BLACK & WHITE
Miron Zownir’s Rainbow of Chaos by Michael DiGregorio
It’s been said that Miron Zownir’s art—dense and wildly random, a lascivious hot mess, ever moody, an Odyssey in Otherness—has picked up where Weegee and Diane Arbus’ street photography ultimately trailed off. In a similar, slightly more idiosyncratic tone, the Village Voice hailed the German-born Zownir “The Teutonic Phenomenographer.” Author-essayist Terry Southern, who co-wrote Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, framed Zownir, 63, as no less than “the poet of radical photography.”
Indeed. Zownir has spent his adult life finding light in the dark. Taken collectively, his creative energies—whether manifested in photography, filmmaking, anti-racist PSAs, post-mod noir crime novels or audiobooks—all find root in the cracks set within society’s margins.
The concrete wastelands and urban extraterritorialities Zownir has interpreted range from a once wildly permissive Manhattan to a violently unforgiving Moscow; the rhythmic churn and flinching squalor of Roma ghettos in Bulgaria to Berlin’s gutted, human-cleansed corners. Segueing from locales that compelled those that influenced his craft, Miron adds André Kertész to the abovementioned Weegee and Arbus references, plus Brassaï, Robert Frank and Don McCullin.
“They worked in black and white,” he says, “differentiating from millions of mobile phone operators…whose digital aesthetic is interchangeable. Dull. Uninspiring.”
Yet rather than indulge any further chin-stroking about professional parallels, or who might have informed his work, Zownir pivots, falling back on a passage from Kafka’s The Castle: “If one has the strength to look at the things incessantly, more or less without closing the eyes, one sees more. But if one lessens the effort, only once—and closes the eyes, it all immediately vanishes into darkness.”
Regarding creative impulses, a life seemingly forever drawn to the dark side, Miron says, “I’m definitely more attracted to a sexy girl than to a miserable person dying in public. But people on the edge don’t get much attention from anybody. They have no lobby, no support. Yet there are thousands of reasons to pay attention to them. Yes, there is a kind of feeling: fraternity, compassion, admiration.”
That vibe, the glorious if fleeting connection, the fidelity of a moment glimpsed in Zownir’s street art is ineffable. Ineluctable. It’s as though one can hear Lou Reed singing, “I said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side…” beneath it. Entering that image, gaining a deeper read imparts the discernible heft of temporality. The ideation, the thing in itself, if you will, inherent in Zownir’s imagery all but surges with a consciousness of time and being.
Miron’s dialectic saints—the deliciously defiant punk rock streetwalker, the dapper junkie with needle dangling from his arm, the Berlin gentleman in white raincoat on his knees as if brought down by the ugly vertical sprawl on three sides—incarnate singular time capsules.
Taken individually, they summon a progression of past, present and future. From both subject and subjective experience, Zownir has wrought a near-perfect simulacrum: beyond street theatricality to ontological notions of identity and immanence, essence versus existence, universals versus particulars, alt realities and forbidden realms.
His viewfinder compels a visual referendum, a meditation on a moment. It reminds one how everything zany and dangerous from only a generation past is now lost to gentrification, market forces and commodification.
Let’s go a little deeper…
In your book, NYC RIP, you captured how one of the world’s great cities up and lost its soul; how a smart and edgy epoch came and went. Was there a particular moment or anecdote from that period that aptly frames both the cultural high-water mark and what you perceived as the beginning of the end?
That New York was a city of no-class conscience, great social, cultural and spiritual interaction. It had a tremendous drive, open-mindedness and flair. I met so many artists on the edge, on an eye-to-eye level, who all of a sudden disappeared. Or rose to fame; which is a relic of the past. If you’re not established you can’t afford the big cities. Art has become the playground of the rich and doesn’t grow anymore endemic. It’s imported at the will of the ones that can afford it. So the starving, experimenting or searching artists are spread out to the suburbs and pampas and only interact with each other virtually through the Internet. In New York City you had the East and the West Village, Soho and Noho, the Lower East Side, Harlem and even the Bronx where artists expressed their wishes, hopes, anger and frustrations in an anti-establishment spirit/no bullshit attitude. Until the ’80s, society was still hungry for anything new. That’s definitely a cultural high-water mark we can only dream of.
Later on it’s always easy to say, “I saw it coming.” But actually I did. If your neighbour moved out they raised the rent of his flat significantly under one pretext or the other. One alternative gallery after the other closed down. Or moved to Soho to turn commercial. One social club after another got raided, as well as all the smoke-dealers, pushers and street-peddlers. Cinemas turned into vegan-stores. The police became more aggressive. The Guardian Angels created a vigilante-like no-tolerance-to-crime mood. AIDs became a death sentence for many and frightened everybody. All of a sudden you could even get arrested for urinating on a rotten fence in Alphabet City. But the real change came with mayor Rudy Giuliani, after September 11th. That, I didn’t foresee.
Can you name one or two particularly standout or memorable personalities from your New York days?
One guy named Lincoln Swaydos: a street musician who had lost half an arm and one leg by jumping in front of a train. He was obnoxious, arrogant, aggressive and an incredibly bad musician. But I respected his guts. I got to know him. Whenever I asked him a question he had to discuss the answer with his tomcat, “Satchmo.” He lived in a place full of garbage, slept in his bathtub, hated God and the World. Insulted everybody. One day he asked me to take off my shoes and masturbated while singing a loony tune. And, of course, I made photos of it. He was a true iconoclast. Anyway, in ’89 I moved to L.A. One year later I returned to NYC and saw a wall where his entrance used to be. I don’t know why, but the moment I saw this I said to my girlfriend “Lincoln is dead.” Two days later I found out that he refused to leave his apartment and suffocated to death while they were renovating the building. Maybe he wasn’t more remarkable than others, but the way he died was something else. Maybe the owner, some demolition worker knew he was still in his apartment. They thought it [might be] easier to get rid of him this way than deal with him in court.
Is there a particular emotion or takeaway from that period that haunts you?
Positive vibes don’t invade your psyche as deeply as negative ones. But many of the gay people and junkies I photographed in the early ’80s died later of AIDs. Looking at their carefree approach to life gives me a sense of great loss.
Your book brings to mind Scots screenwriter John Hodge’s “Choose Life” riff in the film Trainspotting—a black, hard-edged repudiation of soulless consumerism. Plus this Irvine Welsh quote: “You can’t lie to your soul.” Would you say your images speak to truth?
The truth is always relative, since you can manipulate every angle of it. I’m sure if I wanted to show the world as an unstained beautiful lie it would be the easiest job in the world. How many housewives believe in the beauty, grace and God-given righteousness of America? And maybe they don’t lie to their souls either. Or, a terrorist killing himself in the name of Allah. If he lies to his soul he doesn’t know better. There will never be the only or ultimate truth. But, yeah, I try to be true to myself, because if you lie to yourself then you’re an idiot. So maybe my motives are selfish, but if everybody would listen to his own judgements there would be much less confusion in this world. Or more. Mankind is unpredictable.
Is that Miron’s Mission Statement: to continually wade toward raw, uncomfortable truths?
It must be a mission. But I didn’t write out a manifesto. Again, my truth is subjective. I make photos of things I’m interested in, intuitive, passionate about. And not headlong like a bull, but with more discretion and finesse; as my photos may suggest.
Given globalism’s gentrification and grinding down of anything raw, rebellious and authentic—at least in The First World—will we ever see that kind of candor?
Well, I’m candor. What I want to express I express, regardless if anyone else is interested. But candor has a price if you’re not entertaining to the liking of the media, art-dealers, public taste or the ones with the checks. It’s a matter of your own integrity, opportunities, political ethics and commercial interest. It was always like this, but never as clever, and seldom as ruthlessly manipulated as now.
Have you found that purity, say, in the backwaters of Eastern Europe, perhaps with the Roma?
Pure and Roma is something of a romantic contradiction. I have never seen a Roma camp without a strict chauvinistic hierarchy. I was once looking for a Roma camp in Sofia and lost my trail until I found a way that was sparsely covered with garbage. I followed it; the garbage got more and more until I was in the centre of the camp. In the middle was one house made out of stone. Several women were cleaning it, spotless. In front of the house was a porch with enough food for an army, served to a couple of well-fed people, looking as bored and content as any Western bourgeois. Everywhere else you saw kids covered with dirt and flies begging for a leftover crust of bread, or beating each other with sticks. I don’t know where you find purity? And I haven’t looked for it.
Given the day’s prevailing obsession with security, you being a citizen of Europe it’s likely become more profound, that loss. Can you expand here?
Every generation loses and gains; but we definitely lost much more than we got. Or better… they took it from us. But who? We have so many enemies. And why? To gain more control. Power, money, greed, envy and frustration—the whole world is getting so fucked up that the individual nobody with a voice, a different opinion doesn’t count a fart in the wind anymore. You’ve got to shoot, bomb or damage innocent people, then you get immortalised by the media and press.
Who would you choose to pen your eulogy?
Nobody. If I chose someone I like I might get disappointed. And I wouldn’t choose someone I hate. And I definitely wouldn’t choose someone to flatter or criticize me.
Was there a low point, professionally-psychologically, when you considered quitting?
There were definitely times I had no money. No existential security. No success or any recognition. And I had enough beat-down moments that threatened my sanity. But I had several long-time relationships with women who emotionally supported me. Helped me through any crises. And I never lost faith in my work. Quitting was never an option; I did what I could do best and wanted most. But I was aware that my work made many people uncomfortable. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it only would have been recognized post-mortem.