History in real time with Kobie Procter

person in running pose wearing black suit and tall hat

Kobie Procter paints truth with the light of New York. A street and self-portraiture photographer who also paints and sculpts, Procter is best known for his large scale, shot-from-the-hip black and white imagery and dramatic portraits. Most recently he’s collaborated and curated with St. Ann’s Warehouse and the Newark Arts Festival, with work focusing on the injustice and inequality during the pandemic.

On September 19, 2020, Ace Hotel New York played canvas to Kobie’s images of the first days of the Black Lives Matters protests in the city — pictures and poetry cast across the facade of the building, capturing history in what was close to real-time.

Kobie was kind enough to share stories from the stream-of-memory surrounding some of these frozen moments.

“Pinchin’ in the Projects”
Location: Bedford–Stuyvesant

Shot in 2019.

I was walking around Bed-Stuy one day after work and chose to cut through the housing project so I could head back toward Fulton. As I approached I saw a group of young skaters shredding and grinding down the accessibility ramp and rail connected to one of the buildings. Intuitively, I reached for my camera. As I got closer, something else called my attention, something we see too often. Over-policing: eight NYPD Police Officers surrounded a man for a summons.

An approach to community policing was delivered with poor form. I noticed the child in the background to the right of the female officer. Seeing him witness what was happening connected me even more intensely to this moment. I wondered – will his young mind find the resources to reconcile what he just witnessed? Psychologically, when this scenario happens to one of us in the Black community… it happens to all of us.

“Black Lives Matter in Fort Greene”
Location: Brooklyn / DeKalb Avenue and Ft. Greene Park

With frustrations hitting a tipping point, several NYPD vehicles were set on fire in close proximity to the Barclays Center. I saw a police van on fire in one of my news feeds and rushed back early in the morning hoping to beat the Sanitation Department to the location to get some clean shots of the previous night’s aftermath.

The morning was quiet and the air was humid, imbued with the smell of mechanical soot. I arrived too late — the van was gone. A shrine-like tableau atop the oil-stained concrete tiles pieced together from burnt remnants to say: “Black Lives Matter.”

The couple in the photo stood silently trying to figure out — like many that morning — “what does all of this mean?”

“The Virus is Racism”
Location: Manhattan / 5th Ave and 23rd

My camera jammed outside Niketown.

It had been cleaned out by looters, as peaceful protestors veered clear and to the left, heading uptown. One of the leaders of the peaceful protesters chanted “They are not with us! This way! Stay focused on our goal! This is not our goal!” 

I struggled to get some shots of the looting, but I didn’t care. As my camera started working again, I raced uptown and felt the sea of energy sweeping my way as I arrived ahead of them. I popped out from the wedged-shaped island into the middle of 5th Ave to capture this shot. The protestor’s sign — “The Virus is Racism” — acknowledged the collision of two American crises in real-time.

“The Gatekeeper”
Location: Manhattan / NYU, Broadway

During the first couple of nights of protest and riots, the NYPD was challenged but not outnumbered.

Protestors provided the perfect Trojan Horse for people who were just focused on destroying property. The approach was textbook: huge groups of protestors zig-zagged across Manhattan while destructive types would attach themselves to the protests — splintering off from the group to rampage shops and storefronts, as the NYPD focused on the larger group of protestors. Barricades were positioned all around the Village and Soho to cut off access from east to west, as another night of looting stretched in multiple directions from SOHO to Midtown. 

I took this shot while officers were chatting; the one pictured was somehow able to detach himself from the thick and heavy air of the moment, as tensions continued to flare for the third night in a row.

“When the Brown Hits the Bag” 
Location: Manhattan / SoHo on Broadway

Going on day two without sleep – I made it back to Manhattan in the morning.

I get to Soho to find major destruction at most of the retail spaces — empty shelves and sales floors torn to pieces, as an offering to the gods of inequality and capitalism. I was taking some really cool broken glass shots at a bank when a woman pulled up on a bike and said, “Hey! They burned up a police car on Broadway!” 

I hopped on my bike and eventually found this car jerked and burnt laying on its side in front of Bloomingdales. The window graphics timestamp some of the social language of this historical moment, with slogans like “Best Self,” “Know Your Value,” or “Harmony” repeated throughout.

“Punk Rock Elvis Plays in the Lower East Side” 
Location: Manhattan / Lower East Side 1st Ave

I was able to capture some great moments by riding ahead of the protest — knowing the streets well allowed me to gain ground and take breaks to check and adjust my gear. It also provided a couple of moments of silence from the chaos. By now I had the pattern of the protestors down; I could pick and choose my spots to shoot the march. 

I rode way ahead on 1st Ave and took a second to check out the march as it approached, to think about my set up for a couple of shots. To my right I heard the loud slam of an iron gate, as a man with a guitar kicked the gate closed with another loud bang. Now he is right in front of me: it is surreal and I start capturing it.

New York doesn’t care about anyone’s plans or protest. No matter what’s going on, New York always has a way to remind you why it’s the greatest and most magical place on earth. When it is.

“March across Astor Place”
Location: Manhattan / Astor Place

After I captured the march in the Lower East Side, the crowd veered west and marched across Astor Place. My intuition told me to set my frame laying curbside or gutter side, so I let the marchers flow towards me for the shot.

This block is an open and airy part of Astor Place, where the sky is not as obstructed by the building corridors you see and feel on Broadway. As the marchers funneled into my viewfinder, I began to shoot. A women in front of the protestor glanced over towards me and put her fist in the air. A historical moment.

Kobie Procter by Monique Carboni

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