Ken Dreyfack: Silent Stages

Published on 05/30/ 2020

King of New York

I was still in college when I began what was to become a 20-year journalism career. My first job was writing scripts for 22-minute newscasts at an all-news radio station in New York. I reported for work between 3 and 4 a.m. to prepare material for morning drive time. Later, working the overnight shift at the Associated Press, I again found myself in the heart of Manhattan during the hours when nightlife was mostly finished and the new day had yet to start.

With the streets empty save for cleaning and maintenance workers and the occasional drunk, I sometimes felt drunk myself, high on the sense that I was among the privileged few who knew the city more intimately than the masses who crowded in at other times. In the quiet darkness, I could imagine I was the king of New York.

Sunday Morning

Two paintings I saw as a kid at the Met and Whitney museums in New York had a particular impact on me. I would be sure to spend time with them each time I visited. One was Pieter Brueghel’s The Harvesters. For some reason, I connect the other, Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning, with my paternal grandparents, who had both died before my fifth birthday. Might there have been some resemblance between the red brick structures in Hopper’s painting and the building where they lived, of which I have no conscious recollection?


I had been living in Paris (again) since 1987 when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened. I watched the events unfold live on CNN International from my office near the Gare Saint-Lazare. Once I knew that my oldest son, whose office was nearby, was safe, I thought I was at a comfortable distance from the horror. That’s why, during the ensuing days, I couldn’t understand why I felt so distressed, unable to sleep, breaking unexpectedly into tears. When I told a therapist that images of city sidewalks haunted my thoughts, he suggested they came from my childhood in the Bronx, where the sidewalks had been our playground. By attacking the place of my childhood, the terrorists were threatening a cornerstone of my identity.

The Invisible Wall

During my first year in college in New Jersey, I was taken under the wing of the grad student who was my freshman English teaching assistant. Among other common interests, we were both avid jazz fans. When I complained that I could not afford to regularly travel into New York to enjoy the city’s bustling jazz scene, he offered to help me get work as a copywriter at the all-news radio station where he freelanced. Thanks to him, I was soon working the 4-a.m.-to-noon shift Sunday mornings.

Unintentionally, almost unconsciously, I became a journalist. I loved the excitement, the relentless pace, and the privileged access to people and information unavailable to others. As a journalist, you’re required to keep a distance from your subject. It became second nature to me, maintaining that invisible, impenetrable wall.


When I moved back to the United States for good after most of three decades in France, I was still working as a freelance business writer and consultant. All my clients were in Europe, mostly in Paris, so I was traveling back and forth regularly, ostensibly for work but also to spend time with old friends and family. For the first few years after I returned to the U.S., whenever I boarded a flight in either New York or Paris, I didn’t know whether I was leaving home or returning home. Now, 13 years later, I still can’t say whether I belong more in one or the other, or both or neither.


When I knew I’d be moving to Kingston, a small city 100 miles north of New York, I wanted to see whether I could mine it for the dramatic backdrops I needed for my ongoing Silent Stages project. Once I was actually living there, I discovered that photographing the city was a way for me to appropriate it. I began developing an affection for the place and a conviction that, in some uniquely personal way, it was becoming mine. This same sense of admittedly superficial possession arises regularly now, whenever I wander the dark, deserted streets and alleys of a town or city, camera in hand.