Four people stand in front of the doorway of a Manhattan store
I suspect that this photograph is going to perplex more than a few folks who watch my landscape and nature photography. In fact, this is one in a large string of very urban photographs made in New York in late December 2015. For those of you who “get” and like this work, thanks! For those who don’t, the more familiar kinds of photography will return before too much longer, and I’ll try to intersperse more of that photography with the urban/street/night stuff.
I’m endlessly fascinated by the way in which seemingly formless and virtually random patterns of motion in the urban environment can suddenly coalesce into something that has structure and which may even be mysterious and suggestive. Capturing this stuff requires me to be “on” all the time — and this can make me not at all fun to be with in these places when I’m carrying a camera! I made this photograph on a very crowded Christmas Eve in Manhattan, and it is one from a short sequence I photographed of this group standing in front of the entrance to a closed store — and for this instant the group miraculously assembled themselves into a fascinating tableaux of individual poses, especially the woman on the left.
A free hour or a bit more, so we took a quick walk out on the Brooklyn Bridge on a cold and windy day that was trying to rain — to join the surprising number of other people with just the same illogical idea. This bridge is a great place from which to watch many things: boats on the east river, the buildings of Lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn waterfront, the bridge itself and, of course, the people walking past by the hundreds or thousands.
The people provide a lot of photographic possibilities, but those possibilities come and go quickly. Our of an amorphous crowd so thick that I can’t see ten feet ahead of me, an interesting subject might suddenly appear. Of someone might do something surprising and interesting, but only for a brief moment. And then there are the selfies… It is no news that they have become a “thing.” The camera/phone is held at a high angle pointing down, and the subjects’ faces are almost invariably tilted up. Participants in the ritual usually lean their heads together and tilt them to one side. And then there is that smile — I wonder sometimes what it is supposed to be: a bit edgy/wry and highly posed. A moment before this group was simply walking towards me like all the other groups, but suddenly a phone came out, the arm went up, the heads turned, and there it was.
A family pauses on the sidewalk in front of a Chinatown market on Mott Street on Christmas Eve.
I have been a bit surprised to find a lot of photographs of families, often with a kid in a stroller, among my street photographs from this December 2015 visit to New York. The photographs range from an adult family posing for a selfie (yet to be shared here) to families on busy downtown streets to night photographs like this one — and strollers seem to be a repeating theme. I’m not sure what this means.
While trying to figure out where we would go for dinner after discovering that our first choice and its neighbors were way to busy, I took a few minutes to wander up to the end of this very narrow street. This corner market featured a wild and colorful assortment of produce in outdoor stalls along the sidewalk, made more intense by lighting under the awning. My first thought was to photograph this colorful subject, but then I watched to see who might wander by and populate the photograph. A family stopped, father looking at his wife and child and the woman casting a glance in my direction.
Pedestrians walk up Mosco Street on a rainy Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve in Manhattan, and we ended up in Chinatown at restaurant where we’ve eaten on this night in the past — but we discovered that it has apparently become popular since the last time we visited. The wait for a table (for our rather large group) was going to be at least 90 minutes, so we decided to look elsewhere. After figuring out that everything nearby was just about as crowded, we headed down the short length of Mosco Street to find a place with some open tables nearby.
This photograph illustrates one of the things that fascinates me about urban night photography, namely the wildly diverse light sources. Stop and consider the range of intense colors in this scene — the bright yellow light of the old street lamps along the right side of the street, the more neutral light on the left side from more modern lights, the spots of intense red and blue from store signs. Because it had rained, the streets were reflective, and they also picked up the wash of colors. A couple of people walk toward the camera on the left, casting shadows, and a solitary figure is in the yellow light along the brick wall on the right.
People assemble outside of Buddha Bodai One on Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve in New York City, and after joining the throngs up on Fifth Avenue we headed down to China Town for dinner, planning to eat at a place that we’ve gone to in the past. We arrived and it was surprisingly crowded and when I asked I was told that the wait would be “an hour and a half or longer!” Hey, the food is good… but not that good, so we set out to find an alternative. We wandered the area a bit, figured out that just about everything on Mott Street was similarly crowded, and then headed off to a different street where we found a quieter Vietnamese place.
While wandering Mott Street to look for an alternative I kept the camera out and made a series of photographs of scenes along this street. It was a great spot to photograph, with lots of people who were often somewhat static in front of businesses and restaurants, and streets so narrow that signs from lights tended to fill in the shadows across the street. For me the elements of a photograph in a place like this include the light itself, whether flowing across sidewalks and into the streets or the light of the business signs; lots of color; and people assembling themselves into interesting arrangements. Here many of the individuals in the group are doing interesting things — a woman pushes a child in a stroller (which, for some reason, is starting to be a motive in my street photography), another woman seems to be slightly off-balance, a couple is in a darker area off to the right, and an older man stands along in front of a stairway, looking alone and slightly uncomfortable.
Pedestrians on a Manhattan sidewalk on a cloudy winter morning.
This is one of those street photographs that I probably can’t fully explain to viewers. I’ll try, but it simply may or may not work for you — and it certainly is, at least superficially, not much like my landscape photography. Or is it? When I’m out and about in an urban area, sometimes I start to look beyond the general hubbub of the scene and I began to spot elements that I find fascinating: a particular person, a relationship of colors, light in unexpected places, juxtapositions of people doing things that may be related or unrelated, and transitory moments that are gone as quickly as they appear.
When I’m in this mode of seeing I often stop and watch the scene, waiting for something to happen. I don’t know in advance quite what it will be, but I know that the potential is there. (This, in fact, is one similarity to photographing the natural world, where more things than you might imagine are the result of simply being there at the right time and watching.) Here something about the front of this building caught my attention, and there was a steady stream of people passing by. (Of course there was — this is Manhattan!) At the moment of this exposure a bunch of things happened — somehow there are two strollers in the scene. Several people are engrossed by their smartphones. The woman at the far right is in a surprising and somewhat contorted position, and everything seems to have stopped in some sort of tableau.
A winter evening at the corner of 8th Avenue and Jane Street, Manhattan
Continuing my photographic bipolar swings between the natural world and the human world, here is another street photograph. It ties in with a couple of things that I’ve been thinking about recently in my street photography. First, it is an example of night street photography, shot handheld in near darkness using a small camera and high ISO. A year and a half ago I suddenly realized that this kind of photography had become a realistic possibility with the newer high ISO cameras. As a person who has long done long-exposure night photography from the tripod, this was truly a revelation. Secondly, I’m crazy about photographing lighted buildings, stores, restaurants and the light that spills from them onto the sidewalk, street, and anyone who happens to be passing by.
Aside from the general way that I’m always on the lookout for such things, this photograph was almost an accident. We had spent the afternoon at the new Whitney Museum. Those who know me have come to understand my predilection for spending way too much time going way too slowly through museums, and those people eventually give up and move on to other things, leaving me to continue ambling past the art. On this visit some of the people I was with had more or less “done” the Whitney in about and hour and a half — at which point I had more or less finished one floor of the place! We decided that they would all go ahead and find a place to eat and drink, and they ended up at a little tavern across the street from this photograph. I showed up hours later and joined them for food and beer, and we finally left the place after dark. As soon as I walked outside I saw this building across the street.