Finding my heart on the streets of New York City

 

One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years. ~Tom Wolfe

There are two approaches to New York City.

You can attempt to isolate yourself through taxis, hotel room service and google searches that serve to protect you from the noise, dangers and infamous population.

The other option is to embrace NYC”s frenetic nature and welcome the visual clashing of culture, race and creed. Getting on the ground, walking the avenues and taking in the lights, smells and monumental scale. It also puts you in the place to see the granular level that makes up the texture of New York – the people.

Red-eye with wonder

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At the beginning of October, I was invited to participate in a workshop that was led by cinematographer Philip Bloom and hosted/sponsored by B&H Photo and Sony. It was a small group of individuals that would follow Philip around with the goal of capturing the vibe of this incredible city. Whether it was the red-eye flying schedule or the fact that this was my first time setting foot on NY pavement, I will admit that I was intimidated for the first day.

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Part of it was the pressure to perform in the workshop. This was Philip Bloom after all and I wanted ensure I was making the most of my opportunity. However, the real intimidation came from being in a place that has been the backdrop of my cinematic upbringing. It was surreal to walk down 5th ave. seeing the steam pushing out from the manholes while narrowly dodging the tyrannical yellow cabs that make up half of the street traffic. What amazed me the most was how tangible the “NY feel” was. How does a place that is made up of  unrelated elements generate such an authentic feeling? I can”t really put a finger on it but, it was magical for me. This was perfectly summarized for me when I turned a corner and ran into the largest gathering of people I have ever seen and they all wearing the gaudiest colors a NY parade may have known.


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This was a celebration of Polish pride. Once I recovered from the saturated suits, I saw the smiles – genuine and unfettered. It was a little emotional for me as I realized that there were people of all sizes, shapes and walks standing elbow to cuff. And while I spent most the early afternoon attempting to walk around this huge parade, I started not to mind. I know I could have jumped in the middle and they would have linked arms with me and we would march right into a Lacey & Wilson musical – we even had all the bands there to set the tone. New York”s open-door policy of “Come on in, buddy! We got spot for ya right ”ere” started to sink in. However, I needed to be about my business and moved on through the day.

People make the place

and the place forms the people

The first time crossing into a home, a town or a country, I like to spend time taking in the texture and vibe. I am particularly interested in capturing a sense of the places that form the characters, views and lives of the people that inhabit by looking for traces of culture on the street, in shop windows and on church signs. After all, we are beings brought up from the ground –  the place where we learned to walk, talk and love  – and it will always be a part of who we are. My stories reflect that connection.

When I walked into Grand Central Station for the first time, I was flooded with a beautiful clashing of cultures. If there were one place that represented the melting pot of New York, this would be it. I knew immediately that there was a story here. I felt the significance of a location – less than one square block – that thousands flowed through every day. People came in and out with variety and regularity and each person had a purpose unique to them.  I couldn”t begin to guess all of their destinations and why they were traveling but, it was fascinating to think about.

The purpose of being here was, of course, to create a short film for the workshop. So, I sensed a story here and made an effort to capture but, quickly ran into the tripod restrictions and generally struggled to put anything cohesive together. I was shooting with the Sony A7s and was completely unfamiliar with it. The end result wasn”t great and lacked a developed concept. You can see my attempt at a small story here:

I left Grand Central feeling disappointed. Partially because of the technical frustrations but, mostly because I sensed a real idea in this space that I had not yet grasped and I was heartsick at the idea of leaving town and not discovering what it was that spoke to me in this populated symbol of NYC”s spirit.

At the end of the first act…the hero must fail

After, ironically, missing the connection with my fellow team,

I began an emotional decline.

You see, I thought I had this city pegged. I knew where I was and who I was with. But in fact, I really had yet to ”get it”. It took me awhile to catch up to the  group and when I did, I discovered that most had already left for the marina  and a boat ride around the New York harbor. I have to admit, this set me off and I was starting to suffer a bit from frustration that was overwhelming my endurance. While I am sure that my lack of sleep was a factor, I started to get grumpy about my circumstance: In an unfamiliar place, with an unfamiliar camera  and, due to some coordination challenges, always a step out of the workshop happenings. Normally, I would embrace it and go off on my own with vigor but, as afternoon turned to evening, I started to fall apart and in the end I abandoned the whole group and returned to my hotel to do some personal regrouping. I was about to resign myself to an evening of image touchup work, Facebook and ignore the fact that I was in a photographer”s dream town. Thankfully, that didn”t happen.

Rebuild,  rebuff and move!

As I sat in my hotel room, thinking I would content myself with window time lapse and writing, that niggling voice came from the back. “You”re scared. You are afraid of this town and you are making up reasons to avoid it.” It was 9pm. In my home location, that is when decent people are turning down the covers, but the city that never sleeps is starting the next shift. I got my camera, two lenses, a tripod and headed out.  As soon as I stepped onto the pavement, I was a new being. Not only for my personal pants-kicking but, the palpable element that only got stronger as I moved closer to Time Square.

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I stopped at every corner, looked through every door way and taxi window. I wanted all of it. I sat down on the curb in front of Champs and watched the crowds gain momentum as the night surged ahead. I spent hours walking, shooting and chatting. Street artists, mounted police and cart vendors all took on new life under the lights of this city that seemed to change again. If I thought the streets of Manhattan were alive before, I saw them as teeming with vitality now. Never has something as mundane as McDonalds seemed so spectacular as the golden arches burst with chasing lights. It was a more classy form of the  Las Vegas strip and I was lovin it.

 

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I shot gigs of media and created hours of editing work for my future. Even now, as I review the imagery, I can still feel the crisp air that carried the waft of $.99 pizza slices and car exhaust. I returned  to my room feeling like a bandit with his bag full of loot like who had just gotten away with the crime of the century. It invigorated me to attack the next day – and the day after that – with even more passion.

 

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Winding up for a good finish

The second workshop day was spent in editing mode. After putting together rough drafts, we presented, received feedback from Philip and then it was over. I had a thousand questions for Philip, but a New York minute is known for it”s elusive nature.

 

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Honestly, it was painful to present my draft as I knew that it was not my best work – not in image making nor in storytelling. I am still learning to how to ignore distractions and allow a discovered story to take over and consume my moment. As I look back through the footage shot in Grand Central, I saw much I could have done and committed to take my own camera back the next day and try to bring a little more light to a story that still needs work. I wonder how many can tell the difference between the Sony and the Canon footage in the piece above?

Feeling a momentary setback resolved, I left the electronically-charged walls of B&H, grabbed a New York feast-dans-le-corner and prepped to make my last day memorable.

“What the h311 are you shooting?”

 

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On my final day, I rose early to catch the subway (giggle) and see the sun rise over Grand Central (still not letting go of my story). I planted myself for some time lapse across the street on the steps of a nice little breakfast shop. Suits and ties constantly passed by with nary a notice and I was fine with that. I had this weird feeling of being on enemy territory and hoping none of them would notice.  However, the moment ended when a gentleman in a double-breasted with adorning overcoat stepped out of the restaurant and lit up.

 

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If there were one thing I didn”t appreciate about NYC, it was the amount of smoking. I like my air – clean air – and this man was contaminating it. After a couple of minutes of me pretending he was a chimney, the masonry spoke up “Can I ask, what the hell are you shooting? I can”t see anything interesting in that direction”. I responded that I was capturing the passage of time and light as it changed over Grand Central with the Empire State building in the background. He responded with a genuine interest and thus ensued a brief but, delightful discussion of “noticing things”. He wished to see some of my work and asked me for a card, which I didn”t have (regret is a powerful punishment). With polite departure, he walked along the street and I picked up my gear and moved on. It occurred to me that there is a skill in living every day in a way of being open to what or who life may bring and that it makes life wonderful.

 

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I spent another hour or so shooting around Grand Central, trying to capture people with my tripod in monopod mode where I could stealthily plop it down for a few minutes before NY”s finest spotted me and told me to move along. It struck me that I had a hard time getting any of the officers to look me in the eye when I asked them a question, but I shrugged it off. It must be hard to be so popular.

Once I had covered what I thought was the best I could do with my circumstances (still not good enough), I thought it was time to move “up town.”

Then there was Central Park…

 

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I admit that at this point I really struggled to balance photographer mode and the implacable sight-seeing awe of being somewhere for the first time. I had several tourist destinations on my list and allowed myself a little slack. I decided that I would continue my man-on-the-street approach to transportation and walked from Grand Central down to Rockefeller Plaza. A good friend of mine had talked up his favorite hot cocoa being in New York. The inspired concocter was Jacque Torres, who had a location in the belly of the Rockefeller building. It was fantastic and it also allowed me a styrofoam cup to blend in with the Starbucks crowd.

 

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Now, one of the magnificent aspects to New York is the combination of religion and architecture and my stroll down 5th Ave amply rewarded and reminded me of the various religious options available. I have my own set of values and beliefs and they tend to spread over a few temples and temple-like monuments. I was glad to show my deference.

 

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I then turned around and conveniently found myself face to fauna with the legendary Central Park. I had previously set a naive goal for myself – I would make it around the whole of the park before the plane”s wheels left the ground. I deduced that the best compromise to time and experience would be to hire a bicycle for the journey, and so, I delightedly engaged a Citibike.

 

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Of course, I was completely take aback to discover the elevation change that exists in the park and was glad for the cool breeze that initially maintained my presentability in the arm pit area. However, even a gale from off the harbor could not help when I found myself getting caught up in the race that ensued between myself and several geared up cyclists. Not to take a way from the flexible nature of the Citibike, it was never designed to be competitive and I found myself falling behind on the hills. Concluding my expedition around the park by arriving back at rental stalls, I set out at leisurely pace back towards my hotel. What I hadn”t counted on was navigating the flow of NY traffic. Wow. It was one of the few things I have done that felt GoPro worthy. Since I am not an owner of said device, I plopped out my iPhone and preceded to record my journey, holding the phone with one hand and fighting for my lane space with the other.

I felt like an authentic bike messenger and it was so much fun I would have paid to go again. I zoomed in and out of the paths of beligerant taxi drivers, lorries and jaywalkers all the while trying to think like a Steadicam operator. I loved every second of it  – so much so that I got carried right along with the traffic into places I had never seen nor heard of. No problem. I am fearless with my electronic travel companion that also serves as a capable  video camera. At least, until one discovers the battery has been exhausted from my recording of not one but two epic hyperlapses. The search for Youtube glory took it”s toll and left me bereft of fame with no good idea of my location.

I was an hour late to check out of my hotel, I was lost and I didn”t have access to Google. This was a dark moment and it called for dark measures. I asked for directions.

Once again, the NYPD was readily available to answer my questions without seeing my eye color and gave me some general semblance of where I was wanting to go. You see, when you are in a hotel on a numbered street and you find yourself surrounded by named streets, you are no longer ”in the neighborhood”.

 

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After another half hour of furious pedaling, I found my hotel dropped off my trusty and never rusty Citibike and cleaned myself up. It don”t want to bring too much distaste to this story already torrid with tales, but suffice it to say I was soaked through. When I presented myself at the front desk, two hours late, they asked if I “would like a few minutes to freshen up.” I did. I should state that the Yotel was a fine stay and a comfortable, if a bit unusual accommodation. The scifi theme through out felt a little over-the-top in certain implementations, but it was clean, smoke-free and the staff were gracious hosts. Since I still had a few hours before I needed to take a ride to the airport, I left a bag for the hotel to watch and did some more wandering. I spent the next two hours perusing the numerous “New York Gifts” and Time Square, complete with comic book cosplayers to serve the touristy needs, and finished off with a visit to Shake Shack to try my hand.

 

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 Milton Glasier said it best

 

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Without a doubt, I am now an adopted New Yorker. I came in with apprehension and left with adoring yearning. I can”t wait to get back to the city so nice, they named it twice. When I return, I will be better prepared, but still don”t expect to take in percentage of it”s wonders.

My main take away was: flow. It is so critical to any situation, but especially in unfamiliar worlds, to go with a flexible, eyes-wide-open attitude and just see where the metaphorical subway takes you.  When I finally made this connection, many new connections opened up and I will forever think of New York as a major point along my journey to becoming more connected with others and therefore to my unique self.

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