Once, not long ago really, New York City was a very different place. To some, the city of this era was gritty, glorious and full of authentic character and vibrant humanity. To others, it was dangerous and on the verge of falling apart, threatening bankruptcy. Truth be told, it was probably a bit of both.
At that same time, the 1970s and ’80s, the city was also undergoing an artistic, creative (and pre-AIDS epidemic) heyday. It was then that a young photographer named David Armstrong began producing portraits of his peers and contemporaries. Influenced strongly by his close friend and associate Nan Goldin (and other members of the ”Boston School”) Armstrong’s work was raw and real, while simultaneously immortalizing these colorful characters into timeless photographic frames.
Decades later, a similarly young photographer by the name of Ethan James Green moved to New York himself. Green had wanted to be a fashion photographer from the age of 14 and started by shooting with friends and family in Grand Rapids, Michigan. When modeling became a career option, he decided it was a more appealing choice than art school in Detroit. Shortly after moving to New York, Green ended up being photographed by Armstrong. Shortly thereafter, the two began working together. As Green immersed himself in Armstrong’s work, he was particularly touched by his mentor’s old portraiture. Inspiration began forming. In Green’s words:
I fell in love with all of the subjects Armstrong had shot…I would look at the portraits and want to know more about who was posing for him. As Armstrong told me more stories of the past, I decided I wanted to find the young equivalents of today. So, I made business cards and began approaching people I was drawn to. One night in 2014, I approached Hari Nef, who quickly became one of my best friends. I became obsessed with her and the crowd she hung out with. The second time we shot, she brought 3 friends with her. From there it all worked like a ripple effect. I started meeting more and more people and they would connect me with more people on Instagram and Tumblr…
The result of Green’s ongoing effort is the powerful project, “Young New Yorkers.” He uses his intuition to find those faces that “shoot out at him.” He says, “I truly believe the kids I am photographing today are the new icons.” His subjects include many people from the trans, non-binary, and queer communities who are responsible for a fresh wave of youth art, fashion, and nightlife culture in New York. In parks and on city streets, in softly-lit alleys and all over the city, Green portrays his widely varied subjects with a deeply touching simplicity. Indeed, the work needs little in the way of artistic statement or intellectual framework; instead Green hopes, “when people look at my pictures, they see the subjects as fellow human beings.”
Today, Green continues to photograph, gradually (re)discovering a more authentic side to the now moneyed metropolis. The stories of the subjects themselves speak to a different side of the city. Green told us, “There are many different cities in one. Many of my subjects have come to New York as a way of survival and escape. Recently, there have been more and more kids coming from across the country to join this rapidly growing circle. Thanks to social media, they are able to link up with other people and couch surf until they get their feet on the ground. Social media has made New York DIY, a new Wild West. It’s a place that anyone can come and succeed.”
Armstrong, sadly, passed away in 2014, just as Green’s project was gaining steam. But at least the mentor’s artistic legacy is being carried on.
Still, there is one key difference between the iconic portraits of yore—made by Penn, Arbus, Armstrong—and the work that Green is doing today: Four years ago, Green purchased a Hasselblad 300c and couldn’t wait to show his mentor. But when Armstrong saw the camera, he immediately responded by saying, ”Ethan doll, why?? Film is a dead end!”
Green took Armstrong’s words to heart, “I never touched a film camera after that. I think David was right—the next iconic photographers will be made using digital. But maybe digital is not even photography? The future is all about image-making. I just want to capture my friends in a classic way that will live a long time.”
Editors’ note: This intimate and intriguing series of monochrome portraits were given the 2nd place, Series award in the LensCulture Portrait Awards. Discover more inspiring work from all 39 of the winners and finalists.