Magnani Meets: Clayton Patterson & The Door Portraits

Written by Francesca Magnani

It starts with an encounter, a crossing of paths, and the clic of my camera. The idea behind this column is a real life conversation that happened haphazardly, out of chance or serendipity.

In ancient mythology Tyche / Fortuna is the goddess of fate and I have always felt the street in New York City always presents me with the people, the images and the colors that resonate with what I am currently going through emotionally or psychologically. My photography captures that. In this column my point of view meets another artist’s perspective, it happens on the street and I tell it to the readers.


I ran into legendary LES staple Clayton Patterson last week on Stanton Street. Because I had read about his “door portraits” I accepted his invitation to walk to the eponymous front door on Essex and asked a few questions.

Magnani: What is the story of your Door Portraits? 

Patterson: We moved into 161 Essex in 1983. Across the street is an elementary school. This part of the community was a heavy drug dealing area.  On our street we had 24/7 drug selling.  First night we moved into our place someone got shot across the street. Took time for cops to show up. The neighborhood was Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. To get involved in the community I started taking pictures in front of my door.

Magnani: Which camera/lens did you use? What do you shoot with now?

Patterson: I was using a 35mm Pentax SLR.  I had an excellent one hour color developer.  I bring in a roll of film and get a free roll.  I would select 32 pictures, put them on a display board in my store front window and do weekly shows.  The largest percentage of photos were of the young people who occupied the streets. The window photos became famous in the community.  I have been documenting my front door for 40 years.  Went digital after 2001 which ended the front door photo gallery.

Magnani: What is the Lower East Side for you?

Patterson: I have photos of people from all the projects and such a wide range from all corners of the Lower East Side.   Some people were photographed from childhood to now, some have grandkids.  Some grew up and became DJ’s, sports people, famous bands, to criminals who did 20 years, got out and I took another photo.   A history of a community.  There is a book out called Front Door Book.

A couple of talented young photographers, Zach Lau and Destiny Mata, see me as a mentor.  Looking at the next generation of the front door photos.  And possibly to book  2?

Magnani: What is your connection with street art?

Patterson: Because the LES was a drug community the streets were covered in graffiti.  Drugs selling are territorial and mostly tags. Quick throws ups showing who dominated which streets.  My front door became like a black book which would fill up with tags which became another form of a history.

Magnani: Which are some of the tags signed on your front door?

Patterson: Some of the tags signed on my front door: ADT- SHOCK, JAE, (Ave. D Terrorists) WON Crew (Writing Over Niggers) SF, DMS (Doc Martin Skins), MF, (Missing Foundation) Peter Missing, MUG A YUPPIE, DUKE 9, 333 (half evil) CEEK, VR, SEMI, TSK (Triple 6 KINGS- 666), BUGS, FTW- (F*** The World),  LAII, SOE, TNS (They Never Stop), LSB (Ludlow Street Boys) Capone One, G Money, FOS (Flip Out Squad), FEX, SPER, BBB (Baruach Bad Boys), The 3rd and C possie, FRIDGE, DAST, TR, LER, LESK,, RFC (Running From Cops), 501, DECK, MSK, (Mad Society Kings), Violators, PRES, SEN 4, 3 DEE, CEVE, HECK, MK., BABA, ,  IRAK, SEMZ KS, EAR SNOT, SFFS (Satan Sinner Nomads), Homicide, Piro, Latin Kings, La Familia, NETA,  RED ED with his Dow Jones numbers, SACE, SCACER, REAZN.

Magnani: Who are your subjects? Do you see things in these people that you think reflect yourself?

Patterson: I came from the bad end of the working-class. When I first started photographing the young people it was like looking at kids I grew up with.  Where I grew up was mostly white, and these people were mostly brown and black, but they all had the same vibe.  I knew who they were. Over the years the front door photos became of a collection that in some ways became a family.  My LES Family.

Magnani: How has the door evolved over the years?

Patterson: Over the years, after the graffiti, the door became a mural for different artists. Two women artists, Nicolina and Perola from Mexico and Brazil were going to do a series of 13 portals.  Portals which combined the street, modern technology and ancient history.  My front door became a rainbow, and a skull.  Think of Doves, a local artist:  I had photographed him once when he was very young and he did a mural honoring DonP, a local rap artist LES Fortunate. Another person VR, Richie Rivera a PhD candidate in the 333 Crew made a history of tags on the front door.

Magnani: You are considered a symbol of this neighborhood, and beyond. How did you rise to fame?

Patterson: I became known nationally after making a 3’33” video which became known as the Tompkins Square Park Police Riot.  I was sent to jail for contempt of Court for not giving up my video. I did not want to give it up as it would become government property.  My argument was I am an artist, this is my art and it belongs to me. I won and kept it as my original art.

Magnani: Would you like to give us a backdrop to this LES history?

Patterson: A backdrop to this LES history is I came to NYC in 1979 to be an artist.  I was building a career in Soho, the art center of the time, which was too much like a high school frat boy club.  I left, came to the LES and went underground. Having the state Supreme Court recognize my work as art was good enough for me.   For the large art debates on authenticity, ownership, art, the court decides. Later, Ron Magliozzi the film curator at MoMA picked my videos for the collection and for an East Village show.  He considered my videos art.   Watch Never Sorry and Captured and you can clearly see how my style influenced Ai Weiwei’s use of street video cameras. I used the camera as a powerful tool to hold the police accountable, doing protests, like a weapon.  I was good at it.  Ai Weiwei used the camera in the same way and ended up getting arrested and beaten up.  Same kind of thing that happened to me over the years.

Magnani: What is your most important collaboration?

Patterson: My greatest blessing has been connecting with Elsa Rensaa, my partner and later my wife of 50 years. Anything good I have become is because of her. She was the backbone to everything.  In 1972 she bought me my first camera, the Pentax. During the Police Riot tape recording, she was there the whole time changing tapes and charging batteries.  I came up with the visions, what to do, where to go and she was the brains and the engineer to make things happen.

Magnani: What is a project you worked on together?

Patterson: I created the Clayton Cap concept and she made the caps.  She came from an intellectual family. She is an artist. She just had a show at Fuentes Gallery.

Magnani: I read this quote of yours that I very much relate to and I want to thank you for it: “My art is not the individual pieces. It’s about the large vision: survival, being and continuing to be creative.”

Francesca Magnani is a Brooklyn-based Italian photographer, writer, teacher, and translator. Born and raised in Padua, she arrived in NYC as a Fulbright graduate student in 1997. Since then she has been telling in words and images the stories that move her while she chronicles her own life.

Instagram: @magnanina