A Visit to New York City in Autumn 2016

"Over the great bridge, with sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world."  F. Scott Fitzgerald

New York is a city of anachronism.  As I wandered the sidewalks for the first time in September last year, a sense of deja vu prevailed. The sights and smells were strangely familiar though until now, I had witnessed through other’s senses and not my own. But there I was one morning at twilight on the perimeter of Central Park, walking over metal grills that resonated with the thunder of the subway trains beneath. Vocal strains of station announcements drifted through them to meet the clouds of steam that billowed from precariously sited chimneys in the road. As the sky developed its first inky blue tones of the day, runners, dog walkers and boxy yellow school buses rattling hard along the street began to increase conspicuously in number. Occasionally one would lurch to a halt, a door flying open to swallow up a young person, before flying off perpendicularly into the adjoining street to continue on its way.

Unlike the school buses, the shape of the yellow cabs had evolved a little since the 50s... only a little, morphing into sleeker dynamic advertisements with roof top fins that cut through the sea of traffic like metal sharks. A low slung motorcycle with expansive chrome, leather panniers and a number plate that simply read LUV NYC was parked opposite the El Dorado Hotel. Was I an extra in a movie? If I was then I was joining a team of street cleaners, park attendants and steady commuters… and the set illumination was coming only from the street lights overhead which were soon to flicker off.

I pinched myself... No!  I was in Manhattan for real at the behest of two dear friends rather than any movie company. 

As the sun rose, I walked through a succession of shadows punctuated by roads with frenzied beeping traffic. Whilst my backpack weight made its presence felt and my pace slowed, I could not fail to appreciate both the vertical Y and street length X axis dimensions which seemed immediately improportionate. Steel and concrete structures occasionally touching the clouds had become the ostentatious material representation of a wealth which had, generations before, been solely in the mind and Babel Hebrew scriptures. But this city had defiantly disregarded the messages of Old in its relentless drive for financial growth and renewal with ever bolder architectural, artistic, commercial and political statements… in fact, the spirit of New York had become over decades the aspirational flame that attracted the eyes of the World, terrorists in 2001, and most recently, the voice of political resistance to President Trump’s contentious legislature.

"A hundred times I have thought New York a disaster, and fifty times, it is a beautiful disaster." Le Corbusier - architect

    My trip to Manhattan in September would not have been possible primarily without Steve and Andrea Sholl but I should also extend heartfelt thanks to new friends Tony and Lynn, their car driving neighbours. Together we explored new parts of the State seeking vantage points that conveyed old and contemporary urban Americana... the glitzy stone and glass, the old industrial dockside heritage, the more deprived lo-rise clapboard suburban expanses. I witnessed something of the nickel and dime working culture endured by many in an effort to make ends meet and at the time of writing, I now pause to consider the added impact of the withdrawal of basic Obamacare medical provision from these people by the current administration. New York is a city built and in some respects, fuelled by a significant immigrant population/generations of immigrant forebears. This history is celebrated and runs through its very core and although I had come to the city as a Photographer and cultural tourist, I had arrived open to all experiences... My  senses were on overdrive and wherever I went, I chatted... to the financier in Grand Central Oyster Bar, the firefighters, bus drivers, cabbies, park dog walkers... each had their own story of course and as far as my photography went, it took some time to consider the story or take I had to impart on the subject matter... I had principally wanted to capture some of the iconic architecture but wasn’t sure what approach to take… What was important however was that these buildings be set in context with their neighbours without them being dominated by contrasting competing details... to let the buildings and fine masonry speak for themselves.

"There is something in the New York air that makes sleep useless."  Simone De Beauvoir

In a city that reputedly never sleeps, I was also keen to convey a sense of the continuous and anonymous human flow around the buildings and decided to experiment with a variety of shutter speeds and multi picture layering. The necessary dark filter combinations attached to my lens and tripod attracted considerable attention from passers by who were keen to understand what I was achieving. Interested curiosity also resulted in some novel opportunities for picture making as I was invited to join natives on roof top locations that offered alternative view points of my subjects. 

There were too many highlights to mention on this trip, but I think photographically at least, the most memorable of all was in witnessing the Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) firework display over Manhattan from a particularly aesthetically pleasing vantage point in Brooklyn Bridge Park…   alone…  the only photographer...  a totally unplanned serendipitous experience that was all over in a matter of 15 minutes or so…  a fitting final skin pinch moment recapitulated after standing at twilight in Central Park on that first morning. 

As I left for the airport in a Yellow Cab, I listened to Mohammed tell me his story - an immigrant from Pakistan 25 years ago, unable to afford to live in New York himself. The situation in London is little different but in the absence of welfare, the disparities in the US seem much much greater and unfortunately I fear are likely with the new administration to become greater still. I was not won over by the ostentatious veneer so much in evidence - there clearly is a great deal of wealth, as there is in any city -  but it is the melange, that melting pot of human voice and experience that gives a place soul rather than the megalithic structural edifices to wealth that survive us. Stunning though the architecture is there, I will remember New York more for my friends and acquaintances... and for a woman who takes a lot of photographs in wild remote landscapes, this is a soulful admission.

I’m not Jewish, but somehow, Rosh Hashana and this trip to Manhattan did feel like a new beginning on many personal levels...  a New Year, truly.