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Michael Horsley is sitting on the corner of 14th and T streets NW, across from the building where he says gangs used to sell women for sex.
“I had a knife pulled out on me one day when I was just sitting out on my stoop,” he says. “This guy came chasing a prostitute around the corner. They used to run prostitutes right on this block.”
Horsley is within eyeshot of the place, recalling the way it looked in 1987: the third-floor room where he squatted, the off-the-books coffee shop he ran up front, the space downstairs where johns bought sex, the stoop where a man almost stabbed him. He’s looking at the building, looking off into the past, when he pulls out a manila folder thick with photographs. Horsley doesn’t just want to tell people about the city he remembers—he wants to show them what it was like.
“When I was living over here, there’d be this guy naked, high on PCP, screaming at the bus stop,” Horsley says, gesturing to a picture of an almost unrecognizable 14th Street. The picture was taken from inside the building where he lived, facing northwest. He points to the liquor store on the corner, razed years ago. He points to the vacant buildings, now lucrative real estate investments. “Living here at that time, it was not fun,” he says.
Horsley is a burly 52-year-old with a wrinkled brow and a sharp squint to his eyes, and his salt-and-pepper stubble and graying sideburns betray his age. When he starts talking about his work, though, his ordinary-guy façade melts away. For the better part of the 1980s and early 1990s, Horsley documented some of the District’s toughest years, quietly photographing life amid an era of widespread blight, drug abuse, homelessness, and crime.
Now, decades later, there’s a surprisingly voracious audience for Horsley’s images. More than 1.7 million people have seen his pictures on Flickr. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic (where I work) have published his work. In pricey, modern-day D.C., Horsley’s work offers context and history at a safe distance for newcomers and long-time residents alike. A curated selection of his photographs, “The District: The Streets of Washington, DC 1984-1994,” will open at the Photoworks gallery in Glen Echo on Sept. 4. The exhibition doesn’t mark a breakthrough for the local artist—his Flickr feed already took care of that—but it still denotes a significant moment of recognition for a project almost 30 years in the making. “It is a cross between documentary work and memories of a city that no longer exists,” says photographer Mark Power, who curated the exhibit. “He preserved it in his photographs. It became his city.”
As Horsley tells it, the idea behind “The Streets of Washington” developed during the Snowpocalypse of 2010. After the snowstorm hit, he dug up the old negatives stored in his Silver Spring home and began putting them up on his Flickr page. He may notice flaws in his photos, but to the untrained eye, his scans look impeccable. (An archivist by trade, Horsley has worked at the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives.) Several months later, D.C. blog Prince of Petworth picked up Horsley’s Flickr photos. Since then, his audience hasn’t stopped growing.
What explains the rabid interest in Horsley’s straightforward photos of pre-gentrification D.C.? He says their popularity stems from interest among the young, white class that’s moved into the city. “Washington’s been repopulated, the hipsters are moving in. They’re repopulating certain areas, and some of them are looking for context,” he says. “They move into an area and they’re like, ‘Oh, I know D.C. was pretty wild back then. Oh man, check out this guy’s photos! This depicts what my neighborhood used to be.’”
“The Streets of Washington” is more than just fodder for transplants who want to gawk at The Way Things Were. It’s an accidental document of history. Horsley is the first to admit that he didn’t intend for his work to say much about D.C. life—any social commentary is unintended.
A San Rafael, Calif., native who relocated to the area in 1969 when his father got a job as a curator at the National Zoo, Horsley says he didn’t experience racial strife in the Northwest D.C. neighborhoods where he grew up. Instead, he spent his formative years surrounded by artists and teachers at the Field School, the private school where he discovered photography. That’s when he began to explore the city. “When I was in high school, I started walking around the alleys of Dupont Circle and things like that. I wasn’t either cognizant or brave enough to look elsewhere,” he says.
By the time Horsley was living on his own in the mid-1980s, he pushed himself to go farther. As an artist studying at the Corcoran and living in what he describes as “fringe areas” along the 14th Street corridor, he witnessed an open-air heroin market on U Street, pawn shops and illegal flophouses scattered across his neighborhood, and, always, the threat of violence. “You have to understand, 14th Street used to be a pejorative term,” he says. “This was a place people would make fun of, particularly in the white suburbs. It was like, ‘14th Street? Are you kidding me?’”
His method was unusual. Horsley would slip on a pair of construction boots and Dickies before he took off for each shoot, hiding his camera in an inconspicuous bag he bought at a thrift store. (The bag was meant for a gas mask. The camera, a Nikon FM2 he purchased after using a borrowed one for years, fit snugly inside.) While the construction-worker getup lent Horsley a costume, the boots served a more functional purpose. “That’s how I could walk through alleys with needles and condoms and broken vodka bottles,” he says.
The life of a cash-poor artist doesn’t lend itself to this sort of ambitious project. It didn’t in 1984, either. Without the income to afford new rolls of film, Horsley stole out-of-date ones from the photo stores where he worked. He developed the film in his bathroom sink. When he was out on the streets, he had to be stingy with shots. “I’m not one of those classic photographers who just shoots and shoots and shoots and shoots and shoots, then figures it out later,” he says. “I had to be very careful.”
Horsley built up a routine. He would stay up all night, leave at dawn with his camera, and go walk someplace. For hours, he’d search for interesting scenes to capture. “Sunday morning was my best time,” he says. “All the drug dealers and the drug users and the partying people, they were either already going home, or they were too exhausted to fuck with you. It was in between the drug dealers going to sleep and the church ladies going to church. That was my prime time. The streets were quiet and empty.”
As odd as it seems in a world of cameraphones and ubiquitous documentation of day-to-day life, “The Streets of Washington” stands out as one of the few collections of D.C. street photography from the era. Even if he didn’t intend it when he took each picture, Horsley’s work has aged into a particular social relevance. Of course, that relevance comes with an uncomfortable caveat: This is the work of a white, private school–educated photographer, who was drawn to predominantly black neighborhoods where he stumbled upon “the raw character of a city once ravaged by decline, drugs, and crime,” to borrow a description used by Photoworks. Yet Horsley says he’s not trying to editorialize, and he doesn’t believe he exploited his subjects. When I ask him about the socioeconomic context of his work, Horsley downplays the gulf between him and the lives depicted in his images. “I really hope people don’t think it’s exploitative,” he says. “I really, truly was trying to be honest—so a lot of it’s hard. It’s a hard truth.”
How do we observe that hard truth today? “The Streets of Washington” now stands as a historical document, a reminder of what came before Busboys & Poets and Le Diplomate. Yet it’s also a sensation online. Some might call it ruin porn. Others may simply want to know what D.C. once was—and they want to locate themselves in it, or find some way to identify with it, even if they realistically cannot.
Yet Horsley doesn’t hesitate to lay claim to the streets he photographed all those years ago. “This is kind of egotistical, and I haven’t really figured out how to express it, but this is not your city,” he says. “This is my city.”
Early last week, I went to dinner with Horsley at Matchbox on 14th Street. We ate a $22 pizza and drank glasses of Zinfandel. While we talked about his work, he kept stealing glances out the window at the building on the corner. After we paid our bill and left, I watched as Horsley crossed the intersection. He stood at the corner, staring up at that former amalgam of squatters and gangs he once called home. He gazed up at the third floor, where he used to live, and noticed the room was empty.
I later asked him what he was doing out there that evening. He said, “I was just thinking about what it’d be like to live there today.”
See more of Horsley’s photos on his Flickr page. “The District: The Streets of Washington, DC 1984-1994” is on view Sept. 4 to Oct. 14 at Photoworks.
Top photo by Darrow Montgomery; all other photos by Michael Horsley