Photo by Peter Bellamy
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It was the late 1970s, and Carroll Gardens was rough, mostly Italian, and working class. Around that time, Pratt photography student Peter Bellamy started walking the streets of South Brooklyn with his huge 4 x 5 camera, taking portraits.
He lived in Park Slope, where he lives today, but came to Carroll Gardens because it was safer for him. Bellamy went on to work with and photograph film director Orson Welles, the famed sculptor Louise Bourgeois, Magnum Photographer Elliot Erwitt, and artists including Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol, William Eggleston, Kiki Smith, and Wynton Marsalis. He’s got two books of photos on the market. But he cut his teeth on street photography in Carroll Gardens.
Bellamy, a city cab driver, shared his photos, his story, and his memories with South Brooklyn Post.
“I was a white person with a big camera,” says Bellamy. “I would ride around on the subway and see a lot of Brooklyn. I didn’t want to be bothered in my own neighborhood, people would get robbed; people would know you had camera equipment. Bushwick and Bed Stuy were out of the question. I’d carry a big tripod in a garbage bag. It looked like a gun. You had to come and go.
“I never had a problem.
“In Carroll Gardens, there was a street scene. It was mostly Italians and Puerto Ricans. I’d wander around.
“Street stuff is fantastic theater. They’d pose for you and you’d practice. It’s a celebration of life.
“With portraits, each face is unique.
“I would carry prints in my pocket and show them to people. I’d take their picture, and then send them the prints. It was a form of flattery, a celebration of them. I’d work with children. They were out on the street. The kids, they were smoking. Kids used to smoke. There wasn’t this thing, like now, with smoking. Kids still smoke I think.”
One of Bellamy’s photos shows a guy in a black leather jacket, his hair slicked back, making fists in front of a brownstone stoop covered with graffiti. Others show shop workers, laundry hanging, and a child sitting on a pony in the Gowanus area.
“The Puerto Ricans kept horses in the fields where there’s a Superfund site. It was very nice. It used to be overgrown with grass. There were two or three ponies, and a horse. The city cracked down eventually. People could do stuff before the city got wise.
“When I was in art school, I remember going down to the Brooklyn Bridge. It was so cold I gathered driftwood and made a fire. There were some bums collecting copper. Nobody would bother me. That’s what Dumbo was like. You could go build a fire and nobody would think twice about it.
“Carroll Gardens was a mixture, like now. It has an intellectual class. In Carroll Gardens, a lot has changed, and a lot hasn’t. It still looks the same.
“Sometimes when things get gentrified, they go back to the way they were.”
Bellamy is working on a project photographing playwrights, who he says are living proof there is a God. He teaches photography at Pratt and Queensborough College.
“I’m very old school. I develop all my own work in a dark room. I do everything by hand. I’m not digital. I shoot film. Everything gets scanned, but I develop everything myself. I teach that. People like it.”
He’s fallen on some hard times. Today Bellamy drives a cab.
“It’s one of many things I do, because I have money situations. I drove a cab in college, in art school. I crashed it. It was a big disaster. That didn’t last long. It’s hard driving a cab.
“I got better at it.
“I drive a Crown Victoria. It’s like being a cowboy on the range. Cab drivers are like cowboys carrying people around.
“I drive six days a week. I never get enough sleep. It’s a privilege to drive a cab in New York. Someone gives me a Crown Victoria, a powerful car, to take people around. You can start the day with $20 and that’s all you have, and end with $150.”
Bellamy is not new to adversity. He moved to Manhattan in 1969, when he was 9. His dad had committed suicide. His mom remarried.
“I lived near the Met and MoMA, they weren’t expensive then. I started photographing. I wanted to take pictures. I was young.”
Today he’s got a routine. Bellamy wakes at 3 a.m. and heads to an airport, to hang out with an international crew of cabbies, waiting for fares back to the city. It’s quite a scene out there, with guys gambling and playing dice, others exercising, hanging in the cafeteria, using the restrooms, waiting for flights to come in.
The schedule appeals to Bellamy.
“I knew I could do it, it had freedom and structure. I lived in the wilderness for five or six years, at the Arctic Circle, on the Rio Grande, roamed Manhattan. I had to do something. I’ve lived in cars, driven from New York to Alaska. I like this. I can walk out of my home and do it.”
A while back he did a show for the Henry Gregg Gallery, in DUMBO. They asked if he had photos of Brooklyn, and he fished these out of his attic.
He does portraits and commissions, and would like to do more commercial work.
Around the country, four or five galleries have shown work from his book, The Artist Project (Portraits of the Real Art World: New York Artists 1981-1990), He shot close to 500 city artists for the book.
“People are always interested in it. It was an era in New York.”
Hard times don’t sway Bellamy from his passion.
“I’ve always been a little bit of an outsider, for whatever reason. I’ve doggedly pursued things. You practice and you get better. You start a project and nobody backs it or understands it, and you have a vision and pursue it. I have that vision with things. If something excites me and interests me, you refine it and work on it.
“There’s that old saying, move a mountain one piece of sand at a time. You keep doing it.
“I had things in life, things taken away. My father abandoned us. I went out and discovered my own world. When you grow older you acquire wisdom. It hasn’t been easy.
“I was a fortunate product of arts in school. A lot of it came from school. I went to great schools.
“It’s up to you to do what you’re doing. You’re answering to a higher power. Life is amazing, the vibrancy.
“Don’t ever let it be up to other people whether or not you are a success. It’s up to you. Don’t let anyone shut you down.”
Bellamy’s work has shown at the Jack Tilton Gallery, the Clocktower Gallery on Leonard St., downtown, and at MoMA’s PS 1. His Brooklyn photos were first shown at the Henry Gregg Gallery in Dumbo, which offers the prints for sale, at henrygregggallery.com. Check out Bellamy’s photos and portraits on his website and blog. His two books, The Artist Project (Portraits of the Real Art World: New York Artists 1981-1990) and Addict’s Damn, are available through Amazon.com.
The portraits of Bellamy in this story were taken in Red Hook by South Brooklyn Post Photographer Joshua Kristal.