A portfolio of little-seen work by the photographer Stanley Greene (1949–2017)
With reflections by Eve Therond
Like the witching hour, Greene’s photographs have the power to stir demons from their slumber. In his work, the inanimate world comes to life. Spectral figures are unleashed. Bodies are caught in war-torn landscapes. Artificial light floods a concert stage or a lustered Paris street and beauty suddenly shoots forth.
Greene once told me I was a cat. “Cats can see in the dark, Stanley,” I told him. His images need to be looked at with a cat’s dilated pupils, necessary for the worlds he photographed to fully reveal their cryptic truths.
At the end of his career, Greene was known primarily for his powerful, lyrical, unsettling work in Chechnya, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Rwanda, Sudan and numerous other places. Kathy Ryan, the longtime photo editor of The New York Times Magazine, who hired Greene for assignments, once called him “the epitome of the poetic photojournalist.” Armed with his camera, Greene traversed the dark corners of humanity, unafraid to confront the evils that lurked in the shadows. From deserted landscapes to seedy back rooms, he captured despair as well as flickering glimmers of hope.
But for many years before his war photography work and for periods throughout it, Greene dove obsessively into other worlds, like the Bay Area punk scene in the mid-1970s and 1980s— the Mutants, the Lewd, Flipper, the Dead Kennedys—while attending the San Francisco Art Institute and, later, the backstage and on-the-pavement fashion circles of Paris, where he lived for most of his life.
Tall, stylish and magnetic, Greene typically wore a black beret on his head, scarves coiled around his neck, black leather and dark shades. He never owned an apartment or a car. All he had were his cameras and a pair of cowboy boots. Born in Brooklyn on Valentine’s Day in 1949 to actor parents, he landed bit parts in television commercials as a child and seemed destined to become an actor. But a Kodak Brownie given to him by his father when he was eleven eventually set his course. In his early twenties, while studying to be a painter, he befriended the photographer W. Eugene Smith, who encouraged him to become serious with a camera. By that time, Greene was also active in the Black Panther Party and the anti-war movement.
Throughout his life, he seemed to use his camera instinctively to limn disparate worlds as a means of making sense of them for himself. He recalled: “I started to shoot the music in 1975. I mean, what do you do on a Saturday night? Instead of watching whatever is on the tube, you grab your camera, and you go out and take pictures. And that's what happened. I would go out every night taking photographs of the punk scene. Everyone thought that I should be photographing my own culture because I was Black. I was not interested. The punk movement was so alien to the world I came from. This white noise, it just grabbed me and wouldn’t let me loose. I had to follow it.”
To the very end, in 2017, Greene moved through his own world like a noir hero, a living embodiment of grit, elegance and poetry. When I miss him, I’m watching the film of his life over and over again in my memory, catching his ghost somewhere in the distance with my cat’s eyes.
Eve Therond was born in Paris and began her career as a writer in New York, focusing on rebels, radicals and visionary artists. She is a co-founder and former editor in chief of Whitewall magazine. She met the photographer Stanley Greene at the International Festival of Photojournalism Visa Pour l’Image in Perpignan when she was a teenager.