Clampdown on Photographer’s Rights in New York City

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.

17 Replies to “Clampdown on Photographer’s Rights in New York City”

  1. I know that this is too late, but if you go up one of the side stairs, there is a bannister which you can hide your tripod-takin pictures. This does obviously cramp your style if you want to get other angles. Another tip is to get there really, really early. I have been stopped many, many times for tripod abuse and the reasons always change: too many people, saftey issue, terrorism, etc.

  2. Sorry to hear of your difficulties utilizing a tripod in my fair city on your recent visit. Being a photographer in New York means having to know what one can and cannot attempt without the proper authorization.

    Luckily it’s extremely easy to obtain a permit from the mayor’s office, a link to which follows.

    Be advised that you must be very specific on your request(s) for permits. The best part of the program is that you can accomplish this all online and it costs you nothing but your time!

    Good luck.

  3. Thank you very much for your comment and I can’t tell you how much in general I do love your fair city as well as the beautiful photography opportunities that exisit in it. Completing my recent retrospective was worth a trip out there for me and I think that some of the best street photography in the world comes from your City. New York City is my favorite place on the planet.

    After reviewing the online form I did have a couple of questions and comments though. Specifically, the form states, “This permit covers sidewalks & city property only. Any shooting on property not owned by the city must be cleared through that business,
    Individual, organization or institution. Use of any City Agency property must also be cleared through the appropriate agency.”

    The question that still remains for me would be, had I used this form and been accepted, would I have been able to use my tripod in Grand Central Station. It seems to me that Grand Central Station might be a City Agency property and thus could require additional steps. Is this form all that is needed to use a tripod in Grand Central Station?

    The comment that I would have with the form as well though is that it seems to me odd that I would need a permit to cover general street photography. Millions of photographs are taken each year on the streets and other City property in New York without hassle. It would seem odd for me that this permit would imply that in order to do this you would need to obtain a permit.

    Thank you for your comment and valuable information regarding photography in New York and if it is possible to clarify the specific use of tripods in Grand Central Station via this permit I would be very interested.

  4. Can anyone provide some information proving that such a regulation exists in New York? I’m not from there and I find it hard to believe you have to get a permit to use a tripod (sounds very arbitrary), and I don’t often like to take police officers’ words on such matters. I don’t argue with them, but I also don’t usually believe them. They’ll often tell you anything is illegal if they just want to stop you from doing something.

  5. I feel that a lack of bulky expensive gear has an effect on peoples perceptions of your art. That really bothers me that people judge photographers by the gear they carry.

    I’ve sold my pro 35mm gear for a camera that fit’s snugly in my belt case. People on the street think I’m a pervert or something. If I still held a 200 2.8 attached to an oversized slr body , and maybe one of those rediculous vests, I’g get great respect.

    Is a show of material goods as good as a press credential, or worse, as good as skill, instinct, and an eye?


  6. I actually just tried using that form to get a permit to shoot in Grand Central with a tripod, and it turns out it is not the correct form to use. You have to call a gentleman, whose name I have at work, to get the proper permission to shoot inside the building with a tripod. When I get back to work, I’ll post his contact information here. I have a call into his office, but I have not yet heard back on obtaining a permit. I’ll keep you updated.

  7. New York is beautiful, I miss it very much.
    I was arrested in Utah last month for taking photos because I “look suspicious” and “acted suspicious” because I wouldn’t give police my social# or where I bank (did identify myself, however). I did tell them what the project I was doing ie; taking photos from a public sidewalk of architecture, at noon.
    I eventually gave them the info after I was told I had no attorney rights or right to silence because they would jail me. The company I was photographing for is a huge corporation which gave me a warning and suspended me for a while because the police called them after the incident.
    Do you know of any Photographers, artist Rights Groups that can help me? I did have the charges dropped after contacting a great lawyer- but this is not enough to help all artist whoes Rights are violated and on the brink of being taken away by the facade of “protection”. After all isn’t it artist who expose wrongs through their art?

  8. Nelson Mandela apparently spent something like 27 years in prison…
    That’s 27 years too long. 27 years for others to ‘get it’.

    If what you’re doing you feel is ethically right, then do it. If someone– anyone– tries to prevent you from exercising your rights– (whether through rationalization, intimidation or force)– “fight” them– ethically, legally, intelligently, subversively, ideally with a collective– by any means necessary– tooth-and-nail if you have to. Oh, and tell those who would ignore your rights nothing, as is your right. Risk jail. If for anything than to honour those in history who fought to uphold your rights that you enjoy! I’ll be doing the same for you with my camera in hand!!

    “The concepts of ‘natural rights’ by definition are those rights which are inborn by reason of being present at the time of birth, or shortly thereafter. One of these rights, is life itself. A person, simply by being born, has a natural right to live. This is not a right given by any government, but is a person’s right given by his creator, God or Nature. Thus, the right to life is a natural right…
    Another natural right would be the ‘pursuit of happiness.’ Pursuit being literally to chase after, and pursue those things which make a person happy. This is a natural right…”

    As for dealing with those who don’t get those concepts as applied to the happy endeavor of photography;
    bring a tape-recorder, or a “shadow”– an invisible/unnoticed fellow photo/video/grapher (maybe with a hidden camera/audio-recorder, and an ability and willingness to “shove back” when push warrants it.) with you in the background for documentation (maybe with a telescopic zoom lense for clear close-ups of ‘faces of interest’). Then post the results online.

    …”Then, on Friday evening, June 27, 1969, the police in New York City raided a Greenwich Village gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. Contrary to expectations, the patrons fought back… Almost overnight, a massive grassroots gay liberations movement was born. Owing much to the radical protest of blacks, women, and college students in the 1960s, gays challenged all forms of hostility and punishment meted out by society.”

  9. I stumbled on your website recently, when I googled “photographer’s rights”. I have been looking up the subject ever since I ran into trouble for a picture I took of some kids playing in a swamp:
    kids in the swamp

    Now, the parent of the child said I had no right to take a picture of her kid. I’m relieved to find out that photographers do have many of rights including taking pictures of whatever they want in public places.

    Anyway, hope everything is going well with your photography.

  10. New york is ridiculously un-American. And no this is not a knee jerk reaction to the article above. Think about it people! Since when does a nation of free people need anyones permission to do something as benign as to use a tripod to mount a camera. and that is just the tip of the permit iceberg in New York. This seems very faschist or perhaps elitist to me. But, I personally think it is the elitist mentality of Bloomberg and the city officials that have led to this. If you do not have the permission of the elite ruling class you are out of luck. And the mayor wants nothing more than to inflict his will on his stately niebhors.

    No matter if you agree with the practice or not it is indeed very Un-American and the antithisys of freedom and liberty.

  11. OK, I’ll stand up for NY. It gets really crowded and tripods block pedestrian traffic bigtime. Don’t get me wrong, I know we have the right to photograph anytime, anywhere, but they don’t let you set up anything in GCS.
    Most museums etc don’t allow tripods either.

  12. Hello all. It is perfectly o.k. to use a tripod while shooting stills or video in Grand Central Terminal, however the photographer will need to apply for a permit in advance (call 212-672-1205). The permit is free but I believe that it is issued for a specific date. I don’t believe that it is a blanket permit covering an extended period of time. Even with the permit, the photographer will be limited to the hours of 10am to 4pm, and from 8pm to 1am. The reason is to avoid the mass of humanity during commuting hours. Additionally, photography is prohibited on the train platforms and staircases at all times. My sense is that the no-photo rule on the platforms is a result of 9/11 and the no-photo rule for the staircases is a safety related issue. Also at this moment (Dec/2007) there is no limitation on taking photos within the NYC subway system, although I can’t say for sure if tripods are allowed. In my opinion, the permit requirement for Grand Central has more to do with controlling the number of photogs using tripods than anything else. I don’t believe that the permit thing has any connection to 9/11. As for the use of mono-pods, I’m not sure, but one could argue that a monopod is not a tripod. And depending on who you happen to get, you might be able to talk your way into using your monopod without getting a permit. It is easier to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission. So click away! Personally I love making images in Grand Central. Try using a slow shutter speed to capture the random movement of commuters as they walk along the floor of the terminal. And one more thing, the building/facility is called Grand Central Terminal (not Grand Central Station). All trains “terminate” at Grand Central. They do not stop at Grand Central and then move on to other train stations.

    Steve S.

  13. Since 2000. The world has seen many changes in the law in relation to photography and the rights of photographers. In many countries I have travelled to I have found restriction on taking picture within certain building unless you have a permit. Possibly 80% of there places just used this as an excuse to make money from anyone with a camera. But then other places have good reasons, some time to prevent the use of flash, crowd control, or to ensure that people with cameras were not disturbing other tourists. The US is not alone with these issue even countries like the UK has restrictions on the use or tripods in some buildings.

  14. hi,

    I called called that number 215-672-1200 and Dan Brucker is the person you talk to. You call him a few days before you want to shoot and he will fax you a letter you have to sign and then when you go down you will get a badge to wear while you take pictures.


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