New York State of Mind

Daddy don't drive that Eldorado no more
New York remains what it has always been: a city of ebb and flow, a city of constant shifts in population and economics, a city of virtually no rest. It is harsh, dirty, and dangerous, it is whimsical and fanciful, it is beautiful and soaring – it is not one or another of these things but all of them, all at once, and to fail to accept this paradox is to deny the reality of city existence
Paul Goldberger

Swept up the stairs at Penn Station on a tide of bustling humanity and emerging like a blinded mole from the labyrinth underneath Madison Square Garden you are subjected to an opto-aural assault that, if you (like me) are from one of the quieter metropolises, leaves you weak in the knees. The energy is palpable, the billboards seizure inducing and the combined noise of millions of cellphones beeping, people talking and taxis honking have the eardrums cowering in submission.

I was in New York a few weeks ago; it was my first visit and I wanted to prove myself on the same streets that the great photographers prowled and still prowl. Boy did I ever feel like a beer league hockey player in the NHL.

The pace on the streets is incredible. Scenes coalesce and then vanish in an instant. You have to learn to see and react in a heartbeat. In cities where I’ve worked the street in the past you have enough time to frame, focus and shoot. In NYC: frame and go. If you don’t have your cameras setup beforehand: too bad, so sad.

I would get up at around 9, have breakfast and hit the streets and work till around 4 in the afternoon. If my feet could stand it, I’d go out at night for a few hours to watch the street theatre unfold.

A preliminary look at the photos doesn’t show a lot of promise but they do seem to show improvement in technique and composition as the week went on. I’ve put this trip down to an initial recce and learning mission as I wasn’t focussing on any theme or idea: I was trying to drink from a fire hose!

What did I learn? 

Where to begin! I learned more in these 6 days than I have in months.

Urban Geography 

The light in New York is special. I could never figure out why the streets seemed to be always in a way so differently from Calgary. Part of it is latitude and elevation but mostly it’s the orientation of the streets. Downtown Calgary is oriented east-west and the streets are not very long relatively speaking. The office towers block the light for most of the day, with only a few street corners getting any sort of decent light. The only light is early in the morning and even then only at certain times in the spring and fall.

New York on the other hand is oriented north-south and its streets stretch for miles; the topography of the buildings let the light fall in a way that gives a wonderful chiaroscuro.

As well the street action is relentless. Even though the office towers dwarf those in Calgary, the streets are packed with people interacting with each other face to face, on cellphones or just doing their jobs. In Calgary, the Plus-15 pushes everything up into a warren of corporate habitrails leaving the streets empty except for the homeless and the lost tourist. 


Looking at my images I found the perspectives skewed with respect to other photographers who had walked the same streets. Well, turns out that at 6’ 4” I’m about 9 inches taller than the average male so my POV is automatically different. I experimented shooting from chest level with an Olympus XZ-2 (it has the flip out screen). That’s about 2 feet lower than my normal vantage point and the perspectives (lo and behold) had a more familiar look to them. So, I guess I have to learn to use my height as a way of giving a unique view of the streets.


The pace is so fast: if you don’t know your gear you may as well forget it and go home. New York is not the place to try and figure out how your equipment works and still make any meaningful images. I knew where all the buttons and dials where on my two long-time friends: the M-E and E-P2 which allowed me to adapt my slower, studied shooting style to a more frenetic one. The one thing I really had to learn was where the “nub” on the Biogon 35 was. This, combined with using hyperfocal and zone focusing, let me make instant adjustments without trying to line up spots in the rangefinder.

I picked up an Olympus XZ-2 while I was there and luckily the control layout (the important ones) is very similar to that of the EP2 and with the level of customization that Olympus offers I was able to set things up so it was transparent to my hands which camera I was using.

The one thing that got up my snout with my gear was the truculent AF of the E-P2. Even with just one focus point enabled, it would sometimes hunt and hunt and I’d never truly know what it focussed on. The XZ-2 was a better performer in that regard and I'm seriously looking for a used EP-5 to replace the E-P2.

(The reason I shoot both Olympus and Leica is that I love the 45mm Oly lens. It gives me a discreet 90 portrait lens and under the right conditions it gives you some amazing street shots: isolating the story from all the other stories.)

Thank heavens that I travel light. I know that Tod Papageorge prowled Central Park with a 4x5 view camera, channeling Brassai, but I'm old, my back gets sore and I worked in the patch for too long for my knees to deal with carrying a lot of kit around. It’s why I like my Leica and Olympus. I use a small home converted shoulder bag from Red Canoe and all in I only carry about 3 pounds. I pity the tourist I saw in Times Square with a honking big DSLR of some type, huge zoom lens and a backpack with more gear and a tripod. My back started to hurt just looking at him. 

The Fundamentals

My understanding of exposure and reading the light was really put to the test. With all that wonderful light I was faced with everything from dark shadow to bright whites. You have to make an instant decision if you want to use any exposure compensation. Yes, you can fix things in post, but getting it close is better than being way off. Again it’s all about reaction time. I’m fortunate, I learnt on a match needle exposure system and before that with an incident light meter so it was a bit easier but I still had to work at it as I've gotten lazy of late.

If you want to make your rangefinder or manual focus camera sing on the streets hyperfocal and zone focusing is one of those things you need have down cold; that and being able to judge distance. It works like this: Set your focus zone and then wait, like a fisherman waiting for that trout. Watch the story evolve, anticipate and when the moment happens pounce, working feverishly to try and get as much of the story into the can as possible. Don't mess around with focussing, just focus (dear god, did I write that?) on the framing. If you’ve set up properly you’ll get the story, or at least most of it. I had to remind myself of this again and again. I have to get this to become much more instinctive.

You have to know your composition down cold. Now, I’m not averse to cropping, straightening and other magic but you truly have to always aware of when you are in the presence of an image and you have to work that scenario until the scene goes away. If anything I didn’t work some scenes enough and left some images “on the table” as it were.

Why they say 28 on the streets

I seem to recall a comment (probably apochryphal) made by HCB when asked why he used a 50mm all the time: “Well,” he said with a Gallic shrug and an impish grin, “a wide angle makes it too easy.”

Easy for him, perhaps; I toiled mightily, finding my 35 too long because of the narrowness of the sidewalks and the volume of people. I can understand why a 28 would possibly be preferable and why some street photographers like the up close work that a 28 or wider lets you do. I did finally get a handle on the 35 and became comfortable with it, but as with all technique, I’ll need a lot more practice.

Learning to Dance

I keep talking about pace and rhythm. Going from Calgary to Vancouver to Toronto to New York I learned that the rhythm of the streets are so very different and the way I, as a photographer, danced to that rhythm impacts how your images turn out. Being able to feel, understand and then respond to those rhythms when you first get to a new place is crucial. I’m still learning those chops.

Strand Books

I learned that I can’t go in there with a credit card. I came out with about 200 bucks worth of books. I could have spent triple that. What a wonderful place. My good lady wife has confiscated 3 of them and I don't get them till Christmas.

Final Thoughts

Well, off to the darkroom. The lead-in shot was a quick grab from my upload in the library (Thank you, Steely Dan, for the title) and I'll leave you with this one: 

Position of Strength

Once I boil down all the frames to something worthwhile (maybe 5 based on my first run through) I'll share them with you.

Oh yeah. I can hardly wait to go back. If I had a plane ticket for tomorrow…

There’s one last quote I want to share:

One belongs to New York instantly; one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in 5 years”  Tom Wolfe

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