WHEN I WAS INVITED TO DO THE B&H PODCAST LAST NOVEMBER, I always knew that I wanted to do it in person and not by phone or Skype. It was too great an opportunity to take part in long distance, which meant a trip to New York City – hardly a hardship as far as I was concerned.
Planning ahead for the trip, it seemed like a great opportunity to do something I’d been thinking about for a couple of years – trying to duplicate a few of the great photos that have been taken in NYC, photos that have contributed to the city’s iconography. This meant staying overnight, and a bit of homework. I’ve already posted the results on my travel photography blog, but I thought I’d like to go into detail with the planning I had to do for the trip, and also post some of the leftover shots that I took during that busy, productive day.
I booked a room at Leo House, which has been my lodging of choice in Manhattan for the last couple of years. A modest Catholic-run hostel on 23rd Street, just a block west from the (legendary but still under renovation) Chelsea Hotel, it’s clean and old-fashioned and (relatively) cheap, and I splurged on a room with a bath.
I’d flown into Newark early on Porter that morning, but I didn’t want to waste a minute so I dropped off my bag and headed out to do a location scout on one of my main photo targets. Leo House was extra convenient in that it’s just a few blocks away from the Flatiron Building, which was made famous not long after it was built in photos taken by Edward Steichen.
I took a quick Instagram shot of the building, which looked striking even in the midday light. I knew that the weather and light had to line up perfectly if I hoped to get anything close to Steichen’s shot, which needed to be taken in dim morning light, and preferably when the pavement was wet. The Instagram pic looked good enough that I began worrying whether that would end up being my best Flatiron shot of the trip.
Just recently I returned to making notes for important shots – something I used to do all the time in the 1990s, when I was still doing a lot of studio shooting. There were a lot of logistics in play if I hoped to pull off everything I had planned for this trip, so I began planning weeks before, making notes of subway stops and routes, sunset and sunrise, and the approximate guesses of where I needed to be with my cameras, picked out with Google Maps and Google Street View.
I’d also researched my locations as much as possible, and I knew that Steichen wasn’t the only New York photographer captivated by the Flatiron Building when it was still new. His friend and mentor Alfred Stieglitz had taken a photo that likely spurred on the competitive Steichen to produce his own take, and their peer, the pictorialist Alvin Langdon Coburn, took his own famous shot of the building a few years later.
I had all of these images in my head as I walked around the edge of Madison Square Park with my camera. I knew that getting my homage to the Steichen photo was the focus of my efforts, but while I was there I couldn’t resist making a few tentative efforts at something in the spirit of Stieglitz and Coburn’s shots.
I don’t know why I love the New York subway but I do. It’s grimy and confusing but I never feel like I’m in the city until I take a ride on the subway. Every station looks unique, and the amateur historian in me is always looking out for the traces of closed entrances and tunnels to adjacent lines. It’s also a fantastic place to take photos.
Even when I used to spend a lot of time in NYC back at the turn of the ’90s, I didn’t get out to the other boroughs very much, and I never crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. Back then the neighbourhood around the Brooklyn side of the bridge didn’t even have a name. The famous view down Washington Street toward the Manhattan Bridge is overrun with selfie-takers now, but I was fascinated by the adjacent streets where the massive piers of the bridge dominate the landscape.
I’m sure there are a thousand ways to photograph the Brooklyn Bridge. I ended up making a few attempts at the view of the bridge arcing its way across the East River into Manhattan, but when I was on the pedestrian walkway I ended up shooting up most of the time. I’ve been told that you didn’t used to see that much foot traffic on the bridge; I imagine you’d have to get out there pretty early, or in some pretty harsh weather, to have the whole impressive sculptural spectacle of it to yourself. Perhaps that’s a project for another trip.
As I approached the Manhattan side of the bridge, I could see my next destination in the distance. The Empire State Building still dominates the midtown skyline, and hopefully it always will.
I didn’t want to waste any time with lineups going up to the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building, so I had spent a bit extra and bought the VIP Express Pass online. I’d done my research – it was known that Berenice Abbott had shot her famous photo of Midtown Manhattan in 1934 from a window near the northwest corner of the building, but the first thing I saw as soon as I walked out onto the observation deck was my quarry for the following morning, cleaving through the thickets of buildings to the south.
After getting my bearings, I headed right for the corner closest to where Abbott took her photo. Consulting my notebook, I saw that there had been very little change over the decades to the scene below, and that I would probably be able to shoot a pretty close approximation of her original photo. I only had to kill a bit of time while the sun began to set.
I wandered through the crowds on the observation deck, slipping into an empty spot by the railing whenever I saw one to shoot whatever looked interesting. It was, as they say, a target-rich environment – Manhattan at dusk looks magical, and I came away wondering why, with so many opportunities for a picture in front of her, Abbott had chosen that one, specific view?
I had more time to kill before I had to meet a friend in the city for dinner, so I plotted out a route that would take me past the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and Grand Central Station on my way to P.J. Clark’s. The library was closed so I had to focus on the famous stone lions out front and the skyscrapers behind them – a view I’m sure hasn’t changed in at least seventy or eighty years.
The day ended at the Village Vanguard, a world-famous jazz club that’s miraculously still in business. No photographs allowed during the show, so I had to settle for a shot of the neon sign outside.
The rain started falling when I walked back to Leo House, and it was still falling the next morning when I got up before dawn to take the Steichen shot of the flatiron. I was wet and cold but at least I was lucky enough to match the circumstances in which Steichen took his photo. Once I was satisfied that I couldn’t shoot any more, I headed back to my room to dry off and get ready for the B&H interview.
I was hoping there’d be time after lunch with my friend Chris Buck to walk down the High Line with my cameras to 23rd before I had to get back to Newark, but the weather and an accident by the New Jersey Railroad line into Penn Station meant I had to recalculate my route out of the city via the PATH. Leaving at least one more iconic New York City location to shoot the next time I was back in the city.