Street artist JR on the Deitch wall

I inadvertently took this photograph of the French street artist JR in 2007 as he was installing an exhibit in a vast, roofless abandoned factory in Arles, France.  At that time, he went to considerable lengths not to be photographed so I didn’t recognize him: I thought he was just one of the workmen helping to put up the posters.  What I really wanted was to photograph his glue-saturated protective goggles but he took them off to talk to the friend I was with, who had met him previously in Paris; then I took more photographs of my friend, talking to this stranger who later introduced himself to me as JR.  That is how I ended up with this photo.  At the time, JR was installing images from the Israel/Palestine project he did showing Jews and Arabs making funny faces distorted by an ultrawide lens — these are not nearly as strong, I think, as the ones he did in Kenya and installed on shanty roofs and train tops.  Indeed, JR’s work at its best is most remarkable for the context in which he situates it.  In Arles, he was soft spoken and polite but insistent about trying to remain anonymous so I have not published the photograph until now, but when he won the TED Prize earlier this year he gave a speech that is available on the TED website so I take that he no longer tries to maintain his earlier anonymity.

As night fell a couple weeks ago I saw JR, wearing his trademark hat, standing on the East Houston Street traffic median next to a camera on a tripod.  He was photographing pedestrians (myself included) as they walked by and periodically engaged with the large black and white eyes he’d put up on the Deitch wall at the corner of the Bowery.  The eyes belong to DJ Two Bears, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota; the wall, which hosts a rotating series of curated street art and is a recreation of a real graffiti wall from the 1980s, belongs to Goldman Properties.  The art impresario Jeffrey Deitch is no longer involved but within the neighborhood it is still referred to as the Deitch wall, for good or ill.  The wall is really a kind of advertising, which is an arrangement unsatisfying to many who regard street art as inherently uncommercial and remember the now-hip neighborhood — at the border of NoHo and Nolita but once just part of the Lower East Side — when no one but the crackheads contested what you put on the walls.  Still, there’s no denying the curiosity that’s piqued each time a new mural is installed.

Click here to see more of my photographs of street art.

 

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Update 3 Dec: Raffi Khatchadourian has a profile of JR in the New Yorker that talks about the installation of this mural on the Deitch wall, as well as other projects he has done in New York.  The related blog post on the New Yorker website has photos of JR’s team at work putting this up.

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