Sally Davies made her mark in New York as a painter before abruptly switching to photography around 2000. Since then, her street photographs, with their vibrant, painterly colors and good humor, reflect her unique perspective on a city where she’s lived for four decades. Davies’ most recent project—photographing longtime city residents in their domiciles—has led to the publication of New Yorkers (Ammonite Press). James Marshall, a longtime city resident, spoke with Sally Davies about her work, her life in the city and places that have come and gone.
Sally Davies is a Canadian-born, New York City artist. After many years as a respected and exhibited painter (with shows at Gracie Mansion and OK Harris, among other galleries), she made the switch to photography. Best known as a “street photographer,” Davies’ color work reveals a New York (and Los Angeles, Miami and other places) bursting with color, decay and mystery. Her New York photographs seem to capture a city on the verge of spontaneously combusting in bright color and white silver light.
Recently, she has turned to portraiture and her new book, New Yorkers (Ammonite Press), captures the last, perhaps final generation of oddball, bohemian New Yorkers in their abodes. (Disclosure: Me and my wife and dog are in there). I first met Sally in the 1980s when she was just breaking into the New York art scene. We, and everyone we knew at the time, seemed to live in the then cheap and squalid East Village. I caught up with Ms. Davies recently to discuss New Yorkers, her other projects, such as The Happy Meal Project, and her latest venture in Los Angeles.
James Marshall: Let’s start from the beginning. You’re from Canada?
Sally Davies: From outside of Winnipeg, in the middle of nowhere. In the middle of winter, it would hit 50 below. You can’t really describe that kind of cold. I left there when I was 15, hitchhiking around, which people were still doing in those days. Then, when I was 18, I went down east to Toronto.
JM: You went to school there?
Sally Davies: I quit school in high school, my dad kicked me out of the house. But while I was in Toronto, I guess I was around twenty one when I got accepted at the art college as an adult. I went there for two years and I was bored out of my mind. I was going to quit but then the head of the department said “We’ve got two campuses, one in Florence and one in New York City.” I could get into one of those two places. I couldn’t speak Italian so I ended up in New York. I had $800 and a cardboard box of stuff when I arrived here.
JM: That was 1983?
Sally Davies: Yeah.
JM: You got here just in time for the fun. You started as a painter?
Sally Davies: My major was in painting with a minor in photography.
JM: How did you move from painting to photography. You already had been showing in galleries as a painter at that point, no?
Sally Davies: I’d always taken pictures, which was a lot more fun. Nobody gave a shit what I was photographing, because that wasn’t really what I was. So, I guess it was around 2000 and I started doing these weird diorama things—alien dolls in drag—and I photographed them. I had my first show of that at Gracie Mansion Gallery and that show sold out which no one said would happen.
JM: You had already shown at Gracie Mansion (as a painter)?
Sally Davies: Yes, I was all over the place. My first show was at OK Harris. I had two shows there. I showed all over the city in those days, lots of shows. Then I got totally sick of painting, I couldn’t do it anymore. I don’t know what happened to me, something happened. I just got anxious. I would sit in front of the canvas, I get the thing ready, and I’d think “I can’t believe I have to do another painting”. I’d do it so fast, I’d do a painting in four days that everyone said would take months. So I thought I’d just quit for a while and do, I don’t know what. I’d take pictures just for fun. That’s when I started going around, I had the dog, so I was always out walking. I started photographing the neighborhood. Nobody understood it until I started doing it. I’d find a really great thing while I was out with the dog and make a note to go back and shoot it, and it would be gone. That happened a bunch of times and I thought ‘Jesus, I’d better get this stuff down before it all disappears’.
JM: I walk past things I’d seen for 40 years and when they’re gone I immediately forget what used to be there. Entire corners gone, churches, stores, whatever…like the building that blew up on 2nd Ave & 7th Street. I heard that explosion from my house, in Chelsea.
Sally Davies: The new building they put there is so ugly…
JM: The post-Soviet style they teach in architecture schools now.
Sally Davies: Ha, that’s exactly right. It looks like I made it.
I’d find a really great thing while I was out with the dog and make a note to go back and shoot it, and it would be gone. That happened a bunch of times and I thought ‘Jesus, I’d better get this stuff down before it all disappears’.
JM: What are some of the most extreme changes you’ve noticed since you started photographing the streets?
Sally Davies: I go back and forth, when I first started I just focused on the buildings, you know squeezing in these highrises that now grow in between the tenements. Then I had an epiphany at one point and I thought I could take all these new buildings, they wouldn’t bother me, if the old characters, the interesting people, were still here. But there’s nobody interesting left. Just us and we don’t go out anymore.
JM: Yeah, the characters are gone. Now it’s just robots staring into their phones.
Sally Davies: What happened? There’s got to be characters of every generation. Do they just not live here?
JM: I dunno, I have my own crazy theories about everything. I don’t think there’s an evil cabal controlling things, I think it’s as chaotic as it looks, it’s just that…like what Fran Lebowitz said— “When the art world became the art market” something was lost. When the process of discovery was lost, people changed. It’s not my imagination; people are way dumber than they used to be. I live in gallery land, I walk around and look at this stuff; it’s all crap. It would have been old hat a hundred years ago. And it’s all priced at like $30,000 and up. And no one buys it. The only ones who can afford it are Russian oligarchs and dot com douche billionaires. They’re not even people with bad taste, they have No taste. They hire “art consultants” to tell them what to buy. They all want Warhols because that’s the only artist they ever heard of. It makes no sense. That last Caravaggio that turned up sold for like 15.9 million. Jeff Koons gets over a hundred million, Gerhard Richter gets 40 million. How can Jeff Koons be worth more than Caravaggio? For a while they were buying Damien Hirst, but now you couldn’t give away one of those shitty dot paintings.
Sally Davies: The idea of an assigned value is an entertaining idea just in and of itself. What is anything really worth except what it brings to it? The people deciding, the museums as well, they can flip a Hirst.
Then I had an epiphany at one point and I thought I could take all these new buildings, they wouldn’t bother me, if the old characters, the interesting people, were still here. But there’s nobody interesting left.
JM: I remember in The Economist the figure was, in 2015, half of all the art transactions made in the world were in Warhols.
Sally Davies: Warhol, and I don’t hate Andy Warhol, but he’s kind of become the Wal Mart of the high end art market.
JM: That’s what he always wanted.
Sally Davies: I agree.
JM: When Andy died he had just toured Europe selling portraits for $30,000 apiece. There’s lots of good stories about Andy in Europe. I guess he was having dinner at one of the Rothschild places and he was raving about the dinner the night before that he had had with the Krupps, who had seven attendants for each dinner guest. Well, old man Rothschild barked at Andy— “Those Nazis killed my family!”. You can imagine Paul Morrissey kicking Andy under the table.
Sally Davies: (cracks up). I went to see the last big Warhol extravaganza at the Whitney, I’m sure you guys did, too. And I’d seen most of it, I think there was a Mao there that was 30 feet high. But I said, “You know, this is it for me, I never need to go to another Andy show again…ever.”
JM: Unless there’s a party and Andy is there, but that doesn’t happen anymore. That was always the way to tell if you were at the right party that night, if Andy was there.
Sally Davies: Ha, right. But you know there were lines down the street to get in. It’s just Pop, those kids are not gonna go see a Caravaggio. Or even go to the Met.
JM: They go to the Met for the Fashion shows. The fashion stuff is way bigger than the art. Kanye presents Punk Rock is bigger than Monet, Van Gogh and Munch put together.
Sally Davies: They just don’t know what to do, except appeal on a total pop culture level.
JM: I think pop culture has pretty much run its course. There was a golden age of pop culture, I guess from the beginning of movies and recorded sound into the late ‘70s, then the corporations took over and turned it all into “content”. That killed it off. You can’t imagine Bob Dylan getting a record deal now. And it took five albums before he made any money for his label. No one would get to make five albums that didn’t sell nowadays. There’s no such thing as “artistic development.”
Sally Davies: You’d be lucky to get a second one.
JM: Before I forget, we should touch on the McDonald’s Happy Meal Project. How long has it been? [Note: Sally set a McDonald’s Happy Meal on a plate in 2010 to document the fact that it does not decompose. Whatever is in that stuff, the entire Happy Meal looks exactly the same 11 years later].
Sally Davies: April 10th was its 11th birthday. I take a picture of it once a month and it doesn’t ever change. At first I photographed it every day. If you take the lid off the pie plate it smells like a Payless shoe store. After that original smell, which is sprayed on by the way, when that smell is gone in about a day or day and a half, it just smells like plastic. In the end, the fries are more scary then the burger. They really look like you can eat them. You can Google the ingredients online. It’s no secret.
JM: The point of the project is basically that this stuff is poison?
Sally Davies: I was at a friend’s country house. He owns PJ Clarke’s, that’s the first job I had when I moved to New York City. I was on the computer and I found a story of a woman who had a ten-year-old burger. So when I got back to New York City, the next morning I bought a burger and fries (A Happy Meal) at McDonalds, took it home, and took a picture of it every day for about three weeks. My friend was like “Stop, you win”. That was in April and in August some website asked if I still had that funky burger thing, and it went totally viral. Then some British paper asked about it and it went crazy— the Indian Times, the African Times, it was everywhere. That’s why I never have any money, I like to do things where I don’t make a cent.
JM: Well, as a writer, but also for photographers and illustrators, the end of the magazine world was the end of any possible revenue stream. I know people who raised families freelancing for magazines. Nowadays you can’t even get paid. In my life the per word rate has gone down. Which leads to the next question: How does a photographer get by without the traditional revenue streams like magazine work? I mean, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, even Robert Frank did advertising and magazine work all their lives….
Sally Davies: I have no idea how they get by. I know I barely get by. I sell my prints. I’m lucky I have a bit of a name for myself, so some collectors buy prints, but not often enough, I can go six months without a sale. I had a gallery, on 57th street, Bernaducci-Meisel, but they split up and the gallery closed, and now Covid. I got out of there. The thing about the galleries and empty stores and real estate….I really don’t know what’s going on. I’m just gonna chill for a bit. A gallery is great if they sell your work, but they take half the money. That’s OK; half of a lot of money is a lot of money, but it doesn’t always work like that. You always needed someone in a suit to make you money.
JM: Getting back to the street photography, you go out there every day?
Sally Davies: Yeah, I’m always out there shooting. But now everyone has a camera on their phone, so I’m never without a camera. But I lecture about photography a lot and I tell the students, “Don’t quit your day job, don’t try this at home.” Everyone has a phone, everyone is taking photos, I don’t really know if people even care anymore.
JM: Someone must care. Your pictures don’t look like anyone else’s to me. You shoot color, which in New York street photography already makes you unique. Until [William] Eggleston, no one even took color photography seriously. Saul Leiter was shooting amazing color in the 1950s but he wasn’t taken seriously until recently.
Sally Davies: It (color) was unacceptable. I love Saul’s work.
JM: We have a bunch of them, they’re so impressionistic. Very much like paintings. But he did advertising work his whole life to pay the bills.
Sally Davies: It’s one of my regrets that I never got to meet him.
JM: Yeah, he was right there on 10th Street all those years.
JM: Your use of color, there’s almost a leitmotif of reds and golds, your eye is so unique. It’s certainly not the way I’d look at the things that you shoot. I guess that’s what makes you an artist. But does that come from your background as a painter?
Sally Davies: It’s not something I think about, but the thing in school was color theory. In color theory you have to make a string of squares starting with yellow and ending with blue and you can’t see the squares. I guess that figures in.
JM: How did that translate in your work when you started doing portraiture?
Sally Davies: I’d done a lot of portrait work before, but nobody knows that. I worked for David Becker at American Media, you know Star Magazine, I’ve done album covers, stuff like that. This book was— I’d hit a bit of a wall with the street stuff. The Museum Of The City Of New York had just taken a good amount of them (street photos), they are in the Fales Library at NYU now. I started feeling like, I’m getting old, I can go now. My stuff’s being babysat now, and I’m getting disillusioned with the whole “street photography” business. I don’t really consider myself a street photographer if the truth be told. Not like (Gary) Winograd…
JM: You mean one who shoots from the hip…
Sally Davies: Yeah, someone who shoots like crazy You know, “where’s the monkey”? I don’t really know what I do but it’s certainly not that.
JM: But his stuff is very stylized.
Sally Davies: Don’t you think my stuff is too? I mean like Tom Waits is stylized….
JM: Yes, actually. Although in his case I think he invented this character then eventually grew into it. He showed up in NYC at the Chelsea in the late ‘70s, I remember, he was like my age but he talked in this old man voice, like he was practicing to be an old coot…then I remember him at the Tropicana in Hollywood, he was sort of living the Noir dream.
Sally Davies: The first thing I did the first time I went to LA was go to the Tropicana, but it’s not there anymore.
JM: No, it’s a chain motel. No more black pool. But the sleazy dive hotel on La Cienega where Jim Morrison lived is still there, still a shit hole. Or it was last time I was there a few years ago, they might’ve knocked down that whole block of La Cienega between Sunset and Santa Monica Blvd. by now….
Sally Davies: Makes me feel old. All the characters are gone, all new people and new stuff now.
JM: People are trying so hard to be unique and they just look like they’re trying to hard. Like people who have horns attached to their heads, or their faces tattooed and all that shit.
Sally Davies: I saw that in Target on line the other day. A guy with horns. Who does that? What is that?
JM: You can see that in the Wal Mart in Indiana now…people desperate to prove they are “weird”. The mass media is so mass and the lowest common denominator is so low they will grasp onto anything. To me, when they took drums out of music and replaced it with machines, that was the beginning of the end. Drumming is the most primal form of communication and now that’s lost.
Sally Davies: It also begs the question: What is the purpose of music? I think it’s trying to do something different from what it was trying to do when we were kids.
JM: It’s just become another lifestyle-product reinforcement. I am this sort of person because I listen to this sort of music and wear these sneakers and this hat. Freedom has been reduced to a consumer choice. Coke or Pepsi?
Sally Davies: Was that true when we were kids and we didn’t even know it?
JM: Yes and no. When the record companies were still run by old Jewish guys, they didn’t really know what would sell so they’d put out anything, throw it against the wall and see if it will stick. Nobody really knows what will sell, but when the multinational corporations took over all of a sudden it was micro-managed into something so sterile and dull it’s become meaningless.
Sally Davies: The world has gotten really ugly.
JM: Yeah, and it ain’t gonna get better. I mean, the idea that someone wants to bring back Nazis, which really worked out so well for everyone last time, that is something we want to revive? Seventy-five million dead wasn’t enough?
Sally Davies: It’s enough to get up in the morning and not leave your apartment.
JM: I don’t think it’s my imagination that people are stupider these days. I mean the smart phone thing. It just reinforces what you want to believe. Science becomes just someone’s opinion.
Sally Davies: Yeah, all this stuff really became apparent to me when I started this New Yorkers book. I didn’t have any agenda, all I knew was that I didn’t want an agenda. I just wanted to shoot people at home, I didn’t care if I knew them or not, I just wanted people with something a little surprising there, but what I realized, all the people in the book are either friends or friends of friends and when regular people look at the book they go “Holy shit—- what a bunch of freaks, how did you find these people”? I’m like, oh God, I’m in there. There was a time when everyone knew people like that.
JM: It’s such a New York thing, because all New York conversations get around to real estate pretty fast. Where do you live? What neighborhood are you in? Then you wonder if they are rent stabilized or rent controlled or they bought back when things were cheap.
Sally Davies: That’s because if you’re not rich and you’re still here you know you’ve got some kind of deal like that. Now I’m starting to put out feelers, I don’t know a ton of people out west, but for an L.A. book. Unfortunately, most of the people I know out there are white, rich people. I don’t really care, I like white rich people, but I don’t want a book of them, I want a book of everybody. I’m going through this thing now, trying to explain to people, to articulate what I’m looking for.
JM: It shouldn’t be too hard. People out there usually have nice places because it’s cheaper, and they don’t leave their house that much, probably because of the traffic. And they get up really early.
Sally Davies: I like to get up early now too. No one bothers you at six a.m.
JM: Are there spots in the city (NYC) you haven’t shot yet?
Sally Davies: Of course, there’s always someplace I haven’t shot. I gotta get my enthusiasm back, I kind of switched gears with this book. It was just a whole ‘nuther trip doing this, in a nice way.
JM: Have you noticed the streets being weirder now? I mean the anger, the crazy, violent factor seems pretty advanced lately.
Sally Davies: I noticed last summer. I’m usually on my bicycle at night, because it’s safer and you can cover more territory. But during the height of Covid, I was in Chinatown around 11-12 o’clock at night and it was really thrilling, there was no one there! Not a soul. It was the first time I’d had that feeling like it was in the old days, when the streets were empty. Nothing open, no bikes, no cars, it was really incredible. That element is kind of nice. You don’t want a bunch of parked cars in front of what you want to shoot, that’s a big consideration. I could tell you every street, when the street cleaning was, when you could park there, alternate side parking…But this book. I was in a book on Street Photography that was published by the same people (Ammonite Press) and the editor was here and he just asked what I was working on and I mentioned I was working on this kooky thing— photographing people at home, I showed him six or seven things I’d shot and he said, “Great! Let’s make a book”. He’d had a few beers, so I didn’t think much of it, but two days later he got in touch and said “let’s go”. I didn’t have to go looking for a book deal, it was incredible.
What I realized, all the people in the book are either friends or friends of friends and when regular people look at the book they go “Holy shit—- what a bunch of freaks, how did you find these people”? I’m like, oh God, I’m in there. There was a time when everyone knew people like that.
JM: It’s such a natural. I’m always looking in people’s windows. I’m always curious as to what art is on the wall, what books they have. Especially brownstones.
Sally Davies: Such a New York thing. I remember in the ‘80s walking around. Remember when the piers were really nasty?
JM: The whole scene at the Trucks!
Sally Davies: Walking though the West Village and looking in the windows of this huge townhouse on I think Washington Street or around there, I was mesmerized. I have to say, when I first came here, I hated it. I had no money, that’s how I ended up in Allen Ginsberg’s old apartment on East 2nd St. I looked at the place twice during the day, it was only $400 a month. I moved in during the day. Then, one night I had to go out. Mother of God, where am I? Back then, all the vacant lots had carpets on them. It took me forever to figure out what that was for. It’s where they had cockfights! Five in the morning you’d hear the cocks crowing. I never thought I was going to stay. I figured I’d finish school and get out of here, it was too dirty, too violent. Now 40 years later, I’m still here. I’m not sure what that means.
JM: I feel like you find out pretty fast if New York is going to work for you. It either opens up for you or it doesn’t. My first night here I met like half the people I’d know the rest of my life.
Sally Davies: That happened to me too. The first six months here, I met everybody. I still know them all, except the ones who died.
JM: I had a place to live and a job in a week. I got a gold check from Social Security until I was 21. Crazy money. I’m still crazy, I guess, they just won’t pay me for it anymore. I landed on Warren Street at a place called The Home For Teenage Dirt. Then I migrated to the East Village and got my own place. $200 on East 10th, then I met Jack Boy (Smead) and he got me the place on E. 11th, which was much nicer, for $225.
Sally Davies: My building didn’t have a front door. The super wouldn’t take my rent. He couldn’t believe there was someone in the building who wasn’t dealing, it was too suspicious to him, so he gave me my rent money back. A white girl living in the building trying to pay rent; it didn’t make sense to him. Then a couple bought the building, she was Italian, he was Indian. She came by and introduced herself, she was packing. She had a gun in a holster on her ankle. I stayed in that building for six years.
JM: When I lived in the East Village I knew every single person in the neighborhood — the bums, the kids, the dealers, their moms, the supers, cops. I’ve been in Chelsea now for 18 years and I hardly know anyone. Maybe a half dozen people. I can’t make eye contact with my neighbors, they won’t look up from their phones.
Sally Davies: Well, everyone is dead now.
Then, one night I had to go out. Mother of God, where am I? Back then, all the vacant lots had carpets on them. It took me forever to figure out what that was for. It’s where they had cockfights! Five in the morning you’d hear the cocks crowing.
JM: What photographers inspired you? There’s so many great ones, but nobody that your stuff looks like at all…
Sally Davies: I think of my photography as an extension of my painting, I’m not painting anymore but I manage to get the same thing I think. I think the one photograph that changed my…like there was life before and after this photo was Diane Arbus’ Sword Swallower. I don’t know why. I just get kind of sick to my stomach when I look at that. It makes me gasp; there’s something about it that’s just weird. So after that I thought, alright, you can do that with photos.
JM: Your style is so recognizable now, it’s easy to pick out from the overload of images on Instagram or wherever. I’m always amazed that someone can come up with something original nowadays. So much of culture, pop culture, high culture, whatever, it’s all recycled. I look around the galleries here and the shit hanging up, I dunno…
Sally Davies: I don’t really go look at a lot of art. I did more when I was painting and I have my favorite photographers, I have the books at home, but I think “this is amazing”, they do amazing work, but I never look at it again. I don’t want to have, say Saul (Leiter)’s images in my head. When I’m shooting I don’t want to think “this will be a great Saul”. Cuz that happens. I’m glad I didn’t take photography at school. It’s hard to not start doing that. When I talk to kids, I tell them, ‘find two or three people you really like, figure out what it is about their work you like, learn how to do it, then stop doing it. Don’t ever look at that again.’ We all are a sort of recipes of everything that’s come before us. But at a certain point you need to stop looking at other work.
JM: Do you ever have to chase a photo? Something you already have in your head?
Sally Davies: No. Even when I did the book. I had no idea what I wanted. I wanted it to be simple. I wanted to arrive, I didn’t want to know what the place looked like, I want the people to wear whatever they want, I want to go in and get out. Twenty minute,s tops. Even with the design of the book I really had to fight with the designer. They wanted the photos to bleed over the pages, and I had to say, “No, stop”. I wanted it simple. Even the writing. Just really simple. There’s some really interesting lives. Some people gave me four pages, so I had to cut it down.
JM: Danny Fields could have given you four books worth…
Sally Davies: He was great. He gave me something really short, pretty much what’s in the book.
JM: His place was more crammed before he sold his archives to Yale. Your archive is at NYU?
Sally Davies: Right, the Fales Library Special Collection at NYU. They’re very big on downtown NYC- Beats, punks, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Hell, that sort of thing. The best part is they are the caretakers but I can keep adding to it until I die, so I know it’s all safe and accounted for. When you get to be this age, anyone who has done anything artistic, it’s like, OK, I can die any minute, where does this all go?
JM: Yeah, because it’s like anything that happened before the internet didn’t really happen to young people. I don’t have copies of most of what I’ve published over the years, the first five years’ worth of articles my mom threw away, right around the time she killed my dog, Sparky. She was trying to shake me down for more money, as was her way. I don’t have one article I wrote for the Village Voice.
Sally Davies: With Fales, they have been very kind, they have digitalized copies of all my paintings, too. That’s nice, when I made the switch from painting to photography, I’m not ashamed of any of my paintings but it was too confusing. To make a dent in the photo world I took all the paintings off the websites and stuff. Now there’s people with no idea of my painting background.
JM: The world of “Intellectual Property Rights” has really devalued photos, writing, everything, it’s devalued art and human beings. It’s all been reduced to “content.”
Sally Davies: I did a Google search for one of my paintings and I found three websites that had stolen my paintings, removed my name and made clothing out of the design. My tattoo paintings.
JM: Very common. My friend Miriam Linna had her art for a tiny fanzine about old JD paperback collecting called Bad Seed stolen by some creepy French designer whose line is called “Depressed Rich Kids” (actually Efant Riches Deprimes). Henry Levy the guys name is. He also stole one Julia Gorton’s Lydia Lunch images for a $700 T-shirt…They know artists don’t have the money to sue them. Last question. Your next project is Los Angeles? People in their homes again?
Sally Davies: I’m going out there Thursday. I have about seven people lined up. I don’t have a car, so I end up Ubering everywhere. I can buy a house for what I spent on Uber. Out there with traffic and everything, it’s not like here where I can be in and out in twenty minutes. No more than one a day. I decided I’m not gonna shoot this whole book until I have a deal. I’m gonna go out and shoot six or seven, hopefully super good ones. I’ve got a line on some good people. Deke Dickerson is one.
JM: I know Deke since he was like 16 years old and his band The Untamed Youth came to New York and played to a bunch of drag queens at the Pyramid. That really opened their eyes. They even had their parents with them. They didn’t know they were playing a drag club. The queens loved them. I did too. Great band. Deke was one of the band leaders at the Ponderosa Stomp thing we did in New Orleans for many years. Great musician.
Sally Davies: I Googled him and he was wearing a Nudie suit. That sold me. I told him he should wear that suit. I’m looking for people like that…
JM: Well, to wrap it up. New Yorkers has gotten some great press, it was in the Guardian. How is it doing?
Sally Davies: The first printing sold out, I think. Hopefully, the second printing will be in the stores while the press is still in people’s mind.