BY BOB KRASNER | When you see Richard Sandler, the photographer and documentary filmmaker, walking down St. Mark’s Place — in his black beret, with a 35-millimeter camera hanging from his neck — you could easily peg him as the quintessential East Village resident. That is, if he still lived there.
Although Sandler had spent his teenage years bouncing around Times Square and considering a career as a pool hustler, he first settled into the bohemian Village streets as a young man in 1966. He had finished college and moved to E. Third St. from Queens, experiencing the counterculture in full swing until 1968, when he moved to Boston.
He spent those two East Village years working various jobs, such as darkroom assistant at Condé Nast and dishwasher at The Paradox restaurant on E. Seventh St. — where Yoko Ono, before she met John Lennon, was the chef. (More about them later.)
Before heading further east, he managed to catch shows by Frank Zappa, Simon and Garfunkel, Ravi Shankar, The Doors, Yusef Lateef, Country Joe, Sly Stone, The Who, pretty much everybody — except John Coltrane. One night he and a friend were passing by a club where the jazz giant was playing, when his buddy suggested they go in.
“Nah,” said Sandler, “we’ll catch him another time.” Oh, well.
In his 12 years in Boston, he could be found professionally practicing acupuncture and studying macrobiotic cooking with the legendary Michio Kushi. His culinary talent brought him to the attention of John and Yoko, who were interviewing a handful of people for the live-in position of their personal chef in 1973.
“I was gonna do it,” Sandler said. “I would have moved to the Dakota.”
The informal chat with a “very nice” Yoko and a “kinda snarky” John went very well right up until the end, when Lennon asked Sandler about his astrological sign. Sandler, unfortunately, had the wrong answer.
“Oh no, forget it,” John said. “I could never have a Scorpio living in my house.”
And that was that.
“My life would have been much different,” Sandler mused. “I hadn’t even started photography yet.”
It wasn’t until a friend in his communal house lent him a Leica in 1977 that he jumped into camera work. From then on, he said, “I never wanted to do anything but street photography.”
And he began to make some money with it, getting published in the Boston Phoenix, the Real Paper and Boston Magazine.
In 1978, he bought the vintage 1961 Leica that he still uses today. When he moved back to New York City in 1980, he settled into an East Village apartment and a life as a chef at The Cauldron. He designed the place’s macrobiotic menu and set up its kitchen before he began shooting for The New York Times, Barron’s and American Lawyer magazine, among others.
But, without hesitation, he said, “The artistic high point of my career was shooting in the [New York City] streets and the subway.
His unique look at life between the years of 1977 and 2001 is gathered in his recently published monograph, “The Eyes of the City” (Powerhouse Books). It’s a gritty, funny, intelligent, thought-provoking look back at the city.
Speaking of his work back then, he said, “It distilled everything that I felt about society, class, economics. More than just street photography, it was a cultural critique.”
It wasn’t easy getting those shots. Getting into people’s faces — sometimes with a flash during the day, unusual at the time — got him “kicked, punched and chased,” he recalled.
The hard-won results, some in print for the first time, represent a talent that stands alongside the best of his breed, such as Garry Winogrand (with whom he briefly studied).
Sandler’s examination of street culture naturally evolved into documentary filmmaking. Shot over a six-year period in the “Crossroads of the World,” the award-winning doc “The Gods of Times Square” examines a bygone era when preachers shouted their messages of sin and salvation in front of porno theaters.
Currently, he has two works in progress — and in need of funding — that explore the histories of two groups of Native Americans. “A/K/A Martha’s Vineyard” explores the story of the Wampanoag tribe on that island, while another unfinished piece deals with tribes in the Hudson Valley. Another film, “Brave New York,” chronicles, as he put it, “twelve years of intense change in the East Village ’hood.”
Sandler spent 25 years in the ’hood, but he was ready to go even before Raphael Toledano bought his building and paid him to leave.
“I was sick of the army of college students and the boring yuppies buying up the lifestyle,” he said. “My building was like a college dorm. I’m 70 — the East Village is not a place for people my age.”
He packed up in the spring of 2016 and headed up to Catskill.
“It’s a town that’s in the process of reinvention,” he said. “People there are trying to make it a great place for everybody.”
Though he loves his new apartment and the “healthy, cleaner environment,” he admits it was tough to leave E. 10th St.
“It was nostalgic and sad,” he said.
“My experience went back to when it was a real neighborhood. But it wasn’t feeding me anymore,” he reflected. “The book is my farewell to New York. I really, really documented New York, and it was time for other things.”
And, he added, “I’d rather be in nature.”
The Leica Store, at 460 W. Broadway, will be exhibiting the photographer’s work from the 1970s and ’80s at “Richard Sandler, The Eyes of The City,” opening Thurs., Oct. 5, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and running through Sat., Dec. 2. For more information about Sandler and his work, visit RichardSandler.com and http://www.powerhousebooks.com/books/the-eyes-of-the-city/ .