Photo of photographer Barbara EhlersBy Claudie Benjamin

“I love my building,” photographer Barbara Ehlers said recently, “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.” She and her husband, Stephen Frizell, have been living on the Upper West Side for many years, always in buildings with a side facing Broadway. Today, their daughter lives in London and their son in Brooklyn. Barbara and Steve are still happy with their apartment at 300 West 108th Street. They moved in 1992. Both are passionate about the Upper West Side. Chronicling the Upper West Side is a family thing: Barbara has taken many images of the neighborhood, and Stephen’s video about Straus Park and another piece, Introducing Casa Mantequilla, a band that has played in the neighborhood, may be viewed online.

Barbara’s father gave her an Agfa camera when she was eight years old. While she was pleased with the gift, shooting photographs didn’t really have a special significance until she was a young adult in the 1980s. By then, she had saved up for and bought a Nikon FM. Describing the development of her photography, Barbara has written on her website:

“When I first picked up a camera here in the States, I found myself often photographing settings and objects that I saw as quintessentially American—small town drugstores, boardwalks, and motels and their kidney-shaped pools.”

Later, she noted, “I am drawn to what strikes me as slightly mysterious, surprising or incongruous—houses or shacks overgrown by plant life, a tiny picket fence in the middle of a forest, a tall bush carefully groomed to conceal an electrical meter.” These photographs appear on her website as: What I Saw 1 and What I Saw 2. Then, she commented: “More recently, I began to photograph close-ups in my local park in Manhattan and create Composites using my prints.”

In the late 1970s, Barbara came to New York from Germany, where she was born, grew up, and attended university. She had been working as a translator and came to New York wanting to improve her spoken English. Waiting to get a Green Card and working at the same time in a job she didn’t like, as a secretary in a law firm, was frustrating. A brighter side of her life came from taking a camera out into the streets and taking photographs of whatever she found interesting. During this period, she captured many scenes, in black and white, of the Upper West Side, particularly of storefronts on Broadway between 102-106th Streets, and printed her photos in a darkroom. Included in this series was a well-loved barbershop at 2713 Broadway.  

She met and married her husband in New York.

Over the 30 years Barbara worked for American Express, she pursued photography as a serious hobby. Her husband’s family connections with Life magazine were inspiring, she said.

B&W Barbara Ehlers photograph of owner and friend outside of 255 West 105th Street

Barbara took courses at distinguished schools under outstanding teachers. She also exhibited and sold her work. Her website highlights three areas of special interest: landscapes and scenes from rural and suburban areas, night photography, and composites (mostly from Riverside Park).

Early in the pandemic, Barbara decided to acknowledge the staff who were working under challenging conditions in her building. She produced a small book with their portraits and distributed them to the staff and to some residents in the building. She understands that some copies may have also been given to prospective apartment buyers.

Since retirement, Barbara has more time for photography and takes particular pleasure in attending a Zoom class every week offered by Christopher Giglio, an expert photographer and teacher. She’s become friendly with a number of students and even close friends with a fellow photographer. “It’s expanded my social life,” she said.

Though much of her recent work is in color and captures buildings in rural settings, she is also proud of her earlier black-and-white Broadway series. When a storefront shuttered a few years ago, tenants at 245 West 107th Street organized a gallery (now closed) called Art on the Corner in 2021 at 2789 Broadway that exhibited the work of local artists. Barbara exhibited photos from her Broadway series there and was particularly pleased when a neighborhood resident purchased one of her photographs, and another emailed her, saying he not only remembered the drugstore that appears in the photo with two locals (the owner sitting out front, with another person standing next to him), but he still lives in that building at 255 West 105th Street.

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