Thursday, September 29, 2011

Along the Deuce

July 1988

I spent four years working on the west side of Manhattan, on 44th Street at 12th Avenue.  When I first started there in 1987, the old West Side Highway structure still ran down to 43rd Street on 12th; if there were any windows on my floor they'd look right out onto the roadway.  The USS Intrepid was docked across the street, a few blocks north of the Circle Line boats.  Neither of them drew too many tourists back then, and given the ambiance of the neighborhood, it's not surprising.  There were still concerts at Pier 83 in the summer, which was about the height of culture, unless you were interested in the mating habits of the Jersey Johns with the local crack whores.

West 42nd street was still a miasma of filth and abandonment, with empty theaters and quarter peep shows on both sides of the block, interspersed with souvenir and counterfeit stores.  

So of course it was one of my favorite places to stroll through; at the shop we'd refer to it as 'the scenic route'.  Disney was still almost a decade away from finally conquering it all, but there were other attempts that threatened to destroy the quaintness of it all.  And those plans did not go unchallenged.

July 1988

Designs had been announced in the fall of 1988 for a development plan for the Square involving four huge office towers on the north and south ends of 42nd street and Seventh Avenue.  Four bland, monolithic structures that were probably doomed to never move beyond the drawing board before the ink was even dry, but lots were being assembled and condemnation was going forward.  The owners of some of the theaters began to protest, utilizing their marquees as giant picket signs, as seen below.  Of course, the cynic in me still thinks they were more upset that they wanted market rate for their properties, rather than the offers they were given by the city under eminent domain, but it all made for public outcry and, pun intended, good theater.

I never took a lot of pictures on the Deuce, partly out of a sense of self-consciousness, and partly out of a sense of self-preservation.  The street was usually crowded when I was there, and with an open camera bag on my shoulder and a camera at my eye, I was a good target.  Notice in the second of the two pictures above, the man in the white jacket with the cane?  After I took the picture I turned around, stepped back on the sidewalk, and put my camera back in the bag.  He'd crossed the street by then, and hit me in the ass with the cane. True story.

October 1988
While I like the first two pictures here for their historical perspective, this is my favorite for its artistic point of view.  Early on a rain-soaked evening, with a mix of loiterers shuffling about and pedestrians hurrying along the sidewalks.  Peep show marquees reflecting in the wet roadway and lone streetlight arching into the air.  You can follow the vanishing point all the way down 42nd street to where it ends at the river, the hills of New Jersey a gray hint beyond.

More ruminations on 42nd Street can be found here.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Manhattan Tower

March 11, 2003
I cannot for the life of me remember why I was crossing the bridge from Brooklyn into Manhattan on this morning in March.  I've been wracking my brain trying to recall, and I keep coming up empty.  I know I started on the Brooklyn side; the contact sheet from this roll has images from there.  I just don't know why, or even how I got to Brooklyn. 

And as you can see, I had the walkway pretty much to myself.  There was one group of about three people a few hundred feet in front of me, and I had to wait for them to pass under the arches in order to get this shot, but other than them, and a few bicycles, I was alone over the East River.  

It was a clear sunny day, late in the morning to judge from the sun's angle, and the classic Gothic towers were lit beautifully.  I took advantage of the light, with my main concern being symmetry.  The narrow walkway on the bridge was limiting my lateral movement, so a straight architectural composition was my  goal.

I still managed a bit of creativity, I think.  While the image is far from perfectly symmetrical (note that I wasn't even standing on the center line of the boardwalk), I like the way the cables running from the center of the tower form an asterisk of sorts as they lead down and across the upper third of the picture.  The cloudless sky also aids the composition as it seamlessly gradates from light to dark over the middle to the upper third.  Clouds would break this sense of flow, making the image jumbled and confusing to the eye.  

Finally, with one exception, every line in the picture is a straight line: verticals, horizontals, and diagonals, each vertical and diagonal matched on the left and right side, the horizontal brickwork of the tower complimenting the boards of the walkway and girders over the roadways.  The only curving lines of course, being the twin arches in the very center, which help to soften what would otherwise be a very severe image.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lido Sunflower

August 1999

My first autofocus camera was the Pentax ZX-5n which I got in the summer of 1999.  I remember I was able to afford it because the newspaper I was working for at the time had finally cut me a check for the assignments I'd done during the previous three months.  (They really hated paying freelancers.)

One of the neat features of this camera was the 'panorama drop-in', which was a mask that blacked-out the top and bottom thirds of a single frame, to create a panorama effect.  I say 'effect', because a true panorama camera would expose the image across two, three and sometimes four entire frames of a film roll, using either a wide-angle lens or a rolling slit-shutter.  But those cameras cost thousands and required elaborate tripods, so for about the $350 that the Pentax cost, I was happy with the drop-in mask.

Of course, I could have just cropped the top and bottom of the image in the enlarger when I printed them, but my technique at the time was 'shooting for the full frame', that is, I never cropped any pictures that I printed.  I used an oversized carrier in my enlarger that let me print the border of the negative as a frame around the image. Without a masked negative I wouldn't have a black border all around, only on the sides.

There was an inherent problem with this, however.  Minilabs at the time were programmed to automatically print negatives shot with the mask  as pano prints, which cost a dollar each (or more, depending on the lab), so if I used color film, having a roll processed and printed could wind up costing a fortune.  And since the prints were basically just super-enlargements, if you used 400 speed film, you could wind up with grainy, expensive, unusable prints.  I had to remember to write 'print all frames as 4x6' in capital letters in the special instruction box when I had color film printed.

That said, this picture works well as a pano, since the area of interest is in the center, and having more sky and road on the top and bottom would just detract from it.  This was shot looking west along Lido Boulevard across from the beach clubs back in August of 1999.  I'd been driving past this spot all summer, and I really liked the sunflowers that one of the homeowners on Marginal Road (the street to the right) had planted on the narrow median between the streets.  I finally took my bicycle out that way to get some shots.

Here's why I think this composition works: on the left you have the empty, open road, angling into half of a vanishing point. On the right a busy scene with trees, houses and cars, the sunflower in the foreground, and barely discernable, the other half of the vanishing point, running behind the flower and pole to join with the left side somewhere off in the distant trees.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bleecker Street in July

July 30, 1986

Here's another example of Kodak's Recording Film, on a hot Wednesday afternoon in July.  For this one I was standing on the west side of Sixth Avenue at Bleecker Street, between Churchill Square (the Downing Street Playground) and Father Demo Square.  The pigeon was probably flying towards Carmine Street, a block to the north, and the Empire State building is, of course, about thirty-one blocks further north (and an avenue east) at 34th and Fifth.  

This was shot with my first 35mm camera, a Pentax ME Super.  I think I had a 70-200mm zoom lens on the camera, and although I don't know for sure what the focal length was that I was using; I don't think it was racked out to the full 200mm, more likely it was at around 150mm, but after 25 years, my memory of these things is about as hazy as the sky was on this day.

The above image is also cropped from the full scene, and when I first printed this negative I made two versions: one was cropped as you see here, and the other horizontally, with none of the trees showing.  I liked the way that one looked, almost like a bas-relief of the pebbly building emerging from the grainy sky.  Below is the full image from the original negative.   

Looking at the contact sheet, this was the first of only three frames that I shot of this scene.  The other two were verticals, the second at about the same focal length as this one, and the last a longer shot (i.e., a shorter focal length, probably at 70mm) to show more of the street.  I can't remember if I even saw the bird in the viewfinder when I took the picture; I may have, and then made the second to insure that I'd have what I was initially after, since I had no idea it would be positioned so perfectly, and I certainly wasn't trying to compose anything like what I wound up with.  
But serendipity has been a wonderful collaborator. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Drive-In Movie

Rocky Point, NY - October 1991
Another of my favorite pictures, this was also one of the last drive-in movie theaters on Long Island in the late 1980's.  This was taken in the early fall of 1991; I used to spend my weekends driving around the Island, looking for unusual places, when I happened upon this.  

A friend's family had a summer house in Rocky Point during the 80's, and I knew about the drive-in, I just didn't know at this time that it had been abandoned for a few years.  The sign out on Rt. 25A was barely visible, and I remember having to park in a strip mall about a hundred yards past it, then walking back to fight my way through the brush that had grown up along the entrance lane.

I had to walk some distance, past the entrance booths to finally come upon the towering screen facing what was now an isolated meadow with waist-high grass.  I wandered around for some time in this quiet, deserted bowl before I saw the car seat, and knew I had my picture.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Southern Exposure

February 1986

It wasn't a very cold Sunday afternoon in February, on the ground at least.  A friend and I were wandering midtown with our cameras when one of us got the idea to see if the observation deck of the RCA building (and it will always be the RCA building to me) was open.  I remember we had to search the lobby for the right elevator, as there wasn't any ticket counter on the ground floor.  We took one elevator up to the floor that the Rainbow Room was on, bought our tickets, then went along another hallway or two for the final ride to the top.

Unlike the Empire State, there wasn't any fencing along the parapet, and unlike today, no glass, either.  Just a stomach-high (to me) ledge that you could lean on, and over.  The deck itself was rectangular, with a raised area in the center with steps you could walk up.  A few satellite dishes and small antenna were up there, but the best views were from the wall, where the coin-operated binoculars were.

850 feet in the air it gets pretty windy, and the temperature drops the higher you rise.  So while it may have been in the balmy high 40's in the plaza, it was pretty cold on the 70th floor.  So we didn't spend a lot of time up there, but I did have a chance to make what have become a few of my favorite pictures from that time.

This is a pretty grainy image, because I was using a pretty grainy film at the time.  Kodak's fastest black and white film at the time, Tri-X, was rated at 400 ISO.  But working in the printing trade as I did, I knew a few photographers and custom labs and camera stores, so I was able to get hold of another Kodak film, one that wasn't sold in drugstores.

Recording Film had a basic ISO of 1000, but could be pushed (underexposed, then overdeveloped) to upwards of 3200.  Nowadays, 3200 is fairly common for even pocket digitals, but during the seventies and eighties it was a specialty item used for surveillance by cops and private investigators.  The grain was like gravel, but it had a charm to it, and I found myself using it in daylight as well as for night shots.  But like all my favorite Kodak products, it was discontinued towards the end of the decade.

This picture is available on a coffee mug!