Discover more from Herb Sundays
Herb Sundays 90: Ari Marcopoulos
The legendary photographer in Sunday mode.
“When I grew up, in the early evening we would watch the highlights of the football games played that day. My favorite team was Ajax Amsterdam. It was also a day to go to church for some families. Next door to us lived a strict Protestant family. The kids weren’t allowed outside on Sunday. We’d see them behind their home’s windows watching us heathens play outside. This is dedicated to them.” - AM
Of all the artistic vocations, photographers are the most like time travelers. They document their life and times, but if we get them long enough, they can capture different eras entirely, which seems incongruent with the way we attach artists to their ‘moment'.’ Ari Marcopoulos is one of those artists and quietly has amassed some of the most powerful youth culture and subculture work of this century and last.
I developed a love of photography as a kid from my mom who was always shooting the people she loves and sharing the printed pictures with them. She still does it today on her phone. It’s a way of helping people see themselves as beautifully as she does. My appreciation for the form has grown in the last decade and have found artist-curated photobooks to be a close relative to playlists, in that they have a rhythm and a cadence that is powerful and can’t be replicated easily.
There’s something cosmic about Ari’s oeuvre that almost doesn’t make sense, the breadth is almost too vast. It doesn’t seem possible he was in all those places. Born in Amsterdam, Marcopoulos moved to New York City at the bleeding edge of the ‘80s and was first hired as a printing assistant to Andy Warhol and then by Irving Penn, both of whom he credits with learning the art of shooting simply and consistently. Meanwhile, he rubbed shoulders downtown with greats like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Robert Mapplethorpe.
As such, Marcopoulos, in my mind, belongs in the pantheon of photographers who captured the immediate aftermath of the big bang of Hip-Hop and acts as a throughline from Downtown Andy and Basquiat to the Beasties and Def Jam to Graf Kids, to Supreme. Some of his most arresting work has been shooting snowboarders and skateboarders. In the early ‘90s at “The Banks” beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, Ari caught terminal photos of skate icons like Harold Hunter and Justin Pierce, both now-deceased cast members of Larry Clark's 1995 Kids (which also featured Herb 26, Leo Fitzpatrick), almost like ghosts of a different era of the city.
As Hip-Hop turns 50 this coming week, (Herb 56, Dan Charnas investigates), it seems unimaginable that this culture staple was at first deemed a fad. Thankfully there were other greats capturing all the elements: Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant documented the rubble and reincarnation. Cooper is the master of the frozen moment and a witness to history, while Chalfant is more of a bird watcher, patient, and efficient. Jamel Shabazz and Joe Conzo are the Yearbook committee, a slice of life, pure and free. The Late Ricky Powell feels more akin to the speedy work of classic street photographers like Bruce Davidson, as he got you to pose, quickly and perfectly and his subjects caught in the moment, stare into your soul. Glen E. Friedman is the closest west coast analogue to Marcopoulos, but Friedman's feel more like sports photography, frozen paintings of mythology, whereas a great AM photo just is.
In a good Marcopoulos shot the truth is just simply there. The present moment laid bare. A lot is made about the intimacy of a good AM photo but he insists it’s not because he’s just a serene presence on the periphery:
“It reflects how I look at life more than other people,” admits Ari. “People say, ‘Oh yeah, Ari’s a fly on the wall,’ but I’m a pretty loud fly. I’m animated and I talk. I think a lot of my photos have a natural feeling because people are just doing their own thing and I’m taking pictures. Taking pictures is like texting to me.”
Ari’s new book is Zines which chronicles his work in the short-form DIY publication style. Marcopoulos has said he likes zines as a way to help him understand what he's doing in real-time. In an interview for the book, he told The Face this year:
The Face: What makes a subject or photograph print-worthy when you’re editing so many down for a book?
AM: Everything is worthy of a photograph. There’s probably a fair amount of photographs of trees in the book, so I guess I love trees – but who doesn’t?! As I move through my life, I see things and I’ll photograph them because they catch my eye. If you walk around with me, then I would talk about things that I’m seeing, not necessarily even photographing them, but I will be pointing out things to you. I see many things that I think would make a fascinating picture, and I don’t always take a photograph of it. It goes in spurts.
I asked Ari for his favorite photography books and he swiftly answered:
The Lines of My Hand, Robert Frank
Fish Story, Alan Sekula
Both made sense to me in their simplicity and matter-of-factness as Fish Story is the story of globalization and influence, but particularly I guessed at Frank (who was Swiss). No one can see America quite like an outsider. We are mostly all outsiders, all new to this place. But adopting the United States as an adult or young adult likely gives you a whole different perspective. A different and more potent way to see the special, strange, scary, and magical.
Forthcoming for Ari is a Zines exhibition at Brooklyn Museum: Copy Machine Manifestos: Artists Who Make Zines (Nov 17, 2023 - March 31, 2024)
From The Field:
I spoke to Scuba for his Not A Diving Podcast and got deep on Herb, my dance music roots, and more.