Finding his inspiration off, off Broadway

Sean Pomposello

Father, husband, playwright, and photographer: Sean Pomposello is a constellation of aspects that make up an artist in search of meaning in an often unreal world. His expressionistic work as a photographer at once confronts the viewer with his stark, abrupt documentarian method. As a storyteller, Pomposello presents the characters and scenes of contemporary New York that are often missed by others, and with a direct approach that challenges the viewer.

His work is tight, sparse but disciplined. His subjects are striking, but his impressions of his subjects offer a refreshing humanity not often found during an era where street photography is considered a repetitive set of urban scenes and odd characters. Sean photographs real people, not clichés; also, his interpretations of the urban landscape are deeply personal, as shown by the series about his commute into the city–Tear of the Clouds–based on the name of one of the Metro North train cars he often rides to work.

Sean is the writer as photographer, who can seek a story in a moment in time; a man with a career, a family, and a history that informs the present and applies markers for the future. His work stands out as an exceptional expression of a vision of the modern city in the time of revolutionary transition, and with a story that is vitally important to be seen, and understood.

Mike Lee, a fellow New York City street photographer, conducted this interview for Focus on the Story. Mike is a writer, labor journalist and photographer based in New York City and is the Managing Editor of Public Employee Press, the voice of DC 37, AFSCME. You can see more of his work on his website.

Mike Lee: What is your background? Are you born and raised in NYC?

Sean Pomposello: I was born in the Bronx, and grew up on Castle Hill Avenue. My folks split when I was in my teens. I divided my time between a quiet town in northern Westchester County and 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan, where my dad had settled. Let’s just say, The Ramones got it right in their song “53rd and 3rd.” This is during the mid ‘70s when New York was a very different sort of city. Very.

ML: Which came first, photography or writing? How did you come to be a playwright? What motivated and influenced you as a dramatist?

SP: Well, I always fancied myself a writer, even before I’d actually written anything. But I’ve been shooting since I was old enough to handle a camera. First, a little plastic Kodak Instamatic, then the family Rollei, a garage sale Argus and finally a Leica M3 that my father found in a gypsy cab. In my teens, I graduated to Super 8 and was a young filmmaker, partnering with a pal to produce crude little shorts. I suppose my first writing came in the form of scripts for these little cinematic dramas.

ML: In a previous interview, you discussed that instead of searching for the decisive moment you look for characters and compositions that inspire your writing. Go more in depth of how that impacted your work as a writer. Feel free to go in depth on that relationship between writing and photography.

SP: I had pretty much shelved my camera during the latter part of college and during the period when I entered the workforce. I settled into advertising and quickly grew disenchanted working in a creative field doing very little that amounted to anything creative. I began writing screenplays, since I think my first love has always been the movies. After a few options fizzled and never went into production, I abandoned film for plays. While my voice as a writer is better suited for the stage, I think I’m not the most inspired creative thinker, so I felt compelled to go out and gather research for my dramas. Being sort of an autodidact, I wanted to learn things firsthand, so I began documenting subjects I wanted to write about on my cell phone. Very soon I shelved my phone in favor of little mirrorless cameras. For one play, I was writing about dog fighting, so an FBI agent neighbor gave me a tip about some areas where he knew dog fights were being hosted and I went there and tried to discretely capture some shots of the dogs that were kept behind razor wire in the Ironbound section of Newark. This sparked my imagination and I began to mimic this approach each time I took on another subject I wanted to write about. The process transcended image–since every photographer will tell you that you, as a photographer, always have an uncanny ability to remember details surrounding images that you’ve captured. I cribbed snippets of dialogue I heard, certain wardrobe details, character and setting cues. I’ve even mashed up memories to create new realities that populated plays. For instance, I was shooting homeless chess hustlers and one guy had a very bad caffeine habit. He kept having his associates go out on coffee runs for him and he’d holler after to them each time, “Remember, cream, two sugars.” That detail became the name of the lead character in my play “The Woodpusher.” Cream Two Sugars is a composite of many guys I studied pushing chess pieces, but most of the jawing that goes on between the characters was pilfered from what I picked up at the tables in Washington Square Park and Union Square.

ML: Who are your influences regarding photography?

SP: My first influences were the movies. My dad raised me on Film Noir, so I watched every film James Wong Howe and John Alton shot. But, I suppose my first photographic influence was Weegee. Over time, I learned that what I’d been doing was called street photography. I started studying it a bit, but I think I’d already established a style by then. But maybe you can see that my photos are informed by Garry Winogrand, Ray Metzker, William Klein, Anders Petersen, Mary Ellen Mark and Mark Cohen. I tend to respond more to the storytelling aspects of photography, due to the fact that my photographs are a stimulus for my writing, so those photographers tend to capture my imagination. Also, NYC shooters tend to get my attention since that’s the other thread through my work—about 98% of my shots are taken in NYC and I’ve only once written a play that wasn’t set in NYC. I love Sue Kwon’s work, for instance—very authentic New York shooting. Definitely dig Richard Sandler’s work. Oh, and likewise with Clayton Paterson and Matt Weber.

ML: Tell me about the Noise Collective. How did you get in, what is the group and the criteria of work that each member has accomplished?

SP: I suppose I was connected to Alex Coghe, one of the founders of the collective, for some time. Alex, as you know, is a prolific street photography blogger. We had a mutual admiration for one another’s work and he asked if I wanted to join the group. Much of the group’s common aesthetic is unspoken, but we all share certain raw, darker sensibilities. We’re also mostly B&W shooters, but occasionally we will pop off a color shot or two. About once a quarter we issue a digital magazine featuring all of our work. We’re now beginning to curate and exhibit our work in galleries.

ML: Tell me about the group show and the efforts in finding other venues to take it on tour.

SP: The exhibit, titled, “Earthlings,” is currently on display in the Netherlands at the Pictura gallery. It’s a good cross section of the work of the entire collective. Each photographer is displaying somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 photographs. I believe we have commitments to show in several other European cities and even Mexico City, but we’re trying to find new opportunities to bring it stateside. I’d love to see it in New York.

“I’ve found that when I go out and shoot in color, I am freed up to think more about narrative, which is at the core of what I’m always attempting to accomplish.” — Sean Pomposello

ML: Recently you began photographing a lot in color. What was the impact of the work you’ve accomplished in black and white had on influencing what you are currently working with in color, if any?

SP: I’ve been telling myself it’s an experiment that I’ll abandon at the end of the summer, but who knows? Here’s the thing, I started finding that I was getting lazy shooting in B&W. I found myself hunting for light and shadow, textures and patterns. It got so my shots were becoming a little boring. Black and white had become a kind of crutch for me. In frustration, I started examining some of my raw files and discovered new things of interest in the color versions of my shots. I’ve found that when I go out and shoot in color, I am freed up to think more about narrative, which is at the core of what I’m always attempting to accomplish. At any rate, I’ve already begun filtering B&W back into my photo feed and I’m starting to feel it again, thankfully.

ML: What is the role of your family in the work you do as an artist, both as a playwright and as a photographer?

SP: All my creative efforts tend to point back to my childhood in the Bronx. Many of the characters I write about are colorful grifter family members or more distant relatives who weaved in and out of my life growing up. My photos are similarly informed by my days in the projects on Castle Hill Avenue. I almost exclusively shoot in the city. Hand me a camera at the beach or in the suburbs and I wouldn’t even know what to shoot. That’s not to say that I don’t struggle even in New York—the city is rapidly becoming something I do not even recognize any longer. The eccentric characters I grew up with are mostly gone. You have to look a lot harder to find them—they have become replaced by people who call themselves New Yorkers, but are really just transplants. The neighborhoods are gone. Chelsea is the same as Turtle Bay or Sutton Place. The addresses are all interchangeable. Maybe there’s a little more dog shit on the sidewalk in Chelsea, but otherwise it’s all about the same.

ML: Discuss some of the series you’ve worked on, such as Tear of the Clouds, and what your motives in doing such work.

SP: I rarely start shooting a series with a theme in mind. More often than not I see a pattern emerging in my choice of subjects and that becomes the seed of the series. The same goes for my motives for shooting. There’s a lot of alienation and timelessness in my shots, but that’s pretty accidental—or it’s something I’m drawn to subconsciously. “Tear of the Clouds” came about when I had no time to shoot any longer. The demands of my job and my commute had choked all of my free time. I began documenting my commute on the rails into and out of NYC. I’d recently peeled my skin off and relocated my family to Connecticut—really so my daughter wouldn’t get bullied and so she could get a better education. The cars of the Metro North coaches all have names on them that are references to the region. I found that I was seated in the Tear of the Clouds coach each day—it’s a reference to an Adirondack lake of the same name. Each day I’d chronicle people on platforms, buildings in Harlem that have fallen into disrepair and drowsy commuters nodding in their seats. Another series came titled Parked about when I discovered that droves of people go to the city parks to nap, which I found ironic since this is supposed to be the city that never sleeps. I also continue to contribute shots to an ongoing photo essay about the ladies at the New Providence Women’s Shelter.

ML: Tell me about some of your accomplishments as a playwright.

SP: Honestly, my criterion for accomplishments in writing has changed. It used to be the festivals I was included in or contests I’d won—currently, just getting a full-length play up on its feet is all the accomplishment I require. All but two of my most recent full length plays have been staged, mostly off-off Broadway in NYC. My dog fighting play, titled “Bitch” ran for a month at The Player’s Theatre a couple years back. “Barbicide” also ran downtown after we workshopped it in a series of readings at a barbershop in the West Village. My play The Woodpusher has yet to be staged, but it was short listed at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference and won me a residency at The Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte where it was workshopped. The same play was also read at Urban Stages last summer. It’s still yet to find a home for a full production, sadly. But I keep pushing the boulder.

ML: What are your eventual goals?

SP: Relative to shooting, I’ll probably consider publishing something at some point. I’m enjoying seeing my work up in the exhibit. But, if neither of those things happens, I remain content. The camera has become an essential tool to help me tell stories. Plus, I’m never more alive then when I’m alone shooting in a shitty neighborhood. Either that, or at the last dress rehearsal.

All images © 2016 Sean Pomposello. You can see more of Sean’s work on his website, One Big Shoe.