Over the years, I’ve met many people who have devoted a good deal of time and effort to preserving the work of another. I am also included in this group. What drives someone to do this? Often it’s the work of a family member, or sometimes a teacher or an idol. Though altruistic, these projects are also inherently personal, and I am curious about what makes someone take on such a task.
I was recently contacted by Shepherd Myers, son of photographer and former SoHo resident Stephen Myers. Shepherd told me he had begun scanning his elderly father’s thousands of negatives, some of which documented SoHo streets in the 1970s, while we were all in quarantine in 2020 and that he was looking to preserve and publicize this body of work, especially unprinted and unpublished photos. Coincidentally, that same week I had met with Mariana Hellmund, daughter of photographer and former SoHo resident Isabel Barton, who is looking to do the same thing for her mother’s work from the same time period. “I would like [the photographs] to be shared and I would like to be able to tell the universal story of the choice to pursue a life of art and the consequences that it has,” Mariana tells me. “I think that’s an interesting thing to explore.”
In addition to wanting the world to remember their parents’ work on SoHo, SoHo also figures in both Shepherd and Mariana’s identities. Shepherd was born after his parents had left SoHo for rural New York, and Mariana lived in SoHo for a year and a half as a child before her mother moved her, and her older brother Gill, to an idyllic country setting in Sundown NY, which Mariana describes as “a mere crossroads, not even a town, about an hour north of Woodstock, NY.” SoHo, specifically SoHo in the 1970s, is nevertheless part of who they are as adults.
Shepherd, an entomologist who once managed one of the world’s largest insect collections, is approaching his project as a cataloger. “My father is now 80 and the organization of material is more pressing than ever,” he says. Mariana is a filmmaker, and her approach is through storytelling, creating flowing narratives through the arrangement of photographs overlaid with her mother’s firsthand accounts. When we met, Mariana showed me a selection of her mother’s work while narrating her immigration story from Venezuela to New York.
Isabel Barton was an upper-class housewife in Venezuela when her husband gave her a Leicaflex camera on the day their daughter Mariana was born. From that day forward, Isabel became a photographer. While still in Venezuela, she studied photography through a mail correspondence class created by master American photographers (among them, Ezra Stoller, Frank Lloyd Wright’s photographer, who later became her mentor). She then left her privileged life in Venezuela and enrolled at The School of Visual Arts in New York City where she studied with SoHo photographer Andrew “Cosmos” Sarchiapone.
The photographs Mariana is seeking to preserve cover the years when she lived in Venezuela, New York City and Sundown, between 1973 – 1984, all taken between around 1973-1982. Mariana explains why there are so many more SoHo photos:
[My mother] was studying at SVA and had a dark room, … she was taking photos and printing them all the time. When we moved upstate, [I asked my mom], why did you stop printing? we have so many negatives. And she says, “I started to, but our house was on a slope and part of our property was on a river and all of the chemicals were going to go into the ground, and into the river.” And she said she couldn’t deal with that. So she stopped printing.
Isabel’s SoHo photos are almost all interiors, many of her children and her friends, which raises the question of why she chose her home life as her central subject. Mariana explains:
Because she had two kids in school, …and her life was about going to school, doing classes, and then instead of going home to your studio and doing your art, it was, oh my God, I have to go pick up the kids. And it was just this constant back and forth of what you have to do with two kids, especially at that time … in the city and with no help and no family around. So it’s one of the reasons why the camera turns onto the family.
Mariana’s impetus to preserve this work, as well as the photos themselves, then, are as much about Mariana herself as they are about Isabel:
The mythology of my childhood is … documented through the lens of my mother looking at her life through the camera and contending with her life and contending with the decisions that she had made to leave the family, to come to New York to find a life of meaning that was not, you know, cooking steaks for my father. That camera tore my life apart. … And she chose the tool of the camera. It could have been painting, it could have been cooking, it could have been anything, but it was the camera. It was how she saw that actually had an incredible consequence. So the consequence of those photographs, I think is really the deeper reason of why I’m so intrigued by them. You know, what did these photographs do to my life and to my mother and to my family.
Like Isabel Barton, Stephen Myers, Shepherd’s father, was a commercial photographer for much of his career who also documented his life and environs during the years he lived in SoHo, creating a body of work, mostly taken outdoors in the streets, that shows SoHo in the 1970s in all its grit and glory.
Stephen Myers and his wife Elizabeth (Betsy) moved into a former paper box factory on Greene Street in 1969 after graduating from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. They set up a photo studio in their loft and Stephen did commercial photography for clients such as Corning Glass, Goya, and New York Magazine. He also took photographs of his community, the streets and especially the people he encountered, documenting the humanity of his subjects, be it rural farmers in western New York or his artist friends in New York City, rather than composing shots for his camera. Shepherd describes his father as a “street and people person”:
He just loved the texture of the buildings. He loved the atmosphere and the people. He loved the energy of the streets and loved what the people were doing…He wasn’t creating an illusion, it wasn’t theater. …I think a lot of people [want to] create a [fictional] narrative. And I think he was interested in capturing the real thing.
This resulted in a visual time capsule that is evidence of a bygone world. This is part of what drives Shepherd to promote his father’s work:
I think both [of my] parents really want it to be known what SoHo was. That it wasn’t just this … fantasy, it was a reality. It was a period that seemed more authentic, living was inexpensive, it was a beacon for misfits in that people from all over with determination and [an] obsessive mindset made art, thriving off industrial casts-off and scrapes. These pictures show what it was like without romanticizing it, and how it is very different from what it is now.
Shepherd also clearly sees an intrinsic artistic value in the work:
I think the work is interesting. I don’t want it to just be disappearing to the void. I want it to be out there and I think it’s as good as anything that’s ever been done. I mean, some of his studio work, his still-lifes, twice featured in LIFE Magazine in 1998, nominated for a national magazine award as well having prints in the permanent collections of Victoria & Albert, Albert Knox and Eastman House, are as good as, dare I say, Edward Weston. I think as a portraiture guy, he’s as good as August Sander.
Shepherd’s parents left SoHo and New York City in 1978, two years before he was born. They moved to Almond, a tiny village of 600 in western New York near Alfred University, where his grandfather had taught pottery in the 1940s. Shepherd therefore never lived in SoHo. I asked him about his relationship with SoHo:
SoHo is important to me because it’s all I heard about while growing up, as it was still in the not too distant past. I spent my whole life dislocated by having this window into this unique history of a unique place that I indirectly knew about and grew up with. … My interior life was New York City. Always. [My house] was in the middle of nowhere. I could walk 20 miles in one direction and see nothing but wilderness and the occasional farm, no exaggeration. And then I come home and there’s a whole collection of esoteric art books. Ed Ruscha’s Sunset Strip. [Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966] So as a kid I was playing with Ed Ruscha’s book on the living room floor.
In essence, Shepherd is not only trying to preserve his father’s SoHo, but his own SoHo as well. The SoHo that he lived internally through photographs and stories that often rubbed up against what he describes as the “bleak” landscape of his external world. For Mariana, because her mother was in art school at the time and producing a vast amount of work, the year and a half of her childhood that she spent in SoHo was hyper-documented and thus plays an almost over-sized role in her memory and imagination.
Stephen Myers lived in SoHo for a decade, but the SoHo inside their son Shepherd is ongoing. This can be said of Mariana as well. Isabel Barton brought her children from a life of privilege to a life of relative hardship, yet when Mariana arrived in SoHo in 1975, her first words were, “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen!” These words are written into her own SoHo story.
Our lives do not begin at birth and end with death. There is a past to contend with that informs a future of our own making. The choices our parents made impact us to this very day. The choices we make today impact how our parents will be remembered. What do we do with the past? Take it with us? Throw it away? We have choices to make, and the choices we make today will have far-reaching consequences.
For further information about the photographs featured in this story, please contact Shepherd Myers (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Mariana Hellmund (email@example.com )