Hanulak's New York, a Thorough Study

Staten Island Ferry, undated print. Archive of Mike Hanulak

June 15, 2014

It's a yard sale on a stretch of Forest Avenue. The books, not your usual rummage rejects. Sure, they're weathered and dusty and who knows how long they've been relegated to weekends out in the elements. There are biographies of Mingus, Miles, and old hardbound photo books, classic literature, and a compendium of venerable Blue Note album covers. A vinyl aficionado flips through crates of vintage jazz and classical albums looking to fill out his collection. But who owned all these gems?

Up a flight of concrete steps, I enter the living room of Mike Hanulak, a prolific street photographer from Staten Island. Sitting in a pale green barber’s chair is the photographer’s ex-wife, Georgianna, 70. On a couch, his daughter Micole, 38, holds her eleven-month old son. With the house already sold, mother and daughter were shedding most of the contents. Mike died on August, 17, 2011, age 74, from liver cancer.

Giorgianna brings me to an area by the front windows where a sizable amount of Mike's prints are stored. (She later tells me there are thousands more in the attic). Some are in Ilford boxes, other piled loose. The only hints of color are framed and secured in a corner, fully bubble-wrapped. There's a big open box of postcards next to another stack topped with a 16x20 print of a decades-old portrait of Giorgianna. The Hanulaks bought their home in 1977.

Two hours of print perusal quickly; my appreciation grew for Mike's prodigious work ethic as a street documentarian and dedicated black and white printer. He liked to emphasize deep and dominating shadow areas using Ilford double-weight fiber paper with glossy finish. Three themes—all based in New York City—stand out: Gay pride parades and demonstrations, the Staten Island Ferry, and a more guarded series in a hard portfolio case about addicts and their paraphernalia. The latter is Mike's strongest body of work. He had complete access; the images are direct, honest, saddening, enlightening, and poetic. His work reveals a range of the complete street photographer, willing to sit back and wait, equally adept at engaging when necessary. His perspective, wide and filling ends of the frame, sometimes contrasts disparate figures but always seems to strive for neutrality. Occasionally there are notes of joy and there is no shortage of images which underline despair.

He worked exclusively with natural light and mostly outdoors. From here, emerge the occasional surprise of beautifully-toned contemplative portraits. His daughter Micole gets much of the limelight. There's also a small sampling of jazz musicians who signed their portraits like singer Etta Jones and the bassist Ray Brown.

I remembered meeting Mike once, around 2006, at a pizzeria on the street he lived. He had a camera around his neck which prompted a little photo banter. He mentioned that one of his favorite photographers was Ernst Hass, a member of the Magnum agency, where Mike was a stringer (and at BlackStar too) from 1973-1982.

His ferry photos interested me the most. I set aside about a dozen favorite prints. Georgianna asked what I would do with them. "Frame them?" “No," I said, "it's just an honor to have these mementos of a fellow Staten Island photographer.” After a pause, and money in hand, she offered them as a gift.

Two Hanulak images appear here that reflect a familiar approach aboard the ferry: interaction and mood. In an undated photo that shows two women arguing, Hanulak is right on the pulse of the ferry riders. A nearby onlooker might be part of the dialog or may simply be reacting to the photographer's presence.

The second image is a classic ferry atmosphere capture with a setting sun in the New York Harbor. Hanulak most likely knew this area of the boat well and waited for his characters to fall into a position of balance, with a bonus of having one silhouetted profile revealed.

Mike Hanulak's work is included in the photo archive of the Brooklyn Museum. In 1994, he had an exhibition along with photographer Raeanne Rubenstein at The Staten Island Museum (formerly the Institute of Arts & Sciences). In January 2013, the Museum displayed a posthumous tribute with the show: New York Grit, a 15-print variety from his archive.

Two women argue on a Kennedy Class ferry, undated print. Archive of Mike Hanulak

Mike Hanulak rides the State Island Ferry, undated print. Photographer unknown