Photographer focuses a loving lens on his neighbors


By Lucas Mann

Lorcan Otway is recognizable around Tompkins Square Park. The man in plain Quaker dress, sitting on a bench, enjoying a sushi breakfast while listening to authentic Romany traveling music and striking up a conversation with most people who pass by — he is easy to recognize. But Otway is far less interested with his own appearance than he is with documenting that of the neighborhood and neighbors whom he has lived among and loved for decades. One of the many hats that Otway wears — lawyer and bagpiper are just two of the others — is that of photographer, both of portraits and news photos that have been running in The Villager, among other publications, for years.

On most days, if you take a stroll around Tompkins Square Park, you can see Otway with two or three cameras slung over his shoulder, casually framing the people he is speaking to as though it’s all a natural part of the conversation. Years of continuing relationships with and photographing of his subjects have created “East Village Commons: A Loving Portrayal of a Neighborhood,” Otway’s photo show that will be on display at Theater 80 on St. Mark’s Place beginning Mon., Aug. 25, and running for a week.

“I try to get to know my subject well enough so that the camera disappears,” Otway said, sitting on a bench near the Tompkins Square Park playground. “I have all of these unposed portraits that I was compiling into a piece called ‘Neighbors.’ Then I noticed that a lot of people from ‘Neighbors’ were turning up in the news photos I’d taken for The Villager. The ‘Neighbors’ photos humanized the news photos. I began to see all of it as integrated chapters in one essay depicting the life of this community.”

Otway’s photos capture everything from the fast-action danger of a young man trying to resuscitate a friend who had overdosed on heroin (run in The Villager on June 13, 2007) to a close-up of a young “crusty” woman, looking tenderly at her pet rat. Most important, each photo has overlapping characters interacting in a shared setting. Their stories are intertwined: A young Ninth Precinct policewoman captured on her training day, Officer Spinelli, shares an ecosystem in the park with Carl, the elderly man dubbed “Santa Claus,” who she will probably scoop up many times for drinking. Smiling Officer Bearne’s face glows with humanity, as does that of Jim “Mosaic Man” Power, as each goes about his life in the East Village Commons — separate, yet connected.

A brief, two-evening display at Theater 80 in June brought Otway’s essay subjects, neighbors and photography fans to see a preview of the August run.

Scholar Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, an art criticism author who has contributed to such influential books as “Museum Frictions: Public Cultures/Global Transformations” and a 20-year neighborhood resident, reflected on the show weeks later as “an important archival memoir of life in the East Village — a life that’s slowly passing.”

Power had stopped by the preview with his constant canine companion, Jesse Jane. Walking through the park on one of his rounds recently, he was quick to praise Otway’s “Commons.”

“It was a great show,” he said. “An unusual presentation of life.”

The photos also piqued the interest of Andrew Stromberg, who, along with partner David Rheingold, produces Salon Ciel, an elite, artistic forum that displays the work of “cutting edge, emerging” artists. Salon Ciel handpicks the artists it will exhibit, then holds invite-only displays, cultivating a diverse mix of art-world personalities to get to know each artist and his or her work. Otway is scheduled to be one of those artists in early 2009.

“Otway is taking people that most others would shy away from and he’s greatly humanizing them,” Stromberg said. “He’s like an embedded journalist.”

Otway himself is excited to see his work getting more exposure and is waiting to see what else will come from an essay that began as a personal project.

“I never predict end results,” he said. “If my work casts a little light on the darker corners of the neighborhood, then, well, that’s wonderful.”