Upstate '70s: The Soul of a Documentary Photographer

Upstate '70s
A view of the exhibit Upstate '70s: The Soul of a Documentary Photographer, in John Hartell Gallery. William Staffeld / AAP
Upstate '70s
A view of the exhibit Upstate '70s: The Soul of a Documentary Photographer, in John Hartell Gallery. William Staffeld / AAP
Upstate '70s
A view of the exhibit Upstate '70s: The Soul of a Documentary Photographer, in John Hartell Gallery. William Staffeld / AAP
Upstate '70s
A view of the exhibit Upstate '70s: The Soul of a Documentary Photographer, in John Hartell Gallery. William Staffeld / AAP

Around 1972, as an independent study with faculty at Rochester Institute of Technology, Bill Staffeld began photographing with slow speed black and white negative films and using a reversal chemical process to achieve positive transparencies. He began wandering at night with camera and tripod through neighborhoods adjacent to downtown Rochester. Using long-time exposures, he photographed the streets and people that he encountered.

After moving downstate, Staffeld continued to photograph — mostly during the day — with the same approach, working in Hudson River towns. In 1977, Staffeld returned to Rochester and once again began photographing at night, this time around the more vibrant commercial strip of Monroe Avenue. These images document what was once a rich and dense urban landscape that was becoming post-industrial.

By the late 1970s, Upstate New York's fire had been all but extinguished. At night, and even during daylight, only the shadows of former things and beings remained. It was a spirit world that would reveal itself in the moment Staffeld unwound the dripping wet film from the reel. The excitement of seeing what he had been given to ponder on film — like jewels that come alive only when light is cast upon them — still persists as his creative incentive, illuminating moments when he picks up a camera.

Originally from western New York, Staffeld has lived in Ithaca and worked at Cornell's College of Architecture, Art, and Planning since June 1984. He studied photography at RIT and the State University of New York. Staffeld previously worked at Apeiron Photographic Workshops where he was mentored by several renowned photographers, including Lisette Model, Charles Harbutt, and Ralph Gibson. As AAP's college photographer, he has long documented the creative lives of students, staff, and faculty always with an eye for celebrating what is best and most unique about our programs in Ithaca, New York City, and Rome.