They say New York City is the city that never sleeps. This is true of course, but there are times when it is pretty quiet. Which is usually when most of us are sleeping…or getting ready to. In the last year or two I have developed a bit of an interest in night time photography. I tend to just take the photos I find interesting, and don’t focus on too much setup. A few weeks ago while coming home from a free Los Lobos concert at Battery Park, I decided to meander towards the subway to take me back to Queens. Walking down the concrete canyons near Wall Street at night is a stark contrast to being there in daytime. There is an eerie quiet actually, and though I am aware and careful of my surroundings, there is a real sense of being able to capture things that looked vastly different a few hours before.
Case in point this building. I have walked past it many times. On the one hand it isn’t particularly interesting architecturally, but there is something about the symmetry of it that has always struck me. Problem is, I always seem to see it in the daytime, so when I saw it at night I had to stop. That is when I realized that the clusters of lights (most off, a few on) gave the photo a sense of life. I also took a color photo of this which I put on social media at the time, but in hindsight, I think I like this one slightly more. The monochrome makes it feel like it could be 1949, 1963, 1977, or even 2017. That is a big appeal of monochrome to me.
One positive thing about social media is that it allows me to test out what photos of mine people respond to. Of course I have the usual sort of doubts about my photographs like anyone does. Some I know are good the moment I press the shutter release. Others I decide are flawed in one way or another and rejected as I curse at myself internally and asking what were you thinking? Others I have to come to grips with, asking whether I like the lighting, the framing, the movement of the photo. Those are the ones I am especially grateful for reactions from people on Instagram and Facebook. Yet I still often wonder, is it enough?
Case in point, the photo shown above. I took a day off last week. It was a warm August day here in New York City but I wanted to go for a long walk and take some shots. I decided to head over to nearby Roosevelt Island and eventually I wound up at the southern tip of the island, which now comprises the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. It was the last major work designed by famed architect Louis I. Kahn It slices through the landscape culminating in a tree-lined pathway leading to a statue of FDR and a wide expansive view of the East River. While walking between the rows of trees I knew that the linear aspect might look interesting. I chose a few different angles and perspectives, made some adjustments to the camera settings and hoped it would be enough. More on the results in a moment…
For just over 20 years the best band out of Newfoundland, Canada (and one of the best out of Canada period) was the Celtic folk rock styles of Great Big Sea. Until their unfortunate demise a few years ago they combined the traditional songs of Newfoundland with their own originals, an infectious combination that won them a lot of fans worldwide. Since the breakup, their high energy main singer Alan Doyle (no relation!) has released two albums, with a third on the way and relentlessly tours all over the place. A few days after going to Roosevelt Island I played Alan’s first solo album-Boy On Bridge, a solid collection of all out rockers and some nods to more folk sounding material. I love the album, and my favorite song on it is the rocking I’ve Seen A Little. Hearing it the other day again, certain lyrics of the song really struck me, and I saw in them a correlation to my photography. Maybe not anyone else’s, but I saw myself, camera in hand in the lyrics.
The heavy use of the word ‘ain’t’ might be a grammar teachers nightmare, but hey…this is rock and roll and anything goes! I was struck by a few lines in particular-
‘It ain’t what you got its what you’re looking for’
‘It ain’t what you’ve done it’s what you’re gonna do’
‘It ain’t where you been its where you’re going to’
And finally the line I chose for the title of this post- ‘I’ve seen a little but it ain’t enough’
Photography like any art is about exploration. Finding something extraordinary in the ordinary. Discovering both new places and new ways of taking a photo. Experimenting with angles and perspectives. Striving to do something different. Maybe it has been done by others before, but is new to you. Hearing Alan Doyle’s song the other day reminded me of this. The lines quoted above are about seeking. In the context of the video for the song that is about being a bit of a rebel, but if you really think about it, these lines describe an approach defined by heading towards the new. It really struck me that when I sometimes get in a photography rut, it is because I fall into the trap of living in the first part of every line. In times like that I live in ‘what you got, what you’ve done, where you’ve been.’ Where I need to be is in the second part to those lines- ‘what you’re looking for, what you’re gonna do, where you’re going to.’ Most importantly, I need to remember that the things I have seen, the things I have done are great…but ‘it ain’t enough’.
Back to the photo now. In one direction, the path and row of trees ends in an abrupt dead end at the north end of the plaza. Regardless, I took a few photos from this viewpoint. I experimented with where I wanted to position myself-full on in the center of the pathway (which was thankfully deserted because it was a weekday) or off to the side? Wide angle focus which would clearly show both sides of the tree overhang or a narrow focus which would highlight more of the pathway? Standing upright so the camera would be inclined slightly downward towards the horizon, or crouching down towards the ground so it inclined slightly upward? Finally I had to decide if I should wait for some unsuspecting person to walk into the frame to give it a sense of movement. Lots of choices…
So what I did first of all was turn around, utilizing the view of the path that leads towards the FDR monument. Next I determined that positioning myself dead center in the scene made the most sense visually. I used a wide angle focus to fully show the overhang of all the trees on both sides, and decided that crouching down so the scene inclined ever so slightly up looked much better. Additionally it really highlighted the little mounds of dirt under each tree, and the fallen leaves on the pathway. Lastly I tried all of the above with no one else in the scene and realized it was severely lacking some sort of motion. I waited until these two people entered the scene (and for the guy seated on the right to put his shoes back on!) and took the shot. And that is what you are looking at here, no editing whatsoever. I was happy with the results and the reaction I received for the photo. When that happens it makes me want to head out again the following day and try it again. I think Alan Doyle might agree with that approach because-
There might be nothing down that road But you never know, you never know
I’ve Seen A Little-Written By Alan Doyle, Gordie Sampson, & Troy Verges
Most everyone knows that there are five Boroughs that comprise New York City-Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island. Most everyone also knows that the city as a whole has a unique and large amount of water surrounding it. There is Jamaica Bay, a surprising little ecosystem in the middle of so much congestion. Then of course the Hudson, Harlem, and East Rivers which bend and shape the rest of the land, dividing the city from New Jersey and wrapping around to make Long Island a true island. The other thing all that water has done is to have created several smaller islands scattered about. I’m willing to bet only a few of you know how many islands officially comprise Manhattan however! I’ll put the answer below. This scrap of rocks is not one of them sadly, but I think these birds sunning themselves on a sunny afternoon deserve official island recognition don’t you? It never ceases to amaze me how wildlife can look so relaxed with helicopters buzzing around and all manner of boats zipping past. They certainly made this rock their home!
*The Borough Of Manhattan comprises- Governors Island, Liberty Island, Ellis Island (shared with NJ), Mill Rock, Randalls & Ward Island, U Thant Island, Roosevelt Island, and the island of Manhattan itself. Photo shows rocks just off the southern tip of Roosevelt Island.
Well we are almost halfway through August now and I have to tell you that this is the point where I really get tired of summer. The long days are nice of course, but by this point here in New York City, the stagnant heat starts to build. My energy becomes ever more sapped heading down to steamy subway stations or even going for a simple walk becomes a challenge of willpower. The city becomes grimy and dirty and you tend to count the minutes until you can get to air conditioning and a shower. When I was a kid filled with energy it probably did not affect me this way, but these days when it hits this point I feel unmotivated to do much of anything until the temperature drops and the humidity goes away. Perhaps it is inevitable then that the photos I tend to take this time of year tend to be more urban than my usual shots. Shots that ooze a little bit of that heat and grime. I actually took this last year in our neighborhood while my wife was driving us home one evening. I took pretty much the same view in color, but recently I looked at this one again and realized it gave the same sense of urban grime and heat. It may not be pretty in person, but the monochrome really captures the moment. Now, how about some cooler weather!
One thing I like about monochrome photography is that it conveys a sense of calm to a subject matter. Even if the subject is not calm and quiet, a monochrome photograph just seems to freeze the movement and noise in place. It must be a sensory thing deep down. Sure, some color photographs are able to capture the same feeling, but I think the way we perceive the scene we see in a monochrome photo feels different somehow.
I took this shot a few years ago, on a cool late November afternoon as my wife and I were heading out of NY Harbor on a cruise to the Bahamas. We had a room with a small balcony and of course you know I had to take lots of shots as the ship pulled out and we steamed out to sea. For anyone who has left New York Harbor by water knows, you really only feel you are on a journey once you go under the Verrazano Bridge (which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island). Once past that bridge, the ocean seems to open up wide before you and the noise and congestion of city life are suddenly behind you now. I knew that day that the shots I might get of the Verrazano just before and just after passing it would be my final ones of the day. And though the big cruise ship was blasting its horn, and helicopters and airplanes were buzzing over the harbor high above and cars driving across the Verrazano, when I look at this photo I just get that feeling. A sense of time being momentarily frozen, tranquil water, the sun setting on the horizon and a sense of peaceful calm.
Summer is progressing here. Long lazy days where you don’t want to move around too much. Just find a shady spot somewhere and watch the world go by. Here in the big city there are lots of places, and lots of things to look at of course. Since we moved to Queens I have one favorite spot called the Anable Basin, or as some call it, the Eleventh Street Basin in Long Island City. It is an artificial inlet built in the 1860’s for industrial use. When much of that industry dried up, the area went through a period of decline before being re-purposed in the 1990’s as Gantry Plaza State Park. The park as a whole offers a lot of activities and people watching, as well as an amazing view across the river to Manhattan. But tucked away on the side of the park, runs the basin. As I have said here before, I love old buildings, and things like a ship wharf or an old brick building have a natural appeal for me. I love sitting there under the trees reading or people watching and imagining what the same view must have looked like 100 years ago. Which is just something your mind seems to do on a long lazy day in the shade.
Home is a unique word. As adults most of us have a home. An actual current home we live in. Often though we talk about other homes from our past. The home we were raised in. The home we lived in after breaking out on our own for the first time. The home we move into with our significant others. The home we spend our final days. The word evokes so much, both good and bad. Earlier tonight, I was looking at this photo I took a few weeks ago on a ferry trip from Brooklyn to Rockaway Beach. The photographer half of me took it because the scene was so inspiring on a beautiful day. The other half of me, the emotional half realized that it was my home in so many ways.
Other than 4 years off for good behavior attending college in Massachusetts, this photo represents all my ‘homes’. On the right of this photo is Brooklyn, where I was born. It also shows Queens, where my wife and I have happily lived for over two years now. On the left is New Jersey, where I grew up and spent all my youth. In the middle of course is Manhattan, where I spent my most crucial years of development. It is where I began taking up photography. It is where I dived deeper into the rich diversity of music that was there for the taking. It is where I met Jennifer, the person who has changed my life the most in so many incredible ways. It is where I learned who I am, though of course that process is ever evolving. Finally, surrounding it all is water, which connects me with my spiritual home of Ireland. Those of you familiar with my posts know that water plays a crucial role in my photography. That ebb and flow feels like life itself, and for me that is a crucial realization. My physical home may change, but for now as I ride the most meager ferry, or sip a beer on a beach, the crucial ingredient to all of them has been a connection to the water. Lakes feed the rivers, which flow to the sea, which carry you away towards home…