Before redevelopment and gentrification dove dollar-first into much of downtown DC, the District was long characterized as a “sleepy Southern” town that was shielded from tourists’ views. This was especially true during the ’70s and ’80s when unemployment and crime rates spiked and large swaths of the city remained dilapidated and vacant in wake of the ’68 riots.
Between 1985 and 1988, Michael Horsley walked the streets of DC with a Nikon FM2 to capture these scenes in a series he calls Hidden DC. Check out our interview with the photographer after the jump to hear how the series came about and the changes he’s seen take place in the city where he grew up.
Tell me a little about this series. What inspired you to pursue this project?
When I took [the photos] , they weren’t very coherent. I wasn’t thinking about how they would look in the future. I was working on other stuff and these were more side images, but I realized they were more interesting and less contrived. I started building them subconsciously.
DC was a different place back then. I was looking at the ‘80s and you could see things leftover from the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. There was something about things left over from earlier years that were fading. When I really started looking at these again was during the big blizzard of ’93. I started thinking about how to get these images out to people. I eventually started looking at Flickr and once I put the images up, I realized more people saw them in a day than had ever seen my work in an exhibit. I now have more than 900,000 views on my Flickr page.
What drew you to particular subject matter or places?
I didn’t think I was comfortable photographing people, but I got used to it, and I realized that you’re responsible for everything in the frame. When I first took the photos, I was just taking photos of stuff. Now looking back, it was actually about something. I remember walking into a burned out building, and it was about what I was feeling. It had been abandoned since the ’68 riots. And I could still smell the smoke.
When I put the photos on Flickr, I specifically sequenced them. I made sure to be very inclusive, but I was also exclusive—I didn’t want to put up crap.
How did you choose photography/black-and-white/technique/framing?
I used mostly a Nikon FM2, with a 35 or 50mm lens. I liked the 35mm in particular because it gave me a normal perspective. I needed to engage the world as I saw it and the 35mm was the best way to do that.
Where were you living at the time?
All over the place: Along 15th and Massachusetts, in the Gladstone Building on 14th and R, and a group home in what I think is now called NoMa. But our home base was 14th and P Street, near where Café St. Ex is now. Along with guy who owns DCAC now up in Adams Morgan, we were working on projects like Theatre du Jour. We were that punk rock/grunge squatter group of the ‘80s—or at least we thought we were.
There was a lot of improv and art in that area, which made us feel safe. Which was probably silly, because there would be people running down the street naked and high on PCP. You know, that was straight Marion Barry era. I had nightmares. I actually went out to do most of my shooting Sunday mornings, because it was the safest time. The dealers and addicts were either too hopped up from last night or hadn’t woken up yet.
Do you think the change that has taken place over the years in the District has been overwhelmingly positive or do have a since of nostalgia?
What do you think? (Laughs). I like both for different reasons. The Washington I grew up in, the city was very small. The fringe groups are less connected now than before. Back then, you knew everyone. The gays, the hip-hop scene, the artists, the musicians; we all knew each other. I also loved that element of danger. The Metro screwed everything up. Especially along U Street, where the only thing that’s still there is Ben’s Chili Bowl. Although there did use to be a heroin market, so it’s good that’s over. It was really wild. Now it’s more homogenized.
I do think though that it’s easier now to be an artist. I missed that boat as an artist in the ‘80s. People can really go out and create their work now and have somewhere to display it.
What does your employment at the National Archives mean for your work? How do you feel about the transition from film photography into digital?
I work at the National Archives as a digital imaging specialist. I’m not a purist; I think the important part is making sure these images persist. Because of my age, I grew up with analog [photography], but I also benefited from digital skill. Scanning is just part of that continuum. But I do think people should learn how to shoot with film. Now with so many cameras, anybody now can be a photographer. But not everybody can be a good photographer.
What have you worked on since this project?
I’m not really interested in taking photos anymore. I just don’t have the urge to click. I think I feel like I’ve mastered it and I’ve moved on. I’ve gone back to painting, and also performance art and music. Technology has made it possible for me to do more. I worked with Cabaret Voltaire, and my next project is a performance piece in Milwaukee.
And what’s next for Hidden Washington DC?
These photos are out there. They’re free; I don’t care if you steal them. I just want people to have them to look at. I’d love to be able to exhibit them.