Photos at Opera House open window on city’s backstreets

HUDSON–The photographs of three artists–William Hellermann, Lisa Durfee and Peter Spear–who found inspiration in the semi-private, deserted, often dilapidated alleys of Hudson–are on the subject of exhibit at the Hudson Opera House. The photos, which range in date from 20 years ago to the present, can be viewed through February 19 at the Opera House, 327 Warren Street, in an exhibition curated by Ms. Durfee entitled No Parking: The Alleys and Garages of Hudson.

The Opera House announced Tuesday, February 7, that Mr. Hellermann had died. There is more information on the Hudson Opera House Facebook page.

Perhaps the fact that these relative newcomers to Hudson were seeing the alleys for the first time allowed them to sense a poetry in the back streets that many who grew up here may not recognize. The photos record the fragility of an environment in a state of deterioration.

“Long alley mist” a photograph by Lisa Durfee captures the poetry to be fund in Hudson’s Long Alley. Photo by Lisa Durfee

Each photographer arrived here sometime during the past 20 years, part of a wave of artists priced out of New York City and other metropolitan areas who had heard this area was still affordable. Mr. Hellermann, the oldest of the three, arrived early in the 1990s from New York City. Ms. Durfee, a Bard College graduate who moved here in the late 1990s, has lived in Hudson for 17 years. Peter Spear, a Rochester native came here from San Francisco in 2001.

Ms. Durfee, who also runs the vintage clothing store Five and Diamond, met Mr. Hellerman at a summer barbecue. “He was one of the first people I met,” she said, recalling how his Hawaiian shirt had caught her eye at a summer barbecue. “We’d see each other at the Red Dot.”

The Warren Street bar and eatery became Hudson’s first real artists’ hangout. Ms. Durfee and Mr. Spear met there too. It was there that she learned of their shared interest in the alleys.

The exhibition resulted from the efforts of Ms. Durfee, who had kept up with Mr. Hellermann and his progress in organizing and printing his photographic works. Last year she decided to organize an exhibition. Mr. Spears ran into her in one of the alleys and learned of her project.

In addition to being a photographer William Hellermann was also well known as an avant-garde composer, classical guitarist, sound artist and conceptual artist, who curated shows of sound art (he coined the term) at The Sculpture Center and PS1 in New York. He performed in Europe and taught music and sound art at Columbia University’s Music Department.

Mr. Hellermann lived and worked in Soho section of lower Manhattan during the 1970s and ’80s, when loft space was still affordable and the area became a hotbed of artistic activity. During the 1980s, at night he made experimental photographs in Times Square, taking advantage of the sensitivity of Kodachrome film to the different temperatures of neon, florescent, mercury vapor, titanium lights. These works will be exhibited at the Davis Orton Gallery in April. Mr. Hellerman created experimental and conceptual artworks and graphic musical scores, and his work has been widely exhibited by museums and experimental galleries like The Kitchen.

In a recent interview Mr. Hellermann talked about those days when “you’d go out the door, run into someone you knew and end up at a gallery opening or other art event or a bar…. It was heaven on earth,” he said. “There was a community of artists. Everything you did, you were in touch with other people’s work.”

Rising rents drove Mr. Hellermann and his young family first to the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, and then upstate. “We drove north ‘til the prices dropped and we ended up in Philmont,” he said. In the 1990s he got back to photography when he discovered Hudson’s alleys.

“I found that the garages were often more visually interesting than the buildings on the main thoroughfares. They have an accidental beauty,” he said.

His photographs have a frontal view point of view and often feature bright sometimes garish color and repeated geometric patterns. But asked if he was drawn to the subject as a way to explore abstraction, he responded to the contrary: “Those garages are about the people who built them.”

“I am fascinated by the evolution,” said Lisa Durfee, referring to how the alleys have changed over two decades. “That’s what’s so fascinating about Bill’s pictures. His go back 8 or 9 years before I started.”

Of the three, Ms. Durfee’s images are the most pastoral, capturing an old world view of new fallen snow or in the sudden illumination that occurs during “the magic hour,” as she describes that time in late afternoon when an environment seems to glow. Her decision to print her images on canvas adds an impressionist quality to the works.

Peter Spear’s unadorned realism still manages to capture the poetry of the alleys. “I found it to be a private place, a way to avoid people while walking my dog. I enjoyed peeking into private spaces and back yards. I liked the trash, the chaos, and the messy, dirty disuse. I was attracted to the glorious light on the trash,” he said.

He has created an extensive photographic body of work with Hudson as the subject and has self-published two books of photographs including “The Alleys of Hudson NY The Friendly City.”

For more information go to hudsonoperahouse.org or call 518 822-1438.

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