By Douglas John Imbrogno | thestoryisthething.com | jan29.2020
If New York were a person and I had to list our relationship status on Facebook, it might be: ‘It’s complicated.’ My first serious love affair unfolded on the Upper West Side and in Greenwich Village—ask me about rum babas and espresso at Cafe Reggio’s—as New Wave music jangled CBGB’s. Years later, I will ignore her in club called Puffy’s on another visit. It will take years to admit my cruelty.
Later, deep into that same night, I set my sights on the Twin Towers, glowing far off from where I’m lodging in the East Village. I’m determined to touch one of them. And do. Headed back after midnight, in my right hand I cradle my half-cocked, lipstick-red Swiss Army knife. Striding empty Bowery streets, as if I could manage a knife-fight.
Another night. I stand a few feet to the right of David Byrne, then of Talking Heads, at the lip of the stage in The Peppermint Lounge in the late ’70s. Both of us have come to hear Afropop guitar-god James ‘Blood’ Ulmer. At the time, Byrne is a musical holy man in my life. I am too gobsmacked and well-mannered a fan to wish to bother him.
Then, years go by. I am passing through La Guardia, back from Europe in a wheelchair, Mom and Dad shepherding my damaged self home. At an airport payphone, the phone rings and rings and ring. My former lover doesn’t pick up.
But I hope part one in this photo-essay series I am calling ‘New York Notebook,’ is less knotty. I do hope a few of these photographs elicit more complex reactions than just the usual tourist snaps. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a tourist.
I wasn’t sure what my reaction would be, returning to the city for the first time in seven-odd years. And whether all my personal dramas with the city would be triggered.
Which would explain a couple of tears streaming down my face between the last four subway stops on the way to Queens, where my buddy and I stayed for a couple nights in early January 2020. I am happy to report the tears were cathartic. Maybe more about that later. The thing I am happiest to report is I fell back in love with New York City.
Here, then, are some love letters.
‘Deference to the Subject’
I am no seasoned photographer, first off. Last year, I bought a $2,000 4K Sony camera, with all good intentions of upping my video and still photography game. I did bring it to New York. A few of these photos (I’d have to check which) were shot with its amazing fidelity and angled view screen. But most of them were shot with my iPhone 7S. Somewhat jokingly, but descriptively, I dub my iPhone shooting style: ‘Run, Gun & Go.’
I shoot fast and by the seat of my pants. Then, turn and move on. When taking street and subway shots of faces, I have only a couple seconds to shoot before people know I’m framing them up. (I have some outtakes that show on their face they realize I’ve had them in my Apple-vision.) Not being a pro shooter, I wondered about this snapping and nabbing of people’s faces in public spaces. I reached out to an internationally esteemed photographer friend, who shoots engrossing portraiture from around the globe for National Geographic and a host of global publications:
“Hey, Fritz: Greetings. A question for you. What are your thoughts about taking photos of people in public settings like streets and subways. We are not asking their permission. For me, it is an attempt to capture public life and some cool, interesting faces and public poses. The critical language of expropriation and the white male privilege of shooting public images rolls around in my head. Would appreciate your thoughts as I roll out these New York photos from just having seen David Byrne’s quasi-religious “American Utopia” on Broadway. Douglas”
So, yes, David Byrne brought me back to the city. I dreamed of finally meeting him face-to-face, at the back stage door after “American Utopia.” I hadn’t wanted to bother him with my fanboy adoration that night at Peppermint Lounge. (More on the stage door moment in a future NewYork/Notebook post.)
Fritz wrote back:
“Hi Doug. It’s in the public domain but it’s right to be fair. These days, many people, not just white males, are making pictures everywhere. I think people are more used to it. Be friendly and kind. Deference to the subject. Heard that’s a terrific show. I’d love to see it.”
It was. Did I mention it was a ‘quasi-religious’ experience?
Not Just Black-and-White
I’m a hobby shooter, even though I feel I don’t have a half-bad photographic ‘eye.’ But I go back-and-forth on what serves a portrait better: color or black-and-white? I first posted this image of ‘Beret Man’ in color to Instagram, adding on a filter to bring up the color of his face and scarf. I lived with it for a few days. But, man, it looks like a crime scene behind him with the filter’s reddening contrast. Transposing the photo into black-and-white (I edit and lightly filter my phone photos with the photo editing app BeFunky) made it feel like an historic photo from the streets of France.
Here it is in color. Which do you prefer?
Just for fun—and perspective on my cropping choices (at least, I’m having fun)—here’s the photo straight from my iPhone. I almost went with it. I like the contrast between Beret Man’s concentration on being a man with a beret and the woman passing by. She is perhaps gawking at skyscrapers which I imagine no longer dazzle the downturned eyes of what appears to be a long-time New Yorker.
I love this shot above. I don’t say that of all my photos. But I adore the contrast between the sleek metallic, modernistic surface of the subway car and the fellow’s ragged, lived-in denim jacket. I also like his determined set of jaw, an urban workaday warrior. (I’m projecting—for all I know he could be from West Virginia, like the guy snapping the shot.)
I went through a reactive process editing these photos. I edited all of them as color photos. But turning ‘Beret Man’ black-and-white, I loved the way it pops up outlines and features otherwise lost in a maelstrom of colors. So, I went back and re-visioned some others in black-and-white. In the process of posting my New York photos to my Instagram account, I discovered a sprawling black-and-white photo culture. Such as minimal_streetphoto and the 24 million photos hashtagged ‘blackandwhitephotography.’
My goal now (for the entertainment of my paltry 300-odd followers and myself), is to see if I can get a photo featured by ‘minimal_streetphoto’. And vault my hobbyist street photos into the cumulo-nimbus of the Instagram-osphere.
‘Who You Lookin’ At?’
Another quick snap. I go back-and-forth about what ‘Man Waiting’ is looking at. I think he knows he’s being photographed—and is perhaps eyeing me. Which makes the photo even more interesting, given the hubbub and impersonal jostle of Times Square. This photo earned a major plaudit (for me) on Instagram. Fritz, whose work has been seen and appreciated by untold numbers of people around the planet, tagged it with the comment: ‘Now that’s a picture!’
Ever since, I have pondered: ‘What’s a picture?’ What makes it worthy of such a comment from a pro/artist? It’s easy to overthink these things. Just appreciate the photo, dude. From my civilian perspective, it’s the isolation of a single human face—being able to read that face in all its close-up complexity and simplicity. He surfaces, for just a moment from the maelstrom (speaking of maelstroms) of an ocean of humanity.
You wonder: Who is the guy? Who’s he waiting for? Did he want to punch me? Was he wondering who I was? Is he even realizing he’s being photographed and instead has been caught in a thousand-yard-stare, as he muses on his life?
Maybe he just needs to pee.
The Shoulder Tap
I dropped a dollar in this singer’s tip container in the Union Square subway station. My companion tapped me on the shoulder. Did I still have that morning’s uneaten Dunkin Donuts bagel in my backpack? I did, plus a maple iced doughnut. When I turned around, the fellow rooting for food in the trash container was gone. We found him after a few seconds, sitting on a nearby bench. I leant over and asked if he would like some food. He looked up sharply, a little wide-eyed.
“Is it a DOUGH-nut?” he said, seeing the bag.
“Yes. And a bagel. With cream cheese.”
He took the bag.
“Thank you,” he said.
The musician sang on. Thanks to my friend for the wake-up tap.
Queen to Pawn’s Cigarette
Not the finest of photos, snapped in passing while headed to a subway stairwell. A better photographer would have been able to isolate the third cigarette held by the woman for a nice isosceles triangle of nicotine. But it does capture a moment amid the hullabaloo of Union Square and the multiple denizens of chess matches, played on plastic crates.
Another quick snap. I like how the filter (I forget which) gives the man a halo. This is highly cropped as I was standing 20 feet away. Not great portraiture, but it captures a moment in the workaday life of one of the hundred million men and women who make a great city like New York work.
That’s the payoff of Run-Gun-and-Go shooting in one of the great cities of the age. You get to see a lot of people at their job.
I wonder what he’s thinking. If he’s tired. If he’s good at his job. I’ll bet he is. He looks keen-eyed.
That’s a snazzy uniform.
NewYorkNoteBook 1: Black-and-White Manhattan
NewYorkNoteBook 2: Up, Up and Away
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