Sketchbook: Alexandra Avlonitis ’79

Inside the world of a NYC street photographer

Woman crossing a street in Times Square; her colorful jumpsuit matches the subway sign

Alexandra Avlonitis ’79 has always been energized by New York City: the diversity of its denizens, the local beachgoers soaking in the sun, the “daily theatre,” she says, that unfolds on its bustling sidewalks. The busy metropolis, which Avlonitis has called home for most of her life, has proven to be the perfect canvas for her work as a street photographer. While the city has her heart, she has also found inspiration in her travels to such faraway places as India.

Avlonitis’ path to the profession, like many Barnard alumnae, was circuitous. After attending Boston University Law School, she turned to the world of painting and drawing. In 2015, she decided to swap her paintbrush for a camera and began taking classes at the International Center of Photography. Her years spent learning the craft have paid off. Avlonitis’ work has been exhibited internationally, and in 2022, she was a finalist for the LensCulture Street Photography Awards for her photo “Passing Cloud.”

Sketchbook series

Where do you draw inspiration from?
Living in one of the best street photography cities in the world, I am fortunate to draw inspiration steps from my front door. Quotidian life in New York City offers a wealth of material from the funny and absurd to the difficult and the harsh. The dazzling mash-up of people and cultures is a guarantee that at any moment magic may happen.

Beyond New York I draw inspiration from foreign travel, particularly places and cultures most different from my own. India, with its brilliant colors, captivating people, and fascinating history, was one such place. A true photographer’s paradise.

Which classes at Barnard most informed your work?
As a political science major, I cannot say that those classes helped inform my art. But my Introduction to Art History class left an indelible mark. The expanse of the subject matter — art, of course, but also religion, politics, history — tapped into my many interests.

What is your creative process like?
Having been a fine art painter before taking up photography, I know that color, light, and composition are my foundations. I adhere to those elements even though I have traded my paintbrush for a camera.

I am a flâneuse. I try to walk city streets with patience and a keen eye, drawn to compelling characters and arresting settings. One must be open to anything and see the photograph almost before it happens — and then be ready, quick, and unobtrusive.

I am drawn to small details — a woman’s hand delicately balanced on a park bench, a young girl adjusting her skirt, or a melancholy face in a bustling crowd — as well as large, chaotic scenes. I get as close as possible for maximum impact, and if I make eye contact with my subject just as the photo is made, all the better. There, in that moment, is the profound connection of street photography.

Many young school kids sitting together, facing front, in Deogarh, India

How would you describe your style or aesthetic (in 3-5 adjectives)?
Candid, honest, empathetic.

What is your favorite project or photograph that you’ve taken, and why?  
I am drawn to photographing people when they are at their most relaxed and unguarded. I also love the summer. So a couple of my favorite places to work are at the beaches and boardwalks of NYC — mostly Coney Island — and the New Jersey shore. The color, light, unalloyed joy, and abandon are a tonic.

Where would I have found you making artwork on campus?
While I was not an art major, I did take several studio classes at Columbia. Hours spent in Dodge Hall were my creative refuge.

Who is at your dream dinner party?
Garry Winogrand, Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus — all street photography greats.
What artwork was on your dorm wall?
I wish I could remember!
What’s your guilty pleasure?
An oversized bowl of pasta.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A productive day of photographing knowing that one or two images hit the mark. The excitement makes it hard to sleep at night.

Sketchbook series

What is your favorite place to see art?
The great museums of New York City.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Custom-made clothes. Not to mislead — far more an aspiration than a reality.
What is your current state of mind?
Stimulated by my creative pursuits, ecstatic over the birth of my first grandchild, deeply concerned about the state of the world.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My two incredible daughters.

Where would you most like to live?
Paris or London.

What is your motto?
Capture the ordinary but make it extraordinary. 

Photos by Alexandra Avlonitis ’79

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