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Accra Shepp


by Barbara Pollack
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The Smithsonian Institution, the New-York Historical Society, the Museum of Jewish Heritage and other cultural repositories are collecting Occupy Wall Street. That is, curators and archivists have been picking up posters, buttons, broadsheets and other ephemera from Zuccotti Park and other OWS sites around the country. OWS has even set up an archive committee to preserve its own history.

The Museum of the City of New York, which is located up at the top of Museum Mile at 104th Street and Fifth Avenue, has already capitalized on the OWS moment, organizing "Occupy Wall Street: A Photographic Document," which opened on Jan. 26 at the refurbished South Street Seaport Museum, now under MCNY control. Curated from an open call for images taken over the past four months, the show includes the almost formal portraits of protestors by photographer Accra Shepp.

Further examples of Shepp's black-and-white pictures are displayed in the front window space of Stephen Kasher Gallery on West 23rd Street. Shepp, who is the son of jazz musician Archie Shepp, is passionate about OWS and the movement activists he has met while working on this project.

When did you start photographing Occupy Wall Street?

I went to Zuccotti Park for the first time on Sept. 30 and I started shooting on Oct. 1. I was just blown away. I couldn't believe how organized and thoughtful the participants were, and I knew right away that even though it is not the kind of subject matter I normally work with that I needed to witness it, immediately, because there was no visibility in those days. Even now, it is not being covered, because they don't have the occupation of the park and that was the hook for the press. But it's probably gotten even bigger than it was before.

What kind of people did you find there?

Well, all kinds, grandmothers and business people as well as college students and anarchists. What was easy about photographing the protestors early on was that they were available to be seen. They were putting their bodies in a public space to be seen. That's perfect for me.

When the protestors organize more intensively in smaller working groups, I can't interrupt, that's rude and I'll make myself unwelcome. You have to wait for the meeting to end. Or sometimes people are standing on the periphery. I can engage them without taking them out of the meeting abruptly. It's hard work but I'm getting a little better at it.

Why did you choose to portray people individually?

Initially, the movement faced a negative press. Television and the newspapers were filled with nonsense. And I realized that first day that I wanted to see the individuals who were coming together to make this protest real. A sea of faces tells you nothing. By looking at the individuals, you can understand the larger group.

The press said the movement was predominantly young and white. And I kept seeing Asians, Latinos, blacks. This doesn't look so homogenous. There were people in their 60s and young children with their families. And I thought, this is what people need to see.

How many people have you photographed?

A quick average -- 20 a week -- from Oct. 1, that's 240. It doesn't seem like that many frames, but when you consider that I'm using a 4 x 5 view camera and shooting on sheets of film and I'm making two to four exposures for each person, it comes to over 1,000 negatives. When I went to see the protest on Sept. 30, I realized immediately what I needed. I knew it had to be black-and-white and I knew it had to be large-format film.

Film holds so much more information than digital imaging. It totally dominates everything else in terms of how much you can actually see. Black-and-white because of its immediacy. I didn't see the subject matter as being in color. And Zuccotti Park is perpetually in shadow. Even on a sunny day, the light is veiled and the colors are muted.

What in your background makes you so attracted to this protest movement?

I was six years old in 1968 and I lived on the Lower East Side. I remember when Shirley Chisholm ran for president. I was there at the first Earth Day in 1972. So I was crest-fallen when I got to college and Ronald Reagan was elected president. He didn't seem to like black people, and all of sudden, greed was good. And helping other people was foolish.

It just seemed to be going from bad to worse for decades, and then economy blows up in 2008 because of the bankers, and takes the entire world with it. It was like a movie script that nobody would believe. It is just crazy and nothing happens.

But then, the Arab Spring happens, and the economies of the EU fall apart, and in France and Britain, they are in the streets. And then comes New York. I wondered if this was real, because I had been waiting for "it" to happen for a very long time. I even worried that I would get so old and so preoccupied with other matters that I wouldn't recognize "it" when it happened. So when I went down to the park, I thought, this is "it" and it's in my back yard.

Accra Shepp, "Occupying Wall Street: A Visual Diary," Nov. 11, 2011 and ongoing, at Steven Kasher Gallery, 521 West 23rd Street, New York, N.Y.

BARBARA POLLACK is author of The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic's Adventures in China (Timezone 8 Books).