The taxi driver-turned-photographer who shot 80s New York City
Joseph Rodriguez captured the many different corners of the city from the window of his cab.
"To drive a cab back then, you either had to have a death wish or come to the job with a biography that inured you to the danger or graced you with such intuitive empathy/curiosity that to see and hear and sometimes engage with the cavalcade of humanity sliding in and out of your backseat trumped the nightly game of Russian roulette."
The writer Richard Price penned these poignant words that open photographer Joseph Rodriguez's book and show, Taxi: Journey Through My Windows 1977-1987, currently on display at Galerie Bene Taschen in Cologne, Germany.
On the phone from his Brooklyn home, Joseph tells me what New York City was really like during that time. "There was a lot going on: the economy was down. Crime was up. We were screaming. Many young people were out there pushing the conversations about more employment, better educational opportunities. A lot of social issues. You saw it in real-time. Hell's Kitchen, the Meatpacking District is not what you see today. It's fancy," he says.
Throughout his twenties and thirties, Joseph worked as a taxi driver. He didn't get into photography until later, but his intimate knowledge of the many different corners of the city gave him a perspective few photographers could rival.
A model walks shoulder to shoulder with her stylist uptown in one picture; in others, sex workers and the patrons of BDSM clubs congregate downtown. Each face is met with curiosity and humanity; Joseph never discriminated in terms of what he shot, nor who his customers were. He travelled to all the boroughs for his "fares" as he calls them, recalling the injustices of trying to hail a taxi in his youth. "I remember as a child it was hard for me and mom to get a taxi cab. They wouldn't stop for Brown people and African American people. I became that cab driver that was just about open to everybody."
Joseph's first subjects were mainly trees and buildings. "I was very much afraid of people," he says. In the 70s, he was mugged and lost his camera and a 135 mm telephoto lens. But his love of the medium never waned, and after studying photography at the School of Visual Arts, he was awarded a photography scholarship to the acclaimed International Center of Photography in New York. It was there that he met the late, legendary photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who pushed him and awakened the artist inside of him.
"[She] said to me, 'How come you're not shooting the people in the back seat?' 'cause I was so nervous to do that," he says. "But I came to class one day, and she really called me out. She said, 'Hey, you don't seem like you're brave enough. When you get up in the morning, I want you to stand in front of the mirror in your underwear before you brush your teeth and tell yourself you're a photographer,"' he says. It was just the motivational kick he needed.
He began to shoot the many different New Yorkers he took in his cab. Old married couples who doled out love advice—"love and compromise"—while he was facing difficulties in a relationship. Families heading to church in their Sunday best. Though he didn't get him on film, Joseph remembers vividly picking up a man leaving Mineshaft, a legendary members-only gay BDSM sex club, and taking him from downtown to the Upper East Side. During the journey, his customer changed out of his leather wardrobe into a Wall Street Banker uniform of khakis, loafers and a button-down shirt.
"When I drove a cab, my taxi cab was a rolling psychology office. Everybody had something to say. Sometimes it's just light conversation like the weather or kids. Baseball. But then you get all kinds of incredible stories. I was learning the foundations of humanism in my cab."
At age 70 now, Joseph remains active: he wrapped up a shoot for Nike a few days ago and is currently working on a story for The New York Times about taxi drivers and Ubers. He's also teaching at New York University, imparting the lessons he learned from being on the streets. "My first assignment for my students: they have to photograph on the NYC subway for a week. They cannot just shoot cinéma verité. You got to shoot the people. It makes you a better human being. Learn the discourse of having a conversation. Look into the eyes of a person."
It's exactly what he did years ago. It's no wonder why his work is relevant today.
Taxi: Journey Through My Windows 1977-1987 is currently on display at Galerie Bene Taschen in Cologne, Germany until 31 July 2021.
All images © Joseph Rodriguez courtesy Galerie Bene Taschen
- New York