Highsnobiety

What does it look like to dedicate your life to something? Even more, something that is fundamentally a part of your being; something that you quite literally can’t live without. These existential queries are among the many that photographer and filmmaker Joshua Charow encountered while engaging with a rare breed of the heritage New York creative scene: the storied Loft Law artist. 

Born in Montreal and raised in New Jersey, Charow spent much of his early teens exploring architectural outcasts across the Big Apple’s vast concretized landscape. But after digging deeper into the previous lives taken on by some of the city’s abandoned infrastructures, the speculative documentarian uncovered a seminal piece of legislation from a period before New York's emergence as a flourishing haven of artistic inspiration. 

In his new book Loft Law, The Last of New York City’s Original Artist Lofts, produced in partnership with Damiani Books, Charow intimately captures spaces and faces from the dwindling fraternity of auteurs protected under the 1982 New York law of the same name. Ratified at a time when the Lower Manhattan art district was beginning to take shape—with eclectic galleries and installations sprouting in bunches and the legendary who’s who of contemporary art clamoring to make an impression—the Loft Law instituted a safeguard for ambitious beatniks to secure, live, and work in these picturesque studio spaces normally only seen in coming-of-age indie flicks.  

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In a past life, New York, especially its southern districts, existed as one of America’s major manufacturing hubs. But as industry began to flee to the suburbs, it was the struggling artists who engaged in handshake deals to rent out the remaining evacuated studio spaces. Yet, once the area showed signs of the hip, modish neighborhoods we know today, landlords doubled back, attempting to displace the new-age romantics from their coveted lofts. 

Following a coalition of dislodged artists organizing and lobbying for not only themselves but the burgeoning cause they represented, the Loft Law was put in place, effectively supplying this founding generation of New York creatives with cheap, stabilized rent and up-to-code safety protections. 

A project conceptualized in his youth and actualized over the course of the past five years, Charow’s initial photo-literary offering features 25 dedicated visionaries of the revered artistic lineage documented within their bohemian dwellings, providing a candid peek into the life of New York’s treasured old-guard. 

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Delving into the full circle moment ahead of Loft Law’s anticipated release on April 30, Highsnobiety spoke with Charow about his latest project, early inspirations, and just how important it is to champion the many stories tied to this landmark movement in artistry.  

Before getting into the details of the book, let’s get to know you a little bit more. When did you start experimenting with film and photography and at what point did you realize you wanted to turn this into a career? 

When I was about 15 years old, I started becoming embedded in a community called Urban Exploring in New York, a collective that would climb skyscrapers and bridges and explore abandoned subway tunnels.

I would bring my camera to all these places we’d explore just to learn more about photography and video. So, as a teenager, I spent a few years coming to the city to go to these hidden places, and then I started sharing my work online. That's where I found an even bigger community. Everything else kind of blossomed from there. 

Now, I work as a cinematographer making documentaries, but for the past three years, I have been working on [Loft Law].

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How did you go about approaching the creation of the book Loft Law?

Firstly, I did so much research. This led me to find a map that outlined the buildings that were under the law’s protection. It didn't have the unit numbers or names, but it did have addresses.

Then, I went on foot and I rang up every unit in every building on the map. I gave a quick pitch on the intercom and slowly started meeting people. Those people I would come back and photograph, and then the more people I photographed, the more artists would refer me to any of their friends who were still around. 

How much credit do you give the actual Loft Law for revitalizing and reinventing the Lower Manhattan art district?

I would say the Loft Law was more of a reaction to the artists and the movement they were creating at the time. It was the artists who transformed these neighborhoods and these buildings.

It's so romantic to look back on these spaces now and see someone living in a 3,000-square-foot loft, paying cheap rent, and making paintings, but back then it was visionary to see an empty industrial neighborhood as a canvas.

What was the most difficult part about putting this project together? 

Other than having to decide on which of the over 75 artists I photographed to include in the book, I’d have to say scheduling. I know that's not an exciting answer, but when you're trying to capture so many different people, and everyone has a different way of communicating it can make things pretty difficult. 

I spoke to some people for over a year before I photographed them. Communication and following through were definitely the most difficult parts. 

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This idea was sparked when you were young, and within the last few years, you started putting things into motion. Now that the book is finally here, what kept you motivated to keep pushing through?

At the end of the day, I really believed in the project and thought it was really important. I believe in the history and the people, and it was extremely important to me to finish this one and to share it with the world.

Selfishly, too, it was so much fun. I loved getting to go to these spaces and I loved getting to meet these artists and spend time with them. It never felt like work.

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Are there any specific moments that stick out in your mind from this whole process?

This is such a cop-out, but literally, in every single photo shoot, I was walking into this otherworldly space with a person who had a perspective on life that I had never experienced prior to this project.

Every single person was unique. If I ever had doubts about the work I was doing, all I had to do was photograph someone else, and I was immediately reminded why it was so special. Each person, each space, and each piece of artwork is so special, so it's impossible to choose one. 

How has your perspective on your own art form shifted after engaging with all of these artists?

It's given me a longer perspective on what I'm creating. Before this project, most of the artists that I got to interact with were from the same generation as myself.

When you speak with an artist in their nineties who has spent their entire life pursuing painting, you learn about the ups and the downs. This project allowed me to see what life looks like if you do end up pursuing art for your entire life. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

This project tackles quite a lot. Why do you feel that this is such an important story to give to everyone?

The artists I photographed for this project are part of New York City's cultural fabric, and they are what make the city such a great place. These are the people the history textbooks are written about.

I think a lot of people don’t realize how important it is to commemorate these people and share their stories, lives, artworks, and legacies. It's beautiful.

Featured imagery from Loft Law, The Last of New York City’s Original Artist Lofts, will be on display at Westwood Gallery NYC from May 16 through June 29.

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