The Daily Heller: Taxi, Taxi, Read All About It

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Joseph Rodriguez (born 1951) is a documentary photographer from Brooklyn. Rodriguez studied photography at the School of Visual Arts and in the photojournalism and documentary photography program at the International Center of Photography in New York City. For over 25 years, he has covered the domestic landscape of America. He continues to work within the social documentary practice, and he received a letter of gratitude from President Barack Obama for his book Faces of Hope.

Taxi: Journey Through My Windows 1977–1987, his most recent collection, is a record of 10 years driving one of New York’s ubiquitous mobile museums. I asked both Rodriguez and visual storyteller Andy Outis, who designed Taxi, to discuss the nuance and character of the work, and their collaboration in compiling it into a book.

Being a New York City taxi driver is: 1) The most dangerous job; 2) The most boring job; 3) the most fascinating job?

Joseph Rodriguez: All of the above! I started driving in 1977. There was a lot going on in those two or three years—I went to Brooklyn Technical College from ’78 to ’80, got a two-year degree. Then I started studying at the International Center of Photography. And during that time, I drove. Back then, driving a cab in the city was dangerous. I was mugged on my first week on the job. Another time, I stopped at a gas station in Hell’s Kitchen to use the bathroom and somebody swiped the cigar box I kept my fare money in. On the other hand, and a native New Yorker, I got to experience my city in a really unique way. I saw the city as it wakes up. For a photographer, seeing the light shifting from night to day was fascinating. I was seeing two different cities: at night, it was this naked city. Then when the sun would come up, the mask that we put on ourselves to the public would come out.

How would you further describe this ubiquitous NYC profession?

Rodriguez: It was tough. We didn’t make much money. Cab companies wanted to keep the cabs running 24 hours a day. Since I was going to school, I needed part-time flexibility, so I would lease a cab by the shift. The cabs broke down all the time—the garage owners would buy used police cars, slap a coat of yellow paint on them and put them out on the street, but didn’t maintain them as well as they should have. I was very naïve when I first started—I used to just come in, throw in my license, and get going. And there’s a hole in the floor like a “Flintstones” mobile. So I have to get cardboard and put it in the floor so I’m not standing in the street!

It’s not easy to do a 12-hour shift in the taxi. I rarely left the cab. Time is money to a cab driver. If you don’t have a fare, you aren’t making any. For instance, if I took someone out to the airport, you’d have to wait two or three hours in the queue for a fare coming back to Manhattan—or come back empty. Either way, you’re not making money when you should be.

Back then, the money was uptown—the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side. The real big fares were uptown, coming downtown. You would work Second Avenue, Park, Madison. In the early morning Penn Station would start to become alive. The hotels would become alive because people have to get to the airport. This is like 5 in the morning. You knew when the rhythm of the city would start—in terms of traffic. By 6 a.m., the city is really popping. Grand Central, Port Authority, Hilton Hotel, downtown, Wall Street. It’s all moving. Then it slows down after 9, 10 in the morning, because everyone is at work. Traffic starts to slow down, truck traffic starts to pick up because there are deliveries. Eleven, 12, it’s lunchtime, so there’s not much going on, so you go sit in front of a hotel and you hope for a fare to the airport.

Now the weekends and the nights are different. If I’m the night guy, the rush is from 4–7. I work that rush hour like a mojo. Then after that, you start looking for people going to dinner.

What prompted you to photograph your daily grind?

Rodriguez: I was in school at the International Center of Photography (ICP). Because I was working my way through school, I had limited time. I spent much of my time outside of school in a yellow box. So I had to photograph what was available to me—which was my work as a taxi driver, and my commute to and from the garage.

Once you put the camera to your eye, did you uncover aspects of the job you’d never imagined?

Rodriguez: The frame was more obvious—the windows, the windshield, the meter, all became part of the composition. I had to work with what was there to make a dynamic photograph. The other challenge is that I was moving, so I had to find strategies to make photographs as I was on the move.

I was taking a workshop with Mary Ellen Mark at ICP, and I had all these pictures I was taking through the window of the cab. And she really challenged me. She said, “It doesn’t seem that you’re brave enough to take pictures of people in the cab. There are people right next to you. Take pictures of them.” So that was when I started making portraits of my passengers.

I recall going to the Belmore Restaurant on Park Ave. South where all the cabbies ate. Is there a social or professional gathering spot now? Is there a society of sorts?

Rodriguez: Cabbies would take their breaks at taxi stands and diners. A popular one on the West Side was the Lonely Little Pullman Car on the West Side Cabbies liked it because
parking was easy. We would drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and complain to each other about fares, girlfriends, politics, the union, traffic, the TLC … kvetching like New Yorkers do.

I had my favorite hot dog stand I would go to, by Washington Square Park. This was around the beginning of the B-boy (breakdancing) battles on the street. There would be battles in the park every day. These kids were so serious about the dancing and competition—their faces were like they were looking at a murder trial or something.

You see the underbelly of the city from a yellow cab. What have been your most significant moments, as shown in the book?

Rodriguez: The Meatpacking District was exactly that—it was a meat market in more ways than one. There were no fancy shoes stores or European bistros. It was a place where many sex workers roamed the streets looking for tricks (customers). On my way to work at 3:30 in the morning, I was walking down 15th Street past where Chelsea Market is now, past scantily dressed trans sex workers across the street from my garage.

The bars and clubs close in New York City at 4 a.m. The hustle was to hit the bars around 4:30 and pick up the bartenders, cause they gotta get their party on. Then hit the after-hours clubs that went into the next morning. One of the after-hours clubs I used to go to was at 220 W. Houston. They called it the 220 Club. You would have to queue up and wait outside this place like the airport. Someone comes out at 9 or 10 in the morning.

Is this the real NYC? Or in the process of shooting and editing the images, were you kind of creating an alternative NYC?

Rodriguez: Editing these photos took me back to the NYC that I grew up and lived in. Homelessness was all over the city. I would be coming to work and seeing fathers with children asking for change in the subway. Landlords were warehousing properties. This was the end of the SRO (single-room occupancy) hotels. And this is where a lot of people on the edge would live. All the way uptown, and all the way downtown. Then they started warehousing the properties to make them all upscale like you have today. The SROs were a huge safety net for people at the bottom. Once it was taken away, a lot of people ended up on the street. The East Village was where the big men’s shelter was, and the Bowery Mission, long before all this fancy stuff you have now. It was the epicenter. Heroin was all over the place, drugs were everywhere.

Andy, how did you and Joseph meet and begin collaborating?

Andy Outis: I worked for a few years as a magazine art director, and photography plays a huge role in that. Documentary photography is an interesting counterpoint to design—as a photographer, you engage with the world as it is, as you see it, rather than as you would like to change it to be, which is what you often do as a designer.

I became serious about studying the craft. When my mother passed away in 2010, I documented the experience as a way of coping. Photographing the woman who birthed and raised me in her final days forced me to engage with the encounter of loss. It forced me to be fully present, and really see what was happening—but helped me to actively process the grief as I was going through it.

I signed up for a workshop Joe was teaching at ICP. I was familiar with Joe’s books East Side Stories: Gang Life in East L.A., about cholo gangs in Los Angeles, and Juvenile, about juvenile offenders in the Bay Area. I am originally from California, and closely acquainted with the subject matter. Joe makes pictures representing those who are often demonized by society that are both empathetic and humanizing. He spends years working these projects, living amongst his subjects, building trust and gaining access beyond what you see in the news media. We got to know each other through the class, and connected around the shared experience of criminal justice and street life in California.

Rodriguez: Andy took my workshop “Getting Close” at ICP. It’s rare to find someone in New York City who is familiar with the side of California that I’ve been documenting for many years, and we bonded around that. I asked him to work with me on a photofilm (a multimedia piece combining still photography, audio and text elements) about Jesse De La Cruz, a former recidivist gang member who earned a doctorate in education after spending much of his adult life in and out of prison (link). Andy designed a series of graphics that really took the storytelling to another level. As a designer, Andy really gets photography. When I started thinking about the Taxi book, I asked him to collaborate with me on the design.

What were the concerns of most importance in designing this book?

Rodriguez: This book is a drive through the five boroughs in the 1980s. The sequence of images had to flow following the voyage of the taxi driver. I wanted to take the viewer on a journey through the city I experienced, and give a sense of what it was like being in a cab for 12 hours a day. It was also important to give a strong impression of what the city was in the ’70s and ’80s, which is very different than it is today.

It was important that the cover grabs you. We went back and forth a lot on that. I originally had my mind made up about the image for the cover, which is not the one we used in the end. Andy came in with a stack of cover comps that tried a bunch of different images. At first, I disliked the ones that used the self-portrait, but he made a strong argument that this was a book about my journey, and I shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. It grew on me over time.

Outis: Many iconic photobooks, like Robert Frank’s The Americans, or Walker Evan’s American Photographs, are vessels for the pictures. The photographs are laid out one photo per spread, or a pair on opposite pages, framed with generous white space, almost like a museum exhibition in book form. To appropriate the classic typographic maxim, the design of the book is like a crystal goblet, and you don’t see it. We wanted to start with that convention, but break it at times with images that bleed off the edge of the pages, or run across spreads. The one rule Joe had was that we could not crop the images. That’s something many accomplished photographers won’t budge on.

Rodriguez: There were a couple crop suggestions you made that I ultimately agreed to.

Outis: Yeah, but we had it out over those [laughs]. We wanted the physical format of the book to seem like the windows of the cab. Most of the images are horizontal, so it works, like cinema.

Rodriguez: Andy also helped me with shaping the text. We were talking about doing a few pull quotes to go with some of the pictures. Then he showed up at my studio one afternoon with an audio recorder, and had me go through a dummy of the book and talk about the pictures, and my experience as a cab driver, which opened up the storytelling …

Outis: I really drew on my [SVA MFA] “Designer as Author” education there. I knew if I got Joe talking about the pictures, we could pull out some great stories. Three hours of audio later …

The author Richard Price (Clockers, Lush Life) contributed an essay to Taxi, which I felt should be treated in a straightforward manner. It’s gripping writing, and I didn’t want to trip it up by over-designing the typography.

The book design is very quiet. The photos are subdued as well. Was this somberness a goal or a consequence?

Rodriguez: As Henri Cartier-Bresson would say, you make the photos, then in reviewing the contact sheets and prints, you discover the story. Editing a sequence of photographs is very serious work for me. We worked on the image sequence for several months.

Outis: We played with the order of the images, and how they were paired, for a long time. Joe had work prints laid out on the floor of his studio for months. I’d go over every few weeks and we’d move them around, try different things, look at them for a while, make some adjustments, and I’d leave. Then I’d come back a few weeks later, and Joe would have completely blown up the sequence we thought was working! Taxi is a visual memoir—I respected Joe’s process for working through his story.

Rodriguez: This is a very personal story to me—it is my own life, both as a cab driver, and a photographer. Not that I had an exact vision of the book when we started, but it had to be true to my experience—it had to feel authentic. Andy helped me shape how that came to be.

Outis: It was important to respect the integrity of the photographs. The images are printed in tri-tone to give them an extra richness. We didn’t want the text to compete for the viewer’s attention, so we used one of the grey inks from the tri-tones for the pull quotes, which establishes a visual hierarchy: photos first, text second. I was able to sneak in a big drop cap here and there.

There was a time when being a driver was a career. Did you plan on continuing?

Rodriguez: No—I drove a cab while I was becoming a photographer, but as soon as I was out of ICP, I started working as a photojournalist. I’ve had a long career—Taxi is my tenth book! Even though the pictures are over 30 years old, the book is still very connected to the present. A current taxi driver recently reached out to me [about] the trans performer on page 25 of the book, who has since passed away. It’s amazing to me that people will see an image on social media that they connect with.

Driving a cab now is a much harder way to make a living. The drivers are really struggling between the pandemic and the apps. I’d rather get in a yellow cab than an Uber, though. I still get a pension check once a quarter from the taxi union for $110.

Andy, did working on this inspire you to drive a cab?

Outis: I don’t even take cabs if I can help it. Subway all day.