Bill Bayer was a long-time photojournalist for newspapers in New Jersey and Massachusetts, starting in the late 1970s. Among them was The Jersey Journal in Jersey City, where he was hired as photo editor in November 1988, and shot thousands of pictures for stories around Hudson County. I met Bill in the summer of 2004, when I began a reporting internship at The Journal, and often submitted my stories accompanied by photographs I took with a basic digital point-and-shoot camera. The quality of those photos improved via advice from Bill, and his eventual successor as photo editor, Reena Rose Sibayan. Bill eventually left the paper to work as an emergency medical technician operating out of the downtown Jersey City Medical Center. This past summer, I shared a booth with him at the VIP Diner near Journal Square in uptown Jersey City to discuss his photojournalism career and some of the stories behind his newspaper pictures.
On Becoming a Photojournalist
I grew up in a little town called Wood-Ridge in Bergen County. My dad was a medic in World War II. He grew up in Cliffside Park, and he had three of his very close friends killed in the war. My mom grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, and went to high school there. Then, because of the Great Depression, her family moved and ended up in [NYC’s] Chelsea on 18th Street for years, and she absolutely loved it. So my mom would always encourage me to — and this is nuts — “go to the city.” I was like ten years old. I’d walk down to the end of the block, get on the bus, and take it right into Port Authority... at ten years old. No one would do that now. My mom’s like, “Eh, go, go, go.” She used to take us in all the time. I loved eating at places where you put a quarter in and you pulled out some macaroni and cheese. Those places I still remember fondly. Good stories. Also, the first time seeing the Empire State Building, when you're small and you look up, it was mind-blowing, but exhilarating at the same time.
I grew up with The Bergen Record. I grew up with the Herald News. The Record really played pictures well. They were big, and you could tell the pictures meant a lot. The layout and design, it was just a different way of communicating. You don’t use words. You do for captions, but the image is what speaks. That's why it's called photojournalism. At that time, the Record was on the forefront, a really respected paper. They could never make in-roads in Hudson County, though. “It's suburban,” you know. A very suburban paper, but a good suburban paper, and that’s what I grew up with. I grew up with Life magazine, Time magazine, Newsweek. I couldn't wait to get that stuff in the mail, just pour through it. I would find myself going to the library and looking through past photographers’ works, like Robert Capa and all the Vietnam-era photographers. At that time, if you had a uniform and a press credential, that’s it. Hop in a helicopter. A lot of photography came out of that. So what really impressed me was photography coming out of Vietnam, photography coming out of Kent State. It was a whole different country back then. Now it's Facebook. But back then, you would sit with your family and watch the news, and watch Vietnam. You're sitting there eating, and on the screen people are being blown up, napalmed and everything else. So there was a real social conscience to me, in that I wanted to try and stop things like that through photography, and I carried that dream throughout my career. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't. I always tell people, “You live in society. What pisses you off? Try and do something about it. Photograph it.” So that’s been my theme throughout journalism. You don't just run around and take pictures. You're actually like a writer, just that you have a different mode of expression.
I have two sisters. My next older sister closer in age to me is an artist, and she paints and does printing. She was going to school, and I would look at her work, and she would sketch me at home. So visually, that sort of got my juices a little bit tweaked in terms of imagery and expressing myself through some sort of medium. Then I wanted to be a social worker. I always wanted to do something that meant something. Your life means something. I could never last in an office. I could never last on Wall Street. I could never last in any sort of job like that, because to me it's boring beyond belief, and it’s not what life is about. It would drive me nuts. So I've always done jobs where it's interesting to me, other people can benefit from it, and you can help people—like down the line through journalism.
When I was really young, I picked up a Kodak Instamatic, and it took really bad pictures. But I found it really, really interesting, so I decided to take one course. That's all I ever took in my life—one non-credit photo course. I took it at the School of Visual Arts in the city. We were doing shooting, developing film, and then making black & white prints—yes, chemicals. No digital stuff. You expose the paper underneath the enlarger, you put it in the tray, the developer, and it goes from being this white sheet, and then magically the image starts coming up through the chemicals. You're looking at it going, “This is magic.” It really was. I think if you talk to people who had that good experience of actually making prints, they'll explain the same feeling the first time they saw the process take place. That image comes up, and it’s just pure magic. I knew that was it. I’m hooked. Photography is something, at least with me, you actually fall in love with, and you feel it in yourself. You just feel like, “This is it. I just love this. I'm not going to question it. I don’t know where it came from. I love it.” So I was just shooting friends, going out and finding stuff that interested me, photographing it, making some prints, and learning to print. A friend of mine said, “Why don’t you just show them to the local newspaper? I know someone.” So I go in, throw down like 6–7 prints, black and white that I printed myself. They were pretty decent. Mostly of people, portraits and stuff. [The editor] says, “Oh, not bad. Let me show you the dark room." It was really funny. That was the Herald News in Passaic, 1978. It was a small newspaper back then, and people read that paper a lot. It had good circulation and the photography was good. So I worked at that newspaper. I just really, really worked hard. Meaning it was one of those jobs you get, and you're like, “They're paying me for this? I love this!” I worked, and then a full-time job came up at The Dispatch in ‘79, up in Union City. It was a paper owned by itself, and that's when I was introduced to Hudson County, like big time. I remember going to Jersey City to visit my grandma and grandpa, who lived up in the heights, and I always found it interesting. But at this point in my life, I was older and I had a camera, and I was unleashed onto Hudson County. “Go, find some pictures.” It really was mind-blowing to me, Hudson County at that time. You felt like a genuine explorer. Instead of the wilderness, it was an urban area. You’d go down to Liberty State Park, and it wasn't developed really at all. Literally going through weeds. The ferry terminal was a beautiful building, with train tracks leading into it. My mom used to take that train. The idea was you went into the ferry building, and you transferred from a train on the railroad to a ferry for the rest of the trip to New York. There was no other way to go.
One time, I don't know how it came up, but I saw this old barge, and it was right across from Liberty Island in Liberty State Park. It was just tied up there. So I got a reporter friend of mine, I said, “Why don't we go down there and see what this thing is all about?” So this is no lie, we literally ended up crawling through weeds, and we get to this barge, and there's this sign outside. I'm not making this up, it says, “If any photographers find this place, you are not welcome. Do not come in here.” I'm like, “Hmm, let's knock on the door anyway.” So sure enough, the guy comes out—really interesting guy who’s dressed all in black. He’s got a black hat on, and his wife was the same thing, dressed in black and white. Apparently, they were living there for years, and the guy got burned. Some photographer went down, and had some pictures published somewhere, and he hated the pictures. He said he felt disrespected, because he was like on his knees cleaning something. He softened up, and we photographed him, so it was fun. It was so classic Hudson County. There was only this one little dirt road that we walked back on. One little dirt road led down to this barge on the water. They lived there. Beautiful place. It was near an area called Black Tom that was used for bringing ammunitions to Europe. There was the Black Tom explosion [during World War I]. It's a really cool story. They thought the Germans did it, and it was sabotage. Probably someone just lit a cigarette, threw it in a barge, and it blew up. But it reverberated through Jersey City. It was like a mini quake. It was that powerful.
Up north, West New York, you go up there now, and it's like another country in South America. You literally are, and through EMS I learnt certain Spanish phrases for “Where's your pain?” and “Come sit over here, please.” Just to get by. Before that, I was lost. I had a little high school Spanish and never really took off on that. But at the time, when I first started in '79, I think my first Sunday working at The Dispatch, the editor calls and says, “Cuban guy, Alpha 66, machine gun, down on 20-something street.” So I go down there. Sure enough, there’s the remnants of police tape, but nothing else. Turns out, this guy was executed. Came out of his house in the morning, guy shows up with a machine gun from like Miami, and shoots him because of Cuba and something with Castro. I'm like, “Whoa, this is different.” So my experience there was covering Cubans a lot. I went through the Mariel Boatlift, where Castro just let out all the jails and the mental institutions, and said, “Go, go, go,” and then how Union City handled it. We went out to basically an internment camp in Pennsylvania on an old Army base. I photographed families out there. A lot of people had records, and a lot of people had mental illness issues. There were whole families. I photographed a great grandmother. I came back with good photos. It was really interesting. My reporter at that time spoke enough Spanish to get by, and so we worked closely on that. We didn't split up. We didn't have to. Images were just falling out of the sky—people playing out in this very stark landscape of an army base, living in these long bunkhouses with no air conditioning or anything. Whole families. They really wanted to get out of Cuba, and they made it up to Indiantown Gap Reservation. It’s still an army base.
On a Newspaper Photographer’s Approach
You’ll find with a lot of photographers that the camera itself is between you and whatever is going on. It shields you from that experience, so you can still function. It sort of distances you from whatever event's happening. Like at Kent State, same thing. Someone lifted a camera, shot, and weren’t emotionally involved. Because if you were, you would be running your butt off away from the National Guardsmen shooting into the crowd. But someone had the presence of mind to hold that camera up and shoot.
One time when I was at the Herald News, we found out that the KKK leader from Louisiana was going to be at a rally in front of some guy's house in Barnegat, New Jersey. It just infuriated me, so I had to go. So I run down and grab a reporter, and say, “Let’s go.” They're like, “This is nuts! Is that New Jersey? Down the shore?” So we go down, and sure enough it was a split-level home that looked like a sitcom could be produced there, and there’s all these guys from Louisiana. David Duke was one of them. He was the head. Then the communist worker party people show up, who want to kill these people. So they’re on the outside, and there’s about 200 of them. There’s me, and a couple other newspapers, and one television station. I mean, now it would be like helicopters overhead, drones, whatever. It was a Sunday night, and state police are there, about 300 of them in riot gear. The KKK invited the press inside the house. So we were inside, and we were sitting with these guys. It was just absolutely bizarre. Then they go, “We’re going to have the rally now.” So they boot us out of the house, and state police puts us in the middle. The KKK in front, we're in the middle, and in back of us are these couple hundred communist worker party people who just want to rip these people apart, like limb from limb. So the rally starts, everybody starts screaming, and I just face the Klan, and I'm shooting like crazy. Just shooting, shooting, shooting. All of a sudden, ba-doom! Someone winged this gallon jug of orange juice, or water, or piss... and it lands on my head, out of everyone. I just rubbed off the camera, and started shooting again. So the AP reporter goes, “You alright, brother?” “Yeah, I'm cool.” And he put it in the story. It was really funny. It was really bizarre, but that's an example of how you have to separate yourself from the event to actually function.
In Hoboken, in that time period of ‘79–‘81, there was a series of horrific arson fires, because real estate along the “Gold Coast” was like a gold mine. People from all over the country came in wanting to buy up multi-dwellings on Washington Street and other streets. So arson became the way of getting people out, because rent control was very strong. You couldn't get people out, so they would burn them out. The problem with that is, in a two-year period, I think close to 60 people died in arson fires in Hoboken. I still resent that. I still get so mad when I think of what happened back then, and how that goes on throughout this area. I hate the word "gentrification." Back then, to approach a fire where there's nothing but people that are obviously distressed emotionally — family members showing up, “Where's my son? Where's my daughter?" — a lot of children died, and you had to maintain. You just had to. Otherwise, you wouldn't be effective, and you had to be effective photographically to say something and to affect change. So I worked with a reporter friend of mine, and we worked on that stuff exclusively. I kept saying, “Let's do this. Let's try this. We’ve got to do something. We can't just cover stuff if this happens.” So eventually, we found this child. There was an arson fire, there were deaths involved, and this poor kid ended up going out a window and he landed on a fire escape. Unfortunately, the flames were coming up from the floor below him, and it was like a barbecue grill. This poor kid was burned all over his body, and it was just horrifying... horrifying. So he was out at St. Barnabas burn center. The father and the mother, the reporter talked to them and said, “See if we can photograph this child going through a therapy session,” and surprisingly they said okay. The hospital signed off on it too, because the head burn center doc was just pissed. He was getting all these people from Hudson County with burns, and he knew why. So I went out with the reporter and covered this kid’s treatment. He had this done twice a day, where they would put him into a bath, pull the dead skin off, then re-bandage it — and it was pain. This kid had more morphine in him than you can imagine. The pain this kid went through, and the obvious burns — again, that camera was the only thing that separated me from that. He was screaming at the top of his lungs, and the camera separated me so that I could photograph strongly, and make strong, strong images. Then I remember leaving the hospital, both myself and the reporter, we just felt that whole tenseness from holding it together that long. We got outside and... we didn't even talk. We didn't have to talk. We looked at each other like, “Goddamn.” What this kid went through... these photos were very graphic. I didn't sugarcoat anything. I didn't want to make it look nicey nice, so people won't be offended. I shot it straight, because that's the way it is. So, kudos to The Dispatch. They printed all the photos. They didn't edit out any of the photos because of the burned skin and the pain on this kid's face. Played it straight. The pictures ran, and there was nothing you could say about it. No politician could look at it and say, “You didn’t fake those?” There was no defense.
[The burn pictures were] black and white, very stark images. If you look at them, they're very painful, just the hell this kid went through. That was never expressed before, though. Because all the previous fires, they would be in the middle of the night. So when you got there, there was nothing there. You go back in the morning or the daylight, and all you can photograph are poor relatives that would show up to pray at the site of the fire, crying and emotional stuff like that. But it didn't have that punch to the head that's like, “Wake up! Wake up! Change this!” [The burn photo story] was the punch, because that poor kid’s session that he did every day for months... I mean, the pain in the kids face, you felt pain. It brought it home. That could be your kid. And I think that's what ultimately changed stuff.
This is what happens in your city when you don't do anything — multiple people being killed through arson fires to get people out of the buildings, so someone from another state can just make a goldmine. So shortly after that, the mayor at the time, [Steve] Cappiello, got the federal government in, because pictures work. I'm not sure how that came about, but it did come out. I'm not sure if the feds came in, and said, “We have to stop this.” It was an epidemic. Anyway, the feds came in, and they had arson experts from where stuff like this has happened in other parts of the country. They implemented education for everyone on arson, and how pervasive it can get, and what you can do to stop it through finding housing for people, rather than burn them out. It started this whole cascade of real solid action. It worked. So that's probably my most glowing, gleaming experience of seeing something that gets you mad, photographing it in a way that will make people look, actually doing a very painful thing that made people think, and we got action out of it. That was my overriding sense of photography: use it as a tool.
We only had three full-time photographers. I was advocating, “Find a reporter you really work well with, and shares the same goals as a journalist.” A journalist I worked with, Chuck Sutton, he had my mindset—how to affect change if you see something that pisses you off. I worked closely with Chuck. Every day, I’d go in and see him and say, “What do you got going today?” At the time of the arson fires, he’d be like, “Well, I’m working on kids in art class at this one school where certain kids have died.” The art teacher said, “Express yourself,” in terms of what's going on. These kids drew buildings on fire — like apartment buildings with flames coming out of them, and people falling out. It was really moving. So we did stuff like that, just to keep it up in the public eye, keep it out there, and peek that interest in people. We worked every day like that. In the normal grind of a newsroom, sure, you have to cover everything else in addition to that. But some of the editors knew that this was important stuff. We were passionate about it, and we were just going to do it.
There are some reporters you can work with; some just get in the way. I used to love to work on my own, even if I really, really respected the reporter. Because for feature stories, I would get there, and there would be the subject, and the reporter would sit there and monopolize all the time—just to give the needed 45 minutes to an hour to gather notes, ask questions, get phone numbers and all that. But the subject isn't moving. Then it would be, “Okay Bill, what do you want to do?” It puts you in an awful position. So to get away from that, I used to go on assignments by myself, or I'd show up a little bit later. I used to love doing that. A lot of photographers feel the same way. You want to stay in touch with your reporter to glean information that might be useful in terms of the photo. If you were working a spot news event, you'd want to hook up as much as you can with the reporter just to stay in contact. Because they might talk to someone that you need to see or photograph. The photographer might talk to someone, and grab the reporter and hook them up. 9/11 was a good example of that. But I think most photographers will tell you that a lot of times it's better to be on your own. You have different needs to obtain a good visual image that works. You want to control that situation, if it's in fact a controllable situation, like a portrait of the person. I've had reporters get in the way, and I'm like, “Just please sit over there. I'll deal with this.” I would always like to tell reporters, “I got this. I know what’s going on. You don't have to suggest anything."
One of the hardest things to do is to have someone act natural. I mean, many times, if you talk with someone and they realize you're not a threat, depending on the situation, they'll actually forget you're there. They feel comfortable, and they just talk naturally. That's where the good stuff comes from. Going back to the social aspect, when AIDS was rampaging through Hudson County, New York City, through the gay community, we didn't do anything. After a while, I got really pissed off. I said, “We’ve got to do something. Let's find some people that are struggling with AIDS.” We ended up doing a five-part series on that — like the Sisters of Charity, what they were doing for people with AIDS. Because you couldn’t be outed as having AIDS at that time, or HIV positive. You were ostracized from families, taxicabs, buses, airlines. Those poor people, they were just dying left and right a horrible death. It was very difficult to find a subject. I remember one lady was working on Wall Street. She got HIV through a blood transfusion, and she was suffering in silence. I mean, she didn't even tell some family members. But she wanted to get this message out that there's hope, and you can look for help. I had to photograph her in silhouette, so I took her down to the Hoboken train station, where the old ferry slips are. I framed her with the old ferry slip all the way around, and she was in the middle, like sideways and just sort of silhouetted, so you couldn't tell who it was. She didn't use her real name for the story. She was paranoid about being outed and ostracized from work. At that time, people were just being fired. “We can't have you here. We don't want anyone else to get it,” which is of course bogus. But in the early days, it was horrible.
So just like the fires in Hoboken, I said, “We have to make it real for people walking down the street, to look at an image and go, "Ooh, that hits me. I see my kid in there. I see my Dad. I see my relatives in that picture. I can relate to that." So I worked with this guy at the Hyacinth Foundation downtown, worked out of an old church, the Barrow Mansion. I worked with this guy, Anthony. I would just stop down and say, “Hey Anthony, I really want to get this story out, but it needs someone that’s in the throes of AIDS.” Most people, when they get to that stage where there's severe weight loss, and they look horrible, and they're very weak, they don't want to be photographed. They don't want to make it a message. They just want to peacefully pass on. So it was hard finding someone who was willing to talk and be photographed. So Anthony says, “How about this guy? He got it from heroin, sharing needles. He's in the end stages, but he really wants to make a difference before he dies.” So he would go to the youth house out in Secaucus, and talk to kids out there, and say, “See what's happening to me? Don't you do this shit.” So he was really willing to be interviewed, and more importantly, willing to be photographed. So it was one of those situations where I'm well-known for not using flash at all. At all. I hate using any artificial light. So I met this guy where he lived downtown, and he looked horrible. He was at the end stage of AIDS. So we sat for a while, and he wouldn’t say much. He didn't have to say much. We just sat, and there were long stretches where it was silent. So I said, “Would you mind just sitting over here, and looking out on the street?” Just those simple words. He sat in the chair by the window, and he looks out, and then he just got lost in thought. I could see it. He got very comfortable. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom—five frames. That's it. I said, “Okay, I'm done. Thank you so much. This is going to mean something.” So the picture ran, and you get comments from people like, “Yeah, that's real. That's the real deal. That's what this is about.” It was horrible back then. Act Up came over for one day to the Hudson County Courthouse. They had needles, because they wanted to have a needle exchange, which is great. It's not like a kid is going to go up and be like, “Oh, I get a free hypodermic? I’m gonna start shooting heroin.” So there was a big hullabaloo about that. I felt really bad for people back then that had to deal with that, and die from that, and be really sick for years and years and years. But like I said, that picture was simple. It was black and white. It was a window, and I got the person to be natural. That's always the trick when you're photographing someone—just to get them where it doesn’t look artificial, and they look relaxed and real.
On Hudson County, Before He Photographed It
My grandfather worked his butt off his whole life to feed his family. He went through the Depression. My mom told me this great story where they're in Pennsylvania, he didn't have a job, no money coming in, and four kids in the family. So my grandfather used to do some work with looms making clothes, and he's like, “We have to go to Paterson, New Jersey. I have to get a job there. I've got to make money to eat.” So my mom says they all packed in the car, drove to Paterson, got there like in the middle of the night, and they slept in the car. She said, “I'll never forget being so scared in my life,” because she just looked out, and she didn't know where she was. She knew they were in a car. My grandfather ended up living in the heights of Jersey City, and my mom lived in [NYC], and my grandfather ended up working for Sheriff George Bonelli. He was the Hudson County sheriff, corrupt as all hell. My grandfather's job was probably like counting flies in the office. But he made a living, and George Bonelli loved him, because he knew he could trust him. They had this Democratic club up in the heights on the western slope. So it was called the Western Slope Democratic Freedom Club, or something like that, and they only entrusted my grandfather with money. So every day, grandma would say, “When he comes home, he’s got this cigar box. It’s filled with cash.” When I was in my teens, and my grandfather was gruff and saying, “Billy, what are you going to do with your life?” I said, “I don't know yet, grandpa.” He said, “Well, let me tell you about civil service here in Jersey City. You could be 1 or 600 on that list. It doesn’t matter.” I go, “Really?” He goes, “Yeah, they'll pick you right out, and put you on the top.” “Okay, grandpa, I'll keep that in mind.” But he was a sweet wonderful man. He was the only one they could trust. He didn't do anything. He was just happy to have a job. So that was my introduction to Hudson County.
Downtown Jersey City, the Newport area, when I first started working here, '79 to '83, there was nothing there. It was just piers that occasionally started a fire, and they burned for a week. Because you get out there, it’s too dangerous, so then you just let it burn out. There was the Pavonia PATH stop in the middle of nowhere. No one got off the train. No one. The train would stop... “Okay, let's go.” It would go into downtown [Jersey City] and New York. There are incredible photos of these old abandoned buildings. Springtime in Hudson County, a floater would show up. People that drowned in the Hudson, their lungs would re-inflate when the water got a little warmer, and they'd float to the top. We’d call them “floaters." Still do. I’d go, “Ah, Springtime in Hudson County.” Sick joke, but true. This one poor kid, it was the middle of the summer, and he was with a group of friends. His friends would go, “I bet you won't jump in that water,” and these are poor kids, illiterate. The kid went in, didn't come back up. So somehow they got a cop. A scuba team comes over, and they're in the water just like that. I mean, they jump right off the boat, haul this poor kid up, who’s like ten and in cardiac arrest. They're bringing him out, and they had to go over this area that was like a beach. It was like you were down at Sandy Hook or out on Long Island or something, and the background is this beautiful vista of New York City towers. And here they are pumping on this poor kid, who died. Just too surreal. That is completely covered now with high-rises. It’s not the same. It was like no man’s land. People went there to dump bodies. There were these isolated beaches, and people fishing if they could find that one open area they could throw a line in. It was like the Wild West once you were down there.
On Hudson County Police, Firemen, and Emergency Medical Services
I had very few negative encounters with cops. Some would actually call me up, and bring me out to wherever. I actually had a firefighter bring me into a house that was still burning. A battalion chief. It's crazy. Nowadays, forget it. But the chief comes up to me, he has this gleam in the eye, and he goes, “Want to get inside?” So he brings me in, and they're hosing down the inside of a multi-dwelling. He brings me into the kitchen on the first floor, smoke all over the place. I'm like choking, and he goes, “Get a shot of this guy. Harry, put the hose up.” I'll never forget the look on the firefighter's face. He couldn’t believe I was standing there with a camera. So back then it was like that. Forget police lines. They just brought you over to whatever was going on.
Emergency Medical Services [EMS], even back then, they felt under-appreciated. It was a positive thing to see EMS in the newspaper. Sort of a sense of validation. Actually, I made it my mission with people in EMS to not have them called “ambulance drivers” in the paper. People always called them “ambulance attendants” or “ambulance drivers,” which is so insulting. It's like calling a journalist or a writer a “pencil-pusher.” Really, really insulting. People have been educated more now. But when I started back then, I said “emergency medical technician” or “paramedic.” Those two things. Anyone could drive an ambulance. You could drive an ambulance. So you're an ambulance driver. Over the years, that changed.
On His Rapport with Local Mayors
Tommy Smith was the first mayor in Jersey City I covered, and Tommy was a great guy. He would sit here with us, and just laugh and drink coffee. Hudson County born and bred. He found this dog at Liberty State Park, like a mutt, and he named him "Henry Hudson." He took the dog everywhere. You would walk in his office at City Hall, and there’s Henry Hudson sitting there lying down on the floor. It was great. It was a mutt -- not like a pedigree or anything. He was a very, very colorful guy.
Two stories. One, Liberty Island — he would say, “That's New Jersey. If you look on a map, it's in New Jersey.” So to prove that, he shows they get their water from Jersey. So he calls the press up, and he's at the meadows out in the middle of Liberty State Park, and he has the city water people put in a shut-off wrench. Then in front of everyone he turns it, and he shut the water off to Liberty Island, just to prove a point, “This water comes from the State of New Jersey, not New York.” It was hilarious. He was like that. So 1979, I just got my job. I was two weeks in at The Dispatch in Union City, and I was still a very young guy riding around like, “This is great! There's great imagery all over the place! There’s great stories here!” So I'm going down the boulevard, and I have my scanner on. All of a sudden, I hear this cop screaming in the East District, “The roof’s coming iiiiin!” like in a really desperate voice. I look to the left, and there's this huge column of black smoke coming up downtown. So I made a hard left, fly down there . . . city hall's on fire. Flames shooting out. I forgot where I parked, but I ran over and I start shooting. I'm the only one there. The fire department's just pulling up, connecting hoses and stuff. About five minutes later, here comes Mayor Tommy Smith. He comes flying up in a car, screeches to a halt, jumps out. His tie is undone, his jacket’s off, sleeves rolled up. He looks at me, looks at the fire, looks at me, and jumps in and starts carrying hoses and stuff. It was amazing. He just took charge of what he could do to help. Everyone knew him. So the firefighters look up at him trying to move a hose, which he could do, I guess. But he didn’t know how to connect it. He tried to help, and the fire’s still going, he goes inside city hall. He goes, "We’ve got to save everything in there!" Huge fire. It was like a four-or-five-alarm fire. I will never forget that. That was so funny, but he was so colorful that way. He was a fun guy.
Wally Shields ran the Democratic committee in Hudson County. Of course, the Republicans had probably one person, and that was it. But Wally Shields thought he was like the toughest guy, a politician — runs everything, you have to go through him. Wally made a deal with Tommy, because they were boyhood friends. They made this deal where Tommy would run for governor after being mayor. Then Wally Shields would run for mayor and take that spot. So I remember being up at The Dispatch, and I see [Gerald] McCann’s running, and he started a really smart campaign: “I'm the reformer. We've got to get this old machine politics out.” This and that. Tommy Smith knew he wasn't going to win governor. The reputation of Hudson County was just total corruption. Total. So people in Burlington County are not going to vote. Bergen? Forget it. He knew that. He absolutely knew, but he made this pact. So he runs, and of course it goes nowhere. So it's Wally Shields, McCann and a bunch of other crazy people [for mayor]. We had a pool going, and I said, “McCann’s gonna win.” Everyone’s like, “No.” But I said, “No, he’s gonna win. I can see it.” So he ended up winning, and he was just incredible to cover. He was just, again, a colorful mayor. There were all these rumors floating around about stuff — fights usually, and drunkenness, cocaine. That was his first term. Second term, he got indicted.
He was tried and convicted for borrowing money, like to the tune of $500,000. He just spent it on sports tickets, Mercedes Benz, that sort of thing — and he knew it. He was no fool. It's a very easy paper trail. But he was always funny to cover. They didn’t have a “perp walk” for him. I was surprised, because it was federal. But he was tried in Trenton Federal Court, and I made it my mission to be there on his first day. So I got down there, and it was freezing and raining, and I'm standing out in front of the courthouse. I’m the only one there, and I see Gerry pull up in his car. I knew his car. I knew it was him. He pulls up across the street, and I go running across the street. He gets out of his car, he looks at me and goes, “Oh...” I'm shooting, and he would never have done this, but he takes the time to pull a quarter out of his pocket, and puts it into the parking meter, and I got that shot. It was hilarious. It was just so funny, because court was going to last about a half-hour, and he was going to be in there all day. He was just going to leave it. He had a [car] sign, “Office of the Mayor,” or something like that. He went through that whole process of trial, and of course he was found guilty on all counts
Anthony Cucci was just a great person to be with. Fun, very open, born and bred in Jersey City, downtown in the Little Italy section. Brunswick Street. He had a social club there. The social club was actually used in the opening scene of Analyze This with Robert DeNiro. The scene was a van driving by with a machine gun, and they shot up the storefront, and they dove on the floor. Didn't tell the neighbors about it. So it's like nine o'clock on a Sunday morning, and all the neighbors hear is a machine gun. The call goes in, “Shots fired!” The cops show up. That was the social club. So when I first started [at The Journal] in '88, Anthony and his wife and Jaime Vazquez and his wife were invited to fly down to Peru, where Jersey City had a sister city relationship. So they fly down, and being from Hudson County, it wasn't going to be a boring trip, of course. During the train ride, going in the mountains, there was a steep drop-off, and the train goes off, slides on its side, and Anthony Cucci’s wife is killed. So when we first found out about it, they called me a home. It was like a Saturday night, and the editor said, “Bill, we want you to go to Miami tomorrow, intercept them getting on a plane coming back, and ride with them on the plane.” Okay. So we narrowed it down to a plane they were going to be on, somehow. I forget how we did it. So I flew down with a reporter, Blanca, fluent in Spanish, and she new Anthony Cucci. We hook up with them in Miami, and he was very gracious. There was a couple of people that flew down to meet him also in the terminal coming off the plane. Very emotional. They wouldn't let us in on that, but he promised that when we're in the air, we’re on the same plane, we'd talk. So Anthony was up in first class, we were in coach, and he said we'd meet him up front. He needed a little time. He’d just lost his wife. So it was me, Blanca, and some reporter from The Dispatch with a little point and shoot. So when the time came, we went up front, and Anthony's just sitting there, and he's talking to Blanca. Short interview. The guy had just been through hell. I said, “Mayor...” I just wanted to put him at ease, because he was just looking at me. I said, “Just look out the window, like you're flying.” He goes, and he looks out the window for a few minutes, and he's just looking at the clouds, and lord knows what was going through his brain. I shot that, and that was it. The use of that window light, a lot of black, and just his face. You could see it on his face, the sadness. What the poor guy went through, and continued to go through in the months after losing this woman he loved dearly. They named the council chambers after Anna Cucci. So we flew back, got off the plane in Newark, and they put Anthony and Jaime on golf carts to drive them. I'm shooting, shooting, shooting, and far in the distance is the media, all the New York Stations, all the television people from Jersey. It had to be 20, 25 people. That was the hot story for that Sunday night, and we scooped everyone. It was just an amazing story. Mind blowing. He passed away this year. Great guy. He would always remember you. A politician. You never forget stuff like that. You never do.
Bret Schundler came from Wall Street, business background. There were a lot of old Hudson County political people running against him the first election. No fresh faces. So he did what a lot of people have done: “I'm new. I'm fresh. I have a business background. I can turn the city around.” I was always leery of that, because I’ve been through many “reformers” in this county, and they always come out doing the same crap — political jobs here and there. Bret, he tried turning things around. He always came across as being nice, not nasty, sincere about certain aspects, education being one of them. I remember what really impressed me was [his handling of] this horrific head-on collision on the Wittpenn Bridge. I mean, a tractor-trailer truck versus a small car. It had five Asian-Indian kids who were going to New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. Bright kids. Four of them died. It was absolutely horrible. I got there, and I got access. I didn't show any bodies. They were leaning out of the car. It was horrible. Bret showed up on scene, and he just looked really, really impacted. He always had the Asian-Indian community at heart over the years. He had them down to city hall for ceremonies. That impacted everyone that was there, and it really impacted him. So he started calling Trenton within two days. It was a very public funeral. A long funeral up in like North Bergen. Thousands of people. It just impacted the Asian-Indian community in Jersey City like wildfire. So a couple of days after that, Bret did what I'd never seen a mayor do — he called the state Department of Transportation [DOT], and said, “You have to correct this, and you have to correct this now.” The engineering going over the Wittpenn was just the complete opposite of what it should have been. I used to take that road a lot. Bret calls every day, and I got this from numerous sources, every morning, “Are they coming yet? Are they coming yet? I want them here, like yesterday.” He called every day for like a good month. The state moves like snails in molasses. So when the state showed up, they had like five engineers, drew out plans, and they immediately changed lanes so the approach to the bridge wasn't as sharp. They put in new reflective stripes and cones, where it slowed people down to approach the bridge. So that really impressed me. That stuck with me, because he could've told an aide, “Call DOT. What's going on?” He himself called every single day, and my hat’s off to the guy. Not many mayors would do that. Some delegate that out, maybe ask about it every week or so. He called every day, and he got action.
Glenn Cunningham. He was amazing, He just loved Jersey City. He loved it more than he loved anything. You couldn't get it out of him. He became a US Marshall for the state of New Jersey in Newark. I mean that's a cush job. It’s like, “I’m done.” But I knew he just loved Jersey City. Probably always wanted to be mayor — the first African-American one. Great guy. He was an ex-marine. So for example, he would go to a county administration building, and be with his entourage of like six people, and be like, “We’re gonna take the stairs.” Then he’d climb like 6 flights to get up there, instead of taking the elevator. I believe he was on Newark Avenue, he was on his bike, he was having chest pain, and people he was with were like, “Let’s get this checked.” He says, “No, it's alright." So he goes home, and he's got beyond chest pain, just dire straits. That's what eventually killed him. It was a heart attack. It happened at night, and no one knew about it until late the next day, next morning. It sent shockwaves throughout the city, especially in the African American community. It was like John F. Kennedy. At the time, it just had that impact. There was a horse-drawn carriage for the casket coming up Montgomery Street to the Armory from City Hall. He had to go from there to the Armory, because they figured it would be more people than City Hall could handle for the last service before he’s buried. When he was coming up Montgomery Street, you had to shoot with a long lens to get the casket, the entourage, and also Downtown was pulled up with the long telephoto. So I photographed that, but then I noticed, just like Kennedy's funeral, there was this mom and her son standing across the street. Everyone's silent, the casket is pulling up, and she whispers to her son, and the kid salutes. So I shot it, and the kid was like John F. Kennedy Jr. It had that feel to it. It really did.
Jerramiah Healy is a man of the people. He didn't live down the shore, and lie about it. He lives up in the heights, and he's proud of it. He says, “Here’s my address. Come up.” So when he was running the first time, we ended up nicknaming him “Towel Man.” The first time, Kathy Kelly and a male reporter went up to the house, knocked on the door, Jerry comes to the door, Kathy’s standing there, and he has a towel on like he just got out of the shower or something. He goes, “Come on in”, and Kathy's like, “No, I’m going to stand on the porch. I'm not coming in there. Get some clothes on.” So he does that. But he was just a very jovial guy. He was like, “My house is your house.” So the next time I sent someone up there, same thing. He comes out in jockey shorts or something and says, “Come on in.” So I go, “I've got to see this for myself." So the next time, I go up to his house, and he comes out and he has black socks on, jockey shorts and that's it. He's like, “I'll get something on. I’ll get something on.” So we nicknamed him Towel Man after that. But his house is like an open door. Anyone can walk in. He's just a really funny guy. A down to earth sort of Hudson County guy. That’s what he is. Nothing more. Nothing less. So at some point, someone sent in a snapshot, and here he is sitting naked, and he just had that look of being drunk. However, he is also diabetic, which can mimic being drunk. So that's the story they stuck to. Of course the other side were like, “We were just passing by, and he was sitting naked on his front steps. What kind of mayor do you want this guy to be?” It was Hudson County politics. I don't recall the [editorial] meeting, but I’m sure we had numerous discussions about it, and it was a matter of who you trusted. So I think that's why the picture didn't run [in The Journal] — air on the side of caution. Whereas The New York Times, they printed it. Of course they did. The New York Times loves, loves to rail on Jersey.
On Coming to The Jersey Journal
I left The Dispatch, and ended up at a small paper in Holyoke, Massachusetts. I had a great experience up there working for a family-owned newspaper that had four papers — Concord Monitor being one of them. Very good paper. It was only three of us, and they hired me to run it, and we made the photo department a very strong force by the time I left. We went through that whole experience there of transitioning from black and white over to color photos, and really, really enhanced the layouts of those front sections to highlight photos, and make them a central part of the layout — as opposed to heavy on the words and headlines. It was a lot of fun.
There's not too many good black and white photos of rainbows. So when we first started color, both [at The Journal] and the paper in Massachusetts, all the editors wanted to see color, color, and color. It didn't matter what it was. Now, at least there's a choice. Certain photographers, like Eugene Richards, renowned black and white guy. He's published many books, documentary stuff, Arkansas Delta, the South and poverty, just really good. What a black and white image does is you focus on the person, or whatever is going on. As opposed to a color image, which might distract you here and there, [with black and white,] your eye goes right to whatever you're trying to say. Nowadays, with digital, you can make color images black and white. Just "poof" and change it.
So one day, I was talking to another photographer, an old friend of mine, Kathy Kelly. She's like, “Alright, don't laugh, but I heard The Journal is looking for a photo editor.” So of course I laughed. I said, “I'll never work for that paper.” Photographically, they were horrible. Then she tells me, “Well, they hired like four really good photographers, and they got rid of some people who had been there a long time. They're looking for someone to run it, and they can't find the person.” So I laughed more. I said, “Well, I'm going to be down in a month or so. So I'll look at the paper.” So I stop in Secaucus, grab a Jersey Journal and go, “Hmm, they’re trying a little.” So I went back up to Massachusetts, and I thought about it, and said, “Not gonna hurt. I'll go down and see if I get an interview.” So I call up Steve Newhouse, and I talked to him for a long time. He's like, “Well, come down. We can make it next week. We'll talk, and I'll tell you what's going on here.” So I come down, I sit in Steve's office, and I talk with him for a long time. I also saw some reporters I hadn’t seen in years, who are now editors there. It was nice to see them. So I come down, and ended up interviewing for a good four or five hours with various people, and they actually offered me money. It was good for a newspaper, and I said, “Why not? I can't get the Hudson County out of me. Yeah, it'll be a challenge. I'm always up for a challenge to turn something around.” So I ended up coming back down here. It was November of ‘88. Got a staff together to work as a team, and set goals that I outlined before: “We really want to make a difference here. We as a staff. I want to see photo pages. Let's start doing some good work here together.” So we started doing that. We'd have staff meetings, just photo. Then I would be the buffer between the newsroom and the staff. Because I wanted to slowly integrate getting reporters interested in working with certain photographers, to work as a team. So that took a couple of years before it actually took off.
Wally Hennig was still here, and he worked at The Journal for like 30-something years. Happy go-lucky guy. Great, great person. Just really, really funny guy. Classic old Hudson County. He always had a white shirt and a black tie, and his white long raincoat. Really funny, but he knew everyone in Hudson County. So he was fun to work with, but he started feeling the pressure of the change of the paper. He was close to retirement. He could've retired years ago. So he ended up retiring, and he called me into the room. He says, “Bill, I want you to know first. I'm done. It’s changing. I just want to have some fun.” So Wally left, but the four other people on staff were brand new, in their early twenties, just graduated J-school or wherever, and were up for Hudson County. One guy, Larry Cutchall, he came up from Georgia, if you can imagine that, to Hudson County. Everyone who worked for me, we're still in contact. I’m in contact with Larry, John Gastaldo out in San Diego. Scott Lituchy ended up running West Virginia University's communications. He does video and still images for them. Doing basically the same thing, but for a university. We're always in contact. Kathy Kelly is up in Maine, works up there. So we had a nice cohesive staff. We had the usual conflicts and arguments. You constantly had to deal with what's important. “Is this important? Is that important?” Arguments about that, assignment-wise. “Color or black and white? Was this the best photo?” It was still black and white when I got there. That changed, I would say, mid-‘90s. It was really funny, because we had the world’s worst press, and it was right in the Journal Square building. The thing was from God knows when, and it was horrible, and they said, “Well, we want to do color.” I said, “On this press? Are you kidding? It's held together with duct tape.” A press is absolutely fascinating. You have effectively toilet paper running through a huge printing press at 25 miles an hour, and just barely kissing the paper, and making the image. It's really nuts. Anyway, we gave it a shot, and we actually did it for a while. Then they realized there's no consistency. It would be good one day, and the next day it would be horrible. So they ended up printing like an hour off-site. It was a printing plant off Route 80, out in the middle of the state. So the deadlines were moved up for that, but it was a consistent product.
Every day is a new day. You walk into a newsroom, and you start all over again. The next day’s paper is gonna be all new stuff. It's not like you’re working for a magazine. Stuff happens every minute of every day, and it changes overnight. The hours were dictated by the deadline, so the shifts I put up were like 2 to 10 PM. Something like that. But 10 PM was the cutoff. Never went over that, really. We had nighttime sports to cover, which also had a deadline. So our hours were mostly from 9 in the morning to 10 at night, unless there was a spot news event. Then we'd cover that. But it was all about making deadline — deadline, deadline, deadline, drilled into your head.
When I first got there, I wanted everyone to have a scanner, because it's a great tool. You can report and write on an event you weren't at, pretty much. [Photographers] don't have that luxury. I knew from experience. Like when City Hall was burning, I got that off the scanner. So I went to Steve Newhouse, I said, “We need scanners for everyone. It's an essential tool for us to work.” He's like, “Do it.” He was great like that. So we all got scanners. Everybody got into it. The first year, I think five of our staff photographers including myself were in the top ten award-winning photographers in the state. It was pretty impressive. That's when I actually cared about awards, which I didn’t after that. We were really coming up with some incredible spot news photos using [scanners]. You use it as a tool. If you don't have it, you're worthless. You're going to be late for everything. And with images, you’ve got to be there. You can't photograph something that's two hours old and not there. What are you going to photograph? The sidewalk?
On 9/11, I was in Hoboken. I just managed to get through to the newsroom, and I said, “Get Reena [Rose Sibayan], and get her down to Exchange Place now. So Reena flies down there, and she got these amazing people — just people with these faces of horror looking at buildings. The lunacy of that day was captioning her images of people looking at what was transpiring in front of them. Because Exchange Place provides like perfect picture postcard views of lower Manhattan. Just surreal.
On the Rise of Digital Media, and The Journal’s Decline
When the Internet started being a force, it really became the force, and everyone knew it. Like digital photography, I would read in the Times technology section, “It's going to take years for digital to take over film cameras.” No. Within six months, you could just look at the business section and see Kodak going out of business, Polaroid going out of business. The digital world just really took off like wildfire, and everyone saw it coming. But we sort of went into denial, like, “Nah, nah, newspapers will always be here.” I guess people with stone tablets back in the day, chiseling away were like, “This is always going to be here.” It's not always going to be here. So we went through that, and I would say 2000 is when it became really serious, where you started looking at people leaving and not being replaced. You started seeing cutbacks. They never gave me any restriction for film or digital or whatever. They were very good about that. We needed to work. Simple. With the photo staff, cutbacks happened all at once. We went through a two-year period of the union contract, negotiations going on, and it just got worse and worse and worse all the way around. You had that tension in the air in the newsroom for everyone, including non-union people. They felt it too. You work with people for years, and all of a sudden it gets dicey. It gets tense. I'll never forget, that culminated when I was sitting in the newsroom, and Christina Joseph came out of the meeting, and we thought there would be a breakthrough, and she's walking by and she has tears in her eyes. It's like, “Christina, how'd it go?” She goes, “Not good,” and she keeps walking to the bathroom. I'm like, “Oh my God.” So it was a meeting where they just said, “We're not doing anything. If anything, we’re gonna have layoffs.” You could feel the wind going out of the sails. They actually came out with a list of people that were going to go. If your name wasn't on the list, you could volunteer to put your name on the list to go and take a severance. So it was horrible. I wasn’t on the list, and then I put myself on the list voluntarily for a while. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was just hurt, because we had a close-knit staff. It just hurt a lot that we weren't going to be together, so I wanted to join the team. But when push came to shove, I ended back up at The Journal, same as where I was, and then it came down to me and a couple of interns.
We had gone through 2001 and through that horrible shared trauma of 9/11. All the union stuff died down, and we just covered 9/11 like crazy. That's all we did. We thought, we lived, we breathed. I worked from 9 o'clock in the morning to 11 o'clock at night for like 7 days straight. The eighth day I said, “I can't do this anymore. I need a day off.” So I went to the woods in a cabin up in western Jersey to get my head back. Then almost exactly six months after 9/11, they came out with the list and said, “These people are staying, and these people are going,” and it was horrible. It was absolutely horrible. They set a deadline. We had to be out by this point. It was a bad time.
When I was with the paper after that, it was me and a drastically reduced writing staff. When I first started working there, we had 90 people in editorial. When I left, it was like 13, 14, something like that. It was vastly reduced, so every day we had to highlight “What's our best story for tomorrow?” So we would focus on what's going to be our big story for tomorrow, and not waste time. Every day I would constantly say, “You can't waste time on this stuff. It’s gonna take way too much time away from whether we can actually do it.” So we worked through it like that. You worked hard, you worked your butt off, and your own natural pride came into play to do the best job you can under those circumstances. But you always felt it's not going to go anywhere. They're not going to add people.
I felt responsible for imagery, particularly on the cover page. We went to tabloid [format], so the image had to be there. Nine out of ten times it was me, so I felt responsible for it, and I worked very closely with people. We all did. You had to. You didn't have a choice. You didn't have 90 people in that newsroom anymore. I read the paper everyday now online, and I think they're doing a great job with what they have. They really are. They're still doing investigative pieces every once in a while. It's good to read. It's something. There’s no one else [publishing daily in Hudson County]. No one.
I remember seeing old photos of New Jersey Transit trains, or Long Island Railroad commuters. All you would see is a whole car holding newspapers up. Now, if you sit on a PATH train, or any train, if you see one person holding a newspaper in that train, you're lucky. That says it all with a business where information is power. Now you see the same picture, but on a phone. You look at a carload of people, and what are they doing? All the information comes to that box.
On Leaving Behind Photojournalism
Photojournalism to me had just come so natural. I never had to work at it. I don’t know how else to explain it. You either have it or you don't have it. You don't go to school. That might tighten up your talent a bit, but you need to have it. It's just one of those things you have. So when it came to realizing that this job wasn't going to be here forever, and it might be time to transition to another career, I looked at EMS like, “Well, it's more or less the same thing. You still carry a bag. You still respond to calls. You go to horrible events, but you're directly involved.” So I would wake up at three o'clock in the morning in a cold sweat going, “Am I going to do this? Am I going to do this?" It just drove me nuts. I was getting older, but I didn't want to wait too long, have the rug pulled out totally, and just be standing there with no career, no nothing. At my age, I felt if I had to make a change, it's got to be now. So I went to tech school, got certified as an EMT, did some volunteer work in Newark to get good enough to work in Jersey City, and then I applied in Jersey City. It was a hard decision. It was hard work. Like I said, you've got to wake up two, three in the morning, like, “What am I doing? Am I nuts? I love this stuff.” It was very difficult to leave something I did for 25 years. I hated to do it. But I had to leave, and I had to get my own replacement, because I wanted that ship to still go straight and true. I hired Reena initially as an intern. Great person, heard worker. I could always trust her with anything I gave her. She did amazing work on 9/11. So when I left, I felt confident that I left someone behind that's going to work hard, represent.
On the Power and Profits of a Picture
I left behind most of my negatives. I don't care. I just left. Some people are very, very [protective]. Tom Franklin was a friend. He shot that famous 9/11 photo of the firefighters hoisting the flag. It was Tom's photo. He went through hell on that. Because I was out in a mall in western Pennsylvania, and here’s a mall stand that had that image on sweatshirts, coffee cups, T-shirts, hats, everything. Obviously it's copyrighted. I was waiting for like “9/11, the toilet paper!” That picture went bonkers all over the world. It was used illegally on everything. The Record did their best to reach out to the most egregious violators of that copyright, and said, “You can't use that image on your products, whatever it is.” So Tom went through that, but he's a very humble person. It's like trying to hold back Niagara Falls. You can’t. That water’s going to keep coming. He knows that. He also knows the impact that the image had on that event, and what it means to the world. A simple and powerful image. Like the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, the original negative of that is in Rockefeller Center at the AP. Once a year, Marines come up there close to that day, and they want to see the negative. That's how powerful it is. My friend Chuck Zoeller, he's still at AP, but he used to run the photo library. He says they would come up, and he would fit them with cotton archival gloves, go in a room that didn't have any dust, positive pressure ventilation, and he would bring the negative out. These young marines would look at it, and just be blown away. That's how much of an impact an image can have. Tom's picture is no different. It’s huge. For me, if you enjoy my photo, enjoy my photo. If it means something to you, it means something to you. If it changes anything, or makes you think differently, then that's even better. Simple as that. It really is. It either hits you, or it doesn’t.
On His Art Photography
I’m just drawn to old, old infrastructure in Hudson County that still exists and still works. [One photo], I incorporated the skyway and a non-working boat-lift—for If you wanted to go boating on the Hackensack River. One time I went down there to just photograph for the paper, and there was this guy throwing a crab net into the Hackensack River. There was a big sign right next to him that said, “Do not eat anything out of here.” So I get to chatting with the guy. He’s an elderly person, and I said, “What are you going to do with the crabs?” There were like five crabs in his cage. He says, “I'm going to 'burrell' them.” This man was really old-time Hudson County. “Boil them?” “Yeah, burrell them.” I couldn't stop laughing. He says, “I don't care what they say. I've been eating these crabs for 80 years, and I'm still here.” Classic Hudson County.
Another is the Wittpenn Bridge, along with the PATH bridge that goes over the Hackensack River. The Wittpenn is still there, but they're building a new one next to it. So that'll be gone some day. If you go around Hudson County, you will find what used to be an elevated railway freight line that went into the Greenville Yards, which is Liberty State Park now. So there were elevated trains, and then when they took the tracks out, these giant pillars exist. It was like going back into Roman times, finding these archival trunks of cement around Hudson County.
I did a few shows through Pro Arts. A friend of mine asked me when he was still in it. One was the 24-hour show. I got all these photographers to shoot Jersey City over a 24-hour period, make black and white prints, and we hung 8 x 10 prints all over the Goldman Sachs lobby. We had like 6,000 people walk through a day. It was a lot of fun. The show before that, I was asked for three prints. So I shot all these structures in Hudson County, and made them into slides first. I had what I think is called a dye transfer machine. You put the slide in, you focus down on a 4 x 5 color sheet film Polaroid, and you make an exposure. "Click," and it would capture the image on a 4 x 5 film. So you would close it, and then pull the film out. How a Polaroid works is, you pull it, and it squeegees out the chemicals over the image to make it process. That's where the magic comes from. You would do that, and then as soon as you got it through the rollers, you opened it up, slap it down on archival 100% rag-artist material, and it would produce a one-of-a-kind image. Every image is different, and you can see the difference. So for me, it was quite a stretch, and it was a lot of fun, frankly.
They were like a still life. There's no people in them. It's just interesting objects, infrastructure. I would shoot either right after sunrise or right before sunset, because you get that good color saturation. You wouldn't get that at midday. You wouldn't have the reflection in the river. It would be gone. So you wait for sunset, and you get a beautiful reflection in the nice polluted water.
Aesthetically, I always found some bizarre places to be very peaceful. One time, I climbed Snake Hill out in Secaucus. You see it from the turnpike. They used to call it Snake Hill, but it's also the Prudential Rock. There was a guy who worked for Prudential who took the train every day back and forth from Jersey to New York City, and he passed Snake Hill. He'd see it out there, and that became the basis for the Prudential Rock. Not the Rock of Gibraltar. It was the rock out in the middle of the meadows in Jersey. It was county property, and over the years they started mining it for some metal, and it went from the Prudential Rock down to what it is right now. They cut it down a lot. But it was one of those things in Hudson County where I’d go, “I'm gonna go climb that.” I just left Journal Square, drove out there, and go around this dirt road which you can’t get to anymore. Found this one spot, climbed up the side of it, and shale rock is falling. I get to the top, and it was like my Mount Everest. I get up there like, “This is cool, man! This is great!” The turnpike’s right there. You've got this beautiful vista of the New York City skyline, and the meadows with the Hackensack River going through it. I always like to find beauty in urban areas like Hudson County. It just felt very peaceful out there. I find the same thing if I'm sitting up on a mountain, looking at a beautiful vista. I get that same peace, but in an urban way. I don’t know anyone else who had climbed that hill, but it just felt good to be up there.