Street photography in New York City captures what we’ll miss in the future

Street photography in New York City captures what we’ll miss in the future
Source: Kalliope Amorphous

A couple of months ago, New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, expressed his belief that this was going to be “The Summer of New York City.” COVID-19 ran the city aground, and the battle to stabilize New York has been an uphill one.

Usually, summer in the city means free outdoor movies, concerts in Central Park, and side-eyeing the Hudson River while wondering if it’s worth it to take a short dip. Last summer, however, was the exact opposite, with essentially no tourism, museums shut down, events canceled and New Yorkers not leaving their homes for all but necessary trips to the grocery store.

Considering “The Summer of New York City,” though, it’s not what you see on TV that is truly bringing life back to this strange and wonderful place. Sure, the clubs are fun, and Broadway reopening is highly anticipated, but even museums raising their capacities isn’t necessarily the lifeblood of New York.

“The Summer of New York City” is about seeing the everyday, the ordinary, the banal of city life once again. It’s about coming to the realization that you understand how a sprawling metropolis such as this can have quite as much character as it does. New York City photography strives to capture just that.

New York City photography

After people watching enough, we all develop a fondness for the angry locals as they shoulder-check tourists, for the young women who blatantly ignore the men who approach them on the street, for the streak of spicy mustard adorning someone’s cheek after they unwrap a fresh deli sandwich and bite right into it.

Over the course of this pandemic, moments like these, which seem so routine to city-goers, prove themselves to be ephemeral and fleeting. It is during times like these that a specific bubble of city photography becomes so crucial to New York’s art and culture community: the movement of capturing the abrasive mundanity of life in the city through a camera lens.

Inarguably, the most successful and popular figure in New York City photography is Brandon Stanton – aka Humans of New York. Stanton ventures through the five boroughs and snaps photos of everyday people going through their everyday lives. Accompanying each photo is a caption that reveals part of the conversation he had with his subject.

These photos and their captions aren’t all that special on a surface level; just a person going about their life and speaking to a stranger for a few moments. But the Humans of New York social media pages have gone viral across all platforms, and Stanton has even published several photo-centric “Humans of New York” books. The crumbs of humanity exposed through this cultural phenomenon add up to something bigger than the sum of their parts.

Another well-established photographer based in the city, Richard Howe, has become well-known for his photo series “New York in Plain Sight.” As its namesake suggests, Howe’s series is “a large-scale photographic survey of everyday life on Manhattan’s great public commons. It features 11,000 “digital panoramas” displaying “the interplay of people, traffic and architecture” on each of Manhattan’s street corners. That’s right. Every. Single. One. An ambitious project, to be sure. But without the spirit of the city, there’s truly no good reason to undergo so much effort to capture all of this. As much as there’s really nothing to look twice at, Howe’s series is cause for a double-take.

Similarly, there was a blog of New York City photography regularly updated until 2015, called “NYC Corners.” Something of a time capsule now, the person who ran it took various pictures of street corners all over the city, not just in Manhattan. They traversed New York in search of what made each corner inimitable and distinctive from the one before. Each photo is captioned with what, exactly, the viewer is seeing, and how it could be significant.

New York street corners

Source: Kalliope Amorphous

This focus on New York street corners is fascinating. There’s something serendipitous about them. Completely different people pass one another on the corner, going in every possible direction and bumping into each other on their way to opposite ends of the city. Subway stairs can sometimes be seen in the periphery, the hazy signage for a bagel store just visible in the background.

New York-based photographer Kalliope Amorphous is also known for her pieces capturing normal life in the city. When we asked her what captures her attention enough to choose a subject for any particular photo of the everyday, she explained:

“When it comes to people, I’m always looking for either emotion passing across the subject’s face or an interesting juxtaposition between the individual and the background of the city. If it’s an overall street scene, I tend to gravitate toward scenes that feel timeless or show human emotion.

“There is a certain timelessness to the energy of the city that I always try to capture. I am drawn to the little quiet moments and thoughtful pauses that happen against an otherwise busy and bustling backdrop.”

And there it is again. As exemplified through Howe’s work, this complex interplay of city and individual, of place and person, creates something magnetic. Something that must be documented for another person’s eyes.

When asked how the banality of New York City lends itself to such a pretense-less mode of visual storytelling, Kalliope responded:

“Everyone is so wrapped up in their own little worlds for the most part, so it’s interesting to try to photograph those little worlds in the form of a suspended moment. In the middle of the everyday goings-on of the city, there are so many faces and so many individual narratives happening. I think all photography is about finding the beautiful and the meaningful in the ordinary, and with street photography this is especially the case.”

With the difficulty of an attempted comeback, and with the ever-looming threat of gentrification, it seems like New York City is experiencing some changes that are not altogether welcome, nor easy to deal with. These street photographers, who take a straightforward, honest approach to capturing that which we know but perhaps do not take the time to love, will conserve the New York of right now.

Because it’s not just about the city, and it never really was. It’s about the people in it and their love for it.

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