No Footsteps Remain. Letter to Mara Catalan for the photo book "Williamsburg: A place I once called home"
The photographer Mara Catalan asked me to write this text for her photobook: ‘Williamsburg: A place I once called home’. Her book is at once a beautiful document from the 1990s of a neighbourhood that is today transformed beyond recognition, and an intimate scrapbook of a temporary community that formed, a way of living and of friendship.
Istanbul, February 2013
I have a faded fax that you sent me from the jungle of Chiapas. The words you wrote have melted into the yellowed paper with the years, along with the photo of Subcommondante Marcos on his horse and you holding his hand, smiling. Now, I can make out only shapes and outlines and in a few months, I think it will be gone.
Do you remember how it began? It was 1993. I had been living in New York for a year. Late one night, a woman called. She told me that her name was Crystal and that she was a rap music producer. She had read a flyer that I had left on a film production noticeboard, describing a film that I wanted to make. She said she loved it and that it reminded her of the stories a sound engineer had told her about an amazing young Spanish photographer working on one of Hal Hartley’s films. She left me the sound engineer’s number so I could find you. She said, “I think you have to meet her. I just have the feeling you girls are going be friends.”
You were living on the corner. You turned up at my appartment, laughing and smoking, holding a book overflowing with photos that you kept dropping all over the floor: scattered images of people in rough, forgotten streets and a joyful carriage ride through Central Park with The Leningrad Cowboys in long pointed shoes. We saw each other almost everyday. We made a series of stories in stills for a film, weaving narratives through the city. You said you began to think of photos as stories.
A few months later, you moved out of the East Village bakery with its rats and heroin addicts, to share a garage by the water in Williamsburg. You built a dark room and a wood workshop and above it you made your home.
When I think of those years, I think of the happiness, the empty streets around North 1st, summer days on the roof, your voice from the dark room shouting out stories, Pattro leaning out of the window staring at the abandoned warehouses for hours, the dog Rita, mice climbing the table legs.
At night, you would wander for hours with your camera through disused lots and deserted streets, a stone in your hand to keep away unwanted men, dropping in to visit friends. Chasing the fragile beauty of the broken industrial buildings – the shattered windows, rumbling trucks and rare encounters – you fell in love with the neighbourhood.
I remember a party you gave crashed by people, who were so beautiful from everywhere, filling the street with dance until dawn; rides in the old Cadillac; boats passing; the old flamenco player; all the fun we had taking photos, making films, helping each other…You say: “when I think of you then, everyday was a new adventure.”
Years later, you’d take the subway to Manhattan each night and walk to the editing room where I was working, exhausted, to make a deadline. Sitting in a corner at the back of the room, you showed me photos in my breaks, your hands moving excitedly through contact sheets, telling stories, laughing, your bangles jangling. Sometime in the night, you’d get me to lie down on the sofa. You held my hand as I drifted to sleep before waking me a few minutes later. You sat in silence as I worked, you never slept so I wouldn’t be alone in my exhaustion.
In the mornings, we’d walk to the subway. It was just before I left New York and I can still see you there, on your way home to photograph the streets you loved, a cigarette dangling from your mouth, a Mexican shawl the only thing to protect you from the snow and in your eyes the exhilaration that we’d made it through another sleepless night and would meet again in a few hours until my film was done. I’ve carried this image everywhere. It is for me the image of friendship.
I leaf through the pages of the book, a long, hazy walk through the days and nights before the garage and the warehouses on North 1st were razed, luxury condos built, friends scattered. Could anyone have been more lucky?
I leave you the words I was reading then, forever inseparable from the photos:
“What to say of the passionate friendships that must be confused with love and yet are something else, of the limits of love and friendship…which cannot be understood by those who live standard lives. The dates overlap, the years merge into one. The snow melts, the feet fly away; no footprints remain.”1
I give your book to Crystal in my imagination.
Love Laura xxx
1 Jean Cocteau “Opium”_
“No Footsteps Remain. Letter to Mara Catalan” for the photography book “Williamsburg: A place I once called home” by Mara Catalan, Red Hook Editions, NY 2018