This article is written by Joe Festa, Manuscript Reference Librarian.
Jeff Cowen, a contemporary art photographer born in New York City, is best known for his portraits and collages, and a painterly approach to his photographic process. Five gelatin silver prints by Cowen are housed within the Photographer File here at New-York Historical Society. Taken early in the artist’s career, these images illustrate Cowen’s artistic practice prior to his formal study at the Art Students League and New York Studio School. They also shed light on New York City’s fringe counter-cultures of the 1980s – specifically, transgender prostitutes living and working in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.
When New-York Historical acquired these images, Jeff Cowen included a typewritten, four-page narrative he titled “The Drag Queen Stroll.” In it, the artist details his subjects from their first-hand accounts and his point of view, utilizing an abrupt writing style that’s reminiscent of the Beat Generation.
Cowen maps “The Stroll” from 17th Street and 9th Avenue, running west to the Hudson River, to the southern edge of the Meatpacking District on Gansevoort. His writing draws on the rampant homelessness, drug use, prostitution, theft, and assault in this area at night, which serves as a sharp contrast to the union workers and family men who work in the meat markets and warehouses during the day. Cowen calls this area “a haven for the largest transvestite subculture on the east coast.” And with the advent of crack and HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, he says “the cost of sin has never been higher.”
In the late 1980s, around the time these images were taken, Cowen was working as assistant to artist Larry Clark. Clark, a photographer known for his controversial and provocative imagery, gained notoriety in 1971 through the publication of his art book Tulsa, and later made mainstream headlines with the release of his film Kids (1995) – two works that share a strong undercurrent of drug use and its consequences.
Like Clark, Cowen brings the harsh realities of urban youth and New York City to the surface, and infuses his images with raw, human emotion. Alongside the artist’s written narrative, these five images demonstrate Cowen’s ability to speak bluntly about drugs, sex, and AIDS, while juxtaposing heavy subject matter with fleeting elements of tenderness and beauty. This emotive quality has since become central to his photographic mission, and remains evident in the artist’s recent work focusing on the human form.