the story behind ‘young new york’, ethan james green’s first photography book

A document of queer talent on the cusp of success.

by Liam Hess
04 April 2019, 11:05am

Given photographer Ethan James Green’s impressive CV, shooting covers for Vogue Italia, campaigns for Fendi, and Anok Yai for the cover of i-D, it’s easy to forget that he only began photographing professionally as recently as 2015. But with the release of his first monograph this month, published by the legendary photography publishing house Aperture, he’s taking us back to where it all began: a bar in Chelsea, where he spotted actress Hari Nef and asked if he could photograph her.

Nef obliged, showing up to be photographed at Corlears Hook Park on the Lower East Side. “I felt vulnerable shooting, especially in public,” explains Nef in the foreword she wrote for the book. “It might have been my fifth time in front of the camera.” It wouldn’t be long until Green was shooting for Miu Miu and Alexander McQueen, and Nef would be the face of Gucci. But back then, she remembers being taken aback by Green’s request for her to pose theatrically, in homage to Richard Avedon’s iconic photograph for Harper’s Bazaar of model Dovima with a group of elephants. “No one had ever asked me to give them 'fashion' before,” Nef recalls.

Ethan James Green

Slowly, she began bringing more and more of her friends to be photographed by Green — a ragtag mix of downtown club kids, nascent fashion designers and trans or gender non-conforming models and artists. Almost by accident, the impromptu series ended up becoming something much greater: a bracingly honest document of what it means to be young and creative in 21st century New York, and a window into a disappearing world. Year after year, young people with dreams flock to the city with big dreams: Green was not only one of them, arriving from his native Michigan in 2007 for work as a male model, but eventually became something of their official chronicler.

“I just feel more calm when I’m with those kids,” says Green in an interview with Michael Shulman. “I found the people that I can relate to, being different back home, and then coming here, and then meeting all these people and realising, ‘Oh my God, you were there and I was here, looking and dreaming about the same things.’”

Ethan James Green

Many of the figures captured by Green have since gone on to significantly greater heights: there’s Dara, the model who has since walked for Marc Jacobs and was photographed for the cover of i-D last year by Inez & Vinoodh; Vejas Kruszewski, the self-taught Canadian designer who won the LVMH Special Prize in 2016; and Matt Holmes, a stylist who recently dressed Amandla Stenberg for the cover of Time. What Green’s book captures is a generation of queer talents on the cusp of success, with the palpable excitement of unrealised potential radiating from every page.

It’s a magic that will never be recaptured — as one of Green’s longstanding muses, the trans model and musician Torraine Futurum puts it: “I feel like we’re in a time that’s going to be written about in 20, 30 years… people are going to see Ethan’s photos and go, ‘Oh, my God, all those people knew each other?’” Now with a book to memorialise it, there’s every chance Torraine’s prediction could come true.

Ethan James Green