In My Taxi: Ryan Weideman

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Street photographer Ryan Weideman’s grandfather was a livery driver in his small Oklahoma community. When Ryan was a student at the California College of Arts and Crafts, where he received an M.F.A., there was little to suggest he would follow a similar career path, but he did, becoming a New York City taxi driver in 1980.

Recently arrived from California, he rented a tenement on West 43rd Street, which was still a low-rent area of Hell’s Kitchen. A neighbor across the hall who drove a taxi led Weideman toward his own profession, inviting him to ride in the front seat during one of his shifts. Once on the job, Weideman found it to be a perfect opportunity for a young photographer to engage the Big Apple’s nocturnal denizens as they hired his cab for brief but close encounters. Weideman’s photographic work was already under the sway of then hip street photographers Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, and especially the already legendary Robert Frank. But it’s the wide-angle, close-up, intrusive images of Mark Cohen that meshed best with the narrow confines of Weideman’s “studio”: the back seat of his seven-seater Checker cab. After a brief stint driving the clogged streets of daytime Manhattan, Weideman opted for the nighttime and weekend shift, 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. This exposed him to the highs and lows of Manhattan night life, from elegant Upper East Siders headed to Lincoln Center and the Met Opera to the grungy, burgeoning downtown club scene and its after-hours wastrels.

He piloted the Checker cab until it was retired from service in 1987 …

… when it was changed to a Chevy, whose plastic partition, meant to protect the driver from aggressive passengers, tended to distance Weideman from all his riders.

To counter this, Weideman began including himself in his photographs of riders (years ahead of the Selfie Era). He secured his strobe flash to the driver’s visor, which had the effect of foregrounding him in greater brightness.

By 1991, Weideman had photographed and printed enough exciting taxi portraits to publish his first book, In My Taxi, through Soho’s Thunder’s Mouth Press. The introduction was written by Weideman rather than a critic or publicist. The book had no captions, dates or identification of subjects, though he added those years later.

In his introduction, Weideman is up front about his temperament:

There’s no question about it. I’m a hothead. Maybe that’s what ten years of driving a cab does to a guy.

Backtracking, he describes his initiation to driving at night:

The first night out is dreary and raining. Around midnight on the Lower East Side, a lone figure signals me from the shadows.  A woman gets in, but as I begin to pull away, she says, ‘Just a moment, my friend is coming.’ I see a mysterious male figure approaching, and I’m a little scared. He gets in and tells me where we’re going. As a new driver in town, I make a wrong turn. Sensing my ignorance, he gets angry. At the time I’m essentially a farm boy, [having grown up in Oklahoma and then Kansas] … and I’m finding New Yorkers abrasive. People like this late-night fare can be very condescending, attempting to put me in my place. Some carry on like I’m not even there.

Almost from the beginning, Weideman lets his riders know he is a photographer and asks to take their pictures. At first he does this rather indiscriminately, but he eventually learns how to filter through the diverse humanity flowing through his cab and select subjects whose presence creates a kind of Balzacian “human comedy.” He says, “I think I identify with their struggle.”

Weideman’s family knew struggle. In the book’s introduction, he writes of a beloved family photo album that influenced him as much as the work of the professional photographers whom he emulated:

[The album] had photographs taken by my parents, mostly my mother, of family life in Oklahoma during the Depression. In ’43 they lost their farm. There was an auction, and we had to move. The album had pictures of farmers in straw hats at the auction: people parked along the road. My mother knew it was important to record the tragedy. Then we pulled up stakes in a Model A and a trailer and went not to California, but to Kansas. That album conveys the upheaval my family faced.

In some ways, Weideman has devoted his photography career to recording the faces of people in transition — bystanders in the pageant of life caught in a strobe flash by a man who is himself driving through the city streets without a fixed goal, a man creating his own family photo album.

Weideman describes how he engages his fares as potential subjects:

As a photographer-taxi driver, I never find it very difficult to ask people for pictures. I know I have to move quickly because we may have only 10 or 20 blocks to go. When stopping for a fare, I look the passengers over, greet them and introduce myself as a photographer. I tell them about the portraits that I take of people who ride in my taxi, and then I ask if I can photograph them. Little do they know when they step into my taxi, they’re stepping into my studio. (On the other hand, little do I know that In My Taxi will turn into a ten-year book project.)

Weideman admits that sometimes he does take a picture before asking, then explains and secures the subject’s agreement. Other encounters are far less spontaneous, with his subjects eagerly mugging for camera, posing as if for a professional shoot.

Weideman’s introduction mostly details the circumstances of his portraits, but at one point he departs into a more reflective mode:

Working the tragic/magic streets of New York, I’m saturated by my environment. Fusing two roles in my work, I get a double dose of reality. The images of my passengers give me a vision of the City — its wit, style, pain and alienation. And for me, photographing brings harmony from the urban chaos. Those experiences help clarify my role as photographer — and relieve the solitude I face in the front of my cab.

But he also details how he made several of the portraits:

There’s the time I pick up the people with a snake — a young punk couple with a huge boa constrictor as thick as my thigh. They’ve been waiting an hour and a half for a cab to stop. I say, ‘Get in, but I’m going to photograph you.’ They’re happy to get a ride, they agree right away.

There’s also the story of Dee Dee:

One night, I pick up a black prostitute named Dee Dee on upper Third Avenue. When I tell her I’m a photographer and I have my camera with me, she asks me to pull over so she can put on her makeup. I photograph as she does. She says she never works the streets before 11 p.m. out of respect for the young people who live in that neighborhood. She carries a small boom box that she calls her friend. ‘I never go anywhere without it,’ she says and then turns it on. She begins to dance to the sounds in the back seat as I keep shooting. She’s given herself rituals and rules that help structure her life on the streets — a little like me.

Weideman talks about how he evaluates people as they get into the cab. But I found one example where his “encounter” even preceded his subject’s opening of the car door. In two photographs that he references as homage to Robert Frank, he spots a woman crossing the street who looks very much like one of the sad-eyed women from The Americans and takes her photograph from the driver window.

A few seconds later, the same woman is inside the taxi as a passenger.

Though there are other photographs of Weideman taking photographs of people on the street (Out My Taxi), I’ve found no other connection between a subject as street shot and also as a cab portrait.

The Bruce Silverstein Gallery in Manhattan represents Weideman, and he has exhibited there for over 25 years. The occasion for this blog is my own late discovery of his work, which is opening this month in a Silverstein-sponsored traveling exhibition in Barcelona at the Espronceda Center for Art and Culture.

Weideman stopped driving a New York taxi a few years ago; he continues to photograph the world of the taxi hack and has spent several years traveling many states with an Irving Penn “Worlds in a Small Room”-type portable studio, photographing veteran taxi drivers. Now in his 70s, he lives in the same apartment on 43rd Street.


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