Lately, I’ve been trying to get over the habit of taking photos of buildings, structures, or still life in general. I admit I’m a bit people shy when it comes to street photography. The other day I was in Washington Square Park and saw a photographer almost get punched out when he tried to snap a photo of two middle aged men playing chess. That’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid, aside from the creep factor I may give off to a total stranger upon taking their pic. Protests and Occupy Wall Street are different. People actually want to be seen and heard. But anyways….
A few weeks ago I decided to try to stray away a bit from my comfort zone and focus on photographing people. Not going up in their face but from a non-intrusive, indirect point of view. This was shot right before taking the train home after wandering around the East Village for almost two hours without taking a single shot. Everyone seemed like copy/paste clones of each other, no individuality whatsoever. Polo shirt, khakis, bag, skirt, bag, iPhone, walking fast can’t stop gotta run call you when I get out of the train don’t forget to feed the cat.
This man didn’t have to rush anywhere. As everyone else strode forward, he pushed back. Breaking through the line of commuter ants as he went along, pushing himself on his one good leg. The only fresh and genuine face around the whole area.
There is an alley in downtown Manhattan next to the Puck Building where many fashion shoots take place. Everytime I pass by there, models are posing for the cameras, wearing the latest styles and getting their hair and makeup done on the spot. I sometimes stop to watch for a while. Fashion photography is not my thing, but I do enjoy seeing what kind of setup they have and what kind of moods they try to convey. It’s kind of a learning experience. I also find the wardrobe and styles amusing, some look like they stepped out from the set of a sci-fi movie or a time warp leading back to the 1930’s.
When I shot this one, there was a fashion shoot in progress. After observing for a while, I noticed the windows high above and found the scene much more interesting than the actual shoot. I took out my camera, walked up while they were taking a break, and as I approached one of the crew comes up to me and tells me that I can’t take photos of the models. I told him I wasn’t interested in the models, pointed up to the windows, snapped this photo, and left. As I passed, one of the models says “Hey, I like your vest.”, referring to my black hesher punk/metal denim biker vest. Here she is wearing clothes that cost more than what I make in a month, and yet she’s complimenting my old, worn, patched-and-pinned vest. Somehow I found it amusing and ironic.
I guess the photo symbolizes different phases, or windows, in my life that have opened and closed. One closed window represents my teaching career, an open one my new career. Another closed one my old town, an open one the city and it’s infinite possibilities. Or maybe I just like the pattern, I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t feel like such a dirtbag anymore every time I wear my beloved vest.
Although I consider myself pretty much a New Jersey/New Yorker, my real roots lay in an idyllic town in Puerto Rico called Aibonito. Located in the center of the island and surrounded by mountains, winding roads, and blankets of fog and mist, the sleepy little town is my birthplace. My parents moved from Aibonito to New Jersey in the late 70’s, where I grew up. We returned in 1989, and spent my junior high school years all the way through college on the island.
The town holds so many memories for me, as well as a bunch of firsts. First girlfriend, first best friend, first beer, first time I drove a car, first tattoo, I can go on and on. After graduating from college and teaching in the town for a few years, I decided to go back to NJ and work in NYC. My friends threw me a punk show farewell party, and the next day I packed my bags and hopped on a plane with a one-way ticket in hand.
I felt like Bilbo Baggins leaving The Shire. Leaving behind a tranquil, carefree existence. If I told I wasn’t scared I’d be lying to you. Honestly, I didn’t know if I would make it through a year away from the sheletered, protective embrace of my small town. Sure, I knew the NY/NJ area from my childhood, but it was different. Aibonito saw me return as a child and saw me leave a man. A sack full of dreams over my shoulder, a weeping mother and sister left behind at home. I wasn’t scared, I was terrified. Small town mountain boy making a living in NYC. If I didn’t make it here, this city wouldn’t simply let me go, it would destroy me.
Six years later and I have changed quite alot. I fought many battles and proudly wear the trophies on my arms. The beast of a city has not been tamed, but it respects me and even shows some affection towards me. It knows I’m a survivor and we regard eachother with mutual respect. I’m not claiming victory yet, and probably never will, but I will say that it never succeeded in destroying me, and I can live with that.
I try to go back to my hometown every year to see my friends and family. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss them. Everytime I go back, they ask me a million questions about life in the big city. I enjoy sitting down and telling them my latest adventures and listening to the latest small town gossip. But at the same time there is a kind of disconnect within me. As much as I miss my mountain town, I can never go back to it. I feel like I changed to much and not only would I have trouble coping, but people would have a hard time understanding me. Kind of like a viking warrior who left his sleepy village and returned after many battles only to feel out of place, uncomfortable with the peace and quiet, not knowing what to do or how to relate. The people in my town now look at me in a strange way, staring at my tattoos and clothes. I feel like I lost something, yet I don’t know what.
Back when I taught in Aibonito, I passed by these mountains every day on my way to school. I never really thought of taking a photo of them, since I had gotten so used to the sight. On the last day of my last visit to Aibonito, I decided I wanted to take a photo of the mist over the mountains. I packed my bags and told my mom I would be right back. Driving out a bit, I stopped and snapped a few photos. Then I came back, put my bag in the car, and said goodbye to my mom. I haven’t been back since.
I have a fondness for old 70’s-80’s movies set in New York City. Escape From New York, The Warriors, Nighthawks, were all a staple of my childhood. Growing up around the NJ/NY metropolitan area from 1980-1989, I remember how New York City was considered a no-man’s land back then. Taking a trip to the city was the equivalent of wandering into Mordor. The sleaze, the shady characters, the noise, the smells, all of it terrifying yet wonderful. All serving as a banquet to feed my imagination.
Today’s New York is a sad shadow of it’s former wonder. A sterile, manufactured, mass-produced, prepackaged offering for tourists and families seeking big city thrills within their comfort zone. An urban Disneyland. Oh look it’s the Naked Cowboy, better cover Sally’s eyes.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that I can feel somewhat safer in the city, especially when carrying around camera equipment. But Giuliani’s crackdown not only put the hookers, dealers, and sex shops out of business, it also hurt the small record shops, bookstores, weirdo bars, and other elements which made New York a surreal wonderland. I still remember the day Coney Island High closed down for good, part of the Mayor’s sweep to close down bars for fire department violations. Who was playing that day? Lagwagon? I don’t remember, since I was going to a grindcore fest at CBGB’s a few blocks away. But it still bummed me out. If you want to find the former site of your old punk bar or indie record store or obscure bookstore, just go to the nearest Starbucks.
That is why I usually avoid Midtown Manhattan, unless I’m on the way home through Port Authority. But on this day I wanted to experiment with slow shutter speeds, and the area does serve as a good training ground for the technique. I’ll admit I didn’t know what the Hell I was doing, my knowledge limited to a few pages I quickly read in a photo guide book.
I shot this one during the summer of 2004, using my trusty ol’ Canon Elan 7 film camera. Although I don’t recall the day or month, I do remember carrying a cheap tripod all around Manhattan and leaving it sprawled upside-down in a trash can after the base mechanism broke. I don’t need no steenkin’ tripod!
Turns out I did need a steenkin’ tripod, since all the photos I took during that day came out as blurry messes that resembled Jackson Pollock paintings. Ironically, when I shot this one, I braced the camera against a vibrating street light pole for about 30 seconds. I guess it’s a lucky shot under the circumstances. Oh well, I think it would make a good postcard for tourists who braved the G-rated streets of New York City.
The first time I visited the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park, I was coming back from helping my friend move his air conditioner from his old Harlem apartment into his new place a few blocks away. We tied the unit to my skateboard and pulled it along like a doggy on a leash. People on the street got a kick out of it, as I called out “Here Fido, Fido! Good boy Fido!” My left hand was bloodied and wrapped in a bandanna after I cut it while removing the air conditioner. As we walked, I asked him “Hey, have you heard about those people camping out in Wall Street? Wanna check it out after we’re done?” He didn’t think much as he responded “Eh, sure, we’ll check it out and have a few beers afterwards.” So that was that, and we didn’t think much of it as we took the downtown train later on that day.
There were less than a hundred people at Zuccotti Park. We walked around and chatted with a few occupiers, before heading out to St. Marks to have a few beers. As we sat and drank our ales, I asked him if he’d like to come down with me to take some photos of the occupiers at Zuccotti Park. “Eh sure, we’ll have some beers afterwards.”, he replied, and we didn’t think much of it as we sat there staring out the window as we sipped our beers.
A week later we were back at Zuccotti Park after coming back from the Slut Walk march that we heard about during the week and decided to check out before going down to Occupy Wall Street (I’ll talk more about that in a future entry). The park was nearly empty and we asked a friendly girl if she knew where everyone was. She said everyone was heading to march across the Brooklyn Bridge and she was walking there herself, so we tagged along.
A few minutes later, we were right smack in the middle of the bridge, in the midst of a sea of people, all marching, chanting, and getting arrested on the car lanes below. NYPD had us all penned in like a herd and began bringing in police trucks and buses to carry off those arrested. The sea of people swelled and roared like an ocean during a storm, as I wondered how the Hell I was going to get out of this one. After realizing that I was stuck in there for a while (having lost my friend a few hundred people back and he shook his head like a terrified child being forced to sit on a scary mall Santa’s lap), I began to chnt and even started some of my own chants. I belted out “Hell no! We won’t go!” and it caught one, first a handful then a few dozen, then the whole crowd. At that moment I felt like there was no place on Earth I would rather be. My old punk rock miscreant self was brought back to life with the energy and electricity that ran through the human tidal wave that flooded the Brooklyn Bridge.
A few hours later, I was reunited with my friend and we decided to go to St. Marks for some beers. As we sat at the bar drinking our ales, I asked my friend “So, wanna go again next week?”. He sipped his beer and said “Sure, we can have some beers afterwards.”, and we sat there staring out the window and not thinking much of it for the rest of the evening.
I was never good at Math, and much less Geometry. In high school they had to pull me out of Geometry class and put me in Baking/Home Economics in order to save me from failing the grade. Oddly enough, I could easily recognize patterns, symmetry, and angles. The real problem was when we had to apply formulas and numbers to the whole thing. My brain would come to a screeching halt and I would sit there with a confused look on my face as if I were staring at some hieroglyphs from some obscure civilization.
My Geometry teacher would poke fun at me, telling me to never become a carpenter because my house would end up with a mismatched roof and sloping, uneven walls. Yet, during his tests, when the paper would still be blank after half an hour, I would find myself staring at the beams in the classroom ceiling, admiring the shapes and intersections they created.
If he were still teaching, I would like to drop by his classroom one day and place this photo on his desk and ask if he could give me extra credit for it, even though I graduated 17 years ago. Chances are he’ll just wave me away and tell me to bake a cake or something.
I’m somewhat convinced that New York City serves as a portal to another dimension, where people shift in and out between their plane of existence into ours. I came up with that theory one night as I shot some photos around downtown Manhattan. I’m somewhat cautious when pulling out my camera anywhere, especially in the city. Before I take out my Canon I scan the street in front and behind me for anyone who may look like they want to run off with my equipment or who may try to give me a hard time for taking a photo (NYPD and security guards come to mind).
Somewhere around 12 a.m. midnight I stopped around 12th St. and 2nd Ave. After scanning the area, I quickly pulled out my camera and as soon as I began to adjust my settings I felt a light tap on my elbow. I looked down and there was a small Asian man in a wheelchair, smiling up at me and pointing to my camera. How did I miss seeing him a second or two ago? He would have taken a while to get to where I was in his wheelchair, and yet there he was, next to me in the blink of an eye. Through his broken English he asked me if I’m a photographer and was curious about the shot I wanted to take. Somehow this man didn’t seem strange or creepy, I felt a warm familiarity and comfort, as if I’ve known him for years. I took my shots and let him view the photos through the camera’s back screen. His smile was truly genuine, a rarity in this city.
He shook my hand and his grip was gentle but firm, and he told me his name (which I can’t remember now, I wish I did), and said he was from Cambodia. After taking out a cigarette, he invited me to sit and talk about photography. I took the opportunity to fill up my tobacco pipe and listen to this odd yet wonderful man’s story. Although his English was somewhat limited, he told me he used to be a photographer in his native Cambodia, before Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over the country, where he fled to Thailand and worked as a street vendor. I asked him if he ever wanted to get back into photography. He told me that when he left Cambodia he left his camera, as well as the lower portion of his left leg.
We talked for nearly an hour, sitting there on the middle of the block at 12th St. and 2nd Ave, before I got up and said my goodbyes before heading back to the New Jersey path train. We shook hands one more time and I walked up the block and crossed the street, only to look back and see a nearly empty block with one or two people passing by, but no sign of my new friend. Deciding to not question the encounter and just take it as something that maybe I wasn’t meant to understand, I shrugged it off and walked back to 14th St. and 6th Ave, stopping only to take this photo on the way there.