The Photographer Capturing the New York You’ve Never Noticed
For every Frank Lloyd Wright or Robert Venturi there are hundreds of plumbers, contractors, and builders who helped realize the structures from which they are forgotten. Among those outside our gaze are the masons and their stone sculptures—animals, faces, and fantastical creatures—carved into the doorways, window sills, and cornices of New York City’s buildings. The sculptures go unseen by the millions of people who pass them every day but simply don’t look up.
“The artists who did this get nothing. No recognition,” says architect Robert Arthur King, in a tone less mournful than bewildered, laced with a flickering energy at the prospect of righting this wrong. Originally a car mechanic, King knows what it feels like to be someone whose labor is crucial but so often anonymous. We’re sitting in a Washington Heights Starbucks—King decked out with cameras and lenses the length of my arm—preparing to embark on one of the 72-year-old’s regular strolls around the city to photograph the sculptural facades of buildings. King, quite simply, wants to honor these unseen artisans.
While others on the street are staring at their smartphones, King is looking up, capturing the sculptures that ever-so-subtly change the space all around us, uploading the images to his Instagram, collecting them in books (his third, Figures in Stone, is on shelves now) or spotlighting them in exhibitions. His latest show on City Island—which sits just off mainland Bronx in the Long Island sound, and where he now lives after spending most of his life in Harlem—opened June 2nd.
Our hour-long walking tour begins at a building at 181st Street and Fort Washington Avenue. Most buildings with interesting stone details date back to between 1850 and 1930; this one’s smog-stained facade has seen better days, but a line of stone figures had caught King’s attention as he traveled to a nearby renovation job.
“Sometimes I feel like these details talk to me,” King says. He means it. What else besides a very interesting conversation could keep him photographing for decades? King began his hobby while taking a class on women in photography. His teacher gave an unusual assignment: Capture the image of women he didn’t know. King felt too awkward photographing strangers, so turned his camera to women carved in stone instead. “I got an A,” he said, with a smile. Since then, while he works primarily in New York, he’s visited and photographed cities across the globe.
King speaks of sculptures as if they were living people, or even old friends. There are those he always visits when in a particular neighborhood—particularly a figure he has named Viola, who “lives” in the East Village and who adorned the cover of his first book, Faces in Stone. One of his dreams is to renovate a building and include the face of his wife on the exterior, to be found by future passersby who will guess at its origins, the way he puzzles over the histories of the faces he sees today.
King tells me of an earlier New York, when buildings had proper names and unique characters—they were more than simply machines for living. That city is vanishing, and King’s photos are acts of preservation. “Are we aware of what we are losing every time one of Mr. King’s subjects is smashed to powder?” asks architectural historian Barry Lewis, in the forward to King’s new book. The prospect of such destruction angers King. “Once you give the public art, you can’t take it away. That’s stealing,” he says.
Living in a world of stone facades, King has no qualms throwing bricks at the glass houses of modernists. “I had my knee replaced and I joked to a modernist—instead of replacing my knee, you’d shoot me and get another,” he said. He sees the glass towers that increasingly dominate the landscape of New York as not only characterless, but as unsuitable for human life. In a building made of glass, “where do you hang a picture?” he wonders.
Leaning on architectural theory means, he says, that you can miss out on the practicality of using or designing a space today. King teaches at the New York School of Interior Design and he takes this ethos into his classroom, where he asks students to design from the perspective of actual people—to think long and hard about what a space is actually doing to someone who inhabits it.
In 2014, King was awarded Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, one of the profession’s highest accolades. At the ceremony, the architects inducted before him had “expected to get in since they were 10,” describes one attendee, Vivian Ducat, whose documentary on King, Stonefaced, helped popularize his exploits. “He stood there and cried, and then he started to speak, and then he cried a little more,” Ducat says. “This meant so much to him.”
The path to that honor was unexpected. Born in Harlem in the 1940s, King graduated from Brooklyn High School of Automotive Trades with a vocational degree. He began his professional life as a mechanic. “My dream in life was to have my own garage and work on automobile engines,” King told me. But a serendipitous conversation with a cab driver who offhandedly mentioned that King should go to college changed his life trajectory. He wound up going to school to study engineering (“I found calculus very easy”), eventually working for the Navy and on a camera on board the Apollo 11 spacecraft.
“But I was bored,” he tells me as we roam Washington Heights. I was a little incredulous—bored working on a spaceship? “Picture the Apollo 11 being this big,” he says, gesturing to a building across the street. Then he points to a small potted plant next to us: “My part was this big.” He eventually went to school to study architecture, first in New York and then London.
His early jobs in the mid-1970s were hardly illustrious. “You do something that has to get done that nobody else wants to do,” he tells me. “Most architects, they like to dress up in suits. But I would survey abandoned buildings, because I don’t mind getting a little funky.” One building collapsed as he roamed through it—King fell several stories, damaging his knees to the point they had to be replaced (the surgeon, obviously not a modernist, elected to repair the damage, rather than shoot him). Another derelict structure ended up being a drug hideout; King was shot while fleeing.
Standing on the corner of 181st and Fort Washington, we enter a church’s park across the street from the building King wants to photograph. He’s happy: It’s a Sunday and the park is open, letting him get a rare distance from his subjects that will allow him to capture a fuller view of the building. King’s images give viewers the sensation of standing right next the stonework, when in reality the details are often five stories (or more) in the air.
What’s caught his interest this time is the figure of a person, stained partly black and wearing strange glasses while reading a book. The sculpture is four stories up, a little below the building’s cornice. That it’s reading really gets King. “That’s hilarious!” he exclaims, “that is so awesome.”
I look up at the figure, then down at the people walking along the sidewalk, passing by without noticing noticing the everyday artistry. King finishes photographing, jots down the address. And then we’re off to find more beauty carved into concrete.