Before leaving California in October 1970, to return to NYC, I bought a 35mm camera at a San Jose pawnshop. Because it was the heavier of the two cameras in my $30 price range, I chose a Nikon rangefinder. I was lucky, 22 years old and wanted to be a photographer.
Back home, I took a photography class at the School of Visual Arts, a job with the telephone company and began photographing my family and friends in South Brooklyn. I never felt comfortable at SVA so I rented a small storefront in Sunset Park and set up my own black and white darkroom. I bought a paperback book on photography, and carried it everywhere, reading and re-reading every section.
I returned to college and graduated in 1972. Over the next few years, I completed a Masters degree and worked as a cab driver, cameraman, waiter, photographer’s assistant, bartender and carpenter. But no matter what I did to earn money, I kept photographing. I made my own prints in a variety of darkrooms – almost always ill equipped for washing big prints. So I often used a bathtub.
Looking back on it now, I smile thinking of my eager young self. I walked around South Brooklyn with my camera and a hand-held light meter, recording each exposure in a 2 x 3 inch spiral notebook. I enjoyed working as a photo assistant in a Manhattan commercial studio, but deep down always preferred photographing in my neighborhood.
Somewhere around 1975, one of my mother’s cousins gave me a Speed Graphic. This classic camera – made famous by Wegee and familiar to me as the logo of the New York Daily News – used 4×5 inch sheet film.
It was quite a while before I was ready to meet the challenges of photographing with a large format camera but I learned.
When I began learning about the craft and art of photography, I was influenced by Robert Leverant’s book Zen in the Art of Photography: “A camera is an extension of ourselves. An appendage to bring us closer to the universe.”
My universe in the 1970’s was South Brooklyn where my ongoing interest in photographing working class family life and religious expression began. Although I photograph throughout NYC with a variety of cameras, I still like to shoot family events in BxW with an old medium format camera.
About the author of this blog post: Larry Racioppo was born and raised in South Brooklyn, and he has been photographing throughout New York City since 1971. Living in Rockaway, NY, with his wife, interior designer Barbara Cannizzaro, and their dog, Juno, he can’t believe his good luck.
You can pre-order and learn more about his upcoming book, BROOKLYN BEFORE, here.