NYC night street photography
Face to Stone
I remember wanting to go out at night and do the only thing that was keeping me sane – take pictures.
I also remember that most times it was too cold and, instead, I’d stay home and be faced with reminders of just how rock bottom my life was at that point.
This was January 2014 and I’d been back in New York City for just under a year and I was already looking for a way out.
I no longer had friends in the city and the ones that I did have were bored housewives scattered throughout the country and who would seek my attention, online, whenever they were bored at home. That was fine – it was entertaining for me as well. It was a nice distraction from what was going on at home.
I remember one night it was warm enough that I convinced myself it was okay to go out, enjoy, and not feel guilty about it. Everyone at home would be okay.
I made my way into the Meatpacking District of Manhattan and was set to begin a night of street photography when I noticed a flow of people making their way towards the Standard Hotel. All were dressed as if they were ready to dance.
I followed them, into the hotel and onto a freight elevator that took us up.
When the elevator got to the top floor the doors opened and spread before me was a dark lounge. City lights came through the large windows, casting everyone dancing to soulful house music in silhouette.
Red lights would flash on to reveal the joy on everyone’s face as they moved their bodies to the groove.
I wanted to lose myself in the groove and as I began dancing I felt my attention drift away from the moment and focus on what was going on around me and visualizing how such shots of people dancing would get me all sorts of likes on social media.
A young woman who’d been dancing next to me commented about my old camera that I had hanging off my shoulder didn’t look like it was as good as a real camera.
I recognized this as the type of comment that was designed to put me on the defensive, especially since my old camera was a Leica. The only way to respond to a comment like hers, in the tone she said it, was to go on the offensive, literally.
I said, “Still good enough to take pictures of you, naked.”
She appeared shocked someone would say something so direct and sexual to her and before she could respond I said, “Nah, I don’t want to take your picture.”
She appeared confused and said, “Why not?”
I said, “Your eyes are too close together and you have a big forehead.”
Meanwhile, she was fine the way she was. However, her initial comment had been designed to test what kind of man I was. In a nightclub setting, especially in New York City, if I had responded in any other way, I would’ve been pegged for a sucker she could try to coax drinks out of.
The old me would’ve been buying shots for her within moments of meeting, just to please her.
Instead, we had some playful back and forth.
She called me a fat fuck.
I laughed and said, “I know, just like you know you got a forehead that you can land planes on.”
She laughed and said, “I know.”
We both smiled and we began dancing with each other. It felt like such a massive relief to be able to dance with a beautiful woman. I felt alive in the wake of all those emotions that came out in our back and forth. I guess she felt alive too because she danced with her eyes closed and hands in the air as if nothing in the world was taking her out of this groove. Then, she wrapped her arms around me, and we kissed and afterwards, we both smiled.
Then she asked if I wanted to go outside and talk. It was hot and humid, and we both needed fresh air. We talked for a while and she learned I was, in her words, a real photographer. I learned she had a boyfriend who was out with his boys, and she wanted to keep the night going and hook up.
Before I could respond, I noticed a man walking alone, along the railing of the rooftop bar. He’d been lingering as if gazing into the night, seeking an answer to whatever questions running through his mind. I took out my camera and began anticipating his movement and composing, in my head, the shot I wanted to take.
She began talking and I said, “Go away.”
I didn’t want to miss the moment in capturing something that inspired something deep in me and it had nothing to do with finding validation on social media.
I captured several shots.
Then, just like that, the moment was gone, the man was gone, and she was gone.
I couldn’t understand why, all of a sudden, I was feeling this bone-crushing loneliness.
It was a loneliness that couldn’t be cured by that young woman and her offer of a one night stand.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez once wrote:
“Sex is the consolation you have when you can’t have love.”
No Love No Peace
I am an older man who understands sex is no consolation for love. At its base, it’s a bodily function. I didn’t want that.
I wanted connection but to build something real required time, emotional energy, and, most of all, freedom.
The time I had was reserved for my daughter, who was in her last year of high school. She’d become worried and anxious about her mother.
The emotional energy I had was reserved for her mother, my ex-wife, who’d become ill and incapacitated.
It was not a burden to care for her mother.
The rock I had to push up to the summit in my personal hell on a daily basis was not allowing my anger and ego to get in the way of doing what was right. After all, just because we were no longer together did not mean we stopped being parents to our daughter. We remained devoted in ensuring she reached her full potential. We had to work with each other. It also did not mean we continue looking at each other as the enemy when at some point we also had looked at each other as soulmates. Something I no longer believe in.
It was only then that I was able to understand it had been her personal hell to watch me wilt away in the years after 9/11.
Watching her wilt away had become mine.
I owed her.
Unlike me who had done nothing to try to help myself, she was doing all she could to help me help her recover.
I took several more pictures before going back inside.
By then I’d received a text message from my daughter asking me when I was coming home. She’d told me her mother was complaining of pain and seemed off balance when trying to walk to the bathroom.
I had to go.
I walked back to the freight elevator, got on, and it made it’s descent back down. On the ride, I thought of the Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus.
“At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which become his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.”
I am that man glancing back over his life.
Everything is still rolling. I see now in that photograph, that was me, at the height of the summit and peering out over a skyless space.
That night at the rooftop bar was my pause and the ride down the freight elevator was my descent back to the lower world.
“There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.”
In that pause, I felt the joy of being desired for the sake of desire. It felt like I had my face to the sun. I gathered the strength I needed to continue being the man I needed to be and took that feeling with me.
Despite knowing what waited for me when I got home, I was, as Albert Camus had imagined Sisyphus to be, at the end of his essay.
I was happy.
May 7, 2019