Behind the scenes of 24 Hours in NYC

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.

My room at Leo House, W. 23rd St.

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.

Flatiron at midday, NYC, Nov. 2018

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.

34th St. Station, NYC, 2018

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.

DUMBO, Brooklyn, Nov. 2018
Manhattan Bridge, Brooklyn, Nov. 2018

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.

Brooklyn Bridge, NYC, Nov. 2019

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.

Empire, NYC, Nov. 2019

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.

Flatiron, NYC, Nov. 2019

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.

Consulting my notes, Empire State Building, NYC, Nov. 2018

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.

Midtown Manhattan, Nov. 2018

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?

New York Public Library, Nov. 2018

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.

Village Vanguard, Nov. 2019

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.

Flatiron (after Stiechen), NYC, Nov. 2019

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.

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Car Show

Volkswagen Bug, CIAS 2019

I WAS AT THE AUTO SHOW THIS YEAR ON ASSIGNMENT. If you followed my old blog, you’d know that Media Day the Canadian International Auto Show is an annual event for me. I began shooting it over a decade ago for the free daily, and then regularly for blogTO. Last year I was accredited on my own steam for the first time, and I scored a media pass again this year, but at the last minute the Toronto Star hired me to do some shooting.

Ford Explorer on display, CIAS 2019
Toyota Supra, CIAS 2019
Ford GT, CIAS 2019

I love photographing cars. I’m not sure I’d ever want to do big deal, professional auto shoots or advertising, but I love car shows and museums and drag strips, where I can wander around treating each new machine like a still life subject. This year was great – besides the new cars at the manufacturer’s booths, there were lowriders from L.A.’s Petersen Museum, racecars, a Sherman tank and the Buick Y-Job, legendary GM car designer Harley Earl’s personal car. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of shooting cars. One day I need to learn how to drive.

Lowrider custom, CIAS 2019
Harley Earl's Buick Y-Job, CIAS 2019
Mario Andretti's McLaren racecar, CIAS 2019
Sherman Tank, CIAS 2019
Honda Civic, CIAS 2019
Aston Martin DB5, CIAS 2019
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Art Gallery

Art Gallery of Ontario, April 21, 2018

AROUND FOUR YEARS AGO MY YOUNGEST DAUGHTER started taking classes at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I volunteered to take her on weekend mornings, which usually meant I had a couple of hours to kill just when the gallery opened. At first I used it as an excuse to wander around the neighbourhood with my camera, but after a while I began sticking to the galleries, taking pictures of the rooms and the gallery goers – making photos of people looking at art. I would start the morning with a coffee in the Galleria Italia and then slip into the adjacent rooms of Canadian art to start my furtive shooting.

At least a year or so ago my daughter was definitely too old for me to be taking her to class, but it had become our ritual, and frankly I had come to enjoy those two hours every week, lurking around the AGO with my camera, stalking my subjects. But with her last class just before Christmas she was officially too old for the kids’ art programs. She’ll likely be back to take portfolio classes in high school, but my excuse to spend every weekend sneaking my photos was over.

These photos are a selection of the best shots I took in the gallery last year. At some point in the last four years a random challenge turned into a bit of an obsession, and I realized that I was creating a series – an ongoing project I’ve christened “Right Behind You.”

I also took photos at other art galleries, and when I was on travel junkets – any place where people went about the business of looking at things, individually or in groups. I suppose the whole project actually began over thirty years ago, with some photos I’d taken in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, before I had any idea that I’d make photography my career.

As someone who’s specialized in portrait photography, this was a challenge – anti-portraits, of people who didn’t know their picture was being taken, most of them shots with their faces turned away from the camera. If I was shooting this on film, I might have used a Rolleiflex or a Leica rangefinder; cameras with nearly inaudible shutters. In the digital era I’m even luckier – my beloved Fuji X-30 has a virtually silent electronic shutter, and an LCD screen that folds out for waist-level shooting. It’s basically a street photography challenge, confined to a single venue, with most of the variables of shooting on the street – crowds, the clutter of buildings in the background, changing conditions of light and weather – removed.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from heading back to the AGO on my own. But perhaps it’s time to take my little project to some new venues, maybe back out into the streets. What I do know is that setting myself this challenge regularly has helped keep my reflexes sharp and my eye in practice. But the melancholy part is that this particular series of photos marks the end of a discrete period of my time as a father.

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Buffalo NY

Botanical Gardens, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018

GROWING UP IN TORONTO IN THE ’70S, Buffalo felt closer to my hometown than any other Canadian city. That’s because, geographically, it was – just across the border from Niagara Falls, its big American network affiliate TV stations were easy to pick up over the air, so we’d listen to their evening news programs while waiting for the latest episodes of Happy Days or All In The Family. We didn’t travel much in my family, but I remember one trip with my sister, mom and cousin Terry to Buffalo for some shopping, and an overnight stay in an old hotel downtown. My sister tells me there was a lot of clothes shopping – I can’t recall any details of that – but I do remember the hotel, an old building with iron bedsteads and transoms over the doors.

I didn’t get back to Buffalo again until my old travel gig at the Toronto Star sent me there to write about the city’s urban revival and architecture two years ago. I had such a good time that, when I launched my own travel photo blog I contacted Brian Hayden of Visit Buffalo Niagara, who graciously agreed to invite me to visit and shoot some new stories about parts of the city I missed on my first visit. As usual, I had a lot of photos left over from the trip, and here they are.

Silo City, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018
“Swannie” Jim Watkins, Silo City, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018

My first priority on the trip was Silo City, a complex of once-abandoned grain silos on the Buffalo River, a relic of the city’s industrial past and its key position at the mouth of the Erie Canal. It was my first stop on the trip after I arrived at the train station and dropped my bag off at my B&B. “Swannie” Jim Watkins met me at the gate and gave me a brief tour of what was accessible on the site, then said that since most photographers he’d met tended not to want company, said he’d leave me alone to shoot. I could have spent a whole day there.

Central Terminal, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018

Second priority on my list of Buffalo must-sees was the Central Terminal, a huge Art Deco train station that hasn’t picked up a passenger in nearly four decades. I’d passed it on the train to Rochester that summer and knew I had to get in and take a look. I was given a tour by Mark Lewandowski, the director of the non-profit that’s stabilizing the building after years of abandonment and running it as an event space while the city decides how to reincorporate this beautiful old station into its ongoing revival.

Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018
Buffalo City Museum, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018

On my first night in the city I had dinner with Brian and Mike Shriver from BuffaloPhotoBlog.com, who presented me with an unofficial challenge to try and shoot as much as I could in the next two days. I’d passed Kleinhans Music Hall while driving through town on my last trip and knew that I had to get shots of what has to be one of the best examples of midcentury modernism I’ve ever seen. I’d also glimpsed Buffalo’s city museum – a neoclassical temple nestled in an Olmsted-designed park – the previous year, and put that on my list.

Brian took me to Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna on that trip, but I wasn’t totally satisfied with my photos so I made it a point to visit it again after I’d visited the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens just across the street. I walked in just as noon mass was starting, so I sat down in a pew for the service before I took my photos.

A lot of my second day in town was spent on foot despite the rainy weather, checking out the latest additions to Larkin Square by the Zemsky family, who’ve led the revival of that neighbourhood, before I wandered down through the First Ward, an old working class area that’s also being revived, on my way to get a few more shots of Silo City. There’s no better way of really exploring a city except on foot – a rule that you can square if you’re a photographer, and I was left with the realization that there’s a whole lot more of Buffalo I need to see – and shoot.

Our Lady of Victory Basilica, Lackawanna NY, Oct. 2018
First Ward, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018
Towards Larkin Square, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018

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Vivian Maier

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BEGAN THE NEW YEAR WITH PHOTOS – specifically, the photos of Vivian Maier, in a show at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. It was a daddy-daughter date; my oldest is a huge fan of Maier, and has watched the documentary Finding Vivian Maier on Netflix multiple times. I’d never seen Maier’s work outside of books or TV, so it seemed like a good reason for us to take the GO train west to the end of the line.

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The AGH show is subtitled Street Photographer – which seems a bit redundant since street photography was pretty much all that Maier did. It was basically most of the photos shot on her Rolleiflex that appeared in the 2011 book of Maier’s work – also called Vivian Maier: Street Photographer – plus a selection of the 35mm colour work she did in the ’60s and ’70s, and a room where eight of her rolls of 8mm film were projected in a loop.

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If you know or care about photography, Maier’s story is well-known by now. She worked most of her life as a nanny in New York City and Chicago, taking photos in her spare time and amassing a body of thousands of negatives that went unseen until they were discovered by John Maloof, a Chicago filmmaker and photographer, at an auction of the contents of one of Maier’s storage lockers in 2007.

Maloof knew the value of what he found, and managed to collect together most of Maier’s negatives and photos; he posted them online on a photo blog and on Flickr, and the reception to Maier’s work was overwhelming. It was obvious that these weren’t just snapshots by an eager amateur. Unfortunately Maloof’s Google searches for Maier only found a reference to her in 2009, just a few days after her obituary had been posted.

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“Had she made herself known she would have become a famous photographer,” said Mary Ellen Mark, while going through Maier’s work with Maloof in Finding Vivian Maier. But she didn’t. For some reason, Maier kept her work to herself for decades while working as a nanny and housekeeper for various families (including Phil Donahue’s) and hoarding tons of things besides film negatives – newspaper clippings, clothes, political memorabilia, bus transfers, mail, uncashed cheques, trash – as she moved from place to place.

The story of Maier’s rediscovery happened around the time I began my old blog. It resonated for me, much the way that the story of Charles Jones did fifteen years earlier – a British gardener whose masterful still life prints of fruit and vegetables were discovered in a trunk at an auction. (Jones’ glass negatives had been destroyed years earlier; his granddaughter recalls him using them to make cloches for young plants.) Even more than with Jones, I identified with Maier; I could imagine my own work languishing in storage boxes somewhere after I was gone, and it probably ended up spurring me to post my photos online.

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But the question of posterity is only something that becomes important to an artist after their death, when they can’t do anything about it. Reputation, on the other hand, is something only a living person would care about. Most of the people who knew her say that she wouldn’t have enjoyed the fame she has today when she was alive. She might have resented John Maloof and his efforts immensely. But she hoarded the raw material for a biography, including films and audio tapes and countless self-portraits, which gives the impression of someone fighting against time to preserve a record of themselves.

Apart from the obvious quality of Maier’s photography, that might be one of the things that’s made her story so fascinating – that someone who worked so hard at her art, who obviously understood the value and skill that it showed, would have hoarded it so zealously and shunned the pursuit of reputation. (The shot below, one of my favorites, is an example of how Maier transcends the comparisons that have been made with photographers like Robert Frank, Lisette Model or Diane Arbus.)

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There might not be any way of discovering more about Maier – a truly obscure person who has only accidentally been gifted with posterity – but there are still thousands of images that remain unseen by anyone but Maloof and the people who do his scanning and printing. There might be a Vivian Maier working today, but while Maier’s unwillingness to seek reputation when she was alive kept her from presenting her work to the gatekeepers of the analog world – dealers, agents, curators, editors, gallery owners and patrons – today’s Maier would probably find themselves lost amidst the hosepipe of images flooding every minute from Instagram, Flickr, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, DeviantArt, 500px, VSCO and Smugmug.

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