For Those Too Bleary-Eyed To Notice, a Loving Tribute to Lower Manhattan’s Watering Holes at Dawn

During early-morning walks in Manhattan, Daniel Root was struck by the theatrical way bars kept their spaces illuminated, like empty sets taking a pause between performances.

Daniel Root
The Horseshoe Bar at 7B, aka Vazacs. Daniel Root

‘New York Bars at Dawn
By Daniel Root
Abbeville Publishing Group, 224 pages

For better or for worse, New York City is a drinking town. Drinking, socializing, and the cultural life of the city are inextricably shaken and stirred together. It’s hard to imagine Dorothy Parker without the Algonquin Hotel bar, Dylan Thomas without the Whitehorse Tavern, or Jackson Pollock without the Cedar Bar. New York City is also a walking town. It’s a city that has always rewarded flaneurs and wanderers, those inclined to meander through its streets and avenues, looking for nothing in particular. 

In his loving tribute to the watering holes of Lower Manhattan, “New York Bars at Dawn,” Daniel Root combines these two preeminent New York past times in one lush book of photography. Looking through it, you get the feeling that his New York bar interiors arise from his love of walking as much as it does from his love of a beer shot special. 

A professional photographer who has lived at the Lower East Side since the seventies, Mr. Root has photographed pretty much everything and everyone — his iconic photo of a young Cindy Crawford on the Rolling Stone fire escape attests to that. For this project, however, Mr. Root has moved away from portraiture and focused on buildings instead. 

Already used to early morning walks with his beloved dog, he continued the practice after she died. The hush of the Lower Manhattan streets in the early morning, a city suspended in mysterious calm with nary a person to rattle it, soothed his nerves. 

It was then that he noticed the bars. “I noticed unusual lighting at the corner bar, 7B, also known as the horseshoe bar or Vazac’s, a place I had walked by a million times in the decades I have lived on East 7th Street,” Mr. Root writes in his introduction. He was struck by the theatrical way bars kept their spaces illuminated, like empty sets taking a pause between performances. 

An image from Daniel Root's new book, "New York Bars at Dawn."
An image from Daniel Root’s new book, ‘New York Bars at Dawn.’ Daniel Root

Mr. Root grew to love the muted lighting of these spaces: “An acidic glow of conflicting neon colors that combines with the shadows in dark corners to create a mysterious scene.” After this, he took his camera along and catalogued Lower Manhattan’s bars. Mr. Root relied on the special magic that unfailingly rewards any New York city peripatetic. Go far enough in any direction and you’ll see something interesting. 

Mr. Root’s long history as a portrait photographer serves him well here, as each bar doubles as a character study. You get a broad view of the city’s incredibly diverse range of personalities, from blue collar neighborhood stiff to elegant professional, from raucous college kid to achingly hip demi-mondaine. 

There are all-American Neighborhood bars like the East Village Social and The Reservoir Lounge. There are handsome taverns like the Old Town Bar and the White Oak. There are the dank Bukowski-style dives like Milano’s and The International Bar. The Grey Lady and Frenchette appear as master classes in elegant understatement. Then there are the punk rock watering holes such as The Double Down Saloon with its infamous sign “You Puke, You Clean”. 

Then there are the frankly peculiar spots, such as Paddy McQuire’s Ale House, with its year-round Christmas décor, and Jeremy’s Ale House, with its collection of Bras hanging from its graffitied ceiling. Once named the best bar in the world, The Dead Rabbit has sheafs of found photographs bristling from its rafters. What were any of these bars thinking? Sounds like the prompt for another story, and another drink. 

An image from Daniel Root's new book, "New York Bars at Dawn."
An image from Daniel Root’s new book, ‘New York Bars at Dawn.’ Daniel Root

Mr. Root shot his bar interiors from the outside, placing his lens directly against the window. Then each interior was lovingly — and laboriously — reworked and balanced in post-production. There is a level of color saturation and detail that transcends the scope of the human eye in every image. Whatever you are too bleary eyed and happy to notice in person, Mr. Root has faithfully recorded with his camera. 

When I made the difficult decision of returning to this storied metropolis last year, I told my friends, “Chances are I could be down and out. But I’d rather be down and out in New York City than anywhere else.” I was thinking of New York’s bars as the ideal setting for success or sorrow. Mr. Root’s photos illustrate the point beautifully.


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