Street photography and New York City are inextricably linked. Documentation of the people of New York and how they live in the city can be followed through a number of street photographers throughout the city’s history. Any street photographer can tell you their favorite corner or neighborhood from the Bronx to Coney Island. Many photographers make the pilgrimage to the city to take pictures in the famous locations where photographers celebrated before they became famous. The city is rich in photographic possibilities, the perfect combination of light and pedestrians takes place in an endless tableau vivant.
Melissa O’Shaughnessy’s latest book, Perfect Strangers, is an ingenious summary of this magic. Much like Italian Renaissance paintings, the mundane chaos of the streets makes you wonder what’s wrong with each of the characters in the scene. As a street photographer in New York City you have to watch everything at once and sometimes only notice a detail after the photo is taken. While the year has kept many New Yorkers away from the crowded streets, Melissa’s photographs of strangers lead us into these moments in a way that makes the wistful pavements filled with people long to walk beside them and people watch.
Travel + Leisure spoke to O’Shaughnessy about her passion for New York City and how street photography makes you love people for who they are.
T + L: When or how did you start photographing these street moments?
Melissa O’Shaughnessy: “I started taking photos on the streets of New York City seven or eight years ago, shortly after my husband and I bought an apartment near Union Square. I was too shy to take pictures of strangers at first, but I knew that both photographically and personally I was most interested in people. It took me a few years to overcome this shyness and take photos that I found compelling, layered, and personal. But I always took long walks around town before I brought my camera with me on a regular basis. New York is never boring. “
What do you pay attention to when taking photos?
“I always try to be open to chance. Whenever possible, I set off with a clear head, because I never know what to expect and the search for something specific never seems to cross my mind. Before the pandemic, Manhattan could be a very generous place on a busy afternoon, full of moments to remind you that truth really is stranger than fiction. “
What initially brought you to this topic in New York?
“New York is one of the most famous cities in the world, and the history of photography was partly written on the streets and paths. The diversity of people and cultures in the city makes it one of the most visually compelling cities in the world and, for me, certainly the most interesting city in the United States. “
Are there other places where you get the same feeling while taking pictures on the street?
“Each city has a different character, but if you are open and curious you can take street photos everywhere. Before the COVID restrictions, I was usually able to get to London every year, and maybe one or two other European cities – and I had a love affair with Italy for decades. I would also love the opportunity to spend some time in Japan and India in the not too distant future. But most street photographers will tell you that the best place to take pictures is where you live. If you want to do a strong job, consistent access is essential. Good street photos are generally few in number, so your home lawn will always be the most fertile area. “
What do you think makes New York a special place?
“There are so many reasons, not least the historical importance of the city in the history of photography in general, and in the history of street photography in particular. The streets have been hit by many greats in photography, from Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand to Joel Meyerowitz and Helen Levitt. The city’s crowds have an irresistible energy, and at certain times of the year the light can be sensational. Add the backdrop of all the soaring architecture and reflective glass and it becomes a tasty stew. “
What do you hope people will take away from Perfect Strangers? during this time of feeling isolated from other people?
“I hope the book is both a record of what New York’s energy and street life used to be like, and a reminder of what it can be again when the pandemic is over. When people feel safe again, we will see the exuberance of the 20s in cities around the world. And you can bet I’ll take a picture of it. “
Top advice for anyone interested in street photography?
“Throw a small camera over your shoulder, walk out your front door and observe the people and the surroundings around you. I am fortunate to have New York City on my doorstep, but access to a big city is certainly not required. Check out the photos of Mark Cohen or William Eggleston, both of which produced remarkable works in smaller towns in the southern United States. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, street life is quiet these days, but it’s not impossible to snap interesting photos that capture this time in history and what it looks and feels like wherever you are. “
For sale: “Perfect Strangers” by Melissa O’Shaughnessy, aperture.org $ 33