A recent inquiry by a researcher looking to document the emerging folk scene in the Village had me looking through the archive of Robert Otter, a photographer who captured the Village’s vibrant and bohemian character from 1960 to 1972. I was happy to spend time looking through these photographs. Indeed, the image “Barefoot in Washington Square Park” from 1964 is one of my favorite things.
For those of you who have never seen the work of Robert Otter, I highly recommend taking a look at the collection. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation learned about the Robert Otter archive through his son Ned, who has introduced his father’s extraordinary body of work through an online gallery and public programming. Ned presented a series of programs for GVSHP in 2006 and 2007, including an exhibition of the collection, after researching the photos beginning in 2003. Robert Otter was an art director for an advertising firm before he struck out on his own as a freelance photographer. During the day, he would photograph for whatever jobs he had, but it was in the evenings and weekends that he hit the streets with his camera to photograph a neighborhood he loved. Ned’s description of his father’s photography as “the outlet for his unfettered creativity and singular sense of perception” is particularly poignant when you learn that he later took on a more conventional job in real estate to better support his family.
For me, the Otter collection is a favorite because it captures a time period that I never knew, but am deeply interested in. The image “Barefoot in Washington Square Park” is a particular favorite, because it captures a unique time, not just in Greenwich Village, but across the country, where young people were beginning to change cultural norms. First of all, this image is integrated. The black youth sitting on the right side of the pillars that adorn the fountain looks like he is part of the group, engaged in conversation and sitting intimately with the others. Second, the clothing worn by the young men and women in the photograph is beginning to reveal a shift to a more casual style of dress that arose beginning in the 1960s with student activists and eventually spread to the general population.
This second image, “Caffe Reggio, 1965″ is also a favorite from the Robert Otter archive. Caffe Reggio is of course one of the oldest operating cafes in the Italian South Village. The original owners brought the first cappuccino machine to the United States when it opened in 1927. Since, it has served all comers: Italian locals mixed with the artists, writers, radicals, and students who have called the neighborhood home for 85 years. Reggio looks much today as it did in Otter’s photograph. GVSHP feted Reggio with a Village Award in 2010, honoring the shop’s long service to the South Village. A neighborhood GVSHP certainly considers a favorite! GVSHP has been working to preserve this neighborhood for many years, but the city has only landmarked a third of the area GVSHP proposed for designation. To learn more or help, please visit our website.