“Using a wooden box fitted with a lens on one side and a silver-plated sheet of copper on the other, Louis Daguerre set out, in 1838, to capture the image of a Paris street. The technique required a long exposure, too long to catch anything that was moving. So the shoppers and flâneurs who were bustling about that day are lost memories in the now-famous image “Boulevard du Temple.” All that remain are the trees and houses — and two motionless figures in the lower left-hand corner: a shoe shiner and his customer. They are the first two people ever to be photographed, in a strange moment of urban intimacy — one that slows the rush to a halt, suspending time.
In a city now lousy with canvas uppers and flip-flops, the bootblack has lost some of his cachet. But he was once a highly romanticized fixture of urban mythology — in popular imagination, often a street-savvy scamp or a jolly older fellow, laboring to assist and delight. (For example, take the lyrics to Red Foley’s 1950 hit “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy”: “Have you ever passed the corner of Fourth and Grand?/Where a little ball o’ rhythm has a shoe shine stand/People gather ’round and they clap their hand/He’s a great big bundle o’ joy.”) In reality, the people who shine shoes in New York today are mostly immigrants from Latin America — mainly Ecuador — and they labor for the same prosaic reason we all do.
Jessica Muy shines shoes up to six days a week, 11 hours a day, at the Leather Spa in the lower concourse of Grand Central Terminal. She told The Times that a good day brings $80 or $90 and a slow one brings as little as $40. What extra she has, she sends back home to her young daughter in Ecuador. Alex Valente, who works at the East 55th Street branch of Leather Spa, has had better luck. “I made my dreams come true in shoe shining,” he said. “I raised my son here, put him through college, helped with his wedding, and now I’m retiring and moving back to my farm in Brazil.”
Nearly two centuries after Daguerre immortalized that Parisian bootblack, Christopher Griffith photographed the hands of 52 Manhattan shoe shiners. The images are difficult to place. Flesh bound in cloth: They suggest fashion photography or classical statuary or even religious imagery, shroud-wrapped bodies in deathly repose. Inspired by one of the Irving Penn photographs of Miles Davis’s hand — leathery skin, natural light — Griffith said he tried to use “the texture of the skin, the crevices and the lines” to convey a sense of physical and personal history. The project started with Leonard Johnson, who worked at Drago Shoe Repair at the Port Authority until recently, when he retired after a 50-year career as a shoe shiner. His hands, Griffith said, “have this etching of year to year to year to year doing something physical.”
Audio interviews by Catrin Einhorn and Kristen Clark.
Produced by Stacey Baker, Jon Huang, and Riely Clough.
Christopher Griffith is a photographer based in New York. He is working on his fourth book, a collection of pictures of New York City