NEW YORK MIGHT BE THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY IN THE WORLD. There probably isn’t an angle of the town that hasn’t been captured on film a thousand times, from the skyline viewed from the water to the canyon-like streets stretching for miles to the looming faces of its great skyscrapers, each as recognizable as the profiles of a movie star.
It’s the challenge that presents itself whenever you take out a camera with the intent of capturing the place. It’s a challenge I’ve mostly tried to avoid, despite the considerable time I’ve spent there over nearly three and a half decades. Except for an attempt to gather suitably “Noo Yawk” images for a CD cover I shot at the end of the ’80s, I’ve never tried to add my own contributions to that catalogue of NYC imagery.
A recent business trip to Manhattan presented an opportunity to do a New York photo safari – with just over a day in town between getting off the train at Penn Station to heading back to the airport at Newark, I tasked myself with trying to take as many photos of the city as possible – either in iconic locations or in imitation of the handful of truly classic photos of the city by both masters and obscurities.
I realized that might have been harder than I expected when I arrived at my first location, on the edge of Brooklyn in the neighbourhood now called Dumbo (or Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.) The scene was a famous one – the Manhattan Bridge seen from where Washington Street crosses Water Street. I knew it from Sergio Leone’s 1984 film Once Upon A Time In America, and I had high hopes for a really good shot.
Unfortunately, it’s become an eminently Instagramable spot now, especially since Brooklyn’s dockside area has been gentrified and developed. I imagine that you’d have to get there pretty early on an inhospitable morning to get a shot of the street without crowds of selfie-taking tourists, many with tripods and SLRs in addition to their phones. Comparing the shots, it’s obvious that cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli framed his master shot on a misty morning from where Washington crosses Front or even York Street, with a telephoto lens to make the bridge loom over the old warehouse buildings.
I like the Manhattan Bridge. I might be in a heretical minority when I say that I think it’s lovelier than the Brooklyn Bridge, but its pedestrian walkway is neither as hospitable nor as photogenic as the one on its more venerable neighbour just to the south. There are a lot of iconic NYC views shot across the East River. One of the most famous would probably be the one in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, taken from Sutton Place with the Queensboro Bridge in the background.
Then there’s the view of the United Nations Building with the Empire State and the Chrysler Building amidst the midtown skyscrapers, shot from Gantry Plaza State Park near Long Island City by the Queens Midtown Tunnel. But I didn’t have enough time to collect all of these iconic views, so I had to settle for a single view – lower Manhattan with the Brooklyn Bridge, shot from the Main Street Park in Dumbo. Judging by the construction cranes and the new towers it’s a view that’s undergoing another Manhattan transformation.
In all my years going to New York City I’d never crossed the Brooklyn Bridge until last month. I imagine that its pedestrian walkway has always been a busy one, but it was particularly crowded on a sunny Monday afternoon in early November. There are probably ways to incorporate the crowds into a decent shot, but I was transfixed by the cables and the towers of the bridge – the raw structural muscle of the thing, which still looks incredibly modern today, forcing the eye to follow its rigorously symmetrical perspectives. I ended up shooting two variations on the same view, one somewhat stark, the other accessorized with maintenance and safety structures that reminded me of one of Marcel Duchamp’s “Large Glass” artworks.
I think there are a million ways to shoot the Brooklyn Bridge, and maybe by the time you get close to your millionth frame you might come upon a completely novel and innovative take on this intensely recognizable New York landmark. I don’t imagine that my afternoon walk across the bridge – about an hour, going slowly – produced anything that you haven’t seen a variation on somewhere else, printed on a college residence room poster or a shower curtain.
My next target was much more specific. One of my favorite iconic New York views is Berenice Abbott’s 1934 photo of midtown Manhattan at night. When I booked my flight for the trip it was the first item on my list, and initially I imagined that I’d have to look hard to find a skyscraper I could sneak into at dusk to try and get a similar shot.
A quick Google search revealed that it would be a lot easier than I thought, since Abbott had taken her shot from the Empire State Building; someone had even pinned it down to sometime between 4:30 and 5pm on December 20, 1934. (The date is also given as 1932.) Another online detective even thinks they might have found a photo of Abbott taking the famous shot, leaning over a ledge on an outside deck of the skyscraper, warmly dressed and focusing her camera on the city below.
Abbott herself said that she scouted the location ahead of time, making sure to be in place with her camera just after sunset, but before the midtown office towers emptied out and caretakers started turning off the lights. I checked and saw that sunset on the night I’d be in the city was at 4:41pm – the perfect time to capture the scene with the offices still ablaze with light.
I didn’t know how long I’d end up on the Brooklyn Bridge, so I splurged and bought the VIP Express Pass to the 86th Floor observation deck; I didn’t want to be stuck in a lineup while the sun went down and the lights started to shut off. (It was definitely far more than I paid the last time I’d been to the top of the Empire State Building, in the nervous and ecstatic first hour of my first trip to the city, thirty-three years ago.)
A quick look at Google maps revealed that Abbott had been shooting from the northwest corner of the building, looking down on where Broadway and Sixth Avenue cross 35th, 36th, 37th and 38th Streets. A bit more research provided a few more tips, like Abbott’s own explanation that she’d shot the photo from inside the building, not on an observation deck outside (the photo that looked so much like Abbott taking the iconic photo might have been of her doing a test shot while scouting) and that she had used a tripod, with an exposure of something like fifteen minutes.
I arrived at the 86th floor observation deck just before sunset and headed to the northwest corner to discover that the view was startlingly like the one Abbott had captured over eighty years previous. A few new skyscrapers had sprouted in the interim, but they were on the periphery of the scene, and it was still very much the same view. Taking a long time exposure wasn’t an option – you aren’t allowed to bring tripods to the Empire State Building observation decks – but I also knew I wasn’t using a view camera or the incredibly slow film Abbott shot with.
Bracing the lens of my camera on the metal railings of the observation deck, I zoomed in and out, re-framing as I went, to try and get something close to what Abbott had shot on what I assume was a lower floor. I didn’t get the same glow from the blurred traffic on the streets below, so my shot was crisper and obviously more modern – and in colour, with just a hint of the blue twilight filling in the shadows around the office windows. I shot until I was sure I’d gotten what I needed and headed back down.
With time to kill before meeting a friend for dinner, I planned a route that would take me past two more NYC landmarks. The New York Public Library’s Fifth Avenue main branch is one of my favorite places in Manhattan next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was closed by the time I made my way there, so I quickly decided to shoot the stone lions that have guarded the front of the building since it was opened in 1911.
There’s no single iconic view of the library or its lions, so I felt free to move around until I had one of the sculptures framed less by the neoclassical portico of the library than by the midtown office towers that grew up around the building a couple of decades after it opened. Not bad for a few minutes’ work – basically a really competent snapshot.
There was no way I was going to get anything to match Hal Morey’s much-reproduced photo of Grand Central Station, shot for the New York Central Railroad at the beginning of the Depression. There’s a lot of argument about precisely when Morey shot his photo, and Morey is rarely credited for the shot, but one thing is for certain – it’s a stunning photo, evocative and awe inspiring.
It’s apparently impossible to duplicate this scene today – even if the sun could still stream through the south-facing windows under the roof of the big hall of the station (it’s been blocked by skyscrapers on either side of Park Avenue for decades) it would never trace its way down to the floor along those majestic columns of light in an age when nobody smokes in public any more.
I arrived at Grand Central after sunset, in any case, so I knew I’d have to content myself with a shot of the big room with artificial light. This is looking roughly in the same direction as Morey’s shot – west instead of southwest – and it’s still early enough in the evening for the station to be filled with commuters.
I made my way to the east balcony of the room and politely waited until another photographer had finished shooting from the spot on the railing looking directly down the centre of the hall. I put my new 12mm lens on my camera and set the shutter for a full second. Without a tripod, I braced the camera against the stone railing and held my breath as I carefully shot each frame.
It’s an okay shot – I’ve seen dozens like it – but the most interesting thing about it for me are the little blue phone screens dotted around the scene. If I was going to go back and try to take another shot here, I’d try to get as many of those screens as possible in the frame – a detail that would make that photo as period specific as the hats on the men and the smoky light in the air in Morey’s photo.
My final photo quarry on the trip was another iconic photo by another photo legend. Edward Steichen took his photo of the Flatiron Building just two years after it opened, just a year after his friend and mentor Alfred Stieglitz had taken his own iconic shot of the building on a snowy winter morning from inside Madison Square Park. I have always loved Steichen’s shot, and knew that I had to try to get my own version of it on my single morning in New York.
There are actually two versions of Steichen’s famous photo – one in a lightly toned black and white and the other, slightly darker, printed in gum bichromate and suffused with an eerie blue-green light. I decided that I’d try to pay tribute to both versions, printed obviously from the same negative, and a quick scout on Google maps revealed that Steichen had likely taken the shot from Broadway where it borders Madison Square Park, north of 23rd Street.
I knew it was unlikely that I’d have a pair of coachmen and their horses in the foreground of my photos, but I prayed that I’d at least have a wet morning when I shot. Just as my luck had given me sunset right before the end of the work day the night before, I woke up (shamefully, with a bit of a hangover) to a very damp dawn.
The trees whose branches crept like inky calligraphic lines into Steichen’s photo are long gone, replaced by street lamps that burned brightly through my viewfinder in the dim morning light. There was no way to avoid them shooting from very near where Steichen took his photo, so I let them glow in the middle of my shots. I’d never understood why Steichen had cut the top of the Flatiron off in his frame, so I departed from a strict homage to Steichen and included the building’s crown in my version.
I was soaking wet by this point, and decided to cross Broadway to the triangular public plaza bounded by Broadway, Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street. It wasn’t strictly where Steichen took his shot, but it moved the light poles out of the centre of the frame. It turned out to be the shot that lent itself to replicating the “colour” variation of Steichen’s photo, with the street lights and the fluorescent tubes in the construction hoarding around the Flatiron’s base glowing off the wet pavement.
Wet and cold, I knew I was done. My twenty-four hours in New York City were almost finished and it was time to head back to the much less photogenic city I call home.
Photos and story © 2018 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved