Andrew Blaize Bovasso, native son of Jersey City, is making a name
for himself in the art and publishing world. His primary medium is photography. His subjects include Jersey City, Ground Zero, and 9/11.
NEW Magazine selected his work for the cover of its current issue.
Currently, he has photographs on view in the group exhibition Psychopomp at Curious Matter. He also has a series triptychs on view in the lobby of Hamilton Square.
I recently caught up with Andrew as he prepares to release his first book of photographs, “Conversations with Dan McNulty in Jersey City,” at Hamilton Square on Thursday, Nov. 18.
Andrew, tell us a little bit about yourself, who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Andrew Blaize Bovasso. The middle name is real. It was passed down to me after my grandfather, Blaize Bovasso. I was born in Christ Hospital and have lived in Greenville, Jersey City, all my life. I had originally aspired to be a photographer following my father Anthony’s unexpected death in 2002. I wanted to find a way to fuse my inner emotions of loss with the world as it stood before me, in this “post 9/11” world. After attending Hudson Catholic High School, I was accepted to and enrolled in the BFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, MD where I majored in photography.
Tell us about Conversations With Dan McNulty in Jersey City. Who was Dan McNulty, what is the project, and why is it important?
Conversations With Dan McNulty in Jersey City was a culmination of sorts. For completion in MICA’s B.F.A. photo program, one must complete a thesis body of work (a personal project that the student formulates him or herself.) Up until this point in my career I had been creating work that examined death, bereavement, and loss. The critical reception between works was widely similar-the work may have consistently been too personal. For my thesis, I wanted to make sure the experience of death and loss was still clearly visible (and universal) without having to educate an audience with my personal back-story. I also knew I wanted to make a body of work about Jersey City before I left college.
When did you first become familiar with the photographs of Dan McNulty, and what did you find appealing about his work, and why?
I always knew of Dan McNulty’s work. As a child, I loved to go to the book store in the Newport Mall and look at his photographs in the books about Jersey City that were published by Arcadia publishing as a part of the Images of America series. I used to try and use the images to pinpoint places that I knew to exist at the time-and the past seemed so much more magical. Curiously when I was deciding what to do for my thesis project, the Dan McNulty Collection resurfaced in my bathroom reading pile. (A friend had given the book to my mother earlier that month.)
As I flipped through the pages, I remembered looking at these images as a child. The number of places I knew to exist as a child grew much larger as an adult, now with a more full understanding of the city. Some pieces of the puzzle were still missing – and I wanted to know much more. I had found my thesis project.
In 1998, director Gus Van Sant did a shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s groundbreaking movie Psycho. Van Sant caught a lot of flack from the critics and fans, and the receipts from the box office were dismal. Dan McNulty is not a household name. He worked in his family’s funeral home. He was an amateur photographer. What inspired you to recreate the photographs of Dan McNulty? Why did you invest your time, money, and resources in Dan McNulty and not with some well-known photographer such as Gary Winograd, Helen Levitt, James Van Der Zee?
Initially, as both a child and as an adult, the intriguing part about McNulty’s images was that they depict a very honest Jersey City. I had not known, and still do not know many-or any-other photographers to have exclusively worked with Jersey City as their subject matter. I always think of the work by photographer Robert Frank shot in Hoboken and become extremely jealous. Dan McNulty is certainly not a household name. My reason for examining McNulty’s photographs lies much more in the fact that there is a pure and vernacular truth to his works, and also that he concentrated on architectural elements-which are the recognizable staples of our city.
All of the recent flow about Dan McNulty has happened this year. I’ve been with the project since the winter of 2008, and in 2009 I published the first version of the book. McNulty’s granddaughter Lauren found my book online and we are now in close contact. I met local photographer Leon Yost through the project who had also just printed a book containing McNulty’s images. This year the author of my main sourcebook from the project, Kenneth French, nominated Dan McNulty for inclusion in the Circle of Honor in Journal Square, and it was dedicated on September 11, 2010. Everything that seems to happen around Dan McNulty is extremely serendipitous.
Dan McNulty shot pictures of Jersey City from the ’40s to the ’60s. What were the similarities and differences in Jersey City then and now? Have your perceptions of Jersey City changed as a result of this project? If so, how and in what way?
Well the 40’s were just different times; the people were different, architecture was different. Around the time he started photographing Jersey City, the city was going through some major redevelopments. Things were being torn down and replaced by more economically sound structures, usually bearing less architectural integrity. I believe in current day, more than any period in history, Jersey City is undergoing the same kind of redevelopment-particularly and shamelessly centering within the Downtown section.
Through the project I’ve learned that Jersey City develops itself based on functionality and a tight economic budget. Redevelopment is favored over historic preservation, and urban aesthetics almost never mattered.
I love Jersey City-love what it was, and could be. But right now, my feelings are love/hate. Since the production of the project I’ve been interested in exposing these images to the public to ensure their knowledge of importance of historic preservation for the good of the city and its social communities.
Dan McNulty died in 1976. Describe the process of reshooting his photographs. How were you able to trace his steps? Did McNulty leave behind notes or a diary to guide you along on the process?
The only thing I had to guide me was the book that had resurfaced. It had over 100 original McNulty images pertaining to all sections of the greater Jersey City. The title of my project, “Conversations With Dan McNulty in Jersey City,” refers to the action of re-shooting his images. I came up with the title of the series almost instantaneously after the first set of locations I shot. I really did feel as if I was talking to him-or him to me. I used his image to identify and locate the site, and I would use my camera’s viewfinder to zero in on what he had seen. Consequently, I was honing in on the same cement that supported his feet over 50 years ago. That action was the “conversation”, and I often refer to the images in my series as the transcription of what we “spoke” about. In my book, I say “the only way to have a conversation with Dan McNulty in Jersey City is to go out with your camera and have one yourself.”
What did Dan McNulty’s photographs reveal about the character of Jersey City, and what did they reveal about him?
Dan McNulty was a man who was doing what he wanted to do. His sons say he was “very matter of fact about (photography).” He could have worked in his family-run funeral home, which I am told he did help with, but that was not exactly of his interest. A man who is well acquainted with death often seeks comfort in photography. Photography has an everlasting presence, a crossover from the transient nature of impermanence. To create these kinds of documents is to alleviate one’s issues with death. I can not exactly speak for McNulty on that, but I can surely speak for myself, as well as many other photographers.
What did it feel like to walk around Jersey City in a dead man’s shoes?
It felt no different than how I feel in my own shoes! I know my mortality well. Long after this project was finished I still experience Jersey City as a continuum-both how it was and how it remains. When I walk down Newark Avenue past the parking lot next to Palace Drugs, I know I am actually standing under the marquee of the Palace Theater. I don’t care very much to note that it’s invisible. I always joke and say that I have better relationships with the dead than I do with the living.
You recently graduated from art school. I loved art school. I got to see nude women on a daily basis and draw them. I went to museums and galleries, read tons of books, and had a studio, a library, and critiques at my disposal. And then I graduated. I worked a nickel-and-dime job, drank at the corner bar, and watched TV. This has not been your experience. You have already participated in at least four shows, published a book, and work full-time in a prestigious gallery in Chelsea. What steps have you taken to avoid the pitfalls of graduation-self-pity, immobilization, writer’s block, and financial destitution? What motivates you to continue working, and how do you maintained your focus? What advice would you give to recent graduates?
At MICA, we drew naked men and women of all shapes and sizes, sometimes while they ran around bouncing all around the room and we’d have to draw their movement. Real artists don’t give up hope, ever. A good way to figure out if you are an artist is to think about how your life would be different without your art. If the difference is completely unpredictable and incomprehensible, you are a real artist. Going to art school doesn’t birth this. I learned that very quickly at MICA. Though they taught us a ton of technical advancement, the instructional focus from our professors came much more from the cognitive development and constructive criticism of our pre-existing artistic ventures, and they never told us what to do. The ones that didn’t get it would just drop out.
When I graduated, I knew that whatever I wanted to create, it had to be smart, not just aesthetically pleasing. I also knew that my “career” and my “job” served two very different purposes. I believe I am a successful artist because I have accepted that the bulk of my money would not come directly through art profits. Many young artists are discouraged by lack of sales. If you aren’t Ryan McGinley, you aren’t going to sell. My main goal is to exhibit work. Once you alleviate that burden of art sales, you can make work that really speaks to your heart. I often make work that is not sellable-like video and installation sculpture. If I were worried about selling it, I would have never created it.
If you can’t get the jobs you need to maintain an “art career”, just be creative in whatever you can do. I worked, and still work occasionally at Patti Paige Baked Ideas in SoHo. I was responsible for a good amount of her inventory of 2 by 2 inch gingerbread houses, among many other creative baked cookie inventions.
I also spend very little money creating new work. If I am making a black and white series, I print in the darkroom in my basement. If I am doing color, I print at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan. I was a teacher’s assistant over the summer at a community development center they run in the Bronx. Each hour I worked there I received one hour of darkroom time – I have about 90 hours racked up. It’s all about finding the best resources and knowing what you need to do to be happy with yourself and your work. (All of the opportunities, including my current employment and several fine art exhibition opportunities were found at NYFA.org)
My job at the gallery covers the cost of living as a fine artist/photographer, and the work isn’t too far off of what I constantly should be thinking about and doing anyway. I chose to intern at many galleries and organizations in Manhattan because it was the closest art community at my disposal. Looking for jobs in photography was brutal and impossible, but freelance jobs were vast. I did shoot freelance for many events, but that is not the kind of photography I cared about. In the end, my gallery put me on as their photographer/designer and I am doing the kind of work that will satisfy me outside of my fine art-not to mention work that will monetarily make my personal fine art possible. I only got the position because I was extremely persistent about it.
Let’s focus on Jersey City. In Conveyer, the designer Josef Reyes notes: “A life is a narrative and a place is a meeting point of several narratives. Consider a place to be not so much a physical environment but a crossing point of disparate stories.” What are a few of the buried stories of Jersey City, and what do they reveal about the character of our city?
Your question is beautiful but in order to answer truthfully I would have to hear what the City would say to the same question. If the City was less interested in the physical environment and more interested in the crossing point of disparate stories, it would not center it’s development solely within the Downtown section-a section of Jersey City that’s prized solely upon its physical proximity to lower Manhattan and its grand views of it. Jersey City will always shamelessly live in the shadows of New York City, and the fact that our City has given in to this by overdeveloping the Downtown section merely due to its proximity to NYC appears blatant and absolutely disgusts me. Greenville, anyone?-Nope! Too far away.
What is your favorite place to eat? Who has the best jukebox, and where can you find a decent cup of coffee?
I really love Taqueria, Boulevard Drinks (and The Brownstone Diner, but the Broadway Diner (in Bayonne) has the all-time best of the best French onion soup (I usually order a entree too and forget how big the French onion soup actually is). I don’t know nothing ’bout no jukeboxes. And I substitute coffee with diet soda and I know its unhealthy and don’t care at all.
It’s time for the City Smackdown. Baltimore inspired David Simon’s television show The Wire. Jersey City inspired the Jim Jarmusch movie Ghostdog, and the original score by RZA. Which city-Baltimore or Jersey City-inspires better art, and why?
That’s easy! Baltimore. The city screams art. It’s very colorful and you can still carry a decent conversation with any stranger down there despite B-more being even more dangerous than any place in Jersey. I don’t know that the question should be what “inspires” art better or what city makes art more possible. Inspiration comes from the inspired wherever they may be. In Baltimore, there are many more programs for art, more high schools and colleges dedicated solely to fine art advancement, and more galleries and organizations that are nationally recognized. Jersey City on the other hand has no nationally recognized organizations within the arts. I am not saying that artists cannot thrive here-most of the art traffic comes from neighboring cities like Newark and NYC. Aside from the annual JC Studio Tour or Pro-Arts, the only redeeming qualities about the arts in Jersey City are its no-snob approach, and its talented artists and up-and-coming artist run organizations that constantly struggle to function within an artist community that has remained neglected and undefined by the City. As I said previously about the city: I love what it was, and I love what it can be.
One a side note: a portion of Ghostdog was filmed on Neptune Avenue across the street from my Grandparents house. I met Forest Whittaker as they were giving away left over tubs of ice cream away to the locals. He signed my notebook “Do good in school-Forest.”
What is up next for you?
First and foremost, mark your calendars for my official opening of the “Conversations series at the Hamilton Square,” Lobby (232 Pavonia Avenue) on Nov. 18 from 6 to 8 p.m. Both hard cover and paperback versions of my book will be on display for the first time, as well as the large-scale framed triptychs. The site hosted my portion of the studio tour and was generous enough to offer a reception on that date. Expect to see at least three other different photo series of mine there.
For a closer look at my new series, please visit bovasso.blogspot.com and search “Tik-Tok of Oz.”
Anybody with inquiries on work or commissions please contact me directly at email@example.com.
The original post may be found here.