Missing the Shot
I’m driving north along an unremarkable freeway on the East Coast of the United States when New York City rises up from the horizon. One World Trade Center reaches for the ceiling of a sky that looms huge and blue, with the Empire State Building following just behind. The city arrives with a rush of adrenaline, one iconic skyscraper after another, Manhattan steadily laid out piece-by-towering-piece. New York!
It’s not long before I’m looking for her. A powerful sense of anticipation takes over. My heart flutters. I scan from left to right where the city drops away into the Hudson. First she raises her hand as if to say ‘over here.’ Then she stands tall above the low-rise buildings of Jersey City, soaring to a colossal height.
It’s an arresting moment, seeing Lady Liberty complete the Manhattan skyline. Its impact is all the more powerful from down low in my minivan, a toy car to this towering metropolis. It brings on a rare feeling of being awed and delighted as an adult, a sensation that’s usually reserved for our time as children. Like that first trip to the cinema. Or that first ride on the big dipper. New York does that to you. There’s goosebumps.
Of all the cities I visited across the USA, only here felt like a home away from London. But New York also arrived with a sense of expectation. As a photographer who specialises in street, I wanted to do the city justice. From its immense photographic history, to its image on the silver screen, New York has a reputation so distinct that it far exceeds the country’s capital.
New York is loud, it’s in your face, it’s intensely stimulating. But it can also be a quiet, tranquil place. Pockets of green space are scattered liberally. You can quickly escape the crowds by stepping off the path, or even above it. There’s an abundance of reviving cafes and cavernous bookshops. Local secrets are ready to surprise you at every turn, if you go looking.
I shot hundreds, probably thousands of photographs in Manhattan. Far more than any other destination on my travels, wandering mile after mile until my feet burned and my back protested. And I loved every minute of it.
Well, almost every minute.
On my second day in Manhattan I grab breakfast on the go in the Lower East Side. Pick up a coffee somewhere afterwards. Stroll through China Town, wander up through Soho, Greenwich Village, Chelsea and around to the Upper East Side. I visit the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, pop by The Met and grab lunch from a deli to picnic in the Park. Despite the distances covered, I’m feeling as though some special moment is escaping me. I don’t check my photographs as I go; looking at a camera screen instead of the world around you is the fastest way to miss a photograph. But I always know when I’ve captured something special. And I’m not convinced right now.
I arrive at Bethesda Terrace. Bethesda Terrace is a popular spot at the heart of Central Park. At the right moment the stairway in the lower passage provides a vivid source of light to the triple archways at its base; illuminated like a Fan Ho photograph, or as this is New York, let’s say a photograph by Hal Morey or Andreas Feininger. It’s no longer an original location, exploited by wedding photographers, obsessive Instagrammers and casually-snapping tourists alike. But it a remains a striking location regardless.
I spend a long while in that space waiting for a subject or the right moment to play out. I can picture a single figure illuminated in the centre of the underpass. Or perhaps three people, each one framed by an archway. I quietly will it to happen, determined to get the shot when it plays out.
But other tourists come and go in untidy patterns that muddy the scene rather than bringing it to life. I’m one of dozens who are there to take pictures, engulfed by staged holiday snaps and social media shares, selfies with extendable arms of plastic and aluminium. There’s a group who catches my eye, finely dressed as if for a wedding. But they mill around in the corners, obscured by uneven light and awkward angles. One girl seems like the perfect fit; dark flowing curls falling over a pale flowing dress. I can imagine her and those iconic arches coming together, blurring the perception of time in black and white.
I linger for a while, hoping she might find herself centre stage, but it’s not to be and a desire to move on begins to weigh heavy. Staying in one spot on the street can be a fast way to a flat scene. So I head up the stairs, with some reluctance, and without the photograph.
The North end of The Mall provides plenty of distractions. Live music is performed. Rollerbladers take on impossible feats of dexterity against neat rows of plastic cups. Children marvel at oversized soap bubbles that quiver with iridescence before bursting in a flash of sparkles. But something is niggling at me. Call it street photographer’s instinct. Like Peter Parker’s ‘Spider-Sense’. The shot is there, it whispers.
Just one more look, I think.
I head back down the stairs. And there it is. That easy. Or rather, there she is; the girl in the pale dress. Walking into place, moments away from completing the picture like an actress hitting her mark right on cue; central to the three arches, looking up into the daylight. And unlike all my time spent before, there’s not another person but her.
I jog past the girl and into the underpass, peering over my shoulder, already mentally framing the photograph, my camera raised in anticipation. She’s taking pictures of the stairs, preoccupied and still, sunlight illuminating the folds of her dress. In black and white it would be hard to pinpoint the era from a static frame. There’s a timeless quality about it.
As I jog to make my vantage point I see a couple approaching from the shadows. The guy notices me noticing the girl. There’s a strange sense of tension, like a showdown at noon. Fingers twitching above holsters. He pulls out his phone and raises his camera. Clearly he’s seen what I’ve seen, and he’s also seen me rushing for the moment. Instead of any acknowledgment he strides right into the spot I’m aiming for. Out of professional courtesy I pause, and instinctively duck to one side as he takes his photograph. I will the scene to hold, just long enough for him to offer me the same courtesy. But instead of returning the gesture he walks forward, pushing me from view and her from the scene. No professional courtesy here, bro. Fuck.
I simmer for a while, an angry heat beneath the surface as that image drifts away. The photograph torn from my fingertips. Curses are muttered at both him and myself. I’m frustrated by my own hesitance. And his casual arrogance leaves a bitter taste. I can’t object to his picture-taking of course. But his actions smart like a low blow. In the heat of the moment I feel like a victim of theft, mugged in a New York underpass.
Next time I’ll make sure I’m already taking those photographs. Once you spot a moment on the street that’s all you have to make it your own. Hesitance is the worst kind of enemy. I was kicking myself for mine.
Sometimes you’ll get the shot and sometimes you’ll miss it. And sometimes… you just need to know when you’re beaten. To the city that never sleeps, until next time, I’m certainly ready for mine.
Missing the Shot is part one of a two-part story. See Making the Shot for part two. Read the latest stories from Photographer's Note, as soon as they’re published, by subscribing.
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