From visiting his avant garde great aunts to performing at CBGB, Robbie Quinn has always considered himself a New Yorker. Now the photographer is settled in Hell’s Kitchen and feels right at home. Here’s Robbie’s West Side Story.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
My family moved out to Stony Brook and then later to a NJ suburb outside of Philly, but having been born a town over from JFK airport, I always considered myself a New Yorker. Growing up, I often visited my great aunts who lived in the gardens section of Forest Hills. These women embodied what it meant to be flourishing in New York. They were part of the original suffragettes from the 1920s. They went to the Met, the Museums and even owned a Steinway they purchased from Leonard Bernstein. They were independent thinkers and they taught me everything from the appreciation of the arts to how to play cards.
How did you end up in Hell’s Kitchen?
Later, I experienced the grit of New York when our band, The Score, would come up to the city and perform in iconic venues like The Cat Club and CBGB. After many years away, I knew I’d always want to become a resident and not on the outskirts. I wanted to be in the thick of it. When you search for NYC online, the pin usually ends up on Columbus Circle, so I thought that would be a good place to start searching.
Looking at the apartments in Hell’s Kitchen (I refuse to call it Clinton), I found they were more affordable than other areas. The prewar vibe appealed to me and the location offers easy access to other parts of the city.
What’s your favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen?
The most obvious favorite part of Hell’s Kitchen are the amount of food choices and this really helped when there was no indoor dining and getting great food delivered gave some semblance of normalcy for those of us that never left in 2020.
And what’s your Hell’s Kitchen pet peeve?
The only downside? Like most of the city, good luck having a washer and dryer in the building, let alone one in the apartment.
Did you stay put when the pandemic hit or did you find an escape for some of the time? Even though New York was the hot spot in the beginning, it was apparent that very soon, finding a place that was going to be immune was non existent. Everyone had to make their own choice. I chose to stay.
What did you do for work pre-COVID? What are you doing now?
I’m a portrait photographer and when the pandemic started gearing up, I was worried about what I was going to do. I was surprised that people still needed work done and, as we all did, I made adjustments. I had been using a short range lens and switched to one that I could use at a safer distance and still get close-up images. It turned out that changing things up worked out well and I now prefer to work with the same setup.
What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned during the pandemic?
I feel that in the past couple of years, I’ve been able to have more social contact than most and actually make new friends because of photography. It’s already a very social and engaging profession, but these times have proven that people really want and need personal interaction. My biggest take away from this time period is to honor and value that.
Tell us one thing that’s given you hope during the pandemic?
I feel the pandemic has given us a chance to grow. It’s been an opportunity to feel for each other more. Seeing people all over the world having a similar experience puts things into perspective that we’re all humans. I believe New Yorkers get this as the whole world is here, but for some Americans that have never traveled and have stayed in their insular bubble, this has been a chance to see someone half way around the world as equal and that they matter.
What’s the most serendipitous (random/obscure/ insane) experience that’s happened to you in Hell’s Kitchen?
One day right about this time, I was riding my bike up the river front (which I love to do living here) and I turned on 52nd Street. I saw a lone man smoking on the south side in front of a red door. I thought it looked like a nice photo and asked him if he wouldn’t mind me photographing him. It turned out ‘John’, who immigrated here from Poland many years ago, worked at the stables there — which are the ones where they keep all the carriages for Central Park. The horses had been brought to Pennsylvania since they closed. John asked me if I wanted a tour. It was like I had my own private class trip. I have mixed feelings about the whole business, but the history I saw was amazing.
What’s your closest brush with world fame and celebrity?
Because of my work, in my life I’ve hired, been hired by, and had a number of encounters with celebrities. But, while not technically Hell’s Kitchen, a brush I had near here was when I swear Helen Mirren made eyes at me as we passed on the escalators at Whole Foods.
What’s your superpower?
Everyone has at least one superpower. If I had to point to mine, it’s not much of one but it has served me well. I can put anyone at ease in front of my camera and have them put across their most authentic selves, resulting in photos that I’m proud of.
What song do you sing at the top of your voice in the shower?
My voice is too bad to sing in the shower. I’d much rather hear Annie Bergen tell me what classical number is about to be played on WQXR.
Which people inspire you the most?
People who inspire me the most? That depends. But people who risk being criticized in order to be the truest version of themselves is up there. In a world of phonies, being authentic is paramount for me.
What’s your favorite quote or saying?
Theodore Roosevelt is attributed with the phrase “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” I don’t know if it was really him, but I like that one.
Do you love Times Square? Why, or why not?
Times Square? Yes. Like a lot of things in New York, it’s a love, hate relationship. Think of all that would be missing if it wasn’t there. But it’s kind of like the most entertaining person at the party. The party would suck without them, but a small dose is definitely enough.
Do you love Hudson Yards? Why, or why not?
Hudson Yards? Yes. There’s lots of reasons to hate malls. They’re kind of over. I don’t know why they bothered with that part, but New York has been changing and building since it began. It always pisses someone off. I think there’s a lot of it they could have done better, but no one’s hiring me to oversee a project like that anytime soon. I believe over time, it’ll shake out, be repurposed. Maybe Neiman Marcus will become a really cool night spot or be broken down into sections for local artisans.
If you could bring one thing (person/place/event) back to HK that is no longer around, what would it be?
I wish some of the Indian restaurants that closed were back.
Add your shameless plug or personal profile?
What am I working on now? Along with my commercial work, I’m very excited about the release of my first street photography book Street Unicorns from Abrams Publishing. In it, I photograph and interview people of our city and beyond who express themselves through their personal style. It’s really about diversity and inclusion. Hopefully it will inspire people to take more risks presenting their most authentic selves and have others gain acceptance and appreciation for each other. You can find more about the book here…
Anything we missed?
Don’t underestimate the M11 bus covering the span of Hell’s Kitchen and more going both south on 9th and up 10th. The people. Hell’s Kitchen is filled with some of New York’s most talented, creative people in the world. Forget about me singing in the shower, I can hear someone who has the lead in a Broadway show rehearsing most everyday. Some might be annoyed by this. They can put on headphones. For me, it is all a part of the ambiance of living here. And it’s never happened to me, but I know someone who regularly gets passes to see shows from their performing friends.
Photography from Robbie’s first street photography book Street Unicorns. Photos: Robbie Quinn
Robbie’s Hell’s Kitchen Happy Places
The Greenway: A whole book can be made about all there is to do on the Greenway, I’m not going to go into it other than to say it’s a fantastic way to relax and there’s always a much better chance of connecting with locals there than a lot other places.
Hell’s Kitchen Free Store: This is community. This is love in action.
Burrito Box: Great cheap eat and the delivery is at your door nearly before you hang up the phone. Whenever possible, I like cutting out services like Seamless and ordering direct.
Justino’s: Everyone needs a pizza shop that they can rely on no matter what. This is mine. If I’m picking up, I go to Justino’s on 10th, but I often get delivery.
More west side stories
Alfie’s: This local bar is always a great staple to throw some back with friends. I can’t pinpoint it, but something about it reminds me of being in college.
Blue Seafood Bar: Great atmosphere to feel lively, but quiet enough to have a nice conversation, great oysters and a dark beer.
Kashkaval Garden: This is a perfect spot for a relaxing dinner with friends. Because they offer tapas, it’s nice to be able to enjoy a meal at a casual pace and not feel like everyone has to stop talking to eat all at once. I always order the meze plate.
Aria: I’m a creature of habit. Or when I know what I like, I stick with it. I go for the fettuccine with wild mushrooms and truffle oil every time. It’s so good.
El Centro: Yes, they have great Mexican classics, but I just want to say, Margaritas. I’ll say it again. MARGARITAS.
Westerly Natural Market: On the edge of Hell’s Kitchen, we should all feel very fortunate to have this gem of a grocer in our neighborhood. With healthy offerings of specialty items along with lots of good for you food staples, Westerly is great.