SEIU demonstration at Rite-Aid, 8th Avenue at 52nd Street, November 22, 2016.

Portraits of a Democracy

With a camera and a curious eye, Bill Meyers shows how our republic fails—and triumphs—in small ways, every day.

The photographs of Bill Meyers, 84, tend to focus on less flashy moments in the American story. Instead of great wars won or peaceful transfers of power, he captures moments like a hopeful candidate shaking hands with constituents in Harlem, or a pod of urban planners huddling around a blueprint. 

“When you’re talking about civics, you can start at the Declaration of Independence and end up at garbage collections,” Bill told me by phone. “It’s all a continuum.”

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1938, the same year as the Great New England Hurricane, his life seemed destined for a very different direction. He became a naval intelligence officer stationed in Puerto Rico, where he was flown into Guantanamo Bay during the Cuban Missile Crisis. After flunking out of Georgetown Law, he ended up as an aide on Robert F. Kennedy’s Senate subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty, tasked with diagnosing the failures of LBJ’s War on Poverty

“I would often look around and realize I was in the middle of something important,” Bill told me.

Meyers started taking pictures when he was a teen—he even had his own darkroom growing up in the ’50s—but it wasn’t until he was in his sixties that he started taking pictures in earnest. “I was in my sixties, [and] it was clear I wasn’t going to travel the world,” said Bill, who began shooting intimate New York scenes that eventually made their way into newspapers and group exhibitions. “Cities are like programmed chaos,” he said. “I don’t need to be at a prizefight to find things interesting. Plus, I love taking public transportation.”

Eventually one of his pictures ended up at the Museum of the City of New York, as part of the exhibition New York Now: 2000, to mark the end of the millennium. “I felt like I had skipped over the minor leagues and here I was showing with photographers like Tina Barney.” 

Since then, he’s shown works at the New York Historical Society, the New York Public Library, the Bronfman Center at New York University, and Harvard University, which counts some of his photos in their collection. He’s been published by The New York Times, City Journal, and The New York Sun, among others. His first book, Outer Boroughs: New York Beyond Manhattan, was published by Damiani in 2015.

He credits a high school history teacher with instilling a love of urban environments: “I loved learning about the Greek polis, the city-states.” His politics were shaped by time spent photographing housing projects in San Juan, Puerto Rico; books like The City in History by Lewis Mumford and The Cuban Revolution by Hugh Thomas; and the journalism of Jane Jacobs. “She wrote about the failure of housing projects, and identified pathological problems that are still with us, and that no one wants to deal with.” 

Bill adds: “I’m interested in the quotidian, and how to make things that might appear boring more interesting.”

In the following images, Bill takes us inside picket lines, community meetings, and public spaces to show the “programmed chaos”—and sometimes just plain chaos—of the city.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos are courtesy of William Meyers. 

Meeting the candidate, Harlem, October 29, 2010.

“This candidate is Michel Faulkner. He ran as a Republican to represent Harlem in Congress in 2010. He didn’t win, but that’s okay. You can’t have an election if there isn’t someone who’s willing to lose. Losers are important to democracy. 

“Here, I was interested in the process of electioning and the way the candidate might go out to meet the public, and the effect that might have on the outcome, which turns out to not really be considerable. In New York, you really need to get the endorsement of the unions, because they’re the ones whose members actually go to the polls and vote.”

Occupy Wall Street, Zuccotti Park, Financial District, October 6, 2011.

“When the Occupy protests broke out at the end of September in 2011, I wasn’t much interested. But it never seemed to end! More and more politicians were referencing it, so I decided to take the subway down to Zuccotti Park to take some pictures. When I got there, it felt like there were more photographers than protesters, so I didn’t get much. I was heading out of the park and on Broadway where I saw streams of double-decker buses. They were all looking out over the demonstrations. Far from becoming a threat to the republic, it seemed like these protests had become a tourist attraction.”

Westboro Baptist Church rally, Second Avenue at East 42nd Street, September 24, 2009.

“Once a year, all the heads of state come and speak at the UN and it’s a big season for protesting. In this case, people from Westboro were protesting and holding signs about Israel and America, and how we were all in for a pretty bad time if their predictions come true.

“I really like this photo because the policeman is watching over them. The city provided them with protection. Their right to protest is guaranteed, and everyone else has the right to just pass it by and to ignore them. I’m in favor of that.” 

Union rat, Madison Avenue, Midtown, January 26, 2011.

“I really like the rat. I think it’s the union’s best contribution to the city; it’s one of the few non-abstract public sculptures there is anymore. Over the years, I’ve seen it in many locations, but on this day it was in front of this building in Midtown, 650 Madison, which I assume had workers that were striking. The building has this reflective facade, which mirrored the rat, and I love the woman protecting her hair from the snow with a newspaper.”

NYC Department of City Planning, Urban Design Office, 120 Broadway, May 11, 2016.

“Oftentimes we’ll read about how a government agency or department has promulgated some policy that affects all of us, and that determines how we live, at least locally. Occasionally you’ll see the people from those offices in front of microphones, when they’re being interviewed by the press, but we don’t really have an idea of who these people are. What do they do? Where do they show up in the morning? Where do they go about being bureaucrats? That’s what I set out to answer.

“I knew a woman in the Department of Urban Planning who tried to get me in, and it took a long time to get permission. You’d think, as a taxpayer, I’d be able to just walk in and see what was going on. Anyway, I made it in, and I stood on a chair to get this picture of a group of people engrossed in a project around a table, doing the best they can.” 

Marriage Bureau, Louis J. Lefkowitz State Office Building, August 23, 2018.

“That day, I was trying to take photographs at the DMV, but was thrown out. I headed down to the Marriage Bureau and I was happy to find that there was a lot of business. You can even have one of the clerks marry you. Couples come there in street clothes; some women are in bridal dresses. There were people of every conceivable color. Some were well-off, some looked less well-off. For everyone there, it was an important day, and they were taking an important step in their lives. 

“This couple was applying for their license, and they’re obviously arranged close together. I thought it was a nice representation of the goings-on there. Pictures like these are examples of the body of the country functioning. When it’s election time, we’re all at each other’s throats, but I like to think for the most part people carry on, and things work.” 

Public school principal, Morrisania, The Bronx, June 29, 2000

“It’s virtually impossible to get permission to take photographs in the New York Public School district while they’re in session. Luckily, I have a niece who was born to be an educator, and happened to be doing Teach for America. She was assigned to this public school in Morrisania, which is a rather poor section of the Bronx. I went to the school to photograph her clearing out her desk at the end of the school year, and the principal of the school dropped by to try to convince my niece to stay and teach for another year. 

“She was a good principal, but it can be an uphill battle in the public school system. This year, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s recent survey, civics knowledge is at a historic low among eighth graders. 

“I once attended a civics class for new immigrants being taught at the local library. There were about 40 participants, from late teens to sixty-year-olds, and from every continent. It was glorious. That teacher was magnificent as she prepared them to take the citizenship exam. They were rapt as she explained to them the significance of 1776, of branches of government, what have you. 

“I think if all high school students were taught civics as well and were as diligent as these people eagerly preparing for the privilege of becoming citizens of the United States of America, the politics of the country would be different.”

FDNY ambulance, sledding accident, Suicide Hill, Riverside Park, January 27, 2015.

“We live across the street from a section of Riverside Park known as ‘Suicide Hill,’ because it’s the best sledding hill in the park, but at the bottom of the hill, there’s a fence surrounding a playground that kids would collide into when they were sledding. Nowadays the city puts bales of hay out for people to crash into instead of the fence, but still, every year someone manages to get injured. Luckily, in the 40 years I’ve lived here, no one has actually gotten killed, but every so often, in the winter, an ambulance comes to transport someone who needs a bone mended.” 

Aiding an epileptic, Church Street subway station, Kensington, Brooklyn, December 16, 2015.

“This woman had taken off her coat and put it under the head of this man who was having a seizure, so that he wouldn’t get a concussion. This was a total stranger. She was trying to open his mouth so that he wouldn’t bite his tongue. I assumed she was a nurse because she was so professional, but regardless of her job, she didn’t have to do anything. She could’ve just watched it happen, but she jumped in and came to his rescue, while other people called 911. These types of people don’t ask for medals. It’s just part of their nature. I thought it was very heroic.”

Blood donor, synagogue, Upper West Side, September 20, 2013.

“Heroism doesn’t have to be Clark Kent-level; it’s just what good citizens do. They help out their communities, their neighborhoods, their organizations. 

“What I like about the picture of the blood donor is that we don’t see the man’s face. 

“Let me explain: Maimonides, the Jewish sage, created a hierarchy of charity. The highest form is giving someone a job. The second highest is when the donor doesn’t know who the recipient is going to be, and the recipient doesn’t know who the donor was. That’s what happens when you donate blood. I like the fact that in the picture too, everyone is anonymous. All we see is that the blood—lifeblood—is being taken from this man’s arm.”

Infrastructure repair, West End Avenue, November 3, 2020.

“There’s a constant need to maintain infrastructure in the city. Things break down constantly; the water system is over 100 years old. It’s almost like they’re excavating into the history of the city when they go down there. These people have technical skills that keep the city running.”

Homelessness, Broadway, Upper West Side, November 25, 2017.

“The term homelessness is a political one, because it makes it seem like the only difficulty facing the people on the street is that they don’t have a place to live. It’s just not true. The problem with the people who live on the street, often, is that they have mental health problems, or they’re drug addicted, or both. This presented me with a moral problem in photographing them, because I don’t want to take advantage of anyone. 

“I’ve taken a total of three pictures of homeless people, but in each you can’t tell who the person is, as is the case with the man sleeping under the Victoria’s Secret ad. He’s been there for years. Victoria’s Secret has now vacated that space, but he’s still there. It’s one of the great failings of the city, and really the country, that we don’t have a proper way to take care of these people.” 

Suspect detained by police, SoHo, February 12, 2018.

“Our family is very involved in crime, or should I say, in preventing it. My daughter worked for the police department as an intelligence analyst for five years, and her husband is an assistant district attorney, so crime is a frequent subject of conversation at our table. 

“I was walking down the street and saw that police had stopped this individual. Part of how I framed this picture is to include what was going on around him, which is a big theme throughout. Of course, what’s happening is probably very consequential for the man being detained, and the policemen restraining him are absorbed in that, but the other people walking around him might not even glance up. 

“As far as the efforts to defund or denigrate the police, I think it’s very destructive. One thing I’ve noticed is that people don’t want to look at the data; whether it’s the number of times police have drawn their weapons over the decades, or how the murder rate has dropped so much since the ’90s. They don’t want to talk about the facts, or what’s actually going on, just political narratives.” 

Newsstand, Broadway, Upper West Side, May 21, 2009.

“Almost all the newsstands in New York are run by Pakistanis. Why? I don’t know. I don’t think there’s anything in Pakistani culture that makes them apt for it, but when one person in a group can make a living doing something, he’ll encourage his fellow immigrants to get into it too. This man seems to be rather devout, and I don’t know if he approves of the woman in the ad on the side of the stand, but that’s part of living here; you frequently rub shoulders with people whom you don’t approve of. It’s what you do.”

William Meyers’ last book was Outer Boroughs: New York Beyond Manhattan. Follow him on Instagram @williammeyersphotography.

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