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. But look, biographies of Mingus, Miles, old hardbound photo books, classic literature. A compendium of venerable Blue Note album covers catches my eye. I’ll take that. 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’m in the living room of Mike Hanulak, prolific street photographer. 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 having been sold, mother and daughter were shedding most of the contents. Mike died on August, 17, 2011, age 74, from liver cancer.
Giorgianna is pleasant. She brings me to the 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 an 16x20 print of a portrait of Giorgianna from decades ago. The Hanulaks bought their Staten Island home in 1977.
Two hours of perusal passed 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 another—selectively stored in a hard portfolio case—a series on addicts and their paraphernalia. I believe this 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 producing punctuations of 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 actually met Mike once, around 2006, at a pizzeria on the street he lived, Cafe Milano. He had a camera around his neck, we struck up a short conversation, and that was it. At that time, he mentioned one of his favorite photographers was Ernst Hass, a member of the Magnum agency, where Mike freelanced (and at BlackStar too) from 1973-1982.
His ferry photos interested me the most. I set aside about a dozen of my favorite prints. Georgianna asked what I would do with them. “Frame them?” “No, I said, it’s just an honor to have a memento of the work of a fellow Staten Island photographer.” After a pause, and my money in hand, she offered them as a gift.
Two Hanulak images appear here that reflect the approach I use for myself 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. An 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 mood 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 the 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 (then, 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. Images below © Mike Hanulak Estate