Magnum tradition rather better than Magnum.

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