Autumn is a wonderful time for photographing one of the great cities of the world, New York. There is something magical about falling leaves in Central Park, the crisp chill in the air, the rain, the noise, bundled up families on the Upper East Side and of course the spectacular sights that are only New York – The New York Public Library, The Subways, Gramercy Park, The Empire State Building… the list is endless.
This past weekend I embarked on a visit to New York for the purpose of shooting a retrospective entitled, Reflections on Manhattan.
One place that I always like to visit for shooting in New York is the famed Grand Central Station. Grand Central Station’s architecture is stunning and there are few other places in the world to catch the hurried pace of human traveling with such stunning natural streaming light
So imagine my disappointment when, as I began assembling my small tripod in Grand Central Station, I was accosted almost immediately by one of New York’s finest. “Who you with?” were his curt initial words. I fumbled for what to say as he asked again, “Who you with?… or are you just a tourist here takin’ pictures.”
I began to explain to the officer that I was a photo artist and was in New York doing a series on the images of Manhattan at autumn time, that I had a blog and posted art on the internet. “A what,” he said. “Put the tripod away, tourists can’t use tripods, only professionals can use tripods and you have to have a permit.”
“So how do I get a permit?” I asked. “It takes a long time,” he said. “You have to apply for it in advance.”
“Now put the tripod away.”
I thought about trying to explain how beautiful the natural light could make photographs in Grand Central Station, but that in a low lighting environment it could be difficult to get the right shots without the steady and trusty companion of a tripod… but decided against it.
I packed up my tripod, bit my lip and went on with my business.
One of the beautiful things in New York since 9-11 is the canopy of American Flags that cover and adorn the City. You can’t go 10 feet without running into one. They are beautiful as they blow in the wind and remind us of the sacrifice that our Nation has made in the war on terror. They are extremely photogenic.
At the same time, since 9-11 a new assault has taken place on the rights of the photographer as an artist. Recently the New York Times ran a piece on a proposed ban by the MTA on all cameras in the New York subway system. To lose the amazing art that has been created by photo artists like Bruce Davidson would be a tragedy. We would lose a little piece of New York culture by losing this important right.
As I finished my visit through Grand Central Station I stopped off at the fine exhibit currently on display chronicling the history of the subway in New York and reflected on what had just happened to me.
Although I understand the position that the City of New York has taken in regards to using tripods in Grand Central Station, I don’t think that it would be unreasonable for an artist or journalist to be able to apply for an on the spot permit.
Certainly terrorists would be unlikely to request an on the spot permit and I would even be willing to give up certain of my privacy rights in order to get one. I’m sorry that as my weekend in New York was short I did not get to take all of the photographs that I would have liked of Grand Central Station.
Leafing through the latest outstanding issue of Esquire magazine – its first photo issue in its history – on the flight back home to San Francisco, I was struck by the impact of the images of photographer Martin Parr of tourists at Ground Zero. Parr chronicles the new Ground Zero as tourist site and the commerce that has followed our tragedy through the kitsch and the tacky. I was reminded that all tragedy has unintended and unfortunate consequences. It’s noteworthy that so much of Esquire’s first foray into photography is centered on New York.
Although I can understand the significance and importance of public safety in light of the 9-11 terrorist attack, I also believe that a balance must be maintained between safety and art and journalism in our country. To not maintain this balance would mean that the terrorists had indeed won – not won the war itself – but won by taking away a little piece of our joy and life and culture and art.