In July 2001, Lawrence Schwartzwald–a fanatical reader, people-watcher, and lifelong New Yorker–snapped a candid image of a sidewalk bookseller in Manhattan. It ran in the New York Post, where Schwartzwald worked as a freelance photographer, captioned “Crack Salesman,” referring to the poor oblivious subject’s exposed backside.
It would launch a series of photos that Schwartzwald took of New Yorkers reading books: on park benches and subway platforms, in barber shops and antique stores. His photographs not only reveal that anywhere in the city can become a makeshift reading spot, but that in the age of e-readers, they’re a comforting reminder that print is not dead.
“Back in the early ’90s, I started going to literary events and readings in the city, taking a camera with me,” Schwartzwald, who was born in the Bronx, says in a phone interview. He met the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Gwendolyn Brooks, Denise Levertov, and Raymond Carver. After the publication of “Crack Salesman” (which inspired a follow-up New York Post interview with the humiliated paperback seller), Schwartzwald started to take the photography project more seriously, snapping photos of anyone he saw reading. “They were all candid, except when I photographed celebrities–like Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, Zack Galifinakis–I’d hand them a book I had on me.”
The growing proliferation of e-readers makes Schwartzwald’s ongoing project more difficult, due to his contentious view on e-books. “I love physical books,” Schwartzwald says, describing how as a child, he would get upset if he didn’t read for a few days. “I’m not going to take a picture of someone reading on a cell phone or an iPad. All these people on cell phones and computers in cafes, it bugs the hell out of me.”
Part of the appeal of his series is that it captures the diverse beauty of printed matter–colorful book covers, varied typography, and things of the like. One of the downsides of e-readers, particularly in regards to this project, is that they’re all visually homogenous. An e-book hidden on a Kindle, unlike a printed book, never offers a clue into a stranger’s character (is that buttoned-up business woman on the subway reading Fifty Shades of Grey? You’ll never know.).
“I find New Yorkers are less interesting-looking than they used to be,” he says. But despite his pessimistic outlook, Schwartzwald hopes his project will someday turn into a book itself.