In 2002, I had a stroke. It came on suddenly and was severe enough for my active imagination to bring me to death’s door. I wasn’t panicked about dying. My two immediate thoughts were: 1. I realized that I do not want to be buried nor cremated. 2. I was profoundly saddened that my three young children would not know their father. I do not know my father, not because he died young but because he chose being a drunk over being a father. Obviously, I did not die but my existential moment was the embryo of this Bowery Boy project.
My photography and filmmaking are not my work. It is who I am. I’d rather let pictures (still or moving) explain me vs. me speaking about myself. This why after the stroke I started to gather and organize my early photography. My thinking was: if a piano falls on my head, my kids would have a visual history of their father. Over the course of the following decades the curation process slowly evolved. I started writing about my need to express myself to give context or understanding of how a camera paved the way for my future. I never thought of this activity as a “memoir” because my ego did not (and still does not) think I am that interesting. However, the people I chose to point cameras at are extraordinary, each in unique ways. This realization led me to edit a cross section of my various film efforts over the span of my lifetime.
There were other reasons driving this “autobiography” or “self-portrait.” Since I had asked hundreds, if not thousands, of people to trust me with their stories, it was now my turn to trust myself with my own. This was (and is still not) a comfortable process for me. Then, in February 2020, my wife Sara and I moved from our home of 26-years. While relocating we unearthed a ton of accumulated materials buried in our basement. It seemed as if the “universe” was sending me signals, encouraging me to take my Bowery Boy project seriously. Mysterious photographs and reels of 8mm film were surfacing from boxes within boxes. There weren’t many but the ones I unearthed rocked my world. I had moved my mother a few times over the years. While deciding what to discard, I found photographs of me as a young child that I had never seen. The real mind-blowing thing was an 8mm reel of NYC in the early 1960’s that included footage of me running in and out of a movie theater, and the appearance of my very own demon. Yes, my very own demon. Now you need to watch Episode One: The Shadow of My Father, to find out what that means. Another mysterious reel was 16mm footage around NYC in the mid-1970s including construction of the Twin Towers. The mystery around these images is: who was the shooter? My mother has no memory of the footage or who the shooter was. My working theory is that it was the father I never met. Who else would have access to a baby/toddler me? Who else could have stashed/planted photographs and film reels into my mother’s possessions without her knowledge?
When I started organizing the visual story of my life for my kids, I would have never imagined it would end up as an autobiographical 9-episode series. It’s my history, but it is also a unique historical perspective on NYC from 1960 to today that includes music, photography, cinema, art, and societal tragedies, all witnessed through my own lens. I did not anticipate this project to be an attempt to understanding myself and my world so intimately and intensely. Who knew a life-threatening medical event would lead to this cathartic creative endeavor? This process of deep introspection is the real value of this project to me: uncovering the circumstances and choices that led to living a life of creativity. Perhaps it will provide some knowledge, insights and maybe inspiration to others.
Maybe that is what art is all about?
Oh, by the way, I still do not want to be buried or cremated. So, if anyone has a better idea, please let me know. I’m all eyes… I mean ears.
Bobby Sheehan, aka Bowery Boy