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  • J Scott Lane

These Shadows are Changing Every Minute

why authenticity packs a punch (link to the real thing: www.humansofnewyork.com)

I've always liked the unposed photograph. There's something about a candid image that thumbs its nose at the frozen and immaculate passage of time. A good photograph valiantly reacts against that inexorable flow, fighting, Quixote-like, the subconscious knowledge that everything we see now is temporary, fluxible. A photograph only has value for what it captures in an instant, about 1/4000th of a second. It is already pretending to be something it isn't: a durable slice of time that you can look back to again and again forever. That's true only until it's gone, or you're gone, or no one is around to remember why the photograph was taken or who or what is in it. Digital photos can capture positions and dates, but don't tell you that it's a picture of Aunt Ellie when she honeymooned with her third husband (Edgar? Earnest?) in Niagara Falls. At least not yet.


Almost all the people in photos are posing. Hand on hip, smiling, pouting, and generally assuming positions, wearing things, and doing things that they never actually do if there isn't a camera on them. We are conditioned to this type of image, and know what is expected of us when a camera is pointed in our direction. Digital photography means you don't have to really frame or compose an image, you can take ten photos and just delete the ones you don't like. The digital photograph supercharged the muscle-car-without-a-driver phenomenon of social media, with people posing themselves, their lunch, their cats, their kids, and their beer pong triumphs, and making the fake pose more pervasive. I don't think anyone really has resting abdominal muscles that look like that, and you're child is going to inwardly (or outwardly) groan every time you pull out that picture of her in the pink octopus suit and those tassels in her hair.


In the face of this poser pandemic is actual art, sometimes-usually-coming out of an unexpected situation someone finds themselves in. In 2010 Brandon Stanton started a small photography project photographing people in New York City. He also started talking to them, probably to get permission to use their images initially, but then to provide a backdrop and context to the image. Humans of New York (HONY) the blog and book were born. He can even make Times Square interesting, a place that my New York born-and-bred mate would never tolerate ("Only tourists go to Times Square," "I'll never go to Times Square," "You can't make me go to Times Square," etc.). Comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, reflected Cesar A. Cruz, and HONY refracts that reflection well.


What strikes you about these images, like some writing in small magazines like The Sun, is the lack of artifice in the art. Even when the subjects are clearly posing, they were approached in the street, or the subway, or coming out of school not expecting to be photographed and having little or no time to arrange themselves. The few words accompanying the image are curated but always true to an aspect of the subject or place from the surrounding moments when the image is taken. "I can't talk; these shadows are changing every minute," were the words a lady in a fur coat told Stanton when he took a picture of her painting those shadows in Central Park. Those words only make sense with that image, in that brief moment.


But it isn't the words that hit you (me). It's the bombardment of images taken of people when they weren't expecting to be photographed that blows up everything you've been trained by Instagram, wedding photographers, parents, and advertising to believe about people. There's something powerful about something done well over and over again, and HONY generates a massive force by the flow of many images coming at you. Collectively, this flow can teach. (1) People are incredibly variable and, in so being, prove that we are all the same because different is great; (2) People aren't all pretty or handsome or young or shapely - and that is what reminds us we don't have to be that, either, and that is also great; and (3) People are what make a great story, and you can't have a great story without authentic people, even in New York City, even in Times Square (yes, we went there to see Phantom at the Majestic - some things are just worth enduring). This is just as true in big cities as it is in big country.

If you haven't read any HONY bits recently I hope you get the chance to do so soon on Stanton's blog site, or better yet go out and buy one of his books if you can afford to do that. The books really are better, because you'll see it on the shelf and pick it up from time to time, which you won't do with an internet site. The book is also better because the paper images carry that "up yours, Father Time" braggadocio that an ephemeral spray of pixels on a screen can't match.



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