I am a native New Yorker and a street photographer. I will always be a New Yorker, born and raised in Greenwich Village and Soho where I still live. I’ll be a New Yorker even if New York sinks to the bottom of the ocean and leaves me stranded on an ice floe. Although I’m not sure why the impulse to shoot New York took hold ten years ago, and regularly regret that the bug didn’t grab me earlier, I have no doubt that it is the city itself—the people, the energy, the history, the peculiarities of each neighborhood—that inspired me. I was not always a street photographer, and though I hope I will shoot street until I drop, I also realize that, practically speaking, may not always be able or want to. But I will always be a New Yorker. Curiosity about a place doesn’t just exist for visitors and people who have moved here as adults.
Even in a city of walkers, my parents were exceptional walkers. Everything I did with them began and ended with a walk. We walked to Eighth Street to browse books, to see the Silent Clowns film festival at the Eighth Street Playhouse or Woody Allen’s latest at the Quad Cinema, to St. Mark’s Church, where my friend’s mother taught ballet class, to tap classes at Carnegie Hall, to Lincoln Center for a NYCB matinee or the Whitney to see the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit and Calder’s Circus. My father was a book fanatic and my mother was crazy about music and ballet, but above all was (and still is) a storyteller. It was natural that art and walking would coalesce for me. But for some reason I thought I was meant to be a writer. The problem with that was that I wasn’t a very good writer (although maybe I should have written about New York). There are enough bad writers in the world. There are enough bad photographers in the world too. But even if I am a bad photographer, I enjoy doing it too much to give it up.
The city is new to me every time I hit the streets with my camera, even if I’m hitting the same streets over and over again. There is no minutiae, nothing insignificant if I look at it with fresh eyes. I’ve been shooting the same red wall on Thompson Street for years, and it’s not just because I like the smell of Arturo’s pizza. I didn’t even know that I like the color red until I started taking pictures, but through a lens I’ve discovered red, and how even a red wall changes depending on the time of day, the day of the week, the season, the weather. And if I shoot the red wall for enough years, I can see a story unfold. It is time travel.
I rewatched Wayne Wang’s movie Smoke a few years ago. Suddenly Auggie Wren’s story about taking a picture outside his cigar store at the exact same time every day, year after year, made sense to me. The first time I saw Smoke in 1995 I was moved by the pages on pages in Auggie’s photo albums. But now that I am a photographer, I understand why his picture project resonated for me. It is because I have my own version of that corner, and the longer I keep taking pictures the more stories my corner will tell. That is the nature of every corner and every wall in New York. Everything about the city is ephemeral. Buildings go up and go down. People die and move away. Whole neighborhoods change. But if you keep a photographic record of some places, you can see how it changes even if it has always seemed the same. This is time travel. And it’s magic.
Every time I leave my house, I bring my camera. I know that if I have it with me I’ll use it. And if I look at the city through my lens, I’ll see something I would never have otherwise seen. Sometimes I use my camera inside my house, if low winter light hits my books at a certain angle, or the mailboxes in my building lobby. There is nothing inherently interesting about light on books or mailboxes, but in the moment that I shoot it, it is the most achingly beautiful sight in the world.
When asked why he took a picture outside his store at the same time every day, Auggie Wren said, “It’s my corner, after all. It’s just one little part of the world, but things happen there too, just like everywhere else. It’s a record of my little spot.” I can’t think of a better explanation for why I shoot street photography than Auggie’s. We don’t all need a camera to see, but I do. Photographing New York has taught me to read light and people, and to engage with the world in ways I never thought possible when I started this journey.