Amy Lowen digs through one of the boxes her brother, Gene Spatz, left behind. It’s packed with thick manila envelopes. She slips one out and puts on her reading glasses to examine the label.
“This one is from 1974, and it’s the Tony Awards with Cloris Leachman, Johnny Carson, Carroll O’Connor, Suzanne Pleshette,” Lowen reads. “Then it has his handwriting and it says: Al Pacino, in parentheses ‘drunk,’ Melina Mercouri, Tommy Tune, Paul Newman and Bette Midler.”
One by one, Lowen pulls out photos of each of the celebrities mentioned. There are over 1,000 of these envelopes, each containing portraits, negatives and notes.
Currently, they’re all stored in file boxes in Lowen’s extra bedroom in Louisville — just as they have been for nearly a decade.
As you can probably guess, Spatz was a celebrity photographer — a paparazzo — in New York City during the 70s and 80s. He spent years following cultural icons like Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli and Mick Jagger through the height of the city’s nightlife era.
Along the way, he also captured the streets of New York: stark images of homelessness, joyful neighborhood scenes, ordinary people.
But for years, Lowen says, she didn’t really know what her brother did.
“Life just moved along, and we just weren’t connected,” Lowen says. “Now, he came to visit periodically in the 80s and he would take great pictures of us, so we obviously knew he was a great photographer and I had seen some of his magazines, however I wasn’t in his apartment that often.”
Then Spatz died suddenly in 2003 at the age of 60, leaving all his possessions to Lowen and her sister, Cathy Spatz-Widom. His belongings were kept in a storage unit in New Jersey for a few years. Then finally, in 2008, Lowen decided she was ready to investigate what her brother had left behind.
“So when did I understand the ramifications,” she says. “It wasn’t really until then, when we actually unboxed everything and started opening the envelopes.”
Envelope after envelope, Lowen found celebrity after celebrity, premiere after premiere, night after night at Studio 54. And initially, the more she looked, the more excited she became.
And then panic set in.
“I mean, what do you do with it all,” Lowen says.
After spending a year scanning some of the images with the help of a friend, Lowen read a piece in the New York Times called “The Weighty Responsibility of Inheriting a Collection.”
It featured a nonprofit organization called POBA that specialized in helping families archive, organize and display collections they inherit. The name of the group comes from a Tibetan phrase that refers to new consciousness after death.
“I was like these people are talking to me,” Lowen says. “It took me a while to call, no doubt about that. I kept sitting on it because, you know, ‘who are they?’ and ‘what am going to do with them?’ But I eventually called and I spoke to Regan McCarthy.”
McCarthy is the co-managing director of POBA. She has spent months consulting with Lowen.
“Amy came to us with a big collection that she had just, from our perspective, just begun to understand was really quite extensive,” McCarthy says. “And that just in itself, the sheer volume of a photographer’s collection, can also be overwhelming.”
And preserving it can also be expensive.
“Because it can mean you have to transfer positives and negatives into new media,” McCarthy says. “You have to correct them, sometimes color-correct them, sometimes they’re not sized properly, sometimes they’ve not been printed well.”
Lowen is doing most of that work herself, but she says her brother’s art is worth it. And others, like McCarthy, agree.
“I was really struck by the humanity in the pictures, many of the club scenes photos that you see done by photographers who were known for photographing that period of time in particular — a lot of them went for the weird, the bizarre, the salacious, the funny,” McCarthy says. “Gene didn’t do that.”
Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft curator Joey Yates says Spatz’s identity as a paparazzo makes his work interesting to consider in a curatorial context.
“Because no one wants to totally revere the paparazzi,” Yates says. “So there is kind of a tenuous relationship to the images.”
But Yates says he sees something special in Spatz’s work — an awareness of composition and scene. Additionally, Spatz’s images serve as a visual anthology for celebrity culture at the time. For those reasons, he put on an exhibition using Spatz’s work in 2013 called “Gene Spatz: The Art of a Paparazzo!”
“You look at these photos and they look very similar to fine art black and white photography from the time,” he says.
It’s almost like the subjects just happen to be celebrities whom Spatz captured doing everyday things, like Andy Warhol getting seconds from a buffet line or Allen Ginsberg waiting — like everyone else — for a Bob Dylan concert to begin.
(On a local note, he also captured photos of Muhammad Ali surrounded by the cast of the Broadway musical “Annie” and getting kissed on the cheek by Eartha Kitt, and an unusual picture of Colonel Sanders eating fried chicken at a New York City club.)
In his photos, they’re just people from a time gone-by — and that’s why, after years of being boxed up, Lowen wants to make sure Spatz’s photography is recognized again.