When you enter 82-year-old James’ Upper East Side apartment, you see it is brimming with his life’s work – photography. Albums filled with more than a half century of his photographs occupy nearly every surface in the small living space he’s called home for 40 years. Cameras from every decade of the twentieth century are arranged on shelves near his bed. Some of them he repaired himself. Others were used throughout the years to capture the city he fell in love with that continues to change around him.
James knew he wanted to be a photographer from a young age. His hometown of Seneca Falls felt too small. Every time he visited his grandparents in Brooklyn, he felt New York City was calling for him. In 1955, James finally made it to the city, living on Sullivan Street in what is now SoHo. Today home to trendy restaurants and outlets, James was surrounded by factories. There were so few people living in the neighborhood, “you could walk down the street naked on a Sunday,” James jokes.
Every time he visited his grandparents in Brooklyn,
he felt New York City was calling for him.
James started off freelancing for The New York Times, Fortune Magazine and many other publications. Eventually, he took a job as a maritime photographer for a shipping company, traveling the world. Many of his photos capture the places he visited – the striking architecture of Antwerp, the somber fog of London, the lush gardens of Flanders – and the pride he takes in the printing process, delicately working to bring out a shadow or a certain color.
James cherished his time abroad, but as a devoted father, he decided to take a job with American Express so that he could raise his daughter. He instilled in her a love of art and today she is a successful choreographer and teacher in Colorado. Unfortunately, her busy schedule means she only sees him once a year.
You can see how tired he becomes, struggling with every movement.
After leaving American Express, James knew he wanted to keep busy. He started working at the New-York Historical Society. His love of the city is clear as he shares photographs of “views that no longer exist” – a diner now replaced by the Javits Center, an open lot with views of South Ferry where a high rise now stands. Pausing on a photo of two people formally dressed walking in Central Park, James dates it 1890. It’s one of many negatives he took home from the historical society and developed in his dark room.
Nowadays, James rarely leaves his fourth floor walk-up. His severe arthritis requires the use of a cane – and sometimes a walker. You can see how tired he becomes, struggling with every movement. It’s why he spends much of his time reclining in bed – the one place where he feels the least pain. When he can make it downstairs to get his mail, James brings a small shoulder bag so that he can carefully hold the railing. A young woman living upstairs occasionally brings him the newspaper. “I think the women are sweeter. They pay attention to you. The men just ignore you,” he laments.
James continues to take pictures despite his pain and fatigue. From his bed, he photographs the people walking below and the birds nesting on his fire escape. In one photograph, an adjacent building is surrounded by scaffolding. An entire album is devoted to photographs like these – the neighborhood changing around James as he remains trapped in his apartment.